Pondering Life: Examining the Films of Terrence Malick

Pondering Life: Examining the Films of Terrence Malick

May 25, 2011

"There are many great directors. Very Few poets. John Ford was both," said the critic and filmmaker Lindsay Anderson. While Ford is no longer with us, and there are no living filmmakers that could possibly take his place, it might be interesting to look at those that are around that could possibly qualify as poets.

But before we do that, let's demystify that term a bit. The word probably scares and annoys just about anyone who had to read and deconstruct a poem in high school. A poem is simply this: it's a way of putting together words (or images) to evoke a certain reaction or emotion. That's really it. There's no deconstructing necessary. You read it and you feel something, or you don't, and the poem doesn't work for you. It's the same with movies. Sometimes a certain image can inspire a certain feeling, even if it's just a Christmastime Budweiser TV ad with those trotting Clydesdales.

Among today's few cinematic poets there is Terrence Malick. The thing that's perhaps most alluring about Malick is his infrequent output, and his private nature. In his day, Chaplin took long periods between movies, partly because he was a perfectionist, and partly because he knew that the public appetite for his films would build to a greater frenzy. There would be far more excitement over a new Chaplin film if it came every seven years rather than every year. Stanley Kubrick achieved the same thing, releasing only 12 feature films over the course of 45 years.

Besides that, Malick almost never does interviews, and does not like to be photographed. I have a big, full-color promotional booklet for The New World that does not feature a single photo of Malick at work. He did not even attend Cannes to pick up his award. This kind of media shyness was interesting in the 1970s, and is practically incendiary now, when someone like Justin Bieber is almost constantly photographed, written about, tweeted about, or pondered in some fashion. But the good news is that Malick gives us a chance to get hungry for information about him. Whatever one can say about Bieber, his fans are certainly not going hungry.

Malick's first feature film, Badlands (1973), was a lovers-on-the-run crime story not unlike several that had come before it (Gun Crazy, They Live by Night, Bonnie and Clyde, etc.). But it was not focused so much on violence as it was on atmosphere, and lingering moments. His second film, Days of Heaven (1978, pictured above) is similar in plot to Henry James' novel The Wings of the Dove; it's about a romantic deception with the goal of earning a great deal of money from a rich, dying farmer. But again, what one remembers about the movie is not suspense, but rather the way the characters interact with nature, the way that nature moves onscreen.


Twenty years passed, which is unheard of, and -- if I'm not mistaken -- unique in the history of cinema. Where did he go? According to critic David Thomson, he may have worked on the script for the movie that became the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire (1989). But no one seems to know much more. He finally emerged with The Thin Red Line (1998), a film that did not seem compromised for the 1990s, but rather seemed like a 1970s movie transplanted to the 1990s. It was based on a James Jones novel and featured some scenes that viewers could recognize as "war movie," but in the end, it was a collection of sensations and moments about war, about fear and curiosity, about soldiers in the tall grass.


It came out a few months apart from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and sparked a kind of critical war between the two: proof that this was no longer the 1970s. (The divide between the two movies was probably the reason the Oscar went to Shakespeare in Love.) But the fact that it did receive seven Oscar nominations gave us hope, even if the movie failed to make back its budget. But would Malick disappear again? Was this his last movie?

Thankfully, more was on the way. The New World (2005) was based on the Pocahontas legend, but could not have been more different from Disney's animated version. Though details remain sketchy, a version of about 150 minutes was screened for the press at the tail end of 2005, and it received mixed-to-negative reviews. A 135-minute version was released in theaters some weeks later, though this did little to change critical perception. The movie flopped and received only one Oscar nomination (for cinematography), though I, and a few other generous critics, included it in their ten-best lists.

In 2008, an "extended cut" was released on DVD, running 172 minutes. It was not called the "director's cut," and to this day I have not been able to find any information as to how it was assembled, or who approved it. But it's much better than the shorter cuts, and I'm convinced that if this version had screened for the press and been released, the film would have fared much better overall.


Now we have The Tree of Life, a new masterpiece based on Malick's original screenplay, and without any obvious influences (Henry James, Pocahontas, etc.). It's probably Malick's most poetic and least linear movie, and perhaps his darkest. It's the most difficult to describe, and will no doubt be a bear for marketers and advertisers to handle. Yet it is a masterpiece, and possibly the closest thing Malick has come to being "personal." It could be assumed that he had a childhood not unlike this one, or that his concerns about life and the universe are not too far away from these.

In 2011, we are much less equipped to deal with someone like Malick. For example, he likes narration in his films, but in our Syd Field world of three-act movies with likeable characters and happy resolutions, we are taught that narration is uncinematic; it's "telling" and not "showing," never mind that great narration can be as cinematic as anything (Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Sunset Boulevard, etc.). We're also taught that the story is the most important thing in a movie, while Malick's movies don't necessarily follow a story. His scenes bump into one another, finding their way to each other based on moods.

But even The Tree of Life is different from his other four movies; while they more or less stayed put, The Tree of Life wanders off into flashback images about the origins of the universe and the beginnings of life on earth (leading many reviewers to compare it to 2001: A Space Odyssey). What's more, the movie doesn't explain any of this stuff, leaving it up to each viewer to explore his or her own reactions! What a radical idea!

I'm amazed and thrilled that The Tree of Life has garnered such praise at Cannes, though it remains to be seen how this will translate to U.S. audiences, though that festival is usually ahead of its time, such as the fact that they honored Martin Scorsese in 1976, whereas the Academy didn't do so until 2006, or the same with the Coen Brothers winning the Palme d'Or all the way back in 1991, and then Oscars in 2007. Based on this, I guess we'll have to wait another 20 years for Malick's next big American hit.

One thing we do know about Malick is that he was born on November 30, 1943, making him 67 as of this writing. If he keeps going, he could have another 20 years in him, which means at least three more movies? The mind boggles at the thought. If The Tree of Life means that he is growing more and more introspective, thinking more and more about mortality and the meaning of life, then we could be in for some even more awesome films. Meanwhile, open up your hearts and minds and prepare yourselves for The Tree of Life, which goes into limited release this Friday.

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