Sunday, May 27, 2012

Awakening to Malick's Brilliance

Part of the "creation sequence" from The Tree of Life.

Part of the "into the monolith sequence" from 2001.

I have been a Terrence Malick fan for years. My first exposure to him was seeing Days of Heaven (1978) in college. While the film impressed me as sort of a “landscape movie” I did not fully appreciate Malick’s style – which was still emerging at the time. The film remained on my mind for awhile, however. I just didn’t take much notice of that fact and eventually I forgot it.

My next encounter with Malick came many years later when I saw his re-make of The Thin Red Line (1998). I experienced that film as a “psychological war movie,” unique in that genre. I first saw it on VHS and then later on DVD. It was a film I revisited regularly through the years because it haunted me. I did not understand why even though it was obviously very well made.

It wasn’t until after I saw The New World (2005) that I began to grasp Malick as an exceptional stylist. Visually stunning, slowly paced, carefully crafted, and – still – haunting in its way. This motivated me to watch a copy of his first film, Badlands (1973). While immature compared with the other films mentioned it was still entertaining in its distinctive and influential way. These are all “non-Hollywood” movies.

So, almost unconsciously, I have been a fan of Malick as if his films chose me rather than the other way around. That might sound strange, being “possessed” by Malick’s films (as opposed to being “obsessed” by them), but it rings true for me.

There is no better example of this than his 2011 Cannes Film Festival award winner, The Tree of Life. Like me, Jennifer finds the Malick experience irresistible. The Thin Red Line is the only war movie I have known her to sit all the way through during our marriage, for example. She really enjoyed The New World. We had both planned to see The Tree of Life while it was in limited release last summer at one of Atlanta’s art movie houses. But, we never got around to going.

So, I was interested to see the film when it came out on Blu-Ray. I watched it for the first time last fall. For weeks I waited for Jennifer to find the time or be in the mood for some heavy Malick. The time never came.  She asked me what I thought of the film after she found out I watched it without her. I got away with something nebulous like “oh, it is like all his other films, only he goes all-out with it.” That satisfied her curiosity until recently. We finally watched it together last weekend and, as with most great movies, I enjoyed it more upon subsequent viewings.

Before my second viewing, however, I had discussed the film with an artsy employee I have in the department I manage. I had expressed that The Tree of Life reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), one of my all-time favorite films. Both films are visually amazing, with slow-building structure, and somewhat ambiguous, certainly open to the viewer’s interpretation.

Jennifer taught me the proper comparison between 2001 and The Tree of Life when we finally got around to watching it together. About 30 minutes into the virtually plot-less film, she was sobbing. Malick always provokes an emotional response, usually – for me – tranquility and a nebulous “something else.” When she started crying it struck me like a lightning bolt. Suddenly, for the first time, I understood my emotional connection to Malick’s entire body of work. Suddenly, Malick was brilliant, clearly one of the best directors I have known, comparable to Kubrick. Whereas 2001 is a mind-blowing film, The Tree of Life is a heart-blowing one.

Seeing not just The Tree of Life but all of Malick’s films in a different light for the first time motivated me to watch the only bonus-feature that came with my Blu-Ray, a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film that I had just never gotten around to watching before.

Of course, Malick himself, who is infamously private and reclusive, is not in the documentary. You can’t even spot him in any of photos or videos contained in the documentary. But, a good number of other key figures in the film are interviewed like Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. And there are some short comments by two other filmmakers both of whose work I admire, David Fincher and, my favorite living director, Christopher Nolan. To my surprise, Nolan remarkss on how Malick’s work reminds him of Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, both of whom I would place in my Top 10 director’s list (along with Nolan himself, and now Malick).

Moreover, the documentary also features comments from Douglas Trumbull, the brilliant special effects supervisor for 2001 (as well as, Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind among others) who, as it turns out, was instrumental in working on the “creation sequence" for The Tree of Life. I had no idea, having never paid close attention to the film’s credits. This visually stunning experience is the most obvious connection between Malick’s film and Kubrick’s. The fact Trumbull was involved in both was a connection I had not expected.

From The Tree of Life.

From 2001.

From The Tree of Life, a repesentation of the universe's organic feel.

From 2001, a representation of alien intelligence.

So my original intuition of comparing Kubrick with Malick in this particular film is validated. The similarities between them are numerous, even though the subject matter and style greatly differ. Both films are visually extravagant, even ground-breaking. Both films feature wonderful musical scores that rely heavily upon established works from the classical repertory. Mahler, Brahms, and Gorecki in Malick, Strauss, Khachaturian, and Ligeti in Kubrick. Both films are slowly paced with comparatively little dialog. Both films are philosophical and attempt to place humanity in context with the cosmos.

As I said, 2001 is one of my favorite all-time films. I would suddenly (!) place The Tree of Life somewhere (?) among my list of favorite films. I don’t actually have any such list. Well, maybe vaguely. Jennifer’s sobbing taught me a new appreciation. I love her for things like that. Malick’s work has possessed me to some mild extent for years. Now this film haunts me as most of Malick’s films have. The experience outshines all his other works and I see its importance clearly. I understand it makes me feel…richly…on and on…childhood, parenting, the way of nature, the way of grace, all within the glorious space and time of creation itself.

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