Ironically, I watched Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life one day after I came up with the outline for my script about women from my island Zlarin. I wrote the outline for the script writing class at UCLA. It wasn’t easy – what I originally wanted to do was a real “foreign language movie” (that’s what they call them here), but the class was about writing a Hollywood movie. I received my first slap (or two or more) during first five minutes in the class. I heard things like “Why make something that 400 people will see when you can make something 4 mil. people will see?”; “Why make movies that will only show on Sundance?”; “I’m doing this to make money”. I was offended by the lack of recognition that art and entertainment are two different things done out of different drives. But they both deserve respect. Yes, writers here officially learn the recipe for (Hollywood) movies that work. The rules are very strict. You will learn about the 3 act structure, plot turns, beats, set pieces, log lines, character, his/her goal, obstacles, nemesis, points of no return, inciting incidents, the climax… You will learn to recreate the one universal story about the journey of the hero which Hollywood claims works perfectly. And suddenly you will stop wondering why all movies feel the same. Because they all are one and the same movie. Only with different characters and different settings.
So there I was, lounged in the chair of the empty cinema. I knew I was going to see something different and believed it will be, as many friends said, something terrible. “It was like watching screen savers,” one of them said. But I also knew I was ready to challenge my heavy overdose of Hollywood movies (and the life around them). I still wonder if the I enjoyed this movie just because it gave me what I needed at that very moment. Maybe if I watched this move on a different occasion, I would have hated it. But...
The film put its arms around me and started singing a lullaby into my ear. And then it lulled me into a trip. A trip I desperately needed. It slowed me down, helped me concentrate, breathe and reminded me of the magic of … being. And yet it is just a story of one average small-town American family during the 50s, somewhere in the South. Actually, it not even a story – it is a collage of magical pictures accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack including Couperin, Brahms and Berlioz. No goals, no 3 act structure, no points of no return. No set pieces.
This magnificent collage shows (instead of “tells”) how it is to be a child, a son, brother. How it feels to be. Human. Without narration, it shows the complexity and beauty of love within a family. Of creation and loss. Life. Manifested in rays of sunlight slipping through curtains just to land on your wall. Or a play in the garden. Zen.
No, I don’t think it is a masterpiece. There are flaws. It does not make sense. It is not entertaining. The dinosaurs are unnecessary. The story of creation could have been shorter. And I am not sure about some voice overs and the afterlife…. But it did what art should to – it touched me, moved me and changed me. It reminded me of the respect I should continuously feel towards life.
And to do that, art doesn’t need rules. A 3 act structure film is entertained and engaging. But never has such a fundamental impact. And that’s what makes the difference between art and entertainment. Art has the power to touch us, move us and take us on a trip. Connect us with the universe. And this it can do very well (or even better?) without a recipe. Entertainment has to entertain. And yes, there is a formula for this.
The day after I saw the film, Amazon delivered my copy of “Save the Cat”, apparently the ultimate book on screenwriting. I welcomed it with a completely new mindset – I decided to happily learn the rules so I that one day, if I decide to do this, I can (even more happily) break them. Wish me good luck with that.