"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans" wrote John Lennon in "Beautiful Boy" in 1980. The cinema of Terrence Malick had been saying it—visually—for years. The subjects of Malick's films go through their short lives (and their time on-screen) in desperate attempts to survive life, or make it better for themselves, while around them in the vistas they inhabit, life goes on without them. And while their actions—murdering, plotting, warring, conquering—are brief grand schemes, the backgrounds go on, often unnoticed and unseen (and unappreciated) by the foreground actors, in designs far more intricate and complex than anything man could devise.
In a sense, all of Malick's films are tragedies for their participants, but triumphs for The Good Earth he documents. His characters are drifters through the landscape, and, though he may turn off his camera when their stories are told, there is the sense that the worlds they inhabit will go on—the images I remember from Malick's films that have been burned in my memory (sometimes literally) have had no actors present: a farmhouse violently aflame, the smoke and flames spinning in a frightening gyre; a vast plain that is all horizon, one house perched tall and absurd in the middle of it, the South Pacific jungle moving in three-dimensions, alive with sound,
Box-office success has usually eluded Malick's films (and his latest, The Tree of Life received a mixed reception at the Cannes Film Festival garnering boos, walk-outs...but winning the top prize), but they have have grown in reputation over the years, proving them to be, appropriately enough, evergreen. Malick dispenses with obvious narrative story-telling in favor of voice-overs that seem more appropriate to personal memoirs. The real thrust of the story-telling is all-encompassingly visual, filled with stars (never more so than now) who blend in with the landscapes of Malick's inquisitive camera-work. "Pretentious" has been a frequent charge of Malick's films. And yet, there isn't a stronger story-teller of images in the current cinema, a film maker with a sense of The Big Picture, and in that, he is a contemporary of artists the likes of Ford, Lean, and Kubrick.
The most succinct ending for a Terrence Malick film would be a grave. And in his context, it would be a happy ending.
Badlands (1973) Seeing this in the theaters for the first time in 1973, I was immediately drawn to Malick's way of making films. I had been fascinated by cinema told in an oblique manner, with the emphasis on visual properties, rather than a melodramatic dialogue dependence, like 2001, Richard Lester's Petulia, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and George Lucas' THX-1138. They were cold, dispassionate films, but not without beauty and not without their own sense of soul. Malick's fictionalization of the Starkweather-Fugate killings of 1958 is as cold as they come, but told with incredible beauty and an odd off-beat humor. It's also a commentary on fame and legend, as Martin Sheen's Kit Carruthers (Sheen was a boyish 32 when he made Badlands) sees himself as a mirror-image of James Dean, with not much going for himself other than that. But that's part of the appeal to Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek, her third film and her second featured role), whose view of life is highly romanticized past the point of sense—she loves Kit, but she's more in love with being in love with Kit. The film is narrated by Spacek in a flat monotone, like she was reading from a diary, preserving the story of her and Kit's great love against a world that doesn't understand them and is against them—there is that little matter of the murders committed along the way.
Badlands is an impressive movie debut about creature-humans lost in a desert between good and evil and their own deluded fictions and reality.
Days of Heaven (1978) Days of Heaven was a giant step up from Badlands. The story-telling was more oblique, the budget was bigger, the characters more numerous, but just as reticent to talk. For one thing, they're all keeping secrets. Except for the Ishmael-like narrator (Linda Manz, who created her narration by free-thinking while watching a cut of the movie).
She is the sister of Bill (Richard Gere, who, as he would with American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman, took the part after John Travolta got cold feet—Gere owes a lot to John Travolta's bad taste), who, after killing a steel-mill foreman, is on the run with his Manz and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) at the turn of the century. Hopping a freight train, they stop at a farm, owned by Sam Shepard (his first major film role), and take jobs as laborers in the wheat fields. Ambitious, but only covetously so, Bill notes the attraction the dying farmer has for Abby, and exploits it, encouraging Abby to seek her fortunes with him, hoping to inherit the considerable land and its worth, once the farmer has passed.
In the meantime, there is wheat to gather, and with all laid plans, best and worst, God laughs and intervenes, using Nature as a weapon—plagues have worked so well in the storied past—and a mirror for the struggles between the "haves" and those whose only end is to take it.
Days of Heaven is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
The Thin Red Line (1998) After Days of Heaven, Malick did not make another film for 18 years. But, when it was heard that he was directing an adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel "The Thin Red Line" (it had already been filmed in 1964) it seemed like every male actor in Hollywood wanted to be a part of it.* When it came out, it had mixed critical reviews and did not do well at the box-office in the States. But, again, it has stood the test of time and garnered many awards nominations at the end of the year.
Jones' sprawling novel becomes more of a meditation on various aspects of war in Malick's hands, with the emphasis on Jim Caviziel's Pvt. Witt, who starts the film AWOL and living with natives in the South Pacific. He is found and taken back to a troop ship headed for Guadalcanal, where he makes it plain to 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) that he'd just as soon sit out the war and live with the natives, thank you very much. Witt's participation in the war seems to be based on its worth, and he only acts when it is in the interest of the other men in his company—I've always been puzzled that the character had this luxury. While the other soldiers are risking their lives, making moral choices, and living through the many aspects of horror in war, Witt isn't locked in chains on the troop-ship, but given a fairly free rein by Welsh. At one point, he even deserts to another native village, only to find that the idea of Noble Savagery is only a myth. He returns to the troop to help out in a maneuver that has his fellow soldiers out-flanked.
It is one of the most personal war films ever made, juxtaposing inner thoughts and horrendous action, and has an odd disjointed quality that lacks a real narrative flow...probably because there is so much story and so much footage shot, that the severe editing needed to pair it down to feature length has amputated a lot of connective tissue. But, as a digest of an epic studfy of war, it is an intriguing sampler. Hopefully, some day, Malick will find the time to shape The Thin Red Line-Redux.
The New World (2005) The "Pocohontas" story told quite uniquely. Never has a movie depended so much on "looks:" Reaction shots as Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell)takes a look at land from a ship's hold in chains, "the naturals" see large sailing ships for the first time and follow them along the coast, Euros and Natives establish a mutual first contact, "naturals" contemplate and climb over the skeletons of a fort. Many shots in The New Land, and frequently the best ones, communicate the concept of "new." It's a movie of discovery for everyone as cultures clash, help, establish bonds, and clash again. The first meeting of Smith and Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) is eerie, staged in a shoulder-height field of grass, as the two look askance at each other, and within edits move closer...like an unnatural force compels them, and Nature has a hand as the winds pickup and toss the fields around. And with that...hope.
"Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all," whispers Smith in narration. "None need grow poor."
And that's just the beginning. The entire movie is made up of amazing images and ideas...itself lending to a constant state of discovery, finding meaning in things as grandiose as a sunset...or as simple as a falling leaf.
It's an amazing achievement...and also, one of the most beautiful films ever made.
Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes, opens this week (and we'll have a review of it as soon as possible). But, he has already begun his arduous post-production process (sometimes lasting two years) on another film (starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams), not yet titled, which is pencilled for release in 2012.
* Sean Penn reportedly told Malick "Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up." It stars Jim Caviziel, Penn, John Travolta, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly, Nick Nolte, John Travolta and George Clooney. You want to know who was left on the cutting-room floor? Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Jason Patric, Viggo Mortenson, and Mickey Rourke!