Saturday, July 18, 2009

Talk About Your Missed Opportunities

Watching Terence Malick's Days of Heaven again, for the first time in a while, I was reminded of this exerpt from an interview with film composer James Horner, regarding Horner's work on Malick's The New World:

I would sum up Terry as a brilliant photographer - and that's where it stops. The images in The New World are stunning, in Thin Red Line are stunning. In Thin Red Line he was surrounded by a couple of three or four people, a wonderful editor, a wonderful sound effects person who guided him through the dubbing and a couple of other people. And on The New World they were not employed. And Terry shot The New World and the whole idea of The New World was going to be a love story between John Smith and Pocahontas. And there is no reason in the world why it could not have been as great love story as Titanic was.*

I know! If only, right? Why can't Terence Malick, a filmmaker whose head is full of poetry and images and who is willing to follow his story where it leads him, instead of dragging it, spitting and kicking, after him be more like James Cameron, whose head is full of technology, and who would probably fire half his crew if anything ever happened on one of his sets by accident. With Days of Heaven, Malick takes his story, which is at root a potboiler, and makes it Biblical. With Titanic, Cameron took tragic history and turned it into television.

Okay, I thoroughly dislike Titanic. I understand that many people like it, and I'd rather not fall into the trap set up by Horner, intentionally or not, of comparing and judging one filmmaker against another, especially as the two have almost nothing to do with each other. But isn't it interesting that Horner seems to think that The New World would have been better had it been more like a film that had already been made (a film for which Horner's score won an Oscar, not incidentally)? What a blinkered view of film he must have, and how interesting that the opinion comes not from a studio suit, but from someone on the creative side of filmmaking. This also reminds me of something Owen Gleiberman said in his review of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which was, roughly, that he expected Anderson to be able to make a really wonderful film some day, if he could just stop being Wes Anderson. In other words, if only he'd subsume himself into the machine. Let your instincts and point of view fall away. Don't make the films you want to make -- make the films I want to see. And that's a film critic talking, folks, but it's the same thing with Horner and Malick. Gleiberman wants Anderson to lose his individuality, and Horner wants to write the score for a movie that's just like that other movie he wrote that other score for. You know the one. It's where Leonardo DiCaprio teaches Kate Winslet how to spit, and then he falls off a boat.

Perhaps I'm making far too much of these couple of quotes, but Days of Heaven is such an original, beautiful and haunting movie that Horner's belief that Malick would be a better filmmaker if he'd just model himself on the guy who wrote a scene in one of his movies where a big robot asks a teenager what crying is, really and truly fries my ass. He said it three years ago, and I'm still chapped about it. That's what seeing Days of Heaven again for the first time in about ten years will do to you. It instantly makes you the enemy of anyone who has ever said a word against Terence Malick.

So watch it, you!

*This is from an audio interview, all the links to which seem to be dead now, though if you do a search for "James Horner interview Malick", you'll find plenty of references to it. In any case, I came across the transcipt portion quoted above some time ago here.


Greg said...

I wish Mallick had put a scene in Badlands where Billy Zane chased Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen into the bowels of a sinking ship just before they're arrested. I don't know how he would've worked that in, I just know when you watch it you realize it's missing.

Anyway, I didn't really care for The Thin Red Line but I absolutely see your point and agree with you. And Days of Heaven and Badlands are two amazing films.

Jason Bellamy said...

Great headline, and great post. I'd never heard that quote before. Amazing.

If you're reading too much into it, that could only mean that Horner was simply defining success according to mass audience appeal as measured by box office numbers and Oscars. But the "that's where it stops" part is a blatant slam.

Now, I enjoy Titanic, though I understand why some don't (I admit I squint my eyes in a few places). The thing is, Horner obviously fails to realize that The New World is a tremendously emotional film. It's just not a traditional, out-of-the-box Hollywood romance. And thank god for that!

Craig said...

I generally admire Malick (much more than I do Horner), though something always stops me from entering the temple. On the naysayers' side of things, I've always enjoyed one critic's one-sentence summary of Malick's work: "He never met a leaf he didn't like."

bill r. said...

Greg - Malick could have put Zane in there during a dream sequence. Anything! Just as long as he's in there!

I didn't like THE THIN RED LINE at first, either, but now I think it's a (very) flawed masterpiece. There is so much good stuff in that film, at times it's so moving, and it's like no other war film I've ever seen.

Jason - Thanks, and yeah, the Horner quote is pretty hard to misread, and I can't imagine any interpretation making Horner come off well, but I thought my bit about "subsumed into the machine" might have been a bit much. Still, if it IS a bit much, it's because Horner (and Gleiberman) chose their words very poorly.

And I didn't lean on The New World too much here because I honestly don't know the film very well. I've seen it, but I did so under less-than-perfect circumstances, so I need to go back to it. If I knew the film better, this post would have been a lot longer, probably. In any case, Horner obviously can't see that THE NEW WORLD and TITANIC are two completely different beasts.

Craig - I can understand not being a full-fledged Malick acolyte, and I'm not sure I'm there yet myself. As I mentioned, I struggle with THE THIN RED LINE, but at times I think it's incredibly beautiful, and, obviously, seeing DAYS OF HEAVEN again really bowled me over. But Mallick's not exactly infallible. One thing that struck about DAYS OF HEAVEN is that at 94 minutes, it still seems pretty full. He squeezes every second out of that time. His switch to much longer running times recently is not, I think, one of his best ideas. THIN RED LINE is sort of clumsily long, while DAYS OF HEAVEN is precisely as long as it needs to be. If that makes any sense.

Ryan Kelly said...

Alright, I love Titanic, but Horner decrying The New World for not being as great a love story as Titanic is one of the two or three more ridiculous things I've ever heard. It's not as great... it's 100 times better! I think The New World is Malick's best, honestly.

And does Horner not realize he did his best work for that movie that failed to live up to the lofty standards of Titanic?

bill r. said...

Ryan, I honestly don't even remember the music from The New World. Last night, I was actually thinking that The New World has the least memorable score of any of his films. When I do get around to watching The New World again I'll pay more attention to the music, but every other Malick score is really striking and memorable. But Horner's score...I don't know what that even sounds like.

Craig said...

As for that Gleiberman quote, I can kind of see his point -- similar to his once positing that if Woody Allen were to direct Armageddon II, that it would probably be a helluva lot more interesting than his run of crap work covering the same ground over and over again.

Anderson is a talented fellow, and he's not in sub-Woody terrain yet, but he needs to get out of his own head once in a while and live in the world. Malick has his own singular vision too, but I also detect behind it a full life's worth of experience: of thinking, being, doing other things. With Anderson's movies, I sense an awareness of this problem (which, in a way, is what The Darjeeling Limited was about). But I think that "Stop being Wes Anderson" really means to synthesize one's distinctive vision within the context of someone else's -- as Malick did with James Jones, P.T. Anderson did with Upton Sinclair, the Coens with Cormac McCarthy, Kubrick with a myriad of adaptations. I'm not sure an animated film from a book by Roald Dahl is the way to go, but we'll see.

bill r. said...

Craig - Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, so I'm not inclined to agree with you, but you make a good point, in that I would not mind at all seeing Anderson adapt some novel that was completely removed from his current a horror novel, or something. Boy, that would be something.

But Gleiberman's quote, I should have probably mentioned before, was tied to his glowing praise not of The Darjeeling Limited but of Hotel Chevalier. I, for one, can't see how that short film is somehow removed or so distinct from what Anderson has been doing all along. It's certainly in keeping with Darjeeling, which Gleiberman went on to pan.

Craig said...

Heh, well, now I have to completely contradict my thesis and confess that I loved Hotel Chevalier too, while finding Darjeeling unsuccessful though interesting. Frankly, I never understood how the two were supposed to go together: Chevalier is textbook Anderson, whereas Darjeeling is Anderson attempting (somewhat) to move out of his comfort zone. Hotel Chevalier hit me as a classic short story (and it's no way a putdown to say that Anderson's style is perfect for the short film form); Darjeeling Limited was, for me, more of a rambling novel. I saw the former on iTunes before the latter's release, which originally did not include the prologue and probably bewildered audiences wondering what Natalie Portman was doing in a bathrobe in the train-car sequence late in the movie. I guess Darjeeling needs Chevalier more than Chevalier needs Darjeeling. I think only one of those stands fine on its own.

Tony Dayoub said...

It's funny that Horner would recommend that Malick try recycling some of Cameron, since Horner is well-known to recycle his own musical themes himself (listen to Star Trek III's Klingon theme and tell me he didn't directly lift it to reuse it as Aliens' theme over the climax).

I could argue that Malick probably overshoots (Horner's point about Malick as a "brilliant photographer") and then massages the movie into shape in the editing room. But that does not diminish his talent as a film director any more than it does Scorsese's when he does the same.

Now if he's talking about commercial viability, I'll concede the point ot Horner. But The New World is one of the best films of the decade, and Horner is out of his depth if he can't recognize that.

Rick Olson said...

What a blinkered view of film he must have, and how interesting that the opinion comes not from a studio suit, but from someone on the creative side of filmmaking. ...

Nice. Do you think that hack Malick will ever employ that embattled auteur Horner again?

I think that "Darjeeling" is very much a quintessential Anderson film, sort of like "Life Aquatic" only on a train and actually a good movie. The prolog? Not so much.

bill r. said...

Tony - If Malick gets his films together in editing, that's his business. We know that what matters is what's finally on screen, and Malick's films are like no one else's.

And I've heard other people claim that Horner rips himself off continually, though I don't know his work well enough to say that I've noticed that myself. I do know, however, that he ripped off "Carmina Burana" for his score for the final battle in Glory.

Rick - I love The Life Aquatic, but to each his own. And I thought Hotel Chevalier fit right in. Anyway, Darjeeling is Anderson through and through, and I thought it was brilliant.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

The odd thing is that I thought the love story was the weakest part of The New World. I think Badlands is one of the greatest color films ever, so Malick can certainly do a love story. But through TNW, I kept really being interested in the stuff about settling a new world, the Europeans discovering a strange land, the natives not knowing what to make of the Europeans, the settlers trying to recreate Europe and failing, the struggles for power within the settlement... but then it would go back to the sorta half-assed love story that didn't make sense and I was annoyed again.