By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
With Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life winning the Palme d'Or and playing to sellout crowds, the film world's collective boner has risen, once again, to zero acknowledgment from the film's maker. Perhaps it's time to reach for the light, prop up against the headboard and give this relationship some fresh consideration. Are we in love with Malick, or the idea of him?
The Tree of Life is Malick's fifth feature in 30 years. Combined with his now-legendary refusal to speak to press or make himself publicly available, this meager output, regarded by many as Vermeer-like in its scarcity, has made Malick something of a mystic to cinephiles — the Wizard of Oz of Texas. Critics are drunk on his Kool-Aid. Writing about Malick, their language fogs with the flabby vagaries of cult followers and Brentwood yoga instructors — "meditations," "spirit," "energy," "poetry." Malick is not a poet. Whitman is a poet. Malick is a filmmaker.
He can be a very good filmmaker. Badlands — as thin as a blade of grass and no less perfect — is one of the strongest debuts of its era, and to watch it again is to admire the young Malick's conviction of voice and his restraint in deploying it. In Badlands Malick refuses to shout above his material. His gorgeous sunsets and dewy glades, largely confined to the periphery, wordlessly evoke inner wildernesses of youth, vacuity and grace, rarely upstaging the story they so desperately need to keep them from shrinking into postcards. The alien beauty of Sissy Spacek, strange and wholesome, naive and austere, is perfectly suited — as it would be in Carrie, three years later — to this broken dollhouse America. Hers is the face of Malick.
Something happens to sophomore features that follow a major success, something intensely beautiful and also quite ugly, like a gymnast on steroids. These films can be tremendous — in size.
Days of Heaven is unspeakably picturesque, as purely delicious as Hedy Lamarr and about as uninteresting. Impaired by scarecrow performances, a feeble voice-over and Malick's fetish for nature porn, it's the most watchable unwatchable movie ever made.
Worst of all, the choice of imagery sags with worn symbolism and — I'm sorry to say — insincerity. In Days of Heaven, Malick's supposedly profound connection to the natural world is conceived with such feckless literal-mindedness, it would seem he took his metaphors from a seventh-grade English class. Kudos to the second unit, but cuts to burrowing field creatures register as either "poetic" non sequiturs or embarrassingly obvious recapitulations of what has already been dramatized.
The same, and not much more, can be said for The Thin Red Line. For all his love of natural splendor, Malick's hyper-Hollywood application of wall-to-wall score, stars by the boatload and throat-grabbing morality makes the film feel a little bit like Stanley Kramer on safari. As with It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, partway into the picture's 170 minutes I started wondering, "Who's gonna turn up next?" It's hard to contemplate the solemn mysteries of Almighty God when John Cusack appears in fatigues. Perhaps that's why voice-overs flood in — to tell us exactly what we should be contemplating. "What's this war in the heart of nature?" "Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea?" This is how I talked to girls in college when I was trying to get laid.
But in 2005, a marvelous thing happened. Malick combined the formal rigor of Badlands with the philosophical reach of The Thin Red Line to make The New World, a film culled from the careful and imaginative associations of a great artist.
This, finally, was the movie Malick had been trying to make. More than gorgeous, The New World doesn't use B-roll the way Days of Heaven did, matching familiar symbol to scene; it doesn't assault you with facile anti-industrial sentiment; it doesn't call on voice-over to do its dirty work. Rather, it watches the natural world, reading plants and birds and rivers the way new lovers read each other's faces, as genuine discoveries. And that is what The New World is about. John Smith and Pocahontas must rely on their senses to commune — for where there is no language, there is only touch, sight and sound. In this silent world, where comprehension demands metaphor, the voice-over becomes something like — and I know I said I wouldn't say it — spirit. Cutting to the listener while the speaker speaks makes the speaker's dialogue seem internal, more intimate, as if the listener were hearing her beloved's conversation not as words but as feelings. It's a terrific idea, and moving.
Until now, these have been Malick's only features. But the limits of his oeuvre have been as good for him as his unwillingness to talk about it. Unsurprisingly, his defenders treat his detachment as proof of his nobility. They say he wants the films to speak for themselves (this I've heard from his collaborators); that he's not interested in the limelight (they told me this, too); and that he's shy. Maybe. But if you believe, as I do, that Malick's man-made myth serves him well (he is as ethereal as his films, is he not? And that does lend them a touch of credibility, does it not?), then you might agree that his decision to step outside showbiz is actually a feat of self-salesmanship worthy of Lew Wasserman.
Not nearly enough examples from his previous films to support your hater stance, but, on the whole, a very well-written article.
sure malick isn't on par with tarkovsky or kubrick or bergman, but he's still talented and of all the garbage being shown in theaters near me right now (green lantern, transformers 3) it is extremely refreshing to have the tree of life out there, its a beautiful film even if it is odd.
i dont think malick hides from the press as a gimmick, i think he genuinely hates the press and having his face out there.
If one does not play the game by commenting, spewing their opinions on anything how can we capitalize and exploit it?
Good on ya, Terrence. Do what you want.
Malick's being a filmmaker should discount neither Malick as a poet nor his films as poetry. And so what if his silence is self-promotion? Good on him for stoking interest in his work without disappointing his admirers through obnoxious public behavior or foot-in-mouth disease. And I fail to grasp how his "defecting from the international conversation" makes him anti-educational. Is the study of an artist's work incomplete without commentary from the artist? Should we choose to not study Emily Dickinson because she wasn't alive to talk about her poetry when it was widely published?
I completely respect the option to disagree on the effectiveness of Malick's works, but a person is flippant and dismissive of Malick at their own risk.
In a media-saturated world where even the moderately famous have way too many public soap-boxes, I can't fathom complaining about those who choose not to talk.
I paid $32.67 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Toshiba laptop for $94.83 being delivered to our house tomorrow by FedEX. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores. I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $52.78 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff, PennyJump.com
A few points here on Malek's work have some consideration value, but overall it's worth repeating: "a pompous and sophomoric critic". This article provides further proof that without a life, an education can be a very dangerous thing. -LH
I could respond with scores of counterpoints, but it's been weeks since this was published and even if it hadn't, it's undeniably clear that the author is no more than an alt-weekly troll. So in lieu of subjective arguments, I'll merely note an incontrovertible truth: Terrence Malick will be remembered decades after Sam Wasson has been forgotten.
The Thin Red Line took war and made it boring. The New World was borderline racist in its Stevie Nicksian "witchy woman" portrayal of Pocohontas. It was unimaginative, to say the least.
I couldn't give two fucks about seeing his latest.
Quite a pedestrian notion: do not set yourself apart, do not separate yourself from the group. One simply MUST be a part, join in - or else. That is all that motivates the critic's critique. I get the impression that he went searching for a bone of contention and as so much that is authored in the Weekly, this is all he could come up with.
And now we have a popular culture that is so far and away barraged by tropes, by imagery, jingo psychobabble and simplistic, irreducible explanations for highly complex issues, a culture that has gone round the bend and surely isn't coming back, will not return to simplicity.
I agree with the critic's view of 'The New World'. I wonder if his opinion of Malick's present film might adjust following a revisit with the 1985 film 'Brazil.' The final scene of THAT film says it all about the critic's present critique, doesn't it?
Enjoyable article until the second page. I felt like you jumped the shark in saying "Despite his seemingly sincere commitment to academia, Malick, in defecting from the international conversation, reveals himself to be staunchly anti-educational, which is a hell of a lot uglier than being staunchly offensive...." That in itself is almost a Malickian turn of phrase - 'defecting' from conversation? Did Malick volunteer, or was he enlisted into this loquacious army? And what does conversation have to do, necessarily with education? This conflation of academia, conversation, education, and (implicitly) learning is confusing and unfair. Otherwise, I really enjoyed your critique of his work, and will be sure to check out 'The New World' - as the 'Thin Red Line' is my only Malick experience thus far. And yes, Cusack in fatigues was strange.
Deduction: The culture of celebrity has now replaced culture as a moral force, so refusing interview requests is a crime against humanity, or a master stroke of hype, or (why not?) both. Fact check: Malick left academia 40 years ago, and Lew Wasserman was a very private guy, not a master of self-salesmanship. Maybe "Lew Wasserman" is a Freudian slip for "Sam Wasson," who is obviously out to make a name for himself with this piece. Von Trier's recent showing in Cannes, which Wasson admires, is the reductio ad absurdum of his argument.
sorry for the lack of clarity - i should have said, he makes one NEW (to me) point and one obvious one
adjective giddy ejaculate absent of any critique. only point he's made is that he doesn't know what he's talking about - his only clear point is that prose is not celluloid. but if he means to infer by that ('Whitman is a poet. Malick is a filmmaker.") that film oughtn't be poetical, he has only exposed himself as ignorant of the whole history of art; a whole army of great artists are against him and know his contempt savvy type as an enemy immemorial.
"But Malick's silence is lame.... As ever, the trouble is in Malick's ivory tower of unaccountability, his defensive stance against the fact of community and the egalitarian notion of boundless conversation. Generals may have vision, but down here, in the audience, we do things differently. We fight."
Oh, the memories... let's pause and reflect on all the episodes of hand-to-hand combat we experienced as audience members. The moshing during REPO MAN - the gunfight during TOMBSTONE - did I tell you about the time I got shanked at a screening of AMERICAN ME? Might have been the same one that Sam Wasson got gang-ass-raped at...
Seriously, Wasson is certainly allowed his opinions about Malick's movies, and he did a half-way decent job of explaining why he liked THE NEW WORLD and BADLANDS while the others left him cold. But he does not get to say nonsensical shit like the statement I quoted if he wants to be taken seriously as a critic. There's no "fight" involved in putting your ass in a well-padded chair for a couple of hours.
Terrence Malick has fought the good fight. He got five pictures through the Hollywood system (not counting the one he's working on now) and made them on his own terms. That's a fight. I'd venture to say it's a longer and fiercer battle than any Wasson has faced in his lifetime (was he even alive when BADLANDS came out?) If at this point Malick wants to let his films speak for themselves, that's certainly his prerogative, and only the weak-minded - naming no names - will bleat that he owes us a verbal explanation.
Stop Wasson before he writes again.
Finally someone calls Malick to task. The images are like a Levis commercial and the inane voice over whispers all read like ga-ga I wrote in high school.This man has ruined a generation of filmmakers.
You are an IDIOT, and so is the Weekly for printing your garbage that imitates itself as critical thinking.
This writer is a tiresome twerp. Pompous sophmoric verbose theory, founded on a paycheck based on word count.
Tree Of Life straight-up sucks. Plain and simple. Let's just tell it like it is, without all the film-school vernacular, shall we?
Your thoughts would hold much more water were they not so obviously reactionary and based on others' admiration for a filmmaker you obviously dislike; the idle speculation as to why Malick avoids the spotlight is similarly unconvincing and reveals much more about your own insecurities than it does about his. It's a bit transparent that thinking of him as a cynical self-promoter helps you feel good about disliking him, and you'd do better to focus on a substantive critique of his films (of which there's little here and even less that doesn't resort to puerile attacks). But hey, baseless contrarianism is cool, too.
Also, he's been making films for 38 years (40, if you want to approximate), not 30.
frickin' nailed it. good job, Wasson. Badlands was stunning. Days of Heaven ineptitude, and Thin Red Line utter and complete dog poop on a stick. haven't seen the last two, but its a moral sin to treat the serious subject matter of TRL in such a vacuous and directionless manner. yes, the guy has a good eye at times, but that can only take you so far. beyond that, he tends towards a lot of pretentious flatulence. Wasson, pay no attention to the vacuoids here who think you're jealous or something. you just have a clear head.
Ridiculous observations. You let the hype build, wait for a movie to drop, look at what others have to say about it and then come out with a big hammer and blow it all apart. This isn't criticism. It's absurd reactionary backlash drivel that is only practiced by those who have a tough time writing an actual review. Most of Malick’s admirers agree the film is far from perfect . We don’t genuflect to his ‘genius’ – instead we see a movie we like. It’s pretty simple.
And calling Malick's silence ‘lame’ is making an assumption that he is purposely trying to keep the press [or you] on their toes. Must every filmmaker hold a press conference to explain things to you? Must they play the marketing / publicist / reviewers game? On top of that calling von Trier's anti-Semitic remarks daring is completely daft. I think you need to stop fighting and maybe think every once in a while.
Correction - It's EASY to contemplate the solemn mysteries of Almighty God when John Cusack appears in fatigues.
I too share Mr. Wasson's observations that so far, Mr. Malick's "The New World" is his most fully realized film. It is a luxurious, poetic, wonder of a film and I would like to see more 2nd run theaters show this movie because it can only truly be appreciated on a huge movie screen. (Not on your flippin' iPhone folks).
I, too, roll my eyes when I hear or read that someone is involved in a Malick project. Ah, the mystique of the auteur! And how predictable is the vitriol from snobs who find my taste in his films inferior to theirs if I'm not dazzled by his occasional good-at-best work.
When Malick is spoken about like he's Kubrick, I get a tad peevish. I find Malick atmospherically entrancing, but don't like preachy, on-the-nose filmmakers. Wanna wax rhapsodic? Reclusive genius Kubrick's body of work leaves me awestruck. The proof is in the footage.
Perhaps Malick avoids the press because he isn't sure what his own films are about. Who knows. I like that he tries to be profound and poetic in every film, but tryin' ain't bein', IMO.
This article reads like a jaded, self-important film student. One of your points is that he hasn't made very many films and that he doesn't like to talk about them.
"They say he wants the films to speak for themselves (this I've heard from his collaborators)"
There's so many questions to be asked about this one line.
Who the fuck cares that he doesn't like to talk to them? Film, Drama, Art, etc., at it's core, is about what you take away from it as an individual.
You obviously don't like his films, which is a-okay, but to question and speculate about motivation is childish and not journalism.
honestly man, your just an idiot. days of heaven is widely regarded as his masterpiece - and it is in fact his best film. badlands is a very strong film, and it's a brilliant debut. it is also yes, his most conventional genre film. it's about a couple of outlaw killer teens. i think you respond badlands and new world (which is a large historical romance) most is because you have a taste for conventional filmmaking. therefore your opinion has absolutely nothing to do with the higher quality of filmmaking of either of those two films, but rather your own narrow inability to see outside genre filmmaking. both those films are strong films for sure.
the thin red line is probably superior to both badlands and the new world.
also one can be a poetic filmmaker. a film can be poetic. it can be musical, it can be painterly, it can also be literary, and it can be minimalist, or expressionistic, etc.. etc., etc., these are expressions that are often used to describe films. malick's films are often called lyrical and poetic and impressionistic. that is because they are.
and finally if the guy doesn't speak, why the hell should he? who cares? i honestly doubt he has a grand scheme behind it. i'm sure he just doesn't like talking to the press - likes to keep his anonymity and regular lifestyle - and he doesn't have to because of who he is, and the fact that he can get his projects made and seen without doing it. therefore why would he?
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