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A Hidden Life

January 31, 2020 (697 words)

Terrence Malick has a new movie out, a three-hour opus entitled A Hidden Life. The last such production of his I dragged my entire family to was The Tree of Life, back in 2011, and they still haven’t forgiven me.

In fact it’s become a running joke. When I mentioned I was headed out to see this new film, I was greeted with howls of laughter, and pelted with any number of sarcastic remarks from the peanut gallery about meandering plot and lack of character development.

Malick (b.1943) strikes me as the filmmaking equivalent of the writer Thomas Pynchon (b.1937). Mr. Pynchon emerges every seven or eight years with yet another quirky, highly-inventive manuscript, drops it off at his publisher’s office, and retreats again into relative obscurity. Neither man goes in much for publicity.

The only difference is I have never been able to make it through a Pynchon novel, whereas I am enamored of every frame of Mr. Malick’s latest movie.

Part of the joy of discovery is coming upon a thing unsuspecting, with no idea you are about to have a close encounter with something special. For that reason I don’t want to say too much about this new picture.

Another reason is that it’s difficult to capture in words what Malick has been able to accomplish on film.

That hasn’t stopped the reviewers from weighing in of course, since after all, that’s what they get paid to do.

The notices in the prestige press have been mostly favorable, with the glaring exception of The New Yorker magazine, whose critic apparently watched a different movie than the one I sat through.

But even the good reviews are unable to do the film justice. Though The Wall Street Journal manages to come close with its’ five-word take-away: “Mournful, Memorable, and Emotionally Exhilarating.”

Somebody wrote: “If you don’t like Malick’s movies, A Hidden Life won’t convert you.” That rings true, since many of the same touches found in his previous odes are again employed this time around. But here “he has found the ideal vehicle for his cosmic inquiries”, so A Hidden Life may just be the one that does convert you.

But even if it doesn’t, there is no reason for us to quarrel over it, and we can still be friends. Each of us has our own distinctive sensibility, and some things may not be one’s cup of tea, going in.

For my part, I’m just glad there is someone out there making movies like this. And glad there are people with money willing to finance them.

It turns out there are any number of other Terrence Malick films I haven’t seen yet, so it would be rash of me to declare this latest one his best work yet. Though it’s such a towering achievement I’m inclined to think it might very well be.

What I can say is how downright inspirational it is to come across an almost 80 year-old man capable of such a strong effort, of making such a strong artistic statement.

It gives hope to senior citizen practitioners everywhere who are busy trying to clear away the underbrush, and produce something worthwhile.

When the screen finally fades to black, the following quote appears in white lettering:

”…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are no so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

George Eliot

A little research yields a few factoids. Ms. Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) is a British writer who was born in 1819 and died in 1880. The selected quote comes from her novel Middlemarch, which appeared in eight installments in 1871 and 1872.

The Guardian (a British daily newspaper) describes the book as “a cathedral of words” and identifies it as No. 21 on a list of the 100 best novels.

These few lines of epilogue do nothing less than sum up my entire philosophy of life. Being introduced to the woman who wrote them is just one more thing I have to thank Terrence Malik for.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
January 31, 2020

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