Song to Song


Song to Song. Rooney Mara might be the best dizzy princess Malick’s ever had. This one also has some of the best music. It’s also one of the few Malick’s to ever make me laugh multiple times. I was surprisingly swept up for the first hour or so. And yet… the staying power wasn’t there for me. Still good, though.

Updated Terrence Malick power rankings:

  1. Days of Heaven (as if!)
  2. The New World
  3. Badlands
  4. The Thin Red Line
  5. The Tree of Life (maybe one spot higher?)
  6. Song to Song
  7. To the Wonder
  8. Knight of Cups

That is a solid body of work.

Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups. After I watched it I wrote some snarky tweets rolling my eyes at this movie having beautiful people walking aimlessly. I meant it, and I also still liked it. The interiority that’s getting stronger in his films is interesting for me. Not so much just watching the characters but riding along with them. Also, he’s the only person making weird idiosyncratically Malickian movies with big names, whenever he feels like it. However he’s getting it done, respect. Filed under: Terrence Malick.

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven. Third viewing (first, second). I don’t typically use words like “rapturous” or “transfixed”, but I feel like I need to here. I just sit there slack-jawed for 90 minutes. I don’t know how you can make a biblical, romantic prairie drama have such momentum. This is the first Terrence Malick movie I ever saw, and I still think it’s his best. I have to keep it in my top three, up there with Out of the Past and Heat.

To the Wonder

To the Wonder. This is probably a Malick-fans-only affair, given that he’s brought all his Malickisms to expected highs/belabored lows. So I liked it, naturally. It’s very chopped and fragmented, both within scenes and through time, but there is a clear arc here. Yet maybe it’s understated enough that you get as much drama out of it as you put in. The thing starts with Kurylenko’s narration, her camera, her self-documentation, so there’s an interpretation that most of it is her record. Regardless, just that little bit of self-shot camerawork helps to set up the interiority of the rest.

Affleck is given almost nothing to say, and he’s muted repeatedly even when it looks like he’s saying something. And the voices we can hear from other characters, it’s often just barely. The dance analogy I’ve heard fits well. Where words are absent, gesture and music have to carry it. It’s also like, y’know… silent film. Great score, though you too may chuckle if you’re familiar with some of the music selected (e.g. Górecki, Rachmaninov, Wagner).

Ridiculous desktop wallpaper camera porn abounds. Malick needs to sell his b-roll for the TVs in waiting rooms and airports. I love the transition from the water shot of coastal France to the tall grass in the States. And another transition from the sunlit exteriors of the U.S. to the damp claustrophobic fluorescence of Paris at night. And that final shot. Man. That made it all worth it for me.

Themes. Taking it back to the early sequence at Mont Saint-Michel shows the two becoming one, a little island drawing off from the rest. And the first early versions of how the camera is drawn, again and again, to light, tracking toward windows and doors, trying to get up and out. So that’s love as a combinatory force, bringing two into one, making the inside the outside, drawing you out of yourself (note the barely furnished home). So there’s love as awesome, and there’s love as absent. Bardem carries this part. Note how he’s sequestered himself inside too much. By the end, maybe he’s trying a little harder. Or praying at least, girding himself to get out there again, narrating a common excerpt from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I liked Pico Iyer’s review. Ebert’s take will continue to be good for extra-filmic reasons. And the Terrence Malick community blog has a nice blow-by-blow.

My Terrence Malick rankings and reviews:

  1. Days of Heaven
  2. The New World
  3. Badlands
  4. To the Wonder
  5. The Tree of Life
  6. The Thin Red Line

Badlands: An Oral History: Movies TV: GQ

Martin Sheen:

Terry called one night and said, “I want you to play the part.” I had to get up very early the next morning to go to work, and I was driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in a little Mazda. I was listening to a Dylan album I was fond of, and the song “Desolation Row” was playing, and the sun was rising, and it hit me that I was going to play the role of my life. I had been a professional actor since I was eighteen. I was thirty-one, I had four children, I was struggling, doing a lot of television—a lot of bad, silly work just to make ends meet—and I wasn’t having any luck in features to speak of, and here was the part of my life. And I was overwhelmed, and I pulled off to the side of the road, and I wept uncontrollably.

Also, from assistant director Bill Scott:

We were so green. A couple years ago, Terry told me that on that first morning of filming, after he got his big wide shot, the cameraman turned to him and said, “Should we go in for coverage now, Terry?” And Terry said, “No, let’s do an over-the-shoulder shot’"—which is coverage. And I remember when someone asked me if I had ordered the honeywagon, I said, "Yeah, the catering’s all lined up.” The honeywagon’s the toilet truck.

I gotta watch Badlands again.

Badlands: An Oral History: Movies TV: GQ

Directors of the Decade No. 9: The sensualists –

On Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, etc.:

The sensualists are bored with dramatic housekeeping. They’re interested in sensations and emotions, occurrences and memories of occurrences. If their films could be said to have a literary voice, it would fall somewhere between third person and first — perhaps as close to first person as the film can get without having the camera directly represent what a character sees.

Yet at the same time sensualist directors have a respect for privacy and mystery. They are attuned to tiny fluctuations in mood (the character’s and the scene’s). But they’d rather drink lye than tell you what a character is thinking or feeling – or, God forbid, have a character tell you what he’s thinking or feeling. The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies — not in the character, although that sometimes happens, but in the moviegoer.

You can tell by watching the sensualists’ films, with their startling cuts, lyrical transitions, off-kilter compositions and judicious use of slow motion as emotional italics, that they believe we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight — as markers that don’t seem like markers when they happen.

Directors of the Decade No. 9: The sensualists –

The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line. I’ve now seen everything Terrence Malick has directed. I thought I’d like this one more. Concessions: it’s gorgeous, the hilltop battle is a masterpiece (I can’t think of any movie battle where you have such a feeling for the geography, the space they move in), the acting is top-notch.

The challenge he doesn’t quite meet here is in telling a story about humanity by letting everyone tell a human story. Badlands and Days of Heaven each had single narrators; this one has at least seven, just counting off from memory. That’s fine. Single narration isn’t a rule. I appreciate the experimentation. I just don’t think it works here. With a few exceptions, these guys almost always speak lofty Malickian. Which is also fine! I can understand an argument that this could be the Universal Voice of the Yearning Soul, or something. It just didn’t feel right to me because the language was too similar, as if it were one person with a handful of accents.

Wikipedia tells me that Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Jason Patric, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke were all cast and filmed, but didn’t make it into the final edit. Incredible! I wonder if keeping these guys in, with their own voiceovers, could help balance the narration. Along with all the other actors who basically got cameos (Travolta, Clooney, Brody), could this be a movie that isn’t long enough? Dare I say it?

My Terrence Malick rankings:

  1. Days of Heaven
  2. The New World
  3. Badlands
  4. The Tree of Life
  5. The Thin Red line

I ranked this one dead last (close call), but note that Malick’s worst has still got a good lead over the median film. I think it’s safe to say he’s one of my favorite directors (up there with Eastwood and Buster Keaton). I’d probably say that based on Days of Heaven alone. Other movies I’ve seen.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life. Well, it’s beautiful. And huge bonus points to Malick for ridiculous ambition and the credibility to do it at scale with big names. But in the same way that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend movies like Solaris or 2001 or Once Upon a Time in the West or Koyaanisqatsi or something, I don’t recommend this one if you’re not willing to sit through some wanky, gorgeous, exhausting, melodramatic sequences. I felt really, really skeptical when I saw the trailers, skeptical when I started, rolled my eyes a few times when I was watching… and yet I’m warming to the idea of watching it again. In the moments where there’s actually acting, the performers are excellent. Sometimes it takes you one viewing to figure out the rules and another to participate/surrender like you need to. My current Terrence Malick rankings:

  1. Days of Heaven (with a probably insurmountable lead)
  2. The New World
  3. Badlands
  4. The Tree of Life (or tied for third?)

With this one out of the way, it’s on to The Thin Red Line.

The New World

The New World. In which the title is a metaphor. Terrence Malick is a seductive director. I thought it started a little conventionally, but partway in, it turned into something special. You’re forced to set aside Disney memories and whatever historical précis you’ve got leftover from school. Interesting to see what expected bits of history and relationship development that he delays or leaves out completely, or proceeds quickly through and moves on. Lots of amazing nature scenes and life out of doors. I love the contrast of Smith’s time in the lush forests, and then the return to grey, denuded, muddy Jamestown. Malick uses narration again, which is kind of a clever cheat. You allow characters to voice their thoughts over visuals, and that keeps you from having to dialogue all the time. Couple that with the often elliptical camera–characters rarely face to face, often staggered in distance or in gentle motion, seen over-the-shoulder or trailing behind–you just get to gaze and treat your eyes and ears. I like Ebert’s observation: “The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time.” Right now I think Days of Heaven is still my favorite Malick, with Badlands coming in close third.

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven. My first Malick film, and luckily an interesting, beautiful one. The story has scattershot narration by a young kid. Sometimes she has wise observations and sometimes she has immaterial asides. With this distance in age, we sort of see the characters in the central love triangle at a remove, a little more inscrutable. We see the drama and the tragedy but Malick’s not looking for your tears, I don’t think. The story’s too thin to bear it. The magic’s in the editing. The shots are elliptical, working by collage and juxtaposition and suggestion. Check out some lovely stills. Nice soundtrack from Mr. Morricone, to boot.