Not long after seeing the trailer for Atlas Shrugged, I came across the trailer for quite a different kind of film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Malick is the world’s greatest living filmmaker, and this project has been with him for years. … [ T ]his is my plea: Do not go to see Atlas Shrugged. Do not encourage those people. Go instead to The Tree of Life, which—whether it should prove a triumph or a failure—will be the work of a remarkable artist who really does have something to tell us about both nature and grace (two things about which Rand knew absolutely nothing). So make the wise cinematic choice here, for the good of your own soul, but also for the sake of a rapidly foundering civilization.
—“The Trouble with Ayn Rand,” David Bentley Hart, First Things, May 2011
Mr. Hart is a wise and witty man. His essay on Ayn Rand is smart, fair, and precise. I recommend it. The technologically savvy will find it on the First Things web site.
I am not a wise man. If I were merely a smart man, I would have followed Mr. Hart’s advice. Unfortunately, I am a fool. I did not heed Mr. Hart’s admonition. Now I am left with a fool’s bragging right to have seen the best and the worst film of 2011. The best is the best film in 70 years. The worst is Atlas Shrugged.
The Worst First
On September 14, 2009, in the post “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid,” I first took note of Ayn Rand’s poisonous philosophy in our public discourse. “The Threat,” on October 23, 2010, addresses the malady explicitly. Those who consult the archives of this blog may be tempted to accuse me of bias in reviewing Atlas Shrugged. This would be a mistake. A distinction must be made between bias – an unreasonable prejudice against something – and an informed judgment.
Ayn Rand was not a good writer. Her philosophy is acceptable only to those who know nothing of the discipline. That she has been ignored in academia has nothing to do with some kind of liberal bias, as her disciples might claim. She is ignored in philosophy departments because of her ignorance of the field, and her work contributes nothing to the great conversation of Western thought. Literature departments are more inclusive than her supporters will acknowledge. Even there, however, there must be limits. There is more delightful invention in the horror of H. P. Lovecraft than in the malicious fantasies of Ayn Rand.
There are only two remarkable things about The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. First, that Ayn Rand stayed at the typewriter so long. Second, that she found a publisher.
Ms. Rand’s disciples are quick to cite the extraordinary sales of her two most famous works as proof of their value. There is another explanation. From Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon to L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health to Ms. Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the United States has a long history of bad writing that wins a cult following.
Beyond the cult, it is strange that Ms. Rand has garnered the approval of Christians. This includes the Roman Catholic Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan and the Lutheran Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. Despite the evidence of history, Ayn Rand argued that Capitalism is incompatible with Christianity. Her denunciation of Christianity, to the point of blasphemy, is undeniable. Her egoist morality is irreconcilable with even a passing acquaintance with the words of Our Lord. Nevertheless, otherwise thoughtful Christians find something appealing about Atlas Shrugged.
Curiosity got the better of me. I watched the film.
In his essay, Mr. Hart noted that the awfulness of the film The Fountainhead owed much to its faithfulness to Ms. Rand’s novel. The same is true of the film Atlas Shrugged. The dialogue is stilted. The characters are caricatures. The relationships between characters are unbelievable.
For example: Lillian Rearden, the wife of industrialist and inventor Henry Rearden, is so very repulsive that the sensible viewer must wonder why he has not divorced her – or just murdered her outright. Murder would not be objectionable because she is not a real character, a real person. She is just a foil to expose the admirable qualities of Henry Rearden. Even as a mere foil, however, she is intolerable.
The character Henry Rearden needs all the help he can get.
He arrives home late. His despicable wife is there enjoying cocktails with an assortment of Ayn Rand’s villains, moochers. The moochers are so very much moochers as to be implausible. The ensuing dialogue is cutting. Henry is ridiculed for this work ethic. He gives his wife an anniversary present. It is a bracelet made from Mr. Rearden’ s latest invention, Rearden Metal, steel lighter and stronger than anything that has been made before. Lillian and others ridicule the gift. It is not a conventional diamond bracelet. It is ugly. It is a symbol of Henry Rearden’s egoism.
This is where things get interesting. The bracelet is probably intended as a symbol of Henry Rearden’s egoism. Egoism is a virtue in the world of Ayn Rand. However, the bracelet is also ugly. It is not clear that the ugliness is intended. It is nevertheless. The one interesting thing about this film is the unintentional exposure of what is ugly and shallow in the thought of Ayn Rand.
The film’s production values are first rate. The acting succeeds despite the bad dialogue. However, the interior settings are garish and dark. Characters drink what appears to be red wine from glasses appropriate for whisky. When main characters are enjoying an evening meal, there is no dialogue. We see them eating, drinking, and conversing as the film score plays over it all. We have no idea what is enjoyable in the conversation. In the materialistic, egoist world of Ayn Rand life is dark, expensive, and dull.
Most importantly, in this depiction of the rebellion of the “people of the mind” against the Masses, there are no Masses. Hank Rearden looks out on what appears to be a fully automated factory floor. Machines lay railway. No workers are seen. Ms. Rand’s distain for ordinary people, people who are not exceptional by her lights, means that ordinary people simply do not exist. Steel is made, railroads are laid, but there is no sweat. There is no labor. There are only the geniuses at the top.
Atlas Shrugged Part I is a faithful depiction of the vile novel, acceptable only to true believers. In its faithfulness, however, it reveals all the flaws of the original. This film failed miserably at the box office. Nevertheless, Part II is reputably in production, unintentionally showing, once again, that Capitalism is not working in our country.
Seventy years ago, in 1941, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was released. It had detractors then and there are critics now. For most serious viewers, however, it is the greatest American film ever made.
Mr. Welles achieved acclaim by showing us that cinema is not theater filmed. The camera is the most important actor in the film. What the camera reveals and how the camera reveals is more important than the actor’s words, however well delivered.
We have had over a century of cinema. In that time, we have had many great directors, but few geniuses. The great, Mr. Kurosawa, Mr. Ford, Mr. Coppola, Mr. Scorsese, Mr. Bergman, and Mr. Kubrick – this list is too short and too parochial – have given us hours of cinematic achievement and added to the development of the art. Mr. Welles, with Citizen Kane, gathered up all that came before him and showed the way for the future of cinema.
Citizen Kane was a work of genius. Unfortunately, Mr. Welles could not repeat his first success. As good as successive films were – The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil to name just two – he could never achieve again what he accomplished with his first film. Not that we lesser mortals have anything to complain about. Mr. Welles’ contribution to the art of film is not diminished by later failures except in the conception of the small-minded.
There will be objections to my distinction between the great and the genius. Some might name as genius what I call great. I will not protest too much. Perhaps we can simply agree that the cinematic genius is the one who understands what the camera can do that cannot be done on the stage. I hold Mr. Welles, with Citizen Kane, to be preeminent in that regard. Mr. Terrence Malick is more than his successor.
It is a wonderful age we live in when a pauper, like myself, upon reading Mr. Hart’s essay, can then find on DVD the complete work of a director. I watched, in succession, the achievement of Mr. Malick from the 1973 Badlands to the 2005 The New World before viewing his magnum opus.
It was my second or third viewing of Badlands. It is as fresh and brilliant as it was almost forty years ago. Days of Heaven (1978) is wonderfully beautiful. The Thin Red Line (1998) is the best war movie I have ever seen, surpassing even Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. The New World was disparaged on release. It is perhaps the weakest of Mr. Malick’s work to date. Nevertheless, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. In the four films that Mr. Malick directed before The Tree of Life there was never a failure to show what has not been seen before.
A fine film cannot be all camera work. Alfred Hitchcock, in comparison to Mr. Malick, is a directors’ director. His camera many times exceeded the story. The Birds, for example, contains amazing technological innovations, but the story is a stale melodrama performed by second-rate actors. It is hard to watch this film today without rooting for the birds – “Quick! Peck them! Don’t let them say another line of that terrible script!”
Mr. Malick is a cinema aficionado’s director. His work has always been to show us something of the human condition. The verisimilitude of his weakest film, The New World, is astounding. With just four films he has established himself as the philosopher-poet of the camera. He has peers, but no rivals. The Tree of Life is the consummation of all that he has done to date.
I have watched The Tree of Life three times. I cannot tell you what “it is all about” with certainty. I cannot tell you what it is trying to teach us. I am not sure it is trying to teach us any one thing. I can only attempt an explanation. Any explanation falls far short of viewing the film itself. It must be viewed. It must be experienced. This is true of any great work of art. No one understands War and Peace from Cliff’s Notes. The Mona Lisa is not captured by describing it as lady with a slight smile.
The Tree of Life begins with a quote from Job. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This is God speaking to Job. Job has been complaining of God’s way with men. Here God begins to examine Job. Who is he to question the Lord who gives the gift of life?
This is God’s only appearance in The Tree of Life. It is a mute quotation given in a white on black screen. Nevertheless, one senses God is there, just off screen.
This is a theodicy, an attempt to justify the ways of God with men. It is, therefore, much like the first great theodicy, Job. I would humbly suggest that this is what the theologically ignorant media have not understood. It is the key to understanding all that follows in the film.
What follows is nothing less than the violence of creation, the evolving of the earth, complete with dinosaurs, the death of a son, the struggles of a family in Texas, and finally the end of the earth in fire. If this seems a paltry statement of plot, it is. Visions do not have plots. Mr. Malick is the William Blake of cinema.
Most of all there is life. Most of all there are living human beings coping with life in all its splendor and loss. At one point comes the voiceover: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” This is the line I believe we are to take away from this film.
Perhaps I am reading too much into Mr. Malick’s film. It is a brave, audacious film, however, so perhaps I am justified in girding up my loins and declaring what I believe he is showing us. He is showing us that with all we know about the beginning of the universe and its end, despite the dinosaurs and regardless of the cataclysmic end of the earth, there is a God. He is a God of life and love. It would be going too far to claim The Tree of Life is Christian. I do not think that is what Mr. Malick was attempting. It is, nevertheless, unabashedly theistic.
This much is certain. No one before Mr. Malick has attempted to give us what The Tree of Life has given us. He is to cinema what James Joyce is to literature. Even as Ulysses is not to the liking of everyone who reads serious literature, The Tree of Life is not going to be appreciated by everyone who enjoys fine cinema. Frankly, I have attempted Ulysses more than once and have not enjoyed the experience. I can therefore understand the negative reaction to The Tree of Life. Nevertheless, I understand that Ulysses is a great literary achievement. I know that The Tree of Life is also a great achievement.
I suspect that it is the greatest film of our time. Perhaps it is even the greatest film of all time. At the very least, it is the best film of 2011.