Knight of Cups, the latest film by Terrence Malick, has been described by some as a fans-only proposition. As an ardent devotee of the notoriously media-shy filmmaker, I’m not sure I agree. It’s certainly true that the film, which stars Christian Bale as a disenchanted screenwriter, is marked by winsome narration and a barely-there plot. But it’s also a bona fide Los Angeles movie full of decadent party sequences and celebrity cameos (even Fabio makes an appearance). It's as if a Bret Easton Ellis–penned episode of Entourage ended up on the filmmaker’s desk and he decided, sure, I can make something transcendently beautiful out of this.
In either case, skeptics and disciples alike will have the chance to see for themselves what all the fuss is about when Gestation Period: The Cinema of Terrence Malick takes up residency at the Aero Theatre this weekend and next. A seven-film retrospective that accounts for the writer-director’s entire filmography, the series taps into Malick’s soul-searching oeuvre more extensively than any series since LACMA held a similar program five years ago.
To get a sense of Malick's body of work — which is spread out over more than 40 years, making it as un-prolific as it is visually resplendent — it’s probably useful to first get a sense of what that career has entailed. Malick first announced himself to the moviegoing world in 1973, when Badlands premiered at the New York Film Festival. Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as young lovers who go on a lethal crime spree across the heartland, it introduced viewers to a number of stylistic flourishes that have grown ever more pronounced in the decades since: voice-over narration, arresting cinematography, lost souls as far as the eye can see. Badlands and his next feature, 1978’s Days of Heaven, will screen together as a 35mm double feature on Friday night — an essential opportunity to see two masterworks of the New Hollywood era as they were intended to be experienced.
Before that, though, Malick was working toward a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard until a dispute over his thesis put an end to his pursuit of academia; a few years later, he was part of the American Film Institute’s first graduating class along with David Lynch. That was likely his first exposure to both the city and the industry that Knight of Cups depicts in a less-than-flattering light — unless we’re talking about actual sunlight, which Emmanuel Lubezki captures as wondrously as ever. (Side note: The fact that Lubezki has now won two Oscars for his collaborations with Alejandro González Iñárritu and zero for his work with Malick is a bitter, bitter pill.)
In what would prove to be one of the last times he’s ever willingly appeared in front of the camera, Malick has a brief, Hitchcock-like cameo in Badlands. He stopped granting interviews or making official public appearances a few years later. Though far from a recluse — many an Austinite has reported seeing the filmmaker walking around and even talking about birds with them — Malick is in the rare position of not having to promote his singular work. As you can imagine, this has led to rampant speculation, especially since the period between his second and third movies was a full 20 years.
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The wait proved worth it. The Thin Red Line had the misfortune of being deemed the other World War II drama that came out in 1998, but it’s superior to Saving Private Ryan on every level save for sentimentality. Malick’s seeming absence attracted a who’s who of actors clamoring to play his philosophically minded soldiers, and the final cast includes Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly. It’s the most fully realized expression of his aesthetic, with the backdrop of a battle between American and Japanese forces providing Malick with everything he needed to show that there's calm to be found even in the most violent, life-or-death situations.
After the near-universal acclaim with which The Thin Red Line was met, Malick began polarizing viewers and critics as his style became more and more unconventional. This reached its zenith in The Tree of Life, which is alternately considered the greatest film of the 21st century so far and a monumentally pretentious act of self-indulgence; for the record, it’s the former. Brad Pitt stars as an authoritarian father who, in midcentury Texas, gives his three sons such tough love that they grow to resent him; this domestic narrative is interspersed with images of the universe being born, images so phantasmagoric you may think you're watching a continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (There are also dinosaurs. It's glorious.)
When he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for The Tree of Life, Malick didn’t appear at the ceremony to accept the most prestigious film prize in the world; when he was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for the same movie nine months later, he didn’t show up there either. (The picture they showed onscreen as the nominees were announced was a behind-the-scenes shot from The Thin Red Line taken more than 13 years earlier.)
Lucky, then, that Malick’s films do such a good job of speaking for themselves — or whispering, at least.