Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Directors: Terrence Malick

When talking about enigmatic film directors, the Illinois-born Terrence Malick (1943-) undoubtedly comes up. The overly shy director is known as a recluse, refusing to do any interviews or publicity for his films. In fact, there are even precious few photographs about the man. Malick is also a notoriously slow worker, having produced a body of five films during the course of almost 40 years.

But for a man we know next to nothing about, Malick's films are strongly personal and speak for their creator. They are strong, philosophical films, which ponder large questions about existence with almost poetic photography. Malick has strong connections to both nature and religion, and both are often represented in various situations in his films. His refusal to do straight-forward stories and broad-stroked art style has also earned a number of haters for his style. It is easy to think thickly voice-overed, highly symbolic films as pretentious, but every single image has a purpose and is all part of a big jigsaw puzzle of different symbols and their readings. This style of filmmaking has also been highly influential among arthouse directors, although few can make films as captivating in their mysteriousness as the grand old man. This is why I consider Malick to be one of the most important filmmakers alive today.

It's hard, even impossible to rate Malick's unique body of work with stars, so I won't attempt it here. Suffice to say, I consider two of them to be true masterpieces and the other three still pretty darn good.

Badlands (1973)

Malick could easily have been a member of the same movie brat generation that many of his age peers did, like Scorsese, Coppola and DePalma. His debut film is a incredibly powerful film, but still reflects much of the era when it was made and has Malick's usual vivid philosophication marginalized. The film is loosely based on a real life case of a young man and a woman going on a killing rampage through the American Midwest. However, Malick's film is not a thriller, a crime flick, a heist flick or even a chase flick. It can loosely be seen as a romance or a study on morale. But the fact of the matter is, that Malick did make a wholly unique film on his first try, and it's hard to fit it in any previously made categories.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is a young punk, who doesn't quite fit into the society. He's working as a garbage man, when he meets the sweet young Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). Kit begins to court the girl, much to the dismay of her parents. Her father (Warren Oates) shoots her dog as a punishment for running off with Kit one time too often. The conflict culminates to the point where Kit sees no other option but to shoot Holly's father and escape with her to the wilderness. The pair look for a chance to be in peace at nature, at a farm and at a rich man's house, but they always get hounded by the police, and Kit has to resort to killing a lot more people.

It may sound like Kit is a total sociopath, and he does get over murdering people with a shrug. Yet at the same time he's a charming, witty and friendly man, and he's seen making friends with ease. It's the sort of normal-seeming young man that were sent to murder people by the thousands at that time in Vietnam. While Malick doesn't address this issue directly, there is some pondering on where the nation's youth is going. Holly herself is also smitten with Kit, although she's also shown to be so young and naïve that she doesn't fully realize her emotions, or make sense of the disturbingly sinister centre of Kit's facade. Her narration of the film likens her love to a story found in a cheap romance novel, and Kit himself to a rock star.

For a love story, Malick shoots his film coldly and tells the story matter-of-factly. He doesn't resort to melodrama, but rather lets the images tell story. At this point Malick was still more interested in the postures and expressions of his actors than the landscape they inhabit. The pop-culture grown youth attempt to go back to living in the nature as Adam and Eve, but can't manage to shake off neither their suburban habits nor the police on their tail. The scenes in nature look like they were shot in a park rather than a forest, which may very well be the point. There's no isolation, no true wilderness. There is some sense of melancholy in this realization that you can't go back again. Also depending on the kindness of friends and even strangers doesn't work for Kit and Holly's favor, yet they themselves only seem to think it's their forbidden love that has turned them into outcasts rather than the carnage they leave behind. This is a film about people who think they have figured life all out but in their shallowness and confusion are actually more messed up than anyone. And Malick seems to suggest that this kind of thing is not rare in the world.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Malick likes to develop his themes further in subsequent films he makes. Thus, his second feature film is another take of a couple on the run. This time, it concerns the hot-headed Bill (Richard Gere), his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and their daughter Linda (Linda Mantz). Bill starts out as a factory-worker, but runs afoul with his foreman, and accidentally kills him as a result. The family runs away far to Texas, where Bill starts working as a hand in the harvest in the fields owned by The Farmer (Sam Shepard). The rich Farmer is terminally ill, and the prognosis is that he won't live to see another harvest. Initially the family tell nothing about their identities. But Bill sees an opportunity when The Farmer falls for Abby, and comes up with a plan to pose as brother and sister, and go on living in the farm. He plans for Abby to marry The Farmer, and thus gain all his money once he dies. But the love of Abby makes The Farmer last a lot longer than expected, never taking a turn for the worse. Thus, also the seeds of jealousy are planted.

The tale is narrated by the young Linda, and in that it seems like a film set inside a person's memories, much like Malick's later Tree of Life is. Days of Heaven is Malick's first Epic, with huge shots of fields with the tall farm house rising in the middle like a medieval tower. A lot of weight is also given to Ennio Morricone's wonderful score. The film is set in the beginning of the 20th century, yet there is so much vivid imagery that could also be interpreted to be Malick's own memories of his childhood in the countryside of Illinois. Malick also intercuts peaceful images of fields, where wind is playing, to swarms of locusts attacking and eating the crops, and farmhands burning the entire field, when his characters' feelings come into the surface and more and more intense.

This time around, Malick would offer his characters a peace of mind, but having them be deceitful, jealous and greedy, they ruin it altogether. Harmony can not be achieved when people are driven by their flaws. The bright young Linda is the one who has the best hopes for the future, as is shown in the final scene of the film.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Malick broke 20 years of reclusiveness to film a war novel about World War II in the Pacific by James Jones for the second time. The resulting film, however was something wholly unique, unlike any other previous war films. It is a key film in Malick's career in that he evolved to being more and more interested in philosophy, such as metaphysicality, and man's relationship with nature. That's why more than battles, he likes to shoot light flickering at treetops or wind playing at the grass of a field. The film is laced with the voiceovers of soldiers pondering at their place in a world gone mad.

The film can roughly be divided into three parts. The first shows deserted soldiers living in harmony with the nature and the natives on a paradise island, until a ship comes by and the deserters are returned back on duty. The second part shows a major battle, as the marines must take out the Japanese troops stationed on the hills of a Pacific island. A major attack ensues and after a bloodshed, the men appear victorious. Yet their commandants can't even provide them with water and push them on more and more. The final part sees the tired soldiers in the jungle, not knowing where to head and where the enemy is. One patrol in particular gets into a sticky situation and have to escape the attacking enemy.

The theme of losing one's individuality is strong here. The soldiers follow the orders from clueless, merciless generals, who in turn have little concern for anything but reaching their set goals. Yet that idea is one seen in many a war movie before. More interesting is how Malick cross-cuts the war with a man's relation to nature. In the first battle scenes, it seems like Mother Nature is disapproving of the soldiers breaking its harmony by harming the peaceful landscape with their running, shouting and explosives. A key image is of a snake hissing at a pair of soldiers taking cover by a grassy knoll. But as the film progresses, Malick shows that nature doesn't really care. It just observes, like a swarm of fruit bats at the treetops. At the same time the jungle-set paradise by the water from the film's beginning has turned from to a living hell where the struggle of life and death is a reality. The cold mindset of a soldier is kill or get killed, so in actuality they get to experience nature as it is, as cold and ruthless, rather than just reaping its benefits.

Malick, if anyone, is a director whose films are born in the cutting room. The original cut of the film ran for six hours. When the film had to be cut into less than three, Malick didn't hesitate to cut certain major movie stars out of the picture, and reducing some others' roles considerably. The director doesn't want to over-emphasize any given soldiers, it is a story about humanity in general. Also, Malick willingly breaks every Hollywood war movie cliché and convention he can find. His war is a total mess, confusing, loud and raw. At war really are harmony and chaos, or empathy and nature. The same fighting pair Malick would ponder on later with The Tree of Life. But The Thin Red Line is more subtle, more thought-provoking, and perhaps even more beautiful.

The New World (2005)

Like said, Malick likes to amplify his last movie's themes with every subsequent film he makes. The New World was his first film that really split even the arthouse audience in two. At it's core is another battle between natural children and civilization. The western civilization is depicted as a cold, heartless place, whose residents are emotionally distant. At the same time the natives living in the middle of the nature are capable for mercy and love – to a point. Malick stages this conflict to the time of the first English settlement on American soil. He also has a sort of a plot to hang his thoughts to, taken from history books.

The English explorers come across the Atlantic ocean to what they conceive as West India, and build the settlement of Jamestown. Supplies are few, and many of the men are not too eager about their new habitat. Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) agrees to set free Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), a mutineer waiting for the death penalty, on the condition that he shall remain loyal. But the immigrants start having trouble with the curious American natives, and this culminates one of the "Indians" being shot. This drives both of the groups to an edge, and leads to Smith getting captured. But just as he's about to get executed (again) the beautiful young daughter of the Tribe leader saves his life. The young girl (Q'Orinka Klicher) comes known first as Pocahontas. She attempts to build peace between the two groups and grows fond of Smith. But Smith doesn't enjoy being in America and schemes about getting away. I'm about to dwell a little more on the plot (because while that's really not the key concern for Malick, it brings out the film's themes better), so look away from the next paragraph, if you don't wish to be spoiled any further.

Malick has a sort of one-sided romance going on during his film. No matter how much mercy Pocahontas shows, how much she helps the English, she doesn't get the love that she deserves from John Smith. After the distrust between the English and the natives culminates again to a brutal battle, she's banished from her Tribe, and starts living as a Pariah in Jamestown. A newly arrived recruit, John Rolfe (Christian Bale) falls for her and attempts to build her a common bourgeois life of being the wife of an English farmer. They build a house, a farm, give her English clothes and teach her manners. Finally, she is given a Christian baptism, and named Rebecca. But she still pines for the more adventurous Smith. Eventually, she is taken to England, where she comes to terms with her part in life and the fact that Smith didn't care for her. Rebecca insists she is happy within grey skies and tightly cut bushes and lawns that bear no resemblance to her native nature any more. The bittersweet ending also tells of her demise at childbirth.

So, at central, the film is a melancholic look at a paradise lost. Pocahontas' sense of connection with nature starts to dwindle during the course of the movie. She grows from a beloved child that wonders the moon and the stars, and runs across the grassy fields at dawn mist, to just another droll English midwife. She sacrifices it all by chasing a dream that was never there. It may be wondrous to her when she first arrives to London, of seeing so many people she couldn't imagine, but in the end she still seems to end up lonely and unfulfilled. Although Malick alludes heavily to the Christian concept of rebirth, it can not be seen to be only a good thing here. This sort of thing should be noted by those who see Malick's recent work of just pushing Christian values to their face. Malick doesn't see the religion per se as the savior. Rather, the individual also needs to find his or her own sense of mercy, a connection to nature, and of course ableness to stuck to the moment when they are the happiest.

Personally, I find the film a bit too long and repetitive, but it is still a lot more interesting than a lot of other filmmakers make during their entire careers.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Malick's latest film may be his most personal or perhaps not. However, it is clearly his most dividing film. Some viewers criticize Malick dropping the ball by going too far into naïve christian pseudo-philosophies, and pretentiousness. Others see a vivid, even poetic film that's bustling with ideas and multilayered symbolism. All can agree that this is a one-of-a-kind film that's made with an amazing visual style. Malick's central idea is that everyone on Earth must follow one of two paths in their life: either they follow nature and do things from selfish reasons, or they follow mercy and do things out of love. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's beautiful, iconic imagery spirals around the film's main themes. The film may entirely take place inside the architect Jack O'Brien's (Sean Penn) head as he struggles against feelings of depression and worthlessness. He doesn't know his place in the world and inside God's grand plan. All the film's scenes are laced with how Jack experiences them, from his angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) to his strong father (Brad Pitt), a man with few words but a loving heart.

So, the film's plot is flimsy and serves as only the faintest thread with which to tie Malick's world-explanations. First, we follow the grief in an American family as one of their three boys has died from reasons not explained. From the grief we take off to the beginning of life itself billions of years ago in the sea. One-celled organisms eventually become dinosaurs, complicated creatures who rise from the life-giving sea and suffer for it. But for suffering, they also seem to conceive the concept of mercy (!). With a quick stop at brooding adult Jack's glistening, artificial city surroundings, we're back with the O'Brien family in the 50's or early 60's, before the upcoming tragedy. The eldest child Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives and plays with his two brothers in the nature, often somewhere near water. His mother and father embody the two life paths, and try to get young Jack to follow them.

Either way you choose, life may have infinite sadness and suffering in store. Life branches to unknown paths, just like God's Divine plan for the universe. We as a people may have difficulty seeing the whole of it. But Malick does offer hope with the ending. Everyone will get a chance for redemption and coming to terms with the past. Too bad it's presented so banally in the film it makes the whole thing a little cheesy. Altough Malick has a lot of christian iconography in the film, his concepts of mercy and redemption are more spiritual than belonging to any given religion. Nevertheless Malick and underlines this religious reading way too much, particularly in the final scene. If not for that, one could read the Tree to be whatever one likes.

It is widely suspected that Malick is taking a look back at his own childhood and suffering of over his brother's death. We know little about the author, and since he doesn't give interviews nor gives out guides how to read his films, one can take these claims however one likes. Nevertheless, much of the film taking place inside Jack's memories are full of vivid boyhood games with a reasonably nostalgic look at growing up. The film really shines with these warm and affectionate scenes. It is also undeniable that Malick is searching for reasons and coping methods for past tragedies (whether for his characters or for himself) through religion and a poetic approach on the Earth's development. 

Warts and all, Tree of Life is a jaw-droppingly unique vision of cinema by a true auteur. When the viewer leaves the theatre, he most likely has his head all blurry from this whole cornucopia of unforgettable images, unique ideas, colorful boyhood nostalgia, great underplayed acting, and, in two words, pure cinema.

It has been rumored that Malick would have another film ready for this year, known to some circles as Voyage of Time. There are also a few other films reportedly at various stages in production, as well as a 3,5 hour cut of The Tree of Life. I'll believe when I see them. Malick is notoriously slow worker, having edited ToL for years because he was not happy with the result. And we haven't even seen the longer cut of The Thin Red Line, like promised. But if they do exist, I am more than eager to see them.

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