Wednesday, May 18, 2011

annoying critical habit (preemptive edition)

I adore Terrence Malick.

I adore Terrence Malick.

I adore Terrence Malick.

So now that you know that, and have an appropriate context, I just want to do a little bit of preemptive arguing about The Tree of Life, which is not out yet and which I have not seen. One of the things Malick does consistently in his movies, and which the above trailer strongly suggests is present in Tree of Life, is to have various characters engage in voice over narration that does not focus directly on what happens onscreen, or even fit into the narrative of the movie. Often this narration speaks in unapologetically philosophical or symbolic terms, about some of the most broad and meaningful questions of human existence. Some find this maddening and trite. In combination with his gorgeous visuals, sense of scale, and almost unspeakable delicacy, I find it enchanting. Sorry to gush. Your own taste is your own taste.

However, while no one is obligated to feel any one way about Malick's films, I really am annoyed by a consistent tic in critical reviews of his work. A lot of times, film critics will take individual lines from the narration, totally deprive them of context, and remark at how moony or pretentious the words are. You can find this all over-- check Malick's Rotten Tomatoes-- but here's just one example from Charles Taylor:
Malick has seized on the interior monologues of Jones' characters and smothered the movie in the voice-over narration he used in "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven." And it's easy to see why. If everything is explained to us, Malick doesn't have to dramatize it, and thus nothing gets in the way of his presentation. "Only one thing a man can do," begins one of the movie's inscrutable ponderances. "Find something that's his. Make an island for himself."
After having encountered this trope several times, I find it infuriating. Of course the effect is lost when you totally deprive the words of the context that makes them work. It's true that taking any individual lines or shots of a movie and discussing them in a review is always, to a degree, denying context. But in this kind of reading, the presentation of Malick's lines is done so showily, and so meticulously designed to inspire ridicule, that it is simply critical malpractice. I find this to be exactly like going to a club, finding an individual dancer who is moving her body in a throng of others, and videotaping only her. No one could look anything less than silly so removed from the necessary context; no one but a fool would think that such an exercise has anything to do with the experience of the dance.

On a related note-- I will spend not one moment of my life worrying about whether I'm being pretentious. Not one solitary instant. That's not an argument that I'm not pretentious; I'm quite certain I am. But I am also certain that living the kind of life I need and want to live, where I can surround myself with the kind of beauty that I feel is necessary to endure the slow motion tragedy of living, means abandoning concerns about pretense. Others will have to adjudicate that. The events of my life have taught me that self-possession can steel you against a whole array of big tragedies and petty indignities. Meanwhile, all the time you spend sitting around your apartment, not being pretentious, is no defense against anything at all.


ovaut said...

i want to praise the 3-hour new world on blu-ray: malick's rhythm, his feeling for stillness, his .. eye. but praising films is hard.

happily with malick the word visionary doesn't seem foolish. it's like the film reached and interpreted a part of me that is immemorial and mute.

ovaut said...

I think Taylor should have used the word 'ponderings'. Another catty review.

I second, and respect, your indifference to the 'pretentious' word. Those who express disdain for Malick, in expressing it, often suggest they are people who don't want to think about the things he is obsessed by, and wants to involve us with.

There is a sort of helpless sincerity to him that would respond better to accusations of humourlessness than to ones of pretentiousness.

Michael said...

You are certainly pretentious, but not in this post. I didn't find a single pretentious word or thought here.

Reacting defensively to critical attacks on pieces of art or artists one loves is, I think, about the least pretentious impulse a mere participant in the artistic process (as audience member in this case) can ever have. It might be the antithesis of pretension.

It's the critical enterprise that is pretentious. The pretense being that they can be right about art. (Else, why are they published and paid sometimes handsome salaries, rather than other audience members being?) Merely because they might occasionally be right that they have a greater ability than other audience members to be right about the art does not mean that that basic proposition is not pretentious.

But if that is the case, then the reaction of the audience member who makes no claim to critical faculty to the holdings of those who do, tome seems like precisely the mirror-image of pretension.

Anonymous said...

Freddie writes: "After having encountered this trope several times, I find it infuriating."

Is the thing he's referring to really a "trope"? I'm not sure it is. I could be wrong. If I'm right, however, how is it that a grad student in the humanities, of all people (which I think is what F de B is) is throwing around words with such a lack of care? If you're gonna be a pro in the humanities, Rule 1 is to use language with great care.

It's like a couple weeks ago when F de B announced something like: "Men in the 1950s didn't give a damn about their spouses/women." Really? Which men? All men? 100% of men? He knows this how? That's the sort of omniscient hack statement that you get from Victor Davis Hanson.

Sorry to nitpick, but I mean Jesus. Freddie's a smart guy, and apparently a professional scholar.

Nitpicking aside, Malick Rules. Days of Heaven is one of the greatest works of art produced in my life.

Screw the critics. In the Internet age, when anybody can spout off their smug and facile opinion, their work has even less value than it used to. Bunch of half-educated suburban dorks, a couple years out of the Ivy League colleges. Chickenshit, useless.

Freddie said...

Yes, "trope" is correct. No, I'm not in the humanities. Yes, people sometimes use categorical language in a way that indicates to any sentient, adult reader that such language is deliberately exaggerated.

abc said...

It reminds me of that hilarious scene in Adaptation, when Charlie Kaufman (the character) attends a screenwriting seminar:

"And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends."

Gets me every time.

mac said...

well-said Freddie, Malick is my favorite filmmaker and I am always confused by his reception (both critical and public). Films like Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World (and from what I see & hear The Tree of Life)explore what are for me, important themes about what it is to be human - with beauty and remarkably graceful film making.

Anonymous said...

Does Freddie want to marry Terrence Malick? Or does he just want to perform fellatio on him?

jcapan said...

Sadly, his iconoclasm seems to creating more mainstream buzz. And with the Altman-like casts and reverential press, one worries about the quality of his work going forward.

But I agree that the voice-over narration is what makes his films spectacular, otherworldly, and ultimately closer to the fullest of art-forms, literature. Read Cormac McCarthy then watch an adaptation of his work—film cannot possibly harness his expansive vision or exquisite prose, but Malick is a guy who could surely make a go of it, unrestricted by the conventions of dialogue-only filmmaking.

And I agree with Mac, the best cinema or art in general must deal with issues of life and death, with what it means to be human (rarely full of uplift but relentlessly honest).