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Filmism.net Dispatch June 26, 2011

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I'm writing about Tree of Life again this week as it's the movie I've looked forward to most in 2011. I loved it almost as much as I thought I would, after being impressed with The Thin Red Line and falling head over heels in love with The New World (before them I didn't know Malick's work).

The reasons I didn't love it as much as I thought I would was because of the stretches where I got the feeling Malick – who doubtless had final cut – was allowed to go a little far. If he'd had far less clout or kudos some marketing exec (even an enlightened and auteur-friendly one) would have ordered some trimming.

And it got me thinking about the phenomenon of filmmakers having too much power. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. We've had a generation of studio and licensing people steering every aspect of a movie according to rigid marketing plans, and the output today's about pushing product instead of pursuing art.

In the 60s and 70s the studio was losing a lot of buying power in the face of falling attendances because of technologies like cable TV, and the first age of the director began with names like Coppola, Hopper and Scorsese taking the decision-making reins instead of the old-style moguls.

People trusted in mavericks who wouldn't deviate from their vision, and one was Michael Cimino, who gave us history's most notorious flop in 1980's Heaven's Gate, virtually bankrupting the studio (United Artists) who unflinchingly backed creative vision over market principles.

We saw it again in 1999, when one-man movie universe George Lucas raped our childhoods [sic] with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. At the time, much was made about how Lucas was an independent filmmaker (his deal with Fox was just to distribute the new trilogy, not bankroll it). Knowing what a ham writer Lucas had always been, was it ever a good idea to give him complete creative freedom? At least a smart executive might have questioned the motivation behind a character as universally hated as Jar Jar Binks.

And now, the reclusive Malick has unleashed Tree of Life – anyone who found The Thin Red Line or The New World self-indulgent must have hated it. I loved both those films and I would have been comfortable with about 10-20 minutes trimmed from Tree of Life. It's always felt like Malick's just as concerned with pretty pictures as storytelling (maybe more so), and Tree of Life is the most extreme example of that aesthetic.

Would it had been a better movie if he'd been made to answer to a boardroom full of investors saying 'what the fuck does the spiral stained glass window, dinosaurs and bubbling brooks have to do with anything?' I'm just asking...

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