A Letter to Terrence Malick

Malick to the WonderDear Mr Malick,

You don’t know me.  There’s no reason you should, especially since I’m not sending this letter to you, but instead posting it on the internet for a bunch of people I don’t know to read.  I’m not even quite sure what made me start to want to write it.  I guess I could simply say that the five features you have made so far in your career have affected me more than entire oeuvres of hundreds of other directors.  And I wanted to thank you for them.

The first film I ever saw of yours was The Thin Red Line.  So I might as well start there, right?  I use the word “transformative” to describe what it was like watching your movie, and a few others in my cinematic education—I don’t use the term lightly.  It was a few months after Saving Private Ryan came out.  I admire Spielberg’s film; it’s exciting and powerful and deftly uses all the tools that directors of war films have been mining since All Quiet on the Western Front.  But at heart, it really is just a standard war film.  It makes war gritty and brutal, yet doesn’t seem to have a theme deeper than ‘war is hell’ (though others see some statement about patriotism in there).  The Thin Red Line rattled me in a completely different way.  There are images as bloody and violent as anything in Spielberg’s film, but there is something detached about them; you weren’t interested in the physical damage war wreaks on bodies, but the psychic damage inflicted by it, and how it corrodes the soul.

You taught me that a movie wasn’t about its plot.  So many critics complained that the narrative of The Thin Red Line lacked structure, and that the characterizations were thin enough to be nonexistent.  They especially hated your voiceovers, either because “there is no conviction that these characters would have these thoughts” (Roger Ebert) or because they couldn’t tell whose voice it was.  These critics aren’t idiots.  They kind of knew what you were up to—Charles Taylor, in an otherwise inane review, at least had the sense to note that all the voice-overs sounded like your voice.  But even that missed the mark: the voiceovers are in everyone’s voice.  They aren’t the thoughts in the heads of characters, but feelings in the souls of characters.

That’s something some critics just can’t accept.  See, I think that what makes your harshest critics uncomfortable isn’t so much your unconventional, some say avant-garde, approach to film construction.  That they can handle, or could if they’d shut up and pay attention; your films aren’t at all difficult, and flow much more pleasingly than all the paint-by-numbers studio releases I have to see all year.  No, I think these kinds of critics are uncomfortable with the sincerity of your films.  You mean every single thing you put up on that screen, and I’m not just talking about a Spielbergian earnestness or Capraesque sentimentality.  You take great pains to show us exactly what is inside you, and it’s just too fucking much for people to take.  Irony makes us safe, lets us connect without giving anything up, lets us see things from a certain distance with an illusory objectivity.  But there is no objectivity in your films.  I don’t think there is any difference between what you give us through your images and what you experience.  There is no distance between you and your movies, and if there is, it’s like the space between grains of sand—so infinitesimal it’s not worth considering.  It makes people uncomfortable because no one is this transparent anymore.  Sure, people smother Facebook with their political tastes, tweet their bowel movements, and ‘check-in’ to Hollister on Foursquare, but that’s not transparency, that’s just jerking off in front of other people.  That’s not the same as being the message you’re sending.

You’re Private Witt from The Thin Red Line.  Your detractors are like Sergeant Welsh.  Witt doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining himself because there’s absolutely no way to do it in a way Welsh will understand.  Maybe this is why you never do interviews or commentaries.  Like Witt, the only thing you can do is what you do, and let people understand it if they can.  Maybe that’s why you shaped the film around Witt, in gleeful defiance of your screenplay (and Adrien Brody’s ego).  Making the movie was your attempt to understand war in a universe with God at the center, and Witt was the very embodiment of this understanding.

WELSH: In this world a man himself is nothing.  And there ain’t no world but this one.
WITT: You’re wrong there, Top.  I seen another world.  Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.
WELSH: Well, then you seen things I never will.  We’re living in a world that’s blown itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it. In a situation like that all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him. Look out for himself.

WELSH: You still believing in the beautiful light, are you?  How do you do that?  You’re a magician to me.
WITT: I still see a spark in you.

The Thin Red Line

I’m extrapolating much of this, of course.  It’s perfectly possible you’re nothing like your movies and have spent decades engaged in a long and elaborate filmmaking exercise.  Even in that regard I’d still love your films, because it’s obvious that you just don’t give a fuck.  I mean, you hacked all the dialogue out of Days of Heaven, not giving a shit about what the actors would think after having performed for you, or the sound artists would think after having recorded for you.  You gave all the words to a girl in voice-over, and she wasn’t even acting.  She was just talking into a microphone, and you let her, and you gave your movie her voice because you wanted to make it guileless and pure.  You made Badlands just five years after Bonnie and Clyde came out because you knew Arthur Penn’s mistake was glamorizing the couple.  You tried to put innocence back into the world, even in your own film about a killing spree.

Someone gave you thirty million dollars to make a historical, romantic epic, and you gave us The New World, which was probably the furthest thing from your investors’ minds.  On paper I’m sure it looked like “Titanic in the Woods,” and mentioned nothing about the digressions, ellipses, elisions, obliqueness.    It’s probably one of the truest films about love we have.  Smith and Pocahontas don’t have some kind of operatic romance, or a quick, idealized passion like… every single Hollywood romance I can think of.  They don’t remotely speak the same language, but innately understand each other in a way that Witt and Welsh, two English speakers, never will.  Because true understanding of another person has nothing to do with talking; it’s much deeper, primal, mysterious than that.  How many people in the world comprehend that fact, let alone have the balls to spend $30,000,000 of other people’s money expressing it?

SMITH: I thought it was dream… what we knew in the forest.  It’s the only truth.

The New World

The New World didn’t make a lot of money, but you somehow got thirty million more dollars and made The Tree of Life.  Malick, Malick, Malick…  Christ, if people didn’t get The New World, what the hell were they going to do with this one?  Did your investors know that you were going to spend the entire second reel on the creation of the universe?  But I am so grateful that you did.  The Tree of Life was another transformative experience for me.  As I wrote elsewhere, before Film Misery was gracious enough to offer me a gig with them:

The Tree of Life produces within me a deep, spiritual awareness, an awe of existence, a rapturous, rhapsodic emotion. It’s the kind of state I imagine deeply religious congregations experience during their more ecstatic moments in church. Not being religious, deeply or otherwise, I was fairly stunned to have a movie affect me in this way.

Here is the best analogy I can make, and it is still probably quite poor. In Douglas Adams’s novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he introduces the notion of a machine called the Total Perspective Vortex. The device causes extreme consternation to those who use it, “for when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’ ”  Viewing The Tree of Life, one feels pretty much the same thing…

There is only one other film in the history of cinema to make me feel that way.  One.  It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I still cite as my favorite film.  Though you share the ambition of Kubrick’s film, you make its message intensely personal.  Everything we see in The Tree of Life could be the thoughts twisting through Old Jack’s head after watching 2001, working out his place in the terrifying enormity of the universe.

But, c’mon: you are Old Jack, aren’t you?  You can’t fool me.  I know you are.

MR O’BRIEN: I wanted to be loved because I was great; a Big Man.  I’m nothing.  Look at the glory around us; trees, birds.  I lived in shame.  I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory.  I’m a foolish man.

The Tree of Life

Mr Malick, you cannot penetrate that cynical shield so many people have erected around themselves.  For countless people nowadays, such defenses are the only way they know how to engage with and respond to the world.  Artists like you are bound to rub them the wrong way.  Maybe that’s another reason you stay out of the public view: it’s difficult there, without any armor.  And that armor would strangle the type of movies you make, the ones that have meant so much to me for so long.

I harbor no illusions you’re ever going to read this.  Why would you?  You don’t seem to care what internationally renowned critics think of your work, and I’m just some guy.  But your movies inspire me, move me, change me more than I can convey in words, which might seem like a dumb thing to say since I’ve spent so many words trying.  But at least my gratitude is expressed, and my thankfulness is out there now, cast into the world for others to see.  More important than anything else, is that I have felt it.  And that seems like a pretty Malickian theme.

So, thank you sir.  From the bottom of my heart.


g clark finfrock, a fan

Malick, Tree of Life

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  • A wonderful, wonderful tribute to a director I’ve only in the past few years come to know, G Clark! (though I do think your swipe at Bonnie & Clyde was perhaps a little unduly dismissive of what Arthur Penn accomplishes).

    I agree with so much about what you say regarding Malick, particularly with regards to his sincerity. I have always felt, with every single film that he has made, that he practically believes in every frame he shoots. You were right to compare The Tree of Life to 2001. Like that Kubrick film, I think it will not improbably go down as Malick’s magnum opus, and that his dissenters will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

    A few months after re-watching Tree of Life, I watched Godard’s Film Socialisme, which I felt was similarly strived for truth in its experimental tinkering with cinematic language. But Godard – a filmmaker I LOVE – approached that material with an almost transparent kind of cynicism that felt noncommittal and, considering the work he did in the 60’s, downright retrograde. There is a bravely progressive tone to Malick’s movies that has endured over the years, a tone fueled by affection for the medium and a deeply considered insight that blends the line between spirituality and humanism. Given the times we live in today, Malick’s messages are infinitely more vital than practically any other experimental filmmaker today.

    I apparently “made” you rewatch Singin’ in the Rain earlier this week after my Blind Spot write-up. Now, with this wonderful piece, I have no choice but to pop in The Tree of Life. And I’m tired, dammit.

    • I think Bonnie and Clyde is a great film; definitely in my top 100. Penn’s “mistake” I refer to was cultural, not cinematic. And I think I really only meant it in relation to Badlands.

  • Jose

    I must admit, I’m not as literate in Malick films as I’m sure others in this site are (the only film of his I’ve seen was Tree of Life, which awed me as much as it frustrated me).

    I’ve been meaning to see more of his movies, but I’ve been putting it off. Your letter served as a stern order to stop putting it off.

  • Nicely worded, and inspiring. I think you nailed it when you talked about ironic distance and the absence of objectivity in Malick’s work. I’ve seen all but The New World, which I need to get to. I’d love to give Thin Red Line another watch soon too…man that film floored me.

    Malick is staggering partly because his films aren’t about something, they’re about everything – esp. TRL and The Tree of Life. The Thin Red Line isn’t a war movie. I would argue that the images of physical pain aren’t necessarily “detached” but they aren’t the ultimate wound, even the psychic pain of war isn’t the ultimate message of the film. Malick’s interested in the slippery condition of mortality and existence, and I think what is so audacious about his work is the magnitude of what he’s after – quite directly, the Meaning of Life. He doesn’t fold it in to a narrative through symbolic devices, he uses it to break the narrative apart, he attacks the biggest questions head-on and totally sincerely, as you said.

    Justin, you said it well by calling it a bravely progressive tone in Malick’s work. I think it is brave to attempt anything without cynicism in this world, and to trust the process as Malick does and dispense with things you’ve worked hard on if they don’t feel right. However, being brave with lots of resources and a reputation for brilliance should be qualified as such. And I, like Mr. Brody, would be disappointed to be left on the cutting room floor if I felt that I had collaborated with someone and they simply disposed of me. But I admire his work greatly and feel it is unlike most anything else I have ever seen.

  • My first experience with Malick on “The Tree of Life” was somewhat less than ecstatic. I was deeply affected by the story of these boys growing up, far more so than I was with the universal creation tinting. Not that Malick’s work on that area was lacking, but I simply felt he was overshooting his goals in juxtaposing two stories that didn’t rightly fit together.

    It wasn’t until coming upon “Days of Heaven” that Malick’s much more reserved fondness of nature and life was able to sink in. The work there really catalyzes many of Malick’s consistent themes in a way that didn’t feel forced upon or slightly disingenuous. That’s the Malick I respond to, and that you tapped into deeply with your heartfelt tribute. Fantastic work, G Clark!

  • This is a great write-up and I too just came to Malick last year before ‘Tree of Life’ came out and I was very pleased (both Badlands and Thin Red Line made my top 200).

    Like ‘TRL’ and ‘ToL’ I think ‘Badlands’ is also about creation and the meaning of existence with all the religious symbolism and the choice of hymnal music throughout the film. I think it’s particularly resonant in the fire scene where creation breeds destruction.

    I hope Mr. Malick finds this letter.

  • Nicely-written! Too bad Malick doesn’t use the Internet!

  • Excellent write-up. The first Malick movies i watched were both Days of Heaven and Badlands. Last year i got to watch The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life and The New World. I consider him one of the best directors ever, no matter what people thinks of his movies and the way he makes them… i am a big fan of his work and his work always leaves a profound effect on me.

  • Jose

    I’m traveling to Austin next week where Malick is shooting his latest movie.

    Should I show him this?

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