Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Terrence Malick – Movies Spotlight – May 2011

Auteur writer-director Terrence Malick is known for making atmospheric existential films that incorporate beauty and nature into the story and feel of the narrative (even more so than character or plot is some cases). His films are always amazing to behold – meditations on their subject matter. Malick is interested in the artistry and emotional resonance of his visuals and characters. His new film The Tree of Life looks at a young boy in the 1950s who losses his innocence as he comes to terms with the world around him, his relationship with his father and growing up. Malick’s films are about meaning, each viewer deriving their own from the experience of watching them, and thus are polarizing. But regardless, it is undeniable that he is one of the master filmmakers working today.

Early Career:

Malick started his filmmaking career as a student, receiving his MFA from the AFI Conservatory in 1969. While attending the program, he made his first film – a short called Lanton Mills. He also met and made contacts in the program with the likes of Jack Nicholson and agent Mike Medavoy, who got Malick freelance writing work (he revised scripts, wrote an early draft of Dirt Harry and the produced script for Pocket Money). Malick continued to write, producing the screenplay for Deadhead Mills for Paramount Pictures, but the studio felt that it was an unreleaseable film. This experience changed Malick’s focus from purely a writer to wanting to direct his own scripts.

Badlands and Days of Heaven:

Malick’s feature debut came in 1973 with the film Badlands, about a young couple that goes on a crime spree in the 1950s starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek (it is sort of like an existential Bonnie and Clyde). The film was made independently for little money and had a troubled production, but when it finally was screened for critics it received wonderful reviews prompting Warner Bros. Pictures to buy the distribution rights for three times the film’s budget. It is a brilliant film that is beautiful in its photography, but terrifying as it peers into the souls of it characters – a jovial amoral young man and apathetic young woman. Next in 1978, Malick wrote and directed Days of Heaven, a story about a hot-tempered farm laborer running away from his past who convinces his love to marry their rich but dying boss so they can claim his fortune, but becomes jealous when she beings to love him. It stars Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams. The story, much like Badlands, is poetic and more concerned with the feelings and emotional experience of the characters than plot, but here the story and characters seem to take a backseat to the truly amazing aesthetics (specifically the cinematography). Malick and D.P. Nestor Almendros shot almost the entire film during the “magic hour” – the hours between day and night early in the morning and late in the evening. It is magnificent (Ennio Morricone provides a good score as well).

The Vanishing:

After Days of Heaven’s success both at the Academy Awards and at Cannes, Malick began work on a new film for Paramount Pictures entitled Q, about the origins of life on Earth. But, during pre-production he suddenly left the project and moved to Paris, disappearing from public view (though, he has always been considered shy when it comes to the media). During his twenty year absence from Hollywood, he worked on a number of unproduced scripts and produced a few films.

Back After Twenty Years:

Malick finally returned to Hollywood in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a war film focusing around the Pacific Theatre of WWII, specifically the conflict at Guadalcanal. The film boasts a fantastic cast (here is the full list) and Malick’s typical brilliant aesthetics (this time working with cinematographer John Toll). Malick shot over a million feet of film, and his original cut was barely under six hours (the theatrical cut runtime is 170 minutes). The film was critically praised and accompanied Steve Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as a nominee for Best Picture at the 1999 Oscars (while both are WWII films, tonally they are almost 100% different, and initially I liked Spielberg’s more but now I favor Malick’s). He next began work on an article about Che Guevara, which incited Steven Soderbergh to offer Malick the chance to write and direct a film about Guevara that Soderbergh had been wanting to make with Benicio del Toro (though Soderbergh ultimately ended up writing and directing it). Malick accepted, but after a year-and-a-half the financing had not come through and Malick moved onto a project he was just as excited about – The New World. The film is a poetic and romantic interpretation of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, with John Rolfe playing a major role as well. The cast is brilliant with tons of wonderful actors; it stars Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher and Christian Bale. Again like his other films, it is beautiful and atmospheric. Malick’s collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki garnered maybe the best visual work to date (and Malick is again working with Lubezki on The Tree of Life and his next project). The film deals with many themes including the corruption of nature by civilized man, colonialism – the stark juxtaposition of the Americas to England is crushing. The film received a very mixed reaction upon its release in 2005, but since then has come to be regarded as one of the best films of the decade (making a number of critic’s lists, including Mick LaSalle’s).


Malick has also served as a producer on a number of independent films, most of which he worked on during his twenty year break from directing. The highlights include Yimou Zhang’s Happy Times, David Gordon Green’s Undertow, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, Hans Petter Moland’s The Beautiful Country, and the documentaries The Endurance and The Unforeseen.

Future Projects:

In 2012, Malick has a yet untitled film that he wrote and directed scheduled for release. It is a love story starring Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck, while featuring Javier Barden, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Olga Kurylenko, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper in supporting roles (making for a great cast). And Emmanuel Lubezki is shooting the film and Jack Fisk is doing the production design (which is awesome for those that enjoy amazing aesthetics; Fisk has worked on all of Malick’s films, production design on The Thin Red Line and on, and as art director on his first two).

Terrence Malick’s Career Highlights:

1.)    Badlands (1973) – Director* [DVD/Rent]
2.)    Days of Heaven (1978) – Director* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
3.)    The Thin Red Line (1998) – Director* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
4.)    The New World (2005) – Director* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
*Editor’s Picks

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