‘Malick the Maverick’ Wins Cannes’ Top Prize

In spite of  the  French cinema vs. Hollywood cinema perception,  the truth is that nobody loves American films as much as the French, especially when they come from auteurs—a concept they invented—who moved to Paris at the height of their careers, as Terrence Malick did.

This year’s Palme d’Or, Cannes’ top prize, went to Terrence Malick for “The Tree of Life”. He had won one prior, in 1979, for the convoluted “Days of Heaven”. The film spent two years in post-production, during which Malick and his crew experimented with unconventional editing and voice-over techniques. “Days of Heaven” won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but was a monumental flop that almost ruined his career, as well as the studio that produced it, Paramount.

Still, following the release of “Days of Heaven”, Malick began developing another project for Paramount, entitled “Q”, that explored the origins of life on earth. During pre-production, he suddenly moved to Paris and disappeared from public view. However, he continued to write screenplays, like “The English Speaker”, about Josef Breuer’s analysis of Anna O; an adaptation of Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” and Larry McMurtry’s “The Desert Rose” about Jerry Lee Lewis.

He also wrote a stage adaptation of “Sansho the Bailiff”, directed by Andrzej Wajda.

Malick finally returned to film directing in 1998 with “The Thin Red Line”, a loose adaptation of the James Jones World War II novel of the same name. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won the Golden Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival. “The Thin Red Line” was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.

Malick was born in Waco, Texas (one of the settings in “The Tree of Life”). He grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Texas, working in oil fields. Malick studied philosophy under Stanley Cavell at Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965. He went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. After a disagreement with his tutor, Gilbert Ryle, over his thesis on the concept of world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, Malick left Oxford without a doctorate degree.

Back in the United States, Malick taught philosophy at MIT while freelancing as a journalist. He wrote articles for Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Life. After one of his screenplays, “Deadhead Miles”, was made into what Paramount Pictures felt to be an unreleasable film, Malick decided to direct his own scripts.   His first work was “Badlands” (1973), an independent film starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree in the 1950s.

Badlands drew rave reviews.

In 2005, Malick directed” The New World”, based on a script he had begun developing in the 1970s. “The New World”, which featured a romantic interpretation of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, took over a million feet of film to shoot.  As a result three different cuts of varying length were released. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but received mixed reviews though it has since been hailed as one of the best films of the decade.

The Tree of Life is Malick’s fifth film. Starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it is a family drama spanning multiple time periods and focuses on an individual’s reconciling love, mercy and beauty with the existence of sickness, suffering and death. Heath Ledger had been signed on to the project before his death.

Malick, who resides in Austin, Texas, did not attend the festival. In his name, one of the producers of “The Tree of Life”, Bill Pohlad, received the prize from actress Jane Fonda. Pohlad said :

I have always wanted to speak French, and tonight more than ever. Tonight I have to take the place of a giant. Terrence Malick (who) is very shy and discreet. But I spoke to him today and I know he is very happy to receive this honour. The Tree Of Life was a long journey, but it was all worth it. I would like to thank especially the Festival de Cannes.”

For more information on: The Tree Of Life

The Tree of Life is the first American film to win the Palme d’Or since Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004.

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