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Noisemaker: How You Can Be a Better Director than Terrence Malick

Watching movies can be a creative act.

tree of life website

“The digital age means freedom for film viewers, so let’s take advantage of the situation… We should be able to retell and reinterpret any film we like, however we like. And we can start with that most subversive of acts: playing them backwards.” Jonathan Carter, 2008

An essay of mine titled “Cinema Jr.” was written and posted within a few days of the piece cited above. Though it’s no longer online, I can still see my aggressive aphorisms flexing in the mirror: “The delinquent viewer wonders if haphazard violations and recontextualizations of a given film might not yield a better, fuller experience than the author intended.” I argued that inadvertently playing six sides of a Raging Bull laserdisc in the wrong order had “improved” the film and that Netflix streaming Heat and Sunlight with Rob Nilsson’s un-de-selectable commentary track also “improved” a maiden viewing. These were instances of Cinema Jr—not a nefarious thing by any means. “Irreverence requires a backdrop of reverence in order to achieve its effects,” I wrote. “Cinema Jr. is not privy to that dialectic.” The aura of sanctity around a work of art is punctured but not in a malicious or even systematic way.

Last week a tech-flavored article drew the attention of cinephiles with its unique defense of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (grapsing at straws to defend and explain Malick’s latest is becoming quite a hobby for some):

“Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated Tree of Life has a website that makes a bold step in the ‘smaller’ direction, presenting Malick’s enigmatic visuals in a nonlinear collage that takes the impressionistic experience of seeing the film and translates it to the browser.”

Okay, so I lied a little. This isn’t a defense of Malick’s film. It’s a rallying cry for user-inflicted violations and recontextualizations of Malick’s imagery—or cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s imagery (one can of worms usually contains another). Regardless, Fox Searchlight is giving you the opportunity to be a better director than Terrence Malick.

But let’s not limit this practice to a website that exists for marketing purposes. It was just revealed that a projectionist in Italy screened some reels of Tree of Life out of order for at least the first week of the film’s engagement at his cinema. “Scenes were not exactly in the sequence designed by Malick and his editors,” noted an Italian news site. How is this different in effect from the web-based toy that Fox Searchlight wants you to play with?

“Cinema Jr. delights in user error and means no effrontery. I’m not talking about mashup, I’m talking about fuckup. I’m talking about…Oops.”

During last month’s San Francisco International Film Festival I made it a priority to see the Tindersticks perform live in conjunction with “the images” of Claire Denis films they’d scored. The thought of purging the original sound mix from selected portions of feature films and throwing them onscreen without the scaffolding of their maker’s intentions prompted some of my favorite theoretical questions. Specifically, I wanted to see how violations and re-contextualizations might “improve” the work of a filmmaker for whom I had no strong affection. As Denis’ films are noted for their elliptical, even inchoate form, could the often profound effect of her images (or cinematographer Agnes Godard’s images, if you prefer) be inhibited or impaired by the total dismemberment of feature-length works into which they’d been integrated? The obfuscation-as-sophistication formula Denis contrived for L’Intrus had prevented me from ever finishing the film, so I hoped to discover isolated images conveying something like raw power without the alienating mediation of Denis herself.

In the end, whoever made the decisions about what to put on screen at the Castro that night (was it SFIFF programmer Sean Uyehara ? The Tindersticks?) is a better filmmaker than Claire Denis—or, rather, whoever selected those images has a clearer sense of the filmmaker’s intentions than the filmmaker herself does. This may sound delusional but Denis freely admits she re-edited L’Intrus when the original, presumably less headache-inducing version drew criticism from friends and colleagues, and the final cut of the film does in fact exude a profound cowardice. The SFIFF event passed her epic lyricism through a sieve, removing nearly all of what a feature film requires to function, damning it as so much detritus, leaving elegant and bewitching gibberish. Start to finish, I was mesmerized.

Fox Searchlight’s Tree of Life website puts you in the role of the SFIFF programmers who made a better film than Claire Denis did. So go there and make a better film than Malick did.

Alejandro Adams is the director of three feature films (Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik). He is currently de(con)structing the TV talk show format as creator/producer of Sara Vizcarrondo’s Look of the Week.

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