May 2013, arsenal cinema

The Films of Terrence Malick

DAYS OF HEAVEN, 1978

Terrence Malick (*1943) is a singular figure within the American film industry, an auteur par excellence who writes his own scripts, is uncompromising in his refusal to take on contract work and only makes films when he is assured complete artistic control over a project. He has made a total of six films since his debut BADLANDS (1973). The publication of a new book on Malick (Dominik Kamalzadeh, Michael Pekler: Terrence Malick, Schüren Verlag) and the release of his current film "To the Wonder" at the end of May provide suitable impetus for us to show his previous five directorial works together with a portrait of Malick, often in brand-new prints.

Malick's films span such diverse genres as the road movie, melodrama, war film and adventure film and can more be considered poetic collages of acoustic and visual moods than stringently narrated stories. They circle philosophical questions regarding humanity's existential situation and meditate on the loss of innocence in environments determined by authority and violence. Using voiceovers as a narrative instance, they tell of human encounters with death and destruction that are contrasted with images of nature of breathtaking beauty. The plot often retreats into the background, as the camera feels free to wander off into nature. Water, clouds, animals and grass swaying in the wind become more important than the psychological state of the characters at any particular time. Malick's protagonists often move towards a new world that could mean a better life or set out on a journey into nature, a potential paradise which humans are unable to recognize or make use of.  Even when these journeys fail, Malick's films never exude pessimism per se, giving off instead a sort of "cosmic indifference" (Peter Körte). His final shots are also a view into the distance: a boundless sky, railway tracks that disappear into the horizon, the ocean's great expanse, treetops moving in the wind.

We are opening the series with a presentation of the book Terrence Malick attended by author Dominik Kamalzadeh and a screening of Terrence Malick’s debut BADLANDS. The book devotes various essays to Malick, exploring his persona and unfinished projects, his proximity to the American transcendentalists, his idiosyncratic interpretation of nostalgia, the open, associative narrative form employed in his films and his use of sound.

BADLANDS (USA 1973, May 12, with guest Dominik Kamalzadeh, and May 22 & 31) tells the story of Holly and Kit from Rapid City, South Dakota, freely adapted from the 1958/59 true life case of Starkweather/Fugate. Kit, a 25-year-old refuse worker who looks like James Dean, falls in love with high school girl Holly, who is ten years younger than him. Kit shoots and kills Holly's father during an argument after he opposes their relationship. Holly and Kit set the house on fire and flee towards the Badlands, a swampland area on the border to Montana. A classic of New Hollywood, Terrence Malick directs this road movie using a singular style resembling a fairy tale. In a suitably dreamlike atmosphere, Holly comments on the occurrences in a casual sounding voiceover to the sound of Carl Orff's "Schulwerk", while the violence is never over-accentuated.

DAYS OF HEAVEN (USA 1978, May 5 & 30) Chicago, 1916: young steelworker Bill violently rebels against the exploitative factory conditions and beats his supervisor to death, fleeing southwards together with his 12-year-old sister Linda and lover Abby, who he also passes off as his sister. They find work in Texas helping to bring in the harvest for a rich farmer, who falls in love with Abby. Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer, who is apparently terminally ill, so that they can cash in on his inheritance after his death. Yet the farmer proves to be more robust than initially thought. DAYS OF HEAVEN's fame can largely be put down to the special quality of its photography and the extraordinary moods created by light. The film was shot almost entirely without the use of artificial lighting. Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, who received the Oscar for Best Cinematography, primarily shot the outdoor scenes at dawn or at dusk, the so-called "magic hour".

THE THIN RED LINE (USA 1998, May 17 & 24) "Sanity and insanity are only separated by a thin red line" is how James Jones explains the title of his autobiographically tinged 1962 war novel, which was freely adapted by Terrence Malick. It describes the battle between the US army and Japanese troops on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in 1942. Malick's film begins with images of an almost unreal beauty, showing an island paradise where two American deserters live in harmony with its inhabitants and swim in the sea with their children. This most unusual exposition for a war film is representative of Malick's unrestricted approach to genre. It isn't just that the film does away with a hero, there isn't even a protagonist; characters appear only to disappear once again. Malick employs the internal monologues of eight soldiers as a means of unifying his film's episodic structure, also enabling him to form a giant ellipse as he returns to the start.

THE NEW WORLD (USA/United Kingdom 2005, May 18, 21 & 26) Virginia, the New World, April 1607. Three English ships drop anchor at the mouth of the James River in order to set up a base on the east coast of North America. Captain Smith is sent forth to make contact with the local Native Americans, but is taken captive and only saved from execution due to the entreaties of Algonquin chief Powhatan’s favorite daughter. Terrence Malick does not stage the story of Indian princess Pocahontas and her love for English adventurer John Smith as a historical epic, regarding Pocahontas instead as the personification of the untarnished beauty of Virginia's "virgin land". He turns the encounter between Smith and Pocahontas into a drama about the the world and civilization itself, where culture is unimaginable without nature. THE NEW WORLD exists in three different cuts: Malick edited down the 150-minute premiere version to 135 minutes for theatrical release. Alongside this regular theatrical version, we are also including one big screen showing of the 172 minute "extended cut", which is only available on Bluray (May 26).

THE TREE OF LIFE(USA 2011, May 16, 19 & 29) Waco, Texas, 1955: twelve-year-old Jack O'Brien is growing up with his two younger brothers, looking to find his way in life whilst torn between his gentle, ethereal mother and his stern father. With huge freedom of form, Terrence Malick connects memories of a childhood in the 1950s with breathtaking images leading back to the very start of the world. THE TREE OF LIFE is a cinematic stream of consciousness, a complex, visually stunning mosaic of associations showing nothing less than the creation of life: the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the first micro- and macro-organisms, images of volcanoes, oceans, jellyfish and sharks. A chorus of different voiceovers not always attributable to individual characters provides the film with its commentary.

ROSY-FINGERED DAWN: A FILM ON TERRENCE MALICK (Luciano Barcaroli, Carlo Hintermann, Gerardo Panichi, Daniele Villa, Italy 2002, May 20 & 28) The reclusive Terrence Malick was also unavailable as a interview partner for this documentary dedicated to him. A whole range of people involved in the creation of his films were, however, willing to offer their remarks, often at length, in his place: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Arthur Penn, Sam Shepard, John Turturro, Sean Penn, Haskell Wexler, Billy Weber, George Tipton, Jack Fisk, John Savage, Ennio Morricone and many more. Film clips and various attempts to look for pointers at the films’ original locations structure this interview film.

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