‘Tree of Life’ – Anticipating My First Theatrical Experience with Malick

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Terrence Malick

I consider Terrence Malick to be the world’s greatest living filmmaker. I don’t even think it’s that close. Sure, he’s only made four features to date but three of them (Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line) are bona fide masterpieces. His weakest film, The New World, is only so because of the hatchet job it took to knock its runtime down to 135 minutes. Even still, it would have been regarded as a massive achievement for anyone else.

You don’t just watch a Terrence Malick film, you experience it. Anyone who has seen his work will tell you that. And that’s what makes this next bit of news all the more disheartening.

As part of his wonderful account of his first experience working on the New York Film Festival selection committee, indieWIRE’s Todd McCarthy tells of the committee holding out hope Malick’s long-awaited The Tree of Life (pictured right: featuring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) would arrive in time to be included as the festival’s featured attraction. But in the end, New York would suffer the same disappointment as Cannes, Venice and Toronto before it.

While Malick’s next film is already scheduled to begin shooting in October, McCarthy speculates The Tree of Life won’t be seen until May 2011 at Cannes. At the earliest.

Now, you can say all you want about Blu-ray, surround sound and Plasma TVs, but I firmly believe that in a theater with an attentively engaged audience is the way movies are meant to be seen. That experience simply can’t be duplicated at home. Call me old fashioned, but that’s why I continually fork over the money to see the latest releases on the big screen. And yet I’ve never seen a Terrence Malick movie in a theater.

I was a different type of moviegoer back in 2005. I clearly wasn’t the only one who missed The New World, as evidenced by its meager $12 million domestic gross.

I envision seeing a Malick movie in a theater to be this sort of overwhelming spiritual episode and this blurb from Thompson on Hollywood‘s source, one of the few who have seen the film, only reinforces that notion when it comes to The Tree of Life:

“It’s a mystical exploration of the meaning of life, a journey in which a microcosm of a family mirrors the world; the differences between man and woman, husband and wife, are mirrored against nature and grace. It will change the language of movies. It’s a real event. People will say, ‘what the fuck is this?'”

Most movies end, and I immediately start thinking about where I’m going to stop for food on the way home and check my phone for missed calls (I’m a good boy and silence my phone during a movie). Though, to this point, I’ve only seen Malick’s films from the comfort of my own living room. Yet, they still affect me in a deeper way than most. They stick with me and consume my thoughts for days. It’s an emotional trip that forces me to sit there for a while to collect myself and gather my thoughts. That’s one thing you might not be able to do in a theater.

A scene from Days of Heaven
Photo: Criterion Collection

I can picture it now: There I sit in the theater auditorium after the end credits have finished rolling, still zonked out by this unfathomable journey I had just endured. I’m approached by a confused theater usher. “Um… sir, you need to leave now. We have to sweep the floors.”

But how long will I wait while this anticipation only intensifies?

A meticulous perfectionist in Malick and a notoriously cautious producer in Apparition’s Bill Pohlad form a combination that is conducive to anything but a timely release. Thompson suggests Pohlad is hesitant to deliver any firm deadlines to Malick, who is said to still be working on cutting the film down from three hours to two and a half. This essentially puts the fate of the movie’s release in the director’s hands.

Malick has long been one of the industry’s most reclusive figures. It’s miraculous that he has managed to keep such a low profile in this day of ever-expanding access. I can count on one hand the number of photos surfacing of him online, and it seems that almost every article posted about him uses this exact same photo. It’s not even a remotely recent one.

Meetings with the press are even more sparse. If by chance someone attains that rare interview with the auteur, prying any sort of substantial information from him verges on impossible. Take, for example, this phone interview between Malick and Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells from the mid 1990s, which can be described as awkward at best. Is he self-absorbed? Stubborn? Just plain rude? Here‘s a fascinating video interview with Nick Nolte talking about his experience on the set of The Thin Red Line that would suggest he’s anything but. He’s a private person for sure, but he’s otherwise just a consummate artist who remains devoted to his craft while showing concern for little else.

Thompson’s source also says the movie contains an awards-worthy performance from Brad Pitt. An Academy Award win would be Pitt’s first, and yet another breakthrough for Malick as he has yet to direct an actor in an Oscar-nominated performance. That’s not to say he’s concerned about awards, but surely Pohlad and Apparition, the film’s floundering distributor, could use the boost. Rumors have surfaced that Summit could eventually take the reins of distribution, and we’ve seen them fail to properly promote almost everything not a part of the Twilight juggernaut.

Maybe it will be released sometime this year as promised. I’d be thrilled, but at the same time I feel like this is the type of film that needs a festival debut to build some momentum and come up with some sort of explanation and campaign to intrigue the mass public. I suppose that sort of surprise approach worked for Inception, but Terrence Malick never made a movie called The Dark Knight.

So if you’re unfamiliar with Malick’s work, my question is this: What are you waiting for? Each of his first two masterworks run a swift 90 minutes, and while his two (relatively) recent films are a bit on the longer side it looks like you’ll have plenty of time to acquaint yourself before The Tree of Life sees the light of day.

At the very least, consider Criterion’s upcoming Blu-ray release of The Thin Red Line, it’s sure to be a must own.