Friday, April 22, 2011

The Beginner's Guide to Terrence Malick

With the much-anticipated film The Tree of Life finally set to premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival this coming May with a U.S. release coming later that month. It is definitely a big cinematic event not just for fans of Terrence Malick but also for film buffs all over the world. From 1973 to 2005, Malick had released four films yet all four of those films are regarded as some of the finest films ever made. With a new film finally set to come out while another one is in post-production where it will take a few years for it to come out. It’s something that fans of cinema will definitely be anxious to see. Yet, what about the people who have never seen a Terrence Malick film nor aren’t familiar with him at all?

Well, those are tough questions to answers since his films are definitely the antithesis of the mainstreams audiences are used to seeing nowadays. All four of his films that he’s released along with the upcoming The Tree of Life are essentially the same films but with different stories. Malick, like any other director or auteur, pretty much has a style that is definitely his own. Show a fan of a frame of his films, even it’s just a simple second unit shot of a tree or some form of landscape. They will tell that person that’s Malick.

What to Expect in a Terrence Malick Film?

The elements of what makes a Malick film a Malick film are trademarks that he’s refined throughout the years. Shots of nature or birds flying around. A shot where the camera is looking above either someone or something. Scenes where there’s no dialogue as it’s just about the location and its surroundings. Scenes where characters have a sense of conflict whether its moral, class, or cultural conflict. That’s just the small ideas of what is key to a film by Malick.

The big element of Malick’s films are voiceover narrations. Often told from the perspective of one character of multiple characters, it’s told in a rhythmic, poetic style. They’re not commenting on what’s going but reflect in passing about the events they’ve encountered or a desire they have. It’s a formula that many have tried to imitate but never could duplicate. Even as voiceover narrations, in terms of conventional cinema, are often distracting in filling in ideas that no one wants to know about or have some form of cliché that is used very repetitively.

If Malick’s films are known for its trademarks in terms of what he does for storytelling. The technical aspects of his film are also crucial to his approach to the way he crafts his films. Cinematography, editing, sound, music, and art direction are important what Malick looks for in a film. From the people he works that includes such regular collaborators like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber to a revolving door of people that would help his vision.

Among those people are the cinematographer Malick has worked with over the years. Tak Fujimoto, Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler, John Toll, and his newest regular collaborator in Emmanuel Lubezki are among the people who help bring a naturalist yet dream-like look to the way the film is shot. Even as a lot of the camera work, whether it’s a second unit work or from a main film crew, is presented without a lot equipment to make it look and feel as real as to someone is there at the film. There is so much to be said about the cinematography in any of Malick’s films but it’s all about the presentation and framing of those shots.

Editing is another crucial element to his film. While his longtime collaborator Billy Weber was part of the editing process in the first three films while serving as an associate producer for The New World. Weber has stated that when it comes to editing everyone else’s films, Malick’s to cut is a million times harder. Largely because Malick shoots more than a million feet of film while he’s trying to find the story in the editing room. Shaping the film from its assembled version to its final cut takes a long time ranging from several months to years. When the final version is shown, the editing plays not just in terms of a stylistic approach to cutting. The pacing of the films are also noticeable. While some find his films to be very slow, it’s always because Malick wants the audience to soak up the images and be engaged by the story.

Jack Fisk’s art direction and set design is important for its design of from different time periods. Fisk’s work is always noticeable in Malick’s films whether it’s a small set piece or something big. Even as costumes play up to the period as it’s a small part of the technical idea of the film. The sound work is another important element to his films as it’s always about capturing the element of the location or enhancing it to give it a broader feel.

Malick, like Stanley Kubrick, is a fan of classical music as it’s often the dominant part of his soundtrack. Whether it’s using pieces by Richard Wagner, Camille Saint-Saen, Bedrich Smetana, Avro Part, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Malick’s use of classical music is often to set a mood or to dramatize an event that is happening. When it comes to original music from the composers he works with like George Tipton, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, and for the upcoming The Tree of Life, Alexandre Desplat. It’s always to play around the music he’s aiming whether it’s something sweeping in its arrangements or something plaintive. Composers often have a difficult time wondering what Malick wants such as the case with Horner whose score was largely unused for The New World. Some like Morricone and Zimmer were able to work closely as both received Oscar nominations for their work.

It’s difficult to understand what Malick wants in a film as he’s notoriously known for having a hard time making decisions which is why his film take so long to finish. Yet, the final result of those films are definitely like no other. Watching a Malick film whether it’s in a movie theater or with a large, high-definition television is really like no other film. Malick shoots with a big canvas as it’s all about what is going on in its surroundings or something simple from a character’s perspective. While his films, at first, are not easy to digest. They do get better with repeated viewing although it should be noted that it’s not for everyone.

The Films

With any filmmaker, there is a library of films that is hard to figure out which one to start with. There are masterpieces, some good films, some OK ones, and some awful ones. With Malick having only released four feature films so far and a short film called Lanton Mills that is only available for American Film Institute students and researchers. These four films that Malick has created are often considered to be masterpieces among critics and film buffs. The big question in is that with these four films. Which one to start with?

If there’s one Malick film that anyone should start with. The best suggestion is Days of Heaven. The film is about a tragic love triangle set in the early 1900s at the Texas Panhandle between a Chicago manual laborer, his girlfriend, and a dying farmer from the perspective of the laborer’s younger sister. The title alludes to the brief moments of happiness in the four characters while the reality is that the woman Abby (Brooke Adams) marries the farmer (Sam Shepard) for his money so she, her boyfriend Bill (Richard Gere), and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) would inherit the money.

What happens as the story progresses changes everything as the farmer’s health doesn’t change with Bill’s plans for the farmer’s death changes everything. Since it’s mostly shot in a large wheat field with a lovely house in the middle of this wonderful landscape. It’s almost a very heavenly film where by the third act, it becomes very Biblical once the locusts and fire around the wheat field emerge. Those events in the third act would represent not just that loss of heaven the four characters would feel but also the lies that surrounded it when the intentions weren’t really bad.

What also makes the film such a jaw-dropping event is the rich cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. Notably with the shots outside on the wheat field that is mostly presented in sunset period which is known as “magic hour”. While Almendros did a lot of those scenes including the famous locusts and fire scenes that helped make the film a gorgeous feat. Wexler’s work for many of the film’s early scenes, ending, and interiors should also be noted which complements Almendros’ style. It’s a film that is truly gorgeous to look at only to be balanced by its haunting yet mesmerizing story. A lot of which doesn’t have a lot of dialogue as it’s carried mostly through Linda Manz’s evocative narration.

The only adaptation that Malick has done so far, Malick’s 1998 epic anti-war adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line is truly a one of a kind film. A near-three hour film and Malick’s first film following a legendary 20-year absence from filmmaking. Malick’s adaptation of Jones’ novel is truly a war film that is breathtakingly beautiful while going inside the complicated soul of soldiers fighting in World War II at Guadalcanal. It’s a multi-layered film told from varied perspective of soldiers as they contemplate their own thoughts of war as well as a sense of longing for peace and love.

So far, it’s Malick’s least-accessible film to date because it’s told through various perspective as Malick follows a group of young soldiers, a cynical sergeant, and a vain lieutenant colonel looking to get a promotion. It’s hard to follow at first due to the varied voice-over narrations as characters revel into their own ideas of war and what they’re fighting against. Even as one character named Train (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) revels on the idea of man versus nature.

With photography by John Toll and a towering score by Hans Zimmer, it is a war film that plays against convention as it meshes the beauty of the Pacific mixed in with the terror of war. It’s not a very romantic idea of war nor is there a patriotic element to the film. It is a pure anti-war film as it includes a scene where Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt character is surrounded by Japanese soldiers where one of the soldiers doesn’t want to kill him. Other scenes include Ben Chaplin’s Private Bell longing for his wife who is waiting for him back home. It’s a very complex yet haunting film that offers no easy answers about war and casualties. It has some gruesome scenes that very violent or at times, very heart wrenching. It’s really one of the best anti-war films ever made.

Malick’s debut film, which is inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killings in 1958, is also his most accessible film. Largely because it’s the one that is closest to a conventional script from Malick as it’s a film about a teenage girl who meets a young greaser as they fall in love and go on a killing spree. Yet, it’s not a very violent film that would inspire an array of violent films featuring lovers that would come much later on. Instead, it’s a film that portrays these two individuals as human beings living in their own fantasy world.

Martin Sheen’s character Kit is a guy who wants to be James Dean with an appetite for killing though he’s not really a bad guy. Just a misguided, misunderstood individual who later wants to give Sissy Spacek’s Holly a great life. Holly is a dreamer who likes to read magazines and live a life out of her boring neighborhood. Malick creates lively characters in these two individuals who like to play around and dance to music that is around them. Yet, their actions would eventually get them in trouble with authorities as it is clear that the fantasy world they’re living in has to end.

The film would feature many of the cinematic ideas Malick would be known for later in his film such as vast canvas for a lot of the film’s exterior scenes complemented by gorgeous cinematography. One notable piece of the film that has made it so memorable is the use of Carl Orff’s Gaussenhauser from the piece Schulwerk. Orff’s piece plays throughout the film to give it an innocent, dreamy feel as it’s also a very playful piece. It’s an entertaining film that not only allows the audience to be engaged by the image, story, and characters but also dwell into the idea of humanity at its most complicated.

Malick’s fourth film about the Jamestown colony of 1606 and the legendary relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas is definitely a historical drama that defies convention. Part-historical film and a part-romance, it’s a film that allows Malick to play with history but also provide insight into the perspectives about the colony. Yet, it’s a film that largely revolves around Pocahontas, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, as she sees the world she lives in be changed by the arrival of English settlers as she and John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, tried to create a peace that doesn’t go well.

While Malick doesn’t really say that the English’s approach to impose their world and ideals into the Jamestown colony really destroyed the peaceful the Native Americans lived in. Even as the character of Captain Newport, played by Christopher Plummer, suggests that the colonials should try and not make trouble with the natives. Yet, Malick also suggests that natives’ resistance to share the land as he does reveal the troubled sense of humanity in many characters. All of this is told through three different perspectives though it’s mostly told through Pocahontas view. The views of John Smith and later on the film, Pocahontas’ future husband John Rolfe, played by Christian Bale, reflect on the world and Pocahontas.

Many of the film’s highlights are largely due to the vast canvas that Malick has shot on location in Jamestown that is complemented by the gorgeous photography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The naturalistic quality of the film along with the recreation of the Jamestown colony with actual props recreated. Malick’s desire to revive an old native language added to the film’s authenticity while the music is mostly dominated by Richard Wagner’s Vorspiel from Das Rheingold that opens and closes the film. Particularly with the ending which is definitely some of the best filmmaking ever presented. It’s not an easy film to watch, like all of Malick’s films, but it gets better and more entrancing with each viewing.

The DVDs

When it comes to watching Malick at home, it’s best to have a big high-definition widescreen TV. It’s where the viewer can really grasp on the visuals that Malick is portraying as his films are a lot bigger than the stories suggest. Fortunately for all audiences living in the Region 1 area of the U.S. and Canada, all of his films are available on DVD though only three of those films are available on Blu-Ray.

The only film that isn’t available Blu-Ray as of April 2011 is Badlands. The DVD for Badlands was released in 1999 by Warner Brothers as a dual-disc presentation for full-screen and widescreen. It’s a decent DVD to have but it was released at the time when DVDs were new and it’s the one film that really needs to be re-mastered and restored for a Blu-Ray release along with a proper DVD release to include various extras.

Another of Malick’s films that could have a DVD/Blu-Ray release with a multitude of extras is The New World. While there are three different versions of the film that were shown all over the world and two of those versions were released in the U.S. theatrically. The two versions that are presented on Region 1 DVDs are the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 178-minute extended cut. The 150-minute Oscar cut is only available in Europe. On Blu-Ray, the extended cut of the film is the only version presented for Blu-Ray while it does contain the 50-minute making-of documentary about the film that is also a special feature in the 135-minute version for its DVD.

With Badlands needing a new DVD/Blu-Ray release and The New World already having a decent DVD/Blu-Ray release. There’s two other films of Malick’s that has already gotten the proper DVD/Blu-Ray releases it deserves thanks in part to the Criterion Collection company. Both Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line were given transfers and restoration that the films needed as they were both supervised by Malick and the collaborators he worked with on those films. Both DVDs feature booklets that contain essays and various text along with commentary tracks from the people who worked on the film.

The only major differences between the Criterion DVD releases for Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are the wealth of extras it contains. Days of Heaven features interviews with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, camera operator John Bailey, and actors Richard Gere (via audio) and Sam Shepard. The audio commentary for that DVD includes art director Jack Fisk, editor Billy Weber, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden. While it may not seem like much but the wealth of information the cast and crew give out in the interviews and commentary provide more than enough that is needed to be told about Days of Heaven.

For The Thin Red Line Criterion DVD, the extras are numerous as it features interviews with actors, collaborators, and James Jones’ daughter Kaylie along with 14-minutes of outtakes and newsreels about World War II. The audio commentary from Jack Fisk, cinematographer John Toll, and producer Grant Hill also provide the wealth information about the production. The interviews and content of the DVD really goes into the detail about the making of the film along with material that was cut from the film that includes a deleted scene featuring Mickey Rourke, who was among one of several actors cut from the final film. It’s also a DVD release that also kills the legend about the widely-rumored six-hour cut of the film that is finally shot down by the editors of the film.

The Criterion DVDs/Blu-Rays for Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line along with the DVD/Blu-Ray for The New World are must-haves for what Malick fans needed. Particularly for those with a big TV with surround sound as it is the closest thing to watching a Malick film in the big screen. While Badlands is the only film that is in need of a proper DVD/Blu-Ray release. It’s something that fans of Malick will hope won’t take very long.

Other Films to Check Out by Other Filmmakers

With The Tree of Life already set to come out for the summer, it’s also recommended to see the films of other directors that are directly influenced by Terrence Malick. There’s a lot of directors in recent years who have cited Malick has an influence whether its in the approach to storytelling or in a visual medium. Quentin Tarantino, an avid film buff, has cited Malick as influence as he wrote two scripts that were inspired by Badlands. The first is Tony Scott’s True Romance that features not just a voice-over narration but also a score similar to Carl Orff’s Gaussenhauser. Another script that Tarantino write that was inspired by Badlands that he later disowned is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.  The film had a story about lovers on the run killing people but Stone added a sensational, satirical approach that Tarantino didn’t like.

Another director that is primarily influenced by Malick is David Gordon Green. Though Green in recent years has been making comedies, his early work definitely has Malick’s influence in terms of visuals and in narrative. Notably his 2000 debut film George Washington which had a similar narrative and character perspective similar to Days of Heaven. His follow-ups for All the Real Girls and Undertow also featured lush images that is Malick is known for while the latter had Malick serve as an executive producer.

Others influenced by Malick include Sofia Coppola, Wong Kar-Wai, Guillermo del Toro, and Gus Van Sant among many others who cite Malick as an influence. Then there’s directors who either came before or around the same time Malick emerged into filmmaking. There’s the renowned German director Werner Herzog who, like Malick, has a fascination with nature but has a much more darker view than Malick. Another is Spanish director Victor Erice whose 1973 debut film The Spirit of the Beehive has a similar visual palette like Malick as well as not making films very often.

Terrence Malick remains a mystery to anyone who hasn’t seen his films. Even to his fans who see his films are still bewildered by his themes and the stories he tells. Yet, that what keeps people interested in seeing his films over and over again. Even as his fans will always await for what he does next because there’s a lasting quality to his film which can’t really be explained other than that they’re just worth seeing again. They’re not for everyone but that’s OK. He’s a filmmaker that doesn’t play by the rules except for his own. The wait for a new film is at times, frustrating but the end result are always worth it. For the beginners, all they need to do is relax and let the image overwhelm them while they better make sure they watch in a big TV. After all, Terrence Malick films are meant for the big screen.

© thevoid99 2011


Patrick Gamble said...

Lovely article, but surely for a director with only 4 films to his name it be quicker to watch them. By the time someones read your eloquently put words, and truly soaked them in they could of watched the first hour of Days of Heaven and fallen utterly in love with Malick!

Regardless of my petty nit-picking, I really enjoyed your piece and agree that Tree of Life will (I have little doubt about it being anything other than awesome) be a monumental moment in cinematic history

Castor said...

Nice article Steven. The voice-over narration is definitely one of his trademark but another thing to note is that Malick likes to have main characters who are not the protagonists as seen in Days of Heaven where Linda Manz narrates or Badlands where Sissy Spacek narrates.

thevoid99 said...

@Neon-Thank you. I just wanted to try and give newbies an idea of what to expect and such. Days of Heaven was actually the second Malick film that I've seen but it's still my favorite. The Thin Red Line was the first one but I saw it when I was 19-20 when it was on TV and didn't really get it. I think people who in their early 20s or younger and have no broad idea of what cinema is won't understand who Malick is or what his films about.

@Castor-Thanks Castor. I agree that Malick's use of not having main protagonists narrate is a big deal since it does show things in a different perspective and such. That is part of Malick's genius.

Unknown said...

Cool article, quite informative. I'm a big Malick fan myself, but I'd actually say people should probably watch his movies in the order that they were made; starting with Badlands and ending with The New World. You should also add Christopher Nolan to that list of directors who are influenced by Malick's work; he's stated before that the dream sequences in The Thin Red Line inspired him to apply similar techniques when he was making Memento for Guy Pearce's character. Here's a link if you wanna see it for yourself (it's #2 towards the bottom):

thevoid99 said...

@Mister-Thanks for mentioning that. In fact, I now remembered that Nolan is a fan of Terry's work. I don't really see Malick in Nolan's films but thanks to the link you gave me. I can see where Malick's influence is in Nolan's work. It's in the story. I never thought about that.

Thank you. Man, I bet if del Toro, Nolan, Sofia Coppola, and other top directors got a chance to be on a Malick set. They'd geek out.

YX said...

"There Will Be Blood" is definitely a film that draws myriad inspirations from the films of terry malick (though obviously—obstreperously at times— its own thing). Kelly Reichardt shows a lot of malick in her films as well. I also feel her inspiration is more genuine and less filmschool-pretense as Gordon Greens style is. Either way, malick is the ultimate american filmmaker. not scorsese, not coppola, not spielberg. It is Malick that offered the most succinct and effective filmic rendering of american naturalism.

thevoid99 said...

@YX-I agree that Malick I think is right now the best American director working today. I wouldn't slight Martin Scorsese or Gus Van Sant since I think they've been making some very solid films in recent years.

I didn't mention P.T. Anderson as someone who is influenced by Malick though I did see it in There Will Be Blood. Not to mention that Anderson hired Malick's longtime production Jack Fisk for the film sets and I knew who did them. I'm a fan of Fisk's work.

As far as Kelly Reichardt is concerned, I've only seen Old Joy so I can't really say much about her though from Old Joy, there's elements of Malick is there as well.

Thank you for commenting.

YX said...

totally forgot to mention fisk on "there will be blood." the town is very much an industrialized extension of his 'days of heaven' work.

totally agreed on van sant, but i would have to say scorsese has stalled since 'last temptation' (though I have been really enjoying his output the last few years).

"and I knew who did them"


Anonymous said...

This was a great article for me to stumble upon. I still haven't seen a single Malick film (though I have picked up the Criterion case for The Thin Red Line too many times - the cover art is beautiful) and I'm looking forward to delving into his works.

I'm surprised that "Days of Heaven" is your first pick, only because that's the only Malick film I haven't heard much about. I'll have to check it out soon though!

And Tree of Life is going to be amazing. Have you ever seen a better trailer?

thevoid99 said...

@2006nzw-No, there isn't a new trailer but there is a new clip at

It's just truly jaw-dropping to watch.

Alfred Welles said...

I am a beginner when it comes to Malik's films. I haven't seen any yet. Probably the first one I will see is Tree of Life, though I may watch Badlands on DVD before then. Everyone seems to say great things about his films.

thevoid99 said...

@Alfred-It's ill-advised to see The Tree of Life first because since you're a newbie. You will have a hard time to watch a film like this. Since you have Badlands, watch that first instead and then watch the rest of his films before you see The Tree of Life.