7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

Tree of Life2 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

The idea of your quintessential ‘art film’ and director Terrence Malick go hand in hand. His latest, To the Wonder, is one of his most polarizing, some hailing it as his latest masterpiece and others decrying it as either a typical Malick poetic snoozefest or an uncharacteristic flop from an otherwise solid filmmaker. I can’t speak to the quality of this release specifically since as far as I know it’s unavailable for those of us here in Canada, but I know that this response is somewhat predictable when it comes to Malick’s movies. He’s not someone who’s going to ever really make a universal hit. But that doesn’t mean he should be dismissed by the majority of movie fans.

In a medium where people regularly complain about a lack of variety, originality and general creativity, filmmakers like Malick should be valued much more highly precisely because they offer something completely different. It’s a conundrum that a lot of people seem to face: they want new stories told in new ways but when actually faced with a different style of narrative presentation they flee the scene and return to their place of comfort. This certainly true in all cases—there are plenty of valid reasons to not dig movies like Malick’s at all—but it is a hypocritical tendency I’ve noticed among writers and movie fans that warrants some extra attention.

Maybe you’re someone who really wants to get into Terrence Malick’s stuff but just can’t find the patience or motivation to get yourself interested. But you see other people treating his work with the type of seriousness mixed with adoration reserved for directors like Stanley Kubrick. After years of back and forth myself, I think I’m finally firmly on board the Malick train. Here are 7 potential avenues you could try to possibly engage with the work of Terrence Malick more. At least, this is how I keep myself interested in material that requires patience and a different way of movie-viewing than your standard cinematic fare.

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1) Don’t expect anything resembling your usual narrative story

To the Wonder 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

The first rule of Terrence Malick club is do not talk about the story or plot or characters in the same way you’d talk about such things in a Steven Spielberg movie. There’s no use. It’s comparing apples to birds. His early movies from the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, are the closest he comes to creating something of a beginning-middle-end type of story we’ve grown accustomed to in movies, and they’re not exactly straightforward narrative pieces. In his later, richer work, beginning with The Thin Red Line after twenty years of cinematic inactivity, his decided-upon film style essentially abandoned linear structure and went full avant garde on us. This is a quality that people will quickly roll their eyes at and dismiss, which is not entirely unreasonable, but at least in the case of Malick, there’s more interesting things going on than telling a story the way most movies do.

It’s because there’s still a story behind movies like The New World (where it’s slightly more obvious because we’re somewhat familiar with the Pocahontas story) and The Tree of Life. They’re just not being told in the way we’re used to. We have to adjust our minds a little bit and know what we’re getting into. So for a movie like The Tree of Life, for instance, we’re presented a collection of thoughts by a man reflecting on his childhood. It’s the same in the previous two movies as well, thoughts on war and on exploration. If we think of our own lives, much of the way we remember our personal histories is not through linear narratives but a collection of impressions, thoughts and feelings about a mishmash of occurrences. It’s far less verbal and more of a story based on emotion and mind’s eye visuals. So while a straight narrative like Avatar will tap into a series of feelings for us, something like The Tree of Life will access a similar level of feeling, just in a different way. If we can find a way to surrender to this style and are fortunate enough to connect with it, this makes for an immensely powerful experience at the movies. But it also means not everyone will experience it in the same way.

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2) Get in touch with your spiritual side

Tree of Life3 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

I’m aware of how lame this point sounds/is. But just hear me out for a minute. One of the things art is meant to do is express things that we’re not super good at expressing in words. That’s what it’s there for. It’s like a kind of body language but formed externally. Entertainment also serves this purpose to an extent, and the line between art and entertainment is thinner than we realize, often. So I’m not even going to try to make a great distinction between the two. It’s clear that Jersey Shore is tapping into something as innate as The Thin Red Line intends to tap into, even if those innate things are strikingly different. The point is, if something is more richly expressed in words, if writing out an idea is more effective in getting that idea across than turning it into a song or a poem or a painting or a movie, then it ought to be written.

But there are some things that act upon us when we see them that we can’t really describe in a satisfying way. And Malick may, especially in his most recent work, capture these visual moments better than anyone else. So when I say spiritual, I really mean non-verbal, or maybe non-rational, or emotional, or something. You can see how easily it is for words to sometimes fall short of the point you’re trying to get across. One of the ways I was able to start digging Terrence Malick instead of constantly trying to “get” him was by submitting to the idea that his impressionistic moviemaking is meant to do just that: imprint impressions on the viewer, that hopefully eventually coalesce into something unified and complete by the end. It doesn’t always happen but when you feel as though a movie, particularly one with a poetic or spiritual nature, comes together by the end, where everything makes sense, even though you can’t describe it properly to other people, it feels somehow other-worldly. I have too much respect for this encounter with the sublime to refer to it as “religious.”

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3) Drink in those visuals

Tree of Life4 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

Movies by Terrence Malick and other filmmakers that place equal importance on the look of their pictures have led me to two conclusions. The first is one I say all the time but is especially relevant to Malick: an image is an idea. To all the talk there tends to be around movies that are visually incredible but purportedly offer little more, I say “hogwash.” That point presupposes that cinematography is less vital to a film’s effectiveness than writing or story. I would maintain that both are crucial to an excellent work of filmmaking, but each have merit on their own as well. Taking an image and making it stick in our brains is as valuable as explaining an idea that we’ll remember for years to come. Images don’t get as much respect because they can act on us non-verbally, but as indicated in point number one, that’s precisely why they deserve far more respect as ideas unto themselves.

The second conclusion the photography of Malick and co-conspirator Emmanuel Lubezki has led me to is that beauty sometimes is thought of far too specifically. I would argue that coolness is, if not synonymous with beauty, then a subsection of it. Something that looks cool ought to be treated with the same amount of reverence as something that looks beautiful. It’s just that calling something beautiful sounds much more self-important. Saying it looks cool or sounds cool keeps it kind of funny. But if we think of these terms as somewhat interchangeable, just the act of looking at some of Malick’s gorgeous glimpses of humans and nature could be appreciated on the same level as anything else that looks cool. And again, this is valuable in its own right, and also just super cool and enjoyable.

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4) Read stuff written by people who are really into Malick’s work

Badlands 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

This is a policy I hold towards most movies because I think part of the experience of enjoying movies in this era consists of gathering perspectives on films outside of our own limited experience. That’s what the internet is the best at. It’s good to have some humility, at least in my opinion, and at least be curious about what other people saw in a movie in order to inform your own primary response to what you saw. Your own experience will always be the most immediate and important aspect of evaluating any movie, but reading about others’ positive experiences with something will at least make you appreciate what someone else could take from it and at best offer you a way in, a window into making a movie work for you in an “aha” sort of way.

The go-to voice for matters such as this has long been Roger Ebert, and likely will continue to be long after his death. For Malick-specific material, I’ve learned a lot from folks like Matt Zoller Seitz and Bilge Ebiri and Glenn Kenny, but there are plenty more worth seeking out. I’ve been converted on a number of directors thanks to persuasive material I’ve read (including the Coens, who it took me years to start to really like), and many write about Malick with fervor. I never said getting into Terrence Malick would be effortless. It wasn’t for me.

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5) Take it all seriously but don’t take it too seriously. Seriously!

Tree of Life1 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

One of the hallmarks of a younger generation with a sensitivity determined largely by internet discourse and a diminishing respect for authoritative speech is the remarkable ability to treat an aspect of culture with simultaneous reverence and irreverence. Young people are able to engage in a friendly conversation while constantly interrupting to break each other’s balls without even losing a step. And they’re also able to take a line like “I drink your milkshake!” from There Will Be Blood, turn it into an internet meme, remix it, make hay about its epicness, and still treat it with the seriousness it deserves. I feel like this is new (then again, I’m not old enough to know). And it seems reasonable to assume that making fun of something in a movie means you think it’s dreck, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes it’s a way of recognizing the absurd aspects of great art.

It’s fine to think the dinosaurs in The Tree of Life are nuts. Telling the story of the whole of human existence in a little sequence in the middle of a movie about a man reflecting on his family and growing up and how he became who he is and what everything means, it’s all a little ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with admitting this. It’s crazy. There’s no need to deny the craziness in order to appreciate that it’s also kind of a beautiful way of looking at life, how everything is connected on a grand scale and every trivial individual’s story is a retelling of the story of all life on earth. Just because something is ripe for parody, and that parody of it can be as hilarious as Jim Carrey doing Black Swan on SNL, it doesn’t have to be ridiculous, just distinct, and usually ballsy. It seems more possible than ever to hold these seemingly oppositional views at the same time, and that’s totally cool.

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6) Don’t worry if you feel stupid watching it

The New World 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

I care little for the movie watcher who enjoys a movie only as far as he or she can explain it or write about its virtues or vices immediately after. This turns all movies into these cerebral exercises where you’re looking for all these minute details and clues and hints as to what it’s supposed to be ”about” until you’ve gone all the way down the Room 237 vortex. I advocate a less intellectualized movie approach, which isn’t to say that I think everyone should watch the same way I do but that it’s a valid way to watch if it’s how you’re already watching or how you would like to watch. The point is this: Terrence Malick’s movies operate like a visual stream of consciousness, the type of thinking that we do when we’re not really thinking about what we’re thinking. So wouldn’t it make sense that the best way to watch movies like this would be to not think too much about what we’re watching?

This would eliminate the problem that I often faced watching movies by Malick or the Coens or Stanley Kubrick, and still face with a lot of filmmakers, and that problem is losing interest in a movie because I just didn’t get it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be thinking and feeling in response to the action in front of me, and resented whoever was responsible for it because I felt like a moron. This still happens all the time. When I’m able to let go of those insecurities, though, and just let something act on me, and not worry so much about getting it or not getting it, I find it much easier to just appreciate the present, as opposed to stressing about the future or the past of what’s in the movie I’m watching. That way the series of moments can be taken on their own more fully, if that makes sense.

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7) Just keep watching. I don’t know.

Days of Heaven 7 Tips To Help You Like Terrence Malick Movies More, Maybe

In the end, the only thing that will facilitate a connection between you and a Terrence Malick movie is just by continuing to watch, re-watch if you want, or whatever. It’s an endeavor that can require enormous patience and for many it’s a prospect that is not worth the investment of time or energy and that’s totally fair. There are too many elusive factors that go into things just clicking when it comes to movies that rely on impressions and emotional truths and eye-grabbing visuals. They’re more subjective than your average film in my view, which I’m sure is not the commonly held expert opinion. But the reward is great, if you can take my word for it, and the effect quite profound. I’m not even sure I appreciate them the way I’m supposed to. A little adjustment to your expectations, though, can go a long way, and knowing what you’re in for with a Terrence Malick or Harmony Korine movie is half the battle. If you’re surprised by their style of storytelling, it’s a real uphill trudge. Still, it could be worth sticking out, but you have to determine that for yourself. I’m just some asshole.

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