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.
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, like Lars von Trier, whose now-famous Nazi remarks at last month's Cannes Film Festival were, like everything else about him, obviously fumbled in the spirit of provocation. His daring is commendable.
But Malick's silence is lame. Could it be because he's better as a mute? “It was hard for him to say something definite,” says a source in Peter Biskind's 1999 Vanity Fair profile. “He would couch [his ambivalence] in a way that was very compelling on the surface, all about being delicate, and he speaks so idiomatically that sometimes you get caught up in the beauty of what he's saying.” That comment could double as an assessment of The Tree of Life, a pseudometaphysical filibuster set to Berlioz. Don't let the dinosaurs fool you. His latest is a screen saver, a Hallmark card, a Rorschach test expansive only in its indetermination, like a Zen master who in saying nothing is thought to have said everything.
But it's not the film's failure that is troubling; even the greatest failures are majestic in some way. 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.