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Malick's messy, beautiful frontiers

At once exasperating and awe-inspiring, the sporadic auteur's films are like nobody else's. And that alone is worth celebrating.

January 01, 2006|Peter Rainer | Special to The Times

LIKE some fleeting cosmological phenomenon, the appearance of a new Terrence Malick movie always seems to augur a shift in the Hollywood heavens -- or at least that portion of heaven inhabited by cloud-borne cineastes. Now that Stanley Kubrick has passed on, Malick is the undisputed recluse/auteur of the film business, the director the most movie people would most like to work with if only they could find him.

"The New World," his new film about John Smith and Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony, is only his fourth in 32 years. That's the kind of statistic of which mystiques are made, and Malick's has held up surprisingly well. The question is: Why?

I think the answer has more to do with the idea of Terrence Malick than with the overall quality of his films. At 62, he is one of the most gifted directors of his generation, though even his most ardent enthusiasts concede he has yet to make his "Citizen Kane." But Malick remains the sole poster boy from that '70s era when it was still possible for idiosyncratic artists in Hollywood to make in their own way the projects that they truly cared about.

The directors he started out with, like Coppola and De Palma and Scorsese and Spielberg, long ago entered the mainstream, but here is Malick in "The New World" making very much the same kind of lacework movie he might have made in 1973, the year of his "Badlands" debut. He's been called the J.D. Salinger of movies, but Rip Van Winkle is closer to the mark.

The '70s, of course, was also the era when Hollywood directors were at their most self-infatuated. But not all the peacocks were poseurs. The good and great movies from that era -- ranging from "Mean Streets" and "The Godfather" films to "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Carrie" -- represented a triumph of artistic, not narcissistic, sensibility. They were made by directors with a new way of seeing, which was, in essence, a new way of imagining.

This is what many of us miss most from American movies now -- a visual daring that is at one with a daring conception. This lack is felt even in the so-called independent realm, which has been singularly unadventurous cinematographically and dramatically. Even a film as distinctly and personally shaped as "The Squid and the Whale" is nothing much to look at.

If there is a modern-day equivalent to the superstar auteurs of Malick's generation it would be Quentin Tarantino, and this is largely because, unlike most of the interchangeable functionaries and music video mavens making studio movies right now, his films are flagrantly his own. His relish for the sheer effrontery of moviemaking links him to the '70s even though beneath all the swagger in his films is simply more swagger. The vogue in this country for the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai is part of the same signature-style syndrome. Emotionally his movies are a dreamier and more ambiguously melancholy version of '50s Hollywood kitsch a la Douglas Sirk, but all that pretty patterning sure gives your eyes a show.

Malick may seem an odd duck in this current movie climate, but then again, he has never quite fit in anywhere. Unlike his contemporaries, he has never really drawn on popular sources of entertainment, even though movies like "Badlands" and "The Thin Red Line," at least thematically, have a long Hollywood lineage. Scorsese and Coppola may have been inspired by Visconti and Fellini, but their most obvious antecedents early on were American crime melodramas; De Palma raided Hitchcock; Bogdanovich raided Hawks and Ford.

Malick, by contrast, although he was part of the first wave of film school graduates in the early '70s, didn't seem to be reacting to or against anything in either the Old or the New Hollywood. He was a high culture guy in a mass culture medium -- a Rhodes scholar who once translated Heidegger -- and he didn't seek to overwhelm us with pyrotechnics. He was offering us a look into his own private dreamscape.

The signposts in this dreamscape have remained remarkably consistent from movie to movie, whether he is filming the Dakota Badlands or "Days of Heaven's" Texas Panhandle, or Guadalcanal or Jamestown. His great theme is the despoiling of Eden. "How did this horror enter the world?" asks a soldier in "The Thin Red Line" as guts spray the supernal vistas.

For Malick, nature's beauty, which he captures using only natural light, is defined by the depravity that will always seek to undo it. His films, which have been graced by the longtime collaboration of his production designer Jack Fisk and the cinematography of such masters as Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler and John Toll, are filled with breathtaking close-ups of animals and birds and insects -- creatures who are elementally connected to the terrors in the wild.

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