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Tree Of Life: who is Terrence Malick and what's his film doing in my multiplex?

1 July 2011 by Elliott Noble

The-Tree-Of-Life-(1)The shadow of director Terrence Malick hangs over everything - even Brad Pitt - in The Tree Of LifeAs mega-reclusive director Terrence Malick comes out of hiding to baffle us all with the lovely looking, brain-hurting The Tree Of Life, we ask: who is this bloke? And after churning out a mere five films in 38 years, why should we care?

So there you are, stinky but oddly flavourless hot-dog in one hand, £2.60 bottle of water in the other, all set to warm up for X-Men: First Class with trailers for the rest of this summer’s whoop-doop-blockbusteroos.

The-Tree-of-Life-2The Tree of Life: not Cars 2And here they come: Transformers 3, Captain America, Next of the Planet of the Apes, Conan the Remake… an spiritual-metaphorical treatise on faith, nature and the evolution of humanity from writer-director Terrence Malick.

Huh? Terrence… eh? The Tree Of Life? What’s this all about?

Who cares? It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival. Like Pulp Fiction. And look, it’s got Brad Pitt in it. And Sean Penn. And whispering kids. And plants and water and smoke and stained-glass windows.

Awesome. But hardly the stuff of multiplex managers’ dreams. So what’s it doing amidst all those brain-off box office jamborees?

Terrence-MalickMalick and Badlands star Martin SheenWell, because after making just four films since his debut Badlands in 1973, Malick is the Hollywood equivalent of Halley’s comet, his every emergence greeted by unbridled excitement by anyone who knows and loves cinema. Or thinks they do.

The thing is that while Badlands – the fact-based tale of a young couple on a killing spree – marked him as a talent to watch, the name Malick will mean little to the average moviegoer.

With 20 years between his critically lauded second effort Days Of Heaven (1978) and Pacific war epic The Thin Red Line, Malick is clearly not a man to be rushed. Which becomes pretty obvious if you sit through either.

“Challenging”, “profound”, “mesmerising”, they said. Like watching two coats of paint dry, thought the rest of us. Only we were too scared to admit it for fear of sounding like numpties.

The-New-WorldThe New WorldBut even the aficionati went a bit quiet after Malick’s fourth symphony, The New World (2005). A painstakingly crafted retelling of the Pocahontas story, it once again positioned Malick as the intellectual bridge between the History and National Geographic channels.

That is to say, it had most people remembering the Disney version as the best fun they’d ever had.

Nevertheless, while feeding us a relentless diet of cinematic junk, it seems Hollywood does occasionally try to make us eat our cinematic greens: films made for art, not money. Films that make the business feel good about itself. Films made by directors bearing “genius” badge… like The Tree Of Life.

But while the talents of the people behind them may be on the wane, studios realise that five such portions a year are good for the Oscars – and A-list relations.

Hence the annual celeb-baiter from Woody Allen, a once-genuine auteur who now clearly makes films because that’s what he does, rather than what he actually wants to do (play his clarinet).

You-Will-Meet-A-Tall-Dark-Stranger-04Allen directs A Tall Dark StrangerOne only need witness the London-set horrors of Match Point, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and the titanically annoying Vicky Cristina Barcelona to see how far removed he’s strayed from the well of wit and the real world in general.

Yet despite two decades of misfires and embarrassments, Allen still attracts the cream of the global thespian crop, from the sublime (Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem) to the ridiculous (Will Ferrell, Scarlett Johansson, Carla Bruni).

Strangely, while the bulletproof Allen sees his disasters quietly filed away as mild disappointments and anything even approaching mediocrity lauded as “a return to form”, the gutters of Tinseltown are littered with other spent geniuses.

jack 08Coppola: left with JackTake the Faustian case of Francis Ford Coppola. How else describe a career that begins at the heights of The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now before slipping into the thankless realms of Robin Williams comedies (Jack) and John Grisham adaptations (The Rainmaker) and ending in the palsied bowels of pretention (Youth Without Youth, Tetro)?

Likewise William Friedkin. After making his name with The Exorcist and The French Connection, Friedkin’s descent into obscurity was alarming. While he could be forgiven Sorcerer, a misguided remake of French suspense classic The Wages Of Fear, there’s simply no excuse for Oscar winners to be dallying with Basic Instinct knock-offs (Jade) and films about killer trees (The Guardian).

The French Connection 07Friedkin makes The French ConnectionNow a jobbing director on CSI, Friedkin’s big-screen career looks set to end in the shadows (though if you get the chance to see his unsung psycho-drama Bug, grab it).

So why all the fuss about Malick when new projects from equally proven contemporaries like Milos ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest’ Forman and Peter ‘The Last Picture Show’ Bogdanovich are met with nary a shrug?

For one thing, Hollywood loves a mystery. And none come more mysterious than the ultra-reclusive Malick, whose publicity-shyness reportedly even extends to banning his photograph being taken on set (someone obviously sneaked the one above).

And with Allen bumbling along to his own tune and the populist likes of Spielberg and Scorsese happy to move with the times, he’s Hollywood’s closest living relative to the European auteurs of the 60s and 70s.

Ingmar BergmanIngmar Bergman: even puts himself to sleepOf course, to have seen the work of Truffaut, Bertolucci, Rohmer, Bergman, Visconti et al, is to have had one’s pants bored off at one point or another.

But while there’s a whiff of the emperor’s new clothes about much of their work, you have to respect their influence. And in most cases, their vision.

It’s the latter that Hollywood is so desperate for. And Malick has it. You might not like what he has, but he definitely has it. Which is why he could take a camcorder on his weekly supermarket shop and find half the population of Mulholland Drive sitting in his trolley.

So once you’re done with Harry Potter 7: Part 2, you must see The Tree Of Life. Because it’s important. And Brad Pitt’s in it. And Sean Penn. And it’ll make you clever.


Elliott Noble