Watching Tree of Life on Saturday I was constantly reminded of how much I enjoyed this film for many of the same reason I couldn't stand Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3. I wasn't sure why I kept thinking about Barney's film, which I hadn't seen since 2002. But now I think it has to do with 3 points:
1. Both films deal (to some degree) with progeny, particularly patriarchs.
2. Both films rely heavily on metaphor and symbol
3. Both films are considered (perhaps because of point 2) difficult and "artsy"
I also feel that these films share point 2 (and perhaps 3 as well) with a lot of poetry I like and dislike. (Ok, this sounds really complicated now, but I think it will get easier now that that's out of the way. Bear with me.)
To start with, let's look at Malick's Tree of Life. Now my interpretation of the film is that it is about trying to understand why God has made the world as it is, a conflicting place of love and strife. If God loves us, why put us through pain? Why allow us to cause others pain? In the end, (again my interpretation) Malick suggests it is so we may experience mercy. So that we may have gain grace by understanding and choosing it. Not a new interpretation of the Old Testament, but new way of showing it and conveying his feelings on it.
Malick chooses a complicated metaphor to surround this story of a family dealing with a death: the birth and death of the universe. A challenging, but fitting metaphor. First, we see the birth of the universe as something grace and the birth of life (nature) as something violent. Life devouring life to evolve. Then there is this long scene of the two dinosaurs meeting on the river. The predator pins it's weak prey. (Survival of the fittest: his prey buddies got out of there while he slept.) But the predator waits, seems to think and doubt, then walks away. I think this is meant to be the first act of mercy, and the beginning of a new image of life. (Hence the destruction of the dinosaurs; destruction as a form of evolution, not of a species but of life.) Later, as the movie closes, we see the Earth being devoured by the Sun as it grows into a red giant. Again, destruction is the only response to evolution, but with the promise of life renewing.
Now as complicated as Malick's Tree of Life is, his images and metaphors (the above mentioned as well as those involved with the main plot of the family) are chosen and shaped to revolve around a center, the conflict and the emotional response the artist is trying to share with his viewers. The metaphors and images of the film are used as tools to make the viewer feel. Reading the above paragraph is not moving, but watching this film attentively is very moving.
Barney in Cremaster 3 (according to fans I've spoken to who have read the viewers guide to the film and to my own interpretation) deals with evolution from one generation to the next. Barney overtaking his father among other powers overtaking a predecessor. Now, Barney's film is not very loving compared to Malick's--it is violent and the victor is often the one willing to lose something of grace (i.e. cheat, destroy, etc.)--but that is not important. Both concepts are sound and can be moving, whether to sadness or fear or anger; art is meant to make one feel, but what it makes you feel is up to the artist. But what I find troubling in Barney's film, is that he chooses his images not to create a center, but to confuse the observer. One example that comes to mind is the car fight scene, you can find it spread out in scenes of the video below:
Now the center car, as best I remember, is a model that was built the same year Barney's father was born, and the surrounding cars were built when Barney himself were born. So they are supposed to represent, I suppose, the child rebelling. And the dead woman returning to life inside the old car? Apparently, therise of Japan as an industrial superpower. Now, what is one supposed to feel here? All I really get, from a raw take and after conversing with Barney fans, is confusion. The symbols and images are chosen to be obscure and codified to not only an educated few, but an educated few willing to research the Barney's choices outside of just watching the film.
I guess in what I'm trying to say, in what's become a pseudo-review (and very hastily thought out at that), is that complicated art can be beautiful. But to complicate your art on purpose (to choose complication not as a way to more fully express your vision, but as a means of "muddying the waters" of it) has no place in art.