[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, January 6, 1999]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
Terrence Malick’s breathlessly anticipated return to the director’s chair The Thin Red Line rewrites the World War II platoon genre much the same way his directorial debut, Badlands, drove the ‘outlaw couple road film’ onto rarely explored backroads of the American unconscious. As the second ambitious war epic to emerge in the last year it’s bound to comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded Saving Private Ryan, which plunged audiences into the overwhelming carnage of D-Day before settling into a platoon film narrative.
for Mr. Showbiz, December 25, 1998]
Set the wayback
machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago,
written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have
not been available for years.
Few films have aroused higher expectations than The Thin Red Line, the first movie written and directed by Terrence Malick since he unveiled Days of Heaven twenty years ago. Days of Heaven contained some of the most rapturous and mysterious images ever to shimmer on-screen. What people have tended to forget is that it also featured characters who hovered between the inchoate and the opaque, and a narrative in which cause and effect were sometimes elusive even within the minimal plot. Those virtues and liabilities are both on abundant display in Malick’s latest.
Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, and Bruce Reid sat down at the Scarecrow Video screening room on March 11, 2016 to discuss talk Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, and remember Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), cinematographer on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Seattle-shot favorite Cinderella Liberty, and more recently TV’s The Mindy Project, and French filmmaker Jacques Rivette.
The Seattle Channel was there to record the event. It is now showing on cable and streaming via their website. Or you can see it here.
I recently watched two art films, one set in Hollywood, the other in Thailand, that take on meaning-of-life matters in strikingly different styles and stories. Terrence Malick’s KnightofCups and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s CemeteryofSplendor both take the form of pilgrimage by sleepwalkers and dreamers, drifting rather than driven toward unexpected or desired revelations: Knight tracks the progress of Christian Bale’s pilgrim (call him the sick soul of Southern California) whose privileged life sucks when it comes to meaning or purpose. In Cemetery, we wander through a numinous Thai landscape in the company of a serene soul (Jenjira Pongpas) whose world is slowly permeated and perhaps shattered by revelations.
Weerasethakul’s unforced, visually mesmerizing excursion into metaphysics makes KnightofCups look all the more pretentious, an airless exercise in aesthetic solipsism. Malick overloads Bale’s dream-quest with Portentous Signifiers, from allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’sProgress, that 17th-century best-seller about the journey of an Everyman in search of his soul, to the Tarot card that features a knight-errant who symbolizes new opportunities and change, unless he’s upside down; then all positive bets are off. Then there’s a solemn prologue, all about a prince who went off on a quest for a legendary pearl, only to fall into a deep sleep along the way. His father the king—Malick the director?–continues to send out signs and guides to provoke epiphany. Malick means to cast his hero’s journey in a strong mythic light, but all this philosophical footnoting fails to provide illumination in Knight of Cups.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Art, because it creates its own reality, can’t be self-deluding, no matter how “unreal” it may seem. What it can do is distort reality by rearranging life’s subject matter into new and unfamiliar forms. Thus, in Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first directorial project, Kit Carruthers’ personal fantasy is distinct from Malick’s artistic fantasy, although the two run closely parallel and indeed often seem inseparable. Kit (played by Martin Sheen) insulates himself within the brash shield of a James Dean tough-guy image to the point where, by the end of the movie, all he is concerned with is going out in style. Reality, for Kit, ultimately becomes irrelevant, just as, in a similar sense, our normal conceptions of what goes on in the world apply less and less to what we are seeing on the screen as the movie progresses.
One of the many beautiful women in the screenwriter’s life turns to him and says, “It’s time for you to tell me something interesting.” I suppose this line in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is included as a measure of the screenwriter’s empty world, his material success in Hollywood having come at the cost of spiritual blankness. But for a moment, the viewer might quicken to the possibility that something is going to happen in this movie—that the hero might say something definitive, or begin a story, or blurt out a need to visit the men’s room. But he will not, and the moment passes, as all the moments in the film pass—like sands through the hourglass, or tears in rain, or whatever other greeting-card profundity you want to offer.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
GravyTrain offers unlimited opportunities for self-congratulation to everyone in front of or behind the camera, and in front of the screen as well. Within that dubious category of experience it’s quite a satisfying show, as amply testified to by the raucous audience reaction during the recent Harvard Exit engagement. Stacy Keach and Frederic Forrest turn in thoroughly researched performances as a pair of West Virginia rubes who reject a life of digging coal and head for the Big Town—the iconographically unbeatable Washington D.C.—to open a seafood restaurant called the Blue Grotto. How to finance it? Why, with their share of the take in a low-comedy armored-car heist—except that the slickeroo mastermind from a bigger town, New York, crosses them up and disappears with the money. The Dion brothers (Keach and Forrest) finish out the film escaping from the trap he’s set for them, running the doublecrosser to earth, and shooting it out with him in a building that’s being demolished about their ears.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven seems made for Dolby stereo, in the way that certain films were made for Cinerama and not just in Cinerama. I was immediately struck by the film’s showy, deliberately unrealistic use of sound: left and right speakers cutting in and out, sound associated with an onscreen image coming noticeably from an offscreen location, bigger-than-life sound disembodied from its source in the frame. Indeed, Malick and Nestor Almendros have so tightly composed the frames of Days of Heaventhat this use of sound is the only clue that a world exists beyond the frame; and that suits the purposes of this big, stark movie, separating its private worlds from the larger world in which its characters dwell. The crisp, sharp photography, and Jack Fisk’s meticulous art direction, offer us a very tidy world, with the same keen-edged precision seen in the worlds of, for example, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Undiffused light seems not merely to illuminate the images but actually to define them. And the result is a world so precise as to seem frozen, as if in an album, or in a memoryâ€”which is, of course, what Days of Heaven is, and why its tidiness bespeaks a deceptive simplicity. The frame is filled with what the girl-narrator remembers, not with realistic re-creations of an era. No one actually seems to live and work in the rooms and fields of Days of Heaven;rather, people and the environment seem to coexist as elements of a studied harmonic compositionâ€”a composition we must see as the apprehension and re-ordering of reality by the girl’s remembering mind. The fact that the film depicts many scenes that the girl could not have witnessed only further justifies the stylized simplicity with which Malick portrays events that are necessarily more of the imagination than of history.