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by Nigel M Smith
July 11, 2011 5:00 AM
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How Can "The Tree of Life" Be Perceived As Just a Long Commercial?

"The Tree of Life." Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Terrence Malick's long-awaited grand opus "The Tree of Life" made headlines minutes following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival for earning applause and boos. The film went on to win the coveted Palme d'Or, but that hasn't stopped "Tree of Life" naysayers from criticizing Malick's ambitious spectacle.

Some have derided it as being "boring" (Jason Solomons, The Observer) and "incredibly indulgent" (Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel), but a recent review by The Guardian's David Cox takes the cake for the most quotable and challenging critique.

His headline sums up his thesis: "The Tree of Life is a colossal commercial."

Before you say "ouch," give Cox a chance. His argument, though far from conventional, is well laid out and littered with praise for Malick. Note the following:

To its credit and unlike so much arthouse fare, Terrence Malick's behemoth makes no attempt to hide behind a protective wall of obscurity. It's slapped down its purpose with a Biblical text, a voiceover and indeed its title before you've settled into your seat... As an excavation of grand answers, "The Tree of Life" doesn't amount to much. Yet that's not too surprising, as its heart isn't in this quest. The film isn't really interested in exploring humanity's predicament; it wants to get on with singing that hymn to life. And it's life as a whole lot that ends up getting hymned, not the path through it on which the film chooses to bestow its particular seal of approval. There's nothing wrong with that.

The crux of his argument is made wholly apparent in the later passages of his review:

Handsome actors act exquisitely in surroundings gorgeously photographed. Their interactions aren't seriously interrogated but instead lavishly depicted with sumptuous, sweeping brush strokes. All we're being told is that life is wondrous in spite of its afflictions. It's a banal message, but one that has its place...The trouble with plundering the National Geographic channel, coffee-table books and chocolate-box tops, Jack Vettriano and Classic FM is that these things have been called on for similar purposes so often before that their deployment in such a demanding cause can only seem crass. Most obviously, the advertising industry has used these things to sell its products. This film is trying to use them to sell life.

Cox's appraisal of Malick's latest deserves some debate. Tell us what you think of his argument and of the film in the comment section below.

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3 Comments

  • chuchueyes | July 15, 2011 7:08 AMReply

    well, I get it. I always did. why do those poeple say this stuff. I seriously masturbate on their faces. It is for me, and it's not like I am the most intelligent person on the planet, but I admit that. but it's like what the fuck, I mean what are people arguing about when it comes to this movie. they masturbate their opinions after they have already given them and there is no need. this is a hymn and song to us all. If you don't like it , then you can shut the fuck up already and go back to masturbating in your basement and copulating on the sofa for fuck sakes. this film said more than simply that.

  • Anthony | July 12, 2011 10:20 AMReply

    I just saw this last night and agree it isn't for most. I enjoyed watching it, though.
    I think some people love to lament how much life sucks and people suck and this country sucks and the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. They're the ones that loathe a film like this which asks you to take a look at what you have and appreciate life.
    You create your own hell by wallowing in narcissism.

  • Carl | July 12, 2011 6:25 AMReply

    The simple fact is that people who are interested in being entertained, critics and other filmmakers never react that positively to someone much smarter than them. Malick's intellect is way beyond 99% of us so we have a harder time keeping up. I loved the film and it took more than one screening for it to fully hit me.