Malick: the prodigal returns

He made two great American movies, then disappeared - for 25 years. But now, Terrence Malick is back.

For close to 30 years, so few people had ever heard of Terrence Malick, he often found himself with one "r" and two "l"s. He might have wondered if an overweight, rather dreamy country boy would ever get the chance to make a Hollywood movie; he likely doubted if he had the decisiveness to fill such an opening if it ever came along. Yet he could feel imperious and flawless still, for he hadn't failed yet.

The dream of a great, declaratory new movie remained intact - it still does in America, after a hundred years of cinema. But with a dream that bright, or intense, a gentle soul might decline actual offers, like Herman Melville's scrivener in Bartleby, preferring not to make the irrevocable attempt today, this year, or in this life. The urge to be glorious, to be known over and above the vast crowd of anonymity, is enduring, and nearly psychotic in America: it is like insisting on coming up out of the water to breathe. But there is another existence - and it is evident in JD Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Howard Hughes and Terry Malick - that says, I don't think I'll risk the air today.

Terrence Malick, born in 1943, was from the heartland, the son of a father who had done well in the oil business. He was a kid and a hulking young football player out of Oklahoma and Texas. But he had some kind of brilliance. He would read anything; he was interested in everything; he loved doubt, infinity and meditation. He went to Harvard, and to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and he was a kid who moved his teachers. He tried a few scripts. It was said he helped rewrite Drive, He Said, the picture Jack Nicholson directed in 1971. He studied, on and off, at the American Film Institute, but even then people said that Terry was his own man, proud or withdrawn, lacking "drive". He preferred to observe things, to be in a position to notice. Whereas the demons who actually made films had their minds made up and their act was all fierceness to protect their "vision".

Still, he made that first film before he was 30, on $300,000 that he and his brother raised. He delivered Badlands in person, to the selection committee of the New York Film Festival, waiting outside while they saw it, groaning and fussing when a few splices came apart, and ready to sit down and explain the picture if there had been any doubt. There wasn't. They took Badlands immediately, and in the festival that followed, it meant more even than Mean Streets.

But everyone in New York by then knew Marty Scorsese, the fast-talking, film-making sickly kid with his head full of violence, tough talk and the skidding lights of the city. Terry was from somewhere else, so much quieter, shy nearly, and so attuned to deeper rhythms. And Badlands was luminous. Throw in Citizen Kane and They Live By Night, and it had to be one of the greatest films ever made in America.

More than 25 years later, Badlands stills prompts awe. You feel Malick laying hands on a way of seeing, and you marvel at the lyric casualness with which he observes violence, outrage and the deadpan American urge to be famous, and to get away into the distance of horizon and legend before the humdrum cops hunt you down. Badlands is based on the real story of Charlie Starkweather, a young killer of the 1950s, and it never mentions William Bonney, yet it may be the movie that comes closest to the myth of Billy the Kid. Yet it is also a romance about two kids (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) who go off camping together in the wilderness, dancing in the headlights of their car, reverting to helpless, raw animals as well as being outlaws. It's a picture about unshaped children who aspire not so much to be in a movie, as to be a movie. So the boy asks the cops who get him at last whether they don't honestly think he resembles James Dean. And he does, just as Dean was like Billy, just as so many outcasts in America are listless yet dangerous, waiting on some camera.

The world fell upon Terry Malick. It wanted to know and love him, and he preferred to be somewhere else. He became increasingly reluctant to talk about his film; he found fault with Badlands the more he thought about it. He might have preferred to re-do his own picture, but the industry wanted something new. For the critics, Malick was proof that something like genius existed; and for the money people, he was miraculous - now old-fashioned fortunes could be made in the glow of Malick's chic radiance.

He was besieged with offers, money, opportunities. He began to get edgy. He wanted to travel, read philosophy, sit and talk with advanced minds in every field you could think of. He told the money people that if a film-maker knew more, or was aware of how much more he did not know, surely a film would be richer? Terrific, Terry, they said, but which film is this? He attracted the best and the worst in would-be producers, and wasn't always sure which was which. It may have shocked him to find how cynical an American film-maker needed to be - because how would a cynic remain observant?

But he couldn't resist a second film - made for Paramount for $3m (that old ten-times multiplier). Days of Heaven was meant to have John Travolta and Genevieve Bujold, but Terry was uneasy with actors: they were so needy, and wanted to know what it was all about, whereas he preferred the time and peace for watching them, so he might discover what it was about. He ended up with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, fought a lot with Gere (a chronic self-explainer),

and then when the story didn't come together, he built up the role of a kid onlooker (Linda Manz) and used her voice-over to bridge the narrative obscurities - so it sounded a little like the voice of Sissy Spacek, that descant to the ravishing visuals in Badlands. Another kind of pattern emerged, for in the second film, again, forlorn young people tried to escape, to enter the exquisite distance.

Days of Heaven left many critics breathless for the way it drew the mood of the w estern into the 20th century. As photographed at the magic hour by Nestor Almendros, it had such painterly glory - think of the locust attack, and the fire set to dispel them. But others felt the beauty was out of control, and that it was trying to hold off obscurity and incoherence. When a director begins to die, it was said, he risks becoming a mere photographer. Malick was seeing so much - the dust on leaves, the dew on grass - he had lost sight of story and energy.

That's when Malick really went away. He spent time in Paris and Texas. There were always things being talked about - a film of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, of DM Thomas's The White Hotel. Some doctoring was done on other people's scripts; he did a couple of projects for Spielberg, it was said; he embarked on great journeys to research The Snow Leopard. And he had his dream of a picture, about something like the roots of human nature and the story of creation. Terrific, Terry, but who is in it?

There began to be magazine stories about his hesitation or reluctance: "Absence of Malick" was a favourite title. There were even reports that he might be dead, depressed, or just holed up in some back corner of the world. He went through marriages and relationships. Once or twice, a journalist tracked him down somewhere, got him on the phone, and Terry said, well, no, thank you for your interest, but this wasn't the time to talk. Others rounded up Malick's acquaintances, trying to build a portrait. Sissy Spacek said well, she might talk, but she'd have to clear it with Terry first - so could the reporter tell her how to get in touch with him?

We dined in Beverly Hills, one night last July, in a small group after a screening of Endurance (see story, right), a film that Terry had helped produce and directed by Leslie Woodhead, a documentary on the Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. Terry had been in effect the host at the screening: he loved the epic, heroic quality of the film and the beauty of the Steadicam tracking shots in which Gebrselassie seems to run from the desert into the city. He had taken the evening off from cutting The Thin Red Line, his eventual third feature, the film of James Jones's novel about Guadalcanal, a project that had haunted him - in writing and thinking - for years. Which now was only a few months away. And we talked.

He never said he preferred not to. He wasn't silent on The Thin Red Line. He said there was miles and miles of film, and that it was a riddle and a labour getting it down to some length and story, but that Fox were being patient and kind - so long as he made Christmas. So we talked about Austin, Texas (where we had both spent time), and about running. I had once seen Emil Zatopek run, and he wanted to know what that was like. And he was amiable, open, relaxed, happy to laugh and talk; he was damn close to being gregarious. But of course, it was an evening devoted to someone else's film.

As for The Thin Red Line (which duly appeared last Christmas in the US), it seems to me the work of a great, rapt eye, but an eye that has grown deaf or lost from lack of practice. You see, it is not that hard to make film beautiful - not when light is everywhere and so promiscuous; but it is very hard to be coherent and pointed, without resorting to sensationalism and melodrama. The film seems to me the model of its indecision, a film of many undigested ideas or openings. It is a war movie, yet it is its opposite, or denial, too. But that decision has not been taken, so we only half feel or glimpse the scheme of one soldier - a beauty named Witt - who goes AWOL, or goes away, communing with nature in an effort to forget the war. But that thread, and many others, are all so far away, and they are not reconciled with the strongest story - that of an officer (well played by Nick Nolte in what is really the only conventional performance) who will do anything for victory, honour and medals.

Maybe The Thin Red Line needs time to settle in; maybe it is closer to a kind of contemplativeness drawn from Oriental art - it is fascinating to note that in the early 1990s, Malick served as writer (with Andrzej Wajda as director) in a not very successful effort to translate the great Kenji Mizoguchi film, Sansho the Bailiff, to the stage. In other words, and perversely, Malick chose American classics - James Jones and Guadalcanal - to explore the chance of making a "European" film, poetic, novelistic, musical, something closer to Antonioni or even Mizoguchi?

But can American film be like that? Just as American soldiers in 1942 were not on Guadalcanal to admire the light on the windswept grass, the butterflies and the birds, so American film is always pledged to the idea of essential narrative incident. I'd guess that Malick was deeply affected, and even dislodged a little, when Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan opened just a couple of weeks after our dinner. That film re-appraised our sense of combat on screen, and it turned upon an amazingly cute and acute narrative incident. It is the kind of story germ that re-enforces America's sense of film being determined by universal anecdotes. It's a nutshell.

Once before, in Badlands, Terry Malick had that sort of situation - the kids driving headlong into the distance and their future - and that organised his eye. Yet in his nature and preoccupations, I think, he is not like Spielberg, Disney, Hitchcock or Chaplin in his capacity to see cogent incident. Rather, he is a mixture of Audubon, Antonioni, Mahler and Musil, someone who wants to see all the impressions and gather them all in to make some enormous - limitless? - amalgam. But in America, and in the film world affected by America, we are not used to thinking of that as a movie.

I'm not sure that Terrence Malick needs or wants to go much further in a movie-making climate where fierceness and tidiness are so dominant. The Thin Red Line strikes me as wayward notes for a film as yet unmade - and its box-office colapse will weigh heavily, for this one at least $50m. Late in the day, actors supposedly in lead parts were cut entirely or drastically reduced. Some time last summer or fall, an action picture became threaded through with ruminative voice-overs from soldiers one cannot always identify. Everything blurred a little.

But it is plausibly the work of a mind that finds itself in the camera's observation of life. That's why The Thin Red Line is being so staunchly defended by some. Still, next to Badlands, it is slow, long, confusing, prettified and pretentious. None of which matters if you happen to find yourself at dinner with the rather wistful yet very likeable, presence, Terry Malick, as well as the intellect open to wondering just what would have happened, say, if Nurmi, Zatopek, Pirie, Ron Clarke, Viren and Gebrsalassie, all at their best, had been in the same race. To say nothing of wondering, in that event, which of the gang would have said this race was too good to miss, so maybe he'd rather sit out and watch.

`The Thin Red Line' opens in March.

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