“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”
Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.
I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.
I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?
Ed Howard: You’re right, prior to this conversation I had only seen Days of Heaven, so I came to the rest of these films as an agnostic, aware of the two opposing and equally forceful reactions to Malick’s work and ready to be either awed or let down. Instead, I find myself thinking that there is room between the two reactions, or rather that there’s room to flow between them, to go from being awed one moment to bored the next, to vacillate between thinking that Malick’s distinctive sensibility is either sublime or silly.
In that light, I think one major reason that Malick’s films are so divisive is that they’re so nakedly emotional, that he’s so blatantly aiming for the sublime. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism. I admire and love all of these films to one degree or another, even though I never quite reach the level of awed transcendence that so many seem to find in Malick’s work. I’m saying that Malick aims high, that his films are often not grounded in storytelling or character—instead, his films drift almost irresistibly toward the clouds, toward the treetops, toward the allegorical implications of the basic scenarios he explores. Sometimes that drift sacrifices the human element in his films, so that the characters and their human-scale stories seem to fade into the beautiful landscapes, overlaid with larger allegories about human society and history as a whole.
All of which suggests a grand sense of ambition. Days of Heaven has a very familiar love triangle at its core, but it seldom feels like that story is the point so much as the larger thematic currents about WWI-era America and social hierarchies. The Thin Red Line is packed with individual characters, but the film is really not about any one man as much as it is about their common humanity in the face of mortality and the evils of war. The New World isn’t just—or even primarily—a love story but an allegorical fable about the origins of America and a deeply spiritual examination of the dialectic of progress and stasis. The point is, Malick thinks big, juxtaposing the transience and smallness of individual human lives with history-spanning events like the growth of a tree, the slow and unstoppable churning of natural processes. Maybe that’s why large, ancient trees are so important to Malick’s most recent films: The Thin Red Line begins with a tree, The New World ends with one, and a tree will presumably be at the center of The Tree of Life. A large tree, growing slowly over decades or even centuries, its roots stretching out into the earth even as its branches spread through the sky, is a perfect metaphor for Malick’s expansive perspective on life and death, those big-picture subjects that constitute the heart of his work.
JB: That’s true. And of course on a very basic level Malick’s tree shots evoke not just his themes but his tendencies. Malick’s films are famous for—or, in some circles, notorious for—their frequent observations of environment, which in most cases means observations of the natural world. In determining why Malick’s films prove divisive, it’s safe to start there, because there aren’t too many better ways for a director to be written off as pretentiously artsy than to point a camera at flora and fauna and observe them as something beyond mere scenery.
Malick regards nature with fascination and romanticism, replacing the metaphorical textual descriptions of poets with vivid celluloid images. He’s unashamed about his reverence, capturing creatures and plant life with the kind of closeups usually reserved for the productions of National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. In Badlands, we are shown branches and leaves, a gasping catfish and a big black beetle. In Days of Heaven, we stare into the husks of the wheat harvest and the tiny jaws of the locusts that devour them. In The Thin Red Line we encounter crocodiles, birds, a snake and a butterfly, all amidst a forbidding jungle. In The New World, it’s chickens, cattle, rivers, forests, storms and blue sky. I could go on. Malick presents such images with a deliberateness that makes many viewers uncomfortable, perhaps because nature is the stuff of poetry and poetry is the stuff of emotion and vulnerability. American audiences are accustomed to ogling cars, guns and cityscapes, but not nature. Nature in most American films is the stage on which the action happens. In Malick’s films, nature is part of the action itself.
Of course, nature in Malick’s films often feels like an observer of the action, too. That’s what you were getting at in describing the way Malick juxtaposes “the transience and smallness of individual human lives” with “the slow and unstoppable churning of natural processes.” In Malick’s films, man chops down nature to make his home. He harvests it to make his fortune. He hides within it to protect his life. He reshapes it to please his own eye. But he never fully conquers it. Nature is too big and too powerful for that, and only nature seems to know it.
EH: Exactly. If Malick’s films have one big overarching theme that runs through all of them, it’s the folly and ultimate insignificance of human ambition, and that idea goes hand in hand with the director’s loving depiction of nature as a stoic force beyond human control. That idea is present, certainly, in his first film, Badlands, in which the aimless young outlaw Kit (Martin Sheen) goes on the run with his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) after killing her father (Warren Oates), the first of many crimes they’ll commit on their meandering trek across a Midwestern American wasteland. Badlands is, I think, the one Malick film where the scenery and the allegory don’t overwhelm and de-emphasize the characters, but even here nature plays a big part in the film’s examination of Kit and Holly’s pointless rebellion. When they first go on the run, they stop in a remote forest clearing and construct a makeshift tree fort as their home. They live primitively, playing like children in the woods. Kit runs through the trees with his rifle held in front of him like he’s doing military drills. Holly puts on black makeup, drawing lines around her eyes like war paint, an image that Malick captures in closeup. The couple dance to rock music (Mickey Baker’s “Love is Strange”) on the radio, their feet shuffling back and forth lazily in the dirt.
If ever a sequence epitomized Malick’s view of humanity’s relationship to nature, this is it: people construct their buildings and homes, they play their games, they kill one another, as Kit does when some bounty hunters find the couple, and then they depart, leaving behind some trinkets and ruins as the only sign of their presence. Kit and Holly’s tree fort is filled with paintings and mirrors and other little mementos they’d taken from Holly’s father’s house before burning it down, and these things are simply abandoned in the woods, abandoned to nature and rot. Nature doesn’t care, just as it doesn’t care later in the film when Kit, thinking of posterity, fills a time capsule with some of the couple’s discarded junk and buries it for future generations to find. It’s an acknowledgment of the fleeting presence of humanity in the world, leaving behind only trash and ruin.
Maybe that’s why Kit is so driven by the desire for celebrity and recognition. The duo—but mostly Kit, since Holly, as she admits herself, is a follower: “he says frog, I jump”—commit crimes not for monetary reward but because they can, because they’re enamored of a romantic image of the outlaw and they’re happy to live out that fantasy for a while until they get caught. Unlike some of Malick’s later characters, who often seem as hypnotized by nature’s splendor as the director is, Holly and Kit are blind to the natural world around them on their journey. At one point, as they speed through the desert in a stolen car, Holly says in voiceover, “Kit told me to enjoy the scenery and I did,” but in the next shot she’s sitting sideways in her seat, facing away from the window, reading a celebrity magazine with James Dean on the cover, quoting aloud from an article about Kit and herself before moving on to celebrity gossip tidbits. As destructive and violent as Kit is, his biggest crime is perhaps his ignorance of his place in the world, his desire to be famous like James Dean. If Malick’s films repeatedly suggest that humanity is just a blip in the universe, then Kit is the Malick character who most explicitly struggles against that state of affairs.
JB: Well, that depends on how one views Kit, and I think we see him a bit differently. Kit’s desire for real celebrity might be within him, dormant, all along, but I don’t sense a genuine yearning for fame in Kit until he (1) realizes that he definitely won’t make it to Canada and (2) experiences what it is to be notorious, which doesn’t happen until very late in the picture when the helicopter tracks them down, finally giving Kit evidence of the manhunt he’s mostly imagined to that point. Sure, Kit models himself after James Dean. Sure, he wishes he had wealth, which usually comes with celebrity. Sure, he leaves recordings at Holly’s burning house and at the wealthy man’s mansion, which suggests he has a flair for the spotlight. But I think Kit is motivated by something simpler. I think he just wants to be recognized on a very basic scale, not necessarily one of celebrity.
That desire for basic recognition is something that we can trace back to Kit’s first conversation with Holly, when he finds her twirling a baton on her front lawn and tells her that he has a lot of things to say. Kit’s introduction could be interpreted as the statement of a man obsessed with celebrity, but to me he’s just a man in need of someone, anyone, to listen to him and recognize him. That, as much as anything, is the root of the violence against Holly’s father, because when Kit threatens him, even firing his gun into the floor to show he means business, Holly’s father doesn’t obey him, doesn’t hear him, doesn’t recognize Kit. Holly, on the other hand, does listen, which is why Kit likes her around. As you quoted already, when he says frog, she jumps. When Kit ultimately gives himself up to police and basks in the fascination of the small army that had been assembled to track him down, I don’t think it fulfills any desired end game for celebrity. Instead, the guy who used to thirst for any kind of acknowledgement finds himself drunk on previously unimaginable levels of attention. He really only craves celebrity once he finds it.
Still, I agree with you that Badlands, like each of Malick’s films, shows the “ultimate insignificance of human ambition.” But what’s interesting about Malick’s movies, and Badlands especially, is that Malick is sympathetic to man’s attempt to conquer new frontiers, even if it brings them nothing but trouble. Kit’s a killer—not naturally born but quickly matured. He shoots people in the back. He shoots them when they’re unarmed. He shoots Holly’s father right in front of her and barely blinks. But Malick seems to appreciate Kit’s need to find a place where he feels in control of his life, even if that control is only an illusion.
EH: You’re probably right that Kit didn’t start out seeking fame and notoriety. He took celebrity because that was what was offered to him in a life of very limited opportunities, but he probably would’ve settled for someone to accept him, for Holly’s father not to treat him as a joke and a loser. In that, too, Kit is not unlike his idol James Dean, a tough guy with a core of vulnerability, desperately yearning for a father figure to temper his hard edges. Kit seems to know that he’s no good, and that he’s stumbled into a fate beyond his understanding. “I always wanted to be a criminal I guess,” he says, “just not this big of one.” But once he gets a taste for his tough-guy persona writ large in tabloids and the popular imagination, he wants more. When he’s being chased by the cops toward the end of the film, he adjusts the rearview mirror and at first he seems to be looking behind him, trying to keep an eye on his pursuers, but actually he’s just adjusting his hair, checking his own image as though preparing to face death looking his best. He wants to make sure he looks good at his big final moment, to live up to his Dean-like aura. Later, after he’s been caught, all of the cops (implausibly) treat him with respect and camaraderie, and in their presence he becomes docile, humble, personable, very friendly and charming, like he’s just a decent guy after all.
That gets to the heart of what you said about Malick’s sympathy for his characters’ futile struggles with destiny and nature. Malick obviously does have some feeling for Kit, this cocky and aimless young man who increasingly allows his basest impulses free reign, seemingly for lack of anything better to do. Malick, sensitive as always to environment and atmosphere, almost immediately conveys the sense of a dusty small town in the film’s opening minutes, as Kit lazily goes through his garbage rounds, a job he obviously doesn’t care about and easily walks away from. There’s an emptiness to this town, as though Kit and Holly are the only ones in it at times. Their connection is intense but at the same time built on convenience, on the fact that a go-nowhere guy like Kit can represent adventure to a simple girl like Holly, while she can provide him with the acquiescent, worshipful attention for which he thirsts. The flat, empty land, so beautiful to look at yet so boring to live in, defines their lives, their opportunities and even their relationship.
JB: That’s a good observation. It’s certainly a peculiarly flat relationship, especially considering how eventful it is. While Kit kills, burns, builds, hunts, connives, drives, etc., Holly walks around in a kind of daze, disconnected from the events around her, or simply uninterested in them. In a way, she regards Kit as if he were James Dean himself, which is to say that she regards him like he’s a character up on a movie screen performing actions that she witnesses with intimacy but cannot touch or affect. It’s as if she knows Kit is a movie star before he does. And yet at the same time she seems to have no clue whatsoever that she’s in a runaway movie.
One of the film’s most memorable sequences is when Holly looks at some vistas and portraits in her now-deceased father’s stereopticon, the black-and-white images filling the frame while we listen to Holly’s dreamy and naïve narration: “It hit me I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was just a sign painter, and who had only just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought, ’Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me, or killed anybody, this very moment?’” She goes on to wonder what her future husband looks like, and if he’s thinking of her. “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land,” she admits, “but this never happened.” It’s a powerful scene because it shows Holly’s growing awareness of mortality—an awareness that’s taken the death of both of her parents to begin to set in—and because it unfolds with the haunting lyricism that is Malick’s specialty. And it’s an important scene because it shows that Holly isn’t emotionally aligned with Kit’s violence or even with Kit. But it’s also a slightly humorous scene, because even before Kit guns down the men who find their tree house in the forest it’s safe to assume that nothing in Holly’s future will ever be more eventful or fascinating than her present. The story she is living is the story she’ll be asked to retell for the rest of her life, and yet she’s completely disinterested in it.
Kit isn’t much more invested, really. The only difference is that he tries to convince himself that he’s having a good time. “We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there,” Holly says at one point. But then she adds, “Kit said that ’solitude’ was a better word, ’cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say. Whatever the expression, I told him we couldn’t go on living this way.” Explicitly, she’s referring to their life in the wilderness and on the run, but there’s a sense that these characters have always felt that way, that they have always found themselves adrift, that they’ve always been searching for some personal utopia. Again and again in Malick’s films, characters search and search for that dream, and in moments they even get close enough to see and touch it. But in Malick’s films, the harder one tries to find that sense of peace, the harder it is to grasp and retain.
EH: I find Holly such a fascinating character precisely because of the disconnection you’re talking about. She drifts along through the film, barely seeming to understand the significance of the events she witnesses. After Kit shoots his friend Cato (Ramon Bieri), a couple shows up at the remote cabin where Cato lives, and Kit takes them prisoner while Holly watches with an expression of boredom. While Kit leads the guy off at gunpoint, Holly meanders along behind them, chatting with the girl prisoner. The girl asks Holly what’s going to happen to them, and that’s when Holly says that it’s up to Kit, that she jumps when Kit says “frog.” The chilling implication is that Holly would be okay with whatever happens next, that if Kit wants to kill the couple she won’t much care, that these strangers can live or die and she’ll just go along with it, as she goes along with everything Kit does. She speaks so casually, strolling along with the girl as though they’re simply enjoying a nice day together. When Kit shoots through the wooden door of the underground chamber where he traps the couple, he wonders aloud if he got them, but Holly just shrugs as they run away. Dead or alive, it’s all the same to her. Afterward, she worries in voiceover that Kit is “the most trigger-happy man I ever met,” but that’s the full extent of her concern. She keeps emphasizing in voiceover how many opportunities she has to slip away or escape, but the thought never seriously crosses her mind.
Instead, she acts like a bystander—or, as you say, an audience member at a violent movie. The monologue you cite, in which Holly wonders about what her life will be like in the future, suggests that she realizes that her current situation is finite, that she is not going to spend the rest of her life with Kit. There’s no romanticism in her, and no romanticism in Malick’s portrayal of the murderous couple. There’s little passion between Holly and Kit, little real feeling even. After Holly loses her virginity to Kit, she hilariously wonders if that’s what all the fuss was about; she’s a hard girl to impress. She reacts to everything with the same dead-eyed nonchalance, which makes her both strangely funny and almost sociopathic. A great example is the darkly humorous exchange that takes place after Kit shoots Cato. “I got him in the stomach,” he says. Holly doesn’t even flinch, she simply deadpans, “Is he upset?”
Malick seems to be deliberately working against the romantic stylization of the outlaw in the American cinema and popular literature. Kit wants to be James Dean and Holly acts as though all the murders happening around her can’t touch her, and together they stumble from one atrocity to the next, not so much evil as oblivious; they’re amoral rather than immoral. The film’s one real romantic gesture is only ironically romantic: the couple’s final ride towards the mountains is accompanied by Nat “King” Cole singing “A Blossom Fell,” a sweepingly romantic but melancholy song with saccharine strings that provides a slick counterpoint to the impending sense of doom hanging over the couple. They’re obviously heading towards the end, one way or another, but the pop beauty of the music is undercut by the continuing disconnection of the couple. While Kit determinedly rides towards the mountains, pretending he’s heading for freedom but knowing it’s almost all over for him, Holly sits next to him, dispassionately narrating Kit’s fears and staring blankly ahead, as though she’s simply waiting for all of this to be over. She’s seen this movie, and now she just wants the credits to roll.
JB: Holly is an interesting character study, to be sure. She’s so docile, so detached, and yet somehow she’s almost more disturbing than Kit, given all that she can endure without emotion. (At least Kit has rage.) Sissy Spacek’s performance is all freckles and blank stares. Her delivery of the narration has an unsophisticated quality that suggests the woman telling this story is only slightly more aware than the girl who lived through it. Spacek’s performance isn’t the kind of heavily acted turn that draws acclaim, but it’s perfect for the part. As shocking as it is to see Holly kneel down next to her wounded father without a hint of sorrow or anger, Spacek makes Holly’s passivity wholly convincing.
And then there’s Kit, who inspires one of the best performances of Martin Sheen’s career. It’s hard to think of another character who seems so tightly wound and yet so at ease. I love the scene in which Kit goes into a small recording booth to provide his explanation of the shooting—his face shifting rapidly from coldblooded intensity to blasé calm. I love the explosiveness with which Kit swings the gas can around Holly’s house, and the way he runs through the forest as if performing military drills. I love the paranoid awareness he exhibits high up in his tree house perch, scanning the forest for intruders. I love how in one shot Kit will strut through the frame, chin up, chest puffed out, exuding confidence, and in the next shot he’ll shuffle into the frame with his hands in his pockets, his head down and tilted toward a shoulder, as if he feels ashamed, shy or awkward. The movies are always giving us complicated killers, but it’s rare to encounter someone so evenly contradictory. (Usually, a killer’s violent streak ultimately outweighs any counterbalance.) Maybe that’s because Kit seems to be playing a role, transforming himself into his image of a runaway killer, eventually checking his hair in the mirror to make sure it looks right. One of my favorite details in the film is Holly’s note that Kit always forges his own signature—a sign that Kit doesn’t know who he is. “It takes all kinds,” Kit says more than once in the picture. But what kind is he?
By the end of the film, Kit seems as confident as ever. When he was on the run, he felt trapped, but now that he’s caught and in chains he seems at peace, delighted that so many people are now giving him the attention he so desperately needs. He’s found himself, climbed fully into his celebrity criminal role. Holly, on the other hand, seems as lost as before.
EH: Speaking of “conflicted killers,” it’s hard to watch Badlands without thinking of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, the film that provided an enduring cinematic template for this kind of criminal-couple-on-the-run picture. Malick is not often thought of as a genre filmmaker, but Badlands clearly belongs to the lineage of films like Bonnie and Clyde and Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, films about criminal romance, road movies punctuated with both violence and love scenes. In making Badlands, Malick is engaging with and in some ways subverting this tradition, just as he’d later engage with the tradition of the war movie in The Thin Red Line. Despite the similar subject matter, Badlands diverts from the example of Bonnie and Clyde in countless ways, starting with the unsentimental, unromantic depiction of the two central outlaws. Malick has some sympathy for his antiheroes, as we’ve already mentioned, but he doesn’t romanticize Kit and Holly the way Penn does with his robbers and murderers.
Malick also engages much more deeply with the sexual dynamics of this story. Penn’s Bonnie (as played by Faye Dunaway) is alternately a tough, sexually aggressive bad girl and a needy, clingy co-dependent—two opposing female stereotypes that she veers between throughout the film—while Holly is neither. What makes Holly interesting is that, unlike Bonnie, she’s a passive spectator to Kit’s crimes and killings, and yet she somehow seems more her own agent, her own individual person outside of the couple, than Bonnie ever does. She’s passive and docile, yes, but her passivity gives her a weird sort of independence, the antisocial independence of a woman who simply doesn’t much care about anything.
JB: That’s an interesting way of looking at her, and I see what you mean. To simply call Holly independent would be misleading, because even though Badlands is told through her narration, everything she says and does is a product of Kit: she leaves with him because he says so, takes her school books because he says so, even reconsiders her own feelings because he says so (“Kit said that ’solitude’ was a better word, ’cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say”), and so on. But her ultimate indifference does individualize her to some degree: “the antisocial independence of a woman who simply doesn’t much care about anything.” Yeah, I think that’s right.
Your comparison to Bonnie is also a good one if for no other reason than because it leads us here: one of the things that makes Holly so peculiar is that even when she engages in stereotypically female concerns, she’s entirely unemotional about them. It’s unusual for female characters in movies to be unemotional in the first place, but it’s especially rare to see a female character so somber on the topics of love, marriage and sex. Holly talks about all those things at one point or another, and sometimes the words themselves seem passionate. But there’s no heartbeat behind those words. Holly flashes some flirtatious femininity the first time she meets Kit, and in that brief scene when they neck under the bleachers, but after that she regards him almost like a sibling. She’s unimpressed with her first sexual experience. She looks into the stereopticon and wonders about her future husband, which would be touching if not for the fact that she’s in the middle of a relationship when she does it. And as they escape north, she makes sure to note that it’s Kit who sees the mountains of Saskatchewan as a “magical land.” Kit’s the romantic one, not Holly. He’s the one who puts his devotion in writing and sends it off in a balloon. He’s the one who buries their possessions in the ground. He’s the one who makes Holly stop talking so they can dance to Nat “King” Cole. Kit is right: Holly is just along for the ride. And it’s unusual to encounter a female character on the big screen who is unsentimental and unfeeling not out of some feminist protest but out of absolute indifference.
But as far as unusual female narrators go, Holly is nothing compared to the one we meet in Malick’s next film, Days of Heaven. Depicting a love triangle on a Texas farm in the years leading up to the United States’ entry into World War I, Days of Heaven is narrated by a character who has both the naïveté of the young teenager she is and the worldliness of someone four or five times her age. Her name is Linda (Linda Manz), the younger sister of Richard Gere’s Bill, and she speaks with the vision of a poet and the broken vocabulary of an uneducated drifter. Her dialogue and narration demonstrate an obliviousness to the adult emotional warfare going on around her, and yet she also reveals an emotional connection to life’s big mysteries and underlying truths. In one scene she’ll describe the apocalypse or comment on the events on the farm as if she foresaw them. In the next she’ll interrupt a heartbroken friend who has been left by her boyfriend to ask about a scar on her ear. Like Holly in Badlands, Linda is both present within the story and beyond it, looking back. But unlike Holly she’s often commenting on events that seem to be beyond her line of sight. She’s an entirely unreliable witness, and yet somehow she always seems to stumble upon the truth.
EH: It’s certainly a very interesting style of narration, and it solidifies what would come to be Malick’s own distinctive approach to the voiceover, an aesthetic that would characterize all of his work. All of his narrators—Linda as well as the multiple narrators of The Thin Red Line and The New World—have that same mix of worldliness, naïveté and poetic grandeur. Linda, though, is something special. She has an illiterate, garbled way of speaking, an oddball accent that’s half urban tough and half rural drawl, which I suppose is appropriate for a Chicago youth who winds up spending a couple of years on a Texas farm. She speaks as though naïve, but one senses that she understands more than she lets on. She seems to have an intuitive grasp for the implications of what’s happening around her, even if she lacks the vocabulary—or maybe the desire—to express these feelings clearly.
When a small circus troupe visits the farm where she’s staying and puts on a show with comedy routines and silent movies, Linda narrates the scene with what at first seems to be another of her poetic non-sequiturs, a rambling speech about Satan and Hell: “The devil just sittin’ there laughin’. He’s glad when people does bad. Then he sends them to the snake house. He just sits there and laughs and watch while you’re sittin’ there all tied up in snakes that are eatin’ your eyes out. They go down your throat and eat all your systems out.” It’s a chilling speech, the meaning of which becomes clearer as the circus performance transitions into scenes of Bill whispering conspiratorially with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who, pretending to be Bill’s sister, has married a rich, lonely and ailing farmer (Sam Shepard) in order to become his heir. While the farmer watches, growing suspicious of his bride and her “brother,” Linda’s narration suddenly returns for one final thought: “I think the devil was on the farm.”
The devil, it turns out, is Linda’s brother Bill, who leaves the farm for a year after this scene and then returns, ushering in the fire and bibilical plagues of the film’s climax. Linda, though, is philosophical about it all. After the tragedy and destruction of this climax, all she can say is, “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just got half devil and half angel in you.” To me, lines like these suggest that maybe Linda is not as oblivious or childlike as she sometimes seems. Does she really not understand the emotionally charged struggle taking place between Bill, Abby and the farmer? Or is all her talk of the devil a way of shifting the blame away from the human mistakes of Bill and Abby and onto a metaphysical evil force that can’t be seen?
JB: I suppose the reason it’s hard for me to accept that Linda appreciates what’s going on around her is that we never see her act accordingly. Linda’s voiceover is wise and seemingly all-knowing, but Linda herself, the young girl on the screen, never has a moment that suggests she gets it. In fact, there’s evidence that she doesn’t. In one scene, Linda walks with her friend through waist-high wheat and upon being asked if she has any siblings, answers that she only has a brother, Bill. In another scene, she tells the nosy and suspicious foreman that her brother came from Chicago and worked in a factory. In some of Linda’s initial narration, she points out the dangers of gossip and the need to protect one’s self, and yet that wisdom doesn’t trickle down to her actions. Instead, she blithely provides information that threatens to blow Bill’s elaborate plan. The most awareness that her physical character displays is when Linda asks Abby, “Why are you doing this?” But given the elliptical nature of Malick’s films, we can’t quite be sure what “this” is. Linda can obviously see that Abby is forming a relationship with Sam Shepard’s farmer, but she doesn’t know why. It’s beyond her. Only in the voiceover does she seem prescient. A little later in the film, Linda narrates, “Sometimes I feel very old, like my whole life’s over, like I’m not around no more.” Indeed, her narration seems to come from beyond the grave.
Speaking of things past, what I love most about Days of Heaven is the way it captures a bygone age. The movie is set in a time in which so much of western America remains untamed, a sense that Malick creates in part with all those shots of animals that evoke the western frontier: buffalo, pronghorn, elk, pheasant, peafowl, rabbits and so on. But even more significantly, the movie is set in an era in which communities were actually groups of people rather than geographical places, as they are today in violation of the true meaning of the word. What begins with that unforgettable shot of grubby drifters atop a freight train riding to wherever they can find work becomes touching portraits of communal life on the farm. In one incredible left-to-right pan we see someone basting a huge piece of meat on a spit, two guys performing acrobatic tricks and a guy swinging a lasso above his head. From there we cut to a man reading a book, and then a father putting a hat on his young child sitting in the grass and then a shot of Linda tap-dancing with a man on a wooden door while a guy in the background plays the harmonica. These depictions are multiracial and multicultural, and they are not without strife—Bill gets into one fight, and later we see two other guys wrestling in the dust—but they are dominated by a sense of shared experience. These people are all out for themselves, but they are all in it together.
EH: That’s true, and that idea goes hand in hand with Malick’s examination of socioeconomic realities and social strata. The film isn’t only a precise evocation of a previous era, it’s about a specific way of life in that era, about the experience of the poor, the homeless masses drifting from one place to another in search of any menial work they can find. The opening credits roll over a series of period still photos of lower-class people, sepia-toned and grimy, fading seamlessly at the end of the credits into the images of the industrial district where Bill works at the beginning of the film, shoveling coal, his face spotted with ash. Malick brings a sense of poetic visual grandeur to the drifters’ train journey—that shot of the train, a thin black line against a pale blue sky, chugging thick black smoke in its wake, is stunning—but he still powerfully conveys the squalor and the frustration of this lifestyle.
As in all of Malick’s work, beauty and natural splendor coexist with human suffering, and that suffering coexists with more joyful emotions as well. This is not a simplistic depiction of the degradation of poverty—there are countless scenes in which Bill, Abby and Linda find pleasure in their simple situation—but class tension is a big part of the film’s substance. Bill and Abby’s relationship is strained by their material circumstances, by the fact that they have no steady home, no steady work. When the harvest is nearly complete at the farm, Bill begins talking about heading to New York, and when Abby asks why he simply says, “to be there,” to see what will happen next, what they can do to get by. It’s obvious that they’re growing tired of this aimless, unsatisfying subsistence living.
It’s this lower-class life, of course, that Bill wants to escape when he concocts his scheme to exploit the farmer’s desire for Abby. And when the scheme works, the difference in lifestyles is striking, as Linda enthuses in voiceover. “We never been this rich, alright? I mean we were just, we were all of a sudden livin’ like kings. Just nothin’ to do all day but crack jokes, lay around. We didn’t have to work. I’m tellin’ you, the rich got it figured out.” (And the defensiveness embedded in that “alright?” is perhaps another sign of Linda’s understanding of this situation.) It’s a depiction of class that more or less contradicts the idea of the American dream, which says that if you work hard enough you can succeed and thrive. Instead, the film’s image of class in America equates poverty with hard work and wealth with idleness and languor.
JB: There’s a detachment to wealth, too. Granted, there’s only one wealthy character in this film, so it’s a little dangerous to assume that Malick means for Shepard’s farmer to symbolize every wealthy person. But the contrast between the impoverished and the wealthy is so extreme in this film that it’s obvious Malick means to comment on that gap. Shepard’s farmer has everything in this film in terms of material wealth, but he’s lacking in every other respect. His house on the hill is beautiful yet lonely. His caring foreman loves him like a son, and yet his adoptive manner only underlines the farmer’s solitude. In one scene, the farmer is told that after that year’s crop he’ll be “the richest man in the panhandle,” but the farmer responds to that information by peering silently through a telescope, a symbol of his remove. The drifters in this film are forced to live and sleep almost on top of one another, but in that physical closeness there is an emotionally strengthening bond that the farmer lacks. Indeed, it’s as if the supposedly terminal farmer is dying of loneliness, because as soon as Bill, Abby and Linda help him to create a family, his health improves. Similar to the way that Linda’s narration seems more worldly than the actual character, it’s worth noting that for all the times we’re told that the impoverished workers are miserable, they rarely actually seem it (other than Bill, that is). They work these pitiless, backbreaking jobs from dusk until dawn, day after day, and yet they seem surprisingly content, probably because they have no other choice. The point is, although the film is most idyllic in scenes like the one in which the farmer, Bill, Abby and Linda play baseball together—those precious days of heaven in the film’s title—there’s never a point in this film in which we envy the farmer.
Having just mentioned the way the laborers work from dusk until dawn, I want to shift gears now to talk about the film’s cinematography, particularly its use of exterior light, because Days of Heaven’s exteriors are frequently cited by those who think that the stunning cinematography of Malick’s filmography is nothing more than pretty wrapping paper on an empty package. In a takedown of the film for The New Republic, which in the interest of full disclosure I must mention that I’ve never been able to read in full, Stanley Kauffmann called the film’s beauty “a lavish blanket on a coffin.” Then he delivered what Malick agnostics would consider the coup de grâce: “One sign of too-pretty photography is that nothing ever happens at midday, only early or late in the day when the light slants.” Malick is known for shooting his pictures using only natural light whenever possible, but his critics essentially suggest that these technically natural portraits and panoramas are nonetheless artificial, collectively if not necessarily individually, because they show the world in these fleeting moments of unusual splendor and suggest them as the norm. I have thoughts on this, but first tell me what you think. Is Malick’s filmmaking “too pretty,” and if so, what does that mean? Or are the charges that Malick’s filmmaking is “too pretty” fundamentally flawed?
EH: I think that Kauffmann quote is off-base. Malick’s work, though naturalistic to some degree, is not truly meant to be realistic, so his criticisms of Malick’s choices of shooting times ring false. I’ve often talked of directors whose aesthetics present a “heightened reality,” including the subject of our last conversation, Wong Kar-wai. Malick too is concerned not with reality as it is but reality as it could or should be: the sublime beauty latent in ordinary reality, teased out by his sumptuous photography. That’s why it’s banal to note that Malick’s films don’t contain any drab images, any moments where the light is less than striking. The artist’s task is to present his vision of the world, to display the world as he sees it, and it’s obvious that this is how Malick sees the world, that this perpetual magic hour bliss is Malick’s deeply felt perspective on the natural beauty of the world. To criticize Malick for the beauty of Néstor Almendros’s cinematography is to be blind to the heart of this film.
To me, a more valid point is that the extreme beauty of Malick’s imagery sometimes overwhelms the people who populate those images—people who are dwarfed by the wide expanses of the natural world. Badlands, as a character-driven story with two very distinctive antiheroes at its center, is an exception, but in the rest of Malick’s films, starting with Days of Heaven, it often seems like his characters aren’t fully fleshed-out people so much as they are allegorical constructs. That’s why the farmer—who doesn’t even get a name—can symbolize every wealthy person, or at least can symbolize the idea of wealth and success. The central love triangle is pretty flat and generic, and as I said in my original review of the film, “Malick has as much feeling for a wheat field shot at the ’magic hour’ as he does for an expressive face or a moment of tenderness between two people,” an opinion I still hold several viewings later.
To be clear, while I can see why some would be put off by the sense that foliage is as important as people to Malick, I don’t think this is really a bad thing—at least not in Days of Heaven. In this film, the beauty of nature, the allegorical ideas, the tension between the sublime and the prosaic: those things are the point. Of course the film is artificial, its beauty unearthly and surreal even though it’s shot entirely in natural light in outdoor locations. The cumulative effect of Days of Heaven is to suggest that human life in all its complexity is simply a part of the continuum of the natural world, which is why any individual story, any emotional drama, isn’t nearly as important or compelling as a particularly beautiful sunset, or a swarm of bibilical locusts raining upwards across the frame, or a scarecrow framed against an orange sky. Malick’s imagery is pretty, yes, but it’s not emptily pretty, which seems to be the real meat of his critics’ contentions.
JB: We’re pretty much on the same page here. The main reason I find many of the “too pretty” complaints tiresome is that they tend to do one of two things: (1) penalize Malick for daring to capture visual lushness in a visual art form; and/or (2) penalize Malick for daring to be interested in things beyond human-driven plot. Either of those complaints can be boiled down to this: Malick’s films don’t look like other films, and therefore there must be something wrong with them. Actually, to recall another of our conversations, the complaints against the beauty of Malick’s movies aren’t totally unlike the lavish praise heaped on Pixar, albeit from a different direction. In both cases, an arbitrary norm is set, and anything breaking from that norm is considered radical, for worse or better. Whenever I hear someone imply that Malick’s pictures are too pretty, I wonder why we aren’t demanding that more films look this luscious, because while it’s certainly true that Malick’s films have a preponderance of striking natural images, for the most part it’s the quality and quantity of these images that set Malick apart, not the subject matter. For each jaw-dropping shot, like a cloud of locusts swirling overhead, there will be two fairly straightforward shots, like an orange sky over the horizon—the kinds of shots that even average filmmakers employ, just not as gloriously or frequently. Malick’s sin is repeatedly taking our breath away with compositions that in another filmmaker’s hands would be mundane.
You’re absolutely correct that one of the reasons people are turned off by Malick’s attention to nature is that it’s unusual to see a filmmaker as interested in the natural world as in his human characters, so it’s important to think about why that is. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that nature has thematic significance in Malick’s world. Part of the reason is that Malick emphasizes emotion over plot. But just as significant is this: most filmmakers use exteriors to do little more than establish a physical location for the action. In the average film, exteriors are spaces between the words, or at best punctuation. In Malick’s filmography, exteriors are the words themselves. It’s an unconventional approach, sure, but hardly an empty one. When I hear that Malick’s films are too pretty, I can’t help but think of times that writers or speakers are criticized for being too eloquent, too well spoken, too educated. Implied in such charges is pretentiousness, and the same is true here. And yet the irony is that critics don’t imply that Malick’s images are beyond his audience—as if he’s using big words that require a dictionary. They imply that his images have no meaning at all.
Does a noticeable portion of Days of Heaven occur in the magic hour? Certainly. But it’s also true that, thematically speaking, Malick’s film lives on the fringe of light and darkness. The magic hour is as appropriate here as midnight is to film noir and rainstorms are to tragedies. Malick means to suggest the smallness and insignificance of these characters, and he does so by suggesting the enormousness and magnificence of the world around them.
EH: What you say about Malick’s nature imagery being more than simple establishing shots definitely resonates. Malick’s approach to nature and scenery aligns him much more closely with the avant-garde than with the conventional mainstream, narrative-focused filmmaker. After Badlands, Malick has seemed less and less interested in narrative and character, and more and more interested in capturing moods, examining themes, and, especially, in displaying beauty for its own sake. There’s also a very obvious spiritual/religious component to the relationship between humanity and nature in Malick’s work. There are explicit references to fire-and-brimstone Christianity in Days of Heaven, but Malick’s religiosity is not limited to any one denomination: it’s more a general embrace of the otherworldly implications of the world’s beauty and strangeness. Watching stalks of wheat waving in the wind, one feels the presence of something other, something beyond the human scale. Even for an atheist like me, Days of Heaven is a spiritual experience, one that doesn’t require any specific belief or devotion to a particular god so much as a general awe at the things in the world that defy humanity’s sense of control and mastery.
That’s why a sense of scale is so important to Malick, and also why he’s tended to move more and more away from traditional narrative. Traditional narrative demands human agency, and Malick is more interested in the lack of agency. The locusts simply appear one day; one moment everything’s tranquil and beautiful and the next moment there are bugs placidly perched on every surface. Malick’s characters are often unable to make choices for themselves, instead drifting through life, letting things happen to them. Bill and Abby make one big choice that does irrevocably alter their lives, but the focus of the film is on what can’t be controlled, on the forces—whether economic or natural—that operate far beyond the level of individual human dramas. Malick’s later films, after the 20-year break separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line, have worked on this level even more, whether their themes are the relentlessness of history and progress as in The New World or the eternal destructiveness of human wars in The Thin Red Line.
In Days of Heaven, despite Linda’s earthy voiceover, the film’s perspective seems almost godlike and omniscient, the slightly disinterested viewpoint of a being for whom human affairs are only a single piece of a far larger puzzle. The camera is easily distracted from the people within the frame, and when the locusts arrive Malick’s camera tracks in to watch the insects nibbling at the stalks of wheat, their eerie eyes staring into the lens, ready for their closeup. Not since Saul Bass’s Phase IV have insects had so much personality and agency—and the human characters so little.
JB: I’m so glad you brought up Phase IV, because I suspect that’s precisely the kind of movie that some people think of when they encounter those locust closeups. You meant no disrespect in comparing Malick’s use of insects to that 1974 sci-fi horror film, but those befuddled by Malick’s filmography would likely see the similarities as damning, because just like most of the exteriors we encounter at the movies are mere establishing shots, most extreme closeups of insects at the movies are playful gags, the stuff of Phase IV or Them!. Through such fantastic films, Hollywood has conditioned us to be amused by such images, and the truth is that even without Phase IV or Them! we’d likely be a bit amused anyway, because individual locusts aren’t majestic creatures; there’s something inherently goofy about seeing such miniature creatures filling up almost every inch of the big screen—which of course is the root appeal of Them! and Phase IV in the first place. The point is, when a Malick agnostic sees an extreme closeup of a locust munching on wheat, he probably thinks Malick has given undue attention to the insignificant, when in fact Malick seems to be trying to suggest that these insects that destroy the farmer’s crop are no more insignificant than the humans who tended to it. That’s a strong statement that I think many viewers aren’t willing to consider. To them, the insect shots must play like unintentional punchlines.
If Malick used only extreme closeups of insects to get his point across, I’d be more understanding of those who feel that such shots are random or empty. But Malick finds several ways to suggest the insignificance of his human characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. For example, twice in this film reminders of the outside world make their way into the idyllic setting: first when President Wilson’s train blows by on its whistlestop tour, and then when the circus comes to town on two small propeller planes. Both events suggest just how removed the farm is from the real world, which in turn makes it clear that the love triangle that’s of the utmost importance to everyone on the farm is entirely inconsequential to anyone beyond it. It’s not that Malick doesn’t care about these individuals. He just never loses sight of the bigger picture.
EH: That’s exactly my point. And I definitely did not mean the Phase IV comparison as an insult, in part because I don’t see Bass’s film as goofy. (Okay, I admit it’s goofy—but it’s also haunting and idiosyncratic and thematically consonant with Malick’s vision of the world.) It’s another good example of a film that dares to put the focus of the narrative on non-human presences, with the ants, oddly enough, being far more charismatic and interesting than the humans trying to destroy them. Malick doesn’t reverse the equation that thoroughly, but as you say, his emphasis on nature—on both the macro level and the micro level—is only part of his general interest in the way things fit together beyond the immediate story. That’s why it makes sense that Malick’s next film, The Thin Red Line—which appeared after a gap of 20 years during which the director didn’t make another movie—would further submerge stories and characters into the overall mood, fragmenting the solitary narrators of Badlands and Days of Heaven into multiple voices, all telling their own stories without any one being more important than the others.
As I mentioned earlier, Malick’s third film represents the director engaging with genre. This is a war movie, but as though to assure viewers that Malick’s sensibility hadn’t changed during his long absence from the cinema, it doesn’t start like a war movie. Instead, the film opens with an idyllic sequence on a tropical island, where the military deserters Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Train (John Dee Smith) spend their days swimming in the clear blue water, lounging beneath waterfalls, and watching the islanders go about their languid days. They play with the islanders’ kids, admire the natural beauty of the land, and listen to the beautiful choral music of the Pacific islands as the native people sing and clap in unison, joy in their faces and in their voices.
The peacefulness and natural splendor of this sequence—so typical of Malick’s style—is only interrupted by the sinister arrival of an American warship, glimpsed through the trees, the same way the ships of the arriving pilgrims would disturb the tranquility of the beginning of Malick’s next film, The New World. That’s a recurring theme in Malick’s work, with human presence appearing as a threat, a disruption, a tear in the fabric of the natural world.
JB: That’s a perfect way to put it. Over the course of The Thin Red Line, we watch that tear go deeper and deeper into Guadalcanal—over beaches, up hills, through jungles, down rivers. And for what? The Thin Red Line isn’t politically anti-war, by which I mean that there’s nothing in the film that suggests that the Battle of Guadalcanal was purposeless or criminal. Malick may not go so far as to portray it as a heroic or just war, which of course is the mood of Steven Spielberg’s World War II picture Saving Private Ryan, which came out that same year, but he doesn’t imply that it’s an unjust war either. In fact, Malick is almost sympathetic in regard to the enormity and irrepressibility of World War II’s momentum. Nick Nolte’s Col. Tall is a Homer-quoting maniac in one scene, and a guy for whom drinking water is considered a luxurious indulgence in another, but Malick traces Tall’s insensitive tunnel vision for militaristic conquest back to his superior officer, a brigadier general played by John Travolta, who before giving Tall his orders looks at Guadalcanal and wonders what on earth the Japanese army is doing there: “Why do the Japs build an airfield there, of all places? I guess we don’t know the bigger picture, do we? If there is such a thing.” Travolta’s Quintard has no interest in bringing war to Guadalcanal, but there’s where the enemy is, and that’s where the fight has to go. He has no choice. War expands like the roots of one of Malick’s mighty trees; that’s its nature. But while Malick doesn’t offer political objections to this or any war, he does offer spiritual ones. The damage done to the tranquil island speaks for itself while also serving as a metaphor for what’s happening to these soldiers.
Malick’s decision to divvy the narration amongst more than a half-dozen characters, including a dead Japanese soldier and an American soldier’s wife back in the United States, may be one of the most divisive and controversial of his career. In the least it’s an unusual approach: movies rarely have this many narrators, and when movies do have narrators they tend to be main characters who hang around for the duration of the picture. Malick breaks that trend, giving voice to whomever he sees fit, at whatever length he feels appropriate. Beyond that, Malick isn’t always explicit about who’s narrating. Numerous times in the film, we hear the voice of a narrator quite a bit before Malick gives us a shot that connects the voice with a character, and other times Malick will throw in a line of voiceover with almost no visual connection whatsoever. In most cases it’s possible to make these connections ourselves, on the basis of accent or context, but even the most keen-eared and attentive of first-time viewers will likely find the array of voices dizzying, which is clearly just fine by Malick, who means to have these words, thoughts and emotions overlap one another like the leaves in a jungle canopy. “Every man fights his own war,” reads the tagline on the poster for this film (which, by the way, has decorated the living room wall of every place I’ve lived since college), and that’s what this split narration suggests: each voice is reaching for the light, desperate to be heard. Personally, I love this approach. But I certainly understand why people find it frustratingly disorienting.
EH: I have to say, the use of multiple voiceovers, though thematically appropriate to what Malick means to accomplish here, is one of the choices in this film that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. At the beginning of this conversation, I admitted that I can’t quite join you in the choir of Malick true believers, even though I admire and enjoy much of his work. And the problems I have with Malick’s work, which were miniscule quibbles in his generally excellent first two films, become much more insistent when I’m talking about his later career. I find The Thin Red Line a frustrating film, at times almost unbearably moving, and at other times equally unbearable in its over-the-top poetic aestheticization. Malick’s verbal stylization was easier to take, for me, in Badlands and Days of Heaven, where the narration was tied to a single distinctive voice, a single personality. Here, there are multiple voices, all of them spouting poetry in effusive Malick-speak, and the plenitude of different voices and accents blur together. Rather than feeling like different narrators speaking their individual minds, it feels like all of the film’s narrators are simply taking turns reading from the same larger text, a text provided by Malick and the author James Jones, whose novels The Thin Red Line and From Here To Eternity Malick is adapting and quoting.
Maybe that sensation of sameness is purposeful. At one point, one of the narrators (I think it’s Witt) says that all of humanity shares a single soul, that different faces and bodies are merely surfaces disguising the essential oneness of the world’s people. That’s a beautiful sentiment in one way, but from another perspective it seems like Malick is de-individualizing his characters, subsuming them into the larger mass of humanity. He wants to deal with humanity as a whole rather than as individuals. That tagline, “every man fights his own war,” sounds good but I’m not convinced that it actually applies to the film. The individual voices of the soldiers are tangled together to such an extent that the individual man often ceases to matter, especially since the dialogue other than the voiceovers tends to be fairly minimal. Quintard and the soldiers beneath him may have no grasp of the bigger picture, but the bigger picture—meaning the nature and philosophy of war—is precisely what Malick is interested in examining here. He’s chasing after the “great evil” of war, the mystery of why men kill and maim each other like this, but I’d argue that in focusing on the big picture he doesn’t zoom in often enough for a glance at the details.
JB: Interesting. I understand how you get to where you are, and I’ll concede that the tagline can be used by the film’s detractors as well as by its supporters, but the way I see it, both things are true: Malick is recognizing the multitude of individual responses while also throwing them together in one giant tangled mass. At the risk of giving the tagline undue attention, what I love about it is that it can be read at least two different ways: one is to take it as a reminder of every human’s personal struggle regardless of subject and/or context (war, relationships, mortality, religion, etc.); another is to take it as a reminder that actual physical wars are won and lost by masses of individuals who are at the center of their own universe. I understand why people watch The Thin Red Line and think that the individual is lost in Malick’s embrace of the collective, but I see it differently. I see Malick doing his best to make us feel the impact of each individual life equally, to not feel for one soldier’s fear or death above another’s, to see these guys not as heroes but as humans. He doesn’t completely achieve this, of course, because Malick does “develop” (relatively speaking) the characters of James Caviezel’s Witt, Elias Koteas’s Staros, Sean Penn’s Welsh and Ben Chaplin’s Bell, whereas other characters are nothing more than names (Jared Leto’s Whyte, for instance), and many other characters even less than that. But in spirit I think he gets there.
Some of the most tragic images in the film come from characters we hardly know: there’s Woody Harrelson’s Keck accidentally killing himself with a grenade and using his dying breaths to plead to the guys around him to write a letter to his girlfriend; there’s Adrien Brody’s Fife, who walks around with a scared-shitless expression on his face for the entire film; and there’s Nick Stahl’s Beade fearfully rambling to Welsh shortly before they invade the shores of the island. To a somewhat lesser yet nonetheless powerful extent, there’s also the scene when Leto’s Whyte gestures an order for two soldiers to run up the face of the hill toward a hidden enemy only to almost swallow his gum when both men are quickly and unremarkably shot down: pop-pop, pop-pop. I could go on, but to me the grace of The Thin Red Line isn’t the eloquence of the narration. It’s the fact that when I think of tragic moments in this film I think of the fates of the characters I hardly know. As the dead Japanese solider puts it in his brief voiceover: “Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too.” As the voices overlap, yes, the individualism of the characters fades away, but it is replaced by a powerful feeling of commonality, a sense that, as you said, they share a single soul. It’s that soul we get to know, until it reaches the point that Witt isn’t just speaking “over” the other characters on screen but for them. Is the language poetic? No question. But even if this narration is less individualized than Holly’s in Badlands, it really isn’t too far removed from Linda’s in Days of Heaven. The language is poetic because it’s spoken by the soul, expressing the feelings that the men couldn’t articulate on their own. I realize that must sound like an effort to rationalize Malick’s approach, but that’s just how it hits me.
EH: That’s fair enough, and I should stress that, at its best, I do feel like the film achieves the balance you’re talking about, where each life is weighed equally, each story given its due. At one point, Malick cuts away from the battle, from the dying men and the chaos, to show a scruffy bird trying to struggle to its feet amidst the thick roots at the base of a tree, another of his many visual assertions that mankind’s place in the world is shared equally by other animals, by flora and oceans and dirt as well. In another scene, a soldier lying on a hillside gets momentarily distracted, during a lull in the fighting, by a tall stalk of grass in front of his face. He runs it between his fingers, mesmerized, the blood and bullets forgotten in his awe at this simple sign of nature’s beauty. Malick, one senses, sees himself in this soldier: awed by the world, even when all around this moment of quiet contemplation, men are killing and dying. In a later shot, as the soldiers charge, seen from behind, indistinguishable from one another as they often are, a bright blue butterfly flickers across the frame behind them, a flash of brilliant color that’s a startling contrast against all the monochrome green of the grass, the trees, the uniforms of the soldiers.
Such moments suggest that Malick is unwilling or unable to ignore the beauty of the world even when everything seems grim and horrible. One of the voiceovers, recalling the shot of the bird whose weak-legged struggles had paralleled the dying soldiers, delivers a parable: “One man looks at a dying bird and sees nothing but unanswered pain. But death gets the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man looks at that same bird and feels the glory, sees something smiling through it.” That’s Malick at his best right there, the man who looks at the dying bird—or the dying soldier—and sees not only the anguish but the beauty, the poetry, the spiritual fulfillment.
This is a challenging, ambitious thematic focus for a war film, so it’s no surprise that sometimes Malick’s poetry comes across as maudlin rather than moving. At times, his emphasis on the communal rather than the individual leads to clichés—perhaps inevitably, because what are clichés but generalizations about large groups of people? The most cloying scenes in the film revolve around Marty (Miranda Otto), the wife of the soldier Bell, seen in the soldier’s dialogue-free flashbacks to his idyllic married life back home, and heard in voiceover when she writes her husband a letter. The flashbacks are inoffensive, sensual but rather empty, generic depictions of the soldier’s longing for his woman’s company, but the wife’s letter is one of the most eye-rolling moments in a film that frequently flirts with over-the-top emotionality. In typically Malickian florid language, she tells her husband that she is leaving him for another man, then says, “Oh my friend of all those shining years, help me leave you,” to which I can only respond, “Oh, brother!” At times like this, I’m thankful that so much of The Thin Red Line glides by without dialogue, even as I wish that perhaps he’d trimmed a bit more of that overblown language to focus even more intently on the wordless splendor and raw emotion he’s so adept at capturing.
JB: Oh, Ed! The storyline between Bell and his wife might be my favorite in the film, and her letter is a powerful conclusion to it. It’s a storyline that Malick constructs effectively over the course of the film through installments that might seem ephemeral individually but that enhance one another in the collective experience. Near the end of the film, in a summation of everything we’ve seen, Penn’s Welsh reflects via narration, “Only one thing a man can do: Find something that’s his. Make an island for himself.” That’s precisely what Bell is trying to do with his wife. She’s more than the person he loves. She’s his sanity, his inner peace. Even more than that, she’s his hope, the tool he uses to convince himself that he can come out of this war the same man who went into it. “I want to stay changeless for you,” Bell says in a moment of dreamy narration, imagining his wife. But it’s clear that he needs to stay changeless for himself, too. He clings to her memory in a desperate attempt to feel that his true self isn’t so far away.
Bell’s flashbacks or fantasies about his wife are captured in some of the most evocative shots in the film. There are the shots of Bell’s wife in a yellow dress on a swing, repeatedly drifting away to the far corner of the frame, and then swinging back into crisp focus, as if suggesting the difficulty Bell has fully conjuring his wife’s face in his memory after so much time away. There are the shots of his wife in a blue dress wading into the water at a beach, as if symbolizing the physical gap between them. And there are repeated shots of curtains blowing gently in the breeze of their open bedroom window, as if suggesting that his wife feels his distant presence somewhere out there, far away. Just before Bell reads the letter from his wife, Malick gives us a shot of his wife sitting up in bed, looking out that window, clearly thinking about him, and it’s only in the final moment that we realize that there’s another figure in the bed alongside her. Through that simple shot, we feel the devastation before Bell does, but we also sense his wife’s genuine affection for him, a sense that, yes, she’s with another man now, and, yes, probably in love, but that if she had the power she would have kept Bell from leaving her in the first place.
“Help me leave you.” I can see why that strikes you as maudlin, but that line slays me. It captures an emotion that I think happens frequently in life but that rarely makes it up on the screen: that awful point at the end of a failed relationship when one suddenly realizes all that they’ve shared and lost. Granted, it makes it up on the screen in this case because Malick allows it to be explicitly stated, and that opens the door for charges of excessive sentimentality. But I think the emotion is earned.
In that sequence when Bell is talking about remaining changeless for his wife, clinging to his love for her as his internal truth, longing not just for a physical closeness but an emotional one, part of the narration unfolds like this:
How do we get to those other shores? To those blue hills?
Where does it come from?
Who lit this flame in us?
For me, that’s one of the most lyrically effective sequences in all of Malick. The word “Love” operates not only as the answer to the first portion but as the beginning of the second. It’s beautifully poetic in its own right, and it complements Malick’s visuals, as Bell stares over an expanse of water and imagines being intimate with his wife. Malick does “wordless splendor” as well as any filmmaker. And, for better or worse, he does “overblown language,” too. I will grant you that sometimes the latter simply makes one long for the former. But some of the rawest moments in Malick come from those (potentially) overblown words.
EH: I wish I felt the emotion of the Bell plot as intensely as you obviously do, but for the most part it feels too melodramatic and overly familiar to really touch me, though there are plenty of other sequences in The Thin Red Line that I find incredibly powerful. I do like that narration about love that you quote, especially since the phrasing of it mirrors the similar narration in which Malick’s characters ask where the “great evil” in the world comes from. As one man wonders why the world is so full of cruelty and pain, another wonders about the possibility of love and connection: both extremes are equally mysterious, like so much about the human heart and soul. That symmetry is very Malickian, that idea that human behavior is ineffable whether motivated by love or by hatred.
That’s why my favorite thread in the film is arguably the best representation of that dialectic, the story of the soldier Witt, who is the closest the film comes to a central character. Witt is the innocent at war, a man whose inner serenity allows him to retain his decency and innocence in a way that puzzles and frustrates his superior officer, Sean Penn’s Welsh, who knows that he’s been changed and damaged irrevocably by the war in a way that Witt seems to have avoided. After the American soldiers storm the Japanese camp, Witt plays with his canteen, letting water stream over a large curved leaf, watching the path of the water across the surface of the leaf. As he stares into the reflective surface of the small pond that the soldiers are clustered around, he thinks back to his time as a deserter, and his memory burbles up into the film like bubbles emerging from the depths of the water. The beautiful vocal-and-clapping music of the South Pacific islanders fades in on the soundtrack as he remembers bathing in a waterfall or watching the islanders with their canoes.
That music—so sweet and heartfelt and wonderful—returns several times as a symbol of the innocence and tranquility that Witt found at the beginning of the film. The film ends, after Witt’s death, with a series of peaceful shots that might represent his soul’s path back away from the battle, away from the war and its horrors. An islander in a canoe drifts slowly along a river, heading from a small open body of water into a narrow stream surrounded on all sides by the dense darkness of the jungle. A pair of parrots groom one another’s feathers. The ocean rolls up towards an empty beach, the waves pouring over a small rock with a few shoots of green leaves sticking up out of the water. And then, as the image fades to the black of the credits, the singing of the islanders returns to the soundtrack one last time, so that the film both begins and ends with innocence and beauty. In between these spiritual, moving bookends, there is a great deal of violence, noise and chaos, but in the end Malick suggests that the horrors of the war can be enveloped by a natural order that encompasses both the best and the worst of the world and of humanity. Witt, it seems, understood that, intuitively at least, while Welsh and most of the other soldiers do not.
JB: Witt is certainly the soul of the film, but I find myself wondering if perhaps Welsh is the stand-in for Malick. I know that seems like an odd choice. After all, Malick’s films are overflowing with awe for the natural world, and The Thin Red Line, with its numerous shots of a heavenly light penetrating the jungle canopy, is filled with a heightened spirituality that would indicate that Malick’s heart beats within Witt, the guy who finds beauty in everything around him. But maybe not. Maybe Witt is Malick’s ideal, his hero, something he aspires to be but cannot reach. And, thus, maybe Welsh is him. Early in the film, Welsh tells Witt, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing.” In the middle of the movie he asks Witt, “What difference you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” Then late in the film Welsh asks Witt, “Still believing in the beautiful light, are you? How do you do that? You’re a magician to me.” Welsh, like Malick, views individual human lives as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And so while it’s tempting to assume that Malick, like Witt, believes in some glorious life beyond our human existence, perhaps he doesn’t, and thus perhaps Welsh best represents a fear in Malick that this is all there is. “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack,” Welsh says via narration in the film’s final minutes. “A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.” Welsh is aching to believe, and maybe Malick is, too. Maybe all his reverence for the natural world comes out of a feeling that it doesn’t get any better.
And I guess that brings us to The New World, a film that seems to be grappling with how man should make use of this place of ours. The film’s title has two meanings, referring first to the place where Colin Farrell’s John Smith and his fellow sailors establish Jamestown and then to the place from which they came, England, which is seen through the eyes of Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas (who is never called by that name and at that point is going by “Rebecca”). What’s interesting is that while Malick recognizes the arrival of Europeans in the New World as yet another “tear in the fabric of the natural world,” he isn’t dismissive of the civilization they left behind. When Pocahontas arrives in England, late in the film, she responds to it with the kind of awe that Malick has for the natural world, and Malick embraces that response, as if rediscovering his amazement for what humankind can do, as if recognizing that out of man’s destructive tendencies springs a different kind of beauty. The sense I get watching this film is that while Malick longs for the purity of the New World prior to the European infestation, he recognizes that mankind is ultimately incapable of remaining in that state. And for all the destruction that’s portrayed or implied here, The New World is ultimately optimistic about the nature of the human spirit. Am I right?
EH: I’m not sure the film as a whole is “optimistic,” exactly, though it does end on a note of the sublime after crossing some pretty dark territory. But there’s no doubt that, for a film about the European arrival in—and exploitation of—the New World of the Americas, it’s not entirely polemical about its subject. In the opening scenes, Malick captures the mutual awe of the Europeans seeing a new land for the first time and the natives who are impressed by the ships with their large white sails. The ships glide through the water into an inlet, glimpsed from the shore between the trees, harbingers of death and destruction much like the warship at the beginning of The Thin Red Line, but also a mystery and a wonder to the natives who have never seen anything like this before. For the natives, their awe is tinged with fear, with uncertainty and suspicion, afraid of this strange force entering their homeland but also attracted to it, unable to look away. For the Westerners, their awe is purely joyful, the joy of explorers discovering a new place, the joy of sailors who haven’t seen any land in months. Smith, in chains in the ship’s hold, glimpses the lush green land through small portals, and raises his manacled hands towards the sky, which is separated from him by the wooden grating above him.
Those opening scenes set the tone, in that this initial encounter between the Europeans and the natives is hopeful from both sides. The natives are warier, understandably—they have more to lose and more to fear—but both of these groups confront each other, at least in those wide-eyed first moments, with some measure of earnest interest. In a way, that only makes what happens subsequently so heartbreaking: the brutality, distrust and warfare that dominate relations between the Europeans and the natives in the future arise from this brief glimpse of a more hopeful possibility. As in The Thin Red Line, Malick is interested in the folly of human violence, as communication and attempts at mutual understanding give way to murder, displacement and manipulation.
JB: The difference, of course, between the violence of The Thin Red Line and that of The New World is that in the former we see planned warfare between two nations that more or less understand the purpose and ramifications of their actions and in the latter we see comparatively spontaneous violence between two cultures trying to figure it out as they go along.
The transcendentalist Malick may not have set out to make a chiefly historical picture, but I’m not sure The New World does anything better than it evokes this rare place and time when so much was new and uncertain. It starts with that landing at Virginia in 1607, with those three English ships approaching the shore to the breathless, cascading strains of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, as the camera hovers just above water level and sweeps around these almost impossibly small ships (you guys crossed the Atlantic in those!?) before Malick cuts to views from the shoreline, over the shoulders of the understandably mystified “naturals,” who have no way of knowing what the vessels are, where they came from or if they’re capable of coming ashore. It continues with a terrific little scene in which Raoul Trujillo’s Tomocomo cautiously rises from a hiding place in the bushes as he listens to the sound of trees being chopped in the forest—a disconcerting sound, even if it’s a familiar one. And then there’s the first face-to-face meeting in an open field: the English looking uncomfortable and nervous as the natives approach them with mostly confident curiosity.
And so it goes, until later in the film Wes Studi’s Opechancanough accompanies Pocahontas on her journey to England, carrying a handful of sticks onto which he plans to make notches for each white man he sees, eager to meet that God that the English are always talking about. The sight of English ships approaching Virginia years earlier is nothing compared to what Opechancanough encounters now, as he enters this highly evolved and settled world full of massive brick buildings, glass windows, stone streets and manicured gardens, etc. The New World may not be entirely devout in its historical authenticity—Pocahontas’s formfitting buckskin outfit is conveniently tailored to appeal to modern sexuality—but it does a far better job than most historical dramas when it comes to portraying the emotionality of its setting.
EH: Yeah, I think that’s true. The New World isn’t a faithful-to-every-detail historical drama, but it definitely gets the feelings right. The scenes of Opechancanough wandering around the Old World initially seem like a Malickian contrivance or invention; the effect of those short, wordless scenes is almost surreal, as this New World native in his simple clothing is confronted by the bustling culture and massive man-made cities of Europe. The concept is based on real events, though, right down to the wooden sticks which the native naïvely plans to use to count Englishmen. Malick shifts the events to a different character from reality for some reason, but otherwise he’s faithful to the spirit of the true story. And why not? This little anecdote is a near-perfect realization of this film’s theme of civilizations coming into contact for the first time, confronting each other with mingled awe and distrust.
Malick is capturing, with his usual transcendental aesthetic, not just what happened but how it felt—and how it felt from particular subjective points of view. As in The Thin Red Line, there are several narrators here, though not as many as in the earlier film. Instead, Malick provides only the internal narration of Pocahontas, John Smith and, later, Pocahontas’s husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The limited number of perspectives prevents the characters from melting into the surroundings as they often do in The Thin Red Line. The characters are still vehicles for Malick’s philosophy more than fully developed people in their own right—especially Pocahontas, whose voiceover is mostly a series of abstracted ruminations on love, nature, spirituality and mortality—but there’s a lot more to them than most of the individual soldiers in the previous film. Even beyond the voiceovers, subjectivity is a big part of the film, starting with those over-the-shoulder shots of the natives eyeing the approaching English ships. So many shots in the film are the visual equivalent of Malick’s love of characters narrating their thoughts: the imagery is implicitly skewed by the point of view of a character or characters.
JB: That’s true, but I think it best applies to the smaller supporting roles than to the three main characters. Malick, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, uses shots that evoke distance, caution, uncertainty or confusion when chronicling all those awkward periods of discovery and cohabitation, whether it’s showing the natives approaching the settlers’ early camps or the shot from the perspective of one of the Englishmen who, after watching a native stroll through their camp and pick up a tool as if it was his own, guns him down from behind—the first of many unfortunate acts of violence. In contrast, when Malick captures the three main characters, the shots seem less about subjective perspective than about pure emotion. The romance between Smith and Pocahontas is dominated by intimate closeups, often showing their faces in close proximity to one another or their hands on one another. It’s increasingly rare for them not to be captured in the same shot, as if they are indeed joined at the hip, to borrow the expression. This is quite different from the way Rolfe and Pocahontas are captured: Even when they’re in the same shot, the camera never hugs their bodies quite so tightly, and often they are captured in alternating shots, even when in the same physical space. On top of that, there are numerous shots that if not always taken from Rolfe’s first-person perspective manage to evoke it just the same: shots showing Rolfe watching Pocahontas from afar, clearly enchanted by her but also aware of the distance between them. The relationship between Rolfe and Pocahontas is sweet, caring and indeed genuine, but it’s worlds apart from the passion, aching and trembling rawness of the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, and while a good portion of that is conveyed through the performance of Kilcher, who subtly evokes her character’s swirling emotions, most of it is conveyed through the film’s compositions.
Of course, not to be overlooked is the impact of the score. Somehow we’ve made it this far with only passing references to Malick’s musical selections, which are so diverse and so consistently redolent that we could have an entire sidebar conversation on that topic alone. In Badlands, George Tipton’s original marimba-dominated score flows effortlessly into Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer, suggesting a kind of haunting whimsy that merges well with the violence and naïveté of the main characters. In Days of Heaven, Camille Saint-Saens’s The Aquarium, likewise, is both playful and dark, suggesting the thin (red?) line between heaven and hell that makes for the principal dramatic conflict of the film, while Leo Kottke’s acoustic guitar performance of the upbeat “Enderlin” captures the rambling spirit of the drifting laborers, leaving Ennio Morricone’s original score to fill in the gaps. In The Thin Red Line, Malick bookends the film with those Melanesian songs and mixes in Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” (a perfectly titled piece for a Malick film, no?) but relies mostly on Hans Zimmer’s magnificent original score, which Malick reportedly demanded to be in mostly finished form before shooting began, so as to inform the acting and cinematography. And then in The New World, James Horner’s typically self-derivative score gives us romance that’s both epic (“Pocahontas and Smith”) and intimate (“Rolfe Proposes”), with significant support on both counts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and Das Rheingold.
I struggle to think of another filmmaker who uses music with such care and purposefulness while also packing his soundtracks with ambient noise, whether it’s chirping crickets, buzzing cicadas, whizzing bullets or creaking ships. (As if in a nod to this, some of Horner’s pieces on the official soundtrack come complete with birdsong, as if the two cannot be separated.) To listen to the music of The New World is to feel that optimism for the human spirit that I mentioned earlier. The New World concludes with Piano Concerto No. 23, Horner’s love theme and Das Rheingold running into one another as Pocahontas has her tender goodbye with Smith, warmly embraces Rolfe, as if for the first time, and then celebrates her small immediate family in a sequence that suggests she finally knows her place in this much larger world. Das Rheingold carries us like a river through those final minutes, which show Pocahontas playing with her son in English gardens, accepting her death next to a tearful Rolfe and then running playfully through the garden on her own, turning a cartwheel, spinning around and wading into a small pond—all while wearing a proper English gown, yet showing a freeness of spirit that hadn’t been on display since very early in the film when she pranced through tall grass to mimic a deer. From there, Malick gives us another ship heading back toward Virginia, and rushing rivers and tall trees. Suggested here, both explicitly and symbolically, is the regenerative nature of the world, where death is a constant, but so is birth.
EH: I love your description of the ways in which Malick’s cinematography captures the emotions of the film’s two very different romances. That’s what I really meant by subjectivity. Malick’s shots don’t always evoke the literal first-person perspective, but they do always evoke what the characters are feeling. One of my favorite sequences in that regard is the way that Malick intensifies the disappointment that Smith feels upon being returned to his own people after spending a long time with the natives. The time that Smith spends with the natives, falling in love with Pocahontas and enjoying the company of her people, is an idyll much like the deserters’ holiday at the beginning of The Thin Red Line. Like Witt and Train’s stay in that island village, the constant threat of losing this pleasure hangs over everything. Smith knows, of course, that he can’t stay here indefinitely, as much as he’d like to. The scenery is lush and green, and Malick accompanies these scenes with typically romantic music and poetic voiceovers, further magnifying the sensation that Smith has found Eden—has found his Indies, which later he will regret having sailed past.
The heightened romanticism of these scenes then crashes jarringly against the moment when Smith returns to the English fort. When the doors of the fort are opened, Malick unveils a horrific scene of squalor and desolation that makes it seem like Smith has descended into Hell. The lush greens of the surrounding area are replaced by monochrome grays and browns, and the place seems to be on its way to becoming a ghost town, populated by gaunt zombies who stagger through the muddy, barren ground as though they haven’t eaten in weeks. Smith is almost immediately accosted by a gang of kids chattering at him in such heavily accented jargon that much of it is impossible to decipher, even though they’re speaking English. It’s a striking effect: Smith has spent so long among the native people that his own people now seem foreign, and even his own language is harsh and strange to his ears. Malick embodies Smith’s discombobulation in his stylization of the scene. Confronted with this frightening wasteland and these ugly, aggressive people, one immediately longs for the tranquility of the native village, just as Smith longs to be in Pocahontas’s arms, lounging in the grass with her once again.
This contrast between the English and the “naturals” is developed throughout the film. At one point, Smith says about the natives: “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” It’s a particularly blatant expression of a familiar idea, the concept of the “noble savage” who is at peace with nature and who complements the more “advanced” and “civilized” cultures that might have lost touch with the natural communion that the savage experiences so intuitively. In a way, so many of Malick’s characters, in all of his films, are noble savages, people like Witt and Linda who are innocent of the modern world, who respond with open-mouthed ingenuousness to everything they encounter. The New World walks an especially fraught line, though, since the idea that the pre-colonial natives of the Americas were some kind of pure, idyllic society is an especially prevalent colonialist cliché. So my question for you is, does Malick regurgitate some of these clichés about the “noble savage” or is he merely presenting the perspective of John Smith, who does see the natives in such a rosy, paternalistic way?
JB: Good question. We’ve already acknowledged that the film isn’t a scathing commentary on the eradication of the Native American way of life (not to mention the eradication of Native American lives themselves), and considering that what we’re watching here is, historically speaking, the roots of a future genocide, I have no problem with anyone objecting to the picture on the grounds that it goes easy on the white-skinned invaders. Likewise, I think it’s fair to accuse The New World of relegating these Native American characters to “noble savage” roles in which their behavior, idyllic or violent, seems tied to a kind of childlike idiocy—as if the “naturals” are dumb in their trust and naïve in their aggression, foolishly believing they might have a fighting chance against the tsunami of gun-bearing white folk who will be traveling west for hundreds of years to come. I’m also fine with people feeling at least uncomfortable, and perhaps enraged, with a film that suggests that Pocahontas had her life in any way enriched thanks to the English. And I understand why someone would take offense that Pocahontas’s trip to England is portrayed as some kind of personal triumph, rather than as a disturbing traveling circus in which she plays the role of the dancing bear. So, sure, there’s plenty of room to take issue with the way this film adopts a rather simple, placid, elementary-school-textbook approach to this complex, turbulent and not entirely flattering period of our history.
But to answer your question: Although Malick looks away from controversial issues that I wish he’d wrestled with, yes, I think he does establish that what we’re seeing here is Smith’s perspective—a perspective that’s grounded in the actual Smith’s descriptions of these events. The best evidence is the scene in which Smith comes before Pocahontas’s father, the chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and believes that Pocahontas saves him from being executed: “At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me,” he says. The real Smith believed this is what happened to him, but many historians suspect that Smith was simply caught up in the middle of an elaborate ritual. Malick films the scene in such a way that, yes, Pocahontas intervenes, but seconds after she does Smith is surrounded by women from the tribe who seem to be going through ritualistic gestures. In that moment I think Malick establishes that Smith has a perhaps faulty view of what’s going on around him. Likewise, what Smith doesn’t know is that while he’s being welcomed into their company, the “naturals” around him are trying to decide just how long they’ll put up with the presence of the English before they strike. Smith believes them to be inherently peaceful, and he tells us so. But thanks to subtitles, we know otherwise. And the subsequent attack on the fort makes it obvious that the “naturals” have been in a fight before.
So while it’s true that The New World winds up perpetuating these stereotypes and clichés to some degree, I also see this film as documenting the start of the developed world’s fascination with the old Native American lifestyle, which was certainly different in appearance, if perhaps quite similar underneath.
EH: That’s pretty much how I feel. The film struggles with some obvious contradictions in its portrayal of the natives, but Malick at least seems aware of these tensions. That awareness has to be enough. To wish for a more substantial and complex treatment of these issues is to wish for a different film than the one Malick set out to make. Malick is pretty much the last director from whom I’d ever expect a real deep engagement with the politics and history of the colonization of the Americas and the genocides conducted against the continent’s natives. Malick doesn’t seem to have that kind of detailed historical narrative in him. His aesthetic is emotional and spiritual rather than cerebral, and if he were to get bogged down in a more complex examination of these kinds of ideas, I suspect it would detract from the dreamy aesthetic that his films are all built upon. He doesn’t have anything especially profound or insightful to say about the specific circumstances of the colonization of the Americas, and part of me thinks that’s a problem, perhaps even a big problem.
But another part of me recognizes that Malick is simply after something different. He’s interested in this specific moment in time because it’s such a potent realization of the confrontation between different cultures, as well as a rich opportunity to elaborate on his favorite theme, the relationship of humanity to nature. He’s an abstract thinker, and as a result his films can seem vague, and more than occasionally they get mired in lite-philosophy discourse. I’m of two minds about this tendency: on the one hand, yes, the ideas in Malick’s films tend to be simple, but on the other hand there’s an undeniable visceral and emotional intensity to his work that makes it very easy to be swept along in the grandeur of his aesthetic, to bask in his obvious rapture over images of the natural world and humanity’s uncertain place within in. This is especially apparent in The New World, which deals in abstract, general terms with humanity’s tendency towards distrust, betrayal and warfare, setting these ruminations in the context of a dual love story that’s as thematically and structurally important to the film as any of the English/native conflicts.
That’s telling, because Malick really privileges emotional experience over all else. The way love feels, the way it feels to lounge in the grass enjoying the breeze, being warmed by the sun. His films—and especially The New World, which is luscious even for him—don’t just present breathtaking images of natural beauty; they attempt to replicate what it would feel like to be a part of these landscapes, to luxuriate in the bristles of the tall grass, to be dwarfed by those trees that always seem to be reaching heroically toward the heavens, to gape before the majesty of a field that stretches endlessly towards the horizon. His films privilege the subjective over the objective, and the subjective feeling that he is intent on exploring, more than any other, is the feeling of being small and insignificant, a tiny cog in the complex machine of the world.
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Half-Baked Under the Silver Lake Is in Love with the Image of Itself
Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism.2
David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a pastiche of cinematic representations of Los Angeles wrapped in a retro-fetishistic detective story, infiltrates the glittery, vapid underbelly of La-La Land, where aspiring starlets pay their rent doing sex work and popular culture turns out to be even more monolithic than one imagines. Within a few scenes, Mitchell establishes a grammar whose endless referentiality takes on a conspiratorial cast. Shortly after seeing a squirrel fall from the sky (shades of Magnolia), a layabout named Sam (Andrew Garfield) sits on his courtyard porch with a pair of binoculars, ogling a nude woman and then a self-possessed, dog-toting blonde sunning herself by his complex’s pool.
That scene evokes, among other films, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and Lolita, though Sam is no damaged matinee idol. Instead, he’s a no-rent riff on Elliott Gould’s riff on Philip Marlowe, unemployed and horny, and days from being evicted from his apartment. Sam is pointedly in no hurry to find work or cash; rather, he’s relentlessly distracted by women and strange happenings, like news of a rash of dog killings in East L.A. or a string of mysterious geometric signifiers scrawled on apartment walls. His unheroic quest is propelled by the girl by the pool, who he briefly comes to know as Sarah (Riley Keough) before—after a brief, unconsummated relationship—she disappears, taking on a totemic meaning that pushes Sam to tie together the increasingly odd and nefarious events happening around him.
Like Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is steeped in nostalgia and exists in an indistinct time. Though Sam carries an iPhone and peeps on a friend’s (Topher Grace) neighbor with the assistance of a video-equipped helicopter drone, the film’s ubiquitous cultural icons dwell in most of the previous century, including B noirs, Hollywood romances, and old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power. In both Sam’s addled logic and the film’s visual code, all of these artifacts are clues of one kind or another.
A zine-maker chronicling the forgotten history of the neighborhood and Hollywood scandals further convolutes Sam’s journey, offering an interpretational lodestar in the form of a mid-century cereal box with a treasure map on its back. The artist is played by Patrick Fischler, instantly recognizable as the man who suffers a waking nightmare at Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The casting confirms yet another evident inspiration for Under the Silver Lake, whose cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis) expresses a slightly dirty, ambient unease even in glittering daylight or at industry parties featuring odd performance artists.
Under the Silver Lake navigates its thicket of references with breezy confidence, undergirded by Disasterpeace’s lush, menacing score. But as with the more efficient It Follows, it’s never evident what the film’s subtexts are meant to add up to. Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, during a lengthy musical medley with a brutal climax, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism. Mitchell’s L.A. proves to be a sort of zombie culture, one whose artists are fed notes and messages from hidden ghostwriters and where originality was unceremoniously wiped out some decades ago. Every party is designed to be an experience, but every experience is forced and fundamentally hollow.
Oddly, Under the Silver Lake comes to feel as complacent as the milieu it’s satirizing, due in large part to the void of ambition and tact at its center. Sam is at once the film’s avatar, audience surrogate, and object of ridicule. He’s forsaken worldly duties for the sake of his dick, and rather incidentally stumbles into an elaborate riddle about the meaning of art and the rot underneath his neighborhood. Sam’s enthusiasm for amateur detective work is meant to be as shaggy and winning as his other behavior is off-putting, but there’s something askew about both Garfield’s effortful performance and Mitchell’s idea of his main character.
Talking with a fitful speech impediment in lackadaisical tones, Garfield swerves from a state of passive narcolepsy to addled, sometimes aggro enthusiasm with minimal cause. Throughout the film, Sam accepts frequent offers of sex with a vacant, glassy countenance, and at one point vigorously masturbates over a vision board of naked women. He also castigates the homeless and beats up a group of marauding teenagers. Sometimes he feels like an analogue to a Reddit troll, and at others his quest for meaning seems entirely earnest. Sam is meant to be confounding, but it’s unclear if he’s meant to be so incoherent.
These problems are in step with a film that’s in complete control of its imagery but remains half-baked in its ideology and execution. Maybe it’s apropos that a film so critical of predominant cultural modes feels so oppressively patriarchal in its attitude and rolodex of references: A reading of Under the Silver Lake can accommodate how one alternative subculture (comic books) has been subsumed into and now monopolizes an entire industry, but if Mitchell’s film is about those left behind and adrift in its wake, why wouldn’t it address those almost entirely left out of the conversation? It’s difficult not to question the composition of Mitchell’s chosen milieu as its impressive artifice comes to feel entirely perfunctory, and one is left to choke on the exhaust of Under the Silver Lake loopy daisy chain of references and its disconnected series of blasé shock tactics.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome Director: David Robert Mitchell Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell Distributor: A24 Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Little Woods Is a Thriller That Thinks It’s Too Good for Thrills
Nia DaCosta indulges one of rural quasi-thriller’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.2
Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods belongs to a subgenre of American indie cinema concerned with poor people trying to hold on to the stability they’ve managed to carve out for themselves in forbidding places. This subgenre of film bears the influence of the western and the procedural character studies of the Dardennes and the Romanian New Wave, and it often treats disenfranchised populations as exhibits in a kind of zoo. The characters in these films are often seen only in terms of how they affirm a political thesis statement, as their individualities are eclipsed in the filmmakers’ minds by their social neediness. No matter how well-meaning such theses may be, the films usually feel incurious and condescending.
Unlike, say, Frozen River, Little Woods isn’t exactly condescending, but it lacks the poetry of the respective films of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, masters of what can be called the rural quasi-thriller. Reichardt and Granik offer punishing visions of America that are nevertheless attuned to the incidental moments that enliven even fraught existences, while DaCosta often falls prey to the clichés of the subgenre. She familiarly presents lower working-class men as hairy and drunken brutes who talk only of their inherent misery, and women as living in perpetual reaction to these men’s hostilities. DaCosta, then, indulges one of the genre’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are sisters, via Ollie’s adoption by Deb’s now deceased mother, who live in an oil boomtown in North Dakota. The sisters are defined in terms of their desperation—through the dictates of a thriller structure—and DaCosta doles out their involved and stereotypical backstory in dribs and drabs. Ollie is the good sister, who stood by her mother while Deb was involved in her own personal calamities, having a son she can’t afford to raise with a drunk and absent father, Ian (James Badge Dale). Ollie turned to selling OxyContin on the black market, with Ian’s help, to pay for her mother’s medical bills. Eventually caught running drugs back from Canada, Ollie is now on the verge of finishing her probation as supervised by her probation officer, Carter (Lance Riddick). And, of course, on the eve of getting a respectable new job, Ollie will be pulled back into the classic Final Score.
DaCosta has a fine feel for the texture of her film’s boomtown setting, particularly in the evocative scenes in which Ollie sells the poor oil workers coffee and sandwiches at cheaper prices than the local restaurants. But the characters are dully familiar. Ollie is a saint with no apparent inner life, with no opinions or desires that don’t immediately bolster the plot. Thompson gives the role her usual intensity, though Ollie is stubbornly defined by the steadfast earnestness that’s common of protagonists in this sort of film. She refers to taking pleasure in selling black market drugs, but we never see that emotion in her face, which might’ve given Little Woods an ambiguous sense of exhilaration. And a significant detail of Ollie’s identity is pointedly ignored: that she’s an attractive woman of color who appears to live in a place that’s populated mostly by undereducated and oversexed white men. Though Ollie is harassed by men in sexualized altercations, the effect of her seeming dislocation on her identity is pushed aside. Deb, meanwhile, is a MacGuffin: a device for returning Ollie to the drug business in a fashion that doesn’t sully the latter’s unimpeachable principles.
Whenever DaCosta appears to be on the verge of staging a scene intent on surprising the audience, the writer-director nips it in the bud to move on to the next preprogrammed narrative beat. This tendency is especially galling during a scene where Deb tells Ian that she’s pregnant again and that she intends to have an abortion. We’re primed by the formula of the rural quasi-thriller, which is often intensely critical of machismo, for Ian to have a disgusting outburst. Instead, Ian gets down on his knees and puts his head between Deb’s legs, as if praying, and weeps. Unforgivably, DaCosta doesn’t treat this moving moment with the respect it’s due, cutting away from it after a second or two so as to keep the film moving along at an impersonal pace. Little Woods is concerned with topical “relevance” at the expense of drama—or, more bluntly, it’s a thriller that thinks it’s too good for thrills.
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Morgana Shaw Director: Nia DaCosta Screenwriter: Nia DaCosta Distributor: Neon Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018