Sunday, May 06, 2012

". . . and its beauty was not lost on him": An open letter to Terence Malick

Terence Malick and Christian Bale, Austin, Texas, September 2011. Image found here.

Dear Mr. Malick,

I'm under no illusions here. You almost certainly will never read this. For one thing, who the heck am I to you? For another, you don't strike me as the sort of guy who has a publicist who Googles for mentions of you. Finally, and most important, you are pretty busy right now, it appears, what with a film just finished last year and two that you're shooting this year. But I still feel compelled to say a little something that's directed toward you, so I'll get right to the point so that you can decide whether to read further.

I think you should direct the film adaptation of Blood Meridian.

I admittedly don't know a whole lot about you, but I do know this: Back in March, at some point during my watching The Tree of Life, I remember thinking, This guy should be making films of Cormac McCarthy novels. Maybe that thought was prompted by how you film Nature and landscapes as though you take seriously Emerson's descriptions of wooded areas as plantations of God. Maybe it was during one of those scenes in which Brad Pitt's character Mr. O'Brien isn't saying too much but the viewer can sense his frustration and even anger--but not in/with that particular moment per se, but with the totality of his life that has brought him to that moment and not some other, more preferable one. Or it simply may have been my growing awareness that you take seriously and head-on the enormous questions of how and in what we find meaning in human existence without making it all sound sappy or easy--and, by the way, doing so via rich, lyrical--yes, McCarthy-esque--language. Anyway, it wasn't long after I had cast you as my preferred director of McCarthy's work that I thought, Yes: Blood Meridian is the film you should be making--this despite the very obvious fact that that novel and The Tree of Life don't have a whole heck of a lot in common on the surface.

Recently, though, my colleague Larry the Movie Guy lent me his copy of your film The Thin Red Line (IMDB), and I watched it. As the Wikipedia entry makes clear, it's a bit of a mess, especially with all the cameos of Stars We've Heard Of and, "offstage," the upset egos surrounding all those other performances that were truncated or cut altogether. But as I watched your war film, I felt that my earlier judgment about you was vindicated: the opening sequence with the AWOL soldiers living in a Gauguin-esque South Pacific world; the scenes in which soldiers crawling through the tall grass can barely see through it a yard ahead of them; the scene in which a squad silently contemplates the brutally-mutilated bodies of two Army Rangers (the power of this scene, for me, is not in the horror of what was done to these bodies but in the men's contemplation of them); the chaotic scene in which the squad takes the hill from the Japanese; the fleeting recollections Private Bell has of his love for his wife; and through it all, again, those unapologetically gorgeous voice-overs contemplating the good and evil in each of us, asking about their origins and what causes which to be revealed--all of these things caused me to think about corresponding moments in McCarthy's novel and how you might render them and I found myself thinking Yes. Yes.

According to both Wikipedia and IMDB, the film adaptation of the novel is languishing in whatever the Hollywood equivalent of an "In" box is. In a way, I'm glad that's the case. When I'd read, some years back, that Ridley Scott had initially been chosen to direct it, I confess that my heart sank a little; much as I admire Blade Runner--a comparable narrative, to my mind--I think Blood Meridian requires a lighter touch. (And yeah, you Blood Meridian fans--I know just how that sounds.) As for the other names associated with adapting it and bringing it to the screen--Todd Field, James Franco and Nicolas Winding Refn (whose Drive was one of last year's Best Picture nominees)--I admit to not knowing their work. Maybe they'd be adequate to the task. But I feel certain that you would be.

Here's why: There's no getting around the fact that Blood Meridian is filled not just with violence, but with scene after scene of the most extraordinarily brutal violence in, perhaps, all of American literature. Everyone who reads McCarthy gets that part, and any film version of this novel has to depict that inflinchingly. But McCarthy's goal here is not to depict violent acts for their own sake but to say something about the nature of the people--and peoples--committing it: how the very people sitting around campfires arguing against Violence in the abstract can, the next day, commit themselves so fervently to horrific acts of violence the next day; and how it cannot be an accident that McCarthy has included in his narrative Delaware Indians--members of the tribe that had raised James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo--and, shall we say, thoroughly de-romanticizes them in the process. And on and on.

But there are two final things that I think most people miss about this novel but you, Mr. Malick, would not, and would make sure to make present in your film version. In fact, these features are what help me get through this thing whenever I read it--because, I must be honest, even after having known and admired Blood Meridian for so long, it has become no easier to read because of its violence. The first is that, while this novel is not long on depictions of introspection on the part of its characters, those moments are there, and you'd be certain to reveal them, as, for example, in the novel's opening scene as the kid listens to his father's drunk ravings about his wife's death while giving birth to the kid or, in the briefest of biographies of Glanton, when we learn that he is married and will never see his wife again. In both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, you make powerful use of brief flashbacks that reveal the interiority of your characters, revealing them to be more complex than they would otherwise appear; these flashbacks are crucial in the novel, and would be equally crucial in any film version, in making these characters more than unthinking killing machines. The other thing is something of a corollary to the first: page after page of McCarthy's novel contain richly-described scenes of weather and landscape. The scalp-hunters often don't notice their surroundings except insofar as it reveals something of the Indians they're seeking, but someone certainly notices, or else they wouldn't be in the novel. Vereen Bell, in The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy (the first book-length study of the writer's work (but only up to Blood Meridian); no longer in print, but I'd assume most university libraries would have it) makes the (to me) persuasive argument that the novel "is haunted by the mystery that its own language challenges the very nihilistic logic that it gives representation to" and that we see this most clearly in its "reverence for nature and for the way in which nature corresponds to an imagined condition of being that the facts of life otherwise contradict" (128). As one of his examples, he quotes a scene in which the scalp-hunters are riding through an aspen grove that has turned golden in the fall: "The leaves shifted in a million spangles down the pale corridors and Glanton took one and turned it like a tiny fan by its stem and held it and let it fall and its perfection was not lost on him" (qtd. in Bell 128-129, my emphasis). These are the sorts of thing--subtle but crucial to the novel--that you would not miss: neither these richly-described landscapes, nor the text's (and its characters') occasional noticing of them. There are also various surreal set pieces (the Comanche attack; the Judge and the idiot as they hunt the kid in the desert; the kid's encounter with an old Indian woman; the saloon scenes at Ft. Griffin at the end of the novel; etc., etc., etc.) that you'd be able to handle without making them ridiculous-looking.

So what do you say, Mr. Malick? I am not certain of too many things, but I am absolutely convinced that you'd not mess up this job, which would be oh-so-easy even for a skilled director to mess up. If you want to know more, I have no "people" to talk to. Just let me know. One last thing: even if you don't take up this project, thank you for making such extraordinary films.


John B.


Doc said...

Wish he had gotten to All The Pretty Horses as well, before it turned into just another Matt Damon vehicle.

John B. said...

Yeah, Doc--no kidding (and thanks for dropping by). I had thought about that one, too, but I figured that that horse was already out of the barn. McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, would be another candidate, too, but I would need to reread it before saying anything more precise that that.

Doc said...

No need; dead on The Orchard Keeper could be a great Malick film.

...assuming he (and we) stay healthy; he's got a lttle over a decade on you and somewhat less on me.

R. Sherman said...

Interesting choice.

Part of me doesn't want Blood Meridian to go to film, because my own mental image of the characters and scenes is so strong, I fear I'd be disappointed.

John B. said...


Believe me when I say that I completely understand that; if I had any say at all in the matter, I'd rather it not get made--just as you say, its power lies in the work it does on the mind more than the story it tells. So I'll put it this way: I'd be very very reluctant to see a film adaptation unless it's by Malick or someone like him (whoever that might be).