On Masterpieces and The Tree of Life

I think it’s pointless to try to label this a “masterpiece” in any way. Not because it isn’t skillfully made, but because the film indicates a filmmaker who is groping so passionately with matters far beyond his grasp, with such a sense of reckless pursuit, that any attempt to bring the sort of control and perspective needed to create a “masterpiece” – the greatest work of a craftsman – is useless. Masterpieces keep a grip on their subjects; some looser than others but none ever losing complete control. Masterpieces enthrall while reminding us of their maker’s skill. The Tree of Life has moments that approach that, but I find this film’s formal humility places it on its knees more than any other work by Malick, and in a way that Kubrick would never deign to suffer. For all of the charges of overambitious efforts and grandiose pretentiousness and maybe/maybe-not autobiographical details, The Tree of Life is not *about* it’s maker. It’s about ours.

That might be stating the obvious for a film that opens with a quote from Job. What I’m trying to get at is this: masterpieces may bubble up unplanned from blissfully unaware talents, or they may be ultra-controlled and premeditated, or most likely, an unqualified marriage of the two; either way they always draw our attention back to the maker in some way. Tree of Life is too messy, too lumpy, too unrestrained in the right places to really do that in a way that ratchets up my opinion of Malick as someone with a handle on what he’s doing with complex themes. He clearly doesn’t; not like the sublime balance he achieves in The New World, nor even the comparatively shallow “mastery” of The Thin Red Line. This is different. This is a man being mastered by what he doesn’t know. This is a master learning that he is still a babe. The Tree of Life is a blessed mess. Sort of like us.

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