Before Claude Monet was one of the world’s most renowned painters, he was shut out of the Salon, the French Academy art exhibition that showcased the best of what the art world had to offer. Like many of his Expressionist contemporaries, Monet had been effectively excluded from the elite art world, his works derided as deplorable and crazy. Despite its ubiquity in French and Art History lessons for all ages, this fact has never ceased to surprise me.
Malick, who took a 20-year hiatus from filmmaking between his second movie, “Days of Heaven,” in 1978, and his career resurgence, is a sort of enigma in the film industry. Giving no interviews and scarcely appearing in public, Malick has become like a Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster; public sightings are about as a rare as universal acclaim for his work. Malick’s films ask deep philosophical questions without giving the answers. They show slices of life in a non-linear format. They’re confusing, with much more voiceover than actual dialogue. Confusion is more than welcome – it’s demanded.
Malick is our preeminent impressionist filmmaker. Like the paintings of Monet and Van Gogh, he paints a canvas in which individual strokes conflict and certainly don’t mix. To examine, say, solely the bottom left corner of a Monet painting would yield confusion: just a series of brush strokes with no clear aim, no agreement. But step back, and the picture’s totality is revealed. Malick, similarly, blends his scenes together. Dialogue from one scene begins at the end of the one that precedes it, but by the time the scene begins, the sounds begin to fade out.
Malick has also, infamously, cut many actors from his films, or has edited characters out of their starring roles. Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain Christopher Newport in “The New World,” Malick’s 2005 film, recalled in a panel discussion how one of his monologues which he was led to believe was a climax of the movie was reserved to a barely audible part of the soundscape. George Clooney, on the same panel, added that Adrien Brody, who has perhaps under a minute of screen time and, to my memory, no spoken lines, plays the protagonist of the novel “The Thin Red Line” by James Jones, Malick’s 1998 film of the same name is based on the novel. I suppose they are called “slice of life” films for a reason. But I hardly expect neither the actors involved nor the audience realized how thin that slice would be.
In the film review world, Malick’s movies almost never achieve consensus critical praise. Aside from their tendencies to verge on blind pretentiousness, they have little dialogue, consistently dense voiceovers, unfamiliar themes — “grace” is explored in depth in his 2011 film “The Tree of Life” — and confusing plots, or, rather, stories, since there’s hardly “conflict” or clear endings. At times, Malick seems to practicing the art of obfuscation rather than filmmaking.
And yet, each time I finish one of his films, I’m convinced the two can operate together. If the human experience is one of confusion, subjective perception of phenomena, and no clear beginnings or endings, then Malick is perhaps best suited to capture human life. Impressionism, which served as a refutation to photography and its superior ability to capture images than still-life painting, has always found its power in its portrayal of the subjective. No one can look at a Van Gogh and think, ‘Well, I’ve seen that in real life before.’ Impressionism is an art form that can capture what photography can’t, or at least what it could not have in the late 1870s.
That’s why I’m confounded by critics who find Malick’s form deplorable. Watching his films are hard work, and they require a lot of patience and thinking. They require a full look not at plot or characters, but at image, sound and feeling. That’s certainly not easy criteria to evaluate for critics. And, of course, he is certainly not immune to a flop. His last two films, 2012’s “To the Wonder” and this year’s “Knight of Cups,” currently at the State Theatre, are far from reaching the excellence of the three that preceded them. But like the earliest Impressionist painters, Malick is working out the kinks.