The Greats: Terrence Malick

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

Considering that Terrence Malick doesn’t like talking about himself, or anything else, why not let Brad Pitt try to explain the filmmaker?

“He’s an extremely internal man,” Pitt told The Guardian in 2011. “A Rhodes scholar, studied philosophy, has a love of science, a love of nature, a love of God … I don’t feel right speaking for him but I have to take a stab at it.”

It was the summer of The Tree of Life, which had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and would soon be celebrated as one of the new century’s signature films. And a small part of its power came from the fact that its writer and director wouldn’t do publicity for it—the movie was full of mysteries that its creator refused to answer. Malick preferred to stay in the shadows, as always. “When he started making films in the 1970s, you just made films,” Pitt continued. “Today, there are two parts to the job: you get to make something, but it’s also become incumbent on us to suddenly sell our movies and that’s just not his nature. Terry’s more the painter, or even the guy that’s plastering the walls or laying the stone. He’s just a very humble, sweet man.”

Born in 1943 in Illinois, Malick grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. For a little while after school, he worked at The New Yorker and taught at MIT, but he didn’t take to the life of an instructor. “I was not a good teacher,” he told Sight & Sound in the mid-’70s, back when he would occasionally speak to the press. “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 naïve way. They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else.”

Moving out to Los Angeles, he attended film school at AFI, did rewrite work for hire and started thinking up a script inspired by Charles Starkweather, who had gone on a killing spree in 1958 accompanied by his underage girlfriend. Malick’s screenplay was influenced by Huckleberry Finn and The Hardy Boys—stories in which, as he put it, “an innocent [is] in a drama over his or her head.” And out came 1973’s Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as the murderous, blissed-out young lovers on the run. It’s a raw and beautiful movie, so confidently constructed that it doesn’t seem like the work of a first-time filmmaker—and yet also so open and alive that it’s full of the excitement and enthusiasm of a newbie.

Badlands established Malick’s trademarks:

? The use of voiceover from a character who’s in between confessing and rationalizing what he or she has done. (In Badlands, the added twist is that Spacek’s Holly doesn’t seem all that remorseful about the whole murderous business.)

? An appreciation for stillness

? An eye for the beauty of the natural world

? A story that’s less of a narrative and more of a slow, natural succession of events

If the 1970s in American cinema are celebrated for their maverick, renegade directors—Altman, Scorsese, De Palma—Malick was the hippie philosopher in comparison to his riverboat-gambler contemporaries. You didn’t watch Malick’s films and feel that he was trying to tear down the establishment or any of those other clichés associated with that era’s Hollywood renaissance. He just went off and followed the wind.

Malick wouldn’t make another movie for five years, a hint of what fans should expect from him in the future. While doing interviews for Badlands, Malick told Positif, “For my next film, I hope to be freer in my shooting, less constrained by my initial ideas.” Though shot in 1976, Days of Heaven didn’t reach the screen for two more years. Jim Nelson, a longtime sound engineer who worked on everything from American Graffiti to Badlands, told Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind of Malick’s editing process: “Terry wouldn’t let go. He’d nitpick you to death.” Somehow, the years of postproduction only add to Days of Heaven’s legend: It’s a movie that couldn’t be simpler or more Biblical in its elemental impact, as if the extra time was spent winnowing the story down to its marrow.

Like a majority of Malick’s films, Days of Heaven is set in the past, depicting the turn-of-the-century exploits of a day laborer (Richard Gere), his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) and his pipsqueak sister (Linda Manz), who all have their lives irrevocably altered when they start working in the fields of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard). And as with all of his films, Days of Heaven tempts one to unfurl rapturous, swooning accolades: Its romantic, doomed grandeur reaches for the heavens while seemingly evoking the unseen power of the cosmos. (How else to explain images of locusts and fires laying waste to a farm that’s been metaphorically undone by unrequited love and emotional betrayal?) Although Malick’s ’70s films were relatively short—a little over 90 minutes—they felt bolder and larger than that. And because he didn’t make a lot of them, they soon accumulated the aura of holy totems.

And then for a while, there weren’t any films at all. In the 20 years between Days of Heaven and his next project, Malick was practically invisible. Even Stanley Kubrick, another infamously press-shy director who took an eternity between films, put out two during that interim. Instead, Malick gave us rumors. He was living in Paris. He was writing scripts for others to direct. Rob Cohen, a producer, worked with Malick in the mid-’80s on an adaptation for Barry Levinson to direct. (The project never happened.) But Cohen got to experience working with Malick, telling Biskind for a 1999 Vanity Fair piece, “Malick was someone who was listening to a high whine in his head. He was very tense and fragile, the least likely person to be a director. I once had to have a meeting with him in Westwood. He was getting up every five minutes and hiding behind pillars; he kept thinking he saw somebody he knew.” If that wasn’t enough to fit the reader’s mental picture of the prototypical brilliant/eccentric filmmaker, Cohen added that he once talked to Malick on the phone while the director was walking from Texas to Oklahoma: “I’m looking at birds,” Malick explained to Cohen.

When Malick finally returned to filmmaking, it was greeted as a major cinematic event. (By that point, there was no reason to believe he’d ever make another movie.) The Thin Red Line couldn’t live up to the hype simply because no movie could. But Malick’s ambitious, contemplative World War II drama, for which he shot a million feet of film, demonstrated that he had no problem staging gripping battle scenes, which butted up against his soldier characters’ eloquent, mournful narration. Antiwar but also in awe with the tension between nature and human beings, The Thin Red Line was beautiful and terrifying like his earlier films, but in new ways. (Perhaps no war film has so perfectly illustrated the ugliness and pointlessness of human endeavors. The rich, unshakeable landscape around Malick’s characters practically absorbs and consumes them.) Just don’t expect Malick to explain his reasons for altering the James Jones novel, or anything else. As Sean Penn, one of the film’s stars, advised his fellow actors, “He’ll answer you, but it doesn’t help.”

This wouldn’t be the only time an actor grumbled about Malick’s opaque, searching filmmaking style. He followed up The Thin Red Line with 2005’s The New World, a realistic depiction of John Smith’s love affair with Pocahontas that’s intermittently overwhelming but also meandering and undernourished. (With that said, it’s visually resplendent and features one of Malick’s most stirring endings.) Its costar, Christopher Plummer, grew frustrated with the director’s methods. “The problem with Terry, which I soon found out, is that he needs a writer desperately,” Plummer said in 2012. “He insists on doing everything, as we all know, and he insists on writing and overwriting and overwriting until it sounds terribly pretentious. You have to work terribly hard to make it sound real. … Terry gets terribly involved in sort of poetic shots, which are gorgeous, but they’re paintings, all of them. He gets lost in that, and the stories get diffused.”

It’s more than a fair criticism of Malick’s technique, particularly on The New World. This is the excitement but also the worry with every one of his films: Will his emphasis on the ineffable and the sublime overwhelm what he’s trying to say? What’s fantastic and brave about The Tree of Life is that it answers that question with a resounding, “Yes, but just barely, and don’t worry, because it’ll be worth it, anyway.” Juxtaposing the birth of Earth with the anguish of one Texas family from the 1950s to the present, The Tree of Life is one of the closest approximations to a combination of opera, ballet and a symphony that the movies have given us since 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which it was often compared. It is not without significant flaws. (Penn, who played the adult version of one of the sons, was right to complain that his character is basically marooned.) But the film’s depth of feeling, its semiautobiographical slant and its genuine curiosity about God, existence, death, everything … well, it’s a movie that doesn’t have to be perfect to be a landmark.

Since then, Malick has continued working, a strange development for a director who for so long seemed happier in obscurity and inactivity. Don’t let anyone tell you that To the Wonder is a disaster or an embarrassment: As a companion piece to The Tree of Life, it’s as enraptured by the mystery of love as the previous film was about the mystery of God. And for all the talk of Malick’s poetic images, don’t forget the performances he’s drawn from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (as, respectively, The Tree of Life’s complicated father and ethereal mother), Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard. He can be easily parodied—just include some shots of hands running over wheat fields or close-ups of caterpillars on leaves, all to ponderous voiceover—but that naivety that Malick brought to his early love of movies is still at the core of what he does. The images sing, but he’s still just plastering the walls and laying the stone.

(Note: Several quotes in this appreciation are taken from the Contemporary Film Directors book Terrence Malick   by Lloyd Michaels. Highly recommended.)

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.

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