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“My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral, he gave it to the yardman. He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. Then, one day, hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all his memories, he moved us from Texas to Fort Dupree, South Dakota.”
So began my day alone with Terrence Malick.
Malick is one of film’s great reclusive artists. In a career going back to the early 70s, he has made only seven films. The latest, Knight of Cups, showed in festivals earlier this year. Famed for his woozy, rapturous style and beautiful cinematography, he’s a critics’ darling and a bafflement to almost everyone else.
A couple of weeks back, I decided to inflict on myself a great sacrifice in the name of journalism, and undergo a Malick marathon. All six of his films, back to back, chronologically. 784 minutes. Let the whispered voiceovers commence.
I wake up on Saturday, hungover and grumpy. I’m in no mood for Terrence bloody Malick. I procrastinate by binge-watching half a season of Chuck (sexism aside, how great was that show?) and by the time I’m ready, it’s after 5pm. Realising I would now be up until at least 6am, I glumly put on Badlands, and the ordeal begins.
I’ve seen Badlands a few times before, and it’s actually quite wonderful. The film follows Holly and Kit, fictionalised versions of Caril Fugate and Charles Starkweather, as they murder their way across rural America. Holly (Sissy Spacek), a hopelessly naive baton-twirling teenager, immediately falls for Kit (Martin Sheen), a greaser who “looks just like James Dean”. When Holly’s father disapproves, Kit shoots him dead, and the pair go on the run.
Kit is odd—in his first line of dialogue, he offers a coworker a dollar to eat a dead collie—and he quickly starts killing for no good reason. In her voiceovers, Holly, the film’s oh-so-unreliable narrator, spins a breathless schoolgirl fairytale about the pair’s adventures, while Kit treats her with callous indifference. Both are a bit dim, and many of their conversations show a breathtaking lack of self-reflection (“How’s he doing?”; “I shot him in the stomach”; “Is he upset?”; “He didn’t say anything to me about it”).
The story—fifties America’s nightmare of errant youth—is gripping enough in its own right, letting Malick bathe it in his dreamlike direction without ever becoming too abstract or ethereal. Anyway, fantastic. It’s still only 7pm. The night is young; bring on Days of Heaven.
“Me and my brother, it just used to be me and my brother. We used to do things together. We used to have fun. We used to roam the streets. There was people suffering of pain and hunger. Some people, their tongues were hanging out of their mouth. He used to juggle apples. He used to amuse us. He used to entertain us.”
Like most of Malick’s films, Days of Heaven examines a particular facet of Americana—in this case, the early twentieth-century Texan panhandle, a place of dust and suspenders and hanging out down the river. The film is about a couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) who pose as brother and sister and try to claim the inheritance of a wealthy dying farmer. The plot is hugely predictable and can be summarised in about two sentences, although Wikipedia manfully pads it out to two paragraphs. The glacial pacing, striking cinematography, and cryptic mumbly narration all give the air of a Very Important And Meaningful Film, but on its release in 1978, the critics weren’t overly impressed—The New York Times called it “artificial” and “intolerably artsy”.
It’s unclear whether Days of Heaven really does have profound depth lurking beneath all the dreamy shots, or whether it just tries to generate emotion and meaning by having the narrator randomly say things like, “I remember this guy called Black Jack. He died. He only had one leg, and he died.” At one point the farm is overrun by locusts, a development that seems as symbolically obvious as the rat that runs across the screen at the end of The Departed, except that in this case, it doesn’t really appear to mean anything except “oh no, locusts!”.
The narration, by 16-year-old Linda Manz, is what ties it all together. It was inserted well after filming, when a desperate Malick realised he’d shot little more than a baffling and nonsensical series of pretty images. He recorded hours of Manz’s ad-libs and condensed them into a kind of supercut of striking urchin-poetry—“We seen trees that the leaves are shaking, and it looks like shadows of guys coming at you and stuff. We heard owls squawking away, moving away.” It’s weird and affected, but also undeniably cool; an indistinct, semi-relevant babble that Malick’s been trying to recreate ever since, with mixed results.
After Days of Heaven, Malick disappeared from the public eye. He continued to produce scripts from his seclusion in Paris, but his hiatus from directing ended up lasting twenty years. During this time Days of Heaven underwent a re-evaluation, as the next generation of film critics decided that yeah, they had totes understood it. The reclusive, still youthful director of two highly-regarded films saw his reputation reach mythical status. When Malick finally made his return in the mid-nineties to adapt James Jones’ WWII novel The Thin Red Line, he was able to cast a staggering array of A-list talent including (deep breath) Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Jim Caviezel, and John Travolta. George Clooney pops up for a cameo. Jared Leto appears and dies almost immediately. Woody Harrelson blows his own bum off. Matthew McConaughey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage orbited the film’s production for a time. Scenes involving Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke and Viggo Mortensen were removed from the final cut.
I start The Thin Red Line at around nine. At 171 minutes, its action and plot would barely fill an hour of a more conventional war film. The ensemble cast is confusing as hell, and the only character with a clearly defined personality is Nolte’s completely stock, hardboiled lieutenant. Two of the most prominent characters have generic facial features, similar Appalachian accents and nearly identical personalities (insofar as they have any at all), making them almost entirely interchangeable. One of them has an existential crisis. One of them (perhaps the same one?) dies. Don’t worry, though, the survivor wraps things up with a voiceover that totally explains everything.
“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the working of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”
Oh, now it all makes sense.
It’s midnight, and I’m halfway through. Next up is The New World, a film I’ve seen roughly five times now. I say “seen”—the longest I’ve made it through without falling asleep is about half an hour, and at 172 minutes, it’s Malick’s longest. I don’t fancy my chances. Time to restock on coffee.
I go to the kitchen and encounter my long-suffering flatmate Ross. “Hey mate, you haven’t done your chores yet. Could you get on that soon?” he asks. I’m taken aback at this novel form of communication; who would have thought words could be used to form short, declarative sentences and direct requests? And such excellent diction! I had been half expecting just to hear Ross’s disembodied mumble as I entered the kitchen, “what are these stains? Where runs the water? Listen to me, spirit of Finish Powerball. Let him be cleaner, this dirty flatmate. Let him hear the power of your Powerball.” Or perhaps, “I remember this guy called Dirty Sam. He died. He didn’t clean the kitchen, and he died.” Instead of answering, I play some solemn music and stare moodily out the window, and Ross shuffles awkwardly into the hall.
The New World opens, of course, with a voiceover. “Come, spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother. We, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.” Jesus Christ.
This one tells the story of Pocahontas, though she’s never referred to as Pocahontas in the film. Indeed, few things are referred to as anything by anyone; the plot is driven almost exclusively by voiceover (mumblingly handled by Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kircher), random snatches of dialogue, and mise-en-scene. There are probably fewer than five genuine conversations between its characters. Pocahontas (Kircher) spends large sections of the film simply wandering around, looking at trees and crying.
Telling Pocahontas’ whole story, from the arrival of the English at Jamestown to her death (spoiler alert!) means covering her relationships with both John Smith (Farrell) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale); Smith’s disappearance and Rolfe’s arrival two-thirds of the way through the film is a disorienting narrative bait and switch. For all the ground the film tries to cover, though, it’s also far too long—my eyes can take only so many shots of Colin Farrell rolling around in the long grass set to swelling orchestral music before the lids start to droop.
The final scenes, showing Pocahontas’ journey to England, are spectacular. But it takes 150 minutes to even get there; and it’s the two and a half hours of meadow-porn that make the gigantic, regimented scenes of the Old World truly pay off. Is it really worth waiting around that long, just to have your mind blown for a few minutes? The question is a nagging echo. Variations on the same had drifted through my mind during Days of Heaven. And during The Thin Red Line. Not during Badlands, though; Badlands was great.
It’s 3am. I’m two-thirds of the way through a large bottle of Pepsi. I put on The Tree of Life and fidget my way through the first twenty minutes. There are voiceovers (“Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door”). There is woozy, dreamlike camerawork. There are random shots of beautiful natural phenomena. There is Sean Penn’s dumb face.
The Tree of Life is Malick’s magnum opus, a film of insane ambition that plays like a bizarre mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gummo, and those awkward home videos your parents made when you were four. The “plot” revolves around a man reflecting on the meaning of life and humanity’s place in the cosmos, via recollections of his 1950s suburban upbringing in Waco, Texas. Or something. Anyway, the film takes in some scenes of rent-a-mope Penn wandering around his architectural firm looking forlorn, some trippy birth-of-the-universe lightshow nonsense, and some beautifully shot and touching coming-of-age sections, before culminating in a cringeworthy heaven bit where the world ends and the fam hugs it out on a beach.
That the whole thing is way too long and has little in the way of story should by this point go without saying, as should the fact that all the characters are fashionably glum (sample dialogue: “I just want to die. To be with him”). But the ten-minute universe sequence, barring an unfortunate bit with some extremely fake-looking dinosaurs, features some of the most gorgeous shots I have ever seen. And Hunter McCracken, the kid who plays young Sean Penn, is incredibly good (now that I think about it, Malick seems to always get really, really great performances from his young actors).
Unlike Malick’s other films, the problems with The Tree of Life are less of the “so much time, so little to do” variety, but stem from certain specific, egregious missteps. The bit with the horrible CG dinosaurs. The bit where Jessica Chastain levitates around a tree. The way Malick skilfully sets up a secular-friendly spiritual outlook, only to completely wreck it with hammy Christian overtones during that awful beach scene. When the first Star Wars prequel came out, one outraged, public-spirited individual produced an edited version that removed the racism, the bloat, the unwelcome bits of canon. The Tree of Life is clearly much better than the Star Wars prequels, even if Sean Penn getting his head cut off by a lightsaber would have been a welcome addition. But it could really use its own Phantom Edit.
Cannes didn’t think so—The Tree of Life won the Palme D’Or and received rave reviews from the critics who, naturally, understood the whole thing, like, OMG for realz—but the film-buff blogosphere was less impressed. “It’s pretentious and derivative,” sniffed one. “And the universe scenes were a bad ripoff of Dog Star Man.” Curious, I
downloaded bought Dog Star Man and skimmed watched it. It was a silent, 70-minute montage of indistinct bits of blurry colour, inexplicably arranged into four parts. Yeah, nah. I’ll stick with the breathtaking and emotionally stirring shots of unrivalled cosmic beauty, thanks.
It’s 4:30am in my Malickthon, and grandiose sweep is by now a familiar sight. In terms of sheer ambition, though, The Tree of Life is something else. In this age of endless sequels, remakes and spandex crimefighters, it seems wrong to criticise a film for aiming somewhat higher. But then it occurred to me that The Tree of Life doesn’t offer much in the way of actual philosophical content, it just points its nose in the general direction of Big Ideas and expects the audience to fill in the gaps. This type of thing has always seemed a bit of a cop-out to me, especially when it’s an approach explicitly designed to make viewers gush about how deep the film was. Heck, even Captain America: The Winter Soldier tried to make a serious and cogent point about state surveillance, even if the whole thing culminated in a series of kicks to the sternum and some gibberish about secret Nazi super-soldiers.
Why do we find pretension so objectionable? My pretentious theory (which I stole off Thomas Hobbes, but there you go) is that it’s all about ego. We hate to be reminded of the meagreness of our own feats—if there’s one virtue we value above all others in our high achieving peers, it’s humbleness. Pretentious people bother us because adopting the graces of the highly important and creative is an implicit insult to the rest of us mediocre types. Often it’s an unbearable provocation, and we stew for a bit, and fantasise about exposing them as charlatans. Looking for evidence of hypocrisy is the near-universal response to a bruised ego.
This preoccupation with pretension, and the exposure of those who practice it, is an expression of a social hierarchy that was once based on class and today is based on merit. Previous centuries scorned “bounders” who sought to live “above their station”; now we scorn the hipster, who tries to cultivate an air of sophistication and intelligence woefully out of proportion to their actual achievements. Is this an immature, unhealthy obsession? Is it a sign of a society defined by competition and vulgar meritocracy, where another’s elevation means our own corresponding demotion? You bet—if someone’s going to overtake me on the coolness ladder, they’d better have earned it.
It’s 5:30am. My flatmate’s boyfriend arrives back from his night shift and the customary loud sex begins. Over the rattling and crashing, I embark on the home stretch.
“Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. I fall into the flames. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life. What is she dreaming of? How calm she is. In love. Forever at peace. We climbed the steps to the Wonder.”
For his highly anticipated follow-up to The Tree of Life, Malick could basically do whatever he wanted. Hell, his next project was barely even a film. He signed on Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen, put them to work without a screenplay, and ended up cutting half of them from the film in an editing process that took over a year. To The Wonder premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2012. It picked up the festival’s SIGNIS award, given out by the Holy See for the best religious propaganda; Bardem plays a priest who pops up every twenty minutes or so to look pensive and quote scripture. Perhaps on the sheer weight of Malick’s reputation, the film was also nominated for the Golden Lion, the highest prize at Venice. It didn’t win.
Despite the nominations, To The Wonder was the first Malick film to not receive universal or near-universal critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes, where the film’s rating is just 45 per cent, calls To The Wonder “overly sombre and emotionally unsatisfying”. That’s putting it lightly. The film largely consists of two joyless cutouts moping around for two hours in a variety of gloomy, unlit suburban locations. There is no plot, character progression or, indeed, point of any kind. Critics have speculated that the film is semi-autobiographical; if so, it might shed some light on what Malick had been doing during his twenty-year hiatus—absolutely nothing.
Did Malick lose his mojo in spectacular fashion or is there something else at play? To me, To The Wonder feels more like a tipping point, where Malick’s instincts as a director became completely unshackled from any hint of storytelling convention. He simply ran out of things to say, or corners of Americana to peruse. It’s an exercise in form only, a demonstration of how to make a 113-minute Resene ad that people will pay to watch. In that latter respect, at least, Malick failed; the film grossed less than US$600,000 worldwide.
By the time I finish, it’s 7:20am. Few thoughts remain in my head, but my lasting impression of To The Wonder was a show of brute industry power, of Malick’s ability to pull studio funding and Hollywood A-list talent for an exercise in pure self-indulgence. At its core, it seems like a violation of some unwritten rule of mainstream filmmaking. I am the director with the fancy skills and artistic vision; you are the audience who wants to be entertained; my job is to meet you halfway. At least The Tree of Life had Brad Pitt and pretty colours; To The Wonder has Affleck and fifty shades of taupe. Of course, experimental film-making has never needed an audience for validation. But Malick has continued to direct major films without losing his experimental instincts, and he has neither Lars Von Trier’s shock value nor Harmony Korine’s playfulness.
Malick’s seventh film, Knight of Cups, has just been released at the Berlin festival. It’s yet to arrive in New Zealand or on Totally Legitimate Privateer Bay, so my Malickthon was tragically incomplete. But I think I can give this one a miss. “The sheer weight of evocative, ethereal images is not matched by complexity, depth or character development” (The Hollywood Reporter). The film is “ludicrous self-parody—somewhere between a Calvin Klein aftershave advertisement and a coffee-table book about the modernist mansions of the rich and famous” (BBC). It’s a “punishingly po-faced tone-poem” (Movie Mezzanine). The actors “appear to be wandering around the streets and apartments of Los Angeles without any idea of what they are meant to be doing” (the BBC again). “Christian Bale undergoes what has to be the least interesting spiritual crisis in history” (The Guardian). “Dialogue would help” (Indiewire).
Malick is an experimental film-maker, no doubt. But perhaps his entire career has been a set of giant experiments: if I wave my camera at pretty things for three hours and get an A-list actor to whisper a bunch of nonsense over the top, will people always watch it? Can I infiltrate the Hollywood mainstream by making one conventionally excellent film, then troll everyone with five extra-long impenetrable dreamscapes? How many times can I use a shot of a man walking behind a woman as she dances outdoors in a floaty dress and occasionally turns back to look at him? Maybe! Yes, apparently! And lots of times!
Some films, we are told, belong on the big screen. Some films belong on a hard drive, ready to dredge up at a moment’s boredom (thanks, X-Men!). Malick’s films belong in an art gallery. I’m not a big fan of art galleries. By the time the marathon is over, I feel as though I’ve been sitting in one for fourteen hours. So, what did I take away from it all? Was there a point to this extremely long process? Well, much like a Malick film, my marathon taught that just because something looks like a grand statement, sounds like a grand statement, feels like a grand statement, that doesn’t mean there’s anything to it. This was full of sound and, well, not exactly fury. More like mopiness, or something. But either way, it signified nothing.
Sorry about that.