On Roger Ebert and Terrence Malick

Posted by · 12:40 pm · April 10th, 2013

It is somehow fitting that the last word Roger Ebert would ever have on the movies concerned filmmaker Terrence Malick, whose sixth feature, “To the Wonder,” opens in theaters this weekend. Ebert has always been in awe of Malick, his reviews of the director’s films consistently revealing a tone of appreciation. And it all came to an apex last year when Ebert chalked up Malick’s “The Tree of Life” on his list of the 10 greatest films of all time for the decennial Sight & Sound poll of critics and filmmakers.

In trying to decide between Malick’s film and Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” for a new entry on the list, “I could choose either film,” Ebert wrote at the time. “I will choose ‘The Tree of Life’ because it is more affirmative and hopeful. I realize that isn’t a defensible reasons for choosing one film over the other, but it is my reason, and making this list is essentially impossible, anyway.

“Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose this is my propaganda title. I believe it’s an important film, and will only increase in stature over the years.”

That last beat could well prove a calling card for the film as, indeed, I think many of us believe it will live on as one of the great films of our time. But it wasn’t the first time Ebert had such laurels to heap upon a Malick film. He penned a 2011 “Great Movies” entry on the director’s debut, “Badlands,” writing at length about Malick’s tendency toward the natural world and narration, finding something compelling about their coupled presence throughout.

“It is the wondering narrative voice that lingers beneath all of Terrence Malick’s films, sometimes unspoken,” he wrote at the time. “Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world…Nature is always deeply embedded in Malick’s films. It occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles. There is always much detail, of birds and small animals, of trees and skies, of empty fields or dense forests, of leaves and grain, and always of too much space for the characters to fill. They are nudged here and there by events which they confuse with their destinies.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more loving, erudite boiling-down of Malick’s artistic tendencies than that.

About “Days of Heaven,” in another “Great Movies” entry from 1997, Ebert wrote that “the film places its humans in a large frame filled with natural details” and that it is “a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us. That feeling is how a child feels when it lives precariously, and then is delivered into security and joy, and then has it all taken away again–and blinks away the tears and says it doesn’t hurt.”

Masterfully conveyed, that. I found digging back through Ebert’s writings on Malick that they are some of his most potent assessments. Malick is a filmmaker who drives that kind of thoughtfulness out of anyone who might be willing to dig into his work rather than dismiss it out of hand, but Ebert found sometimes uniquely fertile ground when assessing these films.

He didn’t take to “The Thin Red Line” as much, which is interesting, as that is my favorite of Malick’s oeuvre. He only wrote about it once, however, upon the film’s release in 1998. I would love for him to have written about it again at some point. Of course, there was plenty more to be said about Malick’s use of nature and what it means within his frame, but Ebert began to think seriously about war films in intriguing ways. By the end of his review, we get this nugget:

“The central intelligence in the film doesn’t belong to any of the characters, or even to their voice-over philosophies. It belongs to Malick, whose ideas about war are heartfelt but not profound; the questions he asks are inescapable, but one wonders if soldiers in combat ever ask them (one guesses they ask themselves what they should do next, and how in the hell they can keep themselves from being shot). It’s as if the film, long in pre-production, drifted away from the Jones novel (which was based on Jones’ personal combat experience) and into a meditation not so much on war, as on film. Aren’t most of the voice-over observations really not about war, but about war films? About their materials and rationales, about why one would make them, and what one would hope to say? Any film that can inspire thoughts like these is worth seeing. But the audience has to finish the work: Malick isn’t sure where he’s going or what he’s saying. That may be a good thing. If a question has no answer, it is not useful to be supplied with one. Still, one leaves the theater bemused by what seems to be a universal law: While most war films are ‘anti-war,’ they are always anti-war from the point of view of the winning side. They say, ‘War is hell, and we won.’ Shouldn’t anti-war films be told from the point of view of the losers? War was hell, and they lost.”

On nature and losing, one couldn’t cook up a better segue to Malick’s next film. And Ebert cherished 2005’s “The New World” immediately. “There are two new worlds in this film, the one the English discover, and the one Pocahontas discovers,” he wrote upon its release. And further getting at what he took away from the film, the sense of discovery free of the context of hindsight, he noted that “what distinguishes Malick’s film is how firmly he refuses to know more than he should in Virginia in 1607 or London a few years later. The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future.”

Then, “The Tree of Life.” As noted, it made enough of an impact for Ebert to consider it one of the greatest films of all time. But when you read the review, you see how much it struck him on a personal level, how he took such ownership of the family dynamic on display. It’s fascinating to read it because I can’t recall another time he saw so much of himself in a film, and therefore, wrote so deeply about it. Indeed, he said as much himself:

“If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things.”

He called it “a film of vast ambition and deep humility,” which says everything there really is to say about “The Tree of Life.” And on the aforementioned note on paternal discipline, Ebert found a truly formative moment that must have echoed as a memory to have been so thoughtfully conveyed:

“Listen to an acute exchange of dialogue between Jack and his father. ‘I was a little hard on you sometimes,’ Mr. O’Brien says, and Jack replies: ‘It’s your house. You can do what you want to.’ Jack is defending his father against himself. That’s how you grow up. And it all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space.”

He even, as many did, compared the film to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which sits right alongside “The Tree of Life” on Ebert’s list of the best ever.

And finally, “To the Wonder.” Ebert found a lot to soak up with this film and surely would have come back to it. But to see him refusing to be definitive with it, to see him making his way through the film even as he wrote about it, is so wonderful and such a gift to be his final review.

I know I, for one, will need a few more looks at “To the Wonder” before I settle on what it means to me. It feels troubled on first blush, self-parody, almost. But there’s a texture to it I want to explore further, so I delight in Ebert’s thoughts on it. “As the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something,” he wrote. “As it continued, I realized many films could miss a great deal.”

This review is a bit of a landmark, really, not just for being his last but for revealing something in Ebert that many critics could learn: a sense of relinquishment of authority, and indeed, a desire to NOT be the authority, rather an idle observer. His final four graphs:

“A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.

“‘Well,’ I asked myself, ‘why not?’ Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren”t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren”t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn”t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

“There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent. They”ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

Malick is, as we all know, famously press-shy. He’s not the hermit some would have you believe as he can be seen out and about in and around Austin, Texas, but even TMZ doesn’t know when they’ve captured Sasquatch on camera. Ebert wrote about that, too, in his “Badlands” assessment. “I am unaware of a single interview he has given,” he wrote. “The many second-hand reports from those who know him paint a cheerful man, friendly, obsessed with details, enraptured by nature. There is a hint of Kubrick…In five movies [now six] in four decades, he has, in his own way, fashioned one of the most distinctive bodies of work of his time. Very much in his own way.”

Could those last words not be written about Ebert as well? I think so. Meanwhile, the film’s star, Ben Affleck, was naturally asked about this at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles last night. Having visited with Ebert last year where he talked about “Argo” (which Ebert predicted, before anyone, would win Best Picture), Affleck said that, combined with the review, has made for “one of the most powerful things that”s ever happened to me in my career. His last review, about this movie, was viewed through the prism of this wonderful man, who at the very end of his life, had to see the movie through that lens.”

Despite Malick’s press shyness, he nevertheless had a statement to offer about the late critic’s passing, saying that he “was very sorry to hear of Mr. Ebert”s death and remembers him, with deep gratitude, as a man of kindness and generosity, encouraging to all, a loving man whose goodness will not be forgotten by those whose lives he touched.”

And the critic and filmmaker will converge at least one more time: “Days of Heaven” has been tapped to open the 15th annual Ebertfest on April 17.

All of these reviews and more can be perused at the newly revamped RogerEbert.com. It stands there, fully updated, a monument to the great work of a great man. And the collection above is but one of countless such pieces that could be written about Ebert’s thoughts on this or that filmmaker. I’m quite sure his words will be considered and studied for years and years to come.

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