Love in the Time of Heroin: Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK

 

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The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

 

Since it started streaming on Netflix, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park has been seeing a sort of resurgence among movie fans and cinephiles. Centering on the lives of two heroin addicts in love near New York City’s proverbial “Needle Park”, the film navigates the maddening desperation and hopeless attachment of this couple to showcase a grim underbelly of addiction in America.

Despite sounding a bit like the exploitative “poverty porn” you’d see on a TV primetime news special, the film deals with its subjects, and its audience, in a respectful and unsensational manner, highlighting humanity over depravity. It doesn’t manufacture grim atmospheres nor does it play up the debauchery of its subjects to exploitative ends. Rather, the film’s characters resonate with us as charismatic, congenial but also incredibly flawed and frustrating people who succumb to the worst of vices and eventually trap themselves in a cycle they can’t break out of. Both Bobby and Helen, despite having their relationship hinge on their dependency to heroin, do things normal couples would do: eat sandwiches in the park, talk about their life ambitions, get jealous, and stick up for each other.

That it’s bubbling up from the depths now to be discovered by a Netflix-streaming generation is rather fortuitous. While many of us may think we understand heroin addiction as an obvious social problem, the breadth of our knowledge is limited solely to the depiction of junkies as depraved and scary individuals. The academics among us will throw around data like the increased opioid overdose rates among teens and what percentage of those are heroin induced. Even those of us who empathize with the idea that an addict is someone who needs help, not punishment, can’t say much about the day to day experience of an addict beyond stealing money and getting a fix.

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The Panic in Needle Park shouldn’t be treated as some ‘be all say all’ of the junkie demographic (it is a work of narrative fiction after all, even if it presents its subjects unfiltered) but it does serve as one of Hollywood’s single most responsible documentations of the slow and painful collapse caused by addiction. That it filters itself through a love story, as we see the co-dependency that heroin entraps both of them in forcing them to drag each other down, makes it all the more devastating. Addiction within the film is not solely in the context of drugs, but also love and money. Helen’s dependency on Bobby for emotional comfort is reciprocated equally as Bobby begins to depend on Helen for his scores. His need for money turns their supposed loving relationship into a pimp-prostitute business contract. He continues to get jealous every time Helen sleeps with someone for money even though their desperation makes it a necessity. Despite the abuse and the perversion by which their relationship is defined, Helen can never seem to leave Bobby. Their arguments and fights and bouts of domestic violence are always outweighed by the knowledge that they are each other’s sole meal ticket to money and heroin.

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The central mutual self-destruction of two people who love each other makes The Panic in Needle Park easy pray to becoming a sappy sob-story which manipulates our emotions and draws out the tears. Schatzberg and his screenwriters Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne however, create incredibly multi-faceted characters who’s likability and unlikeability at different points throughout the film keep us empathetic but aware that we are not so far removed from them. There are things in our life, be it people, substances, or places, we keep going back to despite them being terrible for us. Attachment is a powerful thing. So is dependency. Addiction is a culmination of both and magnified ten-fold. In the end of the film, the whimpering and forced sadness we would normally feel in a “traditional” melodramatic Hollywood treatment of drug addicts is instead a practical understanding of Bobby and Helen’s plight, and if maybe not quite expected, an appreciation for them as humans.

A note on the acting: The movie’s claim to fame is that it is “Al Pacino’s debut role”, which is a false statement, though the film is the first role in which Pacino is the lead actor. Opposite him (Bobby) is the ethereal Kitty Winn (Helen), whose film career unfortunately only spanned six films (including The Exorcist) within one decade, after which she inexplicably retired from acting. If her performance in Panic in Needle Park, which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1971, is any indication, we missed out on an actress who could’ve been at least as great as Ellen Burstyn or Sissy Spacek, her young 70’s indie contemporaries.

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Making bad decisions and having a GOOD TIME

 

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Good Time (The Safdie Brothers, 2017)

 

There eventually comes a time where I witness an undeniable talent in the film world. Last year it happened with Moonlight and its director Barry Jenkins, and this year it happened with Good Time and its directors Josh and Ben Safdie. It’s a beautiful thing really to see filmmakers who inject such a personal serum into every fiber of a film. It’s beautiful because it has become so rare. It’s beautiful because barely anyone has a fucking imagination anymore. Many are too scared to reveal a whole deal about themselves.

Centered around a drug-rattled and morally questionable protagonist named Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson, who, like Ryan Gosling before him, has officially transitioned from cheesy teen heartthrob to an actor you actually want to pay attention to), the film takes us on a winding journey through Connie’s pathetically desperate attempt to save his brother Nick (Ben Safdie) from a botched robbery for which he was sent to jail.

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The Safdie Brothers don’t hide their artistic flair, and their inspirations, influences, and general view of the world are on full display. The opening shot, a robotic, thundering zoom into a glass building next to a sunny coastline, is like something directly out of a Michael Mann film. Everything that comes after subverts expectations of what I’ve become accustomed to being fed by “traditional” action thrillers.

Ironically, there is hardly anyone in Good Time who is likable. Nobody is lionized as some criminal hero. Connie manages to skirt many an attempt by police to stop him, and weasels his way through a number of fortunate situations, but there is hardly a reason to root for him especially since his actions are at the detriment of innocent civilians (It’s worth also noting that, whether intentional or not, the film perfectly showcases how black individuals end up being collateral damage and scapegoats in majority of criminal activities conducted by white perpetrators). The sad and easily-combustible cesspool-like environment here is a tamer version of the Safdie’s pervious much more gutting and much lower-budgeted film, Heaven Knows What (which I reviewed here).

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During Good Time, I found myself subconsciously wishing for Connie to get caught. He’s not Tony Montana, nor Don Corleone, nor Henry Hill. He has no air of superiority. He has no larger-than-life personality. He’s not charismatic. He’s just a slimy bumbling prick who needs to get what’s coming to him. His victories are luck, not an act of strength. His moral ambiguity and lack of clear lines make for an interesting introspection into how we perceive criminals in movies. Is the bumbling dirty poor criminal, who acts against the law out of desperate survival deserving of more sympathy, as a bit player scheming a system built to crush him? Is the organized white collar criminal, with power and wealth at his fingertips the one we should be tearing down?

Social and cultural undertones included, GoodTime provides a thrill ride that doesn’t rely on set pieces and pre-conceived situations as much as its characters’ decisionmaking. Connie and the rest of the cast’s fuzzy standing on the scale of “hero and villain”, which changes almost every sequence, change the way we’re supposed to think of action movies. There are no “keys to the city”, no “damsel in distress”, no “beating the bad guy”. Everyone in this movie is there for one reason: Surviving, for themselves, at all costs.

BRIGSBY BEAR and the nostalgia of one.

 

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Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017)

 

Over the course of several years, and certainly since I’ve discovered new avenues for seeing lesser-known cinema be it through festivals, independent theaters, and the explosion of various streaming media platforms, I’ve almost always come across the most unexpected movie gems away from your regular AMC multiplex.

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is the best Hollywood movie made in the first half of this year… and you probably don’t even know that it exists. It’s a small independent production, distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by the Lonely Island trio, who have been churning out underrated comedy genius for a while now (seriously, if you haven’t seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a fan of comedy). The fact that this movie hasn’t seen the light of day in regular mainstream theaters is insane because it probably speaks to the pop-culture cultism, and charming nostalgia embraced 90’s millennial kids more than any film in recent memory, and it does so without being too obvious or self-obsessed about it.

The central character, James, is a man-child who’s entire existence since his birth has been inside of an enclosed igloo with his mother and father in the middle of the desert and his only exposure to any form of other human connection is a TV show called Brigsby Bear about a giant stuffed bear and his two identical twin assistants who save the town-people from various evil villains including a Sun God. To call Brigsby an obsession for James is to undersell it. James’s life is consumed by it, to the point that he spends every day watching episodes, breaking them apart, creating mythologies around their characters, and posting his fan theories on the internet.

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

What sets it apart is its consciousness for generational gaps, and that it is, unabashedly, a film for millennials. In the internet age in which my generation has made it a symbol of pride to be a “90’s Kid”, most of us would predictably sympathetic towards James’ militant conviction for his childhood art. For older generations, the film may be a bit difficult to get through. However, McCary never allows his characters to devolve into being one-not. All of them are frustrating and agreeable at different points, and they make mistakes and redeem themselves multiple times throughout the film. This makes Brigsby Bear incredibly enjoyable because unlike many films which pit generation vs. generation or artistic types vs. practical types against each other, this movie understands that they’re all heterogenous entities, with different ideas and views of life, all of which are malleable in the real world.

I try not to send out direct recommendations of movies to people, but I loved this movie. I think you will too.

DUNKIRK – Racing Against the Clock

 

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Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

From the opening shot of a group of young British soldiers walking through the streets of a battleground French town during World War II, Dunkirk ignites its time bomb narrative and makes you hold your breath for the duration of the film.

Nolan’s penchant for cutting between different points of action simultaneously and muddling our perception of time between events was first showcased in the tunnel sequence in The Dark Knight, repeated again in Inception’s final dream collapse, and now here in Dunkirk, it has finally been used to its fullest effect. The film structures itself in three intertwining parts: The Mole* (where the majority of stranded British soldiers remain), The Sea (where ships hope to carry them back home), and The Air (where British jets fight with the Luftwaffe).

Nolan even quickly spells out the background of the Dunkirk situation with title cards, where German forces had cornered British and French soldiers at The Mole and the British were waiting for ships to take them home and escape death at the hands of the Germans. Of course, the Luftwaffe was flying around trying to sink any naval rescue the British had in mind. Thus, the situation was dire and the clock was ticking as the Germans were closing in.

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

Adding to the technical innovations, the politics of the film, a topic which is almost impossible to not touch on in today’s climate, are in themselves unique in comparison to how Hollywood deals with war. Modeled more closely after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line rather than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan concentrates on time, survival and the impending fear of death rather than the blood-and-guts patriotism (there is no blood in this movie) most war films aim their eye on. Sure, the pride of Britain is on display especially in Mark Rylance’s character, who is fundamental about his duty to his countrymen, but even that is more often discussed in the film as a general act of “doing good” rather than a soapbox stance for national pride. He continually says he needs to save people, not necessarily Brits. The idea of the “nation” or “citizens” is actually missing from a lot of the movie. In fact, the Germans are identified only once or twice as the enemy. In this approach, the film posits that the bravery and will to fight on for these soldiers stems from the fear and desperation that compound with each minute. They are strictly fighting to live.

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Within the film’s race-against-time narrative, there are several microcosms of the same theme peppered throughout, where two young soldiers try to carry an injured man to the boat before it sails off, a pilot crash lands in the ocean trying to get out of his cockpit before it fills up with water, soldiers try to escape from the ship’s kitchen before being trapped and drowned. All of these moments are handled with efficiency by Nolan, who lays all of his cards on the table and replaces his often critiqued overwritten dialogue with well directed and nerve-wracking action sequences beautifully captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Part of me thinks Nolan used this as an opportunity to shut all the critics up about his inability to direct action as well as Michael Bay or Michael Mann.

Dunkirk is exhausting, and it hits you like a machine gun. Every moment runs at fast-forward and every cut jumps from one tense moment to the next gripping us in with an ambiguous sense of time that leaves us hanging in the balance at each second. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s deafening score which features a relentless ticking of a clock in your ear, Christopher Nolan embarks on a 106-minute sprint of directorial showmanship in what may not be his best, but at least at first watch, I can say is easily his most technically accomplished film.

 

A Ghost Story

 

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A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

 

When considering David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, there’s a good chance someone brought up mainly on mainstream Hollywood cinema will not have the patience for it and will desperately start staring at the theater exit and checking the time on their cellphones within the first half-hour thinking “fuck… I should’ve just watched War for the Planet of the Apes again.”

The reason I say this is because that was precisely my reaction during the first half hour of this movie. Yes, me. The person who considers both Lav Diaz and Bela Tarr, two of cinema’s directors notorious for the length and ‘slowness’ of their cinema, to be among the best storytellers film history has to offer. I sat through Tarr’s 6-hour long Satantango, a film which is comprised of merely 100 or so shots each with minimal dialogue and completely in black and white, as well as Diaz’s 7.5 hour long From What is Before, similar in style and composition to Tarr’s film and neither of them seemed even close to as long or frustrating as the first half of A Ghost Story.

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So what exactly happened here?

The film revolves around the death of a significant other. Two people, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are in a loving but emotionally rocky relationship in a house which C is very attached to. After C dies in a tragic car crash he becomes a ghost and starts to wander around the house, mute and unable to physically interact with the mortal world, while M greives in increasingly depressing silence. Lowery films all of this with comatose static shots which linger for lengthy intervals with minimal dialogue and sound. Some of them are effective, such as the sequences of M packing up her life and finally moving out of the house that C loved so much, while others are unintentionally funny in their preposterousness.

One of the most silliest moments in the film is a sequence in which M sees a pie that her neighbor left her as a “sorry for you loss” condelence and then out of a fit of silent rage, begins to consume the entire pie. This event occurs in the frame of a single static shot with M crouched on the kitchen floor stabbing at the pie repeatedly with her fork, stuffing large chunks into her mouth and chewing with a lot of jaw-aching effort. It goes on for so long and with such a mechanical monotony that I could feel everyone else in the theater telecommunicating with me, the same exact message: “Are we really going to be sitting here watching this girl binge eat an entire fucking pie?!?”(She ends up stopping four bites shy and vomits it all out in the toilet across the hall)

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What augments the utter banality of the film’s first half is that Lowery’s deliberately slow style here is completely let down by the setting he’s working with. Unlike similarly quiet and paced films such as Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher, Lowery is restricted to the interiors of a rather unremarkable house and its even less remarkable surroundings. The communal farm in Satantango had such a heavy air of depravity that every scene, even if it lasted for long durations and shot in black and white, was rife with detail and texture and a sense of doom. Foxcatcher had the benefit of the DuPont estate being remarkably picturesque as well as haunting in its stillness, beautifully complimenting the deliberate pace of Miller’s style. A Ghost Story takes place in the suburban neighborhood in a house that has almost nothing going for it in its current state post-C’s death.

Luckily, the house doesn’t stay this way, as M eventually moves. Before she does however, she sticks an anonymous note in the cracks of the wall of the house. Lowery plants this seed to keep tying us, and C’s Ghost, back to the relationship he was tragically ripped from. It is gimmicky, but it’s the first hint of intrigue in a rather painfully bad start.

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The second half thankfully moves a lot faster, but it doesn’t get that much more interesting.

As we enter the post-M era of C’s Ghost’s time floating around the house, the film departs from physical reactions of loss and death, into a much more philosophical territory… for better and worse. The changes in tenants, buildings, and landscape of the property elicits a rapid passage of time that leaves C’s Ghost further battered and lost in the memory of the house he has now become a part of. The several instances where C’s Ghost scratches the wall to retrieve the anonymous note remains really the only thing that keeps us caring for his character. There is some serious emotional heft in these scenes and the best parts of the film are those which ties us back to C and M’s relationships, the good and the dysfunctional. Everything else, remains childish.

Another giggle-worthy event is when C’s Ghost peeks at another ghost in a neighboring house and having a vague conversation about “waiting for something”. Is… comic relief? Is Lowery doing this to poke fun, give us a breather from the ghosts and loss, and love? Or is this guy being straight-faced and actually believes this to be good philosophical storytelling?

Perhaps the best description of A Ghost Story’s attempt at profundity is the scene when a group of 20-somethings occupy the house and throw a party. In the kitchen, four of them have gathered around, a bit buzzed, talking lightly about the meaning of “life”. One of them, a bearded hipster one would wager, goes on an incredibly verbose pseudo-intellectual rant which aims to make so many badly concieved points, that it makes none. The critic blurb I see most often connected to this movie describes it as “cosmic”, but its journey to discern our ideas of memory, death, and time sputter out before getting off the ground.

Wakefield – A story of a patriarch

 

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Wakefield (Robin Swicord, 2017)

It’s unclear what the motive behind the movie Wakefield is. Not just the characters or the world they exist within, or the film’s “message”, but the reason for its existence. Why did director Robin Swicord, who gained fame for her literary adaptations such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Memoirs of a Geisha, feel the need to write and make this movie? I have a few thoughts, but I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m asking for the purpose behind a film’s creation. Frankly, it’s a question we should ask Hollywood films more often, and more often than not the reason is money. But that’s clearly not the case here because, besides me, I don’t know another human being who has seen this Bryan Cranston starrer which released three weeks ago. Yeah, did you know Bryan Cranston acted in a movie that released three weeks ago? Money could not have been part of the equation. The real reason behind my curiosity is the actual plot and story of the film….

Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorrow which in itself is a reimagining of the same story originally written by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Wakefield is about a family man with a city job who comes home late one night after being stuck on a malfunctioning train and follows a racoon loitering through his garbage into what seems like a storage area above his garage… and (take a breath)…. decides to just live there and spy on his family for a whole year.

“What the fuck?” – you right now, probably

Bryan Cranston plays the titular character, Howard Wakefield, a man disillusioned from his monotonous day to life-cycle of wife, kids, and job. He lives in a very upper-class WASP neighborhood, decked with picket fenced McMansions, luxury cars (Wakefield owns a Mercedes), fine china, private-school going children, and Joseph Aboud tailored suits. The need to cutting lose from a daily lifestyle is something a lot of people experience, particularly at Wakefield’s mid-life crisis age. However, instead of the expected trope of blowing off money on expensive things, Wakefield’s crisis takes him into a faux-“survivalist” lifestyle. I say faux- because he technically has food and shelter at his disposal at all times. He’s not ever in any real danger through this whole ordeal.

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But the way he enters into this commitment away from his family seems preposterous. Coming home late one night, he notices a raccoon scavenging in the bins on his driveway. In an attempt to shoo the rascal away, he instead sends it up the stairwell in his garage into a storage floor. There, Wakefield notices his wife and kids finishing up dinner without him and… decides to just spend the night. Over the course of a week, he argues with himself over what time would be appropriate to re-introduce himself into his family without it being a gigantic ordeal. Clearly, he supposes, his wife will assume he has been cheating. It’s such a strangely evolved concept that it not only challenges us into identifying with a clearly unlikeable person but also in the idea of what the hell the story is getting at.

Going through E.L. Doctorrow’s short story, written first-person, a marked distinction from Hawthorne’s original which is told as a third-person account, much of the actions Wakefield executes are hardly explained beyond a mere “unknown circumstances” or “can’t imagine why”-s. It’s almost as if this man doesn’t have any control over his mind or body, that he believes fully that his several months in that attic were a literal out of body experience as much as an out of lifestyle experience.

Is Wakefield clinically insane? He talks about the events towards the beginning of the story as having a Doppler effect, or a string of occurrences which seem to prophesize on the collapse of human civilization. He mentions his actions had a snowball effect of irrationality from the first night he spent in the storage area to the following several months. But his constant acknowledgment of his irrational behavior rules that out.

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The most logical interpretation of the film’s underlying social themes, in my eyes, is that Wakefield is engaging in a despicable patriarchal power move. One with an heir of complete self-importance in regards to his family. By removing himself from the family, and watching their struggles he finds a sort of sick joy in knowing they can’t handle life without him. He is not so much insane as he is sociopathic. The evidence of this is obvious in several instances where his wife is getting help from a friend on finances, and Wakefield chuckles knowing there’s no way she can afford her lifestyle without his paycheck let alone manage all the monetary budgeting that he and he alone does for the household. Given Swicord’s talent in translating fiction into a visual portrait of multi-dimensional individuals for the screen (her best work, in my opinion, Matilda, takes many moments of a whimsical child’s life and breaths soul-crushing emotional heft into them, quite daring for a children’s movie), her taking a short story to feature length with such a difficult to handle premise was not something I was particularly worried about… but the end result showed that stretching Wakefield as a character leads to many wrong turns and confusingly contradictory portraits of who he is, and why we should accept him as believable.

Much of the second half of the film, a swift turn from the first half, Swicord concentrates on humanizing Wakefield into a compassionate, humble character who ultimately has a self-realizing epiphany. It’s the classic case of a film which steers away from difficult, murky territory of seeing a truly depraved person eaten by his own mind and into a story of glorious self-fulfillment, that too, at the detriment of everyone around him. It’s strange coming from Swicord, who’s writing sensibilities clearly lean towards a feminist reading of the material. Why would she have us believe in this man’s motives as being anything less than a narcissistic act of neglecting three women in his life on a whim? That he is actually capable of learning a lesson and that is what catalyzes his return to society, and not that he is so egotistical, so emotionally distanced from his family as humans with wants and needs, he feels he can waltz back in just like that.

The film would have us believe that by removing himself from everything Wakefield has gained an appreciation for it all… one of the most tired and uninspiring Hollywood lessons. It’s like an American Dad episode written and directed with a straight face.

SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.