The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The post where I plow further into the Malick territory

with 20 comments

Terrence Malick. Have you ever heard of the guy? I hadn’t until a few months ago, as I took my first steps into the world of film blogs and film podcasts. But then on the other hand I heard it that much more.

I’m not sure of how big his fan club is in reality, but the members are certainly devoted, talking about Malick with the same respect and appreciation as others speak about Kubrick, Bergman and Kurosawa. Or actually even more. There is something almost religious about the worshipping, which I can’t recall seeing in connection to any other director.

Fan club or not – I haven’t seen much evidence of it in Sweden. The reviews of The Tree of Life were fairly mixed, scoring an average of 3,7/5 among the major film critics and it only played for a very short time.

Perhaps his reoccurring references to religion are a little bit too much to cope with for a more down-to-earth, predominately agnostic Swedish audience. Or maybe we don’t identify with the life at an American farm, another of his favorite themes. Either way – if you ask people in the street about Terrence Malick, you’ll to wait for long before finding someone who had any idea about who he is.

Going backwards
But in the film fan circles where I dwell, there are a lot of people whose opinions I care about who are fanatical Malick promoters, and for this reason I wanted to give him a proper chance.

As it turned out, I’ve been doing my Malick exploration backwards in time.

My first encounter was his newest movie, The Tree of Life, which might be the strangest, least accessible movie I’ve seen this year. There wasn’t much of a plot to hold on to, and there were some scenes that I yet don’t understand what they were about (various people walking around on a beach, what?). I almost fell asleep a couple of times due to the slow pace. However in the end I actually liked it – mainly thanks to the magnificent cinematography, picturing trees, galaxies and dinosaurs, accompanied by beautiful music and whispered poetry.

My next encounter was The New World, which I liked less than The Tree of Life. While very pretty and a real plot, it felt a little bit like shampoo advertising, with characters that felt a little bit stereotypical.

A normal story
Now I’ve come to my third venture into Malick territory. This time I took a huge step back in time with Days of Heaven from 1978. And as I’m getting back from this expedition, I’m glad to report that I finally have seen a Malick movie that I don’t have a lot of reservations about.

Unlike The Tree of Life, this one had a perfectly normal story. A farm laborer (played by a very young Richard Gere) convinces his girl friend to marry their rich boss, since they expect him to die soon, with the idea that they could get access to his fortune. But unfortunately for them he doesn’t die. Love starts to grow, but so does jealousy.

It’s a simple, but it’s enough to grab my interest, and the characters are at least a little bit complex, which makes me care more about them. There’s a line in the voiceover that especially stuck with me:

“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”  This isn’t only true; it’s also what I want from a movie to be believable.

This said, as in every other Malick movie I’ve seen, it was the cinematography which stood out most. It’s beautiful, to say the least. Unfortunately I only watched this on a small screen – not even a TV, since my library copy was scratched and only would play in my computer. But also under those circumstances I enjoyed the views of the open landscape bathing in the late summer afternoon sun or the close-ups of grasshoppers invading a field or the sight of a roaring, uncontrollable fire, perfectly illustrating the emotional state of some of the characters. As I googled for a screenshot to illustrate my blog post about this movie I had a hard time to choose which one to pick. There were just too many of them.

Epic and timeless
Epic and timeless, that’s how I’d like to describe Days of Heaven. And yet it’s actually remarkably short. I looked with disbelief at my watch realizing that it wasn’t more than 1 hr 30 minutes. I don’t know how Malick manages to get so much said and done in so little time, without ever making anything feel rushed or too compressed. But I have to admire him for it.

For anyone who is where I was a few months ago – with zero knowledge about Malick, but with a willingness to try – I think Days of Heaven is a much better place to start than The Tree of Life. It is straight forward, well crafted and never intimidating or boring. No whispering. No dreamlike sequences. A solid walk forward along an easily distinguishable timeline.

Personally I still haven’t bought a membership card in Malick’s fanclub. But I appreciate him more after watching Days of Heaven, so much that I’m likely to continue my journey through his works.

Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, US, 1978)  My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

October 24, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in Days of Heaven

20 Responses

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  1. Well, for me. Days of Heaven is the best place to start since it is the film that truly defines what Malick is all about. Yet, Badlands is his most accessible film because it is this unique take on the Starkweather-Fugate killings.

    His films aren’t immediate in terms of viewing. Based on my own experiences of seeing his films, it took a lot more time for me to realize that there is a lot more to what he’s saying and every time I see one of his films again. I find something new. The Tree of Life is definitely his most abstract film so far and based on what he’s got coming for him next, I think he’s going to become more abstract and impressionistic with whatever he’s doing. I’m still looking forward to it because there isn’t a filmmaker like him working today on his level.

    Take a look at my guide. I think it will help people prepare for what to expect with Malick although with The Tree of Life, I don’t think it really did enough to help people prepare for what they expected.

    Steven Flores

    October 24, 2011 at 7:48 am

    • That’s an awsome guide! Thank you for pointing me there. Unfortunately I don’t have particularly good equipment for watching movies at home, so I’ll never see the older movies they way they deserve.
      Badlands is probably my best choice for the next movie to watch.
      While I enjoyed The Tree of Life I’m not sure I’m looking forward to even more abstract and impressionistic movies. There is a breaking point for me when I lose track of the narrative and it starts to be just a bunch of pretty pictures. But we’ll see. I’m trying to approach him as openmindedly as I’m able to.


      October 24, 2011 at 9:52 am

  2. Ooh fancy. I am watching Tree of Life tonight, I got hold of a review copy. I am excited and turned off at the same time. I am not the greatest fan of films that are incomprehensible or obscure. I am a bit too mainstream I think.

    Still I am going to give it a shot.

    This film however seems more up my street, and I love a 90 mins run time. 🙂

    Thanks for enlightening me 🙂

    Scott Lawlor

    October 24, 2011 at 10:59 am

    • I think we’re pretty much on the same line as of obscurity vs mainstream. I think variation is a good thing though. When you encounter something very incomprehensible you appreciate the solid story in your next movie even more.

      Looking forward to see what you’ll make of it!


      October 24, 2011 at 11:16 am

  3. Jessica, I’m a huge fan of Days of Heaven. It’s a perfectly quiet, gorgeous movie and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I haven’t seen Tree of Life yet and wouldn’t call myself a Malick expert, but I’ve enjoyed Days of Heaven and The New World so far. Excellent post!

    Dan Heaton

    October 24, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    • Thanks Dan! I hope you’ll like Tree of Life as well. It’s not quite as accessable as I said, but at least the images are the same kind – stunningly beautiful.


      October 24, 2011 at 8:10 pm

      • That’s what I’ve heard from many about The Tree of Life. There are some slow spots, but the beauty makes it all worthwhile. It’s on my list to check out at home.

        Dan Heaton

        October 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm

  4. Days of Heaven is on my to-watch list. Saw Siskel & Eberts top of 1978 on the new site a month ago and decided to watch a few of these movies. Watched Siskels favorite Straight Times yesterday which was an amazing movie that sadly, no-one saw. Animal house was very entertaining and Halloween is a great horror movie. And since both reviewers have Days of Heaven in their top 3 so it’s on my to-watch list too 🙂

    So far I’ve seen his “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line”. Neither of which managed to keep my interest. Sure, they look fantastic but they’re missing on story. Can’t follow the critics with every movie I see.


    October 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    • I should check out that site, even if I actually think my taste is closer to Kermode’s than to Eberts.
      I haven’t seen The Thin Red Line, but I wasn’t too impressed by The New World. I thought Days of Heaven was better. But then again: it seems as if in the case of Malick, there are many different opinons about which movie of his is the best. Some want them to be more obscure. I preferred this one because it had an easier-to-follow story.


      October 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      • He’s no longer doing the show, there are two new reviewers. And I’m an Ebert fanboy myself, was very happy when he replied to two of my answers to his blog posts 😉


        October 24, 2011 at 11:41 pm

        • He has my fullest respect as a blogger. Really. A true star!


          October 24, 2011 at 11:44 pm

  5. DAYS OF HEAVEN… what a marvellous film. I am glad you liked it because if you didn’t I would think something was wrong with you, ;)! Definitely my favourite Malick.


    October 25, 2011 at 9:48 am

  6. I’m glad you liked this one! I do think it’s Malick at his most economic and I think that works perfectly at giving this film a momentum that makes it, in my mind, the best Malick film.

    I do hope you seek it out again in better viewing conditions. My first viewing was a poor DVD, but once I saw it with a proper transfer on a bigger screen, it went a lot farther in giving me the sense of scope and scale the images have.

    James Blake Ewing

    October 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

    • Well it’s not very likely, but who knows. maybe my local film club will run a Malick theme one day? I guess I could always suggest it.


      October 26, 2011 at 7:44 am

  7. I had the horrendous experience of seeing The Thin Red Line in a cinema – i don’t think I’ve ever been in the same room as so many people who didn’t want to be there by about thirty minutes in.

    After seeing TTRL and A New World, I’ve come to the conclusion that Malick is a director I can’t appreciate. He makes films which don’t resonate with me, I don’t “get” them, so to speak. That said, I’m still keen to see just how good or bad Tree Of Life actually is…. but my expectations are on the floorboards.

    Rodney Twelftree

    October 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

    • Well… Tree of Life was way more difficult than A New World which I actually thought was pretty “normal”.
      But I had issues with A New World because it felt a little bit too much shampoo advertising and I thought it was a bit stereotypical in its way to portray the native population for instance.

      The Tree of LIfe had parts where I struggled not to fall asleep. But it also had some really beautiful cinematography in combination with a fantastic score. So I partly loved it, partly didn’t “get it”. Malick seems to get more and more obscure as the years pass. I thought Days of Heaven was really good though. And accessable.


      October 26, 2011 at 11:02 am

  8. Well I was enthralled by Tree of Life and I still think about it often even though I saw it already a couple of months ago. I have always liked Thin Red Line I thought it was a great film that did not get enough attention as it came out very close to Saving Private Ryan which was also about WWII. I liked Badlands very much specially since it was an inspiration for Bruce Springteen’s Nebraska the song and also the album which is one of my favourites, if there ever was cinematography translated into music this has to be it. New World was good but I found it too similar to TTRL in that I think both are a lot about man’s realtion with nature.
    unfortunately I haven’t seen days of heaven I will buy next time I order something from Amazon.
    The images from Tree of Life still haunt me. Will likely get the BlueRay.

    Raúl (Wolflore)

    October 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    • Hey there! Good to see you still around! I hope you can get to see Days of Heaven. There are certainly some really pretty images there. And also a decent story.


      October 26, 2011 at 11:58 pm

  9. […] Any day that someone starts falling for Terrence Malick it’s a good day. This week it was Jessica’s turn. […]

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