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Rants and Raves: Terrence Malick

Badlands’ and ‘Days of Heaven’ Screen Saturday at Reading Gaslamp

Brad Pitt stars in Terrence Malick's first film in 6 years,

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Above: Brad Pitt stars in Terrence Malick's first film in 6 years, "The Tree of Life."


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


Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (opening June 10 in San Diego) won the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last month. It's his first film in 6 years. I wil be hosting screenings of Malick's "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" on Saturday beginning at 4:30 pm at the Reading Gaslamp Theaters. Here's a quick look back at Malick's career.

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.

Trailer: 'Badlands'

Trailer for Terrence Malick's 1973 film "Badlands."

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."

Trailer: 'Days of Heaven'

Trailer for Terrence Malick's "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. In his new film, "Tree of Life," the music of Brahms drives the film as much as the plot.

Trailer: 'The Tree of Life'

Trailer for Terrence Malick's new film "The Tree of Life"

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.

Trailer: 'The Thin Red Line'

Trailer for Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line."

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.

I just want to thank Fox Searchlight, which asked their San Diego rep Stephen DeLizo at Allied if there could be a retrospective of Malick's work, and DeLizo for actually making it happen. It's great to expose people to Malick's earlier films before seeing "The Tree of Life."

Terrence Malick Filmography from IMDb:

Untitled Terrence Malick Project - rumored to be called "Burial" (2012)

"The Tree of Life" (2011)

"The New World" (2005)

"The Thin Red Line" (1998)

"Days of Heaven" (1978)

"Badlands" (1973)

"Pocket Money" (1972) - (screenplay only and as Terry Malick)

"Deadhead Miles" (1972) - (screenplay only)

"Drive, He Said" (1971) - (uncredited writer)

"Lanton Mills" (1969 short)

As Producer only:

"The Unforeseen" (2007 documentary)

"Amazing Grace" (2006)

"Undertow" (2004)

"The Beautiful Country" (2004)

"Happy Times" (2000)

"The Endurance" (2000 documentary)

"Endurance" (1999)

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