Although it's been reported that The Tree of Life drew hoots and catcalls from the audience at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival — before, that is, walking off with the festival's grand prize — the almost full house that we were part of at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema maintained an almost preternatural silence throughout the film's 138 minutes. Sure, a few people exited shortly before the end. But, given the elevated age of most of the moviegoers around us, this was easily attributed to the importunings of tetchy bladders.
Neither my wife nor myself are terribly talkative after we've seen something. We tend more to be a little dazed by the waking dream that even mediocre films and performances are able to conjure. This makes us terrible participants in the talk-back sessions that are a regular part of shows these days. We're usually halfway home before either one of us is capable of so much as a grunt, indicating that re-entry into the world of judgment has finally been achieved.
So we were taken slightly aback when a member of the theater's staff nervously pulled us aside as we were heading out the door.
She asked if we'd seen The Tree of Life and if we liked it.
This, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, was not an easy question to answer. We responded as best we could at the time, saying that yes, we found the movie very interesting — in a good way. That such a qualification was — and is — necessary is a shame. How a word my dictionary defines as "arousing or holding the attention; absorbing" has come to be a social euphemism for "sucky" diminishes our language, but there you have it.
The staff member showed visible relief when we told her we didn't think The Tree of Life sucked. Then she confided that unprecedented numbers of people were saying they hated the film and were demanding their money back.
As a lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, the very idea of wanting money back for a disappointing exhibition of what is presumed to be talent in the service of a larger goal struck me as downright weird. Just as I would never dream of demanding a refund because my favorite team lost for the umpteenth time, the idea that a work of art might be held to the same standard as, say, a plumber's attempt to fix a leaky pipe suggested a deep disconnect between art and members of its audience.
The dimensions of this disconnect grew larger in the next few days. National Public Radio reported that The Tree of Life was drawing similarly hostile reactions in other cities across the country, including, of all places, Brooklyn, a haven for the so-called Creative Class.
Now let me say that I think The Tree of Life is a splendid and truly haunting film. Terrence Malick's ambition, to give visible form to memories, emotions and knowledge that are often unseen, or barely glimpsed, is epic. As contemporary films go, this almost makes The Tree of Life a genre unto itself. Compared to most movies, it's like a rosebush growing in a mushroom patch.
That said, I also found the film to be structurally flawed, laden with mystical excess and in serious need of a sense of humor. The rumor that Malick may be thinking about unleashing a six-hour version of The Tree of Life makes me wonder if the Emerald Ash Borer doesn't have a point of view worth considering after all.
But like I said, these are things that make The Tree of Life interesting. I still have images from the film in my head and, so long as I can see it on a big screen, I look forward to experiencing it again someday.
And what of the people who demanded their money back? I'm afraid their response represents what some observers have called the devaluing of art. In a world where people download music for free and watch movies on their iPhones, art looks more and more like ambient wallpaper. The fact that it's everywhere doesn't mean that anybody's really paying attention.
Just how we pay attention may also be changing. As what used to be considered works of art become part of our collective furniture, we become conditioned to certain forms and structures. Linear storytelling, for example — narratives with clear beginnings, middles and ends that are propelled by characters with identifiable arcs —are embedded in our brains. We can tune in at any point in the story and tell what's going on and this, rather than being dull, actually seems reassuring.
The Tree of Life violated some peoples' storytelling expectations. For them this meant the movie was not only misbegotten, it was defective, like a chair with three legs. The trouble — and the glory — of The Tree of Life is that it remains, stubbornly, a work of art. There's no way to fix it without ruining what makes it great.