On an October evening in San Francisco, Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant appeared entirely unwelcoming. Like the pawnshops and 99-cent stores on this dingy stretch of Mission Street, security bars covered its windows. Rank fumes wafted from a busted sewage line out in front. But inside, surrounded by Christmas lights, cheap carpeting, and cheesy posters of galloping horses, every table was filled. The music was pumping, and the chef was hustling. Chef Danny Bowien, a baby-faced 28-year-old Korean American with long, bleached, orange-ish hair under a baseball hat and big ’80s-style glasses, ferried plates back and forth between the kitchen and the front of the house, where he refilled plastic water glasses. He kept his eye on the door, because there was a rumor going around that the band Arcade Fire was going to drop by for dinner.
They never showed, but if they had, it wouldn’t have been to eat at Lung Shan. Bowien actually runs another Chinese restaurant within Lung Shan with his partner, Anthony Myint. Though the name’s not on the sign, it’s called Mission Chinese Food, and you can order off either menu. Myint and Bowien share a kitchen, waitstaff, and delivery drivers, as well as the profits, with the owners of Lung Shan. But while the Chinese-run restaurant’s food is of the bland, Americanized, sweet-and-sour-pork variety, Mission Chinese Food’s menu reaches deeper into a broad Chinese-food lexicon, interpreting dishes like ma po tofu and sizzling cumin lamb as spicy, rich, full-frontal assaults. Most nights, the restaurant is packed with walk-ins and deluged with delivery orders.
"Eating at Mission Chinese Food is like being at a powwow for an incipient food revolution," says Scott Hocker, the San Francisco editor of Tasting Table. But it’s not clear what this revolution is all about. It’s certainly not about local-sustainable: Although Bowien uses the best meat and produce he can find, he keeps that fact from diners.
"Anyone can buy stuff from fancy farms. Just make good food and leave some mystery to it," Bowien says.
Maybe it’s about challenging diners’ notion of what to expect. Since opening in July, Bowien et al. have changed the menu several times, adding made-to-order dumplings and a sous-vide operation built from an old aquarium.
Or maybe the revolution is just about doing whatever the hell they want.
"There’s a beauty to it," says Chris Kronner, executive chef at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine and a longtime friend of Bowien’s. “You go in there, and it’s a shithole, and they’re making really great food, and playing really loud music, and nobody’s telling them not to.”
STEPPING OFF THE TREADMILL Bowien remembers the moment he realized he had to bail on the fine-dining scene. He was 26 years old, and had spent the past seven years working his way up from culinary school (he dropped out) to cooking gigs at well-regarded restaurants in both New York and San Francisco, sometimes four of them at one time.
"He’s a very, very, very, very hard worker," says Bar Tartine’s Kronner.
Bowien had landed the chef de cuisine position at Farina, a chic, northern Italian date spot in San Francisco’s Mission District. While working there, his boss unexpectedly flew him to Genoa and basically tricked him into entering the Pesto World Championship (Bowien thought he was just tagging along to assist). Though he appeared to be the only non-Italian in the competition, and a Korean American with acid-washed jeans and a Lynyrd Skynyrd haircut to boot, Bowien upstaged everybody and won first place.
At that point, Bowien figured success meant: ascend the ranks to executive chef, maybe lure investors to help him start his own restaurant, do a cookbook, land a TV show. Bowien grew up in Oklahoma City, the adopted son of a white family that ate hamburgers and canned corn. He’d become interested in cooking through hours spent watching the Food Network: Emeril, Ming Tsai, Mario Batali. So when, not long after his pesto victory, Bowien heard that a casting company was auditioning chefs in San Francisco for The Next Food Network Star, he decided to try out.
The experience was a slap in the face. “I was waiting in the hall with the other people who were auditioning, and everybody had a gimmick,” he remembers. “Like ‘I’m a good ol’ country boy’ or whatever.” When he was asked what would “sell him as a person,” Bowien answered that his experience working his way up from dishwasher to chef would make him more accessible to viewers, and that he wanted to demystify cooking and show people it “wasn’t rocket science.” Although he was called back a couple of times, Bowien says the casting agents ultimately rejected him, telling him they needed him to “be more exciting.”
And with that, Bowien gave up on the standard dream.
"It’s like an indie band signing to a major label, then having to play the music people want them to play," says Bowien. "I decided I didn’t want to do things by conventional means anymore."
Around this time, several other young chefs in San Francisco had left traditional employment situations to start pop-up restaurants. These consisted of taking over other people’s restaurants for a night or two each week, affording all the creative control and none of the risk. Myint, with whom Bowien had worked at another restaurant, was running a successful pop-up called Mission Street Food out of Lung Shan two nights a week, giving away part of his proceeds to charity. Bowien quit the two restaurants he was working for and signed on to help cook.
OLD CONCEPT, NEW CONCEPT Bowien is an affable charmer who used to front a rock band that once opened for the Flaming Lips. Myint is cerebral and at times awkwardly quiet. But the two men share a love for ridiculously grand projects with limited resources. At Mission Street Food, Bowien dreamed up a series of homage dinners. He, Myint, and another chef, Ian Muntzert, would re-create the food of famous chefs like Parisian star Iñaki Aizpitarte and Spanish molecular gastronomist Quique Dacosta, none of which they’d ever actually eaten. To figure out how to make it, they read chefs’ blogs and watched YouTube videos, at times making wild guesses as to what they were seeing. For an homage to Danish Noma chef René Redzepi, for instance, they reproduced a delicate cracker they thought was a tuile made of isomalt. They learned later that it was actually the coagulated skin from the surface of a fortified stock, removed and dehydrated. “We were like, ‘Oh, that’s what that chip was? That’s crazy!’” says Myint.
This past summer, they decided Mission Street Food had run its course, and besides, Bowien was going to Korea to get married. So they closed. But one month later, they were at it again. Mission Chinese Food was born in the same spot, as a seven-day-a-week, lunch-and-dinner, will-deliver-anywhere-in-the-city Chinese restaurant.
"We wanted to make really good Chinese food, and deliver it all over the city, because nothing like that existed," says Bowien. In their off hours, they were regulars at several Chinese restaurants around town, enjoying foods like salt and pepper crab, fresh tofu, and scallion pancakes with chopped-up chicken, egg, and chile, so spicy you nearly passed out. Bowien admired these dishes to a point. "It’s sad, because you’ll go somewhere and it’s awesome," he says. "But they hose it in MSG to the point where you feel you got kicked in the face." Despite the fact that he’d never really cooked Chinese food, Bowien was confident he could do better.
(Editor’s note: Danny is that dude. My favorite chef in the city. I’d buy Mission Burger and resurrect it if I had someone I could trust to flip burgs. Read the rest of the awesome spotlight on Danny and MCF here.)
(Editor’s note: I was using dating as an excuse to try out all these great restaurants last year, but I ended up having to pay for both meals most of the time because I’m a sucker like that. If I had an accountant, he’d be burying his head in his hands. PSA: No free lunch this year, please pay your share. Thanks, -YMFY)
Late last year there was a confluence of critical opinion in America the likes of which the nation hadn’t seen in years. Every single film critic in the traditional media – 350 “best” lists, the ads boast – seemed to anointThe Social Network, director David Fincher’s semi-fictionalised account of the founding of Facebook, as the movie of the year, maybe even of the decade. Every single literary critic in the traditional media seemed to agree that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, his saga of a dysfunctional American family, was the novel of the epoch. And just to make it three for three, just about every television critic in the traditional media seemed to genuflect before Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that depicts the depredations of a mob kingpin in Atlantic City during Prohibition.
This is an extraordinary bounty of greatness in such a short time, though what is really extraordinary is the extent to which critics seemed almost to collude in issuing their superlatives. Could it be they were joining forces to assert their authority at a time when that cultural authority is under siege?
There is, of course, nothing terribly novel about a critical consensus. In America nowadays, critics usually travel in packs, afraid to stray lest they be left wandering by their lonesomes outside the conventional wisdom. What is novel is the vehemence of this consensus, the insistence that these things were not just good but somehow the very best, and the way in which this consensus immediately entered the larger culture. There was a period of a month or so late last summer and early autumn whenThe Social Network, Freedom and Boardwalk Empire were so ubiquitous that you could scarcely pick up a newspaper or magazine, watch a TV show or listen to a radio show without reading or hearing about them. Even President Obama had a copy of Freedom tucked under his arm to take on vacation.
And there was something else novel this time around. Despite the deafening ballyhoo, the critical consensus didn’t seem to make much difference to the larger public. The Social Network did only “all right” business, not the sort of business one might expect for a celebrated cultural milestone; it has not yet broken the $100m mark at the box office and was the 29th highest grossing film last year, right under that blockbuster, Date Night. (The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, by comparison, took $100m in just three weeks.) Similarly, Freedom just logged its 17th week on the New York Times bestseller list, after having fallen from the list before the holidays. It came 39th among the 100 bestselling books of 2010 on the USA Today list, despite the boost it got as an Oprah Book Club selection. And Boardwalk Empirebegan in September with a ratings bang of 4.8 million viewers, only to sink to 2.7 million by November. As Entertainment Weekly opined, it “doesn’t seem to have the water cooler appeal” of The Sopranos or Mad Men. Critics were talking about it but ordinary people weren’t.
So if this was some sort of critical last stand, a desperate ploy by critics to display their power by circling the wagons, it seems to have failed. Even if The Social Network wins the Oscar as expected, Freedom the Pulitzer Prize and Boardwalk Empire the Emmy, it would only serve to confirm the breach that now seems to exist between the critics and the public. Once upon a time, critics could close that breach through a process close to cultural brainwashing. They could get people to see and love The Social Network, to read Freedom, to watch Boardwalk Empire. Now they can’t.
The usual suspect in this immunisation is the internet. It is certainly no secret that the internet has eroded the authority of traditional critics and substituted Everyman opinion on blogs, websites, even on Facebook and Twitter where one’s friends and neighbours get to sound off. What is less widely acknowledged is just how deeply this populist blowback is embedded in America and how much of American culture has been predicated on a conscious resistance to cultural elites. It is virtually impossible to understand America without understanding the long ongoing battle between cultural commissars who have always attempted to define artistic standards and ordinary Americans who take umbrage at those commissars and their standards.
This is hardly a recent occurrence occasioned by the internet and other democratising elements. It actually began at the country’s inception when political opposition to England bled into a form of cultural opposition as well. Europe was seen as effete, corrupt, supercilious and haughty. By contrast, ordinary Americans saw themselves as manly, honest, commonsensical and populist, and early on they tried to fashion a culture that manifested these characteristics – an American culture divorced from any European antecedents, a democratic culture.
What complicated matters was that within America there was much of the same irksome aristocratic hauteur as there was in Europe, which meant that rifts quickly opened here between those who saw themselves as custodians of a high culture and those who were opting for that distinctive American culture with its democratic elements. The political avatar of this division was Andrew Jackson, the plainspoken hero of the Battle of New Orleans who ascended to the presidency in 1829 by declaring himself a “fighter not a writer”, to distinguish himself from his well-educated opponent, John Quincy Adams. Jackson seemed to be a common man, and he exploited that image.
The division took shape culturally with some innovations of the Jacksonian era and the years that immediately followed: crime almanacs that provided bloody accounts of horrific murders; sentimental novels such as The Wide, Wide World that were the forerunners of today’s soap operas; dime novels that depicted the stories of western heroes; the penny press that specialised in tawdry stories of sex and violence; and various forms of popular music and stage performance. This was the introduction on the American scene of what would later be known as “low culture” or “popular culture”.
Not surprisingly, the conventional take on American popular culture by intellectuals is that it was the product of ignorance and a deficiency of good taste among the mass of American citizens. They had to bowdlerise culture because they couldn’t appreciate the unadulterated thing.
But the reality of the formation of American popular culture may have been something else entirely. Nineteenth-century Americans were, in fact, highly literate. Many of them were conversant with high culture – from Shakespeare to opera to classical music to what passed for fine art. These are also people who took their picnic baskets to hear Lincoln and Douglas debate for hours. They might not have been super-sophisticates but neither were they Neanderthals.
And yet even as they consumed high culture, they seemed to resent those who felt duty bound to impose it on them. Or put another way, it wasn’t high culture they disdained so much as high culturists who, not incidentally, disdained them. Though it is impossible to prove with any certainty, it is likely that American popular culture, which is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful culture in the world today, arose from this contrarian impulse: ordinary Americans would consciously create a culture that was everything the elitists detested. They would not only welcome the elitists’ contempt; they would actively try to foment it. This was how America became engaged in its battle between high culture and low – not by accident but by design.
What this meant is that supposed stupidity didn’t shape popular culture; rather, popular culture shaped supposed stupidity. At almost every cultural juncture – from travelling variety shows to vaudeville, which was like the English music hall, to movies to television to rock music to gaming today – the elites hectored the general public, shouting that the sky was falling. Everything popular, the elites proclaimed, would subvert American standards and values. Culture was under democratic assault. It couldn’t possibly survive the masses.
For a country that prides itself on its democracy, as America does, there is a long train of literature that is passionately anti-democratic, and not just from the unreconstructed right wing. Sometimes the enemy was democracy itself; sometimes the enemy was the system, as when the Frankfurt School expatriates and other neo-Marxians blamed not the masses but the mass culture industry through which devious capitalists manipulated people – dumbing them down. And sometimes the enemy was just plain obtuseness, which is why critic Dwight Macdonald coined the terms “masscult” and “midcult” to revile not only low culture but also a middle-class culture that had ridiculous pretensions to be higher than low. Today critics are less likely to excoriate popular culture as a whole than its various components – from reality TV shows to popcorn movies to Justin Bieber – but the sentiment remains. Culture needs gatekeepers to protect it from the hoi polloi.
Of course it was one of the triumphs of American popular culture that the rigid distinctions between high and low gradually disappeared. You can actually witness the rapprochement in Fantasia when classical conductor Leopold Stokowski shakes hands with Mickey Mouse, showing as well that with the growing power of popular culture, not even the practitioners of high culture wanted to be on the wrong side of the cultural divide. In time, popular music, the movies and particular television shows would all have critical champions in the most influential, highbrow media organs, and a few powerful ones, such as the old New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael, would even make their reputations by insisting that “official” art was dull and desiccated and that the real vibrancy was with the subversive trash of popular culture.
Kael’s was a time in America, some 40 years ago, when the balance of power was shifting from the elites to the populists – a last-ditch fight that turned criticism into a blood sport with all sorts of warriors. One could actually find critics on nightly talk shows then – something that almost never happens now – and many were practically household names: proud elitists such as John Simon of New York Magazine, populists such as mustachioed Gene Shalit of The Today Show, professional eviscerators such as Rex Reed and Judith Crist, who won attention when she called The Sound of Music ”The Sound of Money”. This was criticism as entertainment but it also demonstrated a genuine dispute over cultural hierarchy – over the claims of informed taste over popular taste.
Eventually the battle ended, the dust settled, and movies, TV shows and even popular music became acceptable topics for serious critical discourse. This did not mean, however, that high culturists had totally capitulated to popular taste. It only meant they had shifted the terms of their authority to fit the new circumstances. Among film critics, they still derided all but a few action movies and just about every film of overt sentiment to prove they weren’t susceptible to these primitive emotions; they still generally rewarded foreign movies with higher accolades than American movies; they still tended to review film-makers as much as they reviewed the film, giving so-called auteurs the benefit of the doubt; and they still rallied around the same kinds of films and often the very same films. To wit, The Social Network.
One might imagine there would be an enormous diversity among critics, tough-minded souls each expressing his or her own unique sensibility. And, as mentioned, there once was. But among American critics in the traditional media today, there is surprisingly little diversity. The “best” film lists or “best” television lists or “best” album lists or “best” book lists usually have the same titles, regardless of critic or publication. In short, critics continue to attempt to assert their control, only they do so by uniformity, coincidental or not. And the public seems to sense it.
That’s important because there may be no more powerful public emotion in America than the contempt for contempt. In this theoretically egalitarian society, condescension is practically un-American, which is why ordinary Americans always seem to yearn for some form of redress against those who seem to think they are above the so-called masses. (This is also, by the way, one of the primary features of American politics, and it helps explain folks like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Sarah Palin, who understand how to nurse resentments.) To take it one step further, it is so powerful an emotion that it may have been the real fuel for the internet, one of the central functions of which has been to challenge authority – to provide a democratising voice against the custodians of official culture. Thus the old spent war between high and low seemed to reconstitute itself into a war between traditional media and new media.
By now the brickbats flung by critics at bloggers and by bloggers at critics are old news. “Bloggers in pyjamas” was the taunt by the mainstream media. But there is an irony in this fight that neither side seems to recognise. Though the most popular bloggers have come to threaten the influence of the old establishment critics, it is in the new nature of the internet that the more popular these bloggers become, the more establishment they become. A blogger such as Harry Knowles, whose aintitcoolnews.com website often preempts mainstream criticism by tipping movies that have yet to open, seems less like a fresh, new populist voice in the critical ether than a familiar old one. His opinions if not his colloquial style would fit comfortably in the New York Times orThe New Yorker.
Indeed, the most popular voices on the web are less likely to be contrarian than conventional. Rottentomatoes.com, a site that aggregates several hundred film blogs and critics and then devises a rating based on the percentage of them who liked or disliked a particular film, is usually squarely within the consensus. Eighty-nine per cent of its users, for example, approved The Social Network. It is the rare critic, such as Armond White of New York Press, available on rottentomatoes, who challenges the consensus. His take on The Social Network? “Like one of those smart middlebrow TV shows, the speciousness of The Social Network is disguised by its topicality. It’s really a movie excusing Hollywood ruthlessness.” Similarly, bloggers largely enthused overFreedom and Boardwalk Empire. They didn’t take on the mainstream critics. They joined them, which means the sides weren’t really skirmishing so much over standards as over the locus of power.
So while bloggers may dilute the authority of critics in the traditional media, the real threat to cultural authority turns out not to be blogging but social networking. It is Twitter, Facebook, myDigg, Yelp and dozens of other sites where, sometimes just by sheer quantity of opinion, the people are overrunning the Winter Palace of cultural elitism. At this moment, for example, you can find an ongoing debate on Twitter, which anyone can join, comparing the relative merits of Inception and The Social Network. Or you can find someone named “Yogareach” tweeting about Freedom: “Started out great but needs seriously editing.” Or another tweeter named Kate saying that the novel didn’t raise her “care factor enough to be interested”. Or you can find various tweets about the period details of Boardwalk Empire, and whether it qualifies as The Sopranos of this decade.
The point isn’t that the traditional critics are always wrong and these populists are right, or even that these comments are overwhelmingly negative or invariably take on the critical consensus. More often than not, they aren’t and they don’t. The point is that authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing – not collusion or singleness of purpose or torrents of publicity – that the traditional critics can do about it. They have seen their monopoly usurped by what amounts to a vast technological word-of-mouth of hundreds of millions of people.
We live, then, in a new age of cultural populism – an age in which everyone is not only entitled to his opinion but is encouraged to share it. Nothing could be more American.
New York does exclusivity well, but Tokyo does it better. There is a Japanese phrase, “Ichigensama okotowari,” that’s used by owners of certain discriminating restaurants and shops, and means, roughly, “We respectfully decline first-time visitors.” In other words: walk-ins not welcome. To make a reservation or a purchase, you have to be recommended by a regular. It is this spirit, theoretically, that governs Bohemian, a Japanese-owned restaurant in NoHo. The phone number is not listed—the owners have another restaurant, in the Nishiazabu district of Tokyo, which flies similarly under the radar—and its Web site advises, “Please be referred by someone who has already visited us.” Pretty intimidating. In reality, though, the restaurant’s phone number surfaces with determined Googling, and you can get a table with only a little bit of vetting. The other night, someone answered the phone by asking, “Um, how did you get this number?” “A friend gave it to me.” (Pause.) “O.K. Good.”
Bohemian is, naturally, hard to find—it’s a kakurega, or hidden place, tucked behind a Japanese butcher shop, in a building once owned by Andy Warhol. Inside, the atmosphere is minimalist but cozy: sixties-style lounge chairs, an illuminated wooden bar, a Zen garden, bongos. The clientele—“Bohemians of the 21st century,” according to the Web site—seem to be a mixture of Japanese transplants, local loft dwellers, and facial-hair-wearing Europeans. The menu is idiosyncratic; Japanese treats alternate with French and American comfort food. An appetizer of vegetable “fondue” consists of baby carrots and radishes, stuck, Mr. Potato Head-style, into a mound of bar ice, with a side of anchovy dipping sauce. Uni comes served on fried croquettes, stuffed with a gooey (in a good way) mushroom filling. The cold and briny oysters are delicious, as is beef sashimi from the butcher shop out front, sprinkled with lime juice. But the entrées—crispy-skinned chicken with mashed potatoes, pan-roasted branzini with baby Brussels sprouts, a quality burger, a skippable risotto—are not exactly destination food.
Probably the best thing at Bohemian is the drink menu: the Mint Gold, a kind of mint julep made with fresh mint, lime, ginger, cardamom, and red pepper, is not too sweet, and neither is the gin and tonic. Dessert—light and eggy sake panna cotta, silky flan—is like elegant baby food, served with wooden spoons. You’re likely to end up slumped in your lounge chair, gazing at the bongos. “Do you want to play them?” a waiter asks. Once you’re in, you’re in. (Open daily for dinner. Entrées $20-$28.)
(Editor’s note: Similar spot in L.A. for "secret beef". Sup Kiya!)
“The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”—
The first sentence of DFW’s “The Depressed Person”.
By mixing heightened feeling and unrelenting repetition (“pain”, “pain”, “pain”) with a Latinate, clinically declarative voice (“component”, “contributing factor”), Wallace delivers his readers right where he wants them: inside the hellish disconnect between psychic pain and the modern means of describing it. The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer’s point of view the two aren’t separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we’d read plot summaries rather than novels. (via The Art of Good Writing)
“Terrence Malick is extremely shy and you must not attempt to make direct contact with him. You must pretend you are eavesdropping on a private conversation.”
I am sitting in the middle of the front row in the “Petrassi” hall of the Auditorium in Rome, Italy, where Terrence Malick is about to give an interview as part of theRome Film Festival – his first interview since 1973, and in all likelihood a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for film lovers the world over. Terrence Malick has dazzled the world with four movies of exceptional cinematic splendor and sensitivity, and yet has always refused to be interviewed or photographed, which only heightened his legendary reputation.
The two hosts brief us before Terrence Malick’s entrance on stage.
“It took me a long time to persuade Terrence Malick to give this interview, and he finally agreed on condition that we would not discuss his movies, but would focus on his favorite Italian films instead,” one of the hosts said.
Having given a stern warning that no video or audio recording is allowed, and that stringent anti-piracy invigilation will be carried out during the interview, the hosts disappear behind the curtains.
The air is thick with anticipation; the impact of Terrence Malick’s movies is matched by his reluctance to appear in public and be filmed.
The silence is broken when the two hosts escort Terrence Malick onto the stage – one on each side. Terrence Malick is wearing a dark coat, still buttoned up. The auditorium breaks into a rapturous applause. Malick seems disoriented and unsure of where he is, taking cautious steps towards his seat on the stage, perhaps thinking this interview wasn’t such a good idea after all. The ovation shows now signs of abating and Malick taps his heart in appreciation.
Malick is here for one reason: to show us clips from his favorite Italian movies, and to tell us why he finds them inspiring.
The first clip is played – a scene from a movie by Totò. An experienced thief, played by Totò, is attempting to teach the art of safe-breaking to some young acolytes. The lights go up and the interview begins in earnest.
“This was the first Totò film to reach the United States ,” Malick tells us. “I am a big fan of Totò – his face irradiates a special love, gladness, and happiness, just like Roberto Benigni. Benigni is the true heir of artists like Totò and Charlie Chaplin.”
The next clip is from a film by Pietro Germi. An old-fashioned Italian father decides to lock his daughter up for not complying with his marriage plans; the scene’s tone blends drama with comedy.
What does Malick like so much about this movie? “It’s the gladness, the innocent quality it exudes…its humor is a celebration of innocence, of the type we don’t really see anymore.”
Next up is a scene from Federico Fellini’s The White Sheik: a provincial girl comes to town looking for the so-called white sheik – a local charlatan who likes to dress up in fancy exotic clothes. The slick fraudster wraps the clueless girl around his little finger in a scene that mixes humor with surrealism, in vintage Fellini style.
“Again, the warm sense of humor and the sheer innocence of the scene greatly appeal to me…I feel for the provincial girl, the innocent character who is expertly swindled by the fraudster who calls himself the white sheik.”
The scene takes place in a gorgeous Italian pine-and-scrub forest not too dissimilar from the wilderness of Southern California, and Fellini’s camera lovingly dwells on the trees and vegetation that frame the scene. One cannot help comparing the scene to the abiding affection for nature displayed in Malick’s movies, especially “The Thin Red Line.”
The analogy is not lost on the hosts, who bring up the subject. “Absolutely,” Malick replies. “The ultra-realistic way in which nature is presented in that scene, with so many trees and birds, really appeals to me. It adds even more innocence to the scene and effectively symbolizes the purity of the girl and of her perception of the world, which has not been tarnished yet. The hyper-romantic natural setting symbolizes the hopes that provincial people have when they move to a large city.”
The white sheik is played by Alberto Sordi, king of Italian comedy between the fifties and eighties. “He was great,” Malick volunteers. “His face glowed with joy and innocence, just like Chaplin, Benigni, and Totò…he makes you become a child again.”
A unifying theme begins to emerge with clarity: Terrence Malick loves innocence and anything that celebrates it. Innocence is a theme that Malick will continue to mention repeatedly in the interview.
By this point Malick has unbuttoned his coat and is completely at ease. The truth is that we are all anxious for him to comment on at least one clip from his movies, and luckily this is part of the program after all: we are shown a clip from Badlands and one from The New World.
The scene from “Badlands” is the one in which Martin Sheen’s character kills Sissy Spacek’s father. It involves the clever use of a mirror. “It took ages to set up that shot and make sure the mirror’s placement was exactly right,” Malick tells us. “There’s no way I would spend so much time on it if I were to shoot it now.”
Malick also tells us that “Badlands” features his one and only appearance as an actor. “This actor was supposed to show up at 9:30 in the morning for a small scene. We waited, the hours passed, and he didn’t show up. In the end we couldn’t afford to keep waiting, so I put on the cowboy’s hat and performed the part myself.”
“I prefer working behind the camera,” he added with a smile.
We are all having a lot of fun listening to Terrence Malick. He is just like the movies he makes: warm, clever and extremely articulate.
The final clip is from his latest movie, “The New World,” starring Colin Farrell. The scene is the one in which the British colonizers meet the locals, in what is nothing less than a meeting between two worlds. The scene features Steadicam Steadicam Steadicam gliding over tall grass – a strong reminder of similar shots in “The Thin Red Line.”
“Original music had been written for this scene, but in the end I opted for a piano piece by Mozart, which had the right kind of innocence for the scene.”
One of the hosts delves into Malick’s early career. “Is it true that you worked forThe New Yorker before starting your filmmaking career?”
“Yes. I was sent to Bolivia to do a piece on Ernesto “Che” Guevara, but frankly I did not understand what was going on.” He laughs.
Terrence Malick will now attend a screening of Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild, being shown as part of the festival in another screening hall. He gets up and is escorted off the stage as quickly as he appeared. The few people who try and get an autograph are politely turned away by the hosts, and as promised at the beginning, no one gets to ask any questions. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear to us that attending this interview is a one-off opportunity – a true singularity.
It is equally clear to me that although Terrence Malick may seem cloistered from the world, there is no question that he is also deeply in love with it.