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Film Feature: Terrence Malick Retrospective

June 2, 2011 9:11 a.m.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando looks back on Terrence Malick's career.

Related Story: Rants and Raves: Terrence Malick


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM Radio Film Feature: Terrence Malick Retrospective
By Beth Accomando
Air date: June 2, 2011

Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" won the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last month. It's his first film in 6 years. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando has this look back at Malick's career.

MALICK.wav (3:53 with music out at 5:22)

(Tag:) Beth will host screenings of Terrence Malick's "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" on Saturday at the Reading [pronounced REDDING] Gaslamp Theaters. "Tree of Life" opens in San Diego on June 10.

After a six year hiatus, filmmaker Terrence Malick (MAL-ICK)returns to the screen with "The Tree of Life" starring Brad Pitt as a stern father.

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Nice, nice, harder. That's a great right. Let's see your left. That's the most important thing when you come in this way. Keep your guard up. Hit me. Come on hit me. Come on. Come on Jack hit me. Here it is. Hit it. Come on son. Come on. Left.

"The Tree of Life" opens June 10th but this Saturday there will be a retrospective of his films at the Reading (pronounced REDDING) Gaslamp. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando considers the work of this visionary filmmaker coming up later on Morning Edition.

Not many filmmakers are Rhodes Scholars who have taught philosophy at MIT. But Terrence Malick is. As a director, he's given us a mere 5 films in 4 decades. There's a 20 year gap between his "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line." Malick makes us wait but not because he's playing a game or trying to build media buzz. He just waits till he has something he wants to say. That's why we wait with baited breath for each new work by him.

Visionary is an overused label that should only be applied to filmmakers who imprint their films with such a distinct style that you can recognize their thumbprint in a single frame. Malick is a visionary filmmaker. Audiences were first introduced to him in 1973 with "Badlands," about a couple of kids that go on a killing spree in the 1950s.

Holly: We hid out in the wilderness down by a river in a grove of cottonwoods. It being the flood season we built our house in the trees. We planned a whole network of tunnels under the forest floor and our first order of business every morning was to decide on a new password.

The film is beautiful and detached, passing no moral judgment on the characters. There's a flatness to the film -- to the farmlands of middle America, to the performances, to Sissy Spacek's voiceover, and to Malick's tone. That's because he's not interested in building a conventional sense of drama or tension. Yet "Badlands" provides the most conventional linear narrative of all his films. Since then Malick has moved away from such structure while being drawn more to nature as is his young narrator in "Days of Heaven."

Linda: I got to like this farm. Roll in the fields. Talk to the wheat patches. When I was sleeping they would talk to me.

Malick is rightfully lauded for the breathtaking beauty of his films. He's as interested in filming such intangibles as sunlight and wind as he is in his actors. He uses images of nature to give his films a sense of transcendence. There's a distinct religious quality to his films as well, whether it's the luminous grace of Pocahontas in "The New World" or the destructiveness of locusts descending like a Biblical plague in "Days of Heaven."

CLIP Days of Heaven.

In all his movies, Malick displays a serene sense of assurance, and a firm insistence on making films his way. His films seduce us like one of Proust's Madeleines or like an expressionistic painting. But Malick also takes great care with the audio. In "Days of Heaven" the sounds of working in a factory drown out the dialogue in a way that makes us pay more attention to the images as we try to decipher what is being said.

CLIP Days of Heaven

In his new film, "Tree of Life," the music of Brahms drives the film as much as the plot.

Father: Brahms!

The seeds for "Tree of Life" were sown in the late 70s with a project called "Q" about the origins of life on earth. But during pre-production, Malick moved to Paris and disappeared from the public eye. This probably contributed to Malick being described as reclusive. But shunning publicity doesn't make him a recluse, it just makes him unique in a culture of shameless self-promotion. Part of his reticence to talk about his films may be because he feels they speak for themselves. Any ambiguity is there for a purpose: to make people think.

Welsh: In this world a man himself is nothing and there ain't no world but this one.
Witt: I have seen another world.

Whether it's the existential contemplation of war in "The Thin Red Line" or a meditation on love in "The New World," Malick's films often take root in our subconscious because we feel they elude our understanding. It's not that we feel he's unclear but rather that his cinematic poems may take a couple viewings for us to fathom their meaning. Malick's films challenge us when we are used to being talked down to. So when "The Tree of Life" opens next Friday, plan for couple viewings and being left with more questions than answers.

For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.