Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The First Four Films of Terrence Malick

Well it’s November 2nd.  The Cubs and Indians are preparing to play game 7 of the World Series and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the world ends sometime during the 9th inning.  With that said, I appreciate you spending some of your last moments on earth reading my blog.  Like every blog entry ever I meant to get this written sooner, but life has a way of inevitably delaying everything I aim to do.

I’ll start by giving a little backstory as to why now seemed like a good time to revisit the films of Terrence Malick.  To start we have to go back a few months.  A few times a year random flash sales pop up where the typically expensive Criterion Collection is 50% off.  The previous sale I purchased Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and Wim Wender’s Road Trilogy (Alice in the Cities, False Movement, King of the Road).  Right around this time A New World was being released.  I figured since money was a little tight, I’d wait until the next sale and stock up on Malick’s films.  As of now, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World are part of the Criterion Collection, and amazingly enough I owned none of these films on DVD or Blu-Ray.  So fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when a sale on Criterion was announced, and I stocked up.  I got the idea immediately after to actually watch these four movies and offer my collective thoughts.

The debate obviously raged internally as to how to organize this article.  Would I offer full scale Kubrick sized reviews, or perhaps invoke my Vincente Minnelli piece from a few years ago and discuss these movies individually in a shorter capacity?  I suppose you can read on to see just what approach I took, but I opted for a third option, channeling an old essay I wrote in film school about Spike Lee’s first five films.  Mainly we’re going to talk about everything and how they relate in theme, style, perception, etc.  So I would highly recommend watching all of these films because there will be spoilers, but considering the most contemporary of these films is already 11 years old, you’ve have plenty of time.  Although one can argue the films of Terrence Malick are immune to spoilers.

Now for those long time readers I’m sure you are all well aware that I love Tree of Life, like more than just about any film.  This film blew me away like nothing I’ve ever seen in theaters, and I thoroughly challenge any film made in the 21st century to top it.  Despite how revelatory the film was, there were roots of it’s brilliance scattered throughout his previous films.  Much in the same way Godard seemed to incorporate everything he knew about cinema into Weekend, or Altman’s penultimate improvisational epic Nashville was the sum of all it’s previous parts, Tree of Life represented Malick putting all his successful early ideas into one sententious masterpiece.  As groundbreaking as Tree was, the elements of that film were present pretty much from his first feature.

Badlands was one of the films I was most excited to revisit for this project.  I hadn’t seen it start to finish in roughly 15 years and frankly wasn’t overly impressed by it.  My problem with the film the first time around was probably one of context.  The film presented itself as a lovers on the run tale, and it seemed like a much more boring version of other better known tales (Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, etc.)  Watching it as some sort of sensationalized tale of a violent rampage and a story of doomed young love was the wrong way to approach this film.  Taken as the first chapter in cinematic universe of Malick it suddenly fits beautifully.  The film wasn’t sensationalized, it wasn’t meant to be some fast paced tale of doomed love, and these weren’t some sexy villains breaking the rules.

There are some common threads that pop up even in this first film.  For starters there’s the narration, which would be a common thread throughout Malick’s work.  Using narration to explain the plot is typically seen as a crutch for most storytellers, but Malick uses it in much the same way a novelist might.  It adds depth, Holly (Sissy Spacek) uses it to internalize her thoughts, saying things that couldn’t be filmed or spoken in a film.  This narrative technique would be exploited further in his later films, particularly in Days of Heaven.  He would eventually use multiple narrators in his later films, but the first two both use the narration of young women who seem largely along for the ride to add the depth.  On Days of Heaven, Linda Manz apparently recorded multiple hours of improvised narration, where Malick simply told her to say whatever came into her mind about the visuals she was watching.  Both offer narration that compliments the narrative but doesn’t explain what’s happening.  It isn’t a crutch for him, simply another cinematic device.

I would argue Malick is one of the few filmmakers who seems to be a complete filmmaker.  He uses every technique he can to illustrate his story.  His camera is often mobile,  free to roam wherever it feels best.  Multiple scenes are filmed with and without dialogue, and much to annoyance of his actors he often cuts out lengthy dialogue scenes and reduces them to a wordless single shot. 

The cinematography often gets the most attention in his film, and Malick’s in depth knowledge of cameras, lenses, and film stock is well documented.  His preferred use of natural lighting is often infuriating to the more experienced cinematographers, but damn it if he doesn’t always seem to be right in the end.  His preference for shooting typically leads to an absurd amount of film being used.  Editing his films can be seen as a monumental task, and it’s why in the case of certain films (like Days of Heaven) it took nearly two years.  Part of the idea is that despite some well worked out scripts, the man isn’t closed to new ideas.  Shooting scripts can go out the window if the lighting is just right.  If someone has a better idea on how to do a scene, he’s usually open to listen.  This gives the films something of a freedom, and it comes across when you watch them.  It also leads to many people expecting conventional narratives to be frustrated.

Both Badlands and Days of Heaven are fairly straightforward.  They are both 94 minutes long, and have an intimate quality to them.  Badlands is largely just about two people, and Days of Heaven expands to a quartet.  The landscape is important to these films, going as far as to lend the title to his first film.  It’s important to note that Malick is from Texas and this love of wide open spaces seems to be almost born in him.  He came from money, which often helps explain a fascination with people from the wrong side of the tracks.  Rather than get too in depth about his biography I find it necessary to mention two additional items.  First, he is a certifiable genius, the man is probably smarter than you.  Second, he was a philosopher, even teaching it at MIT.  Knowing a little about his background helps to illuminate some of his ideas towards cinema.

What many people thought would be Saving Private Ryan-Pacific, Thin Red Line turned into a philosophical exploration of the psychological aspects of war.  Much of the carnage is filmed with long shots, with many a shifting internal monologue, flashback, and muted soundtrack.  There are multiple moments where the film could venture into conventional war movie territory, but it never seems to linger for long.  It was based on James Jones’ book of the same name, and the author probably wouldn’t have recognized Malick’s interpretation had he lived to see it.  I was a fan of the film from the first time I saw it, and on an emotional level it probably remains Malick’s most powerful.  It was simply a miracle that it was made.  During the two decades separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line many a rumor and legend began to arise about what Terrence Malick was up to.  He moved to Paris, continued writing, but from there the details are incredibly vague.  There was no shortage of A-list actors who wanted to be a part of The Thin Red Line, and although the cameos might seem slightly distracting, he makes sure to feature them early and often.  This film helped bring things full circle considering John Travolta was the first choice to appear in Days of Heaven

The one constant in Malick’s films is art director Jack Fisk.  He got his start at the Roger Corman school of low budget movies before getting his break on Badlands.  Fisk is something of the unsung hero in Malick’s work.  It’s amazing to see the progression from three story tree house in Badlands to the fort in The New World.  He was known for an impressive attention to detail, filling Spacek’s room with tons of character detail, earmarked books, and clothes in every drawer.   These things might be geared more towards helping actors get in character, but it creates a sense of lived in space.  As the scope of these films got larger obviously Fisk’s work got bigger.  The attention to detail and obsessive quest for authenticity in The New World was a common theme throughout the cast and crew. 

The Native American actors went through their own mini-boot camp to learn how to move and speak like a tribe in the early 17th century.  This helped create a sense of community not unlike the one for the soldiers in The Thin Red Line.  The fact that Malick seems completely unconcerned with financial returns on his movies, allows this sort of unusual luxury.  Each of his films seem like a self contained world yet part of a bigger picture.  What helps unite these films isn’t just the presence of Fisk or narration, but violence.  Badlands was a personal project for Malick that he had pretty much fully formed in his mind by the time he enrolled in the American Film Institute.  It was based loosely on the Charles Starkweather killings in the late 50s.  The film ends with a note in the credits about how it is a work of fiction, and comparing the true crime story to the finished film will naturally reveal some key differences.

Days of Heaven isn’t really a violent film by nature, but it is book-ended by a couple of murders.  It’s easy to think of that film as this really pretty picture that employed two absolutely incredible cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.  The Thin Red Line by contrast is violent by nature but despite many explosions and attacks it’s far from gory.  It’s interesting to compare the first two films and their depiction of violence with the last two.  In Badlands the killing is just a chain reaction.  One bad decision just leads to another, and you get a feeling that Kit (Martin Sheen) starts to enjoy it.  He is concerned with his own legacy, even building a little rock monument to show where he was captured.  Bill (Richard Gere) is as much of a victim as a perpetrator, pushed into violence to survive in Days.

The killing is more a matter of course for The Thin Red Line.  The film does show the psychological aspects of fighting a war in a way that isn’t really shown in the much more personal violence of the first two films.  It’s somehow more humanistic despite the often faceless nature of war and war films.  These two threads get woven together beautifully in The New World.  The violence is part of surviving in a new and hostile place, but the personal attachment Smith (Colin Farrell) has to the natives makes it seem all the more tragic.  Despite the aloofness of Smith, the rest of the whites seem more in tune with history’s version of early settlers.  They are convinced they’re right, and have that classic European delusion of bringing civilization to these “savages”.  When the natives attack it’s more in the interest of their self preservation, and the white people seem much more on the defensive.  Violence seems an unavoidable by product of the world in Malick’s eyes through all these films, just in different contexts.  This is where the philosopher seems to really shine through in these movies.  The idea of violence would somewhat exhaust itself after The New World, as nature itself appears to be the violent force in Tree of Life.

I would point out I was quite happy when Criterion announced they were releasing The New World.  For starters I hadn’t seen the film since it was originally in theaters.  I liked it but found it at times a bit slow.  Hearing that there was an extended cut of the film was something quite exciting, but I never put fourth enough of an effort to track this version down.  The new release features both the theatrical cut and the 172 minute extended cut, as well as a third original version.  I watched the 172 minute version and it simply adds some texture to the original story.  I followed this up with the 150 minute original cut, which admittedly was playing the in the background while writing this blog.  Considering so many of Malick’s work is in the details these contrasting versions don’t alter the story too much, simply adding a few extra layers. 

I feel The New World is arguably his most important script.  The story was apparently written around the time of Days of Heaven, but for numerous reasons was put on the back burner for decades.  I noticed that when Smith is commenting on the natives never uttering the word “forgiveness”, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) asks to be forgiven by her father later.  Something I noticed in theaters that was backed up by the extended versions is also the fact that the name Pocahontas is never actually uttered.  The first time she is ever even addressed by a name it is when she’s christened Rebecca.  It’s a subtle little detail, but one that I feel rewards the diligent. 

Overall these first four films are far from a warm up to something greater, even if you’ll excuse me in saying Tree of Life is superior to all of them.  I wouldn’t argue with anyone who would say one of these four films was Malick’s best.  Arguably the best thing about his often rambling philosophical style is that it resonates with people on a personal level.  Badlands is a perfect film, and an incredibly impressive debut.  It works because of it’s two leads, Martin Sheen’s charisma and Sissy Spacek’s ambivalence.  Malick himself appears as a traveling salesman, and would also appear briefly in Days of Heaven as a steel worker before entering his self imposed seclusion. 

Days of Heaven is a good film but one that misses the mark ever so slightly.  I’ve never been a big fan of Linda Manz narration, despite being in the minority with this.  Malick always had a bit of a fascination with accents, and there’s no doubt he was enamored with Manz’s, but I find it a little overdone.  The visual aspects of the film deserve all the praise you can give a movie, and despite the cinematic inexperience of the actors the performances are pretty solid.  Part of the problem with the film is in it’s legend.  Being the last Malick film for 20 years a lot of people over analyzed the hell out of this film, and what was something of a simple period picture became so much more.  It was more a testament to what could have been with his seemingly abandoned career.  As we’ve gotten more Malick, especially recently that promise seems largely fulfilled.  Days of Heaven almost seems like a sophomore slump, a good film that doesn’t quite hold up to it’s predecessor and it’s long awaited successor.

The Thin Red Line was the first Malick film I ever saw, and I really didn’t know much about the director or his long hiatus.  Perhaps for this reason I didn’t go in to the film with the same level of anticipation all the people who worshiped Days of Heaven had.  Since I watched it in my formative years as a film fan, I was obliged to compare it to other war films.  I loved it right away, mainly for how subjective the film was.  I could recognize even as a novice that the goal was to show more of the emotional toll of war than the physical or even mental.  Seeing it several times since it reveals new depths each time.  It would have seemed silly to consider it a better film than Saving Private Ryan, which it’s for better or worse always going to be linked with, but the more I’ve seen each the more I have to lean towards Malick.  Repeated viewings are kind to this film, and not to detract from Spielberg’s masterpiece, that film wins you over immediately.  There’s a bit of work that is required in The Thin Red Line, but it’s so worth it.

Having seen all three version of The New World I have to say it is a great film.  At times the film seems to wander aimlessly, and even the theatrical version feels a bit long.  There are a few head scratching moments, and there is a sense that things could have been trimmed without losing much of the ambience and plot.  Colin Farrell isn’t bad, but he does just seem to be more of a prop than an actor here.  He’s just sort of wandering aimlessly the whole time, but what do I know?  Without nitpicking, I feel like I should point out that filmmakers of a certain quality are judged by different standards.  With technical aspects all universally excellent, their work seems to be measured against each other, and although these four films are all masterpieces in their own right, they aren’t necessarily equal in quality.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment to an auteur is that these films all have a similar visual look despite being shot by 5 different cinematographers.  Emmanuel Lubezki (who has won the past three best cinematography Oscars) seems to have made a good impression on Malick.  After The New World, they worked together on his next three features.  Watching these first four films reminds me of the era when a Terrence Malick film was a once a decade experience.  He has started to make up for lost time, and his future films will probably fail to be as heavily scrutinized and poured over as these first four were, but the plus side is more movies.   So thank you for reading through my scatterbrain thoughts on one of America’s greatest directors.