A Few Notes on the Oeuvre of Terrence Malick


Since Terrence Malick is, for good reason, one of the most hotly discussed and alternately valorized and vilified auteurs currently working, laying out his aesthetic obsessions and goals seems more than a little futile. But what fascinates me most is the way in which his predilections change, sometimes radically, from film to film. Aside from someone like, say, Godard, no other prominent filmmaker has had such a radical turning point or concrete stages of their career, but at least from my view it seems just as helpful to group each of his (narrative, feature-length) works into duos, specifically ones where the second of each group of two provides a notable stepping-stone point with which Malick leaps to his next stage of either profundity or pretension, depending upon your stance.

The most obvious of these, naturally, is that of his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. At the risk of being reductive, they are the two films even most Malick detractors enjoy, as they have an altogether grounded and staunchly character-driven narrative, and Badlands in particular has a more conventional look and feel to it than any of his other films. But even in Days of Heaven lie the seeds of the next stage of development: there is a rather notable reliance on the handheld, and overall more and more attention is paid to the natural elements surrounding the love triangle. And of course, Linda Manz’s voiceover is characteristically opaque, though it acts more as a backbone – as in Badlands – than the ruminations that are to follow.

Another fairly standard pair comes in the form of The Thin Red Line, Malick’s return to the stage of American cinema, and The New World. The similarities are patently clear: they are both historical films dealing with pivotal events (if not individual moments) in American history, and they are the longest films of Malick’s career (when looking at the extended cut of the latter, which is is the one I viewed). Additionally, both are immersed in nature, respectively beginning and ending with scenes of the natural world that feel at once serene and disquieting, and seem to be told in both very broad and very intimate strokes. The New World, with its relative freedom from something on the order of the tense action of the Battle of Guadalcanal (though it too boasts a remarkable, visceral battle sequence) reaches ever more towards the meditative scenes of connection in an almost primal state; the scenes of John Smith commingling with the Powhatan are among the most moving in his entire filmography.

Easily the most illogical pairing, on the surface, comes from arguably his most acclaimed and most underrated films, respectively, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. The first is his grandest, most “cosmic,” while the second is, to my eyes, his simplest and most small-scale (and his first film set fully in the modern world). But both provide some of his richest and most finely attuned work with characters, and both are (creation of the universe digression aside) firmly situated in the South. Days of Heaven also shares this setting, but it feels paramount to these films, a setting both clearly definable and yet universal to Malick’s own sense of Americana. And both have scenes of immense catharsis and power: The Tree of Life with its beach/heavenly reunion and To the Wonder with a climactic, almost halo-infused parting – religion figures prominently in these two films as a central touchstone of the culture, including but not limited to Bardem’s character.

Leaving aside Voyage of Time, with its necessarily protracted production and putatively documentary aspects, the final pair thus far is of two films situated in specific entertainment industries: Knight of Cups with its ennui-ridden Hollywood and Song to Song with its hedonist Austin music scene. Both rely heavily on their respective milieus and have a surfeit of cameos, and both feel relentlessly modern; while To the Wonder has a certain timeless quality only occasionally broken, these two are utterly of a specific moment already gone. What progression Song to Song offers is unknown, especially with the purportedly back-to-basics nature of Radegund, but it is important to say that Malick has and, God willing, never will regress. He does recapitulate and return to certain themes and ideas, but his cinema is one of innovation and breathtaking beauty and empathy.

July 2017 Capsules

The Host
Brazenly careens through a multiplicity of narratives that would be more than enough to make up a single film on their own, but The Host never really loses sight of the family (and not the monster) at its core. Bong knows exactly when to engage fully with the broiling emotions a la something out of Godzilla, and, rightly or wrongly, he isn’t afraid of making his protagonists seem more than a little foolish or silly. Indeed, it is these moments that makes their nigh-suicidal showdowns with the monster that much more compelling and thrilling. Throughout the film runs an undercurrent of grief and shock that, along with Bong’s fluid and sometimes confrontational direction (those intensely discomforting close-ups!) propels The Host through an unwieldy plot to an immensely cathartic, fitting conclusion.

Recoups rather nicely after a singularly awful opening by moving – and firmly staying in – its most endearing and sincere mode. Okja is an odd movie in that it never loses a certain vitality or tendency towards the heartwarming despite its presentation of a bleak, nigh-fatalistic worldview, where the actions of the few are outweighed the commercial interests of the machine. Part of that is the intensely strong core of Mija and Okja, well-established by the opening 30 minutes, but it also comes through in the form of the ragtag crew of the Animal Liberation Front, Dano especially. Perhaps it’s too broad at times, too endearing, but Bong guides the viewer through with a steady, loving hand, by turns exhilarating and moving.

Wonder Woman
Almost depressing in some ways, given the critical and cultural hoopla that has descended upon Wonder Woman to a far greater extent than might be expected. It is somehow both anodyne and embarrassingly ridiculous, attempting to blend two disparate realms – the realm of myth (as opposed to more standard superhero mythology) and the very “real” concerns of World War I – with immensely clunky, repetitive dialogue. Jenkins has a bit of an eye for iconography but not much else, and the actors struggle to do their best with shaky material – a problem Gadot is particularly saddled with, faced with one tremulous reaction shot after another. Pine, incredibly, is the only one who comes out better off, as he is given an actually credible and fully-fledged character who manages a rather nicely-executed juggling act of love and duty. Otherwise, this lurches from scene to scene with little interest, only buoyed by the occasional swell of feeling that sometimes lands. And perhaps worst of all is how conventional this feels, how utterly predictable its narrative progression and reception is. This is no return to form or revolution; it is the status quo.

Pushing Hands
I’m generally wary of ascribing glaring faults to directors, but it seems fairly apparent that, at this point, Ang Lee was far less skilled at directing scenes in English than in Chinese. Nearly every scene that involves the admittedly thinly drawn character of Martha (that is, more than a third of the movie) feels either flat or shrill, and while the scenes conducted in Mandarin are only somewhat better, there is a sense of community and tenderness that is otherwise absent. It is perhaps inevitable that the most intriguing sequence is the opening, a wordless depiction of the cultural divide that implies what the rest of the movie proceeds to explain in ham-fisted and even didactic terms – the fact that Lee is so clearly on the side of the father makes the bluntness even more regrettable. There is a certain visual interest, but little else distinguishes this misguided, if slightly moving, film.

Vive L’Amour
The languor of Rebels of the Neon God is replaced with something more fearful; though the youth of this film are just as – if not moreso – disaffected as that film, they seem less possessed by their milieu as thrown into sharp relief. The huge pools of water are replaced with water bottles, and the general dank settings are replaced by the near-pristine walls of the duplex apartment. Said apartment, the point of intersection/purgatory for the two (or three) protagonists, feels at turns like a place of refuge, self-discovery, or existential fear, something Tsai achieves with very simple but very lighting changes and camera movements. His capacity to cut the viewer to the quick with a single line (or, in the first significant set of dialogue lines, a prattling set of phone conversations) is immense, as is his eye for duration, not just in his trademark static long shots but in his tracking shots as well; extended shots of people walking or driving in cars feel even more propulsive than the rest of the film. And throughout, the viewer feels almost like a voyeur, as the vulnerabilities and secrets of these isolated people can only stay hidden for so long.

Green Snake
Establishes itself with such vim and vigor that it almost seems to slow down when the snake-turned-human sisters show up, not before. No matter; Green Snake is so ineffably fantastical that its majesty seems to cascade off the screen with every swooning tilt, every blurred close-up, every dissolve that moves inexorably closer to its subject with something bordering on the mythic. This sense of the fantastic is undeniably key to this story of monks wielding the power of gods and monsters assuming flesh, but it is heightened almost past the point of no return. Yet Tsui Hark burrows deep, cutting through any hint of undeserved excess to arrive at the elemental core, of love, barely concealed jealousy, and ultimate destruction. And of course, Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong are almost too intensely alluring, with a kind of vamping that almost burns through the screen, equal parts maturity and melancholy.

Hiroshima mon amour
The opening sequence of Hiroshima mon amour – a dizzying collection of direct allusions to the horrors and trauma of a city – is justly acclaimed, but it is worth considering its place, narratively and structurally, within this film. Though it opens the film and is the series of moments for which the film is most remembered, it bears only some resemblance to the eighty minutes that follows it. Okada and especially Riva, the faces and figures upon which the film rests, are abstracted into clasped bodies – equated, at the very beginning, with the ashen corpses of the bombed – and voices, and they speak in a blunt way completely at odds with their curious, almost emotionally revealing conversations. It is as if they are speaking from a point far later or, even more likely, in a distant memory, far away from the slightly unreal, scarred city that dominates their existence. Their nationalities and differences in culture are all the more pronounced, and all the more deeply felt, with the inexorable passage of time.

Theatre of Blood
Chalk it up to my general horror myopia, my suspicion of melodrama outside of a concrete sense of emotion, my general distaste for wanton killing, my status as a critic, or any number of general predilections, but I found it very difficult to get into Theatre of Blood as a whole. By virtue of its jerry-rigged structure, stringing together an alarming number of purportedly justified murders while it seems no investigation is ventured at all, the film goes through highs and lows, with the undisputed high being a quite well-choreographed fencing duel through a gymnasium and the low being…one of three or four particularly gruesome murders? Leaving aside the illogicality of nearly every character’s actions save Price and Rigg (both of whom are clearly having much fun, for better or worse), the film can’t decide what tone it wishes to assume, and instead shifts awkwardly – sometimes in the same scene – between seriousness (as signaled by the lachrymose score) and hilarity. And all of this comes from an irreconcilable fact: Lionheart (not Price) is a fairly bad actor. Some nice shots from Hickox, though.

The Emperor’s New Groove (rewatch)
Leaving all of the insanely clever and intensely paced gags, I was struck at how totally The Emperor’s New Groove nails every aspect of its construction. From the brilliantly modern corporate speak, used both in and out of the royal court (“Emperor or not, it’s called common courtesy”), the purposefully sparing use of some of the best characters (the waiter, Pacha’s family), and even a heartwarming redemptive arc that, in its breathless movement through multiple betrayals and reconciliations, almost manages to outpace the film at large, it is exceedingly well-crafted, even if its pacing is too manic to let everything fully settle. But of course, one must return to the gags, to the absurdity that makes constant fourth-wall narration both obnoxious and consistently funny, that makes a dramatic zoom-out into something oddly suggestive of a wider world, and that makes pathos acutely earned.

Taste of Cherry (out of order)
Humanism is really a word that should be taken for granted when it comes to a director like Kiarostami, and yet it seems nigh impossible to describe Taste of Cherry as anything but. The scenario has such an overwhelming pathos baked in, but there is something ineffable about its brilliance, something so logical and elemental, that makes it devastating. Much of it is in the little feints: the brief use of the clergyman’s friend, the lack of introduction for Badii’s potential savior. But just as key are the big moments, the way in which Badii must get all the details right for fear of dying “unnaturally” or the laundry list of the things that make life worth living. And somehow each choice just amplifies the ache, the necessity of life; Kiarostami’s camera is never exploitative, never too distant, and especially in the transcendent final scene, never not quietly radical.

The Making of an Instant Classic: Carol

Originally written for the Scarecrow Blog.

What constitutes an instant classic in the realm of art? This varies from medium to medium (it seems that instant classics are made much more readily in music than in film, for example) and undoubtedly person to person: one’s deep, abiding love for, say, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money doesn’t necessarily translate to a wider cultural consensus or recognition of it. And even this cultural consensus has several layers to it, though for the purposes of this piece I will be only talking about the “cinephile culture” at large, and not the audiences who only attend the multiplexes a few times a year.

All of that being said, it is fascinating to see what films become effectively canonized as classics upon their very release, and for what reasons this happens. Perhaps the most salient and clear-cut example comes in the form of the 2015 film Carol, very likely the only non-franchise (see: Mad Max: Fury Road) instant classic to come out of that year. It exists at a unique, fascinating intersection of what might be considered traditional hallmarks of the classic – pop-culture cachet, notable cast and crew, specific subject matter – and yet it exists slightly apart from those, standing as a masterpiece on its own terms.

Anyone reading this is likely familiar with the overall narrative of Carol, but it is worth touching on some of the more important and basic elements. Directed by the widely acclaimed auteur Todd Haynes, beloved for films such as Safe, Velvet Goldmine, and Far From Heaven, the movie is an adaptation of the landmark queer novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. It stars Rooney Mara as a young storeworker and photographer in New York City during the Fifties who falls in love with a slightly older housewife played by Cate Blanchett, intently tracking the slow-gestating attraction and relationship against a frigid and suspicious cultural backdrop.

Such a spare narrative would usually result in a good but not great film, a romance that would contain some but not a great deal of emotion. But in the hands of Haynes, his magnetic stars, and his immensely talented collaborators – including but not limited to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, cinematographer Ed Lachman, and composer Carter Burwell – it becomes almost too romantic, too emotionally charged to bear. The resulting critical attention was immense and overwhelmingly adulatory, a response only matched by the widespread dismay at the lack of a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

But what sets Carol apart is its resulting afterlife after the end-of-year hoopla had died down. Part of it is its already enormous cachet in the repertory theater scene – Metrograph’s 35mm print has already played more than a few times to sell-out crowds, beginning less than four months after it was released in the United States – but it appears to be even more deeply rooted in the personal connections. More than most truly lasting films of recent times – the aforementioned Mad Max, Boyhood, Holy Motors – there is the sense that it is felt more deeply from each lover of the film to another, often drawing on a sense of recognition in the unabashedly queer nature of the film. It is a film that is seen over and over and cherished with unmistakably deep love and pride, which characterizes something all too rare in the realm of art. Most of all, it seems to both move beyond and stay tightly knit to the people to which it matters most.