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Anatomy of A High-Brow Art Debate: Sean Penn and the Bitch-Slapping of Malick's Tree of Life

Thompson on Hollywood By Sophia Savage | Thompson on Hollywood August 22, 2011 at 6:25AM

It goes like this. Sean Penn talks to Le Figaro and implies (Exhibit A) Terrence Malick underutilized him in The Tree of Life. The New Yorker's Richard Brody defends Malick and upholds the idea that actors are the equivalent of colors on a painter's brush ("Penn brings an acid yellow to the glass-and-metal grays of his scenes, and it adds something important to the film"), and that Penn's lack of understanding of his own performance doesn't undermine the power or purpose of it. InContention's Kris Tapley calls Penn's comments a bitch-slap, and while he doesn't exactly disagree ("The bookend nature of his role is the weaker element of the film"), he does imply that Penn is being a bit of a diva in the midst of Malick's well-known experimental and unpredictable directing style (both Javier Bardem and Jessica Chastain told TOH! they weren't even sure if they'll appear in Malick's latest project, though both were thrilled to work with him).
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Thompson on Hollywood


It goes like this. Sean Penn talks to Le Figaro and implies (Exhibit A) Terrence Malick underutilized him in The Tree of Life. The New Yorker's Richard Brody defends Malick and upholds the idea that actors are the equivalent of colors on a painter's brush ("Penn brings an acid yellow to the glass-and-metal grays of his scenes, and it adds something important to the film"), and that Penn's lack of understanding of his own performance doesn't undermine the power or purpose of it. InContention's Kris Tapley calls Penn's comments a bitch-slap, and while he doesn't exactly disagree ("The bookend nature of his role is the weaker element of the film"), he does imply that Penn is being a bit of a diva in the midst of Malick's well-known experimental and unpredictable directing style (both Javier Bardem and Jessica Chastain told TOH! they weren't even sure if they'll appear in Malick's latest project, though both were thrilled to work with him).

Commentators--official (Exhibit B) and unofficial (Exhibits C and D)--will now argue on the side of the actor or director, on the variable size of their egos, the hopes and intentions of each as artists, and so on.

Exhibit A: "I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."

Exhibit B: LATimes: "Whether Penn's riposte comes off as honest or sour grapes probably turns on whether you feel The Tree of Life is a masterpiece or a naked emperor, a subject about which there's been no obvious consensus."

Exhibit C: Comment at The New Yorker: "The Tree of Life it's not as good as everybody wants it to be."

Exhibit D: Comment at InContention: "To me it isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with his sentiments. No, its about the fact that Penn is an ass."

ThePlaylist reminds us that selective quoting is often the instigator with these debates.

This article is related to: Directors, Genres, Headliners, Stuck In Love, Hollywood, Bloggers


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.