The Elusive Mr Malick
For years, Terrence Malick was an invisible force, a magnet for mystery and speculation. He directed two films in the space of five years (1973 and 1978). Both were highly acclaimed in Britain, less so in the US. Neither was a box office success. Then he pulled cinema’s most tantalizing disappearing act, retiring from the fray at a point when most filmmakers are just getting started. He took himself off, to Paris it was said, kept his head down, and didn’t make another movie in twenty years.
Malick didn’t just stop, he removed himself from the equation. Stanley Kubrick had a reputation as a recluse, but Kubrick wasn’t above giving interviews from time to time, and occasionally allowed himself to be filmed at work (on the set of The Shining, for instance). But Malick has never talked to the press. Not once. And like Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, he’s never been photographed. Actually, that’s not strictly true. He allowed himself an uncredited onscreen cameo in Badlands (he’s the chap in the white hat); there is one authorized photo from the set of his eventual comeback film, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and a couple from the New York Film Critic’s Circle Awards in 1999, but that is about all Google images throws up.
Meanwhile the reputation of his two films, Badlands (with Martin Sheen as a mass killer based on Charlie Starkweather) and Days Of Heaven (with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz) grew and grew, to the point where they are now regarded as solid gold classics.
Malick’s mystique surely tinted appreciation of the films, and if you listen to the audio commentary tracks on the Criterion DVD edition of Days of Heaven, you will learn that not all of his collaborators are convinced that the film is the masterpiece it is made out to be. They remember the difficulty of the long shoot – which eventually required the services of two cinematographers - and the even longer period of post-production, where Malick ruthlessly chopped away at the scenes until nothing seemed to be left of them. The late decision to record a voice over narration improvised by Linda Manz salvaged a movie that otherwise refused to come together. Her thoughts were the glue that made it stick.
This may not be the “professional” Hollywood way, not efficient or in any practical, but it is the way of the artist, and even after an absence of two decades Malick has stuck with it. He has a reputation as a perfectionist, but in a way he’s an imperfectionist; he distrusts the design, he wants to break it up and let life flood through the cracks.
Malick’s first produced screenplay was the Paul Newman- Lee Marvin contemporary western Pocket Money, a low key shambles of a picture which pokes around looking for some fun without much success. There is also Gravy Train, virtually a lost film, a caper comedy starring Stacy Keach that some sources suggest Malick started as director, only to be fired. But there is no evidence to support or deny such a claim, and we can only add that it’s the only evidence of a sense of humour in his films. (According to Jessica Chastain, who stars as Brad Pitt’s wife in Tree Of Life, one of Malick’s favourite movies is Zoolander.) Mostly, though, what we learn from these early experiences (and the odd films he is said to have scripted during his disappearance) is that the words don’t count for much.
It’s ironic that he came from screenwriting – given that his method seems to be to dedicated to “unwriting” the script. In that, he’s similar to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love). Both rewrite the dialogue obsessively throughout the shoot, honing, reframing, turning scenes upside and inside out as they seek the essence of their movie. And in the editing, it’s the same thing again: a process governed by instinct and accident more than craft or structural principle.
Malick’s method doesn’t drive the plot forward, but it pulls us into his world so vividly that his films seem suffused with sensual and spiritual dimensions other movies never touch. He’s acutely engaged with the physical world, nature, and the light – not that his films are realist, rather they are poetic and philosophical, meditations on transcendence. Few filmmakers are as alert to the possibilities outside the frame, or so happy to toggle between the micro and the macro lens.
It’s astonishing that in such a commercial climate for American film Mr Malick has been allowed back and has thrived. Much of this is due to the dogged support of actors like Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, stars who grew up revering those first two Malick films and never imagined that they would one day get the opportunity to be in one.
Are Malick’s twenty first century movies as strong as the ones he made in the twentieth? Maybe it’s too early to say. But certainly they are, if anything, even more ambitious. The Thin Red Line seems to me increasingly like one of the greatest ever war films. The New World is richer and more intriguing every time I see it. Tree of Life…Well, it’s a remarkably personal film, and if nothing else, I look forward to the time my sons are old enough to watch it with me and discuss it. And soon there will be a sixth feature, as yet untitled but already in the can, a love story starring Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem. And then, who knows, Malick is 67, more fashionable today than ever…He could be on the verge of his most productive period yet.
The Terrence Malick Collection
The expanse of the Mid-West supplies the intimate distance of Malick’s directorial debut. Against this backdrop, runaway teenagers Kit and Holly seem small and remote. And Malick allows them to stay that way. They may be famous, these killers from the middle of nowhere, but they're still nobodies when you get to know them. Laconic and pure, there aren't many better films about the wide open spaces inside us.
DAYS OF HEAVEN
Cast: Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, Linda Manz, Sam Shepard
An early twentieth century melodrama pared back to the bone and filtered through the hazy consciousness of a child, this may be an unlikely masterpiece but it’s now universally acknowledged as one of the most beautiful films ever committed to celluloid. A prairie tale of love and death, it’s infused with a biblical sense of crime and punishment, not that Malick necessarily endorses such black and white morality.
THE THIN RED LINE(USA, 1998, 170 min)
A war movie unlike any other, Malick’s spellbinding film is a poetic refraction of James Jones’s autobiographical novel – an account of the US marines’ six-month assault on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in 1942. Making his first film after two decades’ silence, Malick gives us a philosophical meditation on life and death in nature and in man, a choral epic suffused in images of limpid beauty and stark horror.
THE NEW WORLD
In his last film, Malick imagined the Americas as they first appeared in the eyes of the British settlers, a verdant Eden of mystery and promise. But he also gives us the European colonialists through the eyes of the natives. This is also a love story, but not a very happy one… his Paradise Lost. It’s like a diamond, a rhapsodic reverie that reveals new facets every time you hold it to the light.
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