Annals of the Overrated, Odd Couple Division: Lady Gaga and ‘The Tree of Life’

May 27, 2011

Last week I saw Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Then I saw Lady Gaga on “Saturday Night Live.” And I had the same reaction to both:

Why are there so many people out there willing to declare this stuff great art or the epitome of the current zeitgeist – or both? Sorry – I’m putting them both in my Overrated Hall of Fame.

Most of the current attention for Lady Gaga has to do with the release of her second album, “Born This Way,” her recent HBO special (which documented her concert tour) and her “Saturday Night Live” appearance on the show’s May 21 season finale.

For Malick, it’s the long a-borning “The Tree of Life,” which opens today (5/27/11) after winning the Cannes Film Festival. Beware of Frenchmen bearing gifts.

And, to me, there’s very little there – in either case. Yet both have seduced the critics into singing their praises. In Gaga’s case, it’s the celebration of mediocrity that has achieved mass popularity. In Malick’s, it’s the critics offering intellectual hosannas in ways that are meant to make the average shmo feel he’s missed some crucial point if he doesn’t appreciate Malick’s work.

Let me start with Gaga first, a homely Italian girl from the Upper East Side who essentially stole Madonna’s shtick (and Janet Jackson’s, for that matter) and somehow convinced people that she created something new.

It’s no trick to fool the mass audience. This is music aimed at a demographic that has no sense of history – and to them, the “Like a Virgin/Material Girl/Papa Don’t Preach/Vogue” Madonna is exactly that: ancient history. Before their time. Not part of their cultural context.

Madonna has been around so long that people think of her as a classic – and even enshrined her in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Like Madonna, Lady Gaga’s music is yet another rehash of the kind of dance music that was called disco in the 1970s and was given other labels in the intervening decades. Though technology has tricked it up without really changing it, it’s essence is beat-heavy, melodic and nothing new.

Gaga’s voice is solid and, when she played the piano and sang on “Saturday Night Live,” she gave off a whiff of Laura Nyro, another Italian-American singer-songwriter, one who had genuine talent but lacked the exhibitionistic chutzpah and media-manipulation skills that Gaga has. No meat dresses for her.

Gaga’s music is merely serviceable; not awful, not exceptional, just mid-range dance music. But it’s dressed up by her self-promotion – or rather, she plays dress-up on stage and the music skates by because people are so caught up in her outlandish visual presentation.

But costumes are just that: costumes. Yet somehow Lady Gaga is hailed as some sort of revolutionary of the concert stage. Hey – Cher changes her costumes a lot too and no one calls her a genius. And Gaga’s message – about personal freedom and doing what’s right for you rather than trying to make other people happy? Again, I refer you to: Madonna, The early works of.

It’s probably cognitive dissonance for some to have Lady Gaga mentioned in the same sentence as Terrence Malick and “The Tree of Life.” But the wave of critical adulation that’s washing over Gaga at the moment isn’t dissimilar from the one for Malick. There’s a critical rooting section out there for Malick’s work that pants and salivates during the years when Malick isn’t making a movie, hoping he will.

I was a Malick fan in the early days. I saw and loved “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” when those films came out – 30-plus years ago. And, like a lot of critics, I eagerly anticipated his return with 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” tracking down a copy of James Jones’ novel to read months before the film came out.

But that film, to me, was a huge disappointment. It was as if Malick had systematically stripped out all of the story and character from Jones’ book, retaining an impressionistic mish-mash that focused on the dispassionate nature of the island on which Americans were battling the Japanese during World War II – in other words, a war story told from the point of view of the terrain, which couldn’t have cared less.

He applied the same technique to “The New World,” his Pocahontas movie from 2005, but this time it seemed to fit. He told the story from the point-of-view of the British settlers of the Jamestown colony, to whom this lush, foreign land was a mystery, inhabited by enigmatic people who seemed much more attuned to nature. The film was a challenge, but one I was willing to engage.

But, with “The Tree of Life,” Malick takes his abstruse methods even farther. As with all of his films, this one focuses less on characters than on the natural world around them. His point is that that natural world has an order that is wild and unknowable – and in which Man figures very little. Yet to Man, his own existence is the center of the universe. And Malick wants to explore just how insignificant Man is to all but himself – just before he sends him to a heaven that looks like a beach at low tide.

Malick’s visual chops are unmatched – but to what end? When Malick suddenly jumps from the wispy story he’s telling – about a West Texas family in the 1950s and ’60s – to the beginning of time, the Big Bang and the formation of Earth – it’s not only jarring and confusing, it’s derivative. The imagery, as imaginative as it is, has been imagined before: by Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and by Godfrey Reggio in his gorgeously nonlinear “Koyaanisqatsi.”

Based on “The Tree of Life” and his previous films, I get the impression that Malick’s ideal film would feature a camera in a wheatfield, watching and listening to the wind blow through the grain. I’m hoping that, someday, he proves me wrong.

It’s not that I want Terrence Malick to be Michael Bay (God forbid) or even Steven Spielberg. I just figure he needs to earn those waves of critical hosannas with a better movie than “The Tree of Life.”

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