Malick's messy, beautiful frontiers

Special to The Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tends to film his people in the same way, as exalted specimens in the cosmic laboratory. This is why there are few memorable performances in his movies; he is more interested in actors for their sculptural and spiritual qualities than in what they can bring to bear psychologically. Sometimes he comes up very short: Richard Gere in "Days of Heaven" and Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in "The New World" are prettified blanks, while Colin Farrell's Capt. John Smith isn't even pretty.

Nature is a riddle for Malick, a rune that, if only it could be decoded, would yield up the secret of why we are placed on this Earth. (An early, aborted project of his was an epic about the creation of the planet, no less.) Because he is always divining the ineffable, his movies can sometimes seem absurdly high-flown and, from a real-world standpoint, insubstantial. He makes movies about sociopathic serial murderers, the agrarian poor, a major war theater in the Pacific and America's founding colony, and yet there is hardly any direct political engagement to these films at all.

Not that some people haven't tried to find it anyway. "Badlands," for example, was misinterpreted by a number of critics as an elitist snob's attack on the soullessness of a mass culture that would turn wayward youths into killers and even media heroes. But Malick, who grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, wasn't mounting a cultural attack on rural hickdom. The Badlands in that great, spooky movie, which I think is easily his best, are entirely metaphorical; the wide-open spaces are maddening because they isolate and distill our own worst impulses. Nature is forever putting our souls in jeopardy.

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When the world was innocent

IN "Days of Heaven," Malick is similarly unconcerned with the sociopolitical class consciousness ostensibly at its core. The film, which despite its extraordinary picturesqueness seems more than ever to me an hors d'oeuvres tray posing as a full meal, exists primarily to showcase the climactic biblical-style conflagration of the landowner's wheat fields -- the light that nature, in all its awakened cruelty, sends off. In "The Thin Red Line," which came 20 years after "Days of Heaven," the strategies of war and the bearing of the soldiers pale beside the Rousseau-like idylls of Jim Caviezel (warming up to play Jesus?) cavorting with the uncorrupted Melanesians. For Malick, being AWOL is a state of grace.

The Native Americans in "The New World" are equally uncorrupted. Pocahontas certainly is -- she's practically a woodland nymph. Despite his super-sophistication, Malick has a deeply childlike conception of innocence. This must be why his films, which are sensual in an almost pantheistic way, are nevertheless without a carnal dimension. There is no sex in his movies, not even in "Badlands" or "Days of Heaven." Sex occupies a baser realm than the rarefied one he inhabits. The real action for Malick is all in the head, in his characters' inner musings that crowd the soundtrack. A major problem with "The New World" is that, despite its visual ravishments and convincing note of woe, its people don't seem to have much going on between the ears.

Malick's films may not always live up to his mystique, but it would be a major blow if he were to take another decade-long siesta. The freedom he incarnates as an artist is not something deserving only of nostalgia for a bygone era. What about our own era? Something is lost in a culture when artists are not allowed to make fools of themselves, because foolishness is often the flip side of greatness. Despite all the floss in his films, Malick has had his share of that too. He has dedicated his life to his own exalted idea of beauty, where even the tiniest dabs of creation have oracular power, and he has given us images, like the torched house in "Badlands" or the long shot of the train in black silhouette against a powder blue sky in "Days of Heaven," that will resonate for as long as there are movies.

The best passages in Malick's films are all about paradise lost. His career, with its inexplicable absences, represents another kind of loss. But he is still among us, and his way of seeing is worth championing in these machine-tooled times.

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Peter Rainer is the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and DVD critic for Bloomberg News. Contact him at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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