Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Terrence Malick's problem

Terrence Malick's first five films all achieved some sort of cult status over the years, The New World perhaps less so. Most of all, Malick has achieved near-legend status partly due to his reclusiveness and length of time between the release of his movies. Badlands came out in 1973, Days of Heaven in '78. Then there was a 20 year break before The Thin Red Line (1998) and the aforementioned The New World (2005).

Now he's looking to pump out a movie once per year. Since last year's The Tree of Life, he's already had his follow-up To the Wonder screened in Venice and Toronto. He's almost finished shooting Knight of Cups and then he's shooting another film right after. He can get any actor that he wants because they all know that being in a Malick film will pretty much make you forever remembered by people who care about film. Badlands and Days of Heaven grew in stature during the years Malick was absent from film and their stature continues to grow today.

Maybe there was something to that. Maybe making one film every decade, or half-decade, was easier for people to swallow. The thing is that, before, Malick's reclusiveness and film style seemed almost universally admired. The films may have been divisive upon original release, but it seemed more and more people grew to appreciate them over time. After all, they require multiple viewings.

His films have gotten more experimental, since the beginning, he's been insistent in using voice-overs over beautiful imagery to tell his story. The Tree of Life was one thing, but now word coming from To the Wonder is that it's even more experimental than Tree of Life. There were boos out of Cannes after Tree of Life screened in 2011, but it managed to win the Palme D'or. In Venice, the boos for To the Wonder were apparently louder, more vociferous. While there seems to still be positive reviews from critics who have seen these movies. His naysayers do seem to be getting louder and more determined in their dismissal of Terrence Malick's style and personality.

My feeling is that if Malick wants to keep making films as frequently as he does, he's gonna either have to change it up a little bit or at least come out of hiding and talk about his work a little bit. Leaving it up to interpretation works when you're not making film after film year after year. But with his output nowadays, if he keeps making these visual tone poems with narration, I have a feeling his films will continue to get marginalized. I feel like his style and personality was better suited for the long wait between the films. But I don't think you can be prolific and insist on the same style whilst staying in hiding the whole time. I read one reviewer who wrote "I'll never see another Terrence Malick film again unless my job [as a critic] forces me to."

It's sad because nobody makes films like Malick does. He has his own style. Oftentimes, people who complain about Terrence Malick will bemoan the fact that there's no originality in cinema. Terrence Malick is an original and his films do deserve to be taken seriously. But I must say that, at this point, he's kinda asking for it.

You heard about Sean Penn how he thought the script for The Tree of Life was wonderful and that there was much more to his story. Even though I admire Malick's style, I don't think it's necessary to insist upon making his films in the same exact style time after time. Trying to find the film in the editing room, taking out as much dialogue as possible, packing the film with enigmatic voice-over narration. Yeah, I could see that becoming more and more difficult for audiences to process. I think the main problem is that Malick's films increasingly become more serious. I will concede to the fact that aside from his films being visual delights and I personally thought The Tree of Life was easily the best film of 2011... I will admit that it takes work to watch Malick's films. It gets easier with subsequent viewings, but nobody seems to have much fun in a Terrence Malick film. The light moments are a bit too far apart from each other. His films seem to be getting more out there and in a way that's great, but in another way, they feel less grounded and down-to-earth.

It feels stupid to say these things because Malick should be able to do whatever he wants. If I have problems dealing with his style, that's one thing, but why should I tell him how he should make his films? Why should I want him to make his films more conventional?

There are quite a few similarities between Malick and Stanley Kubrick. Both valued the image over conventional storytelling, both were criticized for not placing more emphasis on their characters. But, I will say that I prefer Kubrick because despite his audacious approach to filmmaking, I actually find the stories in his films compelling they're just told in a different way. With Malick, his films are less about story and more about feeling, but the best Kubrick films are able to tell a story and make you feel something all at once while still placing emphasis on the story. Plus, Kubrick was able to take a genre and move it a hundred steps forward, changing everything we previously knew about said genre. Malick's films all kinda fall into the same tone poem genre.

So yeah, I feel it's worth saying that if you're gonna make four films in 5-6 years, that variety starts to become important. There's gotta be more to Malick than what he's shown us in five films. Something lighter, something more fun, something rich in character and story. We always hear how great his scripts are, why can't he trust himself as a storyteller? Why must he leave it all up to the editing room?

Because as serious as Kubrick's films could be, there was a great amount of humor, albeit dark, in Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and most obviously, Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick showed more of his personality in his films. It'd be great if we can see more out of Malick with the next few films that he makes.

I only made this as a reaction to some of the negative reactions I saw of To the Wonder. There were plenty of positive notices too. Perhaps the film is great and it's different enough than his previous work. Maybe the Malick dissenters just really have it out for the man. I have no problem with that, I just fear that if he insists upon this style of filmmaking for Knight of Cups and the as-of-yet untitled film previously called "Lawless," I fear that those dissenters will start to feel that their opinions are justified. And I love Terrence Malick's films, I think they're each cinematic events. At the same time, I could see myself feeling restless if he never intends on expanding on his style.

Image above courtesy of The Guardian.

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