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Focus on Terrence Malick: The Early Works

June 8, 2011  |  6:05pm
Focus on Terrence Malick: The Early Works

Over the upcoming weeks we’ll be featuring a large-scale Terrence Malick retrospective, with each week focusing on one of the enigmatic director’s features. But while we’ll be looking at Badlands next week, there’s plenty to examine before his directorial debut.

The broad outline of Malick’s background is openly available on Wikipedia, but even this has some mystery to it. Depending upon what day you look at it he was born either in Waco, Texas or Ottawa, Illinois and no firm accounting has established which location it actually was. One of the few books on Malick, Lloyd Michaels’ Terrence Malick claims Ottawa on page 14 before being contradicted by an interview with Malick on page 105 in which he claims to have been born in Waco. In any case, Malick grew up in Waco and Bartlesville, Oklahoma and then finally Austin, Texas. After graduation he studied philosophy at Harvard, and while he took a course with Stanley Cavell, it seems unlikely he had much real contact with the professor and Cavell’s presence in his background is usually an excuse to interpret Malick’s films through Cavell’s influence.

Post-graduation he was awarded a Rhodes Scolarship and studied at Magdalen College in Oxford before returning to the States quickly thanks to a dispute about his thesis concept. During this same period, Malick’s brother Chris was burned in a car accident that killed his wife, and his other brother Larry committed suicide. Both of these events have echoes in Malick’s later works. In 1969 Malick’s first real publication occurred, a translation of Martin Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons. While the text is now out of print, it remains the standard English translation of the work.

When he returned in 1968, Malick was teaching philosophy at MIT and while on the east coast he also tried his hand at freelance journalism. Malick reported from Latin America for Life magazine, but unfortunately what article or articles he wrote for there and for Newsweek are unknown and his byline never appears in either publication. His work for Life also brought him to the attention of The New Yorker’s editor at the time William Shawn, who set him up with an office at the magazine. There he co-wrote a fantastic piece about the assassination of Martin Luther King and began working on an article about the philosopher Regis Debray but arrived on the day Che Guevara was killed and his essay on the topic was never completed. Following his one-year-stint at MIT, he left for Los Angeles. In his own words:

“I was not a good teacher; I didn’t have the sort of edge one should have on the students, so I decided to do something else. I’d always liked movies in a kind of naive way. They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else. I came to Los Angeles in the fall of 1969 to study at the AFI.

Malick was part of the first group of AFI students in a class that also included David Lynch and Paul Schrader. Although the program’s requirements include the creation of multiple shorts, the only one of his that’s ever been released is his thesis film “Lanton Mills.” It screened in 1974, shortly after the Badlands’ premiere at the New York Film Festival, but after that it’s only been available at the AFI and sometime after that a stipulation was made that the film was not to be copied or checked out. There is, however, one lengthy account of the film by Theresa Schwartzman in Rohstoff Filmmagazin, published in 2005. Schwartzman’s description of the film reads:

The sparse plot recounts the story of two cowboys (Terrence Malick as “Tilman” and Harry Dean Stanton as “Lanton Mills”) who set off on horseback to rob a bank. On the way, they stop to see their boss, the “Old Man”, only to discover he has been murdered by another cowboy, John Sparks (Warren Oates). After Oates announces his claim to fame as the “slowest gun in the West” Stanton cursorily shoots him (an easy feat given cowboy Sparks’ leisurely draw time!). It seems to take forever for Oates to die, and his dying is punctuated by lots of nonsensical banter and funny business. At last the two protagonists ride off again through the scrubbrush. There is a fade-to-black and in the next shot reveals our two heroes riding their horses in the middle of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard. A muscle car follows slowly behind them, and there is no hint to whether or not the cowboys are surprised by their new surroundings. They enter the bank, a glass-doored, orange-carpeted behemoth, and suddenly they seem to notice they’re out of place. Gun cocked, Stanton falteringly declares “Nobody get upset now!” in a voice so soft no one hears him. Meanwhile, Malick delightedly grabs publicity brochures and office equipment off the desks, apparently thinking that they are some form of money. With the help of their antiquated guns, the two finally succeed in robbing a teller of two sacks of “petty cash,” but not before he pushes the emergency button. The film ends with the two cowboys fleeing from the LAPD. The cops shoot Stanton dead and then shove a handcuffed Malick into a police cruiser.

This is the earliest indication of Malick’s interest in Westerns, something that would continue through his early films and makes sense given his interest in filming nature. It’s one of the few genres of film that takes place largely outdoors. Other than that, what’s striking about “Lanton Mills” is that it’s a comedy. Stylistically it’s described as similar to Malick’s later works, only with a more surreal tone. Shots are still done in the magic hour and there’s coverage of wildlife. It’s the tone that seems odd, as does the film’s description as extremely talk-y. My guess as to why this is so different is that Malick was still stuck to the scripts he wrote and so the cleverly scripted dialogue actually made it into the movie. As we’ll see in the future, that wasn’t the case for long.

More than anything else the existence of “Lanton Mills” at AFI has helped with Malick’s mythic status, even as it seems largely irrelevant to his later works (anyone who’s watched Kubrick’s Fear and Desire will understand that, while interesting, these super-early films aren’t worth the effort to track down unless you’re a scholar). But the fact that the film exists in this locked-away state makes it seem harder to find than if there were no extant copies at all. The reason he suppressed it is probably not that he’s particularly ashamed of the picture, but rather because Malick stars in it. His hatred for publicity seems to be genuine shyness and while he wouldn’t have any problem acting in a picture no one was going to see, when he did become famous enough for people to have an interest in “Lanton Mills” he had to keep it away from the public.

Following his time at AFI, Malick began working for Hollywood super agent Mike Medavoy, with whom he began a long relationship. Medavoy was able to find him numerous jobs re-writing Hollywood scripts. The first of these was Jack Nicholson’s debut as a director Drive, He Said, but according to Malick his work on it was minimal, “two days.” It was officially written by Nicholson and Jeremy Larner (whose novel it was based upon and who was an accomplished screenwriter in his own right) and also had work on it by Robert Towne, who was featured in the picture. Not much should probably be read into it, and the same is true for his work on Dirty Harry, which while more extensive seems to have been almost entirely scrapped when the picture changed from starring Marlon Brando to starring Clint Eastwood.

You won’t find Malick actually credited for either of those movies, but aside from the films he’s directed three films bear Malick’s credit as a screenwriter, all of them from the 1970s. One of these was actually released after Badlands in 1974 as The Gravy Train and later The Dion Brothers but other than one reputed television appearance it’s pretty much disappeared entirely. Its rights seem to have reverted to Sony, but for all intents and purposes it’s a lost picture. However, the two other films are now available and, despite Malick’s claims that both both of these efforts were re-writes (an impossible to verify claim he made about all screenplays he worked on and didn’t direct) they’re both credited to Malick as the sole screenwriter.

Long considered lost, the 1972 road comedy Deadhead Miles stars Alan Arkin in one of his earliest film roles alongside the still unknown Paul Benedict, and fortunately is now easily available through Netflix Streaming. An obvious derivative of Easy Rider, Arkin plays as Cooper, a truck driver who begins the film by stealing a large truck filled with carburetors and finds work taking independent hauling jobs. He soon picks up Benedict as a hitchhiker and the pair steals and scams their way across the country, looking for easy money but never able to make their dreams become reality.

As per its origins, Deadhead Miles is almost completely episodic and rambling. Aside from its main characters attempting to rip off businesses and individuals, of various set pieces, they meet up with drag racers, fleece several clients looking to have their wares shipped cheaply, and try to talk their way past the police. Several of the episodes are connected in some small way but as a whole it’s a complete picaresque and solely about the journey. It’s a road movie in the aimless, existential mold and what you’re supposed to get out of it comes from the small moments and how they play against the landscape.

Road movies are in fact a form of western and as much about American landscapes as a picture like Stagecoach. Morrison and Schur, who were unable to see the movie, note that its screenplay’s “values are highly literary, with descriptions of character and action often novelistic in their phrasings … The technique is often daringly impressionistic, even down to commentary on inner action with no clear visual correlate that would be impossible [sic] to show.” The film’s moments are frequently trifling but within them there is a sense of something greater going on. One particular scene invokes lines from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” while another ruminates on what’s worth living for. A brief discussion of the way “everything is interesting” finds obvious form in Malick’s obsession with having the camera skip away from action to film nature. It’s a pluralistic approach to seeing the world and despite some of the film’s darker moments what we find as a whole throughout Deadhead Miles is an embrace of taking a larger view of life. “It doesn’t matter which one, it’s as interesting as you are interested,” says Benedict’s character.

Unfortunately the film doesn’t really live up to its screenplay and even the screenplay itself, though interesting, isn’t mindblowingly good either. For all of its interesting moments, it’s not willing to commit to a single idea or theme. You can feel passion flowing in a brief discussion of religion or a scene in which Arkin meets a mentally disabled prostitute and finds himself unable to process the situation, but then there are scenes of pure Hollywood emptiness. Likewise there are parts like the intervention of a dead trucker that are fascinating but don’t live up to their promise. The film’s direction is strictly serviceable, getting us through these moments without adding any sort of mystery. That’s not to take away from the movie, which is still surprisingly successful, but it never becomes anything approximating a film directed Malick himself. The philosophical questioning about America, religion and the place of people in a world much larger than humanity is there but it’s not a unified picture and much of it is simply filler.

The other readily available film scripted by Malick is Pocket Money, also released in 1972. The film finds Paul Newman reunited with director Stuart Rosenberg, with whom he paired up for the blockbuster Cool Hand Luke five years prior. Co-starring in it is Lee Marvin, who as per Simpsons requirements is suitably “drunk and surly.” Newman plays a literal cowboy—which is to say a man who runs cattle—who’s having trouble with quarantines despite his reputation. Given his lousy circumstances he signs on to bring cattle from Mexico to the States for a shady character and once south of the border he teams up with Marvin. The two spend the rest of the film buying up cows for as little as they can before eventually transporting them north, along the way doing their best to cheat their way out of paying for anything before ultimately being thwarted by their employer’s unwillingness to pay them what they’re owed.

Much of the movie is an attempt to recapture the magic of Cool Hand Luke, with Newman playing a similar sort of trickster character. But the rest of it is a sort of ambling western, nearly as plotless as Deadhead Miles despite its goals. Unfortunately it’s a significantly more disappointing script than Miles perhaps because of the involvement of its two stars, who play out their public personas rather than real characters (Newman is far more egregious in this than Marvin). Their trip isn’t nearly as interesting and much of it is repetition or simply cliched, not to mention some offensive stereotypes in the Mexican portion of the picture.

What we do see of Malick’s personality comes through in joyous footage of the open plains. Once again freedom and camraderie are the most important values being espoused while capitalism beyond making a living is a world of treachery and evil. Less time is spent on the landscape than in Miles, but it’s just as much a take on traditional genre filmmaking. In contrast to many of the anti-westerns of the period being made by Pekinpah and Altman, it’s rather affectionate and bloodless. Its fights are perfunctory and never result in death.

Fans of Malick or Cool Hand Luke will find Pocket Money disappointing, but its episodic nature and rambling, philosophic tone are certainly familiar. They’re simply not directed in a manner that makes the most of them and the result is an extremely rote buddy movie, and not one that gives us much sense of who the buddies are. Both pictures feature the sort of flat characters and aimless plots that Malick has continued writing, which require a great deal of editing panache in order to make any real thematic sense. Miles came closer to making this work, but neither it nor Pocket Money really knew why their characters were interesting enough to create a story around.

We’ll be back again next week, taking a look at the first “real” Terrence Malick picture and why many still consider it his best film.

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