Have you ever had that uncomfortable feeling when you realize you're watching someone masturbate?
Two films have given me that displeasure. One was Death Proof and one was Tree of Life. Having gone through Malick's filmography now I'm struck by the fact that he's essentially made the same film four times in a row. And I'm somewhat skeptical of all the praise of Malick, not that he's terrible by any means, but certainly his kind of cinema is not mine. Good perhaps, but visionary?
Malick's first film, Badlands, was a fantastic start, but it wasn't until Days of Heaven that he really came into his own as a filmmaker. The plot is unimportant in that film, instead the story is told through the visuals. Malick is often called a visionary genious for this, but as I understand it, this is far from new - it's a core element of the art of film that has been employed since the dawn of cinema, itself being a core element from theater and other arts. You could say he tells the story extremely beautifully through the visuals and I have no argument with that. Working with amazing cinematographers is a plus.
But unlike melodrama rather than employ costume and other elements in this visual storytelling process Malick instead insists on a kind of authenticity and realism at the same time. The best example of this is probably The New World where an incredible amount of historically accurate detail went into the production of the film, down to recreating a basically extinct language.
Malick's films emerge in a kind of natural process as a result of these two things, and what ends up being produced are beautiful films that feel both disjointed in editing but also coherent in the sense that you feel like you've stepped back in time, with Malick pointing to what you should be paying attention to. "No this battle isn't important, you should be checking out this owl, or this flower, or that tree" or "no these are petty human concerns, look at the majesty of the universe."
That's all well and good, but it's not particularly interesting to me. How about just showing me that entirely next time and don't even bother with people?
Certainly Malick is not a stupid man. Before becoming a filmmaker - and he is film school educated - he was a Rhodes Scholar, a teacher of philosophy at MIT, a journalist for The New Yorker amongst other things, and even had his translation of Heidegger published. His films however just fail to inspire awe in me. They've been called visual poetry, and I think that's as much of an admonishment as it is praise. He's been so mythologized after his twenty year break from filmmaking (after Days of Heaven) that it's like he has free reign to do more or less as he pleases - and yet he chooses to write little poems about trees and birds, sprinkled with pretty points of dialogue that say little. He wants to visit those worlds of the past - the Texas Panhandle, the Pacific Theater, Jamestown, and his childhood - all while indulging in his love for nature and all things beautiful, so that's exactly what he puts on screen.
What I'm saying is that grass is to Malick as feet is to Tarantino. Malick may draw from his intellectual background the way Tarantino draws from his exploitation background, but both are the same kind of filmmaker to me: they make films they can masturbate to. Pardon me if I'm not that enthusiastic about either.
Still this is probably my second favorite film from him, even if I object to some of the CGI.