For someone who professes to disdain Internet writers, Richard Schickel is one hell of an effective troll.
The last time the Siren roused herself to notice Schickel, he was calling bloggers "idiots" and saying no one read us except our mothers and distant cousins. This caused the Siren to weep hot tears that smudged her mascara, until someone reminded her that while her patient readers have disagreed with her on matters such as late Anthony Mann and whether or not Elizabeth Taylor was a good actress, no one, not even a cousin, has ever called her an idiot.
So here was the Siren reorganizing her lingerie, happily forgetting the existence of Schickel aside from his hilarious Twitter doppelganger, when her friend the fine and gentlemanly Tom Shone of Taking Barack to the Movies reminded her.
Tom, you see, has some big fat problems with Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which he details in a very funny and characteristically well-written review right here. But then Tom had to go and quote Schickel's review, luring an unsuspecting Siren with a famous publicity shot of luscious Veronica Lake. And the Siren, because she never learns, clicked through to Schickel's full post.
Now the Siren hasn't yet seen Tree of Life, and if she holds true to her usual pattern with new releases she should be catching up with the latest Malick sometime in the winter of 2012-13. She comforts herself that if Malick took four years to edit his latest movie, surely he would not begrudge her taking a couple of years to watch it. But here's the quote.
Movies, I believe, are an essentially worldly medium, playful and romantic, particularly in America, where, on the whole our best directors have stated whatever serious intentions they may harbor as ignorable asides. There are other ways of making movies, naturally, and there’s always a small audience available for these noble strivings—and good for them, I guess. But I’m with Preston Sturges, who gave this immortal line to Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels”: “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open."
This is, simply put, a lot of hooey. So much so that the Siren doesn't believe Schickel, a man with a deep knowledge of Hollywood history and the CV to prove it, can possibly believe this stuff himself, which is why she called him a troll in the first paragraph. Troll is not a word that the Siren trots out for just any old curmudgeon. But she uses it here, because beating Terrence Malick about the head with Preston Sturges is like using the Marx Brothers to critique Samuel Fuller.
Where, the Siren asks you, does the "playful and romantic" notion leave the blackest of film noir? Force of Evil, Scarlet Street, Sweet Smell of Success, they're romantic? Social dramas like Heroes for Sale and The Crowd and Give Us This Day, anti-war masterpieces like The Eagle and the Hawk and Attack! and All Quiet on the Western Front, tragedies like The Old Maid and Make Way for Tomorrow--they're playful and/or their serious intentions are ignorable asides? It's okay for Michael Powell and Albert Lewin and William Dieterle and Joseph Mankiewicz and Victor Fleming to film their notion of the afterlife, but only because they slipped in some sex and some jokes to keep Richard Schickel from nodding off? Hey, John Ford is serious, but playful--oh wait, but Schickel once used a review of Scott Eyman's splendid Ford biography to unload about how Ford's use of comic relief gave him a big pain in the fundament. Schickel's last book but one was about Clint Eastwood, and if he wants to tell the Siren what's so playful and romantic about Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, and how to ignore any serious intentions, she's all ears.
The Siren admits that Schickel put himself more firmly than ever on her bad side by implicitly dismissing Days of Heaven. The Siren loves Days of Heaven with a deep purple passion, loves it even more than Badlands, considers it a major way station on her road to appreciating what Dan Kois might call "vegetable movies." "Narratively empty and emotionally unengaging"--Days of Heaven is Wings of the Dove, for crying out loud. If you can't find emotion and narrative content, not to mention romance and eroticism, in Richard Gere's hand closing wordlessly over Brooke Adams' to summon her out of her husband's bed, and the wineglass sinking to the bottom of the river, then the Siren must resort to Dimitri Tiomkin's line to David O. Selznick--you fuck in your way, and I'll fuck in mine.
Schickel thinks post-Badlands Malick is tiresome and bombastic, and in the words of the great philosopher Stuart Smalley, "that's OK." But for Schickel to extrapolate from what he sees as Malick's overreaching, that the ideal way to go after big notions of fate and society and the silence of God or whatever is to hide them, like whoever decided to put zucchini in breakfast muffins, is silly. Yeah, tell it to Fritz Lang. Sometimes the filmmakers beloved by the Siren smuggle their seriousness, as Scorsese put it, and sometimes they hit you with it like a beanball. It's a big, beautiful world of cinema out there. There's room for Sullivan's Travels, and there's room for Terrence Malick.