Despite taking three decades to hit theaters in the first place, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life will be slightly different when Criterion releases its home video edition of the movie. That’s prompted Bilge Ebirl at Vulture, among others, to ask if the movie will ever be truly finished.
I would respond with a question of my own: Does it matter?
The idea that art is ever actually completed seems rooted in the notion that it is simply another iteration of what everyone else considers to be “work.” Instead of finishing building a building or manufacturing a car, the artist offers the product – a movie, a painting or something else – at the end of the production process.
That simply isn’t true. Art reflects the mood, attitude and personality of its creator. Those moods change, those personalities evolve, those attitudes are reinforced or dismissed. It should be allowed that the artist revisit their works from time to time when they feel more needs to be said or something needs to be altered.
In my opinion artists should be free to have at it, opening up their past works and tweaking as they see fit. Make edits, add a drum beat, fill in a backstory.
What I don’t think is that the original should be unavailable following those changes. This is the biggest issue I had for years with George Lucas and the original Star Wars films. He was entitled to enhance those movies for the Special Edition releases in 1997 and 1998, as well as whatever further additions or changes were made in subsequent home video releases. But by keeping the original edits, the ones a generation had grown up loving and clinging to, out of people’s hands he only reinforced the knee-jerk distaste for the new versions.
If Malick wants to keep adjusting the flow and story of The Tree of Life, we should not only let him but encourage it, as long as the original is still around for people to judge and enjoy if they so choose. Once he passes, though, that’s the end of the line. Others don’t need to then come in and try to continue the revision process.
Art should be viewed as a journey, one that begins at the moment of inception and continues on until the artist is no longer with us. There is, of course, the reality that at some point a work needs to be released, but that version should be seen as just another step on that journey, not the end of the road. We can still appreciate what’s offered without any one iteration being considered final or definitive.