Cannes: A conversation with Pico Iyer

The Browsers ecstasy

writer Pico Iyer

Pico has often written and spoken of his deep and intense admiration for Malick’s films, and I just knew he would be delighted that The Tree of Life had bagged the Palme d’Or. Iyer writes more beautifully about cinema than any writer I know, but the pity is that he is more often commissioned to write on books, artists and places. I’m thrilled that the Criterion Collection has roped him in to introduce films, and we can hope now for a film essay introducing a Malick masterpiece on Criterion.

I also knew Pico would have much to say about Malick, and when my message reached him, he was (as he so often is) at an airport, at the end of another long journey (or it could have been at the start of one). Though exhausted from travel, and preoccupied with giving a lecture that evening on the ‘Future of the Museum’, he responded straightaway with his trademark generosity, intensity and eloquence, noting that it was a joy to have someone celebrate Malick’s victory with.

What do you have to say about Malick’s victory?

I’m thrilled that one of the transcendent artists of our time — as original, as uncompromising, and as committed to his deeply private and intense vision as any I can think of — has been honoured so publicly.

As you know, it’s a rare thing for an artist who makes no concessions to the modern marketing machine — gives no interviews, poses for no photos, doesn’t play the game — to conquer the world on his own terms; and yet those artists whose vision has the greatest capacity to change us and to make us see the world anew are precisely the ones who live far away from the media glare, patiently harvesting their individual response to things (be it Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy or Terrence Malick).
To win the movie world — the most public, flashbulb-addicted, red-carpet-addled world of all — while preserving your dignity and your clarity of sight, as Malick has, is doubly remarkable. It gives all of us hope, as viewers, as readers, and as producers of our own small efforts to make a clearing in the wilderness.

Could you say why you have been drawn to his work so much over the years? When did it begin, and how?

It would take me years to begin to answer this question. All I can say is that Days of Heaven has been the most transformative artwork I’ve encountered in my life; that I still can remember every moment of first viewing it, in Cambridge Massachusetts, on a Sunday afternoon, 22 years ago (and hurrying back to see it again the very next day); and that all my writing, and much of my life, has been a feeble and quixotic attempt to capture something of the depth and stillness and beauty of that Malick movie.
One of the many things I loved in it — the first time I saw it, and every one of the next 20 or 30 viewings — is that it is as rich a verbal and literary work as any I can think of.

Ultimately, it brought me to tears and silence simply through its imagery, its use of music and camera and whatever exists beyond the reach of words. I felt the same at moments even with the Mozartian moments (and chords) of his last movie, The New World.
No work of cinema is more cinematic, to me, and so uses the vocabulary of cinema to transmit what is in fact as literary and mythic and classic (and often pitiless) a vision as that of Cormac McCarthy himself. In that sense, Malick has opened up a whole new room — under the stars, a kind of cupola — in the house of cinema. No one can make films quite as he does; no one brings the same literary and philosophical wisdom and refusal of compromise. So we should savour him while we can; he is as rare a comet as Pynchon (who arises from something of the same period).Malick’s cinema isn’t consoling or easy or redemptive or fun; it just takes you into depths in yourself, post-verbal depths that you may have forgotten exist.

Pico, you must have heard that for the most anticipated movie at Cannes in years, The Tree of Life was also the most booed by an audience. Critics have heaped large praise on it even while noting that it could be a difficult film for even Malick fans to take, that it is more meditation than movie. As a Malick devotee, how do you think you’ll                        approach it?

Many, perhaps most of my friends love to boo Malick, and race out of the theatres showing his films, holding their hands to their ears; and well they might. I often feel the same about the auteurs they admire, from Peter Jackson to, in fact, Kubrick. But those boos I take almost to be plaudits, or at least tributes to the fact that he’s trying to do something different, and difficult.

What I love about Malick is precisely that he gives us meditations: I see him in the same context as Rothko or Sigur Ros, or parts of Tarkovsky, and I revere him precisely for his willingness to make motionless pictures, as you could call them, inaction movies, works of such beautiful, and for me heart-breaking, inwardness and privacy that they cause the greatest movement of all, in the heart.

I realise it can sound pretentious to describe him in such terms, and yet pretension is just a nasty word for aspiration; and the slow, patient, undisturbed and indeed meditative quality of his film-making — five films in almost 40 years, and no film for almost 20 — is indeed an inspiration. Malick changed my life when I saw his first movies in the 1970s.

Do you find parallels in his work — the themes, philosophy, style, craft — to your own work and concerns? Also, to the work of other artists you revere?

My vision aspires to be close to his, but I could never find the majesty, the depth, the density and the contemplative beauty of his work; I lack the concentration. When I give interviews, or produce books regularly, or come out into the world, I often feel that I am corrupting and compromising that part of me that Malick has, beautifully and to the benefit of us all, kept pristine and true, as so few can do.

To a unique extent, I think he’s created his own form of cinema — the Malickian movie — and some can’t stand it, while others (like myself) enter it with something of the silence and air of anticipation we’d bring to a great cathedral. But, like very few (and maybe Proust is something of a counterpart here), he didn’t just find, but created his own cinematic language and vision in his first film — the empty spaces, the unflinching vision of good and evil, the voice-overs, the strange, often unsettling intrusions of Nature — and has never departed from that, even while making huge Hollywood movies. That’s why the likes of Sean Penn and Brad Pitt and every Hollywood actor around (less so with the actresses, since he seems to write roles only for men) clamour and make great sacrifices to be in his films.

I see Malick as a mystic, really, acutely aware of darkness, the destructive forces of nature, the black fates that are sometimes dealt to us — and deeply conscious, at the same time, of the light. His protagonists are light and dark, something far bigger than the human, and his canvas is alarming to some only because it’s cosmic. Humans, of course, are just tiny shapes, sometimes silhouettes, in the much grander frame that he is relentlessly pushing at and probing.

We have only a few years on earth; as Cyril Connolly said, ‘what’s the point of doing anything other than taking in, or trying to make, a masterpiece?’ Malick’s unsparing and unwavering ambition, even when it falls flat, is one of the things I most love about him, especially since he seems committed to his vision and not his tiny self. Ambition without ego might be the ideal for any artist!

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