When I talk about criticism, I use a standard line about how two words have no place in the thinking critic’s vocabulary: “good,” “bad,” and all synonyms thereof. The sheer cheapness of broad positive or negative pronouncements — but especially positive ones — seem drained them of their interestingness. I guess you’ve got to burn a calorie or two to type out that a film “is perhaps the greatest, most astonishing masterpiece to grace screens in the last half-century,” but even praise an order of magnitude more grandiose costs you essentially nothing — well, nothing aside from devaluing the currency of your own praise, but that’s another issue.
Let’s take The Tree of Life, Terence Malick’s new movie, reviews of which now sprout up like mushrooms. Had any critic written the made-up line above about it, they wouldn’t have moved me an inch closer to the cinema thereby. When Roger Ebert calls it “film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives,” I raise an eyebrow, but only just. He makes a comparison to 2001, one of my favorite early-cinephilia experiences, and that piques my interest a little more. But the clincher comes in a single observation on Jack Fisk’s production design: “Fisk is about my age and was born and raised in Downstate Illinois, and so of course knows that in the late '40s, tall aluminum drinking glasses were used for lemonade and iced tea.” I feel l need to see those glasses.
A.O. Scott writes of the “awe, amazement and grist for endless argument” The Tree of Life offers; only the last of the three sound interesting to me, but I’ve found almost any film has the potential to fuel eternal (if pointless) debates. “It is like Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ transported into the world of ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” he writes, “an inadequate and perhaps absurd formulation but one that I hope conveys the full measure of my astonishment and admiration.” Astonishment and admiration rarely transfer from viewer to viewer, but Wordsworth meets Leave It to Beaver? Oh man, who wouldn’t want to see what comes of that mash-up?
Anthony Lane, whom I’ve realized many other critics seem to consider a disgrace to the trade but whose writing I simply can’t not read, has always skillfully avoided the good-and-bad game. Though the least straightforwardly positive of the three, his review paints the most compelling verbal picture of The Tree of Life. Odd lines about how the film’s main boys “relax into near-Oedipal bliss” or about shots with “Sean Penn, dressed in Armani, kneeling on a beach, while the other characters mooch around like unwanted extras from ‘Zabriskie Point’” stoke my curiosity, but, for whatever reason, a passage not directly related to the movie actually gets me looking up showtimes. “‘If we cannot educate ourselves to his purposes, then clearly his work will look like nonsense,’” Lane quotes. “That is Malick, writing of Heidegger, and introducing his own translation of Heidegger’s ‘The Essence of Reasons,’ in 1969.”
Wait wait wait. The director of this film — a film that stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, of all actors — published his own translation of Heidegger? That observation, one Lane includes under the pains of a little extra research and at some risk of losing his audience, convinces me to watch this film more than all the exhortations about wonder and majesty and transcendence and masterpieciness I’ve heard from countless critics, cinéastes, and utter randoms alike.
But in the interest of absolute clarity, let me say that I have a pre-existing interest in Terence Malick. I’ll watch anything he directs. But why? How did I decide to follow his films in the first place? Much of my interest grew from hearing rumors about his working methods: his shooting Days of Heaven only during the “magic hour”; his panning away from carefully orchestrated explosions on the set of The Thin Red Line and onto passing flocks of birds; his making a movie once every 11 years or so on average; his constant (and constantly backfiring) flight from fame; dreaming of producing an Andrzej Wajda-directed Sansho the Bailiff on Broadway. This stuff strikes me as more meaningful than incantations about his “singular quality of vision,” his “cinematic mastery,” or his status as a craftsman of “undisputed classics.” Goodness, or even greatness — especially greatness, maybe — doesn’t turn my head. Weirdness certainly does.
Or maybe I just got into Malick because of that old story about Pauline Kael’s review of Badlands. Reading her pan of the film, William Shawn, her editor at the New Yorker, said, “I guess you didn’t know Terry is like a son to me.” Kael’s reply: “Tough shit, bill.” My reaction: any movie Pauline Kael insisted on getting that harsh about has to have something special going on.