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‘The Tree of Life’: Terrence Malick Syndrome Strikes Again

Posted on May 29, 2011

This is so profound: Brad Pitt dotes on a baby in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

By Richard Schickel

I think of it as the “Hiroshima Mon Amour” scam. You juxtapose, as the Alain Resnais movie of 1959 did, some characters going about their quotidian business—in that case a love affair—with some cosmic event—in that instance the dropping of the first atomic bomb—in hopes of granting world historical significance to the story. Such films are not truly historical narratives. That is to say, the foreground figures do not in any way interact with huge and enigmatic events. The hope is that some sort of resonance between large events and minor happenings will be established.

I’ve always thought that there’s something cheesy about films of this sort. They are attempts to impose “importance” on essentially unimportant, or at least highly conventional, occurrences—never more so than in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the occasion for more critical heavy-breathing than any other film in recent memory.

It opens on a family called the O’Briens, living humbly in Waco, Texas. Dad (Brad Pitt) is a talented musician working in a dead-end job. Mom (Jessica Chastain) is loving and uncritical of his behavior in relation to their sons, which veers from the angrily stern to the waywardly affectionate. They have three rather ordinary sons. In the film’s first long sequence the O’Briens are obliged to deal with the unexpected death, as a young man, of one of the boys. Once that is managed—rather distantly it seemed to me—the movie spins off into a long passage about the creation of the world.

Volcanoes erupt. Seas crash. The cosmos takes form. A couple of dinosaurs are seen in sportive play (a very bad idea that one). What all this banging about has to do with the fate of the O’Brien family, which we witness growing steadily, without relief, into mediocrity, is not explained. Because, of course, it cannot be explained. The formation of the universe as we know it has nothing whatsoever to do with the mild malformation of this family—except possibly as a lame pun. “Nuclear” family—“nuclear” universe. Get it? The last we see of the O’Briens, Sean Penn, one of the sons, and apparently a successful, if unhappy, architect, is leading them into an end-of-days sequence—lots of folks wandering silently on a beach, getting their feet wet as they await—I guess—some explanation of existence. Which is not forthcoming, although there is a hint that the best we can do in life is to love one another as best we can.

This will not do—either as philosophy or as the conclusion of a picture that has wasted close to two and half hours of our time with its twaddling pretenses. But it is not quite the end of our concern with it. Or to put it more concisely, with Terrence Malick. He is, of course, famously reclusive and a famously slow worker. Over the course of 38 years he has made only five movies (an average of one every seven and a half years). The supposition among critics and audiences is that anyone proceeding at so ponderous a pace must be struggling to articulate truths that are at the least sublime and at most close to unspeakable. Aside from his first movie, the bleak and darkly witty “Badlands” (about a serial killer on the run with his dopily romantic girlfriend), that has not been the case. All of his subsequent efforts have been pretty, narratively empty and emotionally unengaging. You can admire his effort to find new methods of screen story telling, but it has proved impossible to involve yourself with his films at any level.

Yet, critically, no one wants to give up on Malick. He does make beautiful images—though I think they are more self-conscious intensifications of conventional screen imagery than they are highly original—and he plays the role of the dedicated artist convincingly (it is said that he spent four years editing “The Tree of Life”). This makes it extremely difficult for critics to believe that a man so devoted to his creations, so uninterested in grosses or the trappings of fame, could actually be quite an inept filmmaker.

But such is the case. Setting aside a few reviews that simply take Malick at his word, “The Tree of Life” has been largely greeted by a sort of cautious ambivalence—its manifest ambitions acknowledged, its tediousness and pretentiousness glossed over. In effect, the critics are reviewing his earnest biography, not the work at hand. But it has to be said: There is something mulish about his sophomorism, something stupefying about his work. Movies, I believe, are an essentially worldly medium, playful and romantic, particularly in America, where, on the whole our best directors have stated whatever serious intentions they may harbor as ignorable asides. There are other ways of making movies, naturally, and there’s always a small audience available for these noble strivings—and good for them, I guess. But I’m with Preston Sturges, who gave this immortal line to Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels”: “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.” She was speaking, of course, to a director briefly smitten with the Terrence Malick syndrome.

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By stevendeedon, November 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm Link to this comment

I neglected to mention: check out Emmanuel Levy’s
extensive review, “Tree of Life: Malick’s
Masterpiece,” and his article on the work of Douglas
Trumbull and Emmanuel Lubeski on this film. 

Schickel’s attack on Malick is a low-brow rant
against film as art, and perhaps by extension,
Transcendental Cinema and Contemporary Contemplative
Cinema(one doubts Schickel would know the genre as
such). It reminds me of Dov Simens screaming that he
is not interesting in “film,” only “making movies.”
While arthouse parlor games deserve to be challenged,
“Tree of Life” is hardly one of them, and Schickel
demeans himself by treating it as such.

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By stevendeedon, November 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

You’d think Schickel just started watching movies
last week.  He certainly shows little knowledge of
anything else here.  The story of “Tree of Life”—
and it can be laid out as a single linear story—
clearly arises out of the same general neo-Teilhardian vision as the work of
Rev. Thomas Berry and Briane Swimme, Mary Evelyn
Tucker, and the (more prosaic) documentary, “Journey of the Universe.”  Perhaps this will become more
obvious when “Voyage of Time” is released.  It a
grand Christian embrace of cosmology and and
geobiological evolution.

Malick forces us to reconsider the Book of Job, by unpacking God’s answer to Job via a wondrous video poem of the story of the cosmos,geobiological evolution, etc., which continues in the Everyman tale of Jack Ryder’s family. Clearly Malick is convinced, and I for one, am also convinced by Malick’s rhetoric, the rhetoric of beauty. For an antidote to Shickel, see Roger Ebert’s review of “Tree of Life” and a grateful hymn to the universe

In light of the articles or comments by actors,
cinematographer, special effects consultant, etc.,
Schickel’s questions about Malick’s competence as a
director sound—sorry Richard, just plain stupid.
Schickel’s “review” comes off as just contrarian
nothing to be taken more seriously than a youngest
sibling’s dinner
table challenge to his older brother or sister.
For further reflections on “Tree of Life,” see

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By nick, August 1, 2011 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I disagree with your review. I think this is perhaps one of the best movies that
could have been made for the movie viewer today. I don’t think you got it, or
perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, and that this is a story about the development
of life yes and that the current iteration or stream that life is currently on is a dead
end. This movie is a warning, an alert.

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By racetoinfinity, July 7, 2011 at 12:29 am Link to this comment

By Leefeller, June 5 at 7:18 am

Hey, Leefeller, what is “enhanced irrigation” please?  It sounds more than vaguely Patriot-Act-Fourth Reich…?

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By Hans Guerth, June 20, 2011 at 4:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Terrence Malick now is in good company with David Lean whom this man Schickel tried to destroy 40 years ago (on `Ryan’s Daughter`) - viperous as ever.

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By Ehrenstein, June 5, 2011 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

Sure. Here—

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By Leefeller, June 5, 2011 at 8:07 am Link to this comment

It is in the knowing of what others should like, ,... actually more like dictating what one should like, ... this is what I am addressing here, it is the apparent attitudes not the movie I am addressing here, addressing attitudes can be a handicap in itself, which I seem to do more often then not.

No I am not aware of ‘night movies’, though in the past, I happened to be a house painter. 

So when the paint drys,... I will place your recommendation of; “Hangover 2”,  on my things to do list, because now we are having a discussion of intellectualism?

By the way I also enjoy watching water boil, which means occasionally I make tea, .... so maybe you have another movie recommendation for my intellectual alley?

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By Ehrenstein, June 5, 2011 at 7:38 am Link to this comment

Apparently you’re familiar with “Night Moves,” Leefeller. That’s where Gene Hackman has the line in whcih he compares theexperience of Eric Rohmer movies to “watching paint dry.”

No doubt “The Hangover Part 2” is more up your intellectual alley.

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By Leefeller, June 5, 2011 at 7:18 am Link to this comment

Just from observing a few of the comments here, and my having not watched or wanting to see the movie myself, the prevailing wind shows a template of people who seem to evangelize their opinions with what appears to have some tainted religiosity to it. 

For instance if I found watching paint dry a most moving experience, dependent on more or less dialogue to make it in my mind, just three bears right. Then I must force, evangelize this enlightening experience on others, for they must surely see the light as I have seen it or behoove those naughty enough to disagree!

No, John…. in my world of enlighenment,  you should be forced to watch paint dry, over and over again like groundhog day until you see the light, if that did not work then it would be enhanced irrigation for you!

I am finding more and more people show this self righteous proclivity, bordering on a Nazi like evangelical attitude. This seems to be happening with more frequency and I don’t give a damn on which side of the fence or dung heap one happens to watching from.

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By John, June 3, 2011 at 11:45 pm Link to this comment
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RS, to quote from your third paragraph, “Mom (Jessica Chastain) is loving and uncritical of his behavior in relation to their sons.” How can you justify writing that? Did you even watch the film? Even to a casual viewer, her disagreement is spelled out in detail repeatedly in the visuals. Do you require more dialog to understand? I won’t even go on about your other comments, which are similarly obtuse.
I know you are generally an intelligent person, but your entire review reads like a vendetta written by a coarse, ignorant, angry person.  Perhaps, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, you should be forced to watch the film repeatedly until you understand it.

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By edith grove, June 3, 2011 at 10:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“There are other ways of making movies, naturally, and there’s always a small
audience available for these noble strivings—and good for them, I guess.”  What
a patronising shit. Does he feel the same about all art forms that have ‘noble
strivings’, because all forms, from music, through, art, architecture and even
comic books have a full spectrum of ambition and execution?  Schickel seems
to think that the commercial fullon narrative, flat out entertainment is ‘naturally’
better, and that there is something suspect in anything that attempts more. 
That’s sad, worse than sad, it’s tragic.  I echoes the worst excesses of a
business that will cynically recycle Hangover - and fails to question why I would
give $14 to most commercially released movies that are specifically designed
NOT to make me think.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was
that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who
wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to
passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared
we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial
culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and
the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
(Neil Postman)
I guess Huxley was right and Mr. Schickel is to be feared more than any
‘thought police.’

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By Grady Lee Howard, June 1, 2011 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

While a technical achievement this film is hardly “a form of prayer” unless you refer to the type of public prayer Franklin Graham sometimes attempts. Malik spent many hours making it pretty. He did not spend much time or effort making it meaningful. Now I admit that it resonates with a particular sociobiological assumption that we are the original stardust (the stuff of genes) and that stardust lives forever. How often I’ve heard that drug trip fallacy repeated. We are not the dinosaurs or the wind or the waves crashing at Malibu. We are people. Malik failed to give enough information about the O’Briens, or their milieu, or their history. He then included extraneous material he considered an analogy. The only explanation I can offer is that Terrance has indulged the magic mushrooms one time too many. Aphasic minds may write poetry, but have lost communicative ability. A badly lived life may be art, but it is bad art.

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By Leefeller, June 1, 2011 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment

Since I dislike some things intensely and having this strange ability to use free choice and free will which usually means I do not partake in some things other people may seem to enjoy drivel in and be obsessed with, possibly things which I may find boring, a waste of my time or even obnoxious.  Things such as watching wrestling on Television for example or even worse for me watching golf on television. So when the movie “Tiger Woods” comes out I will not make it a point to place it on ‘my things to see list’.

Why do people find such a desire to evangelize their proclivities or interests like everyone else should see them in the same fricking light?

Try this;... experience; food; proclivity;  _____________this is the greatest: tasting, thing; experience,_________________ in the whole wide world! (fill in the blanks).

For instance I would say; try this shot, this is the greatest tasting tequila in the whole wide world. Does this mean everyone else has to like my choice of Tequila?

For some reason I find the whole movie industry annoying, I would prefer they only gave out those Grammies, Emmies, pork barrels and parsimonies posthumously,.... this means everyone else is supposed to feel the same as I do about them!

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By Shenonymous, June 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

I said I saw the film part way. and was unable to abide it enough to sit through all of it.  Perhaps you read too subjectively. I don’t recall asking anyone to understand me, just accept our difference of opinions. Obviously you cannot tolerate those who see the world differently than you, an. 
Too bad as I can respect others unlike myself, when they are sophisticated enough to be not so full of themselves.  There seems to be really immature sentiments being trafficked about on this forum and appears to be not too promising an environment for discussion.

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By Ehrenstein, June 1, 2011 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

Do you want an award for agressive ignorance skmacksk?

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By skmacksk, June 1, 2011 at 10:47 am Link to this comment

I have not seen any of Terence Malick’s films and do not aspire to see them: the confession of a philistine? Now, reading Richard Schickel is one of the pleasures of this anti-cineaste and it always contains its rewards. I found his biography of Elia Kazan a bit too politically exculpatory, but Kazan made great films, which I have seen and greatly admire, as creations of the ‘workshop’ of movie making, under the watchful eye of a gifted ‘auteur’ and self-promoter.

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By Myshkin, June 1, 2011 at 9:25 am Link to this comment

Personally, I’d rather be watching an old Ozu flick. More generally, there seems a particularly unhealthy American-centric view of film expressed in the review and comments. Great films do get made by Americans, but really: there’s whole a lot more to discover in cinema than the product of Hollywood and its discontents.

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By Ehrenstein, June 1, 2011 at 8:57 am Link to this comment

“Hiroshima Mon Amour” is not a “scam.” It is one of the enduring masterpieces of world cinema.

No point in proceeding beyond that— Schickel’s very first sentence.

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By an, May 31, 2011 at 7:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shenonymous, i don’t understand how you can say you feel one way or another
about a film you’ve never seen…

confusing to me to say the least.

watch the film and get back to me.

the beginning of the film could be read as biblical if you so choose, but in
reality it just shows the birth of the universe and its evolution as scientists
understand it today. big bang, formation of gasses into stars, the birth of our
planet, and the evolution of life. there is nothing at all biblical in that unless
you chose to read it that way. the film is full of musings by its characters in
voice over like “mother” “father,” “brother,” or “who are you?” etc. etc. etc. some
of these are the musing of why are we here and what is it all about that literally
every human being feels at one moment or another. there is nothing that can
be pinpointed as of particular religion in any of that…

it starts with the book of job quote, and its characters live in texas in the
1950’s so they go to church, and some of the voice over is true to what
characters of that time place and belief would think about the cosmic order of
things (just as the voice over of the new world reflects native american beliefs).

one could watch this film as an atheist and think wow, its amazing how large
the universe is, how dramatic it’s history, and he we are with our own little lives
and problems, amongst the infinite cosmos. and still wonder at the magnitude.
the film is not necessarily religious. try watching it.

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By Shenonymous, May 31, 2011 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment

Let’s say I have only seen part of the movie, unable to digest the indigestable in its totality. While there are those who thoroughly enjoy self flagellation, I do not. Assuming the film story is an allegory of the biblical story about the creation of the universe, there are a few versions of the universe’s creation, one of which is non-theological, evolution or as some might say Darwinian although Darwin himself never wrote about the origin of the universe; but those in the reputable scientific realm have.  Carl Sagan’s is one I prefer but there are others, i.e, Hawking, Feynman.  Creationists believe the earth and universe were created 6,000 years ago exactly as stated in Genesis and in their pseudoscience that does not depend on an accumulation of verifiable evidence; Intelligent Designers believe a supernatural intelligence ‘created’ the universe. Amen and begorrah.

The Tree of Life, as Malick created it, creating the world anew as each life is born into it, is only the latest version to tag along with the visions of the ages along with the Babylonians, Hindus, Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews then borrowed by Christians who, unlike the Jews who originally confabulated the Bible, take the Bible literally, but who ignores all the grave and contradictory errors. So then we have Malick’s envisionment. Lubezski’s cinematography is stunning, as usual. So what else is new? 

It is a sign of constricted shortsightedness if this film is not seen as just another metaphor for the creation of the universe. Malick’s own press release makes the allegorical biblical connection that describes the cosmos’ vast creative and destructive powers, as felt by the young Jack who it is said began to sense his connections to the dust of the stars and the prehistoric creatures who once roamed the earth and the finality of his utimate destiny.  A kind of romantic existentialism.  While the IDers accept evolution, Creationists believe humankind “roamed the earth” alongside the dinosaurs. That belief in itself is flawed since they do not believe the age of the earth is more than 6,000 years and everybody knows dinosaurs lived longer ago than 6,000 years ago, it was never recorded by the ancients. It is more like 228 million years ago, humankind actually roamed the savannahs about 3 million years ago. Go figure.

Not all the critics at Cannes gushed over the film.  Movieline Stephanie Zacharek’s review gave praise for the technical aspects of the film but stated that even so it is “a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption.” Granted many great films were directed by persons with much self-absorption. So that is not a useful criticism. Marshall Fine’s review on Huff Post a few days ago is also not too glowing but gives more of the storyline points.  Whatever is said, nonetheless, the underlying theme of the story claims the existence of a grand universal designer, which has no genuine provenance. 

Look if you appreciate the film, then that is your prerogative. Mine is that I did not at the story level but do at the artistic level.  We have differences of opinion and that is that. I do not denigrate you nor care what you like or do not like. I have stated my view. If you do not agree, C’est la vie! 

Religious belief is not necessarily genetically innate just because most of the humans on the earth developed religious beliefs. Conditioning is also an evolutionary capacity in humans which means it is not nature but nurture that determines the belief factor in humans.  The proclivity to believe might authentically be a quality of the mind, but that just gives just one of the processes of which the human mind is capable. Imaginatin is another one. Other simians also have conditioned beliefs but it is highly unlikely they have beliefs about the existence of supernatural beings.

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By Leefeller, May 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment

Since I had cards printed, and have sold a few works of art and since I painted one work which I called the “Tree of Life” I will comment on what I have read here without watching the movie using the simple fact,... I dislike movies.  One problem I have with movies, is whenever I am in the uncomfortable situations of watching a movie, it always feel like the people in the movies appear to be acting!

I will only watch this move after being captured and chained to a stake in Plato’s Cave and forced to watch it with an excieting intermission of finger nails across a black board speeches by Sara Palin and some of those annoying advertisements of local insurance agents.

Anyone who watches a move can be a critic, and then I suppose having cards printed makes them a professional movie critic?  Suppose this makes me like my own Catholic Church, or one of those evangelical fanatics, who hear about a move and want to make sure nobody else watches it, like that satanic move “Harry Potter”?

Most of the postings here, really seem to be critics whining about critics, apparently people quite full of themselves and now here I am full of myself, ...whining about whining!

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By Sandorvaal, May 31, 2011 at 9:06 am Link to this comment
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It’s forgivable, even in someone calling himself a film critic, to not get a movie.
As with humor, there’s no way to explain a film that will make it work for
someone who missed it. The moment has passed, as TOL clearly did for Mr .

What is not forgivable, is vindictiveness in a reviewer. It is one thing to say “it
didn’t work for me”. It is an entirely different order of aggression to claim that it
shouldn’t work for anyone, or worse, if it worked for you, you are obviously a

Schickel’s unprofessional display of hostility is likely misdirected anger and
disappointment with his own meager and apparently fading sensibilities. He is
keenly aware that a film which left him cold has deeply affected others. This
forces him into a corner in which he has only two choices, either admit that the
film went sailing over his head, or lash out against those who saw what he could

This leaves the reader with two choices. One can either admire Schickle for his
misguided courage, or ignore him for his knuckle dragging. Guess which way
this reader went.

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By kw, May 31, 2011 at 8:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So Shenonymous is that a “yes” or a “no” that you’ve actually seen the movie you’re so worked up over, or have you just read a bunch of propaganda? Remember, it’s important to be “informed”.

And, where do you get this idea which you keep repeating that the information I (or any viewer) have in regard to the creation of the universe I only first obtained last Friday night while seeing Mr Malick’s film? What exactly am I supposed to “beware” of? Also, what specifically did Mr Malick get wrong in his creation sequence? That information would be helpful in knowing what offends you so. (Malick is a former Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar btw, who apparently studied and consulted with many experts in the field for more than a few years while crafting his film, but none of that seems to matter, just that he’s also a Christian seems to be the sticking point. Again what scenes specifically offend you in regard to the film he made and that is being discussed here?)

Also, the majority of the human beings alive on planet earth today have some sort of religious belief or faith. If they have all evolved this way, then is evolution wrong? If that’s their evolutionary path, then why worry or care? There is no right or wrong, there is just evolution, and evolution will course correct when it sees fit, right? I can’t imagine someone complaining on the internet about Christians is really going to effect that ultimate outcome one way or the other.

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By Shenonymous, May 31, 2011 at 7:21 am Link to this comment

I wouldn’t worry about all those evil Christians out there, I don’t think Hollywood will abandon the atheist, agnostic, or nihilistic film directors any time soon.

I don’t worry about “all” those evil Christians “out there.”  I am quite secure in my beliefs.  But perhaps you should beware.  To be dazzled by a superficial presentation of the origins of the universe without sufficient evaluation of what is pretended to be truth verges on wanting to be blindfolded. What then is sufficient evaluation?  It is when a theory is supported by massive quantities of evidence, accepted by all informed observers, undisputed facts in the ordinary sense of the word. The key word is “informed.”  To be pedantic, for all facts, it is without a doubt possible that all of our measuring instruments, as well as our sense organs with which we come to grasp meanings from them, cause us to be the victims of a massive confidence trick. In the words of Bertrand Russell said, ‘We may all have come into existence five minutes ago, provided with ready-made memories, with holes in our socks and hair that needed cutting.’ Given the evidence now available, for evolution to be anything other than a fact would require a similar confidence trick by the creator, something that few theists would wish to credit.

And thank god Hollywood won’t soon abandon the atheist, agnostic, or nihilistic film directors.  There needs to be something to offset the hysteria perpetrated by the Christian Right.  The book Monkey Girl is an eye opener that exposes the efforts going on that include films like “The Tree of Life,” regardless of the tour de force and award winning for the cinematography and direction it might show.  One can take any story and in the hands of a skillful filmmaker create a great film out of it.  The story is not exempt from criticism.  We can just as easily believe because there is no proof for or against the claim, Paul took a story and skillfully created a fantastical account of a supernatural entity that has come to save humanity has appealed to millions upon millions.  Does that make it true?  That depends on the quality and quantity of evidence one will accept.  A multitude does not verify anything.

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By kw, May 30, 2011 at 10:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So if you think Mr Schickel is wrong, and if you happen to appreciate and enjoy ‘The Tree Of Life’, it’s because you’re “scared”? Scared of what? And somebody should again examine the members who made up the jury at Cannes, they weren’t all Americans and they voted Mr Malick’s movie the festival’s highest award. But of course they’re all cowardly conformists right, and only Mr Schickel is the brave voice crying out in the wilderness? There’s simply no way it could actually be a powerful work of art? How ridiculous. Also, I for one love entertaining movies, I like plenty of mainstream fare and lots of downright crap as well, but if I can also appreciate filmmakers who attempt to do something other than “entertain” and who push the art form, I’m then an “elitist”? I thought it laughable Mr Schickel even proffered such an argument, but it seems there are actually other people who can only see through that same limited lens.

And Shenonymous I wouldn’t worry about all those evil Christians out there, I don’t think Hollywood will abandon the atheist, agnostic, or nihilistic film directors any time soon. Assuage yourself. I mean Woody Allen puts out a movie every year deriding religion and proclaiming that there is no God, like clockwork. Relax, you’re not unrepresented in the film world I assure you. Lars Von Trier can make his statements about life and the world as he understands it through the art of his filmmaking, and so can Terrence Malick. Did you even see the movie? I think a few of the people the most bent out of shape here haven’t even seen it judging by their posts.

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By UreKismet, May 30, 2011 at 9:38 pm Link to this comment

Good god! I had no idea amerikans were so scared; it appears that few are prepared to allow Mr Schickel his opinion, mostly for the less than compelling reason ‘The movie must be great because Malick is a great artist’.  The reason he is a great artist? ’ Because he makes great movies of course’.  A perfect circle of cowardly conformity, much like the way fashionistas carry on when someone with a full complement of perception and courage points out that some self styled emperor has no clothes.

Malick is replete with the three necessities for artistic sainthood from the ninnies; he deliberately, contemptuously eschews ‘the mainstream’, he is technically proficient and he is inaccessible without a deal of study/work by the aficionado.’

The latter is particularly important for those cultural elitists whose kicks derive from hazing normal citizens determined to watch movies for that crassest of all motives, a wish to be entertained.

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By bruce marshall, May 30, 2011 at 8:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think it is time Mr. Schickel retire from criticism and concentrate on dvd documentaries and commentaries.
I also think Truthdig needs to hire some new blood for their arts coverage.
As I am a film journalist, reviewer and historian myself, I hereby submit myself for the film reviewer position.

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By mackTN, May 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

I happen to like Terrence Malick’s films (although my least favorite was the Thin
Red Line).  Of course Schickel would appreciate Malick’s more conventionally
structured films (like Badlands or Days of Heaven) but find little patience
looking at an “art house” film that tries to achieve a narrative goal in a
structurally different way.  My favorite cinema is inaugurating the Tree of Life
by holding Malick Tuesdays that feature all his major films to lead up to Tree. 

1. Badlands
2. Days of Heaven
3. The Thin Red Line
4. The New World

I’ve watched repeatedly all these films, even Red Line, which is interesting in
many scenes.

I remember the first time I saw 2001: Space Odyssey when it opened in 1968.
Of course, people recommended smoking pot or dropping acid to fully
appreciate it (especially when he goes through the black hole).

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By an, May 30, 2011 at 2:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

just wanted to add another tidbit for the genius shcickel…. HIROSHIMA MON
AMOUR is a classic. it’s taught in film programs around the entire globe. deal with

also Shenonymou, one need not be christian to enjoy TREE OF LIFE, though
perhaps those of that persuasion may enjoy it…  the film can be taken any number
of ways, though there is a strong mystical (though not necessarily religious) bend
to the film. therefore i don’t understand your extended diatribe.

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By Shenonymous, May 30, 2011 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

Creationists and Intelligent Designers are eager to eat
the brains of three kinds of thinkers (to stop free and independent thought):  Christians who do not agree with
them, non-Christian religionists, and unbelievers (that include atheists or unbelievers of other kinds).  Wedge theory (one of the strategies of creationists and IDers
to destroy evolutionists or as they are also called, Darwinists) applauds sentimentalistic films like “The Tree
of Life.”  Because one has some reputation for artistic excellence doesn’t guarantee that all his/her work will
be equivalently excellent.  Great cinematography or film direction has nothing to do with belief systems.  Artists make better and less better works.  All the arts have
nothing to do with theology and everything to do with the appreciating human consciousness of aesthetics physically through the senses, intellectually, and emotionally. 

I have the view that beauty created by humankind in the form of music, i.e., Smetana, Bach, and all other greatness experienced in the arts, visual, literary, and performing, is the unique result of human perception of beauty translated into artforms without any supernatural input or hand.  Natural beauty is, also in my opinion, a matter of personal appreciation.  For along with natural beauty comes natural ugliness in the form of natural disasters, witness Japan and Joplin.  Surely in this country I am entitled to these opinions without belittlement or degradation?

Whatever this nation is it is not a Christian nation as the creationists and IDers would like to either beat that it is into all of our heads and our children through school curriculum or to exterminate us in the name of their God.  Sacred beliefs in this nation is an amalgamation of all religions that exist as well as non-religionists, all having equal right to their convictions.

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By DICKBRODE, May 30, 2011 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

To LocalHero, “failure to connect the dots” is not my “problem” but rather my opinion, one of which I am allowed to have. It’s a work of art, for pete’s sake and is allowed to rise or fall to each observer’s mind. Allow me that please.

And as I said, there is much to admire in the film. But let’s be honest, not everything in life is majestic - simple things can just be simple things.

And a lot worse.

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By LocalHero, May 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment

Well DICKBRODE, if “it failed for me to connect the dots between the grand mystery of our being and the ability for all of us to wade through the trivialities of our own daily lives.” Perhaps, that may be your problem, not the films’. I, on the other hand, see majesty in what you seem to believe are trivial.

And “an,” are you not aware that sentences and peoples’ names begin with a capital letter? Obviously, your caps lock works because, inexplicably, you chose to capitalize “Taxi Driver,” “2001,” etc. Otherwise, I like your take.

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By Kingharvest, May 30, 2011 at 11:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This daily journal of random thoughts reminds me of some of the reviews of The Shadow Line. It does not make sense, it is convoluted, the characters are unfamiliar…

Well yes, maybe those things are true, but the beauty of it is that the next time we watch it, and we will, just as the next time we watch The Tree of Life, our preconceptions of what it is or could be or should be will have fallen to the wayside and we will enjoy the work for what it actually is. That is one of the ways one identifies a great piece of art. Sometimes you have to work at it. Sometimes it does not drop into your lap.

You would think that the author would have figured this out by now, but it is hard to contemplate such things while staring longingly at one’s navel, isn’t it.

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By LYLE SLACK, May 30, 2011 at 9:03 am Link to this comment
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Mr. Schickel and I had a passing acquaintance some years ago, and he said to me once, apropos of another long-winded film, “It must art—it’s too painful to be anything else.” One of Richard’s funniest and most perceptive observations, I thought then. Obviously neither he nor the state of pretentiousness in films has changed.

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By Moonwatcher, May 30, 2011 at 8:12 am Link to this comment
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As a personal response to his filmography, I disagree very strongly with Schickel’s estimation of Malick’s worth as a filmmaker.  In contrast to Schickel, I get deeply involved with Malick’s films and find it rewarding to watch them again and again.

But what’s particularly annoying about this review of The Tree of Life is that Schickel devotes only about two paragraphs to actually analyzing the film.  (Contrast that with A.O. Scott’s very informative review.  Schickel’s “review” of the film is essentially just a personal airing of grievance over Malick’s perceived fraudulence as an artist.

I was disappointed to see Schickel trotting out hackneyed phrases like “famously reclusive,” in his description of Malick, because in 1999 Schickel opened a well-crafted Time magazine obituary of Stanley Kubrick with the following statement:

“One thing we ought to clear up right away: Stanley Kubrick was not, as careless journalism always insisted, reclusive. Elusive was a better word for him; seclusive the best one, implying, one hopes, that his refusal of fame’s odious and stupefying obligations was a conscious, clarifying choice he had embraced, not a neurotic compulsion to which he had surrendered.”

Sadly, Schickel’s review of The Tree of Life (as Robespierre115 already pointed out) recalls the clueless contemporary critical dismissals of Kubrick that now seem so embarrassing.

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By DICKBRODE, May 30, 2011 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

Well, I think Richard Schickel has it just right. Granted, the photography is beautiful, the music sumptuous - funny that I had just finished rehearsing the Toccata and Fugue myself only to see Mr Pitt “play” it. But something is dramatically wrong when I find myself looking at my watch asking not only Where are we going with this? but also When is this going to end?

Mr. Ebert says it made him more alert to the awe of existence. Forgive me, I say nonsense to that. There are an infinite ways to be awed by Creation. The Toccata and Fugue being one of them. But as a series of images, musical bits and melodrama, it failed for me to connect the dots between the grand mystery of our being and the ability for all of us to wade through the trivialities of our own daily lives. It was Smetana’s Moldau which gave the appreciation for life, not the mundane images on the screen at the same time.

It was a great idea. Great images. Great music. Great ingredients. But a bad stew.

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By kw, May 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr Schickel’s comments and criticism’s reveal someone who completely failed to grasp much of the filmmaker’s intent, and little else, from my reading. I mean “Nuclear” family”? Is that really what the reviewer thought Malick was going for? He then argues that the film is a failure because this supposed attempt at a pun, or 7th grade level metaphor, didn’t work? That is a pretty profound failure on the reviewer’s part to even be up to the material he then bashes so severely. Then to follow by claiming the creation sequences had absolutely “nothing” to do with the O’Brien family in Waco, is actually a rather stunning admission of a reviewer very much in over his head. One could argue whether they think the device succeeds or not, but to not even be aware of the connections to begin with? To not understand the forces of nature distilled down and played out in this family dynamic itself? (as is the case in all of human life on this planet) Or to have no grasp of the duality of the relationship and conversations between the “Father” and his children? Yikes. The rest seems to be the standard boilerplate about how Malick “can’t” tell a story, and is ultimately “quite an inept filmmaker”. How truly laughable a comment could someone make? And not even a mention of the performances given by Pitt or Hunter McCracken, who played his oldest boy, anywhere in the review amongst all the petty and simplistic whining? Did the director have anything to do with that? It’s interesting on some level to actually read the thinking of the type of person who could dismiss a film like ‘The Tree Of Life’ as an abject failure and a complete waste of someone’s time. Essentially the same mindset behind those that stood and booed at Cannes I would imagine. This review in particular though is funny because Schickel is arguing in circles with himself. None of the things he states as being the director’s motivations, which he then savagely derides, are even remotely correct in the first place. Or even in the ballpark for that matter. It’s as though he has no understanding or registered on any level the quote from the book of Job presented at the start of the film and then expounded o throughout. At least argue the merits, not pathetic little straw men that don’t even have anything to do with the filmmaker’s actual presentation to the audience. I find it almost contemptible that someone could be so dismissive of such an astonishing accomplishment in the art of filmmaking. (let alone a film critic!) I believe this epic and profound movie will resonate with many people deeply. There will be plenty more bashing away in the vein of Mr Schickel still to come I’m sure, but yeah I think their sad complaints will be long forgotten. Mr Ebert very much saw the same incredible work of art I did, that’s for sure. As for a wastes of time, I’d like to get back just the few minutes I spent reading Mr Schickel’s above twaddle. I for one can’t wait to see Mr Malick’s extraordinary film again.

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By Brill Papdish, May 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Did Malick run over Mr. Schickel’s dog? Maybe Mr. Schickel is trying to teach by example. This review is unpleasant, pointless, and mean spirited.  I feel, after reading it, like someone ran over my dog.

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By an, May 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

you call yourself a critic?

the idea that films have to be a certain way is pathetic. that they have to be
“playful and romantic,” and not “serious” is ignorant. i have to admit i find such
narrowness of view odious.

a film, or any work of art, doesn’t have to one certain way to be successful.

preston sturges is a great filmmaker, certainly, as are many other light and
funny filmmakers and entertainers. that is beyond doubt. many of the greatest
filmmakers in history were “playful and romantic” entertainers. but equally
great if not greater are filmmakers like tarkovsky, bergman, kubrick, antonioni,
malick, dreyer, etc. and they have the world wide following and acknowledged
legacy to prove it.

are american classics like TAXI DRIVER “romantic and playful,” or 2001: A SPACE
ODDYSSEY? i guess “THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC” is a failure in your
esteemed opinion?

get a clue.

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By Robespierre115, May 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment

Still need to see the movie, but Schickel could end up like those critics who bashed “2001: A Space Odyssey” back in 1968.

Roger Ebert’s take:


Terrence Malick’s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.

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