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Hands Brushing Against Wheat, or the Many Mimics of Terrence Malick

Photo: Redbud Pictures

Few directors qualify as auteur-theory poster children quite like Terrence Malick, the reclusive writer/director whose To the Wonder opened recently. Since emerging from an unofficial twenty-year retirement with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Malick has doubled down on an increasingly oblique and ethereal style that has inspired a legion of wannabes, from rookies to renowned veterans. And with To the Wonder (which Vulture’s David Edelstein found lacking), the director himself has devolved into something approaching self-parody.

Malick’s style has never been a particularly static thing, evolving constantly over the course of his six-film career. Still, the Malickian hallmarks remain: reflective voice-over from multiple characters that is often at odds with the visuals; rapturous magic-hour landscape shots; cutaways from the action proper to images of trees, sky, insects, water; swelling orchestral-and-organ music of Wagnerian import; and contrasts between the majesty of nature and the shortcomings of man. Those elements were distinguishing marks of his first two films, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven. And starting with The Thin Red Line, they became tied to larger multi-character narratives and overt (and more overtly articulated) questions regarding man’s relationship to God and his environment. The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life married grand poetic aesthetics with epic thematic interests, so that Malick’s roaming, spinning camera – constantly turning itself upward in prayer or inquisition and capturing fleeting images of joy and misery – seemed an organic outgrowth of his striving for emotional and spiritual connection to humanity, the Almighty, and the greater universe.

And because of the overtness of his directorial signatures, Malick’s tics have been primed for the picking by other filmmakers. Take his trademark shot of hands gracefully brushing against swaying fields of tall grass or wheat — Ridley Scott most famously appropriated that visual in Gladiator, but it has become so prevalent in recent years that even movies as disposable as Amelia (Hilary Swank’s biopic of the female aviator) have seen fit to borrow it as a means of providing stock sentiments about romantic bliss, yearning, and tragedy. Then there’s David Gordon Green, who, despite his now-consuming foray into absurdist mainstream comedies like Pineapple Express, owes his career to Malick. Green’s first two films, George Washington and All the Real Girls, are in many respects stark Malick imitations, overflowing with stories narrated and/or driven by wide-eyed youths attempting to process and navigate an alternately beautiful and frightening adult world. Both employ storytelling modes that favor the elliptical and emotional over the conventionally dramatic, and imagery that encases rural milieus (junkyards, forests, streams, and train tracks) in soothing yellows, sumptuous browns, and big-sky blues.

That Green was initially able to pull off this plagiaristic trick is somewhat amazing, given what a careful balance Malick strikes between poetic inquiry and narrative plotting. But as evidenced by Undertow, his third film, even Green found that mimicking Malick posed the threat of reducing the director’s work to just its rudimentary building blocks, a problem that’s also undercut many subsequent copycats. Sean Penn (who co-starred in both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life) performed a pale impersonation with his directorial job on 2007’s Into the Wild, wielding pseudo-Malick landscape cinematography and accompanying voice-over blabber in a thoroughly blunt, leaden manner. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gussies up its Malick-isms (meditative and mournful narration over naturally lit vistas of the West and its existentially wounded characters) with smeary visual expressionism that makes the film play, in large part, like a beautiful cover song. However, at least Jesse James has a clear sense of itself; last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, comes off as the nature-is-ugly-yet-magical stepchild of George Washington, a third-hand piece of recycling made by someone who knows the moves but has none of the mysterious soul. By the time John Hillcoat — an accomplished director whose The Proposition also commingles natural beauty, violence, and religious turmoil — helmed this Levis ad, it was clear that, for many, Malick had become merely a collection of tricks and devices, the simple sum of various parts. Just ask Zach Snyder, whose initial Man of Steel teaser trailer, with its portentous narration, soaring music, and shots of sun-dappled butterflies and clotheslines swaying in the breeze, awkwardly evokes what a superhero blockbuster helmed by a second-rate Malick might resemble.

Carlos Reygadas’s 2007 Silent Light is a notable exception to this facsimile trend, coming across as more of a kindred spirit than a brazen rip-off. Similar to that of Malick’s later The Tree of Life, Reygadas’s film employs a contemplative pace and stunning visuals of pastoral life for a quiet, pensive story that, equating the cosmic with the individual, profoundly grapples with issues of love, death, and religion. Yet if any recent effort has achieved something truly close to Malick-ian mystery and splendor, it’s Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, at least in so far as it, too, employs lyrical (if not outright oblique) visual storytelling in which emotional rhythms are conveyed through sound and image more than through direct dialogue and action. While Carruth and Malick operate from different temperamental places — with Carruth’s films exuding a cerebral chilliness that’s far removed from Malick’s intensely passionate explorations of spiritual crisis and man’s relationship to his surroundings — they share a desire to connect to their stories’ poignant philosophical cores without resorting to typical dramatic means. Nevertheless, Upstream Color, regardless of its strange twists and turns, maintains a puzzling narrative base far more sturdy than that of Malick’s latest. Further extending the more avant-garde style that defined The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a compendium of the director’s favorite things (which you can read more about here): beautiful women twirling in the twilight amid wind-swept fields, shots of hands and arms reaching for the sun, and over-the-shoulder and/or low-angled views of titanic men and women whose symbolic qualities are matched by those of the environments they silently traverse.

Malick has long since lost interest in American two-shots, shot-countershot dialogue scenes, or neat-and-tidy three-act narrative structures, which has given his luminously photographed tales a mesmerizing spiritual and lyrical quality. But with To the Wonder, he abandons any pretense toward storytelling — for example, the film is so indifferent to creating flesh-and-blood characters that it keeps Ben Affleck’s nominal protagonist virtually mute for its entire 112-minute runtime — that it’s as if he’s refined his cinema to merely its purest aesthetic/symbolic basics. Rather than tethering his loftier notions to, and reflecting them through, the story of unique or distinctive people, Malick so radically strips everything to its abstract core that he stymies any audience investment. That may, in a certain, very limited sense, make To the Wonder the most Terrence Malick–y of all Terrence Malick endeavors. But it also renders it something close to a caricatured distillation of his signifiers — not unlike, alas, the many films and filmmakers that have sought to imitate them.

Imitation of Style: The Terrence Malick Effect