Sunday, July 31, 2016

Terrence Malick - Where does he Stand as a Filmmaker?

Is Terrence Malick a Great Filmmaker? 
At the beginning of the Excerpt from the August DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter, Critic Doug Pratt provides his answer to that question.  I’m curious about how many film ethusiasts, aware of Malick’s work, will agree with Mr. Pratt. 
Terrence Malick began his career as part of the New Hollywood Film-making wave which tore down the creative walls at the major studios in the late 60s/early 70s. However, Malik had a different creative sensibility than most of the other filmmakers involved in the revolution. Filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas all had a love for genre movies from the past – specifically Film Noir and the Cheesy, Cheaply shot Action/Cliffhanging Serials. These artists believed genre movies from the past were an unrecognized “art form,” a style of filmmaking that should not only be respected, but resurrected (of course with an updated approach) for modern theatrical movie audiences. And this is largely what these filmmakers created during the early part of their careers – “Raiders of the Lost Art,” “Mean Streets,” “The Godfather,” and “Star Wars.” 
Malick had an Ivy League education with an A.B. in Philosophy from Harvard. His thesis as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford was "The Concept of the World in the works of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein." Before shooting his first film, Malick was teaching philosophy at M.I.T. 
I believe this background explains why Malick's career as a filmmaker began with more lofty intellectual pretensions than his contemporaries. He believed that an artist could make a movie with a high-minded purpose and if successful, there would be an educated audience out there ready to treat the effort with the same deep level of appreciation previously reserved for Renaissance painters, or authors whose work was routinely taught in college, such as Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. 
Jumping forward, almost 50 years later, to 2016, one of the few filmmakers from the New Hollywood revolution still making relevant movies is... Terrence Malick.  
Why? Perhaps an answer to that question can also be gleaned from Doug Pratt's thoughts on three films newly released on Home Video from a highly acclaimed artist.    

There never was a perfect person.  

We’ve watched Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE Blu-ray several times since we first reviewed it and we have found the movie to be more captivating and more profound every time we see it.  The film he made next, TO THE WONDER  was not as sublime, but it was a dazzling work of cinematic artistry and a stimulating exploration of the human condition, a further affirmation that Malick is one of the greatest living artists of the cinema.  

But now, alas, Malick has created a true turkey. His 2015 KNIGHT of CUPS, released on Blu-ray by Broadgreen Pictures (UPC#025192357954, $30), is the ultimate Terrence Malick cliché.  Think of how the performers in his movies often walk aimlessly, kind of swaying back and forth, as they stare without emotion at their surroundings.  Think about the montages that overstay their welcome and don’t seem to be about anything in particular.  Think about the vagueness of narrative.  The overabundant voiceovers.  What is worse, the film is set in Hollywood, and anytime a filmmaker makes a movie set in Hollywood, it inevitably has an air of autobiography to it, which, given that the protagonist, played by Christian Bale, feels sorry for himself a lot, immediately suggests that the filmmaker himself is having a multi-million dollar sulk.  
Running 118 minutes, the film has no real plot, it is just a string of acting exercises (‘Okay, you’re telling your boyfriend that you’re pregnant and you don’t know who the father is.’) strung together as scenes.  Bale plays some kind of rich guy who just hangs out a lot and goes to parties (interestingly, Antonio Banderas has an extended role as another partygoer, and magnetizes the film in every scene he appears—you kind of wish the movie had been about him and maybe it would have been better).  Bale’s character has several different women in his life—Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman co-star—but since time in the film is sort of randomly pulled out of a hat, it is difficult to discern the order in which they have relations with him.  He also lives in a number of different
places—the film is very much like flipping through Architectural Digest, and that is one of its genuine strong points—he has a volatilely bitter father played by Brian Dennehy, and he has a brother, played by Wes Bentley, who appears to have substance abuse problems and difficulty connecting with the father.  And since everything being depicted is superficial and material, the Buddhist references that seep into the endless voiceovers feel like they came straight from the fortune cookie factory.  “So much love inside of us never gets out.”  Says who?

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  No one ever said that turkeys have to be inept in every way.  The cinematography, music and sound mix in Heaven’s Gate were magnificent, and they are all just as impressive here.  The image transfer is meticulous, which adds to the appeal of the nudity and fashions on display.  The DTS sound has a solid dimensionality and a great amount of detail.  There is an alternate Spanish audio track, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and a 16-minute promotional featurette about how much the actors enjoyed not having a script and getting to do whatever they wanted.  “I can’t believe I’m here doing this, and I’m in the ocean with Batman with a GoPro, and we’re like filming ourselves for a Terrence Malick movie. Could my life be any better right now?”

Malick’s 2005 neo-romantic depiction of the founding of Jamestown and the cultural shock felt by the indigenous natives when they come to realize how large the invasion is going to be, The New World, has been released in a terrific three-platter set by The Criterion Collection (UPC#715515182119, $50).  We reviewed the original 135-minute theatrical release, which was a fine, functional movie,
and the 172-minute Extended Cut, which expanded the film richly.   Being released on home video the first time, Criterion has also included Malick’s original 150-minute version, which
was subsequently trimmed for the general release theatrical version.  Each of those versions appears on a separate platter, with the primary presentation being the 172-minute version, which has undergone an extensive remastering.  Colors are slightly richer and fresher, and the sound is a little more detailed than on the other two versions.  Otherwise, the basic strengths of the Blu-ray format are carried over to all three movies, providing improvements, especially on the delicate multiple-channel surround soundtrack, in comparison to the DVDs.
Opening on three Rhine maidens (given the use of Richard Wagner on the musical score, that is the only way you can describe them) cavorting naked in the James River, the Extended Cut divides fairly evenly into three hour-long segments, the first being the arrival of the initial settlers, their first attempts to interact with the natives, and the capture of Colin Farrell’s character who ends up living for an extended period of time with the natives.  The second segment depicts his return to the encampment, as the conflicts with the natives devolve into violence until the British reinforcements arrive.  In the final hour, Farrell’s character departs and the native princess that Farrell’s character got to know during his captivity, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, goes to live with the settlers, eventually marrying a wealthy farmer, played by Bale, and moving to England.  The movie is still a stylized depiction of what was, at best, a very ambiguous historical relationship (‘Captain
James Smith and Pocahontas’), but it is not Euro-centered storytelling, by any matter of means.  The title refers as much or more to the world the natives are being exposed to, not the world the British are invading, and, ultimately, it represents the synthesis of both those worlds (thus leading inevitably to the freeways and otherworldly buildings of Knight of Cups).  In comparison to a couple of recent films that explore the same basic environment—The VVitch (a generation later) and THE REVENANT (2 centuries later, but further west)—the narrative momentum is more lethargic, but the film takes a wider view of history and is a greater poetic expression of modern America’s birth. Speaking of THE REVENANT, that film has the advantage of another decade’s worth of audio design advancements, but the DTS sound on The New World is still highly satisfying, with a constant and vivid environmental presence.
The first two cuts are more narrative oriented, and there is sort of a demarcation between ‘old Malick’ and ‘new Malick’ when they are compared to Extended Cut.  What is nice about the new First Cut is that it remains focussed on the narrative, but has a little more lyricism and breathing room than the theatrical version has.  A 17-minute featurette included on the First Cut platter delineates the differences between all three versions, what the motivations were for each, and how other components, such as the voiceover narration, also grew as the film got longer.  Before you watch that featurette, however, you must take in the 41-minute piece on the same platter in which three of the film’s editors explain in detail how the film’s editing proceeded, and how Malick used the different editors themselves like keys on a keyboard to capture the emotions he wanted in different scenes.  The editing became so involved that there was no longer any room for a composer to step in and reconfigure the temp tracks.  Hence, the Wagner.  Additionally, Malick was drawn to the expansive possibilities that modern editing provides. 
“I’ll never forget, I was cutting a scene.  [Malick] just looks ruefully at the screen, and says, ‘This is the last time I do a film with a plot.’”
The Theatrical Cut comes with two collections of retrospective interviews running a total of 67 minutes, one featuring Farrell and Q’orianka and one with various members of the crew.  Both are terrific.  The actors talk about the loose way that Malick worked with them and what it meant to embody their characters, while the crewmembers speak of the film’s historical foundations (some of their inspirations led archeologists to discover new sites) and Malick’s equally loose instructions to the film’s technical personnel.  They did not use electric light sources, and a scene would often end only because a camera ran out of film—if there was more than one camera, not even then.  
Extended Cut is accompanied by a teaser trailer and standard trailer that, as is explained in the editing documentary, contain an iconic image of the first Englishman’s footprint on the shore, which Malick did not include in the film itself, along with an excellent 82-minute production featurette, loaded with behind-the-scenes footage that show the preparation for the film and its staging.  They insist that the corn was grown from seeds that are similar to those used 400 years ago, although the cobs that were produced look rather modern to us.  Otherwise, however, the production team was meticulous in achieving a historical verisimilitude that effectively reinforces the movie’s dreamlike depiction of two cultures whose merging reshaped the world.

Malick’s outstanding debut feature, BADLANDS, has also been released on Blu-ray by Criterion (UPC#715515104210, $40).  Martin Sheen plays a young murderer and Sissy Spacek is his even younger teenaged friend who tags along, as they avoid authorities in a section of America where it was still possible to do that for an extended length of time in 1959.  Running 94 minutes, the 1973 feature is a delightful, deadpan portrait of social disconnection, enhanced by Malick’s unfailing eye for the beauty of the American landscape.
The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The image is much smoother than the DVD presentation, which looks very grainy in comparison, with slightly weaker colors.  The monophonic sound is also stronger.  There are optional English subtitles, and a trailer. 
A great 41-minute retrospective interview with Sheen, Spacek and production designer Jack Fisk (the latter two met on the set and have been a couple ever since) is included.  The film was an important early milestone in the careers of everyone involved, and they talk about where their heads were at the time, what it was like working for Malick, who operated like no one else, and how rich the characters were—even Fisk was knowledgeable about the characters, because it was up to him to choose the items they would latch onto.  Additionally,
there is a fine 13-minute interview with producer Edward Pressman, who was also getting started with his career, and talks about the tightrope he had to walk not just to bring the film to fruition, but then to market it successfully; and a very good 22-minute interview with editor Billy Weber, who shares all sorts of details about the film (some of the animal inserts were of stuffed animals, but one bird was live and flew away, and that was enough to sell the others), including how the ‘true romance’ voiceover narration was developed (and how narration became an integral part of Malick’s storytelling), and what problems endemic to a low budget operation had to be surmounted.  
Finally, Badlands is based upon a media event from 1958—Webber says that as a child, he was afraid the couple were going to come to his home town and shoot him—which is summarized effectively in a 1993 episode of American Justice, running 21 minutes.  The actual crime spree was much more violent than how it is depicted in the film. Children were murdered, and characters that Malick lets live in the movie were killed in cold blood.  Nevertheless, just having the juxtaposition of the two tales is an outstanding enhancement to one’s understanding of both, from the psychology of the characters and the impact they had on the country, to the choices Malick made in the expression of his prodigious artistry.