Monday, June 20, 2011

When Smart Writers Say Not-So-Smart Things

I know for a fact that Sam Wasson is an excellent journalist (his terrific book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. made me appreciate the importance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film I actually kind of hate), and he may even be a nice guy, for all I know. But he is now also the author of one of the most misguided pieces I’ve read in quite some time: this article in LA Weekly about Terrence Malick entitled “The Too Quiet American.”

Wasson asks, “Are we in love with Malick, or the idea of him?” He then details his opinions of various Malick films: He adores Badlands, for example, but he finds Days of Heaven to be “the most watchable unwatchable movie ever made” (which is a good way to disqualify yourself from being taken seriously when discussing Terrence Malick, but I digress). He did love The New World, but he hated The Tree of Life. Not that his opinions on the films matter -- since Wasson’s main objection appears to be that Malick doesn’t do press:
[T]he limits of his oeuvre have been as good for him as his unwillingness to talk about it. Unsurprisingly, his defenders treat his detachment as proof of his nobility. They say he wants the films to speak for themselves (this I've heard from his collaborators); that he's not interested in the limelight (they told me this, too); and that he's shy. Maybe. But if you believe, as I do, that Malick's man-made myth serves him well (he is as ethereal as his films, is he not? And that does lend them a touch of credibility, does it not?), then you might agree that his decision to step outside showbiz is actually a feat of self-salesmanship worthy of Lew Wasserman.
This is the kind of criticism that only ever gets leveled by professional writers -- as if the only way to seriously engage with a film were through additional printed collateral. It’s also the kind of silliness people used to utter about Kubrick – that his supposed “reclusiveness” was some kind of extended anti-publicity publicity stunt, or, even worse, a grand chess game with the world. (Didn’t Sarris at one point take Kubrick to task for the supposed meagerness of his output?) Such criticisms tend to have a curiously selfish tint: “This person doesn’t want to speak to ME?? Clearly this must be some sort of game they’re playing.”

That said, I can sort of understand Wasson’s frustration, on one level. One guy I wanted to talk to for my Q/Tree of Life piece for New York Magazine actually tried to make me feel guilty about asking him for an interview, which I thought was just silly. There’s no shame in wanting to know more about the artists we admire. (Malick himself, an avid reader who once wrote a draft of a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, possibly understands this.) But I don’t see why any of that has, or should have, any bearing on the work itself. Wasson somewhat admiringly cites Lars von Trier’s press conference meltdown at Cannes, which is odd: If there was one genuine tragedy at Cannes this year, it was to be found in the way the furor over Von Trier’s “I’m a Nazi” comment completely overwhelmed and misrepresented one of the saddest, gentlest, most beautiful films of that director’s career. Wasson deems “commendable” Von Trier’s misguided attempt at provocation – an act that, even had it worked, would have merely succeeded in adding more noise to the conversation, not clarity.

How does any interview help in this regard? It’s great if a director eloquently discusses their work and why they did certain things, but very few can: Scorsese and Hitchcock come to mind, of course, and a few others. But there’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker not wanting to talk about their work: We call on them to make films, not words. (John Ford gave interviews. Did any of them actually help anybody understand his films any better?) But in trashing Malick's “ivory tower of unaccountability,” (since when has an artist had to be accountable? What is he, a pollster?) Wasson suggests that Malick implicitly stands “against the fact of community and the egalitarian notion of boundless conversation.” To which I can only say, “Whaaaa?”

Here’s the thing: We do hear from Malick – through very personal films that are quite earnest, at times almost naked. He isn’t smuggling in ideas via genre pictures. He’s not struggling with intransigent screenwriters or acres of studio notes. He’s carved out a freedom that lets him foreground his ideas and thoughts fairly directly; indeed, that’s one of the things that divides audiences so much about his work.

I’m not denying I wouldn’t be fascinated by a Malick interview (though I would be sorely disappointed if he in any way seemed “accountable” in said hypothetical interview). But especially in the case of this director, the movies really are all we need of him. In that light, Wasson’s strange condemnation of Malick’s supposed silence is a prime example of the fault Wasson sees in others: He’s the one who seems to be in love with the idea of Malick – not realizing that the real Terrence Malick is out there in the conversation, making movies that directly address his vision of life.


  1. Typical journalistic narcissism, coupled with an utterly unreflective devotion to the industry's promotional teat. Not at all surprising this article was written in Los Angeles, where a failure to self-hype is apparently unfathomable.

  2. Thanks, Sam (Adams, that is). "Utterly unreflective devotion to the industry's promotional teat." That's a great line. But if that awesome pun was in any way intentional, I may have to kill you.

  3. Yes, Sarris did say that ... and here's the punchline ... he said between STRANGELOVE and 2001. That is to stay, after a decade-long period of about a film every other year. And during an interregnum that was to be the shortest of his career from that point forth.

  4. Do you know this blog dedicated to Terrence Malick:
    It's quiet difficult to read because it's such an original and frightening analysis of his films but I wish Malick's fans would dare to talk about it.