Karen peeks in and asks: “So, what’s happening?”
“They’re in the forest trading meaningful glances.”
Ten minutes later, Karen again checks in with the same question and my reply is pretty much the same.
Twenty minutes later:
“They’re still in the forest,” I wearily report, “but now they’re tenderly frolicking. Touching even. It’s like totally lyrical.”
Karen rolls her eyeballs. She knew what she was doing when she declined to sit down and watch the DVD of The New World with me.
Terrence Malick has directed four films since 1973. Badlands, which I love, Days of Heaven, again a film I love, and The Thin Red Line, which, like The New World, is where Malick just loses direction, and completely loses interest in telling a coherent story.
Both films are a mess.
Badlands and Days of Heaven flirted mildly with unconventional narrative techniques, but Malick was still enough of a Hollywood writer and director to care about a solid three-act structure. The films are lyrical and powerful and all-American.
If you haven’t seen these two films, please, do yourself a favor, run out and rent them. They are either masterpieces or minor masterpieces. In any case, if you care about the movies, these two films have had a profound influence on a whole generation of Hollywood screenwriters and directors.
I still have the shooting scripts for Badlands and Days of Heaven and I read each script at least once a year. They recharge my creative batteries, remind me what excellence is, what I should strive for when I write a movie, a scene, a line of dialogue.
In both films, Malick’s bold use of magic-hour photography–shooting in those few precious moments at sunrise and again at sunset–gave both films a unique look and feel. For a while, Malick was the great young Hollywood director. For a brief moment he eclipsed Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma and Walter Hill.
Terrence Malick was special; everyone knew it. We all waited for his movie epic.
And then without a word, Terrence Malick dropped out of sight. Well, what can you expect from a man who wrote his Ph.D thesis about Martin Heidegger?
When The Thin Red Line was released in 1999, I ran to see it on opening day. I figured, twenty years away from Hollywood, oh boy, this was the great epic we were all waiting for.
I was, to put it mildly, mistaken.
It takes a lot to make a boring movie about Guadalcanal, one of the epic battles of World War II, of all times. But in this war film Malick focuses on, well, rain pattering on leaves, sun reflecting on water, birds soaring in the air, shots of nature. At one point he does give in and manages to stage a fine set piece as Marines try and take a Japanese machine gun bunker. It’s a great and powerful sequence and it only makes you realize how impoverished the rest of the film is.
There are multiple voice-overs, and this device is a disaster. I defy anyone to tell me who the main character in this film is. The Thin Red Line runs nearly three hours and let me tell you, it feels even longer. I actually dozed off a few times during the film. This is shameful. For Malick, not for me. It takes a great deal of dead imagery to make these movie-loving eyes to glaze over.
I left the theater feeling depressed beyond words.
The New World, structurally, is pretty much a carbon copy of The Thin Red Line. It tells the story of John Smith and Pocohantas. Sort of. Again, there are zillions of nature shots, again, there are multiple voice-overs, though this time the voice-overs are limited just to Smith and Pocohantas. The voice-overs are Shakesperian, repetitious, ponderous and as all voice-overs do in all films, they slow the pace of the film and this is an already glacially slow film.
This film does have a main character and Malick wisely chooses Pocohantas, and the actress who plays her, Q’Orianka Kilcher, is magnificent. She is graceful and awkward; giggly tragic; most important she is entirely vulnerable.
The story can pretty much be summarized like this: boy meets girl, boy loses girl; girl meets another boy.
The English are smelly and greasy colonials who rape the land. The “naturals” are at one with nature, without jealousy or lies, and respect mother earth.
What can I say, I expected more complexity from Malick.
I once spoke with Malick after he directed Days of Heaven. He explained to me his philosophy of directing like this: when he directs he’s in the process of discovering what his film is about.
I remember being kind of stunned by this revelation/explanation/philosophy/whatever. I had read the script for Days of Heaven, a great and luminous screenplay, and it seemed to me that Malick had followed the script pretty carefully. I figured he was speaking, um, metaphorically.
But now it seems that Terrence Malick has taken that dangerous discovery philosphy to heart and it has resulted in two disastrous films. Think of an architect building a skyscraper without drafting any plans; imagine telling Donald Trump: “I’m discovering what the building is about floor by floor.”
Feeling depressed, I joined Karen and Offspring #3 for some serious therapy.
We watched Pride & Prejudice.
Tomorrow, my review.