A photo of a sign offering a warning about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life began making the rounds on the web a few weeks ago. It was taken at the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut, and politely informed patrons that the feature in question:
…is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director. It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling. We encourage patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it, and for those electing to attend, please go in with an open mind and know that the Avon has a NO REFUND policy once you have purchased a ticket to see one of our films.
In an interview with indieWIRE, the theater’s Adam Birnbaum explained that while for the most part audiences have reacted positively toward the film, there were some walkouts, and “there were a few individuals who were fairly nasty and belligerent towards the management staff, demanding their money back.” Their problem seemed to be, he muses, “the particular visual and stylistic approach in the film that is so different from what people are accustomed to these days.”
No matter how much a movie displeased you, is it ever fair to ask for a refund for a film simply because you didn’t like it? It’s a bewildering impulse. To believe so puts a serious onus on a movie theater, particularly one with programming of a more difficult or arthouse nature, programming less likely to please everyone. It seems totally reasonable, if less easy to put into practice these days, to hold a theater responsible for the proper screening of a movie—to have the film be projected correctly with no audio issues, to have the seats be free of parasites and people who feel the need to answer their cell phones during the picture, blissfully oblivious to the effort you’re putting into trying to make their heads explode with your mental powers. After all, that’s what theaters are meant to do—to offer you a comfortable place in which to watch a movie.
But to attempt to get your money back because you didn’t like a movie is to suggest that the perceived failings of some far-away filmmaker and/or studio can be laid at the feet of a local theater manager, who’s presumably meant to pass the message along. (Who doesn’t have Terrence Malick on speed dial?) It also raises ever more prickly questions of changing audience expectations of what a film is intended to do and how those expectations are formed in the first place, as people become uninterested or just unwilling to bother learning about a film in advance.
The Tree of Life isn’t Zookeeper, but it’s also going to come in relatively low on any ranked list of challenging cinema. Excluding the prolonged aside in which the film flashes back to the beginnings of the universe, the formation of Earth and life on it, Malick’s latest is primarily a drama about a family in Texas in the 1950s, one awash in sensory details but not overly convoluted or deliberately strenuous. There are no eight-minute shots of Hungarian farmers walking down a road, no gruesome acts of unprecedentedly explicit violence, no repeated scenes devoted to potato-peeling, no camerawork or sound design prone to, intentionally or not, cause physical distress. A few years ago, festivals screened a Spanish film called Bullet In The Head, a feature shot entirely in the style of a long-range surveillance camera. Compared to that, The Tree Of Life is infinitely audience-friendly, what with all of its audible dialogue.
What The Tree Of Life isn’t is your typical Merchant Ivory-style awards bait, an assumption it might have been possible to draw from the ads and trailer, featuring Brad Pitt in retro clothing and Sean Penn in your basic melancholy. The director is “acclaimed,” the pull quotes are glowing, it’s months until the main holiday-season glut of prestige dramas—it’s certainly possible to understand how people in search of something more than a summer blockbuster, but unprepared for something that flirts with the experimental, could make their way to the film. But whose problem is that? Interest in film as something other than entertainment may feel like it’s at an all-time low, but does that mean that audiences are so unprepared for deviations from the norm and so under-informed about what they’re getting into that they require advance written warning? Moviegoers should shoulder at least some of the accountability for what they’re going to see.
Film criticism isn’t a terribly popular profession these days. It’s been declared dead or dying for years, and aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes have become home to backlashes of rage against whoever besmirches a title beloved or anticipated by a significant online community. One of the most common, and my least favorite, rebukes of criticism or a critical opinion is the claim that the respondent no longer reads reviews, preferring to see things and make up his or her own mind. It infuriates me, because I don’t think even the most authoritarian critic would describe the purpose of criticism as “informing people what to think.”
Criticism gives context, it offers a perspective, and a minor perusal of the mass of critical response to Malick’s latest would have relieved anyone of their expectations of a film conforming to traditional storytelling techniques, even if they weren’t familiar with the filmmaker’s work. To not read critics’ takes on a film does not equal going into it with an open mind—we’re constantly being wooed by advertising, posters, stills, TV spots, and trailers, all of which are tailored to provide what a distributor hopes is the most alluring-looking interpretation of their own devising. It’s one that’s not always going to be true to the actual experience of the film. It’s a come-on, not the start of a conversation.
Yes, I realize widespread occurrences of audiences demanding their money back is unlikely and futile and not going to be the factor that finally takes down the indie film industry. But what’s funny about the idea of these disgruntled patrons demanding refunds for a film that didn’t match their expectations of it, or of what a film is intended to be in general, is that they’re taking out their displeasure on the most ambitious side of the movie world, on one of the limited number of contemporary features that aims, unapologetically, to be art. (As Roger Ebert put it, “there were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few.”) Though The Tree Of Life received a fairly wide release, I have a feeling most of the people who’ve bought tickets for it didn’t just do so because it was showing at the right time, because they felt like seeing something and Bad Teacher was sold out. It’s a film that demands to be sought out and was booked first in arthouse theaters like the small, non-profit Avon.
For all that people can have very specific ideas about what high-end cinema should be, they can be awfully undemanding when it comes to mainstream fare. Just think of, say, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, currently the year’s second-biggest moneymaker, but already fading from the collective awareness like the brief blindness after a camera flash, forgotten as the next bright thing comes along. This summer has seen the arrival of some incredibly half-assed processed film product, but the very disposability of those movies, their commodified calculation, also serve as a protective layer.
It seems inconceivable that a small, belligerent group of patrons would walk out of a screening of Green Lantern and demand a refund because the characters were so poorly drawn. No, Green Lantern is $200 million of soon-to-look-dated special effects and Ryan Reynolds’ delightful abdominal muscles, and it will ably fill a two-and-a-half hour slot on a cable network in a year or two. Even if someone watching it were to feel ripped off by its frantic failure to be much fun, to demand a refund would be as unthinkable as asking a sidewalk vending machine for your soda money back. So instead he or she pulls out a phone and answers it: “Oh, nothing, really. I’m just in a movie.”