Terrence Malick is one of the very finest American directors working today. In fact, he may be in my personal top five. It’s strange to make such statements, because at the same time I can also accurately say that Joel Schumacher has made more movies that I liked than Malick has. Of course this is only because Malick has made four films since his first, Badlands, in 1973. And his fifth movie, The Tree of Life, just won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last weekend.
I haven’t seen The Tree of Life yet, but I’m dying to. It opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, but doesn’t come to my city until June 17. And I have to see Green Lantern that weekend! Busy, busy busy!!
But anyway…you may have heard or you may not have heard that Mr. Terry Malick wasn’t there at the festival to gloat and smile for the camera and scrub under his pits with the praises of his admirers. Well…he was there, but he wasn’t “there” if you know what I mean and of course you do.
I’ve spoken about this before when I listed him as one of my five directors who don’t do commentary tracks, but would be more than welcome to in my opinion. Not only does he not do commentary tracks, he doesn’t do much of anything in terms of…you know…speaking. To anyone. And in between 1978 and 1998 he pretty much disappeared completely from the face of the earth.
He’s a reclusive, private kind of guy. (Obviously another sign of his genius.) He doesn’t even allow for photographs to be taken of him. The picture you’ll most often find of him is the one you see above—and that could be anyone! Everyone reading this has an uncle that looks exactly like that.
And while I’m sure his real reasons are something perfectly acceptable like “he’s not an obnoxious press whore” or “he’s really insecure about his acne and his braces” or something like that, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something more going on here. If you’ll humor me, here are my five most likely ideas.
1. He’s in the Witness Protection Program
This seems the most obvious, so I’m knocking it out first. It makes sense, really. After all, his BIG disappearance didn’t occur until after Days of Heaven in 1978. Before that, he went so far as to even use himself as in extra in Days and even had a minor speaking part in Badlands. And then shit went down. He spent twenty years on the lamb, “living in France,” and then after twenty years he said to himself “fuck this, I’m making a war movie!” I’ve always thought that The Thin Red Line was a big existential film on a grand scale…but maybe it was about the smaller struggles—Malick’s internal war, as he coped with what he’d seen.
Or perhaps this all happened way earlier in his life, and Badlands was the movie he made to cope. It seems fitting—I mean it is about a young couple on a murderous crime spree. Maybe Malick was a guy locked in the trunk, and chose to omit himself from the movie so as to purge himself from his agonizing memories.
Of course, we’ll never know BECAUSE HE WON’T FUCKING TELL US! But, maybe this one is less likely. Like I said, it’s a bit obvious. This next one, however, I like to think is a bit outside-the-box.
2. He’s a Na’vi.
Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I absolutely hated Jame’s Cameron’s blown-load heard ’round the world, Avatar. And one of my points of contention on the matter is that the Na’vi are really poorly designed and stupid-looking. They’re gangly extra-tall blue sparkly people with long-ass tails. They seriously look like something I probably drew in first grade.
But maybe—just maybe—that part isn’t James Cameron’s fault. Maybe he knows something we don’t know: that the Na’vi really exist! And Terrence Malick is one of them (the LAST one?). Think about it: is there any filmmaker more droolingly in love with nature than Malick? (Okay, maybe Werner Herzog, but I’m reasonably certain he’s not a Na’vi). And the Na’vi, as we all know, are…like…one with nature or some asinine hippy shit like that. Maybe during that 20-year absence of his, he was plugging his hair into all sorts of new and interesting things to come back and tell the world about.
And you know what the first 20 or 30 minutes of Malick’s 2005 film The New World bear a lot of similarity to? You guessed it: Avatar!
(But really, what movie doesn’t Avatar seem completely derivative of? People say all the time that Avatar is one color of the wind shy of Disney’s animated Pocahontas. Malick’s film was also about Pocahontas, but Cameron thought ripping off Disney’s take on the legend would probably put more asses in seats. It did.)
And although I always thought that The New World presented things in a more introspective, dreamlike, and perhaps even surreal context, from a certain perspective, it could be seen as the true-to-life version of the Pocahontas-John Smith story. Of course, in reality, there was never actually any love affair between the two. Maybe Na’vi Malick, not being of this planet, simply didn’t know that it wasn’t a true story?
3. He’s billions of years old.
First there was nothing. Then there was Malick. Terrence Malick’s films, especially as his career has progressed, are just bursting with spiritual meditation. And The Tree of Life even goes so far as to contemplate the creation of the universe and man’s place in the grand scheme of things.
Why so interested, Mr. Malick? Is it because YOU’RE AS OLD AS TIME?? Malick’s been around and he’s seen everything, and now he’s made a movie about exactly that: everything. He’s more than qualified to make a movie about the “tree of life” because it’s from there that he’s been picking his breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the better part of forever.
Throughout his career he’s made nothing but period pieces, and the same observation strikes me every time I watch any of his movies: that they have such an impeccable sense of time and place, with a deliberately paced immediacy in tone that is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen any other filmmaker produce.
I’ve never put it together until now, but clearly this means that he’s an immortal superhuman. And it makes absolute sense that he would shy away from the public eye due to this—we’d surely catch on. Either a) because he never ages, or b) because he looks like this:
4. He’s dead/never existed.
Of course, the complete opposite of the last theory has to be considered, too. Maybe he’s dead. Remember he wasn’t that reclusive in the seventies. He had those cameos in both Badlands and Days of Heaven (supposedly those are him), and I’ve even read some interview quotes regarding Badlands. Maybe shortly after Days of Heaven he just died. And the world was told he “went to France.” Mmm-hmm. Heard that one before. When I was a kid, I had a couple hamsters that “went to France” too. Maybe Terry Malick knows them.
Perhaps when The Thin Red Line came around, it was cobbled together from former notes of his, and another filmmaker made it in his memory? And then just kept going with it for two (and soon to be three) more films.
Or maybe he never existed in the first place and the name “Terrence Malick” is like a reverse-”Allan Smithee”—the name that bad filmmakers use when they accidentally make a good movie. For instance…
5. He’s Michael Bay
Honestly, this was my first and only thought but I decided I couldn’t justify an entire article alleging that Terrence Malick is the alter ego of Transformers and Armageddon filmmaker (and Hollywood’s go-to douchebag) Michael Bay. But I still think it’s an intriguing premise.
Does anyone remember two years ago, shortly before the second Transformers movie opened, when news came out that Bay’s next movie would be a “small, personal project?” Instead, this July, he’s playing it safe with Transformers: Dark of the Moon. What happened to that small movie?
My theory is this: there’s a sad, sensitive, spiritual man inside of Michael Bay that is too scared to come out. Scared of rejection, scared of being seen as vulnerable, scared of other filmmakers calling him a pussy. (Rumor has it that the Date Movie guys called David Gordon Green a “fag,” which caused him to make Pineapple Express and Your Highness.)
He makes his personal films under the assumed name “Terrence Malick” (which, if you drop the word “Terrence” and take the word “Malick” and replace the “i” and the “k” with an “e” and an “h,” and then rearrange the letters and then add “Bay” at the end, totally spells “Michael Bay.” He’s telling us something…we just have to listen). He tried to come out to the world two years ago, but he got laughed at—and to boot, no one liked Transformers 2! To right his wrongs, he immediately got started on TF3, and promised “OMG!it’sgonnalikebeSOOOOOmuchbetterthistimeipromiseOMFG!OMFG!OMFG!” And then quietly made his personal film, The Tree of Life, on the weekends. Poor guy.
Of course, how this explains Badlands and Days of Heaven…I don’t know. I’m probably wrong. Bay was 8 years old when Badlands came out, and prodigy though he may have been, I don’t know that any 8-year-old’s got that in them.
And before anyone goes into a tiff (because some people will; there’s always one), I fully realize that the probability of any of these is pretty much zero. There are no N’avis, there are no immortals, there’s no soul inside of Michael Bay. The Witness Protection Program is plausible, though…
I mainly just wrote this to entertain myself, I guess. Is there even an audience for this? Terrence Malick is a serious dude—there are no smiles in his movies. Will people who might find this funny even know who Terrence Malick is? Will Malick fans find this funny? I’m a big fan and I did. But I wrote it, I’m biased.
When I started writing this article, I had a brief exchange of words with my wife:
WIFE: What are you writing?
SHEP: Nothing, I just got a funny idea for an article.
WIFE: What’s it about?
SHEP: Terrence Malick.
WIFE: That doesn’t sound funny.
Yeah. Maybe not.