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Terrence Malick's quiet triumphs The director doesn't grant interviews or show up at studio press junkets, but that's OK: His movies speak for themselves.


Do you hear the tom-toms beating? Across the land -- at least among its most cinema- obsessed precincts -- a tattoo has begun, quietly at first and gaining force in the last two weeks: He's back, he's back, he's back.

The "he" is Terrence Malick, whose new movie "The Thin Red Line" opens in Baltimore Friday. The World War II epic, based on the novel by James Jones, is Malick's first film in 20 years, the third in a career that began in 1974 with the release of "Badlands." That film, starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen as a young couple on a murderous rampage through the Midwest, was a debut on a par with Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane," and Malick was immediately compared to that more rotund but similarly philosophical auteur.

High hopes were met by "Days of Heaven" (1978), Malick's meditative, painterly depiction of the life of an immigrant family laboring on a West Texas farm. Lacking the narrative drive of "Badlands," "Days of Heaven" was a fascinating sophomore effort from a man who looked to be one of the cinema's most visually acute filmmakers. Then, nothing.

Malick, who was born in Oklahoma, went to Harvard, was a Rhodes scholar and even wrote a bit for the New Yorker, moved back to Austin, Texas, where he had attended high school. By all reports he dropped out, became a recluse, didn't return Hollywood's phone calls and retreated altogether from common creative life. Stories would puff up like wisps of smoke -- he's been working on a play, he's in Paris, he's gone quite mad -- but with such an obstinately silent referent, there was no way to confirm or deny.

Meanwhile, Malick's contemporaries from the 1970s -- the Ashbys and Altmans, the Spielbergs and Scorseses -- either flamed out, burned out, sold out or, most amazingly, kept on making good movies and bad.

When I moved to Austin three years ago to become the movie reviewer at the paper there, I considered Malick my personal Grail. Where others had failed, I thought, I will succeed. I will hunt him down like a wild dog, gain his trust with my sincerity and other wiles, and force him to explain himself. What had been consuming him all this time? How did he fill his days in the Texas Hill Country where he made his home? And why, oh why, hadn't he made a movie in 20 years?

It would be the entertainment-journalism coup of the century, akin to the book writer at the Cornish, N.H., Evening Cornishian interviewing J.D. Salinger. Reader, I would bag him!

OK, I was young and stupid. I didn't have a chance of crossing paths with Malick, let alone settling in for a candid talk. But by the time I left Austin, not only had I given up hope of interviewing him, I had given up the desire.

At first I made desultory attempts. An acquaintance told me he often lunched with Malick at a place the director frequented, and I began to drop in occasionally, scanning the booths nervously, only coming late to the realization that I had no idea what the man looked like. He was known to attend the local film society's screenings of his own films, slipping into the auditorium after the lights went down and escaping quietly during the closing credits. Wherever I went, it seemed that Malick had just left.

He was discussing potential projects to be filmed in Texas. And he had enlisted a number of young Austin screenwriters in an attempt to develop various scripts and projects, giving the lie to the assumption that he had stopped working.

Eventually, I came to be close friends with one of his close friends -- a loyal bunch, sworn to the same vow of verbal celibacy Malick himself has taken -- and gleaned from her the unsexy fact that Malick was no myth. He isn't anti-social, blocked or mad. He's simply very intelligent and more discriminating and disciplined than most about how and with whom he spends his time.

As I was obliquely getting to know the Scarlet Pimpernel (as I came to think of him), I was also becoming more familiar with the world from which he has so astutely removed himself. Before moving to Austin I had been a free-lance writer and somewhat immune to the blandishments and predations of the movie-industry publicity machine. I wrote the stories that I and my editors deemed worthy, unmolested by PR flacks, innocent of publicity junkets and other indignities dreamed up by marketing executives to persuade writers to spill ink about their wares.

That changed after I got to Texas and had the moniker "film critic" attached to my name. I attended my first junket -- wherein studios fly journalists to New York or Los Angeles and put them up in a fancy hotel, then bring in the stars and director for a Circus Maximus of round-robin interviews -- and was introduced to the world of "phoners," 20-minute phone chats with "talent."

Try as I might to convince myself that the resulting features were legitimate stories of legitimate interest to my readers, I couldn't escape the fact that to the tub-thumpers at the studios, they were simply free ads, cheap real estate in an otherwise high-priced district. I couldn't help feeling just a little bit cheap.

When a movie was being filmed in town, of course I would request a set visit because, well, everybody does. And usually the studio would comply. Never mind the barbarity of having a reporter hover over you with a notebook and tape recorder while you work, and never mind that nothing of remote interest ever happens on a movie set.

That's the way the game is played these days: To entertainment news consumers, the work itself isn't enough. They want the story behind the work, the man or woman behind the camera, regardless of whether that story is as canned, calculated and controlled as the most finely wrought press release.

Malick, to his everlasting credit, won't play.

He allowed journalists on the set of "The Thin Red Line," and there was a publicity junket with the film's young stars, but he has given no interviews. The closest he came was to talk to a writer for Texas Monthly on the condition that she not quote him or relate the substance of their conversation.

That was a coy move on his part, and I hope that's as chatty as he gets. Because I've come to admire Malick for not buying into the notion that movies are about more than the movies themselves, and for sustaining a creative life outside the boundaries others have delineated for him.

Elusive as he's been, Malick hasn't stopped being artistically engaged during the past 20 years, as filmgoers will see when they watch "The Thin Red Line," a film that is suffused with the director's signatures: dreamy imagery, metaphysical dialogue and a pace that asks the audience to contemplate the world on his terms.

Malick has answered the burning question of why he hasn't made a film in 20 years: In fact, he has been making a film for the past 20 years. And I still honor the Malickian vow of celibacy. I promise not to call if he promises not to pick up the phone.

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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