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The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America – Hannah Patterson (Editor)

Wallflower Press , 208pp , £9.99 , PB

Bitesize: A collection of essays about an enigmatic American director.

Terrence Malick’s reputation in cinema is as enigmatic as it is enviable. Reclusive (cue: lots of comparisons with Stanley Kubrick) and with a reluctance to discuss his work, he is often seen as a figure of awe, a mythical and mythmaking auteur unlike any other working in the US. Add the stories of perfectionism and long shoots, along with the inordinate time between films and the fact that he has made but 3 films in 30 years (Takashi Miike can make more in a fortnight it seems) and you have a director who is virtually a legend.

This is the right time for a re-evaluation of Malick’s small but exacting body of work.

The dust has now settled on the long awaited Thin Red Line (1998), a film that divided critics due not to its anti-war stance but more its anti-war-film stance. It’s a film more concerned with existential considerations of man and his environment than on the tedious gung-ho splatter of Spielberg’s unfairly lauded Saving Private Ryan (whose release is contrasted in some of the essays presented here – normally with justifiable although inevitably partisan incredulity at the inferior film’s success). With the news that Malick is again due to go back in business with not one but two films (the long gestating Che chilling on ice for the time being but still very much a “go” project) Wallflower’s contemplative collection of essays could not be better pitched – after all, we’ve probably still got a fair time to let it all sink in before his next film hits the screens.

Being that the body of work discussed is so small there is an unavoidable overlap between some of the essays but each examines Malick’s films from a differing perspective, be they, for example, aural, aesthetic or cultural. The book is likewise split into two reflecting the gulf (in terms of both filming and in terms of the change in Hollywood studio ideology from the free-for-all 70’s to the market-led modern studio system) between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line. In some ways this makes sense; the bemused reaction at the time to The Thin Red Line (as pointed out in Martin Flanagan’s essay the film was given a ‘?????’ rating in the Guardian) didn’t so much polarise opinion as confuse it. It also serves to create an artificial distance in the auteur’s work that makes the reader have to tie the threads between the films when, in some ways, this is the critic’s job.

In the end though most of the essays do not refer to the works in isolation and provide plenty of points to elucidate upon. While there is a danger in canonising a director on such a meagre output (remember his auteur status was proclaimed after only two films) Malick’s position as a major American (as opposed to Hollywood) film talent is hard to dispute.

Any Cop?: Interesting, occasionally contentious, occasionally heavy pieces about maverick Malick.

The Cinema of Terrence Malick