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Tree of Life--Penn vs. Malick

by Richard Brody

Tree of Life Poster

In an interview that appeared in Le Figaro, Sean Penn spoke harshly of Terrence Malick’s film “The Tree of Life,” in which the actor makes a relatively brief but memorable appearance:

I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. 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.

To quote Fritz Lang’s famous response in “Contempt”: “In the script it is written, and on the screen it’s pictures.” “The Tree of Life” is a marvel, Penn is very good in it—but Malick wasn’t shooting it for the pleasure or the benefit of the actors. What Penn conveys in his performance (as the adult protagonist whose memories, in flashback, provide most of the film’s action) is his very stardom, his charisma, his emotional intensity. Malick’s methods don’t let the actor employ much of his accustomed technique, but this doesn’t at all lessen the beauty and the impact of his performance.
I once read about a director who referred to an actor as the equivalent of a color on a painter’s palette. Penn brings an acid yellow to the glass-and-metal grays of his scenes, and it adds something important to the film; but he doesn’t get to do the kind of showy and theatrical performance for which Oscars are won. The star system, the flatteries of celebrity—and, for that matter, the temperament that makes a person become an actor in the first place—contribute much to an actor’s sense that a movie is, or should be, all about him. There are some movies—and some great ones—in which this is so. But in “The Tree of Life,” Penn’s unhappy and unexpected less really is more.

Terrence Malick - 2011 The Tree of Life - poster1

Impressionism brought to the screen! Some will refuse to understand its significance because they want literature. They want a book to read. They have forgotten that cinema is all about moving pictures not about literature. Save conventional narratives for the stage! That's the actors medium while cinema is the director's medium. There are so many possibilities undiscovered within film making and Malick knows that. He is daring and is approaching cinema as it should ALWAYS be a painting not a novel or a stage. This film was applied brush stroke by brush stroke! This film is about visual perception and about how much we take for granted. This film takes a dive into the cracks where small moments live and are brought up to the surface to lay them side by side next to what we perceive as the greater experience failing to realize that every moment is as amazing as the next. This film is not about the actors performance entirely.It's about the camera capturing the space around each character and how every object and every strand of grass etc. co exist with that character. This film in my opinion will manage to sustain itself and survive for thousands of years to come as a true groundbreaking piece of art whether anyone likes it or not.
Posted  by nostalghia87

"more discerning and knowledgable industry experts than Brody have seen fit to recognize him with." Thanks for that. That's kind of hilarious. Brody isn't even one of my favorite critics, but I can say, with full confidence, that his discernment and knowledge of the film form and film history outstrips about 99% of anyone else in the "industry" - especially those people responsible for giving awards. And I love how, as with our friend Reddette, the fact that Brody greatly admires a film that you don't like as much makes any defense "fawning"; the work of a sycophant. Perhaps the blog post is perfunctory - but then again, so are Penn's comments. But no - you didn't like the film as much as Brody, so he's really just another groupie. Your assessment is the honest one, as is Penn's - on the other hand, anyone who loves the film and defends Malick without writing a 4000 word essay is just giving in to blind fanboyism. (If I was going to play your game of ascribing ulterior motives that cloud your judgment and prove your bias I would now say that you're giving into blind contrarianism, that you've revealed yourself, at least in this case, as a confirmed and horribly biased Malick hater, and that you're probably just jealous of the Cannes committee who awarded the film (after all, that Palme d'or speaks for itself and the members of that jury are undoubtedly more discerning and knowledgeable and sophisticated than you.)
Posted by Timec

"The 'art' that has so many critics entranced has nothing to do with a contained subject unless you choose to assign stereotypical 'all of life is connected' assumptions" You're being fairly incoherent here, but if you really think that the only solid theme of the film was "all of life is connected" then you missed the point. Badly. The film very strongly states its themes, and "the art" is very much about its stated, defined subjects. "Just like writing, directing is about making choices, and Malick is incapable of making them." Which does a fine job of explaining how Malick has made three masterpieces, and two other really good films (oops - I just expressed strong admiration for a director. I must be a sycophant.) "Critics, and art house patrons really need to stop defending films just because of director worship." If ever you find yourself making a statement like that, stop yourself and think: "Hey, is there any possibility that, in spite of my ambivalence or dislike of the film, that those other people might have actually, genuinely loved the movie, and that they aren't letting their love of the filmmaker blind them to its flaws? Could it be that one of the wonderful things about art is that different people can have wildly varying responses to it, and that other peoples love for a film could be just as genuine and authentic and based on the actual elements of the film as my dislike for it?" If you answer "yes" to those questions, you'll suddenly realize how stupid your statement looks. If you answer "no," you won't realize how stupid your statement looks but it'll still be really stupid. "If you actually felt that 'Tree of Life' was a complete and satisfying film, then you really should not be involved in any critical medium." If you find yourself making statements that essentially amount to "anyone who strongly disagrees with my assessment of a film shouldn't be involved in criticism" you should first take some classes in humility and then, after that, remove yourself from all human interactions, because you're kind of silly. It's not that "everything's subjective, man!" - it's that a well-justified piece (and there have been some very well-justified pieces giving enormous amounts of praise to the film in question) is well-justified whether or not you agree with its final assessment of a film.
Posted by Timec

Penn is right, the core of the film revolving around the family really is great. However it's surrounded by so much visual that it's easy to get lost. The 'art' that has so many critics entranced has nothing to do with a contained subject unless you choose to assign stereotypical 'all of life is connected' assumptions. Just like writing, directing is about making choices, and Malick is incapable of making them. Critics, and art house patrons really need to stop defending films just because of director worship. If you actually felt that 'Tree of Life' was a complete and satisfying film, then you really should not be involved in any critical medium.
Posted by reddette

choosing to let of steam steam after an evidently tense day by making an incendiary comment ... and then some ... on a missive on a small quote by an actor is certainly a first.
Posted by jlb_

From the outset, the article's brevity enhances the gnawing sensation that this is more suited as a petty blog comment like those that follow it rather than an informed op-ed. Brody takes quotes and misappropriates them: “In the script it is written, and on the screen it’s pictures.” Sure. But that has nothing to do with his argument. Penn's not saying he wished he had more lines. He's saying the pictures on screen didn't work to tell the story as well as it was written. He also contradicts himself: "What Penn conveys in his performance... is his very stardom, his charisma, his emotional intensity." And then, next line: "Malick’s methods don’t let the actor employ much of his accustomed technique, but this doesn’t at all lessen the beauty and the impact of his performance." Brody magnaminously opines, "Malick wasn’t shooting it for the pleasure or the benefit of the actors.." - well of course he wasn't! What director would do that? Penn is speaking as, and indeed for, the common filmgoer when he says it simply doesn't work. Brody's also simply wrong: "Penn... doesn’t get to do the kind of showy and theatrical performance for which Oscars are won. First of all, Penn does exactly that, doing what he does, amazingly in this film: conveys huge emotion and meaning in performance without words. (And Malick is to be commended as much as Penn for that) Secondly, 'showy' does not equal 'Oscar', and the suggestion it does is infantile. So the argument falls flat. And finally, again, Penn's not saying "I didn't get a chance to show off", he's saying "this film's not all it could have been because of bizarre editorial decisions." Pretty sure he doesn't need to prove himself any further beyond the two oscars he's won, three others he's been nominated for, and countless other awards and accolades that more discerning and knowledgable industry experts than Brody have seen fit to recognize him with. Brody's fawning defence of Malick manifests only as breathless sycophancy and reveals him to be at best, in this instance, a groupie.
Posted by PennoYorker

It's not the first time an actor is mad at Malick. When The Thin Red Line was released Adrien Brody was upset because his performance was relegated to a minor character. I guess Malick is not very communicative with his actors.
Posted by ElTuco84

Maybe it was the most 'visual' of films I've even seen. If one puts it in historic context it is a truly great film. The originality is uncommon and to a level that would bore some. I thought Penn's performance--though the film was not about actors--as they usually are--was important. I felt swept away. My friend that viewed it with me--who also knows much about film history--hated it. It almost made him angry. Where with me, I felt like it changed my life. PS--just noticed the comment 'the film could have been better'--I don't think that is what art is about (perhaps entertainment is about that_--art and this film just 'is'.
Posted by LouisZoellarBickett

Penn made "Into the Wild." He "gets" restrained performance. This blogpost is just another example of someone that elevates directors above all else taking out of context potshots at an actor that dares to speak in anything but awe of an eminent director. Zzzzz.
Posted by scoriolanus

"The Tree of Life"

It would be interesting to read the script Penn refers to, and to know whether that was shot, and how much of it changed on the editing table. What makes the final version of “Tree of Life” work is its brilliantly cinematic rendition of family life: in particular the treatment of a father and three sons, much more convincing in its cinematic virtuosity and improvisational energy than any other depiction of that theme in American cinema. When Brad Pitt and his sons are on screen the film is fabulous, Terrence Malick manages to virtually invent a film language for the vortex of feelings at work. An Eisenhower era, brooding, failed musician, father-knows-best, disciplinarian going head to head with three boys – who else has tackled that kind of material? And it’s only when we’re into that drama that the risky evolution sequences, which precede it, target their way into the consciousness and give the family story counterpoint. Compared to both of these – the family story and the science fantasy –Sean Penn’s role as grown-up chronicler seems at times tacked on, a character borrowed from a 60’s, European art house movie. So he’s understandably frustrated with what he sees on screen. Only if we ever get to read the script will we know what other options the director might have had.
Posted by PITKPAR

Penn is so full of himself. Want to see some other people who are full of themselves, check out my website -
Posted by braggingjackass

Penn is intensely overrated since every second on screen is all about him trying to act. Malik is completely boring and not subtle. Brody is the winner though, an invariable moron. Sort of deserve one another and why am I wasting my time?
Posted by lizbeth2

Malick is a holdover whose best film was his least sentimental: Badlands. Now he tries the same style over substance, glum, ponderous nonsense that stands in for emotional depth. Being aware the only game in town for the end of the century was Kubrick, no doubt Malick drives his narratives with an engine that can barely hope to catch a glimpse of Stanley's tail lights. Kael would have had him for lunch and we'd be hooting at every zinger. Get lost Brody, stop towing this junk.
Posted by slim_whitman

Sean Penn is a jerk. He doesn't like being in a film that is bigger than he is.
Posted by dragonvariation

Poor Sean Penn. Malick never clearly explained him what he was doing there because he didn’t want to. Some directors are like that. The less the actors know the better. Like Bresson, an extreme example. He didn’t even want professional actors. Malick doesn’t go that far, but just because he doesn’t need to. He is so manipulative that in the end he gets what he wanted without saying to all the people working with him what that really was. Why do you think he stays months and months inside the editing room? A text on the subject:
Posted by JohnMDM

I unfortunately haven't seen the film yet since it hasn't been released where I currently live. But I get a sense of what Sean Penn is doing in it - and his disappointment - from what Brody has here written and other reviews I've read. I can't help but to agree with this post. Penn is a very self-absorbed actor, with loads of talent of course, but always concerned with his role as being central or the driving force of a film. But in Malick's world, he - as the director - is the main force, and it may be hard for such an actor to deal with it. But he should. Because he's in Malick's film; Malick isn't making a Sean Penn movie. His comments don't do Penn any good. I'm really looking forward to seeing the film, as I admire his work a great deal. But I also have to say that my favorite of his film - Badlands, for example - gave more importance to the actors and less to the dominance of visuals and montage. So, perhaps Penn is in the end right; the film could have been better. But I'm not sure he's the one to say how. - Shoot the Critic,
Posted by Shoot_the_Critic

"All these questions regarding the script completely miss the point. It's like evaluating a piece of carpentry based on the hammer used to drive the nails." Speaking of missing the point, that's a bad analogy. The script would be the equivalent of the blueprint, which is exactly what should be used to evaluate the carpentry. The hammer would be a camera or any other piece of equipment used to make the film.
Posted by thackerj

What a terrible and disappointing film. I agree completely with Penn's comments. The camera work is superb but who needs three hours of whispers and "cool" innuendo. What a waste of talent!
Posted by wmartinf

Fritz Lang: "In the script it is written, and on the screen it’s pictures." Sounds a lot like Fritz Lang: "I'm a terrible translator.
Posted by thackerj

Malick let Penn do his actorly thing in The Thin Red Line in a couple scenes in which his character gruffly lectures Jim Caviezel, and they stick out like sore thumbs by their conventionality. Clearly, Malick learned his lesson.
Posted by nicosian

Brody is irresponsible not to mention that Sean Penn is an acclaimed director as well as an actor. It's a major breach of etiquette, but he's right.
Posted by StarJonestown

Penn is rightfully upset because it is a terrible film. He basically is saying the script was incredible, but the film lacked any of the emotion beautifully outlined in the script. I saw the movie and I can understand Penn's sentiments and comment about lack of context. I recognize the film, as some above mentioned, is meant to be an "Art form type film", but that doesn't mean it needs to be terrible. And I respect those that enjoyed it, but think they are probably trying a bit too hard to appear deep and artistic. I'll never get those 2 hours back, but learned a good lesson about walking out of a movie if it's terrible 30 mins into it.
Posted by cdubman

"The Tree of Life"

I was on the set with Terrence Malik  & Sean, the mood was pleasant,and surrealistic being with them both. No one at that time could quite capsulized the story in a paragraph by some of the cast or crew, when I asked. But what I gathered, it was more of an Art form type film. Even though my part was cut out, I still enjoyed what I saw it as. While sitting down and eating lunch on break, I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Malik about Filmmaking and other topics, along with his wife. His advice to me was to use Nature because it was free and always keep writing. I gave him a Cinematography magazine that I had from along time ago, that had alot of photos from the Film, "A Thin Red Line", that had Sean in it a couple of times. I asked Mr. Malik why in all those Photos there was nothing of him. He merely stated that, I don't like to take Photos, ask my wife, we have problems at family get togethers. As an Actor/Filmmaker I understand meaning & motivation behind a character in the story. But the Film brought me back in some ways to my childhood when I had to dress up in a sport coat back in the 60's just to watch my first longest film ever, and that was Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey. I Liked the Film, and with all the footage he still has maybe later he will release an added version. . Sean you did good, Yes, Brad had more Scenes but I still consider you one of the Best. Well, with all that said, I watched this Film in Jeans and a T-shirt...Francois Larosa-LinkedIn
Posted by Francois1

I loved the film and the performances. MSICSM's comment about the script being a component and not the finished work really hits home with me. I often have that experience with seeing a play which I've read - I may have quite a different reaction seeing it than reading it. It's the nature of these mediums - they are meant to be seen fully performed. I'm sorry Penn is dissatisfied and I don't disrespect his experience, but I adored him in this role - the story only became whole through watching him and the other actors. Fabulous performances with little being said in words - I find that to be more difficult and deeply satisfying when it's done well. This cast was exquisite. Because of them I was willing to go with Mallick's flow and I continue to think about the experience.
Posted by deborahkate

Well, anyway it seems like a good way of tricking actors (assuming Malick did not do this on purpose) if you're making a movie about dinosaurs. And if you only make them every ten years, an agent/actor being mad at you can't hurt that much.
Posted by misterfrank

I think actors are amazingly well depicted in this post, but that's not an argument to diminish the fact that The Tree of Life it's not as good as everybody wants it to be. I like this piece in the LRB
Posted by Pebbleculture

At the Movies
Michael Wood

There is a mystery about Terrence Malick’s new movie, but it has nothing to do with life, death and the wonders wrought by the maker of the universe, which are the film’s modest ostensible subjects. The mystery about The Tree of Life is how a work that is truly terrible in so many respects can remain so weirdly interesting. Interesting only to some, certainly; and maybe not interesting enough even then. There are bloggers counting the number of people walking out from showings all over the place. American critics have been curiously kind to the film, as if they were afraid of missing the point or grandeur of the cinema’s equivalent of Moby-Dick. They needn’t worry. Still, a mystery is a mystery.

Let’s get the terrible stuff out of the way first. Characters in the movie keep wondering where God is and why he isn’t doing more to help them. God’s answers may not reach the questioners but we definitely get them, transmitted through an epigraph from the Book of Job (‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’), a sequence of graphics (lots of lava, oceans, shots of the edges of the earth taken from outer space) that makes you admire the superior creativity of almost any screensaver, and a prehistoric inset revealing to us that this God is a Darwinist. The fittest surviving creature we see is a sort of oversized scaly ostrich, which steps on the head of a fallen lesser animal and trots off into the woods looking very pleased with the experience. The effect is that of 2001 not quite meeting Jurassic Park.

There’s some modern material that’s pretty bad too. The date seems to be the present, there are glassy skyscrapers everywhere, and Sean Penn seems to be a mid-career architect. We can’t be sure of this because he doesn’t do anything, just sits in meetings thinking about his murderous Oedipal days as a boy, and occasionally wandering through mental landscapes represented by deserts and small rooms, suggesting that neither his nor Malick’s imagination runs to anything very exciting by way of inner scenery.

God’s answer to his questioners, or what it would be if they could see the movie, seems to be: don’t bother me, can’t you see I’m still recovering from creating the world? And who are you anyway? Equipped with this generous response we may become – I became – less irritated by the large-scale drivel and more sympathetic to the tiny central characters of the film’s story, stuck with such a God and effectively abandoned by their creator and their director alike.

Well, Malick hasn’t abandoned them, he’s just isolated them from his own metaphysical insights, and this could be seen as a form of care or respect. The bulk of the movie – one critic has calculated the quantity at 90 minutes out of 138 – is set in small-town Texas in the 1950s, when the Sean Penn character was a boy, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken with a worried, stoic stubbornness that is really engaging. All the acting is persuasive, understated, in tune with what we might think of as the quiet strangeness of ordinary life once you stop to look at it. We are watching not so much a piece of American naturalism as the film equivalent of a hyper-realist painting. It seems merely real and highly stylised in equal degrees.

"The Tree of Life"

Brad Pitt is the father, terse, solemn, anxious to follow the precepts of the Darwinian proto-ostrich, and to make men – that is, bullies – out of his three sons. It’s to the character’s credit that he’s not very good at this, or at being the ruthless man of commerce he likes to think he is. We learn that he believes he has missed a career as a musician, but this is the one false note within this dry and rather moving non-idyll. It’s not that Brad Pitt can’t do the soulful fellow playing Bach on the church organ: he’s become good enough to do most things. It’s that the soulful fellow seems wheeled in to get a spiritual effect without too much work on the script. Jessica Chastain as the mother drifts prettily around the house as if she were waiting to be called for some as yet unknown saintly activity – at one point she does levitate a little, to make sure we get the mood, or perhaps just to show how Jack feels about her in memory. All three boys are wary and sceptical throughout, but none of them seems deeply unhappy, even in their bad moments. They have small smiles that suggest they know childhood will soon be over, and a good thing too. There is a fine, hands-off scene in which Jack watches his father lying under the car fixing something. The car is propped up at an angle. This is at a moment when Jack really hates his father and has said so to him. All he has to do now – we read his mind without needing any kind of cue – is to kick the prop away and the deed will be done, the father crushed. Jack doesn’t think about it for very long, just turns away. Oedipus should have been so lucky, or so patient.

The big events later in the movie are the father losing his temper and, in a more restrained mode, his job; Jack and his two brothers racing around, teasing each other; Jack stealing into the empty house of a girl he likes, and making off with her slip, which he throws into the river; Jack almost wounding one of his brothers with an air rifle. The street where the family lives has almost no traffic, the road is like an extension of the garden; the neighbour’s property begins at some invisible point on the broad lawn between houses. No fences make no neighbours. This is America in its disconnected, depopulated solitude. There is a grandmother, played by Fiona Shaw, but I didn’t know she was a grandmother till I read the credits.

And the big event early in the movie is the death of Jack’s brother, the middle child, at the age of 19. No one seems likely to get over this, least of all the mother, who travels through her grief as if it were just blank, unmeasurable time, and as if all the religious consolations that echo through the movie were ponderously, cruelly fraudulent, offering wisdom and solace as long as you don’t really need either, and entirely vacuous as soon as the crash comes and you reach for help. After the epigraph from Job, we hear the mother’s voice citing a lucid and at first compelling instruction: ‘The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace … Nature only wants to please itself … It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it … Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.’ This sounds uplifting when you hear it, and when the boy is not yet dead. On anything like a second thought, or under any sort of pressure, we see that a doctrine that so denies and demonises nature is headed for trouble, and can’t succour anyone in real need.

There is a grandeur about the sheer helplessness and loneliness of the family, as if their own ordinariness were baffling to them. But the film only half-believes in this form of grandeur, even if it’s the one thing it’s good at, and it finally decides both to take pity on the family and to show God in a better light. In someone’s sentimental imagination, the grown-up Jack’s or the kindly Malick’s, the whole story turns out well – that is, goes soggy. The family, including the dead boy, meets up on some beach of the other world, a sort of De Chirico setting for the afterlife, and wanders along the sand with the zonked-out look that seems to be obligatory for the dead in high-toned situations. The message presumably is that they are all at peace now, that grace has redeemed them from nature. What the images unmistakably say is that they are more lost than ever, along with the movie. At a stretch, we might say we are seeing how desperately this consolation is needed, how poor the chances are of such a reunion in the world the film has shown us, and how little conventional ideas and images are going to do for these suffering people. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the film is trying wrongheadedly to take away from them what matters most: their dogged dignity, their helplessness and their sorrow.

All these questions regarding the script completely miss the point. It's like evaluating a piece of carpentry based on the hammer used to drive the nails. Scripts are not artworks in themselves. They are components toward the finished artwork - the film. If Penn is unhappy with Tree of Life, so be it. But anyone's feelings about the script are immaterial. And whinging about how it would have been a better, more emotionally involving movie had it been more linear or "traditionally" narrative is just silly. You're asking it to be a different film. "Wow, you know, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' would've been so much more engaging had it been cast with real live actors! Or maybe with taxidermy!"
Posted by msicism

Nor did I get that feeling. I think he felt like many of us felt. Instead of assuming that Sean Penn wants an Oscar, give him credit for thoughfulness. I got the feeling with TOL that it was all about Malick, and I was looking forward to seeing it.
Posted by judeferg

I didn't get the sense at all that Penn, who has directed films himself, was disappointed that Tree of Life was not "all about him." His complaint sounds pretty reasonable — the emotion conveyed by the script, what Penn found most compellling, was lost in the final film Malick shot. If you want to disagree with Penn, I should think you'd have to read the original script.
Posted by joeholmes

"The Tree of Life"

The most helpful favorable review
The most helpful critical review

222 of 237 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The only way to be happy is to love
What a film means to you kind of depends on where you are in life. I think if saw this film 20 years ago, I probably would have hated it. Now, I'm faced with big decisions - whether to start a family, and all the concerns that come with it. This movie raises issues I'd rather not think about. I almost wish I hadn't seen it. If you're looking for escapist Hollywood...
Published 6 months ago by maxquasimodo

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89 of 120 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Art for Art's sake?
Look, this film should absolutely polarise people and in an era of soon forgotten blockbusters and endless sequels, surely that is not a bad thing. As someone who watches movies that could be classified as indie/arthouse and enjoyed Malick's The Thin Red Line, I went into this film with an open mind, looking for and expecting something different and it certainly delivered...
Published 3 months ago by cookstar

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