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May 19, 2011

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lazarus

RIght, Ryan. And the more persistent flaw is that 99% of the people reviewing his work aren't as smart as he is, probably don't understand most of the philosophical texts/teachings that Malick is drawing from at any given time, and therefore can't presume to be making such quick conclusions about the work.

Having a degree from a prestigious university doesn't automatically make you a great filmmaker, but I think it's a safe assumption to make that your average critic can't possibly fathom or process the totality of what Malick is giving us after only a viewing or two. It's arrogant. That's not to say that people shouldn't be allowed to review his films, but a little more perspective (and respect) would be welcome.

Asher

If you have to understand certain "philosophical texts/teachings" for a movie to work, I don't think the movie works. The point of a Platonist or Heideggerian film, if such things exist, would be, I would think, to put Plato or Heidegger across to the people watching the film, whether or not they've read Plato or Heidegger. Just as one doesn't need to read Rorty or whomever to get what Preminger is saying about truth in ANATOMY OF A MURDER. So I think the educated and uneducated alike are free to talk about Malick after a viewing or two.

But as to verticality and horizontality, one of the things I don't like about Antonioni is precisely that he does keep such sure hands - I would say schematic hands - on his visual correlatives. I think a good director complicates these things. An analogy, perhaps, to what you see as incoherence is Hitchcock's treatment of high places in TO CATCH A THIEF, or in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. In the former, I've always been struck by how he manages to sexualize roofs. But then, it's no accident that Grant has gone into retirement on top of a mountain, or that Grace Kelly's mother watches over Kelly in a suite on the top floor of a hotel. There are dangerous heights and domesticated ones. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, you have Mason and Landau's sinister/coded gay lair atop a mountain, but then there are Marie Saint and Grant's trysts in the overhead bed on the train. The two don't cancel each other out, they play off one another.

Ryan

something I find particularly charming about Malick is his seeming desire to make a big hollywood film for the masses with such overt religious/philosophical themes. For all their complexity and depth (at least as I see it) his films are overtly solicitous to a very, very broad audience. Perhaps that explains what many such as Hoberman see as "kitsch."

Account Deleted

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EOTW

Can't wait for this one. I've said it once elsewhere, when Malick was in OK filming his new movie, He ate at a place owned by some friends more than one. He was affable, polite and not some loner. Just a nice older guy. And a good tipper.

Kent Jones

Edo, I haven't seen NOSFERATU since it came out, and I have little memory of it. But I find the surges of Wagner in THE NEW WORLD remarkable, less ethereal than uplifting. I will have to disagree with you about THE THIN RED LINE. Among other things, I find it a harrowing experience.

edo

I might not have been making myself clear. I too find it harrowing. I think it's a pretty great film. I just feel like those battle scenes lack something (and THE NEW WORLD ones even more so)... Didn't you tell me once that a friend of yours had said about the film, "sometimes, you just have to shoot somebody." That's what I'm trying to express.

Kent Jones

My friend was voicing the common complaint about the movie - that soldiers in battle don't have time to contemplate the wonders of nature or the possibility of two warring forces in nature. I don't agree with him, as it happens, simply because that's not the film. The world is beautiful and mysterious, and I can only imagine the wonder that my father felt walking through the jungles in New Guinea for the first time when he landed there. But when the soldiers are confronted with their enemy, they don't hesitate. If I understand you correctly, it's the visceral element that's lacking, the element that's so present in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. But I don't think that's quite the case. The taking of the hill is a pretty just rendering of white-knuckled terror and adrenalin-fueled determination. It's just that Malick doesn't make an event of the visceral impact, the bullets hitting and the blood spraying, the way that many other filmmakers (some great ones) do at this juncture in history. So, I think the "sometimes you just have to shoot somebody" element is very present in the movie. But so is the "oh my god I just shot somebody" aftermath, which is extremely unusual.

edo

I do think it has to do with the visceral element, but I would distinguish what I feel is lacking from the kind of spectacular violence that a film like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN traffics in. I'm thinking more of a certain physicality, where we feel sensations redolent of those the soldiers themselves might actually be feeling - like what you said "white-knuckled terror and adrenalin-fueled determination". It's certainly not something Malick shies away from representing, but I just feel he comes up short in the execution. Even in the sequence where John Cusack and his men take the hill, which is better than other portions of the film, there's a lack of acuity and precision in the compositions and the cutting. That's not to say there aren't some sublime moments, such as when he cuts in a shot of smoke and wind blowing through leaves of tall grass or when he intervenes an incredible image of cloud-patched sky. But I think as an overall sequence, it's uneven. It's clear that the way Malick works is more intuitive than systematic. He makes up the film in the editing room shot-to-shot without putting much thought into how one shot is going to relate to the next while he's shooting. What he gets is a mixed bag. Some of the shots are miraculous: one comes immediately to mind, where the camera glides serenely alongside Cusack and his men as they creep through the grass. On the other hand, some look like they could have been ripped from any other war movie of the past twenty years. We get a lot of imbalanced, hand-held set-ups deployed in that sequence, and, as it climaxes, the editing becomes more frantic and our sense of space disintegrates. Sound familiar? In one moment even, Malick attempts a rare use of slow-motion coupled with echoing breath effects and one of Zimmer's trademark ambient drones to create a sense of tension and trauma. These gestures just feel rote to me, and that use of slow motion in particular feels clumsy.

Fernando Rey's Brown Suit

Without commenting on the movie itself, I just wanted to point something out regarding that still above. It occurred to me while watching ToL that a lot of the sun-through-tree shots seemed too perfect. Now, looking at that still, I'm pretty certain a lot of the sun shots are digital additions. Look at the burst, look how symmetrical it is. Also, observe the soft lighting of the scene there, which appears to have been taken during magic hour, after the sun would've been bright in the sky -- and how there are no significant golden beams hitting the actors or water from the sun burst.

I could be wrong...

Kent Jones

Edo, you're getting into a delicate and, I think, interesting area in film culture. As you know, there is a lot of emphasis on terms like "mise-en-scène," "framing," "sense of space," "the shot," "composition," and so on. Rightfully so. However, they are 1) much more elastic than many people imagine, and 2) often, if not always, viewed by filmmakers as means rather than ends. As an admirer of Michael Mann, you must have a sense of this. In a lot of criticism or commentary I read, it seems as if Otto Preminger, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock arrived at a pinnacle in the development of something called "film language," and it's all been downhill from there. This seems wronger and wronger to me all the time, and I say that as someone who loves all three very much (well, maybe the last two a little more than the first).

In fact, I would say that someone like Malick is working in a way that it absolutely foreign to someone from that era, that he's thinking about the movement of one instant into the next, one sequence into the next, and then the movement of the whole film. In fact, the whole idea of what constitutes a "scene" or a "sequence" in a Malick film, and what separates either from an "instant," is difficult to define. There are a lot of risks, of course, but there are risks to the way that Ford and Preminger and Hitchcock made movies, too. I guess that in one sense, they face opposite problems - for Malick or Mann, the risk of becoming too loose and imprecise; for the earlier filmmakers, the risk of being too rigid and airless.

I don't remember the moments you describe feeling clumsy, but perhaps less acute than other moments that, to my mind, constitute some of the more remarkable passages in recent cinema: the soldiers shot down in the grass and the parting of the clouds that you describe, for exaomple (which comes earlier than you describe, I think), or the exchanges between Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas. And there are moments I do remember, scattered throughout the film, in which emotions are being "played" rather than embodied, like the Ben Chaplin flashbacks or John Savage's monologues or certain moments with the Japanese prisoners. But within the totality of such a great film, I don't really care. The film is powerful enough to carry those moments.

But really, I don't believe he's thinking in terms of "shots" or "compositions," but of passages, moments, events in time.

edo

Kent, I think we've spoken about this before, and I agree with you in principle. I actually wanted to bring up Mann in my last post, because I think Mann, on this score, is a good example of someone who does a little better by me than Malick. I opted not to, because I didn't want to pigeonhole myself and my argument by invoking a director toward whom I have a historical proclivity. Since you've brought it up, however, I'll explain further. The shootouts in COLLATERAL and HEAT, the boxing sequences that open and close ALI, the prison break, bank robbery, and Bohemia Lodge sequences in PUBLIC ENEMIES, the climactic few minutes of LAST OF THE MOHICANS - these are, to me, models of a kind of filmmaking that is more about, as you put it, "passages, moments, events in time" than it is about shots and compositions. The thing is, in Mann, there's still a great deal of attention to what one might call the 'academic' elements so as to render more vivid and present the events he's looking to capture.

For instance, Mann and Malick both shoot with multiple cameras, but Malick gives his camera operators A LOT more free reign to just follow the action, where Mann is very careful about placing them in certain positions, getting certain angles, achieving certain gestural effects in the way the cameramen move alongside the actors. You can tell he's thinking about how a sequence is going to come together, how one shot is going to interrupt or lock into place with the previous one. He may not be thinking as precisely and pre-meditatively as a Ford or Hitchcock, but he's still thinking about getting particular effects. For me, it's a kind of precision that proceeds from a cinema after Bresson. Other folks who I'd rope into this would be Denis and Assayas, and maybe Wong Kar-wai as well. Again all four of these filmmakers are cases where I think there's a lot more thought put into each individual piece of filmed material.

edo

Denis said this wonderful thing once: "each shot needs to have its own danger." With Malick, I just feel like it takes a half dozen cuts to get what Denis gets in a single cut.

But you know what I'm looking forward to THE TREE OF LIFE. I'm really *really* looking forward to it.

James Keepnews

This far into his career, it's pretty absurd of me to take issue with Mr. Malick's use of voiceovers but damned if that didn't make THE THIN RED LINE borderline risible for me -- I'd have taken five minutes of Mickey Rourke's excised sniper in that extraordinary siege of the hill for all of Ben Chaplin's maudlin insistence of how much he wants to cop a feel off of The Glory (has ANYONE seen MR's work in some five-hour edit otherwise unavailable to us mere mortal cinephiles?). And there we are -- it didn't nearly bother me as much in THE NEW WORLD, which I agree could've stood to have some realpolitick to balance out all that 17th century interiority, that of The Naturals and otherwise. But that would seem to be one of Malick's great talents -- expressing interiority while coaxing narrative across a lustrous, externalized present moment.

Must say, I find Malick/Kubrick a dialectic hard to synthesize in my own mind, not least for the pronounced transcendental humanism Terry's cinema seems to express in a way Stanley's never quite did -- pronounced to a degree I doubt a blind person could miss it. Apropos THE MIRROR, part of the inscrutability of that film -- and what seemed to discourage Vadim Risov from taking the camera's reins that time around for Andrei -- was its deeply autobiographical emphasis. So, too, it sounds like, here, and further sounds like we're in for an incredible cinematic experience, Mr. Hoberman's demurring agnostitheism notwithstanding. Can't wait -- when's it gone open Stateside?

(P.S. -- Nice meme-check on Andrei's dismissal of "experimental" art; homeboy sure did not wear a labcoat, did he? It's been hard to play with musicians who embrace the "experimental music" rubric over the years, but it's just so ingrained in the alt-cultural nomenclature and anyways, no one likes hearing me explain how Tarkovsky called bullshit on their (non-existent) Bunsen burners...)

Robert Koehler

Ryan, best to see the film first, and then we can perhaps discuss the "will" vs. "nature" dichotomy. It's the most direct conflict inside the film's narrative, certainly its third (longest) section. These are terms not being imposed on the film by critics, by the way; these are Malick's terms, baldly declared on the soundtrack. His proclivity for on-the-nose voiceover actually makes it very easy to respond to the film, which really isn't all that complex.
Bilge, the horizontal-vertical element is really quite in your face when you watch the film. It slapped me plenty of times while watching, let me tell you; it certainly wasn't something I was looking for. I don't think it's reductive to read this in the film; it's just another aspect, and allows for a cinematic reading, which I thought would be of some interest. I would have liked to have seen it more expressly handled, with sure hands. Sure hands doesn't make for a lesser artist. Does it make Vermeer a lesser artist that he always ensures that the light source in his paintings is from the left side of the frame?

Ryan

Of course, I have to defer to those who've seen it. I am curious about the voiceovers in Tree, since I've never felt that the voiceovers in his previous films have ever imposed any "top-down" meaning on the images.

Rather, they seem to inhabit the localized/non-localized (or personal/impersonal) manner of Whitman or Emerson). And I think these themes are classic theological themes, which is probably how Malick approaches them in his previous films.

Ryan

which is to say that the difference between the earlier two and the later two films is that while the early films quite obviously have an unreliable (or naive) narrator, i think Malick radicalizes his approach in the later two by de-personalizing the narration, further pursuing what can be called our "impersonal" reliance on language (hence it's ultimate inadequacy).

Kent Jones

Ryan, the new movie is, like the last two, a choral work with multiple narrators. I'm not sure why that makes them more radical than the first two films, but I think your invocation of Emerson and Whitman is on the money. The new one put me powerfully in mind of the former.

Ryan

Thanks, Kent. "Radical" is probably an overstatement...I merely mean that rather than filtering the narrative through one voice the newer films seems to layer and play those voices within and against one another.

TTRL in particular, seems to have different levels or layers of voiceovers from the very specific and internal to the very broad and general (the "main" narrative of Pvt Train, often mistaken for Caviezal's character).

Zach

Somehow I thought TREE opened this weekend, and can't quite believe I've got to wait at least four days to see it...it worked out okay; I got to see MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. A lovely film - but that's a different post.

So many good topics are opening up here - I'd like to pitch in my two cents on the Kubrick/Malick comparisons, and specifically on the topic of music. Have there been any other American directors as brilliant with integrating previously written/recorded music as these two? There are differences of course, and I feel like no one has mentioned the fact that Kubrick also had an element of irony, even semi-Brechtian detachment, that is nowhere to be found in Malick's stuff - a point easily made through music selection. As much as Kubrick's use of Strauss in 2001 is clearly meant to sweep the audience up into the world of the movie, he could also deploy music as a tonal and/or thematic counterpoint or ironic shading - "We'll Meet Again" being an obvious example. The really amazing thing is that he could made it work both ways - was "We'll Meet Again" as weirdly elegiac until it was used in DR. Strangelove, or was it just that Kubrick noticed it first? We mortals can only shake our heads and wonder.

In terms of the Wagner in TNW - I love, love, love it - it's perfect, not an ounce too ethereal - as Kent says, it's more uplifting, and I'd even add giddily exuberant - not qualities usually ascribed to Wagner, sure, but that's what happens when you juxtapose that music over those images. Farrel feeling the water through the grating where he's imprisoned, the whites seeing land, the "Naturals" seeing the ships (although now that you mention it, perhaps as Edo says, there is a darker element to this, considering the strife that will eventuate) - but overall, it perfectly captures the anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and finally, mind-boggling awe that must have accompanied such an encounter. (Which is why I can't help but manically scratch my temples in irritated confusion when people say they wish Malick had introduced POLITICS into the mix...it's just not that movie!)

It's late, and I'm happy they won the Palme D'Or, and I'm rambling...

On one related side note, regarding Wagner - has anyone else heard that interview with Horner re. TNW? As I recall, Horner makes no attempt to hide his frustration with Malick's methods, and recalls, with great dismay, when Terry showed him the cut with Wagner included...Horner was not pleased.

Bilge Ebiri

Zach, I've listened to that interview. Horner, of course, is famously combative. I once spent some time with another major composer who talked about how many jobs he'd gotten as a result of James Horner walking off or getting fired from a project. Admittedly, Ennio Morricone also had somewhat dismissive things to say about Malick (though nothing like Horner).

That said, I have to hand it to Horner; he said that, had Malick not "messed it all up," THE NEW WORLD could have been another TITANIC. A notion I found utterly absurd until AVATAR rolled around. A wildly different movie, to be sure, but with some surprising echoes of TNW...

Oliver_C

Wasn't Horner once equally incensed about the harried experience of composing for 'Aliens', one of his best scores?

Kent Jones

"Have there been any other American directors as brilliant with integrating previously written/recorded music as these two?" If you're not restricting yourself to classical music, then yes.There's Tarantino. There's Fincher. There's Wes Anderson. There's Anger. There's Conner. But then there's also MS. "Be My Baby" and "Rubber Biscuit" in MEAN STREETS? "Big Noise from Winnetka" in RAGING BULL? The uncanny use of "Atlantis" in GOODFELLAS? The music and the images become one.

nrh

Haven't seen the film yet, but mentioning Anger and Conner in this context makes me think of how relevant the whole American avant-garde tradition is in relation to Malick, maybe more than any other working American director. Is there anyone else who keeps a foot that much in the tradition pioneered by Brakhage, Mencken and Bailie? The differences may outweigh the similarities (especially the part where Malick has a crew and actors and millions of dollars) but the comparison is probably at least as relevant as Kubrick...

Zach

@ Kent...well yeah, I mean, y'know, besides them...

I knew I should have thought more about that one. (Tarantino did cross my mind, but somehow Marty didn't...but of course, as far as Pop goes, Marty can't be beat) Lynch, too, for that matter. And Hopper probably deserves a shout for Easy Rider. I also think P.T. Anderson certainly changed the world a bit with Aimee Mann in Magnolia, although I'm not sure that music was technically available before it was used in the movie (I don't think it was written specifically for the film.)

And David Chase! Because let's be honest, The Sopranos is top notch cinema, and the music choice in that series was stellar.

Sutter

It hadn't occurred to me before that Malick and Kubrick stand out among Americans for their regularly astonishing use of preexisting classical music. Lots of people use such music nicely, but music seems much more central in M&K's work. For instance, Woody Allen used to use common-practice music a lot, but even when the music worked with the movie it seemed like an ornamental afterthought. Whereas with the Handel in BARRY LYNDON and the Orff in BADLANDS, "the music and the images become one," as Kent said of Scorsese.

bill

I would like to thank Bilge for bringing up James Horner's delightfully moronic comments about THE NEW WORLD and how it could have been more like the movie Horner won an Oscar for, if only Malick had just *listened*. I still hate him for that.

And I'm pretty sure ALIENS is his very best score, not just one of his best. Since then his scores have pretty much all been a hazy pink cloud that connect as one.

Kent Jones

Zach, I just took another look at EASY RIDER. It's a beautiful film, but I don't think that the music works in any very special way. It's just kind of there as a sympathetic backdrop. The silences in the film are a lot more eloquent.

Sutter, you should take another look at CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and the use it makes of the Schubert Quartet.

The credit sequence of DAYS OF HEAVEN, the old photos and the Aquarium from "Carnival of the Animals," is a heart-stopper.

Tom Block

I'd add Demme for "Something Wild". Even "Silence of the Lambs" had Brooke Smith singing along to "American Girl"--an inspired way to introduce her character. Ditto Soderbergh's introduction of Fonda with "King Midas in Reverse"...

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