THE CINEMA OF TERRENCE MALICK PART TWO: A MISREPRESENTATION OF WOMEN?
The Thin Red Line (1998)
After watching To The Wonder back in September, John & Chris (The Pink Smoke) kinda planted the seeds that led to this write-up. In Malick's latest film we see quite a few scenes of actress Olga Kurylenko spinning & twirling around in tall fields of grass like a little kid to the point where it borders on being obnoxious and you start to think - "Wait a minute, this is a grown woman. Why is she acting like this?" Olga's performance didn't bother me at all initially (and I’m still a big fan of the film). I actually appreciated her performance. I honestly thought Malick was trying to show a free spirit character but now it’s kinda getting to me (along with other recent female performances in Malick's work). I mean, it’s ok to be a free spirit and let go but c'mon now. Even free spirits can act mature. It would be one thing if this was just an isolated incident in one film but I started to think about the representation of women in Malick's post-Days Of Heaven work and I’m honestly starting to question if Terrence Malick actually understands women. Is he capable of showing them as actual people instead of light, child like, almost unrealistic angelic creatures? They're almost always crying (or at least on the verge of tears), pouting or moody. I'm no expert on women but I still know enough to know that (grown) women don't necessarily act the way they do in a Terrence Malick movie. I know I flip-flop a lot with Malick (one week I love his work, the next week I question everything he does), but that’s what I love about him. It makes for non-stop thought and conversation.
The Tree Of Life (2010)
I know Terrence Malick is "old school" (born in the 40's, southern christian, etc.) so maybe some of those opinions he has towards woman may have permanently stuck with him but I don't even know if he can use that as an excuse. It’s not like his style of filmmaking is "old school" or even dated. Since the 90's he’s been pretty experimental and progressive compared to his earlier work. So why does his view of women still seem a bit dated and naive? Like in real life, does he just have his wife skip & prance around the house all day in a flimsy sun dress like the women in his films? Actually, his view of and representation of women seems to be moving backwards. In the 70's Malick had a knack for creating female characters with depth and complexity. Sure, Sissy Spacek was a naive and somewhat angelic-looking teenager in Badlands, but her voice-over narration throughout the film gave her character depth and showed us she had some insight and wasn’t an empty human being (pretty much the same can be said for Linda Manz' character in Days Of Heaven as well). Brooke Adams' character in Days Of Heaven was probably the most complex character (male or female) that Malick has ever created. She's a good person but at the same time goes along with a plan to scheme a dying man out of his money by pretending to fall in love with him (at the insistence of her aggressive husband). But ever since Malick re-emerged in the late 90's with The Thin Red Line, women kinda come off like unrealistic caricatures.
Tree Of Life
In The Thin Red Line the one prominent female role is portrayed by Miranda Otto (she plays one of the soldiers’ wives in a few flashback scenes). Now I understand The Thin Red Line is a world war two film so no one should expect a strong female presence, but besides one voiceover moment she has no lines in the film and her most memorable scene is a flashback of her playing on a swing. And speaking of no lines, what point did the actress who played Sean Penn's wife in The Tree Of Life serve exactly? She said nothing and just moaped around the house for the two minutes she was actually in the film. And Jessica Chastain's role was kinda the epitome of what this write-up is about highlighted by a moment where she literally floats in the air. What some people may perceive as emptiness in these female characters are also heightened because they're usually paired next to a male performance like Brad Pitt's portrayal of the tough American father (Tree Of Life), Ben Affleck’s broodiness (To The Wonder) or soldiers in the military (The Thin Red Line). When you take Miranda Otto playing care-free on a swing, Sean Penn's pouty wife, Jessica Chastain floating in the air and Olga Kurylenko frolicking around like a little kid it can paint an overall shallow picture. And I'm well aware Malick isn’t the one and only filmmaker guilty of this. But at the same time he's one of the most prominent and talked about directors in recent years. It’s tough to find a realistic portrayal in film of any demographic that isn’t a white male. With women on film it’s still either some docile delicate thing or an unrealistic, cunty, man hating power boss like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.
Thin Red Line
For reasons ranging from race & ethnicity to my own individual upbringing, I don’t really relate to the families or characters in Malick's work (although like I said in my Tree Of Life review, Brad Pitt's performance did kinda transcend race and the time period he came from and did remind me of certain characteristics of my own father). But I've been around enough women in my life outside of my own immediate family to know that "real women" aren’t really represented that much in Malick's work. And this wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the male characters in Malick's films were unrealistic as well. But Richard Gere (Days Of Heaven), Brad Pitt (The Tree Of Life), Ben Affleck (To The Wonder) and the all-star cast of The Thin Red Line all have what I feel are realistic male qualities for the most part - broodiness, trouble expressing personal feelings & emotions, aggressiveness, tough, arrogant, confidence, etc. Maybe if Malick showed tougher women or at least a little less delicate or always on the verge of tears things would be a bit more even.
The New World (2005)
Q'orianka Kilcher's performance in the New World is the one role that kinda challenges this theory of mine. Her portrayal of Pocahontas is caught somewhere in between the childishness of the female characters in Malick's more recent work (especially To The Wonder) and the hidden strength of the female characters in his earlier work. There's times when both Colin Ferrell & Christian Bale look at her and treat her like this exotic dark skinned creature instead of an actual person (and since most of the film is told from their point of view that's how the audience will look at her as well). And the fact that her character really doesn't have a whole lot of lines, yet is in a large majority of the 2-1/2 hour film, it makes her seem like this quiet female with nothing much to say. But on the other hand, there's times when she exudes strength and confidence that hasn't been seen in a Malick film since Linda Manz' character in Days Of Heaven. Malick's Pocahontas is a complicated one. She IS pretty much a child, so that kinda gives her the right to act childish and free. In the 2nd half of the film she's taken away from her home and plopped in to a strange world where she's kinda objectified so she has every right to act a little "off".
To The Wonder (2013)
Do you guys think I'm on to the something? I almost feel like this isn't my place and a woman should be writing this. I'd like some female movie buffs familiar with Malick's work to chime in on this.