Even for Hollywood the narcissism on display this year is extreme. The heavily favored French silent, The Artist, may be a cute novelty (I haven’t seen it), but Scorsese’s semi-animated Hugo and The Help, a cozy and comforting rewrite of our recent racial history, are disturbing exercises in adolescent self-absorption. I defy anyone watching Hugo to close their eyes for 30 seconds of its leaden dialogue and not want to leave immediately for an adult beverage. The film is a non-stop paean to the wondrous magic performed by filmmakers, i.e., oneself, demonstrating yet again that the concept of embarrassment is sadly missing from the modern psyche.
Ironically and maddeningly, instead it’s the interesting Terence Malick effort, The Tree of Life that gets slammed for self-indulgence, or the preferred term, ‘pretentiousness’. Not one of the dozen reviews I read nailed its theme: grief. Whether it appealed to you or not, it was an attempt to use cinematic language in a challenging way and lift the form above TV-style storytelling. It wasn’t simple or obvious, so of course the academy of film professionals couldn’t be bothered with it.
For the record I would like to defend the dinosaur vignette in that film, which, having experienced grief more than once, made perfect sense to me. When in the grip of that disorienting emotion, one naturally reflects on the strange aspect of nature in which individual beings die, sometimes frightfully, as part of the mysterious evolution of the world and its creatures. While one can recognize this phenomenon as the law of life, even a necessary one, it does not alleviate the pain of losing individual members of one’s species. I generally dislike Malick’s work, but The Tree of Life will provoke viewers long after The Descendants and The Help are forgotten as relics.