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Roy Anker

"The Mysterious Nature of Nature"

On the films of Terrence Malick.

In the sometimes very peculiar history of American filmdom, hardly anyone has proven more mysterious, elusive, and plain old intriguing than Terrence Malick, a Texas-reared, Harvard-educated (philosophy) auteur of the first water. No small part of that rep derives from his inveterate reclusiveness, which is a hard feat to pull off in the American movie-making kingdom. In this regard, he ranks as a veritable phantom or perhaps, from the days of radio yore, the Shadow himself ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"). Note the history. In the early 1970s, not long after bailing from an Oxford philosophy doctorate, young Malick (b. 1943) tried journalism, soon writing for places like The New Yorker, but ended up in film school, and from there he made the still dazzling Badlands (1973), a fictional take on North Dakota serial killer Charlie Starkweather (Kit in the film, played by Martin Sheen) and his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek playing Carol Fugate). With Badlands a critical triumph, Malick five years later released Days of Heaven, starring Richard Gere and Sam Shepherd, the tale of 1920s migrant workers in Texas, a film some have called the most beautiful visual display ever put on screen. And then, well, nothing, for Malick simply disappeared, AWOL to France, the rumor has it, where he taught philosophy at the Sorbonne.

And then, surprise, after that twenty-year hiatus, from out of seeming nowhere, a return with The Thin Red Line (1998), an imposing, unconventional adaptation of James Jones bestselling war novel on the costliest of all American battles in World War II, the struggle to take Guadalcanal island in the South Pacific. In 2005 came The New World, a lush, even sumptuous recounting of the legendary Jamestown romance of adventurer John Smith and native maiden Pocohantas. And due out later this fall is Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life, a contemporary tale of generational conflict, starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt (in the place of the late Heath ...

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