What Do You Do With A “Problem” Like Malick?

It took me a good fifteen minutes to just sort through the racing thoughts in my head long enough to come up with a title for this post. That’s what an auteur like Terrence Malick can do to even the most excited of film fans. To fall back on a paraphrase from the Sound of Music, is – well – rather weak and trite in comparison to the man and his work.

After taking home Cannes top honor, the Palme d’Or, Malick’s Tree of Life is all I can think about. You see, there has been only one film – just one – that I can remember in my short life thus far, that has given me years of reflection, thought and awe . That film was 1998’s The Thin Red Line.

I remember seeing this film for the first time, walking out of the AMC Theaters with my buddy, and not speaking to each other for more than 40 minutes. I was awestruck. And when I did speak, I looked at him and I said, “I think that might be the closest thing we will ever see to poetry in the film medium.”

I studied film in college, and learned in my first class the term mise-en-scene.

When applied to the cinema, mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting. Mise-en-scène also includes the positioning and movement of actors on the set, which is called blocking. In modern filmwork, these are all the areas overseen by the director, and thus, in French film credits, the director’s title is metteur en scène, “placer on scene.” During the 1920s through the 1940s, these areas were typically overseen by the producers, titled variously as the producer, the production designer, the art designer, or the art director.

For Malick, this means every aspect – not just those five. Case-in-point: I have never heard a more hallowing and haunting soundtrack that so closely conveyed the feeling of each chartacter in a story than I did in Red Line. Furthermore, I stand by my original comment to this day: that Malick had pushed through the boundaries of this medium to create poetry on film. I fear that it barely gives justice to the kind of reaction that watching – no experiencing Red Line can do to a person. Watching it that afternoon was the first time that a modern-day director might have captured the full extent of mise-en-scene in a film.

I knew Malick had been working on Tree of Life for some time now, and yet I somehow had forgotten. His win a couple of weeks ago in France has rekindled the excitement inside of me like nothing else has in recent years. As I recently looked at the trailer for Tree of Life, I knew I would be getting myself into more of the same mind-numbing, soul-searching experience with in his latest opus.

What it comes down to for me – and perhaps I am being greedy here – is this:

Why can’t we have more problems like Terrence Malick?


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