Saturday, September 17, 2011

Terrence Malick Spotlight

I decided to catch up with Terrence Malick’s first two films and revisit his third and fourth features while waiting for the eventual release of The Tree of Life. So now that I have seen all five of Malick's features within a period of few months, it felt appropriate to finally write some notes.

Badlands (1973)
Days of Heaven (1978)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
The New World (2005)
The Tree of Life (2011)

Journey across America, in space and time

Malick starts off in 1950s America in Badlands but quickly travels across the country as the film progresses, continues traveling across the nation in Days of Heaven (albeit shot in beautiful Alberta, Canada),

hops across the Pacific Ocean in A Thin Red Line before washing up on the shores of America again in The New World but arriving a few centuries back in time. Tree of Life starts off in America in the same decade as Badlands but manages to travel all the way back in time to the origins of the universe and also travels further in time to a futuristic America. In a sense, all five of Malick’s films constitute a circular journey where the starting and ending point is America but his American journey manages to easily navigate across time and space as well.

Fiction or Reality

Badlands was inspired by the real life killing spree of Starkweather-Fugate, The New World had elements of Pocahontas while the The Thin Red Line was based on James Jones' novel set in the island of Guadalcanal during World War II. Given that there has been speculation that Tree of Life might have some autobiographical elements means that Days of Heaven might be the only inspiration free film. Of course, given that Malick manages to give each film such a distinctive touch, it does not matter where his source comes because he can elevate a story into a much more grander scale.

Love and Compassion vs Violence

A love story kicks off the journey in Badlands while love is also at the core of Days of Heaven and The New World. Tree of Life features the most pure form of love which is that between a parent and a child. The film also features many moments of compassion, none more so vivid than when the stronger dinosaur decides to spare the life of a fallen dinosaur. Even though The Thin Red Line features bloody killing and focuses on a war, which is something that signals a complete failure of love and humanity, Malick still manages to infuse the film with quite a few moments of compassion and concern for fellow man. James Caviezel's character is the film’s moral compass and the one character capable of showing love.

All the films also depict violence. The body count steadily increases as Badlands goes on while an accidentally killing at the start of Days of Heaven results in the main characters fleeing the city. There are plenty of violent moments in The Thin Red Line and The New World while The Tree of Life shows that violence is always just one push or leg stomp away.

By balancing the violence with moments of love and compassion, Malick is able to present balanced works that evoke larger questions about human nature in general.

Constant movement

The only film out of the five that does not have much flowing camera movement is Badlands which consists mainly of a static array of shots. That is not to stay that there is no movement shown in Badlands but the movement is signified by following the characters in a moving car or a pan across the landscape as the two characters are on their journey. While in the other films, the camera seems to have more freedom to explore and probe the surroundings around a character. The Tree of Life of course gives the camera the greatest degree of freedom to fly around the characters, hover over them, dive down low or zip to a corner in the room. The camera even moves back in time where it patiently captures the big bang. Such brilliant movements manage to elevate all of Malick’s films from a conventional story into a much more alive tale of love and suffering.

Narrator, guide

Young female characters narrate the first two Malick film while adult males provide the voice-over in the next three films. The New World features some narration by a female but it is Captain Smith’s (Colin Farrell) voice that dominates. The Tree of Life features a distinct male narration but a female voice-over can be heard as well. However, the five films differ in the type of narration. The narration in Badlands and Days of Heaven is mostly recounting of events mixed with some thoughts and observances. However, the narration in The Thin Red Line and The New World borders on the poetic and contains words that probe for a deeper meaning. The words in The Tree of Life are probably the most direct religious invocation.


"In the morning, we will chop down every tree within half a mile of the moorage, and use the straightest limbs to erect a line of watchtowers and to build our fort." Captain Newport, The New World

Nature plays a big part in all of Malick’s films and with the exception of Days of Heaven, it seems a tree is always present. There are plenty of trees to be found in The Thin Red Line and The New World with the river tributaries in the map of America in the opening credits of The New World looking like trees. A fallen tree is seen in Badlands

and a similar fallen tree immersed in water is visible in The New World as well. The final shot of The New World is that of a tree so maybe that provides a clue to Malick's next feature. Of course, a tree gets top billing in The Tree of Life and there are indeed some tree sightings in the film.

5 down, what’s next?

So what’s next for Malick? Will there be films released by him in 2012 and 2013? People can speculate as much as they want but as the case with The Tree of Life showed, Malick will only let the world see his new film when he is ready. There were quite a few people who dismissed Cannes in 2010 because they could not get past the idea that “the Malick film” was not there. So naturally these people assumed that Cannes had rejected his film. The next round of speculation arose that Malick’s film would show up either at Venice or Toronto 2010 and when that did not happen, the clock was set for Cannes 2011. And as soon as the film was announced for Cannes 2011, it was assumed it would win the top prize. The film did indeed win at Cannes and thankfully the film’s release date was already decided prior to Cannes. So that meant the film was quickly rolled out to theaters across North America in weeks following its Cannes premier meaning there was atleast one worthy film to watch in a multiplex in the summer time period. It would have been pure torture if Tree of Life was instead scheduled to hit North America screens in the fall of 2011.


Sam Juliano said...

Wow Sachin. You say that you only wanted to jot down some notes, but you have offered up a fascinating sketch here of teh connected themes, techniques and camera negotiation in this engaging look at Malick's career. I agree that BADLANDS is the only one of the fine with comparatively static camera movements. I love too your geographical progression across America that includes a passage back in time. By using Malick's works as a reference point you've made some most telling illuminations on his career arc and a hint of what's to come.

Sachin said...

Thanks so much Sam. Your words flatter me :)

your remarkable study of THE TREE OF LIFE was much longer so what I have here does feel like scratching the surface. Plus I left out many things such as his use of music in the last 3 films and philosophical questions.