Today: February 24, 2024

Terrence Malick

When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 the audience booed and applauded in equal parts. This week, UK cinema-goers will get the chance to judge Terence Malick’s To The Wonder for themselves. However, as Greg Evans explains, the work of the indie film auteur consistently defies definition.

When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 the audience booed
and applauded in equal parts. This week, UK cinema-goers will get the chance to
judge Terence Malick’s To The Wonder for themselves. However, as Greg Evans
explains, the work of the indie film auteur consistently defies definition.

In a career that has spanned
nearly five decades, you would think that we would know a thing or two about
Terrence Malick. Yet the beauty of the man is that we still know as little
about him now, as we did in 1973. Famously reclusive, he rarely gives any sort
of interview, but prefers to let his films do the talking for him. And even
that is a fairly short dialogue. In those five decades, Malick has only
produced six films. Those films, though, just happen to be some of the most
critically acclaimed movies ever made. Why is it, then, that accusations of
pretentiousness and failure to craft a compelling narrative dog his work? How
can a director with such a small collection of films be subject to such
controversy?

A Unique Vision
What has defined Malick’s
career to date is his unique and instantly recognisable style which relies on
both cinematography and narration.

Although great cinematography
is important to any film, Malick has crafted a style so fragile and beautiful
that no other director has quite managed to scale his standards. What is odd is
that Malick has never maintained a persistent relationship with any
cinematographer. This is quite rare in the movie world. For instance Christopher Nolan, up until recently,
had worked with the brilliant Wally
Pfister
on all of his films. So how has Malick managed to create such
vibrant art, when channeling it through other people? Quite simply: Malick has
a philosophy.

Only a few directors have
been brave enough to come out and say ‘this is what I believe’. Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer are amongst the
select group who have laid claim to a unique ‘vision’. Nobody though has done
it with such profoundness and majesty as Malick. The man’s relationship with
nature is something akin to adulation and awe. Often in life we find ourselves
amazed by a stunning location or a picturesque piece of scenery. Although
Malick’s work does capture this, he seems more fascinated by the tender,
intimate moments in life. The greatest example of this comes in his 1998 World
War II epic, The Thin Red Line.
While all hell is breaking loose on the battlefield, the camera pans away from
the violence and innocently shows an insect quietly going about its business,
oblivious to the horrors which surround it. What this says to us is that
whatever we do, nature will continue. It’s not the savage nature that we’ve
seen Herzog depict but a gentler nature. Almost a pure depiction of Mother
Nature herself. This infatuation with the natural world was fully realised in
his last film, the monumental The Tree
Of Life
.

A hugely personal project, The Tree Of Life took Malick 30 years
to write, and was allegedly based on his own childhood in Texas during the
1950’s. It focused on a young family coming to terms with the death of a son
who had been serving in the military. While the film was about trying to do
something significant with a life, it also touched on something far more bombastic.
In a very serious way it attempted to draw comparisons between childhood
experiences and the creation of the universe (dinosaurs and all). This may
sound implausible and hard to articulate but Malick’s strong philosophical
beliefs are so prominent that it somehow makes sense. The Tree Of Life could
rightfully be interpreted as a religious film, although it never confines
itself to one particular belief.

Searingly Spiritual
Such is the spirituality of
Malick’s work that in his later films the narrative has become almost
insignificant. You could accuse The Tree Of Life, The Thin Red Line and his
2005 Pocahontas film The New World,
of barely having any story. Of course this isn’t wholly true, as all three have
a direct narrative that runs all the way through them. Malick, though, is far
more interested in how those characters come to terms with certain events in a
metaphorical way. For him to do a straightforward drama would be disappointing.

If we go all the back to his
first films in the 1970’s, we will see a man firmly engrossed in grassroots
American heritage. Both Badlands and
Days Of Heaven (Main Picture) are seminal pieces of
American cinema. Both are tragic romances involving working class people. The
wonderful cinematography is still present but the narratives are a lot clearer
and slightly more poignant. When Sissy
Spacek’s
character in Badlands realises the madness she has become tangled
in, it’s not a hysterical moment but rather a low key and thoughtful one. These
early films won Malick a lot of fans during the 70’s and many still believe
that these two films are his best work.

The accessibility of Badlands
and Days Of Heaven may in fact have caused the backlash when Malick begun
making more experimental films. Of course this is pure speculation. No one
really knows why Malick’s films are the way they are. Even his actors cannot
adequately sum up the man. Brad Pitt,
who appeared in The Tree Of Life had this to say about the man back in 2011.
“He’s an extremely internal man. A Rhodes scholar, studied philosophy, has a
love of science, a love of nature, a love of God. I have great difficulty just
completing a sentence. I don’t feel right speaking for him but I have to take a
stab at it.”

If anything, Brad Pitt’s
stumbling praise of Malick gives us a greater sense of not only how humble
Malick is but the respect he commands from those in the business. If you look
back through his filmography, the list of actors he has worked with is quite
astounding. Badlands featured the already mentioned Sissy Spacek along with Martin Sheen. Days Of Heaven gave Richard Gere his best performance to
date. The New World has Colin Farrell,
Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale
. While The Tree Of Life also starred Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. Penn had previously starred in The Thin Red
Line, which featured nearly every major leading man in Hollywood at the time
including Nick Nolte, George Clooney,
John Travolta, John C. Rilley, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto
and John Cusack. Yet, if you consider that
plethora of talent in all of those films, not one of them ever outshines the
director.

So where do we find Terrence
Malick in 2013? Oddly enough in a prolific spout. To The Wonder is released on
22nd February. Featuring another all-star cast (Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Olga Kurylenko) the
film sees Malick return to the genre of romance, with a look at the problems
that can arise in relationships. After that he is working on Knight Of Cups, Voyage Of Time and a
third, untitled project. Once again a host of acting talent has been assembled,
proving that actors truly want to work with Terrence Malick.

Whether or not his films are
pretentious or the work of a true visionary, you cannot deny their spectacle.
There is no director quite like Malick on the planet right now. Some may
imitate but few ever come close. Never has a filmmaker been able to craft a
series of films that wash over you like Malick has. Although his production
rate may not be to everyone’s liking, his upcoming set of films should quench
his fan’s thirst. Because for once it appears that Terrence Malick is having
fun and still very much in love with filmmaking.

To The Wonder opens in UK cinemas on 22nd February.


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