Tres Malick

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.

This continues at L.A. Weekly.

8 responses to “Tres Malick

  1. “…Malick refuses to shout above his material.” Beautiful line!
    I’m with you on the excesses of THIN RED, and anyone poking fun at pontificatin’ cinefiles can, as a great lady once said, come sit right next to me.
    But I’m a bit puzzled by one of the bones you’ve picked – that somehow, there’s something… “wrong” with Malick refusing to play the publicity game. Even if it is a calculated gambit (and I don’t believe that it started out that way, at least), a) it’s been an effective one, so I say “Well done, sir,” and b) My God, how refreshing! In an age where more often than not, the sizzle is everything and the steak is MacDonald’s, and even the most substantive and erudite creative folk end up boring us with in-your-face sound-bites, the idea that a filmmaker is NOT out there talking, talking, talking about his work? I, for one, have enjoyed Malick’s silence for years, and hope to continue to.

    • If publicity is a game, then yes, why bother? No one wants sound bites. Leave that for E! and US Magazine. I’m talking about the real stuff, the good stuff. Hitchcock made filmdom a better place with Hitchcock/Truffaut, so…

  2. Well, Mr. Sam, now you’re cherry-picking, in a way that your article did not. If you’d said, “Why doesn’t Malick sit down with another brilliant and informed filmmaker to discuss his body of work in a long-form, detailed book?” I’d join you in saying, Yeah, it’s a shame he hasn’t.

    You’re doing the same pickin’ when you fasten on “sound bites.” I don’t watch E! or read US (that is, the “biters”), but any even moderately interested film watcher these days can’t help but run into interviews, in print, online, and in the media, from directors re: whatever their latest release is. This isn’t so much “game” (my bad, for the flippant phrase) as it simply is The Way It Is in the industry. I think that Malick’s choice to avoid all of that – certainly his prerogative – is a perfectly valid stance. To call that stance “anti-educational” and “ugly” sounds awfully extreme, and it seems to imply that every artist owes you an explanation for their work (I happen to have Mr. Malick right here, by the way, and he says, “You know nothing about ugly”).

    It’s also a bit ironic that you cite Hitchcock, since as you know, he was a master publicity hound who loved the sound of his own voice and thrived on playing obfuscating games galore with critics and the public at large; his favorite gambit was to say something outrageous to the press that really revealed nothing at all. The fact that he was willing to sit down with Mr. Foreign Filmofile for a book-length study was an exception to his rules, and arguably one of the only times in his career that he warily consented to talk honestly, in-depth, about his craft and theory, due to the exceptional nature of Truffaut’s inquiry (you can hear his grudging “I suppose I’ll let you see what’s behind my curtain” attitude at various points in their wonderful discourse). I have a feeling that Hitch, of all people, would be amused and appreciative of Malick’s “my best publicity is providing none” technique.

    • I’m using Hitchcock as an example. It could be Tarantino or Michael Bay or Jean Renoir. The idea is that nothing is gained from silence. Of course we aren’t owed an explanation. Malick owes us nothing, not even films. But as a defensive act, Malick’s silence is an out-for-number-one maneuver. Many filmmakers avoid the typical industry round up of self-promotion, but that doesn’t preclude them from serious discourse. But I think this is really about more than film. Pynchon, Salinger…they’re guilty of the same. Again, it’s their right. Just like it’s my right not to return phone calls. But after a while, what will my friends start to think? In time, the silence accrues into something like apathy. That’s why it strikes me as ugly.

  3. I hear you. And I understand that you’re making a plea for greater community. I just can’t make quite the same leap that you make, when you invoke the analogy of “friends.” Given that often, critics and the media, demanding explanations of things they don’t or don’t want to understand, misinterpret and ridicule the people who are enabling their livelihood, they’re actually anything but friends, and in a very real sense, they’re the enemies of artists.

    Your friends (and acquaintances who have your phone number) have a very different, and by definition, personal relationship with you. Thus the politics of your not returning their calls will depend on the nature of your relationship. Whole different kettle of fish from “writer” and “reading public” (or “filmmaker and audience”).

    A friend, I’d wager, would be able to form some viable interpretation of that silence. He or she might know you’re a shy person, a hurt person, a stoned savant person, or any of an infinite variety of human beings, and would thus not necessarily equate silence with apathy. Silence could be a shield for all sorts of conflicted feelings – even including a great depth of caring. You can put “ugly” on that, from over here, outside of Malick’s experience, but this feels… well, for me, it doesn’t seem the most compassionate response.

    Nonetheless, I relate – at any rate – to the depth of your personal feeling in all this. I’m still pissed at Salinger for having taken his toys and gone home, the big wuss. But he’s given (and continues to give me) such joy and love, like say, every time I read “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter,” that I don’t begrudge him his privacy. And I’ll never think of his decision not to come out and play with me – a total stranger – as ugly.

  4. Mr. B. Mernit has said just about all I myself would say. A writer of such conspicuous talent as Mr. Wasson (seriously) shouldn’t sharpen his teeth on Terry Malick. (I started to say ‘a filmmaker like Malick’ and then realized there is no other – in terms of his backing away from public pronouncements.) This dance with the media that so many actors and directors are required to do is really destructive – to them as artists and as people, and to us, and to discourse. The idea of a collaborative book a la Truffaut/Hitch. is good. I used to know Mr. Malick and I guarantee you his silence is well considered for his own personal and artistic needs, and has nothing whatsoever to do with self-promotion. From B. J. Walker. (P.S. I urge Mr. Wasson to be more open to artistic idiosyncrasies. That may be where the truest truth lies.)

    • B.J., thanks for chiming in. I don’t see this as a question of artistic idiosyncrasies; God knows, I’m open to them. Anyway, I certainly don’t file TM’s silence under that category, nor do I think an artist’s relationship to the media is by definition destructive. What I’m talking about is something much simpler: the world is a better place when conversation is democratic, that is, part of a continuous feedback loop. The very fact that I have to take your word that Malick’s silence is well-considered (and in fact it may be–and thank you for adding that) points to what I’m talking about: where information is withheld, our knowledge is soft.

  5. totally disagree with what you’re saying about Thin Red Line. Don’t have an eloquent defense, but I was swept into that movie the same way I swept into the Tree of Life, gently. It took effort to say interested in ‘Tree,’ but I felt rewarded when it was over. I also happen to be a fan of nature films, which might make a difference. I’m not going to say ‘Tree’ is my favorite film of the year, but getting a glimpse of “spiritual underwear” isn’t that terrible. at the very least, i’m glad it’s out there, arresting audiences with it’s imagery.

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