I’m not sure exactly what sparked the discussions, but there have been a few threads over the last few days that have emerged some of the movie discussion groups I am involved with that have been talking about the merit (or lack there-of) of Director’s cuts.
Of primary concern in these particular discussions has been the question, how should we (or can we) approach a Directors Cut as viewers, especially when it concerns a movie or movie watching experience that is important and meaningful to us on a personal level.
What makes this particular question a complicated one is the relationship that we have as viewers to the Directors vision for a particular project. That there is no clear rule to what a Director’s Cut is intended to be for us as viewers simply adds possible layers to the ways in which we might or might connect to these altered versions of a given film. It “can”, for example, offer us a clearer picture of a Director’s initial vision for a project, but it can also muddy it. It can (subjectively speaking) enhance the theatrical version, or it can make it worse. It can offer us some insight into what and why certain deleted scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or confound us by these same choices of edit.
And sometimes it can even end up altering a films narrative entirely, as seems to be the case with the upcoming September premiere and release of Malick’s “Director’s Cut” of The Tree of Life, a film that Criterion director Lee Kline suggests seriously blurs the lines between a Director’s Cut and being a completely new film. Criterion, or the Criterion collection, for those who don’t know, is (to borrow from its official online definition): “an American home video distribution company which focuses on licensing “important classic and contemporary films” and selling them to film aficionados.”
You can see the conversation here:
Reflecting on Malick’s own intentions, Lee goes on to say, “What’s interesting talking to Terry about this [new version of ‘Tree of Life’], I think he still doesn’t want people to think this is a better version. This is another version.” a statement which arrives in reference to the notion that the 2011 version was in-fact the “definitive version” Malick wanted to release.
Which raises some more serious and intentional questions for fans of this complicated but challenging film, like how will this new version change the narrative of the film? Will it keep the film’s spiritual core intact? Open up new conversations and insights about the film’s vision of what it means to be both human and spiritual beings? Will it create (or recreate) the film’s central relationships which remain at the core of articulating this vision on-screen?
As we await the release of this film (on Blu ray in the middle of September for those of us who can’t see it at the premier), it has an interesting exercise to mull this over in my own mind. In that process someone was even generous enough to forward me this link to what they suggested was a definitive “in-process” or “working” version of what eventually became the final 2011 film, which for those willing to peruse the many pages of the script could offer some clues as to where the new version might go with the newly imagined story. That definitely ends up somewhere on the geekier side of Malick fandom, but it’s something I personally have been having a bit of fun with as I try to surmise and predict Malick’s alternate or growing vision for The Tree of Life.
You can see the script here if you click on the link and then click on the blue box:
In any case, and in the meantime, I found myself revisiting the original film along with some of my initial thoughts, through which I was reminded of some timely words I penned in a review of that film 7 years ago:
“The film utilizes the art (or gift) of silence, allowing the visuals to speak through the absence of dialogue. The scenes jump quickly, and then slow, only to be given over to the chaos again and again in almost frustrating fashion. The performances submit, seemingly intentionally, to this same movement, their performances a prisoner to this same degree of chaos. If we gain a glimpse of grace, a break in the unending cycle, it is in the nature of the relationship between Jack and his father.
It is this relationship that allows the film to take the unfathomable, the unseen, the uncertainty, the unknown of life’s great mystery, and to allow it to take concrete shape as a deliberate human process, one that happens on the inside even if not always visible on the outside. Through this relationship we are encouraged, in the moments between the silence and the chaos, to find glimpses of our own inner struggle that pulls between our fallen nature and the grace and love that exists in the often unseen parts of our human (and spiritual) formation. It is this grace that gives worth to what can otherwise appear to be a meaningless endeavor of living in the chaos. And ultimately for each of us, this is what life is. Life is an ongoing battle between these two worlds, these two tensions, with the idea of hope being our single anchor. And the more we learn what it means to hope or to have hope, the more we can learn to see in the silence a means to live above (and in the midst of) the chaos, a vision and idea this film helps bring to the forefront of our own imaginations. In other words, the silence can help us see what the chaos is trying to teach us.”
This goes hand in hand with another piece of wisdom I encountered this morning in a YA Historical Fantasy book by James A. Owen called Here There Be Dragons, where one character (Mordred) surmises that “Shadows cannot exist without the light. But without the shadows, the light has no meaning.”
These are timely words as I continue to adjust to what for me has been a bit of an earth shattering loss nearing the end of summer, 2018. A pair of losses actually that has also offered me some perspective. One material, the other irreplaceable. One a loss of stuff, the other a loss of life.
To re-read these words from a film that 7 years ago shook the senses of a personal career transition, is to let it land for me in a completely new and fresh context. Which is fitting when it comes to the idea of encountering a new version of this film. In the cycles of life that sit somewhere between the silence and the chaos, the process of being able to re-contextualize the lessons of a singular experience is not only important, but also necessary. It is a truly rare thing to see how this might unfold through a canonized film, which makes this an exciting process. But as someone else also pointed out to me (or us) in one of the movie discussion groups, the answer to any difficultly with how Malick might change or mess with the original 2011 film is simple- don’t canonize. And I think what is powerful about this realization (or perhaps mandate) is that this applies in so many ways to our lives as well. As the 2011 film taught me, we see very little in the present tense, it is only in process that we can learn to see more fully by holding past, present and future in opened hands.
There is, I would argue, a human tendency to canonize the different moments of our life, and to thus harbor them and hold them tight for better or for worse, to obsess over, scrutinize, analyze and worry about them as time moves forward, often with or without us. But when we do this we risk getting stuck in the cycle of these present thoughts, and bound by the ways in which they hold us captive to a limited way of seeing ourselves and the world around us. Which, after a recent breakfast with a friend reminded me only leads to the sort of growing cynicism, anxiety, depression and regret that comes with the reminder we are never as in control as we feel we are. To use the language of Malick’s film, in the silence the chaos awaits.
Instead, we would all benefit from learning what it means to constantly be thinking and hoping anew, learning to embrace what it means to be molded and reshaped by expecting the experiences of our life to be re-contextualized in a way that can help us learn and grow as persons into new creations. This is in-fact what also must shape our spiritual longing, because, as the tagline for the movie suggests, in process “nothings stands still”. Time moves forward with or without us. But that shouldn’t leave us without hope. The power of this realization comes in the truth that it is in process that we can begin to trust that we are growing into grace, and growing towards a greater understanding of the ways grace and grace alone is getting the final word.