Degree of Life: Movie Dates and Number Crunching

by on November 29, 2011

Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction

The first time I ever heard of Terrence Malick was in a recorded lecture I downloaded off the Internet from the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. It was 2007, but I guess the lecture was from a few years prior, right after Malick’s The New World had come out. In a weird excursus during the talk, Dreyfus gets effusive about Malick’s movies.

“You know, Malick is a Heideggerian,” he says.

In his 20s, Malick did do some graduate philosophy work in England, but he didn’t complete the degree because of a dispute with his advisor over the notorious German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He did, however, manage to crank out a translation of one of Heidegger’s essays. It’s not really a translation anybody reads but the point is that Malick put some effort into rendering Heidegger’s often maddening prose into English.

If you’ve tried to watch any of Malick’s movies, and if you’ve tried to read any of Heidegger’s books, this probably doesn’t surprise you. Heidegger doesn’t believe in totalizing philosophy. Malick doesn’t believe in totalizing narrative. They’re both about the need for slow, some would say tedious, meditation and, in a sense, about the wonder of the world we already know.

Take Malick’s most recent movie, The Tree of Life, which is comprised mostly of meandering, full, gorgeous scenes of growing up in the South in the fifties, plus some pretty out there sequences of galaxies forming and dinosaurs killing each other. Lou Lumenick, who reviewed the movie for the New York Post, is “not sure Malick, who reportedly drew on his own Texas childhood, really needed two hours of these scenes to make his point, whatever it may be.”

Lumenick admits that he misses the point. Because the point is that there is no point.

But I’m not trying to write about Malick. I’m trying to write about Internet dating.


I had never been on a date with somebody I met from the internet. Okay, well, maybe once, kind of, but not really.

But my ex-boyfriend told me that he had been consistently dating somebody he met from OKCupid, a site notorious for the controversial idea that you can match people with an algorithm. I don’t know why he felt it was appropriate to tell me this, but I had had no such luck since moving to New York, and this information triggered the competitive instincts that I spend so much time trying to suppress. In fact, he probably only thought it was acceptable to sign up for OKCupid because a friend of ours, in law school at Harvard, had met her fiancé, a PhD candidate at Columbia, through the website. This is the most acceptable form of online dating: on the surface it seems to have a sense of humor about itself (OK, Cupid!) but really it’s about pedigree.

So I signed up.

But I’m not trying to write about Internet dating. I’m trying to write about why movie reviews suck.


I’ll start by making a straw man argument, one that I don’t entirely want to tear down: You can’t ignore why people like for newspapers to assign numerical ratings to movies (say, two stars out of four). People out there have problems: parents with cancer, marriages on the rocks, thankless jobs, debt out their noses. Should they also be made to suffer through bad movies? And even more than that, what about justice? Shouldn’t people in Hollywood be subjected to the same unforgiving market economy as everybody else? People can be given numerical values used to fire them. What kind of world would it be if movies get off easier than human beings?

To make this much more dramatic than it needs to be, let’s go back to Malick’s intellectual idol, Heidegger. For all of his contemplation, Heidegger joined the Nazi party in the 1930s and was deemed a “Mitläufer” after it was all over. “Mitlaufen” in German means “to run alongside.” A “Mitläufer” is like somebody who walks next to a float in a parade without actually standing on the float. It’s not the worst judgment that could be pronounced against a German post-1945, but it wasn’t good. This is relevant because if, like Heidegger, you sit around and think about grandiose, obscure ideas all day and never think too hard about how they fit into the world, you fail to create, in the words of one Heidegger commentator, “a transitional space between thinking and acting.”

To refuse to subject The Tree of Life to evaluation would be to refuse to integrate it into a social totality. The movie’s $32 million dollar budget isn’t big by Hollywood standards. However, the money used to make it, like the money it takes in at the box office, all comes from somewhere, and this movie, like all movies, has to be held accountable for that.

In philosophy, language like “social totality” is used by leftist dialectical thinkers in the tradition of G. W. F. Hegel. It’s no coincidence that Heidegger’s greatest critics tended to be Hegelians. Hegel himself thought the dialectic could eventually be completed and that the universal (the economy, the consumer base) and the particular (The Tree of Life) could settle into a happy rhythm where they alternate with one another in a complementary relationship. In terms of the dialectic, this means they continually redefine each other and reveal new things about one another, but they still proceed in harmonious lockstep.

But is harmony possible? What if, in the completed dialectic, after universality has said its piece, particularity never again gets a turn to speak?

What if it’s like when you think you went on a great first date and then the other guy never texts you back?

I’m pretty sure I was the one who suggested that we see The Tree of Life. I know for certain that I chose the restaurant because I made a reservation, and then, because I didn’t want to look dorky for having made a reservation at a restaurant where you didn’t necessarily need one, I arrived early so I could have them take away the little “reserved” triangular prism.

While I waited, nervous also about what he would think of me for having arrived early, I pulled out a book from my backpack to calm myself down. Unfortunately, the book I had grabbed on my way out, because it was small, was the correspondence between two Jewish poets who had survived the Holocaust and whose post-traumatic stress had gradually evolved into delusions that the Nazis were still trying to kill them (which, one must admit, is understandable). “No matter how much electroshock they give me, the terror won’t leave,” I read, seated in the soba noodle restaurant.

Just as I began to think this wasn’t the best literature to temper my neuroses and to make me seem like a normal, happy person, I looked up to see my date.

“So you seem to have done your homework,” he smiled. “This place has good reviews on Yelp.”

“Oh, I hadn’t seen that,” I lied. Why did I lie? He was cute.

“Well, it seems like a good choice. And the movie got good reviews too.”


If you pull up the Wikipedia page for The Tree of Life and you click “Reception,” you see two scores on a scale of 100: one from Rotten Tomatoes and one from Metacritic. The idea—we all know it—is that if you average the numbers from all the critics in all the newspapers in the English-speaking world, you’ll get something like the most helpful consensus.

I prefer the user-generated reviews on these sites. The anonymous hoi-polloi that populates the Internet still has a sense of individuality; charmingly in touch with their instincts, the masses don’t particularly care to pass a final judgment. Some reviews, such as this one-star review of The Earrings of Madame de… on Netflix, actually only review their fellow reviewers: “I wish these reviewers would just give their opinion, instead of writing a short book. After the lengthy view, why even bother watching the movie? You now know everything that has happened.” Another user on Metacritic gives Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 9 out of 10, explaining that “the subtitles kept it from getting a 10, when they’re fighting they talk and you look at what they’re saying and miss some of the action.” Professional reviews, on the other hand, speaking for Us All, don’t stumble upon the scores they assign—they culminate in them

Interestingly, the New York Times doesn’t assign numerical values to their reviews. How do Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes deal with this? Somebody—perhaps an intern?—reads the reviews and assigns a numerical rating. In the case of Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not as complicated, insofar as every individual review can only deem a movie “Fresh” or “Rotten,” thumbs up or thumbs down. Metacritic, however, applies a fine-toothed comb, and culls numbers like “40” and “70.” (It shows some self-restraint that they limit themselves to multiples of 10.)

The problem isn’t just with movies. To me, Pitchfork Media is the worst offender. I’m not sure how they decide the difference between a 6.7 and a 6.8 album. Maybe they have some complicated algorithm. Maybe it’s a straw poll from their office. Maybe they make a homeless guy cast yarrow stalks for an I Ching reading. But the pseudo-scientific nature of this precision is arrogant, in the best case scenario. And in the worst case scenario, the seemingly exact product (the verdict) obviates the need for the process of thinking (the review) about the work.

Consider what A. O. Scott wrote about the latest Transformers movie, which lays bare the problem of the juridical movie review. He calls director Michael Bay’s movies “symphonies of excess and redundancy” and, after admitting that he sort of likes them, wonders if this is “evidence that our once proud civilization was in a precipitous state of decline.” He writes: “I can’t decide if this movie is so spectacularly, breathtakingly dumb as to induce stupidity in anyone who watches, or so brutally brilliant that it disarms all reason. What’s the difference?” You would think musings like these, coupled with several protestations that “I’m not judging, just describing” might put the breaks on the compiling websites’ numericalization campaign. But Rotten Tomatoes thinks this sounds “Fresh” and Metacritic extracts the number “60” from this review.

I’ll give away the ending to my date story, probably as a kind of defense mechanism, and tell you that it was a better date for me than for him. I know this because I texted him saying I had had a good time and he never texted me back.

I don’t know why I liked him. I can’t decide if it was because of or despite how he started telling me about his ex-girlfriend.

The first mention seemed almost off-handed. The second time, though, and the third time, didn’t seem as spontaneous.

“So you um.” In Japan it’s considered polite to slurp your food. Soba noodles are designed to make loud slurping noises. It’s a minefield on a date. “You also date women or…?”

“Well,” the other guy said, really relaxed, “up until now, I’ve mostly been involved with women. But I’ve had experiences with men.”

“OK. And—” What was I supposed to say? I had already started to say something. This was bad. I looked at his face. I tried to ascertain how he was evaluating me. Was my score dropping? I couldn’t tell. Finally, “—how long have you been, uhh, having experiences with men?”

“Well,” he smiled, like he didn’t have a nerve in his body, “I messed around once with a guy in high school, and then this is my first ever date with a man.”

This took a minute to sink in. Suddenly, the fact that this was my first internet date, sort of, seemed pretty trivial.


What conception of cinema is betrayed by the thought that you can give it a grade?

That there is a science to manipulating your feelings.

That movies exist to manipulate your feelings.

That a good movie successfully gives you the kind of feeling it intends to give you.

That the successful manipulation of emotions ought to be rewarded with a good grade.

That, ultimately, our social world is constructed of universally accessible symbols—really, triggers for certain kinds of feelings—taken in by particular individuals, who internalize them and understand them as their own. That in a way these universal symbols are our own. But that no less are they imposed from above, and, that, like marionettes, we jerk around when the strings are pulled.

Again, we have a story of universality and particularity, but we find it difficult for the particular not to be the puppet pulled along by the universal manipulator.

When the movie was over, we went to a bar nearby for a drink to talk about it.

“Did you like it?” he asked. I had tried to ignore his initial comment at dinner, but he repeated: “It’s gotten really good reviews.”

I bristled and pretended like I hadn’t heard.

“I liked that the camera was almost always moving, like some other kind of subjectivity,” I hedged, “while the people being filmed were also moving. Because the movie doesn’t only chart how the intentional objects of consciousness emerge but how consciousness itself emerges.”

“I thought of the movie in terms of Fellini’s 8 ½,” he countered. “It was obliquely autobiographical; it took place in Malick’s hometown of Waco, Texas, in the fifties, when Malick grew up. And like 8 ½, it ended with the protagonist as an adult, on the beach, visited by all the main characters in his life. But where 8 ½ was carnavalesque and kind of flippant, there was a reverential quality to this movie.”

Just then, an eager-looking guy wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a handheld device with an LCD display came up to us our table in the bar.

“Hey, are you guys interested in cigarette promotions? Like 2-for-1?”

“No thanks,” my date said.

“Hold on,” I stopped him. “2-for-1? As in, packs of cigarettes? I’m interested in that.”

“Yeah, like that,” said the guy with the baseball cap. “I’ll just need your information and then I can give you some vouchers.”

While I sat there typing my address into the promoter’s little device, I wasn’t sure, but I thought my date was giving me a dirty look. I hadn’t brought cigarettes with me because it seemed like a gamble. But do you know how much cigarettes cost in New York? I couldn’t pass it up.

I handed the guy his device back and he gave me two coupons—for a discount on chewing tobacco.

“Chewing tobacco?” I asked. “I thought I was getting 2-for-1 smokes.”

“I said it was like that,” the promoter corrected. I swear, this really happened. After handing him the coupons back, he thanked me for registering with him anyway. “This will help me reach my quota.”

When he was gone, OKCupid guy said, “Now you’re going to get so much crap in the mail.” I detected judgment in his tone.

After careful and extensive analysis, this has to be the misstep, the one characteristic, that put my rating below the threshold of acceptability. OKCupid had overestimated my value. This is the reason he never called me back. It’s the only possible explanation.


Soren Kierkegaard began as an acolyte of Hegel’s, but he too came to feel that the dialectical opposition between universal and particular strangles the latter. For Kierkegaard, it has to do with the moment of decision. He wrote:

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. […] Hang yourself, and you will regret it. Do not hang yourself and you will also regret it. Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life.

See The Tree of Life, and you will regret it. Do not see The Tree of Life, and you will also regret it. See The Tree of Life or do not see The Tree of Life, you will regret it either way.

Kierkegaard, of course, doesn’t really give you “all the wisdom of life” itself—just a parable that will show you its quintessence. You only get one life, one set of experiences, and if the universal exists, you never actually see it, you only see the particular. It’s no coincidence, then, that he puts it in terms of how you act on the love in your life. It doesn’t matter if you think of it as a gift from God or a neurochemical reaction; understood from the inside, love can only be particular. Romance occurs spontaneously, and in a way it can only ever occur for the first time. To fall in love is to see that which is unique and full of wonder; it shouldn’t surprise us that a philosopher like Heidegger always fell in love. An asshole in basically every aspect of life, Heidegger once wrote to his wife defending his constant affairs with female students:

My nature is more cutleaf than yours; and it would be impossible for me to prove to you through any argument that I must live in—“Eros,” in order to bring perfectly to the fore of my mind the creative force that I sense as the unresolved and final thing.

Heidegger too frames his “wisdom” in terms of marriages and, more generally, in terms of love. Love means surrendering to another person, whom you can’t wholly subordinate to any kind of totality, be it social or ideal. Marriage means the universalization of this particularity. Maybe so many marriages end in divorce because people don’t know how to keep the particular from drowning in a sea of the universal.
Quantifying the value of a movie stands in for the complete understanding of what the movie was, what it was trying to accomplish, and whether it was “successful.” To give a movie a number rating is for Minerva’s owl to take flight at dusk. It means not only the death of enthusiasm for a given movie, but for any movie, no matter how “great” it may be. This is true even for a movie that gets good reviews such as The Tree of Life.

My intention here is by no means to defend or champion The Tree of Life, though I did like it. Consider that the user-submitted reviews for The Tree of Life on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are remarkably lower than the reviews from the professional critics. The opposite is true of the movies in the Michael Bay Transformers franchise. The second film in the trilogy was the highest grossing movie of 2009 in the box offices, with user poll ratings of B+. Meanwhile, Metacritic gave it a score of 35 out of 100 and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a paltry 20%. If reducing a movie to a number is desirable so that people can be directed to the movies they want to see, clearly the professionalization of criticism is perverting the whole project.

In its own particular way, The Tree of Life makes these two competing modes of seeing the world into a theme of the movie. The main character’s mother teaches the children to dance and to appreciate how the light filters through the seeming surfeit of windows in their house. (Seriously, don’t these people believe in privacy?) His father tries to teach them to earn money. The particular is beauty and joy. The universal is livelihood, the concrete underpinning. “Father,” whispers the little boy in something like a voice over. “Mother. Always you wrestle inside me.”

It doesn’t make life better to think of movies as mere entertainment, least of all for people with difficult lives who use the cinema for escapism. Is the goal to watch a movie, to surrender to it, to get agreeable sensations from it, and then to forget it? Even if your life is shitty, wouldn’t it be better to watch a movie that winds up being a difficult lesson, but one that you can take with you beyond those several hours in a dark room full of strangers? Maybe a movie that inspires in you the desire to make your material life better, or a movie that teaches you a way to enchant your life, even if in a very terrestrial way? This would be a movie, the images of which, the dialogue from which, you would return to over and over again, always interpreting them in new ways. At some moments it might be a B, at some moments, a C-, and maybe even sometimes an A+. Maybe this movie doesn’t exist. Maybe the affirmation that it does is hopelessly naive. But if you’re dissatisfied, and you don’t believe in movies like this, you are in a profound state of despair.

Let me be clear: I’m not against reviewing movies, and I’m not against making value judgments about them in print. But almost every newspaper in the English-speaking world assigns movies numerical ratings, even the respectable ones. Meanwhile, I don’t know of a single non-Anglophone newspaper that does this. I don’t know if this says something deeper about our culture, but it’s definitely a model we’re inured to, and it seems to mostly be a problem with us. It’s kind of amazing we don’t realize how dumb the practice is. It produces reviews like Lumenick’s where, after giving The Tree of Life three-and-a-half stars, he says it’s “unlike anything else out there.” Then why is it rated using the same scale?

I choose to focus on movie reviews that give movies stars. This would be relatively simple to do away with. In reality, the problem of converting complex art (to say nothing of complex life experience) into the one-dimensional is so deeply entrenched in our lives that other phenomena would require, in relatively simple instantiations of the problem, nothing less than a bottom-up rethinking of our relationship to art and entertainment, if not entirely to the idea of rational decision-making. Because if you think about it, giving out Oscars (as an example) is really just an extreme version of giving a movie four stars. And when someone asks who Ingmar Bergman is, and I reply “the greatest filmmaker of all time,” I’m no less guilty than Roger Ebert.

So I don’t have all the answers. I can say one thing, though. Rating movies reduces all movies to distractions, whether that’s what they want to be or not. It tells you how good this movie will be at distracting you, and maybe how long the afterglow will be, but it is a method fundamentally incapable of addressing, say, a movie so personally important for you that it changes the very way you see the world. Very few movies are like this, naturally, but all movies in the end win their merit in individual experience, not in terms of success on a ready-made scale. The ideal movie review, then, might make a detour to something universal, issued in whatever terms universality demands for itself, but will end before the last judgment is rendered, on a note of anticipation and, in the best of scenarios, hope.


Infinite mass in a point of infinite density, so tightly packed it creates infinite heat and ultimately an explosion that it triggers a process to create space itself, taking billions of years, years in which molecules, rocks, planets, stars swirl around one another, turning into what we call the universe, which all of a sudden becomes wonderfully beautiful and produces, in one of its far arms, a galaxy, on the tip of which is a star, around which swirl planets, on one of which grows a rather common variant of organic life, beginning as germs, turning into bugs, then mushrooms, then trees, then shrimp, then sharks, then alligators, then tigers, then monkeys, then talking monkeys, and what talking monkeys do is they gesticulate and act indicating the belief that each one of them is the only true talking monkey in existence and that all of the other talking monkeys are mere automatons, when in fact this “unique” behavior turns out to be the most typical behavior talking monkeys are capable of, and one day the talking monkeys create moving pictures and build a movie theater on Houston Street in New York and play a movie there called The Tree of Life.

Despite his symbolic system of language that reduces everything particular to the merely universal, Jason’s mind is more or less blank and Jason (on his very first date ever with a dude) buys a very particular ticket, an old-timey red ticket, made of thick paper ticket stock, that has been ripped off from a roll of identical tickets, with only the serial number changed a digit at a time as the ticket roll shrinks. There are many pairs in the movie theater, all on dates. Jason and his date are only one pair. They take two seats next to each other that look like every other seat in the movie theater. The film reel, only the copy of a more original film reel, distributed like every copy to a slew of movie theaters across the country and indeed the world, begins playing. The strange talking monkeys all keep talking until the lights in the movie theater turn off and then, almost at the exact same time, they all stop and devote their unblinking attention to the screen. This is a great sign of hope in their lives, for if the movie weren’t capable of inducing this feeling of the unexpected in them, they would never be quiet. By a certain point, all the couples in the theater are holding hands. It is a behavior they have learned, and maybe they all can judge exactly how enjoyable this particular hand-holding experience is—for example, if their partner’s hand is too playful or is just lying there really uninterested like a clam, or is really sweaty, or really calloused or unnervingly soft. But though Jason has held girls’ hands during movies before, he has never held a boy’s, and so he might only give an equivocal evaluation of this experience, and, though we can’t say for sure what is going on in his head, he turns to his date and smiles.