He infuriated his fans by disappearing for decades, before returning with near-masterpieces. He is a filmic Thomas Pynchon.
His movies are more like Werner Herzog’s, with an askew view of the world, as if reality were suddenly reframed to see things as they really are.
His ethereal The Thin Red Line concerns the battle for the Guadalcanal in the Second World War and is packed with so many stars (Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson) its galaxy is on the verge of implosion.
It doesn’t implode, but, instead, brings our emotions to the edge of the precipice, where life’s mysteries are truly appreciated.
As the battle unfolds, one marine swims underwater with villagers, in a rustic scene that illustrates the fragility of life. His meditations on life offer a profoundly moving counterpoint to the madness of war.
These themes are echoed in The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, its displaced narrative recalling the other great Hollywood eccentric, David Lynch.
For decades, Malick was a case of what might have been, then a case of what was.
His early, burgeoning promise was exemplified in the anarchistic Badlands, made in 1973, and five years later with the Richard Gere frontiers film, Days of Heaven.
Then, a 20-year hiatus — though his fans didn’t know it was a hiatus — till the return to form with The Thin Red Line, and another short break, before a sudden, late blossoming.
Now 74, Malick has directed five film films in three years.
Two of them were documentaries, but three feature-length films indicate a mind brimming with ideas. Maybe the 20-year break suppressed them so much they just had to burst out.
Rehearsing the Unexpected is almost entirely based on conversations between the actors of the various films.
There is very little interjection by the editors. Why should there be? The actors speak for themselves.
On Badlands, Sissy Spacek tells us, “I had been playing this scene with all these different actors and they were just terrific and wonderful, but when Martin came in, it was just alive. He just blew us away”.
The Martin is Sheen and the role one of the most rebellious in the history of Hollywood.
Sam Shepherd, who acted in Days of Heaven, talks of being involved with something extraordinary — “that this was not going to be just a movie. This was going to be an event.”
He is clear on the difference between a film-maker (artist) and a director-for-hire. The first, someone with a vision; the second, looking for a pay cheque.
Nothing wrong with a pay cheque, of course, but that was not what Malick was about.
Producer Mike Medavoy, whose credits include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now, and Raging Bull, also worked on The Thin Red Line.
He says the mercurial director doesn’t work like others.
“He works from the inside out. He works each scene by itself. He doesn’t see the total picture at one time.” Medavoy still backed the project, despite Malick’s potentially volatile artistic temperament.
The editors indicate that Malick doesn’t like to talk about his movies and this has largely dictated the structure of this book.
And why doesn’t he speak about them?
Because the films speak for themselves.
Would that more would do that. Less wind, more art.