Terrence Malick stands alone.
True, that's because his habitual posture is to slouch off in the corner away from the main action and where few are likely to look. But, no matter how you slice it, there has never been another American filmmaker like him. Nor is there ever likely to be another.
And that alone would make "The Tree of Life" one of the most important American films of 2011, even if it weren't as fascinating and as good as it is.
This much is certain: You won't see anything else this year that's remotely like it -- a semi-autobiographical tale about kids growing up in 1950s Texas combined with speculations about the nature of the universe.
The death of Stanley Kubrick in 1999 left Malick as the only major filmmaker who seems allowed to function fully and completely as an artist, no matter what he wants to do. It's as if money and its Hollywood folkways didn't apply to him.
Francis Ford Coppola's waywardness has long been triumphant over the excellence of his films and the willingness of others to help him make them. Because of his own taste, Martin Scorsese has been almost completely absorbed into the same film commercialism that has always harbored Steven Spielberg. Roman Polanski is utterly dependent on being an outlaw and a fugitive from America.
Malick is alone in being able to make major films when he wants and how he wants, almost no matter what the result.
It wasn't always that way, to put it mildly. But then, it's Malick's very history that makes him loom as large as he does.
In the bad old pre-video days, independent film exhibition in Buffalo made us a cinematic gulag, subject to the taste and minuscule clairvoyance of one film distributor who decided for all Buffalonians what they'd be able to see in local theaters.
To see Malick's remarkable first film "Badlands" in 1973, we had to fit it into a visit to Manhattan. It never played a first run here. It was a precursor of everything Malick would come to do later -- Malick's very loose fictionalization of the Midwest murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek starred at the beginning of their careers.
So much of subsequent Malick can be found in "Badlands" -- the voice-over narration (often by women) that is like a found object in the narrative, the myths of middle-class America, the camera constantly following actors from inches away.
Reviews went from good to ecstatic. And while the Malick legend was brewing in the '70s, the word slowly got out about just how strange a bit of fauna this brainy creature was in Hollywood's filmmaking menagerie: a Phi Beta Kappa member and summa cum laude graduate of Harvard in philosophy; a Rhodes scholar at Oxford who left because he and his tutor didn't see eye to eye about Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; a philosophy lecturer at MIT and sometime journalist. And at the same time, a man who'd once worked in Texas and Oklahoma oil fields. (Does he remind you of Jack Nicholson's character in "Five Easy Pieces?" Good, he should.)
The American Film Institute connected Malick to mainstream Hollywood at the exact moment that mainstream was being diverted into art and idiosyncrasy as it never had been before.
Malick made "Days of Heaven" in 1978, thereby giving Richard Gere to Hollywood as well as the astonishing cinematography of Truffaut's man Nestor Almendros. It was the most radically unusual narrative to come out of Hollywood that decade.
And then he virtually disappeared for 20 years, while the world treated him as moviedom's very own J.D. Salinger. There were movie executives who went around telling people they'd finance any movie Malick would fully commit to make.
Finally that movie came with "The Thin Red Line" in 1998. If it wasn't exactly true that Hollywood actors lined up to be in it, it's not far from the truth.
Seven more years of silence followed, and then his astonishing film about John Smith and Pocahontas, "The New World" in 2005, and now, after six more years of silence, only his fifth film, "The Tree of Life" starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and young actress Jessica Chastain.
Here is what Christopher Plummer told David Edelstein in New York magazine about acting for Malick: "He's fascinated by nature and just cuts to birds. Colin Farrell kept saying, 'My character, he's a f---in' osprey. That's how he sees me.' . . I wrote him an infuriated letter because I saw ['The New World'] and I was hardly in it -- he cut my part to s---."
Plummer added that Adrien Brody, the lead in "The Thin Red Line," had a worse experience: "He went to the premiere, and he wasn't in it. I wrote to Terry and said 'You need a writer baby, you need somebody to follow the story.' I was awful to him, but I did say I admired him.
"He's an individual -- also mad as a hatter."
Mad or not, Malick apparently was so happy with the way "The Tree of Life" came out that for the first time ever, he's working again on another film that is actually expected to come out next year.
I talked to "Tree of Life" co-star Chastain on the phone recently and she reports that the upcoming film -- starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz -- used her in a small role while it filmed in Oklahoma. "I just hope to be on his sets" is how she puts an allegiance to Malick that seems diametrically opposite to Plummer's view.
The next Malick film "is set in the modern day. It's really his first contemporary piece."
While making "The Tree of Life," she said, "he'd be all about capturing the accident and the truth rather than imposing the script on us with an iron fist His films always have a life of their own There's no forcing anything with his will."
In fact, on "The Tree of Life," she said she never knew "what a day was going to bring" and she never even heard him say "action" or "cut." She heard him do it for the first time only with the new film. "He's always experimenting and growing."
"Incredibly rewarding" is how Chastain now describes the unique experience of making two Malick films virtually back to back. (No other actor in the known universe can make that statement.)
So much so that the vast conspiracy of Malick actors, cinematographers and others who sustain Malick's personal privacy, continues with her.
Did the biggest mystery in American movies, I ask, share any information about his life and his history?
"Not really," answered Chastain. (Pause) "Nothing, that is, that I want to share with an interviewer on the phone."
I understood the giggle that came after. And sympathized.
> MALICK'S FIVE FILMS
The long gaps between movies include 20 years when he virtually disappeared.
Badlands, 1973 Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek
Days ofHeaven, 1978 Starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams
The Thin Red Line, 1998 Starring Sean Penn
The NewWorld, 2005, Starring Colin Farrell
The Tree of Life, 2011 Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's much-awaited film starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain opens Friday.