Monday, July 19, 2010

#6: Terrence Malick

- “They’re not intellectual so much as they’re visceral. I don’t know how you explain it… they’re like poems, you know. You can analyze it to death, but it still is not going to get to what this poem is doing to you… to your psyche, your body, you know, it’s never going to solve that.”

- Sam Shepard

Trying to find a quote about direction or film in general from the notoriously reclusive Terrence Malick is a nearly impossible task, so rather than scouring the ‘net looking for one, I thought that this statement from Days of Heaven star Sam Shepard would be the perfect opening to this entry. It comes from one of the extras on the recently released Days of Heaven Criterion Collection, as Shepard describes what drew him to working with Malick. Coming into the project as a writer, Shepard talks about how there was something magnetic in the script, something that pulled him to doing the project, and then attempts to describe Malick's films. And in ruminating on what it is about Malick’s work that maintains such a mesmerizing hold on so many people, he offers this fitting thought. It meshes so perfectly with my own feelings toward Malick’s work that I jotted it down the first time I heard it and vowed to somehow work it into this post.

If placing Francis Ford Coppola was the most difficult task of this project, deciding exactly where to place a man with just four total movies to his credit ran a close second. What exactly do you do with someone who has made only four films over the course of a nearly forty year career? On Thursday in the Coppola entry, I even touched on the fact that at this stage in the countdown that consistency and depth of quality films has to play a role. Such diversity is obviously lacking from a man whose workrate equates to roughly averaging one film released per decade. The issue is compounded by the fact that one of his four films is one that I have only recently begun to grow fond of. So while I might not be maintaining consistency when it comes to criteria in evaluating each director, such standards are irrelevant when I assess my passion for the cinema of Terrence Malick. It is a testament to the transcendent experience of his three films that I do love – two in particular retaining the ability to routinely give me chills at times while watching them – when I do not hesitate in giving Malick such a high placement.

Over the short history of this blog, I have written and discussed Malick’s The New World more than any other film. I’ll direct folks here, where The New World was chosen as my top film of 2005, if anyone is interested in seeing my full thoughts on that film. I also produced a similar post for Days of Heaven, which might not be as gushing as the ’05 entry, but also shows the love I have for that film. What draws me to films like this, which the uninitiated or non-Malick fans find so lumbering and inane? To answer this question, I ultimately return to the Sam Shepard quotation above. I’ve thought many times and can never quite put my finger on it. The more I analyze it, the less I feel like I can explain it. All I know is that Malick’s films have the ability to completely, totally transfix me. The incredibly beautiful images virtually hypnotize me. Even that explanation is an evasion, though, as for me it is more than just the gorgeous cinematography. Many people argue that Malick’s narrative technique leaves much to be desired, but the man has created some of the most powerfully moving drama I’ve ever experienced. The plague and wildfire of Days of Heaven; Witt’s death in The Thin Red Line; the reunion between John Smith and Pocahontas in The New World; and, most especially, the closing sequence with Pocahontas’ death – these scenes are so well done they give me chills. And so as Shepard says, no amount of analysis is going to pinpoint what it is.

Regarding the spectacular visuals in his films, I have written elsewhere about Malick concerning the credit he deserves in this area. Not knowing a whole lot about technical production, I’m always a bit hesitant as to who deserves the bulk of the praise for the look of a film – the director or the cinematographer. Malick’s case is unique though, in that he has worked with a different director of photography on all four of his films, yet all four of them look marvelous. This leads me to believe that Malick himself much be a significant factor in achieving these results.

Malick easily could be a Top 5 selection. Trying to separate favorites at this point is excruciatingly hard. Particularly in this instance, where a movie like The New World is continually inching toward being my all-time favorite film. Perhaps one or two more films like his recent releases and Malick will move toward the very top of a list like this. Bring on Tree of Life!

As a postscript, since I haven't talked about Badlands at all in this post, I thought I would pose this question to everyone. I re-watched it specifically for this series, which was probably the fourth time I've seen it. What struck me about it this time around was how dryly funny it can be. Kit's one-liners and retorts, the off the wall things he says out of nowhere, something about the entire storyline makes me view it as some sort of unique dark comedy. I've never viewed it this way before, but that is all I could think about when watching it this time.

1. The New World (2005)
2. Days of Heaven (1978)
3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
4. Badlands (1973)


  1. Malick only made four films but three are absolute favorites of mine. Dave, you and I may be the only two people that rate Badlands as his weakest. I have no problems saying that after Kubrick and Welles he is my favorite director. Quality over quantity always.

    1. The Thin Red Line
    2. The New World
    3. Days Of Heaven
    4. Badlands

    I'm waiting patiently for Tree Of Life. A five year lapse between films would be a miracle......M.Roca

  2. Bring on TREE OF LIFE indeed Dave!

    Well, it's rather remarkable that a scant four films -no matter how great they are- can entitled a director to make such a canonical listing, and in this sense it's a controversial choice. But we can never pose to suggest that a prolific career is the surefire way to land among the top etchelon, we've seen throughout history in all the art forms. In the past century for example, we had the one-hit wonder Harper Lee, whose single literary work, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has insured her placement among the finest American writers. Kubrick and Bresson were two directors who relatively speaking did very few films, and Bresson lived to be 99 years of age.

    I love Malick too, and while I wouldn't have him this high, I can't say the placement is irresponsible, rather it's a rightful acknowledgement of his true greatness.

    Perhaps, before his career is all over Malick could have as many as 7 films. We shall see.

    1 The New World
    2 The Thin Red Line
    3 Days of Heaven
    4 Badlands

  3. I really really really need to re-watch The Thin Red Line one of these days. I just didn't connect to it when I first saw it, but at the time, I had not seen a Malick film before. I only knew of his legendary reclusiveness and that the film was supposed to be something truly special.

    Now I love Malick and have watched his other three films over and over - and surely as a more enlightened viewer than I was way back in 1997, TTRL will speak to me in some way?

    At any rate:

    1. The New World
    2. Days of Heaven
    3. Badlands (I agree with your black-comedy assessment)
    4. The Thin Red Line (pending a re-watch)

  4. Maybe the word Shepard's looking for is "impressionist." I also grope for the right word to describe Malick's style because it's supra-narrative. His preference for voiceovers shouldn't be seen as a narrative crutch, as some may think, but as part of his overall aim for an empathic as well as an aesthetic experience. Where he loses me sometimes is with the insistent naivete he assigns his narrators, but that's no more a negative reflexion on Malick's technical skills and pictorial artistry than others' objections to the "coldness" of directors like Kubrick or the Coens. I still think that The Thin Red Line was a disaster because he went overboard on the spot-the-star stunt casting, but the upcoming Criterion release tempts me to give even that another chance.

    As for our foursome, for the moment I defer to recent experience.

    1. The New World
    2. Badlands
    3. Days of Heaven
    4. The Thin Red Line

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  6. Dave, I'm not surprised to find Malick here, although I did wonder if he would make the countdown with only four films to his credit. I think I would rank them in exactly the same order as you. "The New World" and "Days of Heaven" are very close for me, though--the latter overwhelming in its beauty, but the former so uniquely unlike any other movie I've ever seen that the overused term "groundbreaking" must surely apply to it.

    Samuel Wilson's comment is an interesting one in light of Richard Gere's comments on the DVD extras of "Days of Heaven." He says that when he read the script it was a fully-realized, conventional script but that when he saw the movie he was disappointed that it was so different from the script. Then on rewatching it he grew to like it after realizing that when Malick edited it (and he typically does spend almost as much time editing as shooting), he went for an "impressionistic" version of the shooting script. David Thomson says much the same thing about the script for "The Thin Red Line" he has seen in relation to the finished movie.

    Another thing that strikes me about Malick's output is how each of his films is in a genre, but each in a completely different genre from the others, and how original his take is on the genre he's working in. He's clearly not a man content to repeat himself or stick to genre templates.

  7. To be honest I kind of assumed he'd be number 1. Dave, we've discussed this guy more than a time or two.

    My favorites in order of preference:

    Days Of Heaven
    The New World
    The Thin Red Line

  8. M.Roca - As I say, he could easily be pushed even higher. I'm praying that Tree of Life will be released this calendar year, but I'm not holding my breath. It is somewhat promising that the reclusive Malick has been spotted in L.A. with Brad Pitt, so work of some sort must be going forward.

    Sam - Yes, in terms of a "greatest directors" list there are a number of others that would deserve placement ahead of Malick. But as my favorites go, I put him here solidly at #6 and he is likely to continue rising up my personal rankings. If Malick gets to 7 films I will be a very happy person. Just get me Tree of Life sometime soon and I will be one happy man!

    David - I was intrigued the whole way through The Thin Red Line, but I can understand the hesitancy toward it. It's not an easy one to get through and if you're not immediately hooked by it it could be a grind to continue through it. I saw it after I had already watched Days of Heaven and The New World, so I kind of knew what to expect, which as you say can be important at times with Malick. And I am very happy to see someone understand where I am coming from on the "black comedy" front in regard to Badlands.

    Samuel - I actually really like that he uses naivete with his narrators in films other than The Thin Red Line. It fits perfectly in Badlands. In the case of Days of Heaven, it is a child that is recounting things, so a certain naive outlook is necessary. With The New World, I don't really see much in the way of naivete outside of what would seem logical for the monumental clash of cultures taking place. With The Thin Red Line, I could see how it could be tough, but I like the "tone poem" nature of it all. The casting never bothered me either, but I suppose it could be distracting. All I know is that I'm glad that George Clooney was only briefly in the film, otherwise there would have been a good chance of me liking it less! (LOL)

    R.D. - We're on the same page regarding our two favorite Malicks. Both were unbelievable experiences for me the first time I watched them and remain so after many repeat viewings. I like and agree with your point about Malick seeming to always come up with a very different project with each outing. Hopefully Tree of Life will continue such successful experimentation.

    Doniphon - Well, Malick was certainly on the short list of those that I could justify for #1. Perhaps in that sense, when up against my other absolute favorites, the small overall body of work might have been a factor. But then again, I don't know, it's just getting very hard to separate these top 7.

  9. Good to see you include Malick! I love his films and rank him right up there with Kubrick as one of the giants of cinema. His films are so visually stunning and poetic quite unlike anybody else. My faves:

    1. The Thin Red Line
    2. Days of Heaven
    3. Badlands
    4. The New World

  10. Thank you for post..Feeling glad after reading this post. All credits went to you. Terrence Malick is one of my favorite one.