Why I won’t be reviewing Terrence Malick
I have just walked out of To The Wonder. My stomach just can’t take that much sugar.
To be fair, I haven’t seen Badlands – but to date the only thing about Terrence Malick that impresses me is that he wrote Dirty Harry, and even then it was only the rough uncredited first draft. That must have been the draft where Harry Callahan dances arms stretched, a child like enthusiasm ricocheting through each of his sweet twirls, as the camera follows him like a panting lover. All I can assume is the violence and aggression were added at a later note directly in response to Malick’s draft, because lord knows he makes me feel like killing someone.
As I was rationalizing that I really must remain in front of this film and give the guy a chance, I was asking myself why I can sit through endless amounts of French abstraction, German obliqueness and Czech surrealism thrilled to the core with everything I see and yet I can barely get through ten minutes of Terrence Malick. I can’t see Tree of Life because the trailer alone sends shooting pain through my gut, and I feel exactly the same way about The Thin Red Line. Despite the same warnings for To the Wonder, I ignored my inner bullshit detector this time and decided to see his latest film. I was predictably sorry I had not listened to myself and exceedingly rare for me, I had to leave the film.
So, to be fair and to make some attempt at self examination, I will try to pin point why I do not think Terrence Malick can make good films.
At the start of To The Wonder, Olga Kurylenko is dancing around like an infant in front of Ben Affleck at Mont St Michel. The childishness is overwhelming to the point of being overbearing. After a few minutes we find out this woman is a single mother, and it is offensive to think that a woman with this much responsibility would also be this ridiculous, let alone the miscasting of Affleck as a man with whom any French woman could ever fall in love. He looks clumsy, silly, and completely out of place walking around Paris without a guidebook or a pocket translator. But so does Malick. And I think this is one of my problems. His films look like those terrible stories I was writing in my early twenties when, convinced of my own genius, I proudly sent them to The New Yorker who very kindly sent me a letter requesting I never send them anything again. Bad art is one thing, but naive art wrapped up in vainglorious self congratulating is sickening. It gives rise to a kind of anger that was the prompt for me writing this post. Malick doesn’t just disappoint me with poor film making. He aggressively attacks me with a refusal to accept me as I am.
I wrote a story the first time I went to New York City about the great stone lions at the foot of the stairs of the New York City Library. When I returned to Australia, I worked hard on the story, repaired its grammar, crafted it, changed it, rewrote and reworked it. Finally I gave it to my early-days mentor, a retired professor of literature from the University of Sydney. He read it, and with open disgust returned it and suggested I never touch it again and move on to something completely different. I was shocked at his obvious anger, particularly because he believed so strongly in me and was always my greatest fan. When I asked for some sort of clarification, he looked at me with anger in his eyes and said “My god. Have you ever even been to New York?” Seeing as I wrote that story sitting in the New York Library, I could not fathom what he was talking about. It took me years to understand my story was attempting to manipulate my reader. I wanted them to feel something, and so with all my innate genius, I used my story to ‘help them get something’. It is this feeling Malick causes in me when I see his characters at Mont St. Michel. The way Malick films it makes me think he has never been there. It was my absolute disrespect for my reader that enraged my tutor, and it is this same blatant self aggrandizing and superiority that Malick simply cannot hide from his films.
Art is collaboration with your witness. If you do not respect your reader and at the very least assume they are as smart you, you will cause huge justifiable offense. There are many directors who want to show us something, but very few pat you on the head. Haneke is a great example who has disdain for his witnesses viewing habits, but assumes great intelligence in his viewer. His films show he is trying to overcome himself. Malick is a seasoned film maker and a sixty-nine year old man for whom self examination has never been allowed to influence his film making because he is busy teaching others. He really should have gotten over thinking he can dupe us with greying washed out colors, foggy lenses, sparse dialogue, dusty voice overs, and faux spirituality alone. But Malick thinks he is oh-so-much smarter than everyone else in the room, and where these manipulations would be tawdry in the hands of anyone else, he thinks his genius lets him get away with it. This opinion of his is in every shot, in every line of dialogue, in every appeal to nature as the great symbol of untouched beauty and in every wide-armed embrace of ‘life’. Malick wants to teach you/show you/ reveal to you, and he patiently knows you are stupid and it will take you a long time to get it. And that is why I can’t sit through his films.