When Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life played at Cannes last week, going on to win the festival's top prize, reaction verged on religious. Critics and fans treated it not so much as a film than as a worldview-altering event; viewers reported leaving the theater different people than when they entered. And yet few filmmakers have tended to provoke such hostility from general audiences, or opened themselves so boldly to charges of pretension and overreaching.
These responses speak as much to Malick's past as his present. A onetime Texas oil worker turned Rhodes philosophy scholar, he's a reclusive artist who descends from some metaphorical mountaintop every few years to bestow a new inspiration upon us. And while descriptions of his work might sound like hipster catnip — poetic, philosophical, contemplative, transcendent — the movies themselves tell a completely different story. As The Belcourt's new retrospective of Malick's five-film, 38-year career shows, they stand outside the stream of cinema in which viewers are routinely immersed.
One handy way that film theorists divide movies is the realist/formalist dichotomy. To put it simply, realist movies are interested in suspending viewers' disbelief and creating a sense that life is actually happening on-screen. They aim to make the screen boundaries disappear — to make you forget that you're watching a movie. Formalist films, on the other hand, seek just the opposite effect. They highlight the "movie-ness" of the medium, reminding you constantly that this is not real life. Formalism utilizes distancing techniques, such as showing you the sprocket holes in the film or using jarring editing to let the seams of the art show on the outside.
Looking at Malick's body of work through this lens is confounding. He has drawn from history since his very first feature, as The Belcourt's "Tuesdays with Terrence Malick" retrospective establishes. But that history, reflected to varying degrees in all Malick's films, has increasingly been used as a setting for meditation rather than a stage for strong narratives.
Badlands (screening June 7), his 1973 debut, takes its cues from Charles Starkweather's 1958 killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming. Martin Sheen plays a James Dean wannabe who charms a passive, washed-out teenager (Sissy Spacek) into accompanying him on an aimless adventure. People get killed (including an imposing Warren Oates) against an anti-actioner backdrop of endless, featureless plains. Throughout it all, Spacek's character provides a stilted, naive voiceover rich with irony and uninflected humor.
Badlands is the most realistic of Malick's films, to be sure, but the ingredients are already in place for the increasingly abstract films to come. The self-conscious voiceover, addressing the meaning of events seen on screen in the context of memories and dreams, has become a Malick trademark. Present as well, in nascent form, is the strategy of using images of natural beauty to evoke an infinite quality beyond his characters. This isn't a movie about the 1950s; it's about the world the two deluded protagonists construct in their heads and impose with apparently little contradiction or effort on their environment. And all around them, the dust and grass and sky wait for their little flicker of significance to pass.
1978's Days of Heaven (June 14) is an elaboration of that theme — the intense personal drama of brief lives against a timeless backdrop. Narrated by Linda (Linda Manz, who vanished from movies shortly after Gummo), a worldly-wise adolescent, it's the story of a steel mill worker (played by Richard Gere) who, after killing a supervisor, flees to Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). They find work with a wealthy rancher (Sam Shepard), who falls for Abby under the illusion that the two are brother and sister.
The soapy elements of the plot hardly register — except as the external symptoms of internal yearnings, or perhaps semi-Biblical archetypes of power and desire. Instead, it's the images of the natural world, encountered on its own terms, in unstudied innocence, that linger. They persist as impressions on the viewer's retina, captured by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler: a locust chewing on a stalk, wheat fields rippling in magic-hour light, children walking on train tracks heading who knows where.
There's a master's thesis to be written on grass in Malick's work, because those same fluid lakes of greenery dominate his next film, The Thin Red Line (June 21), in sound and sight. Twenty years elapsed before he made this impressionistic adaptation of James Jones' World War II novel. Viewers looking for strategy, heroism and careful period detail will be frustrated; this is about as far from the History Channel as you can get. Here, the Battle of Guadalcanal becomes a spiritual conflict between memories of home, native idylls, and the chaotic senselessness of war.
Malick employs multiple voiceovers, shifting between the internal musings of a private (Jim Caviezel), his sergeant (Sean Penn) and their increasingly desperate colonel (Nick Nolte), among others. For the first time the talk of transcendence escapes the voiceovers and invades the dialogue on screen, with characters speaking directly to each other about life's perverse beauty. Perhaps the most telling moment occurs when a native islander, almost invisible in the man-high grass, passes the column of American GIs; the soldiers stare at him in befuddled wonder, while he, in turn, looks impassively through them. The island is long, the wordless scene seems to say, and your war is insignificant.
It only took seven years for Malick to return with more on the theme of native timelessness versus civilized transience in 2005's The New World (June 28). To say that it's based on the story of Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith is a bit misleading: While Malick's mucky, hostile, violent version of Jamestown Colony rebukes the prettified romance of American myth, there's nothing like an elitist screed here. As with nearly all of Malick's work, arguments over which perspective to adopt with regard to history disappear under layers of the director's singular obsession with truth, beauty, goodness — the enduring and almost trans-moral verities of existence, qualities beyond what is written by the winners.
Colin Farrell plays Smith as a rough mutineer who is pardoned by the colonial governor (Christopher Plummer) in hopes that he will shore up the settlements' defenses against "the naturals." After staying inside the stockade long enough to grasp the massive gulf between the colony's English ideals and pretensions and its mud-caked starveling reality, Smith is captured by Chief Powhatan's tribe and saved by his ethereal daughter (Q'orianka Kilcher).
His dreamlike life among the natives comes to an end when he returns to the colony to take on a temporary governorship, delivering the chief's daughter into the hands of English matrons, who bundle her in corsets, and a polished John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who courts her. What could be a simplistic ode to noble savagery, however, is elevated and transformed in the final section of the film, where Pocahontas travels to London and strides its cultivated gardens in Elizabethan collars, as confidently as if she were worshipping the sun in deerskins. The city is another kind of nature, Malick implies, one that can endure and inspire as well.
It's a new idea for the writer-director, whose slow work pace and recurring obsessions do not often find him toying with new ideas. What hasn't changed, though, is that his films increasingly infuse experience with spiritual energy, finding every sight and sound pregnant with intimations of worlds and themes too vast to comprehend. Therein lies the hope for The Tree of Life when it finally arrives here June 24. Beyond the divide between story and symbolism lies the Malick landscape — a place where filmgoers are transformed into churchgoers.
Another Year is a film directed by Mike Leigh film with a fairly common theme…
Wow these comments are awesome, really nice to see some good debating for once instead…
This film Philomena is a film about the Catholic religion that director Stephen Frears making…
In 1923 the executive council of the American Federation of Labor issued an address to…
Higher Ground is a film drama director Vera Farmiga's film themed religious story of two…