What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

April 15, 2013 Issue

Is Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life a great movie? David Denby thinks so. In his “Terrance Malick’s Insufferable Masterpiece” (included in his 2012 collection Do the Movies Have a Future?), he says,

Interminable, madly repetitive, vague, grandiose; an art-history Summa Theologica crossed with a summer camp documentary on the wonders of the universe; sexless yet sexist, embracing of everything in the world but humour (and is wit not as essential to our existence as air?) – Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is insufferable. It is also, astoundingly, one of the great lyric achievements of the screen in recent years and a considerable enlargement of the rhetoric of cinema – a change in technique which is also a change in consciousness. An insufferable masterpiece, then; a film to be endured in a state of enraged awe.

“Great” and “insufferable” strike me as contradictory. I agree with the “insufferable” part. This week, in the magazine, in a review of Malick’s latest vacuity, To the Wonder, Denby repeats his ambivalent verdict regarding The Tree of Life. He says, “The movie could be unbearable at times, but the center held. It’s a great film.” But he goes on to pan To the Wonder in terms that are, it seems to me, applicable to The Tree of Life. For example, he says, “A Malick sequence has now become a collection of semi-disconnected shots, individually ravishing but bound together by what feels like the trivial narcissism of Carribbean-travel ads on TV.” This perfectly expresses my opinion of The Tree of Life, except I would change “has now become” to “is.” Similarly, Denby’s “And someone might tell Malick that beauty isn’t enough” gets at the core of what is “insufferable” about Malick’s movies: their unrelenting, dreamy-soft pictorialism. In “Terrance Malick’s Insufferable Masterpiece,” Denby touches on this point when he asks, “Hasn’t he [Malick] narrowed life down only to those elements that can be etherealized?” More than the lack of dialogue, more even than the absence of humour, it’s this ethereal quality that saps Malick’s films of life’s juice and constitutes their most serious flaw. Pauline Kael was onto this thirty-nine years ago when she said of the protagonists of Malick’s first film, Badlands, “Kit and Holly are kept at a distance, doing things for no explained purpose; it’s as if the director had taped gauze over their characters, so that we wouldn’t be able to take a reading on them” (“Sugarland and Badlands,” The New Yorker, March 18, 1974; included in Kael’s brilliant 1976 collection Reeling). 

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