Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Now I've Seen Everything Department: Terrence Malick

"Miracles Are Happening, Even If We Don't See Them"

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans" wrote John Lennon in "Beautiful Boy" in 1980. The cinema of Terrence Frederick Malick had been saying it—visually—for years. The subjects of Malick's films go through their short lives (and their time on-screen) in desperate attempts to survive life, or make it better for themselves, while around them in the vistas they inhabit, life goes on without them. And while their actions—murdering, plotting, warring, conquering—are brief grand schemes, the backgrounds, often unnoticed and unseen (and unappreciated) by the foreground actors, move in designs far more intricate and complex than anything man could devise.

In a sense, all of Malick's films are tragedies for their participants, but triumphs for The Good Earth that he documents. His characters are drifters through the landscape, and, though he may turn off his camera when their stories are told, there is the sense that the worlds they inhabit will go on—the images I remember from Malick's films that have been burned in my memory (sometimes literally) have had no actors present: a farmhouse violently aflame, the smoke and flames spinning in a frightening gyre; a vast plain that is all horizon, one house perched tall and absurd in the middle of it, the South Pacific jungle moving in three-dimensions, alive with sound.

Malick's films could never be adapted for the stage—you couldn't make a musical out of them, for instance—as they avoid traditional dramatic structure and the traditional flow of story-telling (I can't imagine the job of the poor fellow who'd be tasked with inserting commercials into a broadcast). They are wholly and forever films, employing the arts of photography and editing in ways to create an experience in the purest sense of the form. They approach the impact of a novel, intimate, personal, full of internal insights, and coalesce in the minds and the imagination of the audience to form an overall impression, unique to that audience member.

Box-office success has usually eluded Malick's films (and The Tree of Life received a mixed reception at the Cannes Film Festival garnering boos, walk-outs...but winning the top prize), but they have grown in reputation over the years, proving them to be, appropriately enough, evergreen. Malick dispenses with obvious narrative story-telling in favor of voice-overs that seem more appropriate to personal memoirs. The real thrust of the story-telling is all-encompassingly visual, filled with top-tier actors (never more so than now) who blend in with the landscapes of Malick's inquisitive camera-work. "Pretentious" has been a frequent charge of Malick's films. And yet, there isn't a stronger story-teller with images in the current cinema, a film maker with a sense of The Big Picture, and in that, he is a contemporary of artists the likes of Ford, Lean, and Kubrick.

Badlands (1973) Seeing this in the theaters for the first time in 1973, I was immediately drawn to Malick's way of making films. I had been fascinated by cinema told in an oblique manner, with the emphasis on visual properties, rather than a melodramatic dialogue dependence, like 2001, Richard Lester's Petulia, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and George Lucas' THX-1138. They were cold, dispassionate films, but not without beauty and not without their own sense of soul.  Malick's fictionalization of the Starkweather-Fugate killings of 1958 is as cold as they come, but told with incredible beauty and an odd off-beat humor. It's also a commentary on fame and legend, as Martin Sheen's Kit Carruthers (Sheen was a boyish 32 when he made Badlands) sees himself as a mirror-image of James Dean, with not much going for himself other than that. But that's part of the appeal to Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek, her third film and her second featured role), whose view of life is highly romanticized past the point of sense—she loves Kit, but she's more in love with being in love with Kit. The film is narrated by Spacek in a flat monotone, like she was reading from a diary, preserving the story of her and Kit's great love against a world that doesn't understand them and is against them—there is that little matter of the murders committed along the way.

Badlands is an impressive movie debut about creature-humans lost in a desert between good and evil and their own deluded fictions and reality.

Days of Heaven (1978) Days of Heaven was a giant step up from Badlands. The story-telling was more oblique, the budget was bigger, the characters more numerous, but just as reticent to talk. For one thing, they're all keeping secrets. Except for the Ishmael-like narrator (Linda Manz, who created her narration by free-thinking while watching a cut of the movie).

She is the sister of Bill (Richard Gere, who, as he would with American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman, took the part after John Travolta got cold feet—Gere owes a lot to John Travolta's bad taste), who, after killing a steel-mill foreman, is on the run with the Manz character and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) at the turn of the century. Hopping a freight train, they stop at a farm, owned by Sam Shepard (his first major film role), and take jobs as laborers in the wheat fields. Ambitious, but only covetously so, Bill notes the attraction the dying farmer has for Abby, and exploits it, encouraging Abby to seek her fortunes with him, hoping to inherit the considerable land and its worth, once the farmer has passed. 

In the meantime, there is wheat to gather, and with all laid plans, best and worst, God laughs and intervenes, using Nature as a weapon—plagues have worked so well in the storied past—and a mirror for the struggles between the "haves" and those whose only end is to take it.   

Days of Heaven is one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The Thin Red Line (1998) After Days of Heaven, Malick did not make another film for 18 years.  But, when it was heard that he was directing an adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel "The Thin Red Line" (it had already been filmed in 1964) it seemed like every male actor in Hollywood wanted to be a part of it.* When it came out, it had mixed critical reviews and did not do well at the box-office in the States. But, again, it has stood the test of time and garnered many awards nominations at the end of the year.

Jones' sprawling novel becomes more of a meditation on various aspects of war in Malick's hands, with the emphasis on Jim Caviziel's Pvt. Witt, who starts the film AWOL and living with natives in the South Pacific. He is found and taken back to a troop ship headed for Guadalcanal, where he makes it plain to 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) that he'd just as soon sit out the war and live with the natives, thank you very much. Witt's participation in the war seems to be based on its worth, and he only acts when it is in the interest of the other men in his company—I've always been puzzled that the character had this luxury. While the other soldiers are risking their lives, making moral choices, and living through the many aspects of horror in war, Witt isn't locked in chains on the troop-ship, but given a fairly free rein by Welsh. At one point, he even deserts to another native village, only to find that the idea of Noble Savagery is only a myth. He returns to the troop to help out in a maneuver that has his fellow soldiers out-flanked.

It is one of the most personal war films ever made, juxtaposing inner thoughts and horrendous action, and has an odd disjointed quality that lacks a real narrative flow...probably because there is so much story and so much footage shot, that the severe editing needed to pair it down to feature length has amputated a lot of connective tissue. But, as a digest of an epic studfy of war, it is an intriguing sampler. Hopefully, some day, Malick will find the time to shape The Thin Red Line-Redux.

The New World (2005) The "Pocohontas" story told quite uniquely. Never has a movie depended so much on "looks:"  Reaction shots as Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) takes a look at land from a ship's hold in chains, "the naturals" see large sailing ships for the first time and follow them along the coast, Euros and Natives establish a mutual first contact, "naturals" contemplate and climb over the skeletons of a fort. Many shots in The New Land, and frequently the best ones, communicate the concept of "new." It's a movie of discovery for everyone as cultures clash, help, establish bonds, and clash again. The first meeting of Smith and Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) is eerie, staged in a shoulder-height field of grass, as the two look askance at each other, and within edits move closer...like an unnatural force compels them, and Nature has a hand as the winds pickup and toss the fields around. And with that...hope.

"Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all," whispers Smith in narration. "None need grow poor." 

And that's just the beginning. The entire movie is made up of amazing images and ideas...itself lending to a constant state of discovery, finding meaning in things as grandiose as a sunset...or as simple as a falling leaf.

It's an amazing achievement...and also, one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The Tree of Life (2011) Winner of the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Malick's film of The Tree of Life sported a beautiful preview, but—as opposed to most trailers—betrayed none of its story.  The more impatient in the audience might well respond with "what story?" and Mallick supplied no easy answers.  Even star Sean Penn groused that the finished film seemed to be missing some of the nuances and depth of the screenplay that he read.

There must have been a large disconnect from what was on the printed page to the image-intensive film that was woven from it.  

Here's what I wrote about it (in a slightly solipsistic style, rather than a cut-and-dried review): "The film is polarizing, nontraditional in its aims and techniques of story-telling (but not outside the realm of human consciousness—it is not in any way random) with unquestionably beautiful images, but arranged in a way that might confuse those who expect a movie to be the standard filmed melodrama (oh, there is drama here, painful, raw drama) and nothing more.  But, The Tree of Life makes you dig deeper into the images and the way they collide and coalesce with each other to find meaning.  It's what any film demands, of course.  But, by relying on the experience of the film, rather than standard direct narration and dialog, it might leave some on the shore."

And, "This film couldn't be more personal in its impact and interpretation, but it is also challenging.  For me, the film flew...or maybe the better word is "flashed"...by, and it spoke to me, very personally and very specifically, about the process of "becoming," in both senses of the term—of the journey to the goal of fruition and the reflection (in a positive way) of something beyond us.  At the same time, I can also see a casual movie-goer throwing up their hands in frustration about "what it's all about."  It depends on whether you want answers or questions.  And one suspects the film, and film-maker, are asking the exact same question."  

And that question would be "what is it all about?" There are no easy answers (Has the mother died and this is the grief process in motion, has the brother died?, has anyone died? and are we just experiencing the morbid thought process of Penn's architect?) but then the movie's not trying to provide them, merely being a reverie, with the structure and speed of thought, rather than a traditional three act play with "a beginning, a middle, and an end." 

I thought it was one of the best films of the year.  And it continues to roll around in my memory, challenging me.

To the Wonder (2012) "A land so calm. Honest. Rich." That's Parisienne Marina's (Olga Kurylenko) impression of America in Malick's most personal film to date. Given that The Tree of Life and its impressionistic approach worked so well, Malick took it a bit farther with To the Wonder, in which an Oklahoman environmental inspector (Ben Affleck) falls for a divorcee in Paris (Kurylenko) with a 10 year old daughter. He brings her to America, they buy a house, and after a short period of enamoration with the country ("Something's missing" says her daughter) wears off, and Neil's remoteness starts to rise to the fore, Marina flies back to France, and Neil briefly takes up with a high school sweetheart (Rachel McAdams), which also falls apart. The problem's not due to the country of origin, pal. If you want answers look to within.

That's what Javier Bardem's parish priest is asking himself, too. Tending to the least best off in society, he's looking for God and looking for answers, but not finding them—only more misery, and it's starting to show on his face. Both Marina and Neil come to him at different times for counseling during their troubles (which renew when a disappointed Marina comes back to Neil).

To the Wonder is even more oblique than The Tree of Life, perhaps too much so—it's as if Malick is seeing how far he can push the envelope. There is next to no dialogue, which is largely monosyllabic from the featured performers (curiously, most of the dialogue is given to locals and bit players),** and the voice-overs are off-center and general, rarely addressing what's happening on-screen.  

But, then, what's happening on the screen has very little to do with the story-line, too. Malick consistently shows the aftermath of conflict, or the premonition of what is to come. No harsh words are exchanged (except as echoed and bounced down the hall). Eyes are not angry, but pleading or hesitant.  We see people conflicted, not in conflict, as if 1) those scenes are too raw and painful to be shown or 2) we're just getting the out-takes that were left on the cutting room floor. One can get too psychological about this (if one wants to read up on Malick's past) and speculate that he might be avoiding the bad parts, but in the disintegration of a relationship, it's all bad. Certainly what he's eliminated is the solid, scripted drama for whatever reason, whether it be too conventional and "on-the-nose" or just not what he was interested in conveying.  As it is, in avoiding melodrama, it is more anti-drama than drama and less story-telling as story-avoiding.

The film didn't get much of a wide release to theaters and appeared fairly quickly on video (where re-viewers have been scathing and impatient).
Malick has three films in various stages of post-production: Voyage of Time (which may be his rumored re-working and expansion of The Tree of Life material), Knight of Cups starring Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, and another project (under the working title Lawless) starring Bale, Ryan Gosling, Portman, Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Holly Hunter and Val Kilmer (although who will remain after editing is always uncertain; see below).

* Sean Penn reportedly told Malick "Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up." It stars Jim Caviziel, Penn, John Travolta, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly, Nick Nolte, John Travolta and George Clooney. You want to know who was left on the cutting-room floor? Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Jason Patric, Viggo Mortenson, and Mickey Rourke!

** Left on the cutting room floor were parts featuring Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper.

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