Reply

Early this morning HE reader “gazer” wrote that yesterday’s riff about (a) alleged buyer reactions to Terrence Malick‘s To The Wonder and (b) my judgments about Sarah Green and Nick Gonda‘s apparent tendencies as Malick’s producers (“Malick’s Enablers Doing Him No Favors“) boil down to my “essentially trying to lobotomize a filmmaker who rubs [me] the wrong way.” I wrote a response an hour ago:

Wells to gazer: Malick doesn’t rub me that aversely. He’s always been a very special, obviously gifted filmmaker-poet-dreamer-painter. Most people understand that. His personality and spiritual worldview are part of the threadwork of everything he’s done, and he’s influenced others here and there. Badlands and Days of Heaven are mesmerizing works. But more to the point, they’re disciplined…unlike, in my view, the films he’s made since he returned 14 years ago from his J.D. Salinger-like withdrawal with The Thin Red Line.

I read Malick’s fascinating draft of The Thin Red Line script in ’96. It was quite different than the 1998 film that he shot and cut together — compressed, tightly threaded, far less meditative. The New World gets better and better every time I see it — I watched the longest director’s cut on Bluray a year or so ago and was really taken away by the primeval Jamestown portion, although I still felt and do feel unsatisfied and even irked when Colin Farrell abruptly disappears and Christian Bale shows up and Pocahantas travels to England and suddenly dies. And I thought that the first hour or so of The Tree of Life was sad and moving and detestable and quietly mind-blowing, but that the center didn’t hold and it kind of spaced itself out and lost the thread, whatever that thread may have been. (I’m forgetting now.)

My point is that Malick’s method of shooting and particularly editing strikes me as random and swirly and catch-as-catch-can, and in a strange way almost forced. He shoots what he shoots and then he tosses the lettuce leaves into the air and grabs a leaf here and there and eliminates Sean Penn‘s Tree of Life character or Adrien Brody‘s Thin Red Line character (“Fife”) when the mood strikes, and then he picks some strands of pollen fibre out of the air and weaves them through the lettuce leaves and throws it all together into some kind of swoony patchwork ball of yarn or free-association mescaline trip — an impressionist fever dream by a guy who’s looking to rewrite the manual.

Which is very brave and exciting on his part, and at the same time bothersome, depending on my mood when I’m watching one of his more recent films. I basically feel/believe that the Malick of the ’70s was a much more interesting and transporting director than the one who re-emerged with The Thin Red Line — that’s all. I’m not dismissing him out of hand or saying that he rubs me the wrong way….although he actually kind of does at times. But he also amazes and delights me from time to time.

13 thoughts on “Reply

  1. Tristan Eldritch2 on said:

    I’m inclined to agree with Wells here, in so far as I think Malick is obviously a massive talent, but hasn’t made a picture that fully holds together and works since Days of Heaven. I thought the Tree of Life came awful close, but what the hell was he thinking with the painfully hackneyed symbolism of Penn going through the door in the desert and so on towards the end? It seems that Malick’s obvious talent has befuddled both the director and his followers/supporters to the degree that a woolly-headed lack of discipline and better judgement affects all his post-Heaven work to a greater or lesser degree. This makes Malick’s films extremely frustrating; a Malick picture is guaranteed to contain some of the best passages of cinema you’ll see in that given year, and yet they never quite come together as a whole.

  2. I’d just like to second Wells by saying The New World does get better and better with each viewing. It’s a wonderful film.

    In order I prefer Badlands, Days of Heaven and The New World.

    For me, the best thing about The Thin Red Line is when they’re trying to take that hill from the enemy and Nick Nolte keeps screaming at them to do so. It’s an awesome 40 minutes or so.

  3. I think part of what Wells is saying is that, as good as Malick’s post-’70s movies can be, there’s always the frustrating feeling that they could have been better… and that that better version is in pieces on the cutting room floor. All that time spent alone in the editing suite leads to a kind of madness, which is fascinating and works in a way in its own right, but you can still mourn the slightly more conventional narrative experience that might have been… and might have been greater. If only Malick could release two versions of every movie: one that adheres to a script and one that’s the fever dream version. I loved “Tree of Life” but I’d still like to see a cut in which there is an actual dialogue scene, something that doesn’t exist in what we have now. I bet he shot some good ones.

  4. Here’s the problem: you’re asking Malick to not be Malick. Either we take film seriously as an art or we don’t – and part of that is letting the artist evolve into what he wants to be, external opinion be damned.

    Whether you like the direction of Malick from Thin Red Line on or not, there’s absolutely a clearly defined worldview and cinematic language that he’s working in, something that is quite different from what he was doing in the 1970s (which were already tone poems). You’re asking Malick to stay constant, or to revert to past tendencies, when what he wants to do is move forward with his idiosyncratic approach, even if that means a 30 minute dinosaur interlude (which, in the context of the film, made absolutely perfect sense). Malick’s been entirely consistent in his approach for the past 15 years of being more and more naturalistic and experimental. Doesn’t surprise me that distributors are balking at the Affleck film (I think Chivo had already said Malick was being even more experiment than Tree of Life last year). But the fact that he takes the medium seriously and is genuinely playing with narrative form in a way no one else does is something we should cherish. Critique, sure. But cherish, nonetheless.

  5. Chris – I wouldn’t quite agree with that. I think in Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick managed to successfully marry very spare, bare-bones narrative structures with his more dreamlike, elliptical approach to editing. The simpler the story, the more Malick’s style has room to breathe without the whole thing getting cluttered and rudderless. But he hasn’t been able to do that as successfully since. I feel that he was biting off more than he could chew in narrative terms with the Thin Red Line and New World, and the more complex narratives, combined with the experimental and mood-orientated approach to story-telling and editing, created an overall lack of cohesion. I thought he was nearly back to his old prime with Tree of Life, because the narrative structure was simplistic and economical enough to allow his style to breathe; but dammit, he messed up the conclusion with some very poorly judged imagery/stylistic choices.

  6. The Thin Red Line had a brilliant middle but the beginning and the end were way too wind-blowing-thru-grass for me. Tree of Life is one where I recognize I’m in the minority but he edited out story and turned it into a very lovely slideshow. An excellent PowerPoint presentation. Yes, he needs discipline. I caught Badlands for the first time a year or so ago, and it’s my favorite Malick film.

  7. I think Malick’s last three films are better than his first two. The Tree of LIfe is clearly his best.

    Before Tree of Life, they ran a release of Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red LIne. I was blown away by The Thin Red Line. It’s first hour is an hourlng straight brilliant passage. And you can see the difference of ambition and scope that he returned to the screen with.

    Intellectually/artistically, the later films are much more developed and fascinating. It’s noticeable that when people criticize Malick, they rarely address the intellectual side. It’s usually a shallow complaint about the meaning of the dinosaurs or the wretched leafiness of it all.

    As to discipline, he has plenty of discipline. It’s you all that need a greater sense of exploration.

  8. Woah, where were all you guys last year when I was the sole voice against Malick and TTRL?

    Listen, I get that he’s experimental and does interesting things with his films, stuff that no one else does. But that doesn’t make him good to watch and enjoy. That’s the key word – enjoy. I don’t care how obtuse or weird or strange your film is; if someone is enjoying it for whatever reason, you’ve done your job. Yes, his stuff is generally profound and intellectual, but so is the textbook describing a new area of particle physics.

    I just feel like the people defending him are just so pretentious. All they do is go around saying “You just don’t get it. You don’t appreciate film as an art, like I do, because I’m just smarter than you.” No, you’re not. You’re just an asshole that’s taken too much LSD and weed.

    I would point to Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome as a comparison to his current work; important film, in terms of what shots should be used when, how to cut, when to cut, why you should cut, staging, framing, etc. But damn, if you want to get some kind of narrative out of it, good luck.

    @Krillian

    I’m with you on The Thin Red Line. I’m sure if I revisit it I might enjoy it more, but I don’t have 8 hours to sit through a Nat Geo documentary on the plants of the South Pacific just to get to the 30 or 40 minutes of interesting stuff.

  9. Mr. Wells –

    Thank you for your candid reply, which I didn’t expect getting relocated to a new thread. I see where you are coming from, your appreciation for Malick’s films as well. It’s your trying to “un-Malick Malick” or at least revert his filmmaking to a more disciplined and controlled environment and how that would would translate into the films themselves – as exemplified through how Bert Schneider made efforts to try and hold the director in a short leash during production(i.e. filming) on Days of Heaven – that rubbed me the wrong way. In fact, Mr. Schneider as a producer seems to be the one individual only going by the sought-after “disciplin” here mentioned, yet it appears he was largely incognito(judging by interviews with Billy Weber) during post-production on DoH, which is really where Malick shapes his films and hones them into their final “stature”(and spent 2 years doing, not least), so I’m asking how much of an influence Schneider really had in how that film turned out? Badlands was independently financed/made for an alleged and meager $350.000, and I believe Malick was largely free to go about editing this one as well in being his own taskmaster, if only to be possibly deadlined by the date of its festival premiere, and yet Badlands counts as the other “disciplined” feature of his you seem to favor.

    Whatever you are (or I am, for that matter) looking at as the distinctive marker that sets his two 70′s works apart from the ones that has emerged later, what you call “disciplined” I’d regard being of a more “conventional” and less mercurial/intuitive nature, and my further point is that I don’t see his earlier films influenced by external factors into being more disciplined – indeed, on the contrary – but that they simply represent a different outcome from Malick, one that you may prefer or not. If anything he appears to have been under more strict conditions with the larger studio productions The Thin Red Line and The New World, where post-production time was limited to a bit over a year on each with preset release dates, which has to make you wonder whether Malick could’ve made them into more “economical” features had he been given more time editing? An insider from TNW who was working on a daily basis with the director during the making of that film revealed to me that he favored the theatrical cut over the longer 150-minute “Academy” version screened earlier(for the Academy and on limited release), but the even later outcome of the 172-minute cut I have no bearing on the director’s liking compared to the theatrical release, other than that he was “very happy with it.”

    With regard to Malick’s choice of cutting down Brody’s screen time to a bare minimum, it turned out to give room to other character’s, mainly Witt, that to me had a tremendous impact. There’s no way of knowing how Fife would’ve evolved as a character – and frankly I believe the focus on the importance of his partial omission is blown out of proportion or certainly speculative, and downright tiresome to read of – but what Malick and his editors ended up with, sorting out the enormous material at hand that could have easily made for another feature with a different approach(they say), to me places a very interesting emphasis on themes, ideas and characters that you actually care for and put into a larger context. Penn’s part in The Tree of Life – arguably Malick’s best film, if you ask me – is spare, yes, but I take it people have a tendency to regard the importance of this in proportion to Mr. Penn’s own utterings on the lack of his role’s characterization here, possibly a combination of him being at odds with a discrepancy between script and film coupled with a dose of actor’s vanity.

    I’m biased, yes, insofar that I’m very fond of Malick’s film and what they try to express. What’s important to me is that of actually witnessing the trying and striving towards something(not here specified), which I believe Malick is quite keen on in an ever-evolving fashion. I never much cared for the “his films are definately flawed”-remarks, and that’s not saying I find Malick’s films to be perfect, whatever that means. I just don’t find it appealing to make myself the wiser on how he could’ve made his films less flawed as an intervening act of mine, other than just resorting to my own impressions and where that places the importance of his films in my mind.

    My own preference is for his later outcomes – the last three of them, that is – although they’re also (TTRL & TNW) the more demanding viewings. TNW is possibly the most inwardly expressive, haunting, and sprightful of them all, whereas TToL possesses a clear-eyed and “bringing me gently forward”-trait that has an enormous effect on me. The sincerity here, as with TNW, if very affecting.

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