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Shame, Tree of Life: Ambiguity or bust?

Did somebody say "ambiguity"? I'm a big fan. Generally speaking, I much prefer movies with a little uncertainty, or a little emotional ambivalence, to those that spell everything out and tell me exactly how I should feel about it. Most of my favorite movies of 2011 thrive on ambiguity, open-endedness, a sense of the fluidity (or "slipperiness" as I like to call it) of time and space: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," "Certified Copy," "Margaret," "Meek's Cutoff"... But sometimes resonant inconclusiveness slips into deliberate laziness, substituting opacity for meaning. And when that happens, it's a shame.

Or, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, sometimes it's "Shame" (2011), the movie by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan:

... McQueen... opts to shroud the movie in vagueness. This goes beyond the characters--Fassbender as the barely-sketched lead, Mulligan as the generic broken woman (tellingly, her sex life is played as comedy while Fassbender's is played as grand tragedy), Beharie as the foil whose attraction to Fassbender is never explained--and their relationships; Shame is a Choose Your Own Meaning movie, full of blank spaces that a sympathetic viewer can fill with their own interpretations (this culminates in a lengthy sex scene between Fassbender and two women, with Fassbender's facial expression serving as a sort of Rorschach blot).

It's smart filmmaking--and also totally duplicitous and self-serving, the arthouse craftsmanship nearly hiding the film's middle-brow triteness (see also: I Am Love), every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema's most respectable cop-out: ambiguity. When McQueen isn't marking time with exercises in post-slow-cinema aesthetics (as in the long tracking shot of Fassbender sternly jogging to his bitchin' Glenn Gould playlist), he elides and defers. Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.

On the other hand, Ignatiy appreciates the ambiguity of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." As he wrote in his splendid "A Malickiad, " for all the movie's "apparent overstatement," it is "in fact chiefly defined by its colossal ellipses, redactions and red herrings....":

"The Tree of Life" is arranged into movements, the significance of which is only occasionally obvious (as in the "birth of the universe" movement), but for the most part is so obscure that it borders on arbitrariness. And yet the one thing that is always clear is that these parts are definitely arranged according to some logic; the film resembles an ancient artifact whose purpose can never be fully understood. [...]

...The disunity of "Tree"'s individual parts--which oscillate between slick kitsch and disarming intimacy--is the film's point, not its problem. Underneath it all, it expresses nothing universal except the filmmaker's own need to see life--probably his own--on a universal scale.

And that impulse is in and of itself profound. It stands somewhere between selfishness and selflessness, caprice and confession. There's simply no other American filmmaker in recent decades who has had such ambition.

In "Your guide to Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life'," Matt Zoller Seitz writes that the film

... is designed to elicit unique, personal responses in viewers, as unique and personal as what Malick is putting onscreen. Nobody gets points for liking or not liking the film. It's not a litmus test.

And in his brief essay about "Tree of Life" in the MSN Movies contributors' "Top 10 Movies of 2011, Glenn Whipp writes:

There's beauty, poetry, tyranny, death. There's the birth of the universe. There are dinosaurs! Why dinosaurs? Short answer: (Again) Why not? Long answer: Perhaps Malick is reminding us that the creatures that once held dominion over the Earth no longer exist. Could the same fate befall their successors? Or maybe that little moment of grace where the big lizard spares its sickly cousin shows a way of avoiding that destiny. Again, it's all about the questions, and Malick gives you enough to chew on here that you could return repeatedly to "Tree" for years to come, knowing (and savoring) that your experience will be different each time you watch it.

I had raised some issues of interpretation about that moment between the big dinosaur and the little dinosaur in the riverbed when I first wrote about "Tree of Life" -- in my original post ("What is going on when that large creature puts its foot on the smaller creature and then almost seems to stroke it?") and later in comments:

... I wasn't sure how to read the long pause and the foot movement. From a reptile? That's what I found hard to accept. It seemed like sentimental anthropomorphism to me, perhaps because of the direction of the [CGI] "actors." I think it needed to be quicker: Stomp. "You're weak. I've got you down. You're no threat. I'm outta here." Perhaps if it had involved a different (warm-blooded) species.

That led to a debate in the comments thread about how the moment should be read -- as the first display of mercy (among reptiles?) or as a display of simple dominance.


The subject came up again last Thursday at the seventh annual "Critics Wrap discussion at Seattle's Frye Art Museum, with Robert Horton, Kathleen Murphy, Andrew Wright and me. Robert and Kathleen saw the moment differently, but were both sure they were seeing what Malick put there on the screen. Robert didn't feel it was a matter of interpretation, but simply seeing what's there: It's not ambiguous; if anything, it's overly literal, and that's the problem with it. Kathleen thought it was echoing the relationship between the boy Jack and his father, who was always trying to keep his son under his foot, as it were. I expressed my reservations about the material with the adult Jack (Sean Penn) at the beginning and ending, and particularly the visually unimaginative white-light-by-the-seashore ending, which I felt was a disappointing cliché -- even more so on second viewing. (But there'll be a third...) And, in a post-panel e-mail exchange, I rather unhelpfully said of the dino-foot moment: "I thought it was overly literal in intent and execution, too -- but that was my interpretation!"


In a blog post at "The Crop Duster" last summer, Robert wrote:

Somewhere in Andrei Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in Time, the Russian director approvingly quotes an anecdote about Picasso responding to an interviewer's question by offering a definitive statement of self-possession. The questioner asks about an artist's "search," to which Picasso snaps, "I don't seek. I find."

Terrence Malick would have to be categorized among the searchers. It's funny that in talking about Malick's new film, "The Tree of Life," writers have frequently mentioned the names of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick as measuring sticks for this head-trippy movie, because those directors (whether you care for their films or not) are surely finders, while Malick's work looks like the struggle of a very serious person to figure out how he wants to say what he wants to say.

I appreciate that take, but the more I think about it the more I think it's not so much that Malick doesn't know what he wants to say, but he is searching for how best to express it. And, sure, that's what artists do -- and is the expression itself profound and resonant, or trite and reductive, or somewhere in that range?


The dinosaur stomp/caress aside, most of my problems with the film had to do with the stuff with the adult Jack (Sean Penn) at the beginning and the end, which I didn't think was sufficiently developed to add anything significant to the magnificent memory-material of the Waco passages. (The white-light-by-the-shore conclusion struck me as particularly unimaginative in conception and visualization.) You'll recall that Penn, too, expressed disappointment in what was left of his contribution to the released film:

"The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I've ever read but I couldn't find that same emotion on screen," he said. "A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."

I did some research and found a 2007 draft of Malick's "Tree of Life" script that perhaps offers some indications of what he was "searching" to express. (Note: A screenplay is not a movie, but these were Malick's own notes that he was working from when he began, at least, making "Tree of Life.") I'm not so sure it offers a clearer or more linear narrative than the movie does, but Malick's intentions are spelled out explicitly. At the bottom of page 16 and top of page 17, from the section of the film exploring the Creation:

Is nature mere weather, doing and undoing without end? What does it work toward? What purpose does it have in view? [...]

From time to time, lest we forget that we are sharing our hero's perspective, we cut back to Jack in the city, going through the motions of his everyday life.

The first fishes with amphibian traits gain the shore. Swamp and marshland have replaced the wide, windy plains of the preceding agers. The forms of vegetation are simple, few. There are no reeds or grasses. No flower breaks the gloom. The earth is a vast, wet Eden. Except near the poles, there are no seasons. Each year is like the last.

Reptiles emerge from the amphibians, and dinosaurs in turn from the reptiles. Among the dinosaurs we discover the first signs of maternal love, as the creatures learn to care for each other.

Is not love, too, a work of the creation? What should we have been without it? How had things been then?

Silent as a shadow, consciousness has slipped into the world.


This view of nature, of evolution, as a force with an intelligence and a purpose, is more deterministic that I was willing to take away from the film the first time.* (From a few paragraphs later: "Nature seems everywhere to be leading toward something. Why this delay in arriving at its ends?") But I think the evidence here indicates that the Dinosaur Incident is indeed presented as an early moment of mercy or compassion (if not necessarily "maternal love" -- though the voice of the boys' mother is heard over the end of it: "Light of my life. I searched for you." and images of Saturn and Jupiter: "My hope. My child.").

These are intriguing critical dilemmas: When does provocative ambiguity become mere sloppiness or willful obscurity? Can a movie be both vague and obvious, ambitious and simplistic? And when does open-endedness simply become emptiness, a failure to communicate?

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* John P. McCarthy of the Catholic News Service found "Tree of Life" both vague and schematic:

Ultimately, however, the ambitious effort proves vague and unsatisfying because of its overly schematic premise -- the juxtaposition of nature and grace -- and glancing endorsement of New Age spirituality rather than belief in God.

While not attempting to definitively explain the mystery of existence, Malick is trying to be comprehensive and so hedges his bets by proffering a message of love consistent with Christianity (and many other worldviews) as well as a theologically suspect paean to nature. [...]

From a theological standpoint, "The Tree of Life" is best described as deeply spiritual but not religious. Although there are numerous references to God -- in fact, the characters often address him directly in voice-over narration -- Malick's agnosticism appears to win out. He leaves the door open to God, yet seems equally willing to endorse a form of pantheism or animism that puts the natural world and mankind on equal footing.

Compare with, for example, Alejandro Adams' view ("Old Time Religion in The Tree of Life") that " I don't know how you can like Tree of Life without embracing its Christianity..." in response to Mike S. Ryan's post at Hammer to Nail, in which he said:

"The Tree of Life" is an American masterwork, despite its simplistic, cowardly embrace of Christian meaning as an answer to the inciting incident /question: "How do we justify the death of a child? What meaning is there in death and loss?" The easy answers offered still don't negate the fact that the film renders the quite specific dynamic between a father/son and family in a physical visual manner that is, quite simply, pure cinema.

Here's the segment in question:

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See also these earlier Scanners posts:

What does a movie mean? (Nov. 15, 2007)

The Eleven Worst Ambiguous Movie Endings (Nov. 21, 2009)

O, the absurdity! O, the ambiguity! (Dec. 2, 2009)

Arthouse suspense: My month with Abbas and Joe (April 14, 2011) -- in which I argue that the ending of "Through the Olive Trees" is absolutely wonderful, but not in the least ambiguous.

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