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Let’s Strike Out Swinging

There’s only one thing worse than striking out — it’s striking out looking, rather than swinging.

I think the same is true of artists.

I’ve always appreciated when an artist is willing to take a risk — swing for the fences — even if they whiff. Perhaps they attempt something unconventional or outside their comfort zone, something crazy different. And they bomb. They get panned. Sure, they struck out. But at least they did so swinging.

As an artist, there’s only one thing worse than bombing — it’s never giving ourselves a chance to do so.

I was thinking about this when I watched Terence Mallick’s latest film The Tree of Life. I love Mallick’s stuff, Days of Heaven and The New World being two of my favorites. The Tree of Life is this sprawling, disjointed, complex celluloid muse about the origins and meaning of life as seen through a middle-aged man’s childhood memories. In between, we glimpse God (at least, a gaseous rainbow cloud), the creation of the cosmos, amoebas, dinosaurs, volcanic landscapes, and Scripture quotations.

It’s a very ambitious film.

It’s also very polarizing. While some see it as profound and moving, others see it as nonsensical and pretentious. So while one critic calls it “a transcendent achievement,” another says

If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it’ll have been worth suffering through it.  

I hate to say it, but after watching the film, I have to side more with the “head-scratchers” than the cheerleaders. It’s just too far out there.*

But is this a bad thing?

I’m at the front-end of my writing career and already I’ve felt the temptation to play it safe, settle in, and find a niche, rather than to swing for the fences. I want to develop a template that “works,” plots that are do-able, characters who don’t interrupt me, and an assembly line to crank them out. I want to find what’s “hot” and chase the market, rather than risk something original and out of the mainstream. I do not want to be stretched. And heaven forbid I stretch my audience. Translation: Why swing for the fences when you can take a Base on Balls?

The reason Terrence Mallick could (in some people’s eyes) bomb so badly is because he’s taken risks his entire career; he struck out swinging because he was aiming for the fences.

Which is precisely why many of us may never strike out swinging.

* I found THIS review perfectly summarized my confliction over The Tree of Life.
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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Grim D. Reaper January 4, 2012, 7:26 AM

    As the reviewer responsible for the “If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it’ll have been worth suffering through it” comment, it IS a polarizing film, and I’ve tried to articulate why people would or wouldn’t want to see this film (isn’t that why people read reviews?) With the sheer volume of films that both make it into theaters and don’t, many critics like myself must pick and choose, and normally I would pan Malick (as I’m familar with his work). There’s a reason these kinds of films are called “art house” since fans of these visual works of art prefer to see them in that venue, but studios trying to recoup tens of millions of dollars in production bills tend to advertise these kinds of movies any way they can to pack theater seats, and very often the advertising is dishonest (listing star performers, hinting at a nonexistent narrative, championing special effects) rather than try to convey what a film like this actually is: a series of clips and images intended to provoke an emotional response without the constraints of a narative. While audiences tolerate or even prefer this kind of artitic sound and imagery in a three-minute music video or YouTube clip, it wears thin after enduring over two hours of it without a conflict-struggle-resolution framework to contextualize it in.

    • Mike Duran January 4, 2012, 7:39 AM

      That’s fair, Mr. Reaper. (Or can I call you Grim?) I’m fairly sure Brad Pitt’s inclusion in the movie insured that a lot more people would see this than would have had they known it was purely an art house piece. Nevertheless, I still wish more filmmakers and writers would take more risks, like Mallick, than settle for playing it safe. Hey, thanks for commenting!

      • Grim D. Reaper January 4, 2012, 7:49 AM

        Call me Grim! Similar to a previous post here called “Why You Should Review Books You Don’t Like,” I tend to save my ire for end-of-year awards time because that’s when you see most of these things; too often I only see what I think I might enjoy rather than waste my time, and awards time is great for expanding my horizons on what’s out there. Risks are taken like this all the time, but most people don’t know about or hear about them until awards season. Movies for most people are an escape, which is why dramas that hold up mirrors to society (and remind them of what they’re trying to escape from) are often panned while “Giant robots pummeling each other” makes hundreds of millions. The studios paying the bills, however, aren’t keen on “taking more risks” on potential financial returns.

  • TC Avey January 4, 2012, 7:48 AM

    I agree that we need to take risks, without risks many of the technological advances we have today would not exist. That is true in the arts as well.
    My husband and I received a movie gift card for Christmas, nice thought but not really practical for us. We have looked at the options available, but don’t really care to watch any of the movies that are out. In fact, besides going to watch Courageous, we haven’t been to the movies in years. Seems like a waste of time. I really want a movie/book to motivate me to go watch it/read it RIGHT NOW!
    That is not to say I have not read many wonderful books this past year, its just that many of them are not on Best Seller lists (but some are).

    Thanks for reminding us to take risks this year!

  • Carradee January 4, 2012, 12:58 PM

    I agree, and thanks for the reminder.

    I’m a fan of the author Orson Scott Card. I’ve found that his books always intrigue me, even if I end up not particularly fond of them—and even when I love one of his books, I can see why someone else might hate it. (Hart’s Hope is a particularly good example of one where some other readers would hate it for the very reasons I like it.)

    If I strike out, I want to do so swinging—and then I’ll go back to bat again. ^_^

  • Kessie January 4, 2012, 3:57 PM

    This perfectly sums up that thought from the Pixar Ratatouille movie:

    You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true – anyone can cook (write, paint)… but only the fearless can be great.

  • Bob Avey January 4, 2012, 6:07 PM

    Thank you for the interesting post, and for making me, as a writer, think where I might go next with my writing.

  • Cathy West January 4, 2012, 6:22 PM

    hey Mike! Happy New Year to you!! I suppose I am a bit of a risk taker. I wrote a book about the Vietnam War for starters. Kind of out of character for me since I normally tend to play it safe, but I do believe that every once in a while you’ve got to swing that bat with all you’ve got, no matter the end result. Sometimes you hit a home run.
    Tree of Life? Well, being a big Brad Pitt fan, I thought I was gonna love it. SO disappointed. I’m going to have to side with Grim on that one. Might have been better to watch in the ’80’s when I was drinking a lot more…

    All the best to you and yours for 2012!

  • Jessica Thomas January 4, 2012, 6:49 PM

    I will probably pass on the movie, but I love the wee little foot in the picture.

    I find myself in the opposite conundrum. I tend to want to skip around, always trying something different. However, that’s an issue, because it would seem most people who are able to make a living at this writing gig tend to do so by producing copious titles in a series. I’m attempting to write a series at the moment, despite the fact that the idea of camping on one cast of characters for more than one novel kind of makes me shudder.

  • James Garcia Jr January 4, 2012, 9:31 PM

    I completely agree, Mike. It’s not the guys who swung and missed that are remembered, but the ones who just stood there and left strike three come right over the plate.
    I dreampt of being a published author for 20 years. I’m pushing 43 now, but while turning 38, I began to feel the weight of the eventual regret that I was going to feel were I not to at least try. I dusted off the manuscript – a crossover Christian vampire novel – and finished it. 18 months later I found that publisher…
    I’m so glad I took that bat off my shoulders.

    -Jimmy

  • Jon Pierce January 7, 2012, 12:08 AM

    Mike, I felt very much the same way did after staying up into the unholy hours of them morning to watch another Mallick film. I went into it with much anticipation because I loved his war film Thin Red Line, and I figure with a lineup of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn this was gonna be another moving film that I was glad to rented. However, after the credits rolled I felt very confused and quite frustrated. I went to bed asking myself “what the hell just happened?”, “did I just waste 2 1/2 hours of my life?”, and “why do I feel so disgusted?”. The last question preoccupied my thoughts for weeks after. Literly for weeks I still thought about The Tree of Life!

    What I realized is that Mallick did an extrodinary job telling a very familiar story. He tells a story of sin, brokeness, the deprave human condition to be pulled to do evil, and ultimately grace and love are the only way to forgive and make things new. I think that’s why I felt disgusted imediatedly afterward because I was reminded my own tendencies to rebel, sin, destroy, and hurt those I love. But somehow I grace of the mother and even the tough father drew me in deeper into the realzation that I’m just a boy and I’m loved nonetheless. And that’s what makes
    this film so beautiful, somehow grace tryumps over evil; in fact its as if the light
    just squashes out the darkeness.

    What I came to realize is that Mallick did a quite extrodinary job telling a familiar story. A

  • Jon Pierce January 7, 2012, 12:20 AM

    Mike, I felt very much the same way did after staying up into the unholy hours of them morning to watch another Mallick film. I went into it with much anticipation because I loved his war film Thin Red Line, and I figure with a lineup of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn this was gonna be another moving film that I was glad to rented. However, after the credits rolled I felt very confused and quite frustrated. I went to bed asking myself “what the hell just happened?”, “did I just waste 2 1/2 hours of my life?”, and “why do I feel so disgusted?”. The last question preoccupied my thoughts for weeks after. Literly for weeks I still thought about The Tree of Life!

    What I realized is that Mallick did an extrodinary job telling a very familiar story. He tells a story of sin, brokeness, the deprave human condition to be pulled to do evil, and ultimately grace and love are the only way to forgive and make things new. I think that’s why I felt disgusted imediatedly afterward because I was reminded my own tendencies to rebel, sin, destroy, and hurt those I love. But somehow I grace of the mother and even the tough father drew me in deeper into the realzation that I’m just a boy and I’m loved nonetheless. And that’s what makes
    this film so beautiful, somehow grace tryumps over evil; in fact its as if the light
    just squashes out the darkness.

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