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?

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