Auteur of the Week: Terrence Malick

The first time I was introduced to Terrence Malick was over ten years ago and I knew nothing about it him. My brother and I were watching AMC and Badlands came on and we thought it was Charlie Sheen, but after we saw young Sissy Spacek we realized it was a young Martin Sheen (young Charlie looks just like young Martin!). I’d never seen anything like this film before and upon viewing it my love of Malick’s work began and has yet to dissipate.

Malick was born November 30, 1943, grew up in Oklahoma and Texas and graduated from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. He studied philosophy at Harvard and graduated in 1965 summa cum laude. He then went to Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, but left because of a disagreement with his advisor, without a doctorate degree. He then taught philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology while freelancing as a journalist before earning an MFA from the AFI Conservatory in 1969. Malick was considered one of the great up-and-coming directors of the 70s after releasing Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978. However, Malick disappeared from the film industry for 20 years, living in France. His return to cinema in 1998 was triumphant, his film The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven Academy Awards, although it did not win any. He followed that up with 2005’s The New World. This year he has a film coming out entitled The Tree of Life and already has a cast lined up for an as of yet untitled film that is set to begin production later this fall. Malick is notoriously reclusive and there are few photos of him, as his contracts reportedly stipulate that no one may photograph him. He also often refuses to be interviewed.

Malick is my favorite director, even if he’s only had four films released so far. I think all of his films are masterpieces. Not only are Malick’s screenplays filled with poetic dialogue and stories, his films are like watching poetry in motion. I’m glad that he has come back to the film industry and is making more and more films. I feel as though he has a lot to say as a director and I for one love all of it.

Badlands is a fictionalized account of a real murder spree that took place in 1957. The film is narrated from the point of view of Sissy Spacek’s character Holly. The use of narration is a device Malick uses in all of his films. Although for some films narration can work against the strength of the film, they way in which Malick uses it does exactly the opposite. This is especially true in Badlands, where Holly’s naive narration is juxtaposed perfectly against the violent reality of Martin Sheen’s Kit.

Martin Sheen is positively explosive in this film. Channeling equal parts James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Marlon Brando in The Wild One, his performance is uniquely his own. Malick has created a character that on the surface is just like Dean and Brando, but goes one step further and adds a manic psychosis. Sheen’s performance in this film is definitely my favorite of his and ranks among my favorite sociopaths in all of cinema.

This film marks Sissy Spacek’s first staring role and remains one of her best. She balances Holly’s naiveté with her uncontrollable attraction to Kit beautifully. Malick’s camerawork captures this luminous quality that Spacek exudes. It is a real pleasure to watch her in this film. It’s clear that she has a natural talent and she flourishes under Malick’s subtle direction.

Filming took place entirely in Colorado and Malick uses the stark emptiness of the setting to underscore the alienation inherent in the plot of the film.

This film also marks the debut of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, whose work also includes The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense. I think an important aspect of Malick as a filmmaker is his choice of cinematographers, because what makes his films as stunning as they are is their lush cinematography.

Set in Texas in 1916, the film is a stunning look at pre-WWI life in America. It’s a beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking story about desperation, love and the human condition. Again, the story is told by narration, this time from the eyes of the younger sister of Richard Gere’s Bill, played by Linda Manz. Malick won the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director award) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and the film was nominated for four Academy Awards – Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Score – Ennio Morricone, and won Best Cinematography – Néstor Almendros. The film was also named the Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review.

This is one of Richard Gere’s earliest performances and one of the few films wherein I like him. The chemistry between the film’s two leads – Gere and Brooke Adams – is palpable. Adam’s in particular gives a stunning performance. I looked her up and although she’s still working in films and television to this day, I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything else. I’d have thought after giving such an acclaimed performance she’d have become just as big a star as Gere. I’m not sure what happened.

First of all, I just want to say that I find Sam Shepard to be one of the most attractive people to ever walk the earth. That being said, he is also one of the greatest actors to come out of the latter half of the century. He’s also a prolific and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, winning for his 1979 play Buried Child. Although his only Academy Award nomination was for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff, I think this is perhaps his best performance. It’s both subtle and heartbreaking. His performance as The Farmer – he goes unnamed throughout the film, steals the film and I think it’s largely due to Shepard’s strong screen presence.

I wanted to include this screencap because it reminds me of the one I posted earlier from Badlands. When I was preparing to write this piece, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. Malick’s films often include a scene with fire and I think the way in which he films flames is particularly beautiful. But also fire has this alluring danger and inherent poetry about it from which I think Malick’s work as a filmmaker draws much inspiration.

The locust scene is perhaps the most iconic scene from this film and is widely considered one of the most dynamic scenes in cinema from the 1970s. I think it’s important to note that although Néstor Almendros received sole billing as cinematographer and won the Academy Award, he had to leave the production before filming wrapped because they had gone over schedule and he had a prior commitment to François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women. At least half of the cinematography on the completed film was the work of Haskell Wexler, who only received credit for “additional photography” and thus was not eligible for Oscar. That being said, I think the two did a wonderful job and the editing is so seamless it’s near impossible to tell who filmed what part.

I wrote extensively about this film a month ago as part of my Oscar Vault Monday series, but considering it’s one of my Top-Ten Films of All-Time I simply cannot write enough about how much I love this film. When doing some more research about this film I discovered a quote from producer Robert Michael Geisler that pretty much sums up why I love this film:

Malick’s Guadalcanal would be a Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison, as Terry used to call it, of war. Much of the violence was to be portrayed indirectly. A soldier is shot, but rather than showing a Spielbergian bloody face we see a tree explode, the shredded vegetation, and a gorgeous bird with a broken wing flying out of a tree.

A lot of what I love about this film is Malick and cinematographer John Toll’s incorporation of the lush surroundings in which these soldiers and this war find themselves.

It really adds to the poetic vision of the film. Toll lost the Best Cinematography Academy Award to Janusz Kamiński’s work on Saving Private Ryan. And while I can see the value of what Kamiński did with that film, Toll’s cinematography moves me in ways few films have. I have watched this film so many times I’ve lost count and the cinematography makes me cry every time. I think a lot of it has to do with the juxtaposition of the natural beauty of the islands contrasted with harsh reality of war.

Gene Siskel has called it “the greatest contemporary war film [he’s] seen,” but I would go so far as to say it’s the greatest war movie I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of war movies. It’s also the greatest anti-war movie I’ve ever seen. What I love about Malick’s screenplay is that it uses ordinary soldiers and their reactions to the circumstances in which they find themselves to create his anti-war statement. I own James Jones’ novel on which the film is based, but I’ve yet to read it, so I’m not sure how anti-war the book is and how much was Malick’s own feelings towards war.

Although, like I said in my earlier post, this film is a large ensemble full of stunning performances, the main thread that holds the film together is the role of Pvt. Witt, played by Jim Caviezel. Caviezel is perhaps best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of The Christ, but it is his performance in this film where he shines the brightest. There’s a sort of subdued mania and poetic melancholy that Caviezel brings to the role that I just love.

Where’s your spark now?

I wanted to end my discussion of this film with the above line because it is my favorite part of the entire film. The line is beautifully simplistic and Sean Penn’s delivery is perfect. I’ve been haunted by this scene ever since I first saw it and think of it often. I really feel it is Malick’s whole thesis when it comes to the awful nature of war and its consequences.

I first saw this film at a press screening in San Francisco over four years ago (you can read my original review of it for the Daily Cal here). I remember being absolutely blown away by it. I also remember being one of the few press people in the audience who were. It was everything I was expecting and more. Emmanuel Lubezki was nominated for an Academy Award for his luminous cinematography, losing to Dion Beebe for Memoirs of a Geisha. Newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher was nominated and won several awards for her nuanced performance as the iconic Pocahontas.

As I’ve often said, I am a big fan of Colin Farrell and strongly believe that when he works with a good script and a good director, he delivers dynamic performances. He got both when working with Malick, giving one of the finest performances of his career. When I first read about the age difference between Farrell and Kilcher, I thought I would find it queasy, but under Malick deft guidance, the romance between the two leads feels as natural as the world around them.

Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale give some of their finest performances in this film as well.

Malick has the ability to get amazingly subtle, yet vibrant performances out of his actors. I think a lot of it comes from both writing and directing his films. Having such a firm control of his films creatively, as well as such a large part in the creation of the characters, allows Malick great insight into helping the actors make the characters their own.

I really cannot say enough about Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography in this film. Like Malick’s three previous films, the setting of the film plays an important part in the storytelling. The “New World” in which most of the film takes place is as much a character as any of the people. Although Malick worked with different cinematographers in each of his films, they all have a similar richness and appreciation for the natural world.

Little is known about Malick’s next project, The Tree of Life, which is set to be released in November. The distributor, Summit Entertainment, has said the film is “the tale of a Midwestern boy’s journey from the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as a “lost soul in the modern world”, and into his quest to regain meaning in life.” Malick re-teamed with Lubezki for the film’s cinematography and Sean Penn plays a supporting role opposite Brad Pitt, in the lead role. This is one of my most anticipated films coming out this year. A poster has yet to be released for the film, but you can guarantee as soon as one does I will post it on this site, as well as when the trailer finally hits.

As I stated earlier, Malick is my favorite director and I am glad he is making films again. I hope he continues well into the future. You can purchase all of Malick’s films here.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on June 29, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this informative post.

  2. I found your blog post via a forum link on imdb concerning Malick’s “Tree of Life”. Terrence Malick is also my favorite director, and you’ve done a fine job representing the facts about his work. What I find a bit overshadowed in your piece is any exploration of Malick’s themes and insights. To be sure, he is a great Director of actors, but it is his subtlety and depth of his themes that really touches my heart. To me, the really interesting thing about Malick is that the 20 year gap in his career yielded such a massive quantum leap in spiritual quality. I find Badlands and Days of Heaven to be competent, sometimes brilliant in their execution, but lacking true spiritual depth. They are signposts indicating problems in western society, and we feel the impermanence of men in the face of nature. The Thin Red Line isn’t so much on the surface. The old themes are there, but it is the “spark” you reference in your article that is the true kernel of that film. Red Line and The New World essentially approach this spark from different directions, but it is the same theme. Witt is searching for “the new world”, the place of spirit, the Eden. He glimpses it when he goes awol and lives with the villagers. His quest is to maintain that Eden within himself, and I would say he succeeds at this. Sean Penn’s character is equally fascinating as a man who can sense this spiritual depth resonating in Witt, but is unable to bridge that gap, but is nevertheless drawn to Witt. The two characters are a joy to watch. Colin Farrels character in New World is very similar, and again the themes are similar. The spiritual place, where men live in harmony, beyond guile and possessions, the Indian way of life is described and comes to represent that ideal. We think Colin Farrell might be able to “live” there, but he isn’t up to the task. He is not able to retain the spiritual balance within the tumult and madness the English bring. Then we’re treated to Pochahontas’s journey, and how she is able to retain it. The New World is my favorite movie. It’s just brilliant. I wrote more on it, and on Malick on my blog:

  3. Great site. I’m working through Malick now on my site Like your writing. How, exactly, does one watch 111 movies in one month? That’s……. impressive.

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