The Wonder of Terrence Malick

The best American film of 2019, A Hidden Life, was little seen, and nominated for nothing. Why be surprised? Or assume that our pictures deserve awards any more than the clouds and the trees? Try to understand how movies may aspire to a culture that regards Oscars, eager audiences, and fame as relics of our childhood. The ponderous gravity of The Irishman and its reiterated gangster fantasy, the smug evasiveness of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, were signs that old movie habits were defunct. Parasite was no better or worse than cute opportunism. It was a wow without an echo. Whereas A Hidden Life was like a desert, known about in theory but ignored or avoided. I use that term advisedly, for Malick is a student who knows deserts are not dull or empty. They are places that can grow the tree of life as well as any forest. Simply in asking, what is hidden here?, Terrence Malick was leading us to ponder, What should a movie be? He had never volunteered for conventional schemes of ranking. His creative personality can seem masked or obscure, but his reticence is portentous too, and it belongs to no one else. Had he really taught philosophy at M.I.T. while doing a draft for Dirty Harry? Please say yes: we so want our auteurs to be outlaws.  His self-effacement, his famous “elusiveness,” was often seen as genius. Yet some early admirers felt he had “gone away” in the twenty-first century, or migrated beyond common reach. People regarded his private and idiosyncratic work as egotism, no matter how beautiful it might be. Some were disinclined even to try A Hidden Life after the inert monuments that had preceded it. But it was — I say it again — the best American film of 2019, a masterpiece,

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