At the core of Aristotle’s Poetics is the dictum that every story must have a beginning, middle and end. As far as the modern medium of film is concerned, this translates into three core questions; whose story is it, what do they want, and what’s stopping them?
Many films fall short by failing to address that third question, so that, as Robert McKee points out, there aren’t sufficient forces working against the story’s protagonist (and if you have any interest in writing anything, you need to get your hands on his seminal “Story” http://mckeestory.com/?page_id=27). These films tend therefore to have beginnings and middles but no endings, as where the film is going is invariably all too obvious. Other films fail because their characters are unclear, or worse uninterested, as to what it is that they want. These so say character studies produce a series of unconnected events that take place casually rather than causally, and fail again to produce an ending, and often very much of a middle. But a surprisingly large number of films fall at the very first hurdle by failing to decide who it is that their story is about. So all they do is produce a series of beginnings, and a smattering of possible middles. Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is yet another in this latter category.
In fairness, it’s a significant improvement on his previous attempt, The New World (‘05), where his fondness for Heidegger was all too evident in the disinterest he displayed in the actual people in his story, which verged at times on disdain. Here, happily, he is very visibly engaged with what is clearly a very personal topic. But, possibly because of which, he can’t decide whose story it is.
It presumably started out as the young boy’s story, portrayed in occasional flash-forwards by the adult Sean Penn. But it feels more like the story of the boy’s father, played by the supremely commanding Brad Pitt, and not just because of the force of his towering but measured performance. But you could just as easily make a strong case for suggesting that it’s the story of the boy’s mother, played by the luminous Jessica Chastain. Because Malick can’t decide whose story it is, there is no sense of what they might want, and consequently there’s no actual story.
Possibly, he thinks that he’s produced a character study (he’s wonderfully reticent about explaining anything about any of his films, which is fantastically convenient, and is, as Michael Corleone would say, very much a smart move.). But characters like people are defined by their actions, and if you can’t decide what your characters want, then obviously they can’t act wilfully. And bereft of the capacity to act, they remain but sketches.
He does attempt to tack on an ending, by melding the finale of La Dolce Vita and 8½. But Marcello ends up isolated on the beach in the former because of his inability to connect with the world he lives in and the people who inhabit it. And the theatrical curtain call that the cast of the latter conclude with is an appropriate ending to a film that deals with the hallucinatory if collaborative process that the production of all works of art demand. This just feels like the sort of thing a student would dream up on first discovering the films of Fellini.
And there’s the rub. The whole thing feels like one of those interminably bloated scripts that all film students produce during their second or third year at film school. That clumsy, cosmic flashback blatantly belongs to a different script, and should have been binned. But like all students, absolutely everything that Malick writes is so important that it all has to be included and couldn’t possible be tampered with. He ought to have been forced to cut 80-90% of it, and told instead to concentrate on the three very strong and potentially interesting principle characters, deciding whose story it was, and how they would each be effected by it, and to produce a no more than 90 page story with a beginning, middle and end.
But Malick isn’t interested in stories. Which is why he should never be allowed write any of his own scripts. He’s perfectly competent technically speaking, though whether he’s any more than merely adequate is hard to say. After all, few film students would have any difficulty in making Jessica Chastain look luminous. But one or two of the scenes are genuinely moving, and he clearly has a way with actors.
Malick is like the older, smarter teenage brother of Michael Cimino. Where the former hides his inability to tell a story with a cacophony of noise and by cluttering every image with a mountain of stuff to produce the visual equivalent of a pound shop, Malick does so by crafting impeccable images which he drowns in very pleasant if hopelessly obvious classical music (matching Wagner’s Rheingold to water imagery in The New World was just plain lazy). It’s undeniably pleasant to sit through, it just doesn’t go anywhere.
There’s talk of a 6 hour cut of The Tree of Life, but perhaps he should think instead about producing a 60 second version. The ability he has to suggest a story without actually telling one indicates that he’d be far more at home in the world of advertising than he is in that of feature films. Unfortunately though, as the 2011 Cannes Film Festival once again demonstrated, there is such a dearth of ideas in contemporary cinema, that any suggestion of them is welcomed blindly with disappointingly open arms. Expect the multi-disc Director’s Cut box-set any day now.