I have met Terrence Malick.
I’ve talked to Terrence Malick.
In a manner of speaking, I interviewed Terrence Malick…to my knowledge, I’m the only journalist ever to have done so.
Flashback to 1979:
Malick, whose “The Tree of Life” is currently in theaters dividing audiences like a hot knife through a stick of butter, was attending Show-A-Rama, a gathering of movie exhibitors and studio reps that for more than 20 years was held in Kansas City. (It subsequently evolved into ShowWest and moved to Las Vegas).
That year the relatively unknown Malick was named Show-A-Rama’s Director of the Year and showed up to claim his plaque. (At this May’s Cannes Film Festival he declined to make an appearance to collect his Palme d’Or for “Tree.”)
My interview with Malick was arranged by the convention’s press office. Then the Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Kansas City Star, I was looking forward to it, having been hugely impressed by “Days of Heaven” and its predecessor, “Badlands.”
What nobody at Show-A-Rama realized was that Malick was seriously press shy.
Knocking on the door of his room at the Crown Center Hotel, I was met by an obviously surprised Malick, who politely but firmly informed me that he never gave interviews.
Why not, I asked.
I used to be a journalist, he replied, as if that explained everything.
He did offer, however, to let me stay and chat as long as I took no notes and didn’t write the episode up.
So we gabbed for a half hour (Malick’s mother was in the room…which in the context of “Tree of Life” is kind of cool…).
I can’t remember many details.
I recall that Malick talked a lot about how obsessively he had worked on the Dolby Stereo soundtrack for “Heaven” and how frustrated he was that so few theaters at the time were equipped to take advantage of it.
Trying to get him to talk about his themes, motivations or other conceptual ideas wasn’t productive. He just scratched his beard and shrugged.
Malick has continued his private ways. The only picture of him approved for publicity purposes is at least a decade old. He currently lives in Austin TX where apparently he maintains an unremarkable life. I’ve got acquaintances there who say he’s been spotted at Whole Foods or a coffee shop.
But who is this guy?
He’s not talking, but his movies do.
Once recurring theme is that of man in nature. Or perhaps man versus nature.
In his first film, “Badlands,” the outlaws Kit and Holly live in the woods like Robin Hood; often they are seen as tiny figures against the flat vastness of the West.
In “Days of Heaven” farm hands battle locusts and prairie fires – and nature always wins.
The World War II drama “The Thin Red Line” opens with a shot of a mostly submerged crocodile awaiting the arrival of its next victim, and the film contrasts bloody battle scenes with footage of birds, insects and greenery.
Conventional narration receded even further into the background with “The New World,” ostensibly based on the story of John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas but more of a reverie of Europeans at odds with nature (and of native Americans living in harmony with it).
The first spoken words in “Tree of Life” are about how we should live our lives…whether by nature or by grace. And if you thought “Thin Red Line” and “New World” were non-linear, the new film will leave you tied in knots.
It’s odd…Malicks’ first two movies were, in a sense, emotionally neutral. They viewed their characters from a cool distance, either with a satirical eye (“Badlands”) or a lyrical one (“Days of Heaven,” which plays like a folk ballad come to life).
Even up through “Line” and “World” Malick’s films have been noteworthy more as visceral experiences and exercises in style than for opening a window on the personality of their creator.
But Malick’s impulses are those of a real artist, and real artists can’t help but reveal themselves.
Which is why “Tree of Life” is undoubtedly the most emotional, revelatory film of his career.
I recently met a woman who grew up in Bartlesville OK, where Malick’s family moved when he was an adolescent. She knew the family and found “Tree” to be fiercely autobiographical, especially in its depiction of a loving mother and a critical father, and in the central chracter’s relation to his younger brother, a guitar prodigy whose death at 19 triggers the flashbacks that make up most of the movie.
In fact, this woman said, Malick’s brother was a protege of Andre Segovia who was expected to become one of the world’s great musicians but instead committed suicide.
Think about that as you watch “The Tree of Life.”
| Robert W. Butler