Opinion

Is Terrence Malick Overrated? The Answer is Yes.

October 15, 2016
12 min read

“Artistic masturbation” is defined, not unlike sexual masturbation as self-gratification, done to ones self for the pleasure of ones self,  the key word being self. In art, it is done for no one other than the creator, to satisfy them and no one else. It is self-indulgent, done with no audience in mind, done with no one else in mind except the creator, in this case, the director. In this case, Terrence Malick.

I do not bow down at the altar of Malick. I do not sit in awe at every frame of film the man has shot.

There was a time I admired Terrence Malick and his work. It was audacious, bold, even daring, but over the last few years has become horrible self-indulgent to the extent now what he is doing is artistic masturbation. I no longer look forward to his work, in fact I dread it, because it is going to be trying, and usually tedious. Actors are cut from his films entirely, often without it being discussed with him, displaying a shocking lack of respect for their artistry, and for the most part they are used as Hitchcock used them, like chess pieces. That reverence in which actors once held him is fast disappearing, Sean Penn leading the charge when he queried why he was even left in The Tree of Life (2011)?

In the seventies he was widely admired for his astonishing work, Badlands (1974), which has influenced a generation and more of filmmakers. The sparse yet powerful film, with electrifying performances from Martin Sheen (just stunning) and Sissy Spacek was based on the story of Charles Starkweather, who in the fifties for no known reason abducted a young girl off her front porch, killed her father, and went on a killing spree across Lincoln, Nebraska. True Romance (1993), Kalifornia (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), even Hell or High Water (2016) owe their roots to this superb film. His next work, Days of Heaven (1978) was widely respected though it did not work for me, resembling a series of postcards more than a film. Unlike Badlands (1974) the acting was pedestrian though again the cinematography was remarkable, winning the Academy Award.

It was twenty years before he made another feature — The Thin Red Line — though he ghost wrote several films and taught at MIT, and when he did it was as though Moses was coming down from the Mount after his long absence. Actors worshipped him, drop their prices for him, some offered their services free of charge going against their union rules. John Travolta saw his performance cut to two minutes, while George Clooney had maybe a minute at best. Mickey Rourke was cut altogether, and Adrien Brody at one time the lead had his part savaged. That said the film was a beautiful often poetic study of how war impacts both man and nature. With stunning cinematography and a haunting score it was well received by critics and earned seven Academy Award nominations, but was terribly over shadowed by the superior Saving Private Ryan (1998). It has its moments, and fine performances, Sean Penn shines (when does he not?) and Nick Nolte gives a throat tearing performance as a soldier who believes he is right. Elias Koteas was superb as the man defying Nolte, and John Toll’s cinematography captured the intensity of the Pacific heat and its lush green grasslands and jungles.

It would be seven years before another Malick film graced the screen, and when it did The New World (2005) was nothing like anyone expected. For me it his best film other than Badlands (1974).

The story of John Smith and Pocohontas, set in 1607, focusing on the difficulties of taming the land in Jamestown, Virginia the ferocious hardships of the winters, and the brutal manner in which the army wore its men down, it was less a love story than a historical epic. Beautifully shot, the star of the film is its cinematography, which captures the fern laden woods, the mossy forests in all their pristine glory. This must have been what it was to land in Virginia before the white man disturbed the country, building their forts and towns, and forcing the Indians further into their forests. Not once is the name Pocohontas spoken, it does not need to be, and the relationship between she and Smith does not feel romantic (from her at least), yet there is something binding about their connection, something forever about it despite her marrying another. They alter the courses of one another lives in every way, and the director captured that beautifully.

Audiences did not respond to the film despite strong reviews, and this film should have landed in the Academy Awards race, but did not.

Six years later, his The Tree of Life (2011) made the race. There are many, including our Editor-in-Chief, who believe this film is among the greatest ever made, a stunning work of art, yet while there are elements of that within the picture, there are moments it is terrible pretentious, horribly self-indulgent, yet oddly familiar to many in a certain age group, and sometimes downright breathtaking in its realism. Yes it confounds me, yes it frustrates me, but I cannot deny the beauty of it, nor the moments when it is transcendent.

I was born in 1959, so in many ways the film spoke to me and the manner in which I grew up in a blue collar family, with two brothers and a sister. My father was a much more gentle man, but my mother bore many of the same qualities as the mother in the film. The small town feel to the film was perfect and every detail seemed somehow locked in my mind and came to light upon seeing it. The performances were excellent, Jessica Chastain was ethereal as the loving mother of the boys, and Brad Pitt does some of his finest work as the hard father, who wanted to prepare his sons for the world. Like Sean Penn wondered to the press, I am not sure what he is doing in the film, or where his scenes went, or where the arc of his story went in the editing room? Penn’s scenes feel like a tack on, as though they were an after thought. The less I say about the creation of the world scene the better, for while beautiful, was it necessary? Or was that artistic masturbation? Was that self-indulgence at its worst?

I have seen The Tree of Life (2011) three times and will watch it again tonight because it is in my head again. It does do that, I cannot deny, it gets under your skin and you cannot shake it. Jessica Chastain is magnificent as the mother, grace, love and nurturing, while Pitt simmers with resentment and rage at never being able to get ahead for his family. The last ten minutes of the film are stunning, yet also confusing. Yet as confusing it might have been I could not take my eyes off the screen, it was mesmerizing. And the boys, the performances of the young actors portraying the sons, especially the middle child who teaches his older brother grace and love, recognizing in his sibling the war taking place for his soul.

Religion and spirituality plays a huge role in the film for two reasons, church was popular in the fifties, everyone went and everyone believed. Yet blind faith in anything would prove dangerous as the oldest son discovers, railing against his father, wishing him dead, until he finally realizes he is just a man, just a human being doing the best he can.

And finally death is there, the death of a sibling, a child, and it haunts the landcape of the film and the face of the child who will pass.

The Tree of Life (2011) was nominated for just three Academy Awards, Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. Ignored were the performances of Chastain and Pitt, though each were nominated for other films, the screenplay and the stunning art direction of Jack Fisk, which should have won the award. Nothing for its visual effects or sound, nor editing. It collected several awards with the film critics groups, Best Director for Malick from the LA scribes, but did not win Best Picture from any of them. It did take the top prize at Cannes, which we have come to learn stopped meaning much in the eighties. Emmanuel Lubezki has won the Oscar for Best Cinematography the last three years but his streak should have actually started in 2011 with his work on this film.

The pretentions of The Tree of Life (2011) for me are what prevents the film from being a full-out masterpiece.  Surely there is more to the Sean Penn story line, and I do not understand why a director, any director would cast one of the greatest actors of this generation would be so ill-used or not used? And yes, the scenes of creation, while breathtaking, serve no real purpose on the film for me. Before you attack, read that again, for me.

To the Wonder (2012) was among the worst films of 2012 for me, a self-indulgent, wasteful mess of a film. Image after image assaults the audience in place of dialogue, pointless shots of the sky, water, churning water, houses, faces, eyes, bodies, houses, horses, buffalo,, anything it seems the camera fell upon was shot. And one by one these images are shown to us. The actors, stripped of words, must have felt naked and vulnerable, and their director obviously did not trust them. He cut three of them, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen and Barry Pepper from the film entirely, leaving Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko with many close ups, but few words, and with a story like this, of love and lost love and hurt and pain, it would have been nice to know what they were thinking. Chastain is a fine enough actress to let us know her thoughts just with her face and expressive eyes, but Affleck doesn’t have enough acting ammoniations, though he has grown substantially as an actor through the years. He is one of those actors who needs a director, who needs guidance and without it flounders. Only Kurylenko comes out looking reasonable, using her body for her expression, though in a film that is at its heart impressionistic, I am not sure that works any of the time. We feel none of hurt, the love, the pain, of beginning or ending relationships, and how can we feel for anyone when we cannot feel their emotions? Remember what Chaplin accomplished in City Lights (1931) with the superb close-ups and body language? Malick does not even come close.

The film felt for me like a film school hot-shot flexing their muscles with something that might get the attention of his professors because he returned to cinema being a visual medium. For a veteran director, often hailed as an artist, it is a crushing failure.

Knight of Cups (2016) is a film about alienation but all it does, all Malick does is alienate his audience in every possible way. Once again he has some of the finest actors in the business, and once again he does so little with them they must have been wondering why they agreed to work with the master? Christian Bale is a Hollywood screenwriter with a penchant for having more than one woman on the go at a time and ending up in more trouble than he can handle. He was married to Cate Blanchett, who is brittle and impatient with him, impregnates Natalie Portman and is fooling around with Frida Pinto. Suffice to say his days are filled, but he spends his time pissing moaning about it. I have such little patience with wealthy people bemoaning their lives, when people who have everything are not grateful, I lose patience very fast. Glimpses behind the lives the lives of these sort of people can be fascinating as Tom Ford proved with his fine Nocturnal Animals (2016) due for release very soon, but when presented like this, it is a snore fest.

Once again we have a Malick film that is hopelessly self-indulgent, and a clear example of artistic masturbation at its worst. At what point do we consider him artful or arty? At what point do we give him up on him as a director? I have read comparisons with Kubrick that make me howl with laughter because let’s be clear, Kubrick might have been pretentious from time to time, but was never, ever boring, nor condescending to his audience, his films never put me to sleep, and To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2016) both did just that.

What is the point of a film that only the director is going to understand? What is the point of a film in which, clearly the director holds the audience in some sort of contempt as well as his actors, who commit to a project, do the work only to be cut entirely from the film? Has Malick become so full of himself, so intent on his own legend, that he floats above we mere mortals? I believe so and I for one am sickened by it

Weightless (2017), his next work is said to be experimental, which means I suppose we can expect more of the same. It is like a nightmare from which we never awaken.

Read More: The 10 Most Philosophical Movies of All Time

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