Terrence Malick

Deadhead Miles (1972, Vernon Zimmerman)

Deadhead Miles is a piece of great seventies filmmaking. It’s not a great film, but a great piece of filmmaking. The distinction’s important.

Most of the film is about a peculiar truck driver, played by Alan Arkin, and his adventures after picking up a hitchhiker, played by Paul Benedict. Arkin’s truck driver is not particularly likable or at all sympathetic. He’s a dense, know it all jerk. Writer Terrence Malick opens the film trying the viewer’s patience with Arkin’s character, though he eventually becomes amusing enough. Miles becomes about waiting to see what he’s going to do next. It also reveals the culture of long haul truck driving and Arkin’s odd acceptance of it.

Benedict’s mostly along to ground the viewer, to give them some connection to their expectations of familiar reality.

Of course, it eventually turns out there should not be any expectation of familiar reality and Arkin maybe isn’t so crazy.

Well, okay, he’s always going to be a little crazy.

Malick doesn’t mess around explaining Arkin and Miles might be a great character study if Zimmerman wasn’t playing it as a comedy. The script could go either way.

It’s very short and might even do better shorter. There’s this out of place prologue before Arkin meets up with Benedict and it’s dead weight, wholly unnecessary either to narrative or artistic impulse.

Zimmerman’s direction is quite good, particularly how he handles the long driving sequences and the relationship between Arkin and Benedict.

It’s a singular, mildly rewarding film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vernon Zimmerman; written by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Ralph Woolsey; edited by Eve Newman and George Hively; music by Dave Dudley and Jimmie Haskell; produced by Tony Bill and Zimmerman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Arkin (Cooper), Paul Benedict (Hitchhiker), Hector Elizondo (Duke), Oliver Clark (Durazno), Charles Durning (Truck Driver in Cafe), Lawrence Wolf (Pineapple), Barnard Hughes (Old Man), William Duell (Auto Parts Salesman), Madison Arnold (Hostler), Loretta Swit (Woman with Glass Eye), and Bruce Bennett (Johnny Mesquitero), with special appearances by George Raft and Ida Lupino.


The New World (2005, Terrence Malick), the extended cut

Historical fact, or even the attempt at paying lip service to it, is so inconvenient. If there’s a better example than The New World, I’m not familiar with it.

Malick struggles to make it all fit together and he can’t quite make it sync. He has to move from Colin Farrell being the protagonist to Christine Bale. Q’orianka Kilcher gets some focus too, but barely any once Bale arrives.

After Farrell and Kilcher’s romance, it’d be difficult for anyone to properly follow it up. While Malick does get Bale’s best performance from him, the casting is a misstep. Much like James Horner’s score, there’s something off with the casting. Lots of the “name” casting works—obviously, Farrell is excellent, but so are David Thewlis and Wes Studi. Third billed Christopher Plummer is barely in it enough to make an impression.

Much of The New World does not “wow.” It feels like a disjointed period piece from early on—and Horner’s music is an immediate liability—and it actually becomes more interesting in the last act, as Kilcher and Bale head back to 17th century England. Here, Malick starts using Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman before the Rising Sun as a direct influence for how he portrays Kilcher.

A lot of what he does is interesting—none of the Native Americans (including Kilcher’s Pocahontas) are ever referred to by name in dialogue—and the pacing is exquisite.

Malick nearly recovers at the end, but again, tragically, kowtows to the “non-fiction” imperative.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa; music by James Horner; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Sarah Green; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Colin Farrell (Captain John Smith), Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), Christian Bale (John Rolfe), Christopher Plummer (Captain Christopher Newport), August Schellenberg (Chief Powhatan), Wes Studi (Opechancanough), David Thewlis (Edward Wingfield), Yorick van Wageningen (Captain Samuel Argall), Raoul Trujillo (Tomocomo), Janine Duvitski (Mary), Michael Greyeyes (Rupwew), Irene Bedard (Pocahontas’s Mother), Kalani Queypo (Parahunt), Ben Mendelsohn (Ben), Noah Taylor (Selway), Ben Chaplin (Robinson), Eddie Marsan (Eddie), John Savage (Savage), Billy Merasty (Kiskiak) and Jonathan Pryce (King James I).


The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

Malick shot The Tree of Life in a variety of formats, but it displays at 1.85:1. It’s his first 1.85:1 since the seventies and, somehow, it feels like the film would be more intimate wider.

Somewhere in Tree of Life, there’s a great film. Not the best film Malick’s ever made or anything along those lines, but there’s a great film. But he adds a lot; most awkward is his rumination on God. Most of it comes from Jessica Chastain’s character (wife to Brad Pitt, mother to Hunter McCracken, who’s played by Sean Penn in the present day scenes). But Chastain isn’t the lead in the great film somewhere in Tree of Life. The great film is about Pitt and McCracken.

Penn’s presence—and the modern day stuff—is useless (except to spot Joanna Going, who’s been gone too long from cinema). Malick’s got a birth of the universe sequence, he’s got a bunch of dinosaurs (while the scenes are lovely, the CG isn’t)… but it’s Penn who’s out of place. It undermines what Malick does in the film’s best moments.

Some of the photographic effects are wondrous and Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is great. Alexandre Desplat’s music is excellent as well.

Malick gets a great performance from Pitt and from McCracken and the cast in general.

When the film fails, it’s nice to see it fail because of Malick’s reaching and failing to grasp something, not because of casting or historical accuracy. It’s an honest, sometimes wonderful disappointment.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Hunter McCracken (Jack), Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Laramie Eppler (R.L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve) and Sean Penn (Adult Jack).


Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick)

According to John Travolta (who was originally cast and probably wasn’t just making it up–as it was pre-Battlefield Earth and he was still somewhat legitimate), when ABC wouldn’t let him out of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” contract, Malick was forced to cast Richard Gere and shredded the majority of Days of Heaven‘s screenplay, instead going with a far more lyrical approach. It’s so lyrical–and here’s why I believe Travolta–Malick frequently mutes out Gere’s dialogue. Given how terrible Gere’s performance–there aren’t any good performances from the film’s principals–it’s a blessing. But Gere still doesn’t act well on mute.

Days of Heaven is a complete mess. It’s a gorgeous film, but it feels like watching a movie on late night television, falling asleep for some of it, waking up, some of the dialogue getting incorporated into the catnap dreams. I haven’t seen it in ten years, but I’m really glad I didn’t go out and buy the new Criterion release, because there’s hardly anything to see here.

It’s clear–from the opening titles no less–Malick made this film in the editing room. There’s some obviously ad-libbed material, which tends to be poor–the film’s final scene, with Jackie Shultis visibly grasping for something, breaks the camel’s back. Malick gets a good performance out of Robert J. Wilke, but he’s about it. The rest seem like they’re being put in front of the camera without knowing what do to–and they didn’t. Malick shot “miles of film,” intending to figure out what to do with it in post-production. He didn’t hire actors capable of working in such a manner–Gere’s a joke in this film, it’s impossible to imagine, seeing Days of Heaven, he’d ever turn in reasonable work. Brooke Adams is better, but doesn’t seem aware her character is a bad person. Days of Heaven‘s strange in Malick’s approach to morality–whereas Badlands recognized it, challenged the viewer to interact with the film while considering it, Heaven‘s oblivious. No one in the film is particularly likable and none of them are worth spending ninety minutes with. Sam Shepard’s a little better, but he’s not any good. Malick obviously cast Linda Manz because of her voice, which is distinctive. She can’t deliver lines well with it, but whatever.

If there’s a solid, artistic impetus to Days of Heaven, it’s not visible in the film. It’s such a beautiful film–until the end, which lacks any personality–it’s impossible not to appreciate Malick’s talent. Billy Weber’s editing is astounding, the photography from Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is amazing. Ennio Morricone’s music is a disaster, as it clearly tries to imply a different film.

Malick shifts the film’s focus towards the end, turning it on its head. He insinuates a lot of metaphor but it’s all baseless and the last twenty minutes of the film play terrible. The film’s exhausting, never feeling like Malick did anything but put something–anything–out in order to fulfill his contract. What’s worst about Days of Heaven is Manz’s narration. After Malick did that brilliant, innovative, singular narration work in Badlands, he uses utterly standard expository narration here.

It’s an incredible disappointment.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler; edited by Billy Weber; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Bert Schneider and Harold Schneider; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Richard Gere (Bill), Brooke Adams (Abby), Sam Shepard (The Farmer), Linda Manz (Linda), Robert J. Wilke (The Farm Foreman), Jackie Shultis (Linda’s Friend), Stuart Margolin (Mill Foreman), Timothy Scott (Harvest Hand), Gene Bell (Dancer), Doug Kershaw (Fiddler), Richard Libertini (Vaudeville Leader), Frenchie Lemond (Vaudeville Wrestler) and Sahbra Markus (Vaudeville Dancer).


Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)

I was in high school the first time I saw Badlands. I’d seen a lot of movies–I think by that time, I’d even made a top one hundred list. I know I’d seen True Romance, so I must have been at least fifteen. There’s nothing else like Badlands in cinema, which is a bit of an easy statement, a bit of a cop-out–it’s an attempt to describe something indescribable. I haven’t seen it in years–the last time would have been April or May of 1999, just after the DVD came out. I don’t think I know enough adjectives to write a more traditional response to the film–a person can only read (or type) stunning, amazing and singular so many times. Didn’t I already write singular once before that sentence?

Badlands is so difficult to describe because of Malick’s approach to the story. There’s no attempt to explain Martin Sheen’s personable, affable mass murderer. Malick never attempts to give him any humanity to make spending ninety minutes with him easier. Instead, Sheen charms the viewer too–he’s a likable guy and understanding why he starts killing people and doesn’t stop isn’t part of the viewer’s purview, or the film’s. Malick’s no more interested in explaining Sheen’s actions than he is explaining why he likes Eddie Fisher. Sheen does a lot of things–goes to see Warren Oates (a significant scene, not just for Sheen’s effort, but for Oates’s inexplicable, slow to anger response), fixes his hair before he gets caught, lets some couples live and others not–and Malick understands explaining them, or even drawing attention to them, would kill the film.

I’d forgotten three things about Badlands. First, its supreme quality. Second, the use of lighting (I won’t forget to discuss that aspect). Third, Malick’s dialogue. Sheen and Sissy Spacek rarely talk about the events in the film, something they both seem to recognize near the end. They have conversations about everything else, detached from their actions. Malick’s dialogue never seems evasive; it’s perfect.

Before the technical aspects–Spacek. Spacek narrates the film. What Badlands does, what very few other films have ever done (I’m at a loss for examples, the famous narrated films do not apply), is present a first person narrative in the finest sense. The details Malick includes aren’t necessarily filmic, they’re the details Spacek’s character would include. The short shot–and corresponding narration–of her putting on make-up while on the run… it’s one of the finest moments in film. There’s no other narration like Badlands. It puts Malick above as a screenwriter.

The lighting is wondrous. The way Malick uses shadows to establish scenes and to portray movement and action, that technique is special, but Badlands doesn’t have a single ordinary shot. The dance scene, the way the light hits the characters’ faces, the open plains. There’s nothing else like it. The shot of the mountains, where Malick pauses to give the viewer a chance to imagine it, then the shot surpasses. There’s nothing like it.

Malick’s montages are also breathtaking. Whether they’re set to Spacek’s narration or the perfect music.

It’s so hard to talk about Badlands, because it just begs to be watched over and over. I’d forgotten the last shot, for instance, where the film becomes something else entirely.

Or maybe it doesn’t become something else. Maybe in an effort to fill in the blanks, my bewilderment forces me to expect a deeper layer of meaning. It’s entirely possible Badlands is just Giotto’s circle.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Terrence Malick; directors of photography, Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn; edited by Robert Estrin; music by George Aliceson Tipton; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff) and John Carter (Rich Man).


Pocket Money (1972, Stuart Rosenberg)

Pocket Money is, in addition to being an excellent film, an example of a couple interesting things. First, it’s a 1970s character study, which is a different genre than what currently passes for a character study (if there are character studies at all anymore, since Michael Mann and Wes Anderson stopped doing them). The 1970s character study (Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is a good example of another) works in a kind of short-hand with the viewer. While the first act of Pocket Money takes maybe twenty minutes, Paul Newman’s character is fully established in the first five. Paul Newman’s a movie star, so there’s an expectation of him and Pocket Money breaks that expectation, but then sets him up again… in about those five minutes. Maybe six. There’s no established goal to these films (more modern character studies add a goal, something to give the story some drama). Pocket Money is following some cowboy, who isn’t too bright, but is amiable. The film never raises a single expectation of what’s going to come next. I can’t imagine what the trailer must have looked like.

Second (I almost forgot–not really), Terrence Malick wrote the screenplay. Pocket Money would have been his highest profile work at that point, followed by Badlands the next year. Obviously, Badlands looks and sounds different from the rest of Malick’s work, but Pocket Money sounds a lot like Badlands. This Malick is the one who still enjoys dialogue for dialogue’s sake, who likes to make people laugh. Since the film co-stars Lee Marvin, who delivers Malick’s comic lines (Newman’s got plenty of comic lines and a few of the exchanges sound a lot like Lucky Number Slevin of all films) with his gravelly, earthy voice, they are a lot of great comedic moments in the film.

Stuart Rosenberg directed Pocket Money. He directed a number of other Newman films, Cool Hand Luke being their most famous collaboration. Actually, he seems to have replaced Martin Ritt–Newman did a number of films with both directors and when Ritt stops, Rosenberg starts. Whatever. Rosenberg’s impressive. He distances the viewer from the actors at the right times and he pulls them in at the right times. Pocket Money’s got a great supporting cast–Strother Martin, Wayne Rogers and Hector Elizondo–and Rosenberg knows how to use them.

Since DVD’s advent and AMC’s full commercialization, a number of films have fallen to the dust. I was just thinking this morning about the difference between DVD enthusiasts and film enthusiasts. A DVD enthusiast is passive, he or she takes what is available. A film enthusiast has to look around, has to find things. Pocket Money is no longer particularly hard to find (it just aired on INHD, so there’s a beautiful print of it–it has great Laszlo Kovacs cinematography–for the someday DVD) and I hope people try to see it. While it’s never as outstanding as the first twenty minutes, it’s an excellent film.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by John Gay and Terrence Malick, based on a novel by J.P.S. Brown; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Alex North; produced by John Foreman; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Jim Kane), Lee Marvin (Leonard), Strother Martin (Bill Garrett), Wayne Rogers (Stretch Russell), Hector Elizondo (Juan), Christine Belford (Adelita), Kelly Jean Peters (Sharon), Gregory Sierra (Guerro Chavarin) and Fred Graham (Uncle Herb).


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