Some quick things before we get to the meat of the piece:
If you get the chance, check out Florence + the Machine and Miranda Lambert’s new albums. Listen to them back-to-back. Marvel at how women (Nikki Minaj, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Ashton Shepherd, Paramore, The Gossip, Laura Marling) have taken over and elevated pop music to new heights in the last year.
If you get the chance, watch Bridesmaids and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Watch them back-to-back. Marvel at how women (Tina Fey, Emma Stone, Mila Kunis, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Kristin Wiig, Zooey Deschanel) have taken over and elevated comedy to new heights in the last year.
But now on to a subject I’m sure everyone has been rolling around with for the past few years or so: if you had to choose, who is the more profound artist, Terence Malick or Louis C.K.?
Perhaps we should start with this: Who the hell are Terence Malick and Louis C.K.?
On Friday, my wife and I watched The Tree of Life, the new film by Terence Malick. On Saturday I rewatched—not for research purposes but just because—some of the highlights of FX’s past season of Louis, the stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s comedy series.
These two things have almost nothing in common. They’re both audiovisual representations of a particular auteur’s view of the world, but that’s basically where it ends. I didn’t even watch the two things on the same television. There’s absolutely no way anyone can make an objective value statement regarding the artistic merits of one over the other.
Except Louis C.K. is better. Let me explain.
Terence Malick has made five films in the last thirty-five years. Besides Tree of Life, which is basically an essayistic depiction of man’s grief in the face of an unyielding universe (I’ll speak to this in a sec), he’s taken his sweet time to make the following: Badlands, based on the Starkweather murders and starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Days of Heaven, a pre-WWI frontier epic with Sam Shepard and Richard Gere, The Thin Red Line, starring most of Hollywood and taking place during WWII, and The New World, with Colin Farrell, about Pocohantas. Colin Farrell does not play Pocohantas.
Terence Malick is also a famously reclusive figure, camera-shy and private, and only emerges every few years or so to present a new film (though three of the five films have been released in the past fifteen years, and he’s most famous for the twenty years he took in between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line). Regardless of medium, critics have a tendency to lionize such artists. William Gaddis produced four books in forty-five years. All three of the four won the National Book Award or its equivalent. Thomas Pynchon has written six books in fifty years. He’s always on the short list for the Nobel Peace Prize. William Gass worked on The Tunnel for thirty-five years until it was released with enormous fanfare about fifteen years ago. Then he died, I think. He certainly hasn’t come out with anything since. Death is a possible reason for that.
I think we tend to equate long-gestation periods with perfection of vision, the same way Michelangelo spent years on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. However, we don’t really consider the opposite: the work appears so infrequently because the creators have nothing to say.
Not to slag Gass, Pynchon, or Gaddis, though most of Gaddis is semi-unreadable, and, of course, an author of a novel is different than a director of a film: there’s more money involved, more people, more hoops and compromises to incur in order to achieve one’s vision. but that characteristic, that paucity of something to say, definitely seems to be the case with Malick.
Malick’s made five films, but they’re all, basically, the same film. All of them, which at first blush sound so different, are disquisitions on the interior loop-de-loops we as humans execute to rationalize our importance in a world and universe that could care less if we live or die, fail or succeed. All of them are beautifully photographed, and you only have to watch a few minutes to realize your watching a Terence Malick film—the jumpcuts, the oblique angles that shouldn’t look so startling and incredible but do, the odd and exciting juxtapositions of story and almost documentary-like attention to nature (he’s the only director I know that can make a battleground film—The Thin Red Line—and turn it into a meditation about how light moves through the leaves of the forest). He presumes to be an Artist with a capital “A” and he, indeed, sees the world in a unique way.
In that regard he is as thoughtful and interesting as Herzog, Wenders, Kubrick, Ozu, Dreyer, and Bresson.
Except his takeaway, his central driving philosophy, is that of a perceptive eight-year-old boy.
And even this is not necessarily a bad thing. David Grossman, in novels like See Under: Love and The Zigzag Kid, shows childhood as a wondrous and dangerous place, filtered throught he consciousness of his young protaganists. The same can be said of Justin Torres’s recent novel We the Animals, or the films Au Revoir Les Enfants by Louis Malle or Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. All take their cue from Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and What Maisie Knew by Henry James: the confusing, unforgiving adult world and an innocent’s observation of and initiation into it. All Malick’s films then follow the same pattern: a child, or at least a childish character (a holy fool, to an extent in The Thin Red Line, and an “innocent savage” in The New World) are forced to reconsider their bearings after unsavory revelations about the dangers inherent around them.
It’s not a new story, nor a particularly complicated one. There’s a reason his most recent is called “The Tree of Life” after all. Really, all of his films could share that title. Paradise is lost; Eden is closed for the foreseable future. We are all outcasts.
In Tree of Life, he takes that idea to the extreme, as well as all of his visual tics: there is far more footage of foliage in this film than actors, and though I appreciate a good tree every now and again, if I had to choose between leaves or Jessica Chastain, there’s really no contest. There is also an extended “flashback” early in the film that begins at the big bang and ends, twenty minutes later, with a dinosaur galavanting in a creek. I presume this is all taking place in Sean Penn’s imagination as he wanders around a volcanic plain, but I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure of a lot of the things in the film, because like all of his films, Malick refuses to let his characters talk. He relies on narration that borders on the portentiously absurd, and mumbled, ignored dialogue when the characters do find it within themselves to stop posing and start interacting. Before we really get anywhere however, there are the those fucking trees again.
Here’s the deal: I can forgive the message, because it is sturdy and if explored could be profound. I can also forgive the formal considerations, because though it often looks like the world’s longest Benneton ad, it is beautiful and rarely boring.
What I can’t forgive is the feeling that Malick believes he’s pulling one over on me. It’s the same feeling I get with Cormac McCarthy, or William Gaddis, or Thomas Pynchon, and it’s the same thing I hear from my fifteen year-old students: if you don’t understand what I’m trying to say, it’s because you are dumb, not me.
It’s why a lot of critics have decided to relent and give Malick the jaw-crampingly intense blowjob he’s been enjoying for the past thirty-five years. We don’t get it, so it must be genius.
Maybe we don’t get it because there’s not much to get, and we’re being snowed.
Malick sees the world as essentially unknowable and cruel. The earth, once entirely volcanic and still an unwelcome host, could shrug us off at any time. And as individuals, we are as inscrutable and unstable as the ground beneath our feet.
And that’s it. Despite all of Malick’s theological mumbo-jumbo, his outlook is essentially Greek, to us and him alike (classically and otherwise). His is a fatalistic shrug decorated with ten layers of bullshit, and if the viewer can’t parse everything, then that’s her problem. He’s smart and gets it, and you don’t.
This is the attitude my four-year-old has when I ask him to explain why he’s squirted an entire tube of toothpaste into the toilet. An eye roll, a “dad,” pronounced as if he were talking to an idiot, and the shrug of the sage. It’s annoying as shit, but at least I don’t have to pay eight bucks to get it from my kid.
Louis C.K. Doesn’t get it either, but at least he has the balls to admit it.
Before I get started with Louis C.K., let me get a few preconceptions I have out of the way in an effort to reveal my prejudices before I rely upon them. I like artists that are prolific, and I’m forgiving of missteps because I’m a firm believer that constant work is its own reward, and I like to watch an artist’s journey. It’s why I like Howard Hawks even though every film isn’t Only Angels Have Wings and Anthony Trollope even though not every novel is Barchester Towers.
Also, I have a tendency to save my aggrandizement for genre fare or work most would consider “lowbrow.” Call it the French Syndrome: I like Dashiell Hammett more than Hemingway, Edgar G. Ulmer more than George Stevens, the circus more than the symphony. It’s not that I dislike Hemingway or the symphony (I don’t like George Stevens…), it’s that I find enjoyment in elevating the overlooked rather than dissecting what other people have already lauded.
Louis C.K. has receieved his share of attention and plaudits, however, so I’m not exactly pointing out anything new. He is, however, a stand-up comedian and sitcom star, so it’s not as if he’s in line for the Palme D’Or, which Malick won this year at Cannes. He has a small, cheaply produced show on FX and spends a good portion of his year on the road, playing clubs. So he qualifies, to my lights, as what many would consider beneath them to watch or admire. He talks about sex and death and kids in a way lots of people would characterize as crude. His best known bit is called “Bag of Dicks,” if that gives some context.
Also, he manages to produce a television series in addition to an hour’s worth of new, performable material every year. As far as I know, the two don’t overlap, which is to say that he does not borrow from his stand-up as source material for his show, like Bill Cosby or Ray Romano did. It’s not that borrowing like that is bad or lazy, it’s just incredible to think about the amount of stuff Louis C.K. must produce to come up with that amount of usable material. If you consider the holy trinity of modern comedy—Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin—and that those three gentlemen returned to the same bits more than once, like Bill Cosby’s dentist bit or Carlin’s “Seven Words…”, you begin to realize how unheard of it is to see such an established act remain so productive and restless as C.K. is.
But the real reason I use Louis C.K. as the counterpoint to Terence Malick is the worldview he shares with Malick but expands upon, especially in his television show. Louis C.K.’s television show is about a comedian named Louis C.K. Nothing new there. He tries to balance work, romance, and kids. I’m sure you’re wondering where this is going. How is this so original? Why is he better? Are there dinosaurs? Malick has dinosaurs, and Sean Penn, who looks a little like a dinosaur.
He’s different because he is incapable of bullshit. He is just as aware that we live in an inscrutable, cruelly inconsiderate world, but rather than wallow in the mire, he is on the lookout for the grace that comes with living. His shrug is not of the smug sage: withholding, furtive, possibly false, but the true shrug of the seeker. He doesn’t HAVE the answer, and seems to ask us along on a journey to look for it.
The same is true of his stand-up, really. He is wry and self-effacing, but I think the material is elevated not by the material itself, which is, on the surface, banal–kids, romance, work, “other people”–but by the shaggy, wide-eyed sincerity he brings to it. He is constantly surprised at the highs and lows of the world around him. One critic has pointed out that the way he sees the world is both “completely foreign and yet imminently relatable,” which is an excellent description, and indicative of the mystery that C.K. evokes.
Because that’s why he’s the superior artist. He knows that there exists in this world an essentially transcendent, mysterious, unknowable “thing” that’s always out of reach, a sublimity we are reaching for but never quite grasp, and he uses the tools at his disposal to try and find it. I imagine if Flannery O’Connor were alive today, she would enjoy Louis C.K. He understands what she means by Mystery and Manners” and many of his bits echo the absurdity on display in her “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Compare that to the seriousness in Malick, the idea that art cannot be fun. As Nabokov pointed out, however, the “comic” is only one letter away from the “cosmic.” Truly great artists know that.
Louis C.K.’s show is very cheap looking, intentionally so. It’s high def video, and at times there’s no real through line; it’s more a collection of observations and gags. The set-ups look they were decided upon not because of their effective aesthetic quality but because it was the only place to put the camera. This is probably also intentional. Louis C.K. seems intent on an artless art, almost like Lars Von Trier.
Did I just compare Louis C.K. to a vaunted Dutch filmmaker? Yes I did.
The show is not always perfect. I thought the Joan Rivers episode was a little sluggish and fawning, but at times it’s perfect, as well as a perfect embodiment of a profound artist’s individual worldview.
At one point in the show Louis C.K. Is waiting on a subway platform, and a cellist, a busker, sits and begins to play a suite by Brahms (I think it’s Brahms, at least). Louis stops and listens, watches transfixed at this small slice of beauty in the middle of this busy, banal, subterrarea. Then an old homeless man wanders directly between Louis C.K and the cellist and begins to smack himself, grunt, and undress for absolutely no reason. And yet the cellist continues, and Louis C.K. is able to watch both, one with wonder, the other with, well, wonder (and nausea, but mostly wonder).
What amazing things humans are capable of, if only we know where to look.
David Thomson, in an effort to explain why he thought Sam Peckinpah was a better filmmmaker than John Ford, said that Ford used the camera to show what he already knew was there, while Peckinpah used it to look for what he couldn’t yet see. The same can be said for Malick and Louis C.K., and why they are connected in my mind: Malick assumes an artistic vision, a profundity, and thematic resonance he does not deserve, while Louis C.K., who aspires to no such pedestal, actually sees the world in the way we wish Malick could, by admitting he doesn’t understand everything, and continuing the restless search for meaning.