Film Feature: Terrence Malick Retrospective Lights Up Music Box Theatre

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CHICAGO – The cinema of Terrence Malick has been a process of discovery, for its director and his devoted audience. His work is fueled by spontaneous miracles, typified by the moment when an illuminated cloud formation creates an image of astounding, temporary beauty. His films aren’t just breathtakingly brilliant and hauntingly provocative. They’re also curiously soul-cleansing.

Malick’s fluid gaze and restless imagination requires an adventurous cinematographer to assist him in fully exploring the world of his movie during production. Nature itself becomes a major character on his canvas. The filmmaker makes no secret about his love for the trunks of towering trees, the movement of the wind through tall grass, the look of bodies underwater. His childlike reverence for earthly creations is utterly intoxicating, and has routinely reawakened my own awe of existence. Yet beauty also takes on an ominous quality, providing an ideal hiding place for menace.

Labels like “anti-war” or “anti-industry” fail to take into account the meticulous complexity of Malick’s work. He’s more interested in the dichotomy of man, the light and darkness that resides within a singular being. Photography, paintings and philosophy all greatly influence Malick, particularly the writings of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who once declared, “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” Heidegger believed that mankind should utilize its technology and intellect to abide in life’s ambiguities rather than define its unsolvable mysteries. Malick’s films are overflowing with poetic words, often residing within the hyper-articulate minds of his characters, who question and contemplate without ever coming to a foregone conclusion. Plot and period details take a backseat to transcendent feeling and timeless truth. Moviegoers are guaranteed to feel exhilarated as they join Malick and his characters on a journey into the unknown—whether it be the void of an afterlife, or the horizon of a new world.

Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher star in Terrence Malick’s The New World.
Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher star in Terrence Malick’s The New World.
Photo credit: New Line Cinema

It’s difficult to think of a filmmaker whose work is better equipped for the big screen. Screening one Malick flick is enough to excite cinephiles. Screening them all amounts to a major cinematic event. With Malick’s fifth directorial effort, “The Tree of Life,” slated for a May 27 release date in Chicago, it’s only fitting that the Music Box Theatre would schedule a six-part retrospective for its excellent Weekend Matinee series entitled, “Terrence Malick: American Philosopher.” Starting April 23, the Music Box will be screening a Malick picture at 11:30 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday (with the exception of May 14). All four of his previous masterpieces will be shown, along with two features that offer an intriguing portrait of Malick’s evolution and influence.

First up is the droll 1972 comedy “Pocket Money,” in which director Stuart Rosenberg re-teams with his “Cool Hand Luke” star Paul Newman. The results couldn’t be more different. Based on a J.P.S. Brown novel, the film centers on hard-luck cowboy Jim Kane (Newman), who participates in an ill-advised get-rich scheme out of desperation. Screenwriter “Terry Malick” explored similar material in his 1969 thesis film, “Lanton Mills,” which also featured two bumbling cowboys (played by Malick and Harry Dean Stanton) with unlawful aspirations for success. The dialogue is marvelously witty in the driest sense, while Newman’s flawed everyman embodies many traits later reflected in other Malick protagonists. He’s a prisoner of his own vices; a nice guy with a volatile temper, doomed to failure. Lee Marvin plays Newman’s partner-in-crime, and there are times when the usually fearsome character actor resembles none other than Michael McKean. It’s quite entertaining to watch these two actors, renowned for their overwhelming masculinity, play against type. Newman’s high-pitched voice falls just this side of whiny, while Marvin brings exquisite comic timing to lines such as, “I’ll advise you not to spit around here. You might hit a sucker.” The film is a curiosity piece to be sure, but it also functions as a palatable appetizer for this retrospective.

Martin Sheen stars in Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
Martin Sheen stars in Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Next up is 1973’s “Badlands,” which is easily one of the greatest directorial debuts in film history, not to mention one of the seminal pictures of the ’70s. Though the basic premise sounds like a retread of “lovers on the run” romances, Malick subverts the formula entirely, favoring substance over sentiment, while marrying the mundane and the grotesque. With echoes of Godard’s “Breathless” and premonitions of Lynchian surrealism, Malick’s original script uses the 1958 murder spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate as its chief inspiration. Martin Sheen delivers a galvanizing, oddly funny performance as Kit, an ego-centric, overgrown greaser straight out of a Joyce Carol Oates story.

Like Newman’s Kane, who angrily kicked over trash cans before sheepishly picking them up, Kit has an almost comical dichotomy. He’ll shoot people, and then hold the door for them as they stagger into their house. His monotone, deceptively casual demeanor harbors a deranged mind that’s most apparent in the narration of his young girlfriend, Holly (Sissy Spacek). Her inner voice is never used to merely advance the plot, and there are times when her observations barely seem to be tied to the onscreen images. It’s a hypnotic storytelling technique that set the standard for Malick’s subsequent use of narration in his later work, while his extraordinary writing sounds like it could easily belong within the pages of a classic American novel.

Days of Heaven will be screened as part of the Music Box’s Terrence Malick retrospective.
Days of Heaven will be screened as part of the Music Box’s Terrence Malick retrospective.
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Perhaps the greatest highlight of this retrospective is 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” which is one of those peerless cinematic landmarks (like “2001: A Space Odyssey”) that must be seen on the big screen in order to be fully absorbed and appreciated. Néstor Almendros’ mind-boggling cinematography injects the framework of a standard period melodrama with the vitality and experimental spirit of the French New Wave. It was the first picture to utilize a Panaglide prototype, allowing camera operators to appear as if they were floating around their subjects, such as when dirt poor laborer Bill (Richard Gere) cools off in a river with his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams). They’ve escaped from a poverty-stricken existence in claustrophobic Chicago to a new life in the Texas Panhandle, where they find work on a farm owned by a sickly yet smitten man (Sam Shepard).

The inevitable love triangle that develops is viewed through the eyes of Bill’s young sister, Linda, played by the exceptional Linda Manz, who simultaneously conveys a youthful innocence and wizened maturity. Like Holly in “Badlands,” Linda already knows the whole story, which brings a chilling poignance to her narration. Malick ended up cutting a large portion of his scripted dialogue, opting for a more abstract and visually rich approach to the material, thus setting the tone for his next two pictures. Almendros’ wide shot of a train’s silhouette against an overwhelming blue sky is the first of countless images that rejuvenate audiences like a gust of fresh air. The magnificent splendor of nature dwarfs the technology of the industrial age, humbling humans by illustrating that they’re merely a speck in the grand scheme of things.

The Thin Red Line will be screened as part of the Music Box’s Terrence Malick retrospective.
The Thin Red Line will be screened as part of the Music Box’s Terrence Malick retrospective.
Photo credit: Fox 2000 Pictures

It would take two decades for Malick to complete another picture, and his return to the director’s chair would prove to be more than worth the wait. His next two projects, “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” are each an embarrassment of riches. Though a war film would seem like a giant departure for Malick, he was more attracted to the philosophy in James Jones’ stunning novel, rather than its battle scenes. His adaptation of “Line” is epic in scope and intimate in detail. It’s a shame that the film was overshadowed by “Saving Private Ryan” during its theatrical release. The star-studded cast is pitch-perfect, featuring top-drawer work from Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. “World” marked the first collaboration between Malick and master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also lensed “Tree of Life,” as well as Malick’s next feature slated for release in 2012. At its core is a spellbinding performance from 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher in the role of Pocahontas, opposite Colin Farrell (at his finest) as John Smith.

The retrospective is poised to end with a bang (or perhaps a splash) when it screens David Gordon Green’s intensely involving 2004 thriller, “Undertow,” which was co-produced (and clearly influenced) by Malick. The film stands as a reminder of just how exciting a director Green was before he became Hollywood’s go-to guy for pothead comedies. Jamie Bell and Devon Alan play two brothers whose sheltered life in rural Georgia is ruptured by the sudden appearance of a vengeful relative (Josh Lucas, sporting a Robert Mitchum-like leer). Green builds a nearly excruciating sense of dread, culminating in one of the oddest and most unforgettable endings in recent cinema. Alan’s narration is written in the tradition of quintessential Malick, though the line that continues to linger in my mind is uttered by the boys’ father (Dermot Mulroney). In its own simple way, it encapsulates the appeal of Malick’s films, which often find the indelible in the unexpected: “Sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick with you.”

The ‘Terrence Malick: American Philosopher’ retrospective runs from April 23 to May 29 at the Music Box Theatre. For showtimes, visit…. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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