Earlier this summer I saw Terrence Malick’s experimental film The Tree of Life. Other than the film itself, I was fascinated by the audience’s reaction to it – both during and immediately following, when one man exclaimed “what a waste of my time!” He was apparently not alone in this sentiment, since the film drew boos at its Cannes Film Festival premiere. Obviously, for some, the movie was unsuccessful in meeting audience expectations.
In his treatise What is Art?, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy ponders these expectations placed on art. And there is no doubt that Malick and his staff saw The Tree of Life as a work of art. Emmanuel Lubezki, the film’s cinematographer, compared it to a Russian novel. But the man in the theatre whose time was wasted most likely came there with a different expectation – namely entertainment and pleasure.
Here is what Tolstoy had to say about what art is not:
Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty, or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologist say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure. (Tolstoy 387)
Many people would agree with this quote, and then think nothing of the label “Arts and Entertainment” which we see everywhere. When have we seen “Psychology and Entertainment” or “Mathematics and Entertainment”? Art is not the same as entertainment. Rather, as Tolstoy put it, “the activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.” In other words, art is a powerful form of communication.
The Tree of Life is an ambitious attempt to communicate to its audience deep feelings of both nostalgia and regret, told mostly through brief, non-linear vignettes. But it is a tough sell to viewers accustomed to Twilight and Transformers. Great art – which summons deeper emotions than lust and anger – demands not only the reception but also the active participation of the listener/viewer.
So there is responsibility on both sides of the stage, screen or canvas. The audience must be a seeker of meaning. But the artist must also take care that they are always about the business of communicating, and not merely hiding meaning solely for the sake of being esoteric or abstruse.