Friday, June 17, 2016

Freedom, Horrible, Horrible Freedom! Terrence Malick Rated

I once had to debate freedom of speech in law school and I was on the unfortunate side of the argument having to argue for censorship. I decided not to take any of the traditional approaches about protecting the public from affront or stuff like that but instead I argued that human culture has flourished best when writers had to chaff against censorship. Look at the most productive eras of world culture: fifth century BC Athens, Julio-Augustan Rome, Elizabethan England, Victorian England, Tsarist Russia - all eras of heavy censorship and yet they produced pretty much all the great literature of our culture. Since the 60's there's been effectively no censorship anywhere in the west and we've produced what exactly? Any novel as good as Pride and Prejudice or The Brothers Karamazov? No, I don't think so either...
Anyway that was my argument. We lost the debate of course which is as it should be. Still, it's interesting to think that sometimes too much freedom can be bad for artists and giving them a box to play sometimes enhances creativity. Terrence Malick is a case in point. Success does funny things to film directors. Sometimes it gives them the confidence to be more daring & more interesting sometimes it makes them conservative and eager to churn out formula and sometimes it sends them off the deep end completely. Terrence Malick, it turns out, has fallen into that latter category. I am not thank God a Francis Ford Coppola completist so I haven't seen his latest films but I have seen every Terrence Malick. You know the Malick story: two early films in fairly quick succession were followed by a twenty year hiatus when he was rumoured to be teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne, living in an Ashram or selling surf boards in Malibu. In fact he was working on the screenplay for The Thin Red Line driving James Jones's widow batty with his queries and questions. The Thin Red Line should have been a total disaster (Malick's original cut was nearly 5 hours long) but it wasn't thanks to judicious editing and a strong central story that nearly hews close to the book. Malick's return was critically praised and every actor in Hollywood wanted to work with him. Malick's fourth film, however, was The New World which lost the plot in the second and third acts but was almost saved by Malick's use of the Vorspiel from Wagner's Rhinegold, a trick I'm pretty sure he stole from Werner Herzog. His next film The Tree of Life again had a piece of music that almost saved the film: Vltava by Bedrick Smetana. But nothing could save Malick's last 2 films which I'm sorry to say are unfocused, indulgent, horrible messes. Knight of Cups seems to have gone straight to video here in Australia and it's not surprising. Its like a bad student film with A list Hollywood talent. Dear oh dear. Freedom, Horrible Freedom! indeed.

Here's my ratings of his filmography in the standard the A,B,C,D,F format....

Badlands A

Days of Heaven A

The Thin Red Line A

The New World C

Tree of Life D

To The Wonder F

Knight of Cups F