A Few Notes on the Oeuvre of Terrence Malick

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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.

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.

A Few Immediate Thoughts on The Before Trilogy

So many echoes, both conscious and (I presume, though putting anything past these three geniuses is risky at best) unconscious. Each film has a scene of “acting” in a certain way, and the rhythms and often content of the walks are admirably similar, but each feels so differentiated by the ravages of time and love. A car ride that forms the climax of Sunset becomes the first act of Midnight, the glory of Sunrise becomes more and more attenuated until it acts as a divider, and through it all Linklater grows ever more confident, as vital as ever; the sense of worldly weariness comes from the roles, not the collaborators.

2016 Film Poll #4: Film Comment Readers’ Poll

Top 20 Films of 2016

1. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Every shot, every action in this film is profoundly coded with faith and religion; it is on all levels a groundbeaking achievement.

2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
The most achingly moving film of the year, but also delightful, shocking, and sensitively interior.

3. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Both a grandiose affair and a slow-burn melodrama, it is multi-faceted and heartbreaking in a way that grows in the mind with each passing day.

4. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
There is no doubt that these are the images that have marked Kirsten Johnson, but they are also the images of humanity: life, death, destruction, and beauty.

5. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Both the madcap comedy and the heartfelt drama as promised, and so much more.

6. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
A wonderfully nostalgic film as beguiling as the subject’s undying love.

7. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
While most of the other films on this list aim for subdued minimalism, this film sounds the call for maximalism loud and clear, marrying a delightfully twisted narrative with the most pleasurable romance of the year.

8. Happy Hour (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Even more than most long films, this luxuriates in its length, never sacrificing intimacy while exploring the gamut of emotions and moods.

9. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
The most conversational and confessional film of the year, twice.

10. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Simultaneously provocative and sympathetic, this is a challenge to the idea of documentary carried out on all fronts.

11. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)
A microcosm of a very specific, unexpectedly humane climate from so many perspectives.

12. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
The hoopla over whether this is a film or miniseries misses the point; it is a monolithic work, a pointed exposé of the state of the union through the lens of one of its most infamous figureheads.

13. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
It is a testament to the unbelievable prowess of all involved that this incredibly questionable premise resulted in this ravishingly clear-minded portrait of obsession.

14. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
As much as anything, this is remarkably quotidian even in its triptych structure as it moves more and more into the realms of unfathomably deep emotions.

15. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
A portrait of a woman constantly in motion.

16. SPL II: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang)
This is practically giddy on its own daring, on its wondrous and furious kineticism.

17. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Appropriately mesmerizing filmmaking on every level, woven in with a history that always seems just out of reach.

18. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
Endlessly relatable and wonderfully, agonizingly unvarnished.

19. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
A brilliant masterclass in sustained, mounting tension, culminating in one of the most unexpectedly soul shreddingly cathartic acts of the year.

20. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
Blissful, supremely assured reflections on the bittersweet things in life.

2016 Film Poll #3: The Muriel Awards

Best Feature-Length Film
1. Silence
2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Cameraperson
4. Toni Erdmann
5. My Golden Days
6. The Handmaiden
7. O.J.: Made in America
8. Mountains May Depart
9. Happy Hour
10. Right Now, Wrong Then

Best Lead Performance, Male
1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2. Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
3. Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro
4. Hidetoshi Nishijima, Creepy
5. Andrew Garfield, Silence

Best Lead Performance, Female
1. Kate Lyn Sheil, Kate Plays Christine
2. Zhao Tao, Mountains May Depart
3. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
4. Sônia Braga, Aquarius
5. Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann

Best Supporting Performance, Male
1. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
2. Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
3. Teruyuki Kagawa, Creepy
4. Issey Ogata, Silence
5. Laurent Lafitte, Elle

Best Supporting Performance, Female
1. Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
2. Sylvia Chang, Mountains May Depart
3. Michelle Williams, Certain Women
4. Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
5. Laura Dern, Certain Women

Best Direction
1. Jia Zhangke, Mountains May Depart
2. Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden
3. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Creepy
4. Martin Scorsese, Silence
5. Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson

Best Screenplay
(original or adapted)
1. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
2. Hong Sang-soo, Right Now, Wrong Then
3. Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
4. David Birke, Elle
5. Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women

Best Cinematography
1. The Handmaiden (Chung Chung-hoon)
2. Mountains May Depart (Nelson Lik-wai Yu)
3. Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)
4. Sunset Song (Michael McDonough)
5. Kaili Blues (Tianxing Wang)

Best Editing
1. Cameraperson (Nels Bangerter)
2. Manchester by the Sea (Jennifer Lame)
3. The Handmaiden (Kim Jae-Bum & Kim Sang-beom)
4. O.J.: Made in America (Bret Granato & Maya Mumma & Ben Sozanski)
5. I Am Not Your Negro (Alexandra Strauss)

Best Music
(original, adapted, or compiled)
1. The Handmaiden (Cho Young-wuk)
2. Mountains May Depart (Yoshihiro Hanno)
3. Manchester by the Sea (Lesley Barber)
4. Elle (Anne Dudley)
5. Julieta (Alberto Iglesias)

Best Documentary
1. Cameraperson
2. O.J.: Made in America
3. Kate Plays Christine

Best Cinematic Moment
(best scene or sequence)
1. Cameraperson – Violence montage
2. Silence – The voice
3. Manchester by the Sea – The accident flashback
4. Kate Plays Christine – Christine in living color
5. The Handmaiden – Throw away your books, run away in the fields
6. SPL II: A Time for Consequences – Emoji texting
7. Creepy – The interrogation
8. Mountains May Depart – “Go West” reprise
9. Happy Hour – Nightclub conversation
10. Cemetery of Splendour – The movie theater

Best Cinematic Breakthrough
(vague explanation: a performer, filmmaker, or technician who made a notable debut in film, took his/her career to a higher level, or revealed unforeseen layers to his/her talent during the year 2016)
1. Lily Gladstone
2. Kim Min-hee
3. Kirsten Johnson
4. Andrew Garfield
5. Kelly Fremon Craig

Best Body of Work
(a performer, filmmaker, or technician who made superior contributions to multiple films released in calendar year 2016)
1. Isabelle Huppert
2. Kim Min-hee
3. Andrew Garfield
4. Michelle Williams
5. Kristen Stewart

Best Ensemble Performance
1. Happy Hour
2. The Handmaiden
3. 20th Century Women
4. Love & Friendship
5. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Other remarks:
It is a great honor and pleasure to contribute my first ballot to the Muriels.
There were a ridiculous amount of extraordinary performances and technical achievements that I didn’t have the space to acknowledge, so here are some very honorable mentions: Things to Come, Sully, Paterson, The Edge of Seventeen, The Shallows, Shin Godzilla, Everybody Wants Some!!, Moonlight, and The Other Side.

10th Anniversary Award, Best Feature Film 2006
1. Inland Empire
2. Miami Vice
3. Old Joy
4. Syndromes and a Century
5. Woman on the Beach

25th Anniversary Award, Best Feature Film 1991
1. A Brighter Summer Day
2. The Double Life of Veronique
3. Barton Fink
4. Until the End of the World
5. Raise the Red Lantern

50th Anniversary Award, Best Feature Film 1966
1. Persona
2. The Battle of Algiers
3. Black Girl
4. Au hasard Balthazar
5. Masculin féminin

Top 23 of 2016

2016 definitely wasn’t my first year of cinephilia, but it feels in many ways like the first concrete step towards it becoming my all-consuming passion. From joining and becoming immersed in Twitter to watching more and more to writing on here, Seattle Screen Scene, and Brooklyn Magazine, it’s been rather extraordinary.

The following list is formed from the reds, oranges, greens, and blues that I have seen at time of writing that were commercially released in New York City in 2016. It is woefully inadequate and incomplete, but nothing ever is in cinephilia.

1. Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

2. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)

3. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

4. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)

5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

6. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)

7. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)

8. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)

9. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

10. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

11. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

12. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

13. SPL II: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang)

14. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

15. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)

16. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

17. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

18. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)

19. The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra)

20. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

21. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno)

22. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

23. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

My Top 10 Discoveries During 2016 (for first-time viewings of films made before 2000)

  1. A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang)
  2. Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-wai)
  3. Trust (1990, Hal Hartley)
  4. Wavelength (1967, Michael Snow)
  5. Manhunter (1986, Michael Mann)
  6. The Devils (1971, Ken Russell)
  7. Carlito’s Way (1993, Brian De Palma)
  8. Out 1 (1971, Jacques Rivette)
  9. Ran (1985, Akira Kurosawa)
  10. Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong Kar-wai)

In conclusion:

2016 Film Poll #2: Senses of Cinema

Ryan Swen
Freelance film critic, Seattle.

Based on 2016 New York City commercial releases.

1. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)
Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene, 2016)
If there was one genre of film that felt truly innovative this year, it was documentary, and these three films stood out as revolutionary in their own way; even more importantly, all are intensely passionate and emotional.

2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
The most achingly moving film of the year, but also delightful, shocking, and sensitively interior.

3. Shānhé gùrén (Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke, 2015)
Both a grandiose affair and a slow-burn melodrama, this film is multi-faceted and heartbreaking in a way that grows in the mind with each passing day.

4. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse (My Golden Days, Arnaud Desplechin, 2015)
A wonderfully nostalgic film as beguiling as the subject’s undying love.

5. Agassi (The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook, 2016)
While most of the other films on this list aim for subdued minimalism, this film sounds the call for maximalism loud and clear, marrying a delightfully twisted narrative with the most pleasurable romance of the year.

6. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)
L’Avenir (Things to Come, Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)
A triple bill of women living their quotidian lives, impeccably and empathetically looked upon by masterful, quietly audacious directors.

7. Jigeumeun-matgo-geuttaeneun-tteullida (Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
The most conversational and confessional film of the year, twice.

8. Rak Ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
Appropriately mesmerizing filmmaking on every level, woven in with a history that always seems just out of reach.

9. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone, 2015)
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)
Two films about teens that feel wholly, agonizingly authentic.

10. Shā Pò Láng Èr (SPL II: A Time for Consequences, Soi Cheang, 2015)
Kurîpî (Creepy, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)
The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2016)
Shin Gojira (Shin Godzilla, Hideaki Anno, 2016)
Four great arguments for genre filmmaking, all executed with brutal precision and their share of thrilling highs and only slightly less amazing lows.

2016 Film Poll #1: Seattle

1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
2. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
3. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
4. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
5. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
6. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
7. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
8. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
9. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
10. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

Honorable Mentions: Sunset Song (Terence Davies), Sully (Clint Eastwood), SPL II: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang), Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho), The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig), The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra), Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno)

Films That Didn’t Receive a Seattle Release: O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman), Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)

Thoughts on an Aborted Viewing of Evolution of a Filipino Family

A large part of what made Out 1 such a compelling, mesmerizing experience was the fact that I saw it in a theater and with other people. Watching such a film of notorious duration in a place where I couldn’t just get up or pull up another screen helps, certainly for every film but especially one of this kind. Leaving aside the fact that the two and a half hours of Evolution of a Filipino Family didn’t impress me nearly as much as the first episode of Out 1, I feel that the meditative pace of Evolution would have played significantly better in a theater where the rewind button was not an option.

The rewind button, however, helped little when it came to the surprisingly convoluted plot. Neither the Boyhood-esque portrait from Robert Koehler’s review at TIFF nor the non-linear style I had read from someone online, it is instead two parallel storylines, roughly speaking, a fact gleaned later on after I had taken numerous breaks and rewinds in an attempt to figure out the plot. Out 1 offers numerous pleasures aside from its relatively inconsequential plot, but the contours that I found most informed Evolution seemed fragmented. If I had gotten further, and been more in tune with Lav Diaz’s elongated rhythm, then things could have been different, but as is…

It must also be mentioned that Diaz’s style seemed rather different from expected. Though in the first half hour there are some long takes of landscape and people moving through it similar to that of Weerasethakul (in my limited experience) much of the film proceeds in a rather uninhibited vein: the shooting style is the same but the comment is filled with violence and intimations of the surrounding world, along with those rather odd radio stories; whether they are meant to echo the narrative or not seemed inconclusive.

Kwaku Ananse

“Kwaku Ananse” perhaps demands to be seen in its specific cultural context. Its narrative is rather opaque, following a young woman (that the notes say is American, though this isn’t mentioned in the short proper) as she journeys into a rural area of Ghana for some sort of funeral. This is intertwined with the myth—explained by the woman—of a spider that gathered all of the world’s knowledge into a gourd, and at a funeral for what appears to be the spider the short collapses into itself, putting in almost surreal touches as the woman ventures further into the jungle. “Kwaku Ananse”‘s pleasures lie mostly in its cinematography, which is almost unnaturally vibrant. The way it weaves in and out of the funeral and brings out the liveliness of the jungle and natural organisms seems nothing less than hypnotic.