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Adam Klaser- Project 4 and 5

Page history last edited by Adam Klaser 8 years, 7 months ago

The Evaluation:

 

A True Breakthrough in Cinema

 

          Where does one think that this quote came from: "The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow" (The Tree of Life). If one were to guess that a famous philosopher said this, they would be wrong. Instead this quote comes from the beginning part of the film, The Tree of Life, and pretty much sums up the movie as a whole. The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a metaphysical film that tries to answer some the most philosophical and dumbfounding questions known to the human race. Many critics, such as Roger Moore and Kenneth Turan, argue that it is a pretentious film that misses on every level; however, I believe that the film is not only one the most important films to date but also a breakthrough in popular cinema. The film, The Tree of Life, is a breakthrough in the world of popular cinema because of the use of cinematography, the connection between the multiple layers of meaning, and its ability to connect with the audience on a personal level.

 

            Before delving into why The Tree of Life is such breakthrough popular cinema a better understanding of why this essay is being written is in much need. The motivation for writing this essay on this topic is because, nowadays, people only seem to appreciate action-packed movies that have a weak plot and absolutely no character development and disregard groundbreaking films, like The Tree of Life, as pretentious and over-the-top.  What these people do not understand is that these action-packed movies are diluting their minds to point that they believe that stupidity and simplicity are the best ways through life. This is the main problem with today’s cinema. Now, the purpose of this essay is to give the audience (movie critics and everyday cinephiles) a better understanding of why The Tree of Life is such a breakthrough in popular cinema. It will be shown that The Tree of Life is a breakthrough in popular cinema simply because of its use of cinematography, the connection between multiple layers of meaning, and its ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. The consequence that comes along with being such a breakthrough is that there will always be critics that cannot accept the fact that a controversial film, like The Tree of life, has the possibility of changing the current view on cinema. The causes of these consequences is that a film, such as The Tree of Life, overcomes so many monumental feats in cinema that it is looked upon as being a pretentious film that cannot be understood with the current understanding of popular cinema held by critics.

 

            In order to provide for a better understanding for evaluation of The Tree of Life, background on different aspects of cinema will be exceptionally helpful. First off, when talking about a film one of the most important aspects that are looked at is the cinematography. Now, cinematography, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the art or science of motion-picture photography” (Merriam). Next to the actual screenplay, cinematography is considered one of the most important elements in producing a film, as Cinematographer Michael Benson stated, “if not for the cinematographers' talent and knowledge, there would be no way to make a writer's words into pictures for everyone to see" (FilmMakers.com 1). Secondly, when evaluating a film, it is important to understand the genre that it falls under because different genres have different types of requirements when evaluating them. Instead of talking about all of the genres, the one that will be discussed is drama, as The Tree of Life is mostly considered a drama. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines drama broadly as, “a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces” (Drama). The Tree of Life is considered a drama because it centers on the tension and emotion of O’Brien family. The most important factors when evaluating a drama, is the character development, the plot/storyline, and the cinematography. These two aspects of cinema will provide a clearer understanding of the evaluation of The Tree of Life. 

 

          To begin with, the use of great cinematography is what makes The Tree of Life a monumental breakthrough in popular cinema. While critics may say that The Tree of Life lacks a strong narrative, almost all of them will agree with that it is one the most visual-stunning films ever.  One critic, Ian Nathan, Empire, said, “Malick conducts his five editors the way great composers conjure art from thin air, creating an unforgettable symphony of beauty, introspection, and wells of unabashed feeling” (Nathan). Now, what will be argued is not that The Tree of Life made a breakthrough in cinematography on a technical level, but rather that it is a breakthrough in cinematography and popular cinema because of the way it used cinematography to express an idea or meaning. AsEmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer for The Tree of Life, said, "We're using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential...” (Zeitchik). Throughout much of the film, scenes are generally shot with zero or almost no dialogue, but are still able to get the meaning across because of the cinematography used. Most critics will say that this unorthodox because it is hard to express an idea on film without dialogue; however, though, The Tree of Life is still able to do so because of effective camera movement and lighting. For example, when Mrs. O’brien receives a letter telling of her son’s death, the camera moves in a spirally and violent direction. This acts as indicator that something has gone terribly wrong which further reinforces the superb acting done by Jessica Chastain. Even though there is no dialogue in this scene, one can still feel the emotion that is taking place not only because of the acting but also because of the camera movements that coincide with Mrs. O’Brien’s movements.  Due to the amazing camera angles and movement, The Tree of Life is able to create a new standard of how to create meaning and emotion on the screen without dialogue.

 

          Another way that it is a breakthrough in the use of cinematography is through lighting. Much of the film was done in natural lighting as stated by cinematographer, Emanuel Lubekzi. The use of natural lighting is very effective in capturing meaning in a film because there is more of a sense of realism when compared to using artificial light. As Emanuel Lubezki put it, 

 

“When you put someone in front of a window, you’re getting the reflection from the blue sky and the clouds and the sun bouncing on the grass and in the room. You’re getting all these colors and a different quality of light. It’s very hard to go back to artificial light in the same movie.  It’s like you’re setting a tone, and artificial light feels weird and awkward [after that]” (Benjamin).

 

Now, one may ask, how is The Tree of Life a breakthrough in popular cinema when it comes to cinematography, specifically lighting? Well, the way in which it is a breakthrough is in this way. By shooting the whole movie in natural lighting, The Tree of Life is not only able to create a sense of realism but is also able to make a connection with the audience because that sense of realism. This simple connection between the realism of the film, due to the cinematography, and the audience is what makes it a breakthrough in popular cinema.

 

          In addition to the use of cinematography, The Tree of Life, due to the connection it makes between the multiple layers of meaning, has become a breakthrough in popular cinema. In order to be considered a breakthrough in popular cinema a film must do something no other film has attempted, which The Tree of Life does with connecting its multiple layers of meaning in order to tell a story. There are many ways to interpret The Tree of Life, whether it is from Sean Penn, as Jack, reconciling with his father, to simply Malick’s impression of what childhood is, to an even more philosophical meaning, with, there being two ways through life- the way of nature and the way of grace. There are numerous other meanings for The Tree of Life, but these are some of the most important when talking about how the film connects all of its meanings to create its main storyline. The most obvious meaning for the film is Sean Penn trying to reconcile with not only his father but also with himself over his brother’s death. Now, by itself, this meaning would make The Tree of Life like most other movies, but there is a second meaning for the film, which is that it is simply Malick’s impression of childhood, that makes it a breakthrough in cinema. It cannot be stressed enough that it is not merely the addition of this second meaning to the film that makes it a breakthrough, but rather it is the connection between the two meanings that makes it a breakthrough. The way these two meanings are connected is quite simple. By using Sean Penn reconciling with his father as the main storyline, The Tree of Life is able take the latter meaning (Malick’s impression of childhood), and use it to show why Sean Penn, as an adult Jack, is trying to reconcile with his father. In addition to the connection between the first two meanings, The Tree of Life, through the third meaning, which is that there are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace, is able to make a triangle of connections where each meaning connects with one another.  Now, the third meaning connects with the other two in order to create the main storyline in a simple but complex way. Before discussing the connection it is important to understand that in The Tree of Life, Mr. O’Brien is perceived as being nature and that Mrs. O’Brien is grace. It also important to know that “nature” according to The Tree of Life, is something that “…only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it…” (The Tree of Life). As stated before, by using the first meaning as the main storyline, and using the Malick’s impression of childhood to show why the first one is happening, The Tree of Life is also able to use the third meaning (there are two ways through life) to show why Mr. O’Brien acted the way he did towards his son, Jack. Due to the addition of the third meaning, the audience is fully able to understand why the main storyline of why Sean Penn, as an adult Jack, is trying to reconcile with his father. The connections made between these three meanings not only give The Tree of Life its depth, but also reason as to why it is a breakthrough in popular cinema. By being the first film to attempt such a monumental task with connecting multiple meanings, it is has become the precedent in which future films will attempt to follow, therefore making it one of the most important films to date. As Claudia Puig of USA Today said, “It is the most ambitious, visually arresting and emotionally resonant film from writer-director Terrence Malick” (Puig 1).

 

          Lastly, The Tree of Life is a breakthrough in popular cinema because of its ability to connect with the audience on a personal and meaningful level. Nowadays, most movies are more about action and less about making a meaningful connection with each individual viewer.  They use explosions, CGI, slow motion, and more explosions, in order to awe the audience as a whole and keep their attention. The Tree of Life, on the other hand, is not concerned with aweing the audience as a whole with those aforementioned techniques, but instead is concerned with making a personal and meaningful connection with each individual viewer. The ability to make a personal connection with each viewer is what makes The Tree of Life such a breakthrough in popular cinema because while it is talking to the audience as whole, it is also talking to each individual personally. As Roger Ebert put it, “I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience… the central events of The Tree of Life reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me”(Ebert). This simple technique, as one would call it, is what separates it from almost all other films. The way The Tree of Life makes this connection is by simply using the childhood memories of the eldest son, Jack. Now, it’s not the memories themselves that make the personal connection, but, instead, it is how the memories are shown that connect the film with each individual. Numerous movies today use memories in order to tell a story, but what separates The Tree of Life, and makes it a breakthrough in cinema, is that it presents the memories as Jack would remember them and what was most important to him as a child. Now, these memories are a key in order for the film to get its point across because without them The Tree of Life would not be able to make the personal connection with each individual that makes it such a breakthrough.  In the end, by using the memories of the central character as he would remember them, The Tree of Life is able make each individual viewer remember his or her own childhood memories. Therefore, it makes a connection with each viewer on level never done before by any other film, which gives reason as to why it is a breakthrough in popular cinema.

 

          In refutation, one would argue that The Tree of Life is not a breakthrough in popular cinema because of the fact that it lacks a structured plot. As movie critic, Rex Reed put it, Is there a plot? Well, no. I mean, maybe. That is, sort of” (Reed). One of the most important factors when evaluating a film is the plot/storyline and, well, according to some critics, The Tree of Life does not have structured plot. Due to the lack of a parallel storyline many of these critics have thought of The Tree of Life as more of a collection of random scenes than a film, which is the reason why many would not think of it as a breakthrough in cinema. However, where does it say in the definition of the word film that it has to have a structured plot? 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, is considered on the most groundbreaking films in cinema and it does not have a structured storyline. Many critics even compare The Tree of Life to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but somehow they still do not consider it to be a breakthrough in cinema even though they are comparing it to one of the most groundbreaking films ever. How can one be a breakthrough but the other one not? That just doesn’t make sense. Another flaw in the counter-argument is that The Tree of Life does in fact have a plot, even though in may be considered unorthodox. Even though it does not have a precise beginning, middle, and ending it is still following a storyline, just in a different way. The plot is simple, Sean Penn (as an adult Jack) is trying to reconcile with his father, Mr. O’Brien. Now the way Malick tells this story is unorthodox, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a storyline. He uses the memories of Sean Penn to show why he is reconciling with his father. So, after all of the criticism about not having a plot it is clear that not all films have to have a structured plot in order tell a story. The Tree of Life just like 2001: A Space Odyssey does it a little different which makes it a breakthrough in cinema because it is attempting something radical and succeeds in doing so.

 

            All in all, when evaluating the film, The Tree of Life, it is clear that it is a breakthrough in popular cinema because of its use of cinematography, the connection made between layers of different meaning, and its ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. By using cinematography to express ideas and meanings without dialogue, The Tree of Life, in my own opinion, will be looked upon in the future as one of the most important films ever produced. In order for more films like this one to be widely accepted, critics and cinephiles alike will have to change the way they view cinema because with the film industry one will never know when another breakthrough film will come along. More importantly, however, is that film criticism in general needs to be changed in order for films in the ever-changing world of cinema to get fair reviews. As Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that”.

 

The Proposal:

 

A New Way for Film Criticism

 

 

          What do Roger Ebert, Peter Traverse, and A.O. Scott all have in common? Well, if one has ever heard of them then they would know that they are all film critics. However, that is not the only thing that is common among them. The other similarity is that they all review films based on the evaluation of the content. Nowadays, film criticism has become primarily descriptive, anecdotal and subjectively evaluative, which has become a problem.Due to the simplicity of using the content of a film in order to do reviews, many films today receive rather low ratings such as The Tree of Life for its lack of a structured narrative. Films should not have to rely on a structured storyline in order be consider a great movie because some do not and those films rely on other things that are usually not part of an evaluation such as style, ability to make a personal connection, and originality. Without a more elaborate system of not only evaluating but also analyzing films, I am afraid that great movies like The Tree of Life will continue to suffer, which is why something needs to be done. Film criticism should be changed from an evaluation approach just based on the content of a film to a more analytical approach based on the style, the personal connection made with an audience, and originality.

 

          To begin with, a background section about the two different types of film criticism is needed in order to understand who this essay is targeting. There are two different types of film criticism, academic criticism and journalistic criticism. The first is what one sees in university presses and in academic journals. This essay is not concerned with that group but is rather focused on the latter of the two. The second group is what is usually in newspapers, such as The New York Times or Chicago-Sun Times, or online publications such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Now, even though I am not an actual film critic, I find myself to be a major cinephile that has a decent amount of knowledge about film in order to do a proposal. The reason for this proposal is that in today’s day and age film critics, when doing an evaluation, focus primarily on only summarizing the plot and giving a description of the film. This is a problem because films that would be considered great according to the proposed criteria do not receive fair reviews with the current system, which in turn leads to less breakthrough films and more generic films because of the concern of receiving low reviews.

 

          First off, film criticism should be changed from an evaluation to a more analytical approach based on the style of a film. When referring to the style of a film, it simply means the techniques used by directors in order to give meaning to their work. One of the most important aspects of style is the mis-en-scène or simply “the physical setting of an action” (“Mis-en-scène”). This is widely used when a director wants to give meaning to characters without using spoken dialogue. Mis-en-scène should be a main factor when criticizing film because without it films would have no self-identity and would appear to have all the same emotional tone and visual style. Take the film, King’s Speech for example, without having the setting of the 1930s and having the actors portray what people would be like during that time period the film would not have its particular style and therefore would not be able to get its impression across. Fortunately it does all of this, but that’s beside the point. The point is that mis-en-scène or more broadly style should be used for criticism because without it every film would be shown the same way and there and there would be no variation in how characters or a situation develop a meaning.  The reason that style should be one of the criteria for which critics do reviews is because there are multiple ways to a create film based on the same script through simply changing the mis-en-scène.  By taking into account the style of a film, critics would be able to make a better evaluation because they would be able to focus on how a film gets a meaning or expression across instead of just what is going on or why something happened.

 

          In addition to style, the personal connection that a film makes with an audience should one of the criteria for film criticism. Most films today do not make a personal connection with the each viewer, but are instead interested in aweing the audience with unrealistic characters or situations. By doing only an evaluation based only on what happened in the film, critics miss out on how the audience connected with the characters and plot and what they took away from it. In order for a more complete evaluation, the criticism should include how the film connected with the audience on a personal level because this would show how believable the characters or storyline of the film were. By connecting with each individual viewer on a personal level, a film is able to create a storyline that is actual believable and one that every viewer can relate to in some way. Take American Beauty, for example, which according to imdb.com is considered one of the top 50 greatest films (American Beauty). What makes this film so great is not simply the superb acting done by Kevin Spacey or the well-developed storyline, but instead it is the ordinary lives of ordinary people that make a personal connection with the audience that makes it a great film. As one can see, the ability to make a personal connection with the audience can make or break a film, which why it should be included as an important criteria for analyzing and evaluating a film.

     

           Lastly, the originality of a film should be one of the criteria when film critics are doing an evaluation. Nowadays, many films are simply remakes of older films or are based on a supposedly true event or so. Also, many films are based off critically acclaimed novels which give them an advantage when it comes to film critics evaluating them because they are retelling a successful story through a different medium. For example, in 2009, numerous films were released that were based on successful novels or short stories such as Slumdog Millionaire and Benjamin Buttons. Now while these films were highly regarded, there is nothing new being presented because they are just based off novels, which is not originality. This is one of the main problems with cinema today. This is why the originality of a film should be included film critics do an analysis of a film. By analyzing a film based on originality, in addition to the other two criteria, film critics would be able to give films that are innovative and creative a better review. In doing so, this would then promote studios to produce more original films because of not having to worry about receiving negative reviews for just doing something different. This would also bring cinema out of its current state of producing mainly sequels and remakes into a more innovative and groundbreaking stage of filmmaking.

 

          One counter-argument against this proposal would be that the proposed criteria are not as important compared to the plot when evaluating films. For style, it would be argued that every film has a different feel to it simply because the storyline is different from movie to movie which is what provides for variation among films. The problem with this argument is that the plots among films in the same genre are essentially the same and that the style or mis-en-scène does actually provide films with an identity because of the way it is filmed or the setting. As for making a personal connection with the audience, the counter-argument would be that some films need an unrealistic situation or character for their plot to work out correctly and that making a personal connection is not always possible depending on the plot. While this may be true in certain circumstances, making a personal connection with the audience should still be still included as a criterion because in the end it is all about the how the audience feels about a film and by including this it would provide for a more complete evaluation. Lastly it would be argued that the originality of a film is not important when evaluating a film because it has no effect on plot is told or how the audience feels about it and therefore should not be part of the evaluation. The problem with this argument is that the originality of a film does in fact affect how the audience feels about it because a film that is original will keep an audiences’ attention and make them want to know what is going to happen. The overall problem with this argument is that the proposed criteria would not be for simply doing an evaluation of films but more for doing an actual analysis, which would lead to a better understanding of each film when compared to the current system which is simply a summary of the plot.

 

          All in all, film criticism nowadays is merely about what happens in film, which in itself is important, but it does not evaluate a film to every extent. This is why film criticism should be changed to more of an analysis base on the style, the personal connection made with an audience and originality. By doing an analysis based on these three criteria film critics will be able evaluate film more fairly and those film that deserve credit for doing something that should be considered a breakthrough, like The Tree of Life, will get credit.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

project 4 and 5 works cited.docx

 

 

 

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