Saturday, May 28, 2011

Malick & Me

A lot of my journalism isn't on the Internet, but when people write to ask me for a copy of an article, it's never, say, when I took the Beastie Boys to Graceland. No, what they clamor for-- still -- is a piece I did 25 years ago, that by now has become my equivalent of a defining first hit single that a band never recovers from. But -- as I often tell actors who bemoan being identified with one role -- it's better to have one of those than none, right?

It's a piece I'm proud of -- the 24-year-old me spent six months reporting it, for pittance pay, for a magzine that few read. The reason for its legend is the subject: visionary, esoteric director Terrence Malick, who at the time hadn't made a movie in the seven years since his previous movie, Days of Heaven, a gorgeous big-screen fable which itself was seven years after his peerless low-budget debut, Badlands, a fictionalized version of Charles Starkweather's killing spree -- and had stopped giving interviews even earlier.
Malick's of-necessity cameo in Badlands as a man who
stumbles on the killing spree. He's never acted before or since.
One school year I screened 146 movies here. 
After being obsessed with Malick's films from viewing them repeatedly at the Harvard Square Theater revival house [right], I painstakingly tracked him down
only to have him reject me. But "Absence of Malick," published in now-defunct California magazine in November 1985, was the first piece to try to make sense of his disappearance, and oddly none of the facts have changed that much since then.
A generation later, in a move as audacious as his movies, he's held on to the firm, polite refusal to join the ever-exploding world of hype.  In the interim, he's become the movie world's J.D. Salinger. But unlike Salinger, he still creates art and puts it out there, albeit slowly -- his new film Tree of Life, is only his fifth in 38 years. 

Malick's maintained mystery is all the more impressive now than when he started in the '70s, in the world where most studio movies are a franchise and have been noted to death. 

It's a sign of the power of his silence that New York magazine went to the extreme of faking a Malick interview by cobbling together quotes he actually said, some of them decades old, writing new questions to pretend it was current. In trying for whimsy, though, all they did was look dumb and hungry for web hits. (I'm not playing along. But what I did find through them was this previously unpublished translation of a 1979 French interview which is fascinating -- Malick's philosophy and use of life experience don't ruin your viewing, they enhance it, which makes his reticence all the more frustrating.)

In the impressionistic, elliptical new movie, one of the few complete sentences spoken onscreen by the female lead, Jessica Chastain, is when she points to beauteous clouds overhead and excitedly tells her sons, "That's where God lives!" For a certain generation of filmmakers, actors, and nerd moviegoers, that is where Terrence Malick resides -- up in the rarified ether that Stanley Kubrick used to inhabit.

Check this out, if you're not one of the 2.3 million who already have (or maybe the 23,000 Malick obsessives who watched it a hundred times each?) Even when Tree of Life was given the Palme D'Or at Cannes last week -- i.e., the hypefest to end all red-carpet galas -- its writer-director did not speak or take the stage. I searched for a photo of him and found the above security cam-style "Where's Waldo" shot.  Because a sighting is like seeing Sasquatch, as journalist Jeffrey Wells has written.

The movie is widely reviewed, and I won't waste your time adding much to that conversation. The plot is basically: when one of three sons dies in a 1950's Waco family with a brutal Dad, people grieve, and the oldest son relives his sketchy memories. It's apparently based on Malick's own childhood, though as with all things Malick, details are hard to come by. 

But with Malick it's not the plot, it's the themes and the execution. Themes like Grace (acceptance) versus Nature (aggression). Nearly every shot is mind-bendingly gorgeous and yet naturalistic; the performances of the kids and the etching of fragmented childhood are unparalleled. There are definitely problems -- like a 15-minute sideshow by Kubrick FX man Doug Trumbull about the creation of the universe that Malick had been planning since back before I wrote my article. But it's certainly a use of cinema you don't get from many Americans these days -- the Coens, maybe Darren Aronofsky. 

But he clearly has no thought of pleasing the popcorn-eating public. Even the Coens, who have not sacrificed a whit of integrity or control, aren't this esoteric, although Ethan was a philosopy major at Princeton, the way Malick studied it at Harvard. The Coens are also amusing themselves and us more than they are trying to express earnest treatises on the Meaning of Life.

[Funny aside: when Joel and Ethan hit the scene in 1984 with Blood Simple, they did so much press to get it on people's radars, they got sick of themselves, and went into hiding, or at least diffidence. I was assigned a piece on them by Esquire -- which would eventually run in Rolling Stone -- and the way I ultimately got them to agree was when they found out I had written the Malick piece, because they were obsessed with him too. They asked me to play them my painful five-minute taped phone call with Malick when I finally located him, and I acquiesed. Hearing it they felt so sorry for me that they allowed me to tag along with them to Cannes when they announced their next movie, Raising Arizona; to their upper West Side office to watch them write a scene from it, and then down to the set of the movie. So I have Malick to thank for that.]

So how did I get to Malick? A little luck, and a lot of shoe leather, which, back in pre-internet days of 1985, meant long distance phone calls. Some of the people in his camp were of the viewpoint that if Terry didn't want to talk, neither did they. But some people spoke to me and then gave other people the thumbs up. I remember meeting the actress Brooke Adams in her New York apartment, and she clearly had never had an acting experience like working with Malick, and had had no idea how the movie was going to turn out. Martin Sheen wanted to talk because Malick basically made his career. Malick's college classmate Wally Shawn didn't want to talk, but his answering machine message rejecting me was so great - and so Wally Shawn -- that I quoted it to lead the article, which may or may not have pissed him off. Editor Billy Weber (one of FIVE editors listed on Tree of Life) was incredibly helpful. And Bill Weld, who had been a roomate in college, and would later end up Governor of Massachusetts, was very useful without having any movie knowledge at all.

Many more people turned me down than talked to me. Typical was the reaction of Sissy Spacek, who starred in Badlands (and married Malick's art director Jack Fisk): "I just want to check this with Terry first. Do you know how I can get in touch with him?"

But when you're reporting a story like this, it's not about getting the big names, or even the quantity, it's about getting the right person. And the guy who provided my "Rosebud" turned out to be another college classmate, Jacob Brackman, who had served as a producer on both Malick's films.
Brackman with James Taylor, 1980 (photo: Lynn Goldmsith)
When I drove up to his home in upstate New York, I didn't know what to expect, but he was warm and incredibly erudite and insightful. He knew Terry well, remembered the process of the movies in incredible detail, and spun wondrous phrases.

After our talk, afraid his candor might alienate Terry, who he hadn't spoken to in years,  we agreed he could go over a draft with me to make sure the offensive passages might not be attributed to him. I took his name off one where he said during the Days of Heaven edit, "the decision was made to go broad -- more Tolstoy, less Dostoyevski, a big canvas in which the people get smaller and the performances get less important." He laughed and told me that Terry would know only he could have said it, and it was fine. When I left his upstate manse this grand old man in his early 40's called me "Old Sport," and I realized that I was like the Nick Carraway to Malick's Gatsby. [UPDATE: Brackman also spoke with journalist Nathaniel Penn for this new, worthy GQ online piece about the making of Badlands.]

Part of what I discovered in my quest was the kinds of things that can shatter you when you've idolized someone: the meticulous movie Days of Heaven actually turned out to be largely an editing room fabrication -- the original script bears no relation to the finished film, which includes a lot of "B-unit" footage and was salvaged with a voice-over, which is now Malick's modus operandi. But you know what? It doesn't matter how the sausage gets made, it's the vision of the final product that matters. It's that kind of medium. He had enough instinct of what he was after and how to make something great of that.

What troubled me more was that it sounded like Malick had gone a little bonkers, decamping to a garrett in Paris, trying to make a movie about the creation of the universe by shooting close-ups of lizards dressed to look like dinosaurs. (He uses CGI in Tree of Life, which, like the scenes of modern-day America, almost seem like selling out -- as Anthony Lane points out, Malick had never previously shown an image of America post 1950's. Personally I feel he's a better documenter of existing nature than a manipulator of it.).

I had originally pitched the piece to Esquire, which, as I've written here earlier, didn't want to do it unless i could guarantee speaking to Malick, because they'd been burned on a "write-around" about John Lennon that was printed right before he died that ended up to have a lot of mistakes. So I landed at California magazine because Brackman had written for its editor Harold Hayes when he was the grand master of classic Esquire from 1960-73, and made an introduction.
Harold Hayes
Hayes was ornery with me in that way that grizzled veterans can be with youngsters. He said he'd pay me $1500, which, for 6 months work, was barely going to cover the expenses, but it was going to get published, my first big feature in a magazine. He assigned me to the editor Andy Olstein, who did a lot of work helping me cut the classic obsessive first draft into something publishable. I can still pick out phrases Olstein added because they don't sound like me, but for the most part, he was incredibly helpful.

And then, out of the blue, I accidentally found Malick. The piece was mostly done, but I had a few more numbers of people who knew him I'd been dragging my feet about calling, and I thought, well, shit, I better be completist about this. Someone had told me that Reverend Jim Tucker who had taught Malick in high school still saw him regularly, which most people I spoke to did not. So I thought I better just make sure some of my suppositions at the end aren't way off base.

I called Tucker's number in Austin, Texas, and I got him on the phone. I said, "Hi, I'm David Handelman, and I'm doing an article about Terrence Malick." Before I could go on, Tucker cheerfully said "I think the best thing you should do is call him yourself. Hold on, let me see if I have his number." And suddenly I was mouthpiece to ear with Malick, after all these years of idolatry and months of learning everything about him, and I was caught totally off guard. But then again, so was he.

I told him everyone I'd spoken to, I told him I'd gone to college with one of his college buddies' daughters, I told him what a fan I was, that I just wanted to know what he was up to. Boy, was I sweating. Careful what you wish for.

His silences were painful. My friend Bill Zehme did a great Warren Beatty piece for Rolling Stone where he actually timed the silences. But at least Beatty wanted to be heard. I only quoted the very first thing Malick said to me: "Well, I, I, uh, I guess I don't want to talk about it." before he told me he wanted to go off the record, but then what he said was so innocuous I paraphrased it and didn't feel dirty for having done so. I was so paranoid about who had given me Malick's number, I obscured it in the article.

I recently dug up the cassette and listened to it again. What I realized, to my horror, is that if I had just told him I wasn't going to use any of it and just wanted to talk to him, I probably would have had a conversation with him. A friend of mine recently met Malick at the Austin Film Festival and they talked about classic romantic comedies and Preston Sturges. Why didn't I do that? Argh, the journalist's hat.

Anyway, the piece led me to other feature assignments, it didn't stop Malick from making The Thin Red Line, The New World, or Tree of Life. But most of all, I worried that longtime friend Brackman would end up in the doghouse. So I was happy to see that when the titles came on at the end of Tree of Life, the first name in the special thank yous after Malick's (third) wife -- is Jake Brackman.

So, there's that. Here's hoping Terry's got more movies in his bag of tricks up there in the clouds.


Robert said...

A truly fascinating read, David!

David said...

Wonderful and sublimely thoughtful story. Andy O edited a few of my California Mag pieces, too. "The Love Machine" -- about matchmaking computer bulletin boards; a profile of Sid Caesar; a profile of Edy Williams.

And Hayes let writers be writers.

Good times.

David said...

ah yes, the education we got at the Harvard Sq. cinema. Even if I had the time now, watching all those films on DVD (or streaming, or whatever) just wouldn't be the same.

I also long for the days when we could spend six months reporting a story (or the equivalent) without hearing all the various meters ticking in our head ...

nice piece.

Rob said...

What a great article. I am so amazed at how Malick affects people. I went to University of Texas at Austin Film School where my fellow students and I worshiped Malick's first two films. (The Thin Red Line was not even a real rumor yet.) We went nuts trying to find Malick when we heard he was in our own city. It was like Roger Thornhill trying to track George Kaplan. I even got a local video store to tell me what videos he rented. He's less reclusive now. Having just popped up at Austin City Limits fest shooting Batman himself Christian Bale among the crowds. Waiters and local crew members I have talked to don't always paint the nicest picture of the man but who cares? He's one of the last great artists making event cinema. I still hope to bump into around here. Now I know how to do it. So thank you. Always glad to hear from a fellow fan.

Ian said...

i regret that, as yet, i know nothing of Terrence Malick, but i am privileged to know Jake Brackman, and i love your description of him. it's spot-on and he deserves every glowing word. bravo.