Just because something seems obvious, does not make it so, and the straight lines we often associate with time seem to stretch indeterminately depending on individual perspective and the wondering, orthogonal sonder* of others. Yet, vectors do not maketh man; actions do.
Artists, especially ones who seem to operate solely on no trajectory at all defy the hardwired conservatism that demands humans play it safe for the betterment of the species. They often buck the trend of playing it safe to test the boundaries of human experience. Art, then, works as a shared experience because sharing the otherness of experiences is essentially risk-free. They, the reader, don’t experience successes and failures as the artist and because something must be experienced solo, can’t experience the swooping success of completion. When we finish watching a movie, there is no revel in the midst of chaos, but a satisfaction of task exodus. And we move onto the next one immediately, but alone and sometimes together.
The human which defies convention pays the price for organizing chaos. How, then, do we reward the risk?
Terrence Malick leapt through a series of increasingly smaller-in-diameter rings to make The Tree of Life in 2011. The high concept is that the path of Man mirrors the creation of the Universe, stars, planets, and life itself; that birth is no different from the Big Bang; and that evolution of species and puberty are the same but just shrunk to a scale humans can understand. The Tree of Life is a delicate drama that only works a narrative because it is forced to. It would and should otherwise collapse into a narrative black hole of perpetual self-reference. But it is a grand statement of picayune interests; Jack is a child of two opposing forces that rigidly rule his life and even though the world, and the Universe is moving around him at two different speeds, he is just supposed to exist. If Adam and Eve are symbols of the Highest Order: for creation, for the infinite chasm between zero and one, for God and godliness, then Mister and Missus O’Brien are cut from the shattered cloth of Eden. Of authoritative and authoritarian, children of the Universe, but never so much bothered by it. Jack is the distillation of all humanity up until the time that he’s born. And the bottle explodes, because chaos is the only natural order.
So we reward Terrence Malick by watching his movie and thinking about the God in good.
The Tree of Life is nothing if not impressionistic and impressionable. It is about the creation – but not the destruction – of all things. It is about the natural and yet we are asked to watching it on a machine of programmable divinity via multiple machines of malleable intent. The only way we know this intent is through Malick’s cumbersome narrative, told as the sum of the parts of a story, without the whole of it. Is it possible to share intent with a man of machination?
So how do we reward the creation of the Universe and the contentiousness of man?
First, we ask questions. The logical, risk-averse human wishes to know answers to claim a deeper understanding of the reasons things are the way they are. Then, we solicit responses. Those with a platform and some experience speak up, using speech for a proxy of human experience. Next, we move on to the next topic of discussion. So we reward the risks with an arrogance deserving of and practiced by all men and women. Even claiming to know nothing is to assume that there is nothing to know.
We reward Terrence Malick with twelve dollars and two hours of our time and heated polemics attacking the reason for this film or the reasoning of people attacking it. And the world spins.
People, except the Academy, loved The Tree of Life. Some organizations have gone on to list it as one of the best films ever made, or at least of the decade. Nominated for three Oscars, The Tree of Life won none of them and will forever be categorized as at least second best to The Artist for 2011. Pastiche is one of the worst qualities, second to inauthenicity, and The Artist brings it in droves, mistaking anemoia^ for memory and tricking its audience into a false sense of Proustian narrative. If the goal of The Academy Nominees Project is to discuss which movie best represents its era, then either Midnight in Paris, which does a simpler job searching for nostalgia of things past, or Hugo, which asks us to search for nostalgia of things child, trends truer to 2011, which couldn’t believe that 9/11 was a decade ago.
*Sonder is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
^ Amenoia is a nostalgia for a time one has never known. Again from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins—and live in a completely different world.