I was—I still am—an A.O. Scott fan. Though I wondered, when I read his review of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, if it were true (as I’d heard somewhere) that he has small children at home, and that being so, if perhaps he wasn’t getting enough sleep. In the end, I had to acknowledge he wasn’t alone in loving the film—other critics raved, too, didn’t they? And didn’t the movie win all kinds of awards? It did. Still, I was relieved when a friend remarked after seeing it, “It’s not a film, it’s a screensaver.” Whew, I thought, I’m not crazy. Maddening, I thought, and I laughed out loud. But later, and the more I considered, I wasn’t just maddened, I was mad. Yes, The Tree of Life was pretty, and Brad Pitt was pretty good in an unsympathetic role—but Malick was preaching at me, or that’s how it felt anyway; as if I were hostage not just to a story, but to a writer/director’s manifesto about the meaning of the universe—and love, and death—most of which seemed not only trite to me, and simplistic, but religiously skewed besides.
Now comes along Beasts of the Southern Wild—and another A. O. Scott review, in which he cites the movie’s “evident kinship” with The Tree of Life, and apparently he loved it just as much, which bolsters my faltering faith, since I loved it, too. What’s more he’s right, Scott is: those big themes, having to do with the meaning of life, and how to live in the face of insupportable loss, are at the heart of both movies, on top of which the filmmakers have come to similar conclusions about the nature of our puniness on the planet, and our capacity to love and persevere under the circumstances. So why do I celebrate one film and not the other?
Here’s what Scott said way back when: “Do all the parts of The Tree of Life cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does. I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.”
Hmmpf. Not all of Beasts of the Southern Wild coheres and makes sense, either. The thing is, though, I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to. Its mystery and magic is true to the sensibility of its heroine, a six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy who is age-appropriately literal and aroused to the miracle of life all around her. And this specificity of intention on the part of writer Lucy Alibar and director Benh Zeitlin, goes to where and how the one movie succeeds, and, in my estimation, the other one doesn’t. The Tree of Life is the “oeuvre” of a middle-aged man, Malick, who spent many, many millions of dollars to treat us to many, many minutes of what feels like personal revelation, in which he waxes on, self-indulgently in my view, about what he thinks about the nature of the human condition. Moreover, he presents his epiphany as gospel: This is not only a story of one family (partially autobiographical so we’ve been told), but a history of the universe that cannot sustain the courage of its original convictions. Yes, it’s true, as Malick illustrates with a supporting cast of dinosaurs: we humans turn out to be almost insignificant in terms of the grand continuum. Even so, he would have us accept that there is a God and he/she/it has a plan: We can look forward not only to life after death, but to heaven! Where we will be reunited on an ocean beach with the ones we love. Bosh, I say, not because I don’t buy it (though I don’t), but because the filmmaker has imposed his beliefs on me—tied his two plus hours of philosophical meandering up in a bow, as if it were that easy. Beasts on the other hand (on a shoestring, by the way, with a cast of unknowns, and in 90 minutes time) shows us the world through the eyes of one little girl and let’s us come to our own conclusions. The story is so particular as to allow us to fall in love with the characters—so specific as to touch the universal nerve. Director Zeitlin isn’t asking me to sign on or sign up—only to believe in his heroine; only to believe she believes. No happy ending for Hushpuppy—no heaven; just her conviction—her insistence!—that her tale is important enough to tell and to remember.
So why compare the two. Aren’t they apples and oranges. Well, yes, they are, but here’s why comparison is a worthy enterprise—maybe even a cautionary tale, you tell me. Not so long ago, somebody asked if I write with a theme—or multiple themes—in mind. And the answer? When I do, I get myself in trouble. But when I don’t, when I try instead to get it right—the situation, the players, the relationships—themes tend to naturally emerge. And those themes, if they make themselves known, are for second and third and umpteenth drafts. Even then, I have to be careful—I have to give my readers credit for being as smart or smarter than I. See Terence Malick hit me with themes—bludgeoned me in the name of deep thinking and spirituality, and consequently distracted me from the story at hand, which, if he’d told it true, if he’d been willing to give me any credit for my own ability to think and feel, might have delivered those ideas all by itself. Instead, bewildered and impatient as I became in the course of over two hours, I lost interest in his characters. I didn’t care; I didn’t cry; I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre. Benh Zeitlin, however, told me a story so singular as to make me weep for people with whom I have nothing—and everything it turns out—in common. For though I’m not six years old, though I don’t live in poverty, though my world isn’t falling apart, I identify with Hushpuppy: What choice do I have? What choice have any of us, whatever our experience, whatever our faith, but to believe in ourselves and each other, and to carry on accordingly?
So listen: Rent The Tree of Life or don’t. No skin off my nose or Malick’s either, right? Meanwhile, so much in the offing in the theaters this summer: There’s Bernie (terrific), and The Amazing Spiderman (not high on my list), and People Like Us (high on my list!), and Ted (a maybe), and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I’ll skip it, I think). And there’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, wow. If you happen to see it—and I hope you do—I’d love to know what you think…