Terrence F. Malick ’65 is an enigma; one of the most influential and greatest modern filmmakers, he is also one of the most reclusive. Even diehard fans, who constantly revisit all three of the groundbreaking films Malick has made over the past thirty years and are eagerly awaiting the January release of his latest, “The New World,” haven't seen a new picture of the man in decades.
Since his graduation day forty years ago, Malick’s genius and idiosyncratic personality have given him a completely unique place in modern film. The 62-year-old Malick does not agree to interviews with the press and his contract stipulates that no current photos of him can be released for publicity. The timeline of his life, or what the public knows of it, is mainly a series of basic facts, interrupted about once every decade by the release of a revolutionary movie.
Born the son of an oil executive in Texas in 1943, Malick entered Harvard as a first-year in 1961, living in Matthews. He moved into Adams the following year, and concentrated in Philosophy under Professor Emeritus and respected film theorist Stanley Cavell, who provoked Malick’s interest in German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Malick graduated Phi Beta Kappa and earned a Rhodes Scholarship. He spent several years at Oxford’s Magdalen College, but dropped out after a clash with his advisor over the contrasting worldviews of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.
After a stint as a lecturer at MIT and publishing an acclaimed translation of Heidegger’s “Vom Wesen des Grundes,” Malick earned an MFA at the American Film Institute Conservatory and directed his first film, a comedy short about two bank-robbing cowboys called “Lanton Mills.” He simultaneously worked as a writer and script doctor on several large-scale productions before setting out on his own as a director, disillusioned with Hollywood studio employment.
His frustration, along with his solitary nature, led him to pioneer the now-common practice of independent financing. It was via this method that Malick made his first feature, “Badlands,” in 1973. Five years after “Badlands” came “Days of Heaven,” which film critic Roger Ebert has placed in the “Great Movies” section of his website, commenting calling it “above all one of the most beautiful films ever made. Malick’s purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss.”
After “Heaven” came a twenty-year break from directing spent in Paris and Austin, Texas, where Malick now lives. Nothing is known of the motivations for his time off or how he spent it, but his self-imposed exile prepared him for a triumphant return in 1998 with the World War II drama “The Thin Red Line,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The unique style Malick developed in those three films draws heavily on the philosophic training he received at Harvard. Like Heidegger’s archetype of the human as a being who simply “exists,” with no direction or motivation, Malick’s American everymen and everywomen drift from scene to scene, through non-linear plots and rich landscapes.
His upcoming project is a revision of the colonial legend of John Smith, starring Colin Farrell and Christopher Plummer. Fox News, the first media organization to publish a review of “The New World,” dubbed the movie “Pocahontas on Acid” before elaborating with a string of adjectives: “surreal, slow, confusing, choppy, and just plain weird.” Critics are already wondering why Malick would choose an actual fourteen-year-old to play the adult Smith’s love interest, or why the film jumps around in time without any warning or explanation.
As with all of Malick’s films, questions abound, and as always the director provides the answer he has stood by for four decades: “No comment.”