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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“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?

The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ

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The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ
The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ

Jason Bellamy: I never followed the amateur filmmaking documentary series Project Greenlight, which was perhaps best known for having celebrity producers (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and for failing to discover any major breakthrough talents, but I’ll never forget one of the episodes I happened to see. It was early in its third and final season, by which point Project Greenlight had expanded its diamond-in-the-rough search to be a contest not just for amateur screenwriters, but also amateur directors. In the episode in question I took delight in the method chosen to evaluate their pool of director nominees: All contestants were given identical screenplays offering nothing more than dialogue. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken. From that skeleton it was on the directors to dream up the rest, fill in the blanks and shoot a film. All these years later, I can’t remember anything about the dialogue, but I do remember that the interpretations were wildly diverse—one had a mob theme while another was set in a dentist’s office, as I recall. Same source material. Same words. Different films.

That brings us to this month’s edition of The Conversations, in which we will discuss Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a pair of films that are remarkably and unmistakably different despite the numerous things they have in common, the most obvious of which is their general subject matter. Unlike the amateur directors vying to be on Project Greenlight, Scorsese and Gibson didn’t work from identical screenplays, and in a sense their screenplays aren’t even based on the same source material. Scorsese’s film begins with a disclaimer making it clear that The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t follow the Scriptures, even though for the most part it does, but is instead based on the 1951 book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. And yet when one watches these films, or anything in which Jesus Christ is the central figure, there’s an almost unavoidable tendency to track its faithfulness to the Bible. Anything added to or removed from the narrative, anything noticeably altered from what can be found in the New Testament, seems on screen to be bolded and italicized—maybe because it should be, or maybe because cinematic representations of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John underline just how unspecific the Bible tends to be. When it comes to the life of Jesus, so much of the Bible is like those Project Greenlight scripts: dialogue on a page. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken.

Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Bobby, Volver, and Déjà Vu

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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Bobby, Volver, and Déjà Vu
Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Bobby, Volver, and Déjà Vu

Andrew Dignan: Hey Sean, is there anything more depressing than staring at Thanksgiving leftovers sitting in the fridge for a second week? Everyone loves turkey sandwiches the next day, but after half a dozen different variations of bird and stuffing (I feel like Bubba coming up with uses for shrimp) I’m seriously starting to resent that gutted-out carcass wrapped up in aluminum foil.

Incidentally, leftovers is the theme of this week’s column, as there isn’t a single new entry in theaters worth watching. It’s one of the worst kept secrets around that the first weekend in December is historically an undernourished stretch on exhibitors’ schedules, giving late August a run for its money as most barren wasteland on the calendar. Rather than endure Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (can’t wait for the scene where Jesus wants to get a tongue stud and then gets into a fight with Mary over it) I thought we’d talk about a few films that have been out for a little while that we haven’t covered yet.

One such film is Emillio Estevez’s Bobby, which may be of special interest to House readers after a recently-linked review of the film from Jonathan Rosenbaum where the film was not only praised but used as damning counterpoint to Altman’s Nashville, which just goes to show that once all of your capacities as a film critic have left you, you can still pack ’em in by just being a contrarian. I’ll defer any Altman defending to you, but I’m frankly baffled how anyone could seriously consider Bobby anything but an overly earnest bit of hero worship buried amidst an especially pedestrian, multi-narrative melodrama. Basically what one can take away from the film is the rather jejune sentiment that everything and everyone in the world would be better off if Robert Kennedy wasn’t assassinated on June 4th, 1968 and that Estevez’s famous friends just aren’t working enough.

Deja Voodoo and The Law of Diminishing Expectations

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Deja Voodoo and The Law of Diminishing Expectations
Deja Voodoo and The Law of Diminishing Expectations

How to explain the generous reviews granted to the latest film by Tony Scott, the meister of the overbearing, trashy exploitation action genre? Déjà Vu, which took in about $20 million in its opening weekend, has received generally upbeat notices, with a 60% positive rating at Metacritic and 61% from the critics deemed worthy by the RottenTomatoes management, and a number of prominent reviewers have been kind to it. But once you’ve seen it for yourself, and realized it’s no less shallow and much more troubling than similar films that got harsher treatment, you may wonder what, exactly, happened.

Is it simply an example of a reviled but financially successful filmmaker outlasting his opposition? From Top Gun through Man on Fire, Scott has established himself as, if not quite critic-proof, then certainly critic-resistant. Reviewers wag their fists at the films’ banality and twist and shout in agitation at their stylistic excesses and moral and political coarseness; they complain about the manner in which Scott’s films push our collective buttons in the most egregious and pandering way possible; yet the public refuses to listen. Scott’s movies tend to make money (Domino notwithstanding), and so he’s empowered to make more. Perhaps the capitulation to Scott’s awfulness is an example of The Law of Diminishing Expectations; maybe critics have been worn down over time, both by the collective suck-i-tude of Scott’s films and by a public that prefers synopses to criticism and can’t understand why bylined grumps can’t just relax and go along for the ride. Yet there are many reasons to loathe the film, including Scott’s penchant for brutality over thought, his standard stylistic excesses, the story’s half-baked sci-fi gimmick and, most importantly, the movie’s utter disinterest in the political ramifications of that gimmick: surveillance technology that allows the government not just to pry into American’s present-tense private lives, but their private pasts as well.