By Peter Bart. This article originally appeared in Variety on December 21, 1998. Copyright Cahners Publishing Company.
WHILE ALL THE STARS and star directors are busily chatting up their new movies this holiday season, the filmmaker who's eliciting by far the most attention stalwartly refuses to utter a word.
Everyone wants to write about Terrence Malick, a man who clearly prefers the sounds of silence. As if to celebrate his invisibility, the New York Film Critics last week even bestowed their best-director award on him. Reporters requesting an interview don't even get a turndown. "Mr. Malick I I mean I well, everyone knows about Mr. Malick," the flustered flack will reply.
"What's with this guy?" one young reporter asked me. "Has he died and they're covering it up?"
Well, let me make a confession: I know Terry Malick. I dine with him. I chat with him. Once I even made a movie with him.
Given this background, I can offer several reasonably informed theories as to why validity because, when I asked him that question directly not long ago, he either couldn't or wouldn't give me an answer. That only served to bolster my theories.
So here's why Terry won't talk:
1. He thinks auteurs sound fatuous and defensive when they try to explain themselves and their work.
2. He has an exaggerated sense of privacy. He doesn't want to be asked questions like "Why haven't you made a movie for 20 years?" because, to his way of thinking, that's nobody's business. Besides, he doesn't know the answer.
3. He's not a very good talker. Sure, like any Harvard man and Rhodes Scholar, Terry uses the language masterfully, but his ideas are so abstract that they tend to get lost in an epistemological fog.
In short, one reason Terry Malick can't devise a linear plot is that he cannot even devise a linear sentence. As evidence, try to figure out the plot of "The Thin Red Line." Or for that matter, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," his two earlier movies.
I once bought a script Terry wrote called "Deadhead Miles.: It was a brilliant piece of writing and, as with "The Thin Red Line," actors lined up to play the roles. Prior to the start of principal photography at Paramount, however, I sat down with Terry and said, "This is a terrific screenplay, but the storyline is fuzzy. How about giving our audience a little help?"
Terry gave me a bemused squint, one that he often wears, and shook his head. "I thought the plot was right there," he replied.
"Fine, then sit down and explain it to me."
Terry Malick talked for 10 minutes. By the time he had finished, I was even more confused. Not only did I not understand his script, I didn't even understand his understanding of his script.
It wasn't just that he talked in abstractions: Terry Malick, I realized, was a living abstraction.
All this is readily apparent in "The Thin Red Line." Plotlines start and vaporize. Characters blend into one another. Voiceover perorations march off in opposite directions. Visual images are constantly at odds with physical action.
I thought David Ansen put it nicely in Newsweek last week. What Malick had delivered was not so much a movie as a cinematic poem, he wrote. Malick's work had "a quality of meditation, at once closely observed and yet seen from afar."
OK, that sounds like an intelligent theory. Abstract, mind you, but so is the movie. And so is its silent moviemaker.
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