Werner Herzog’s biopic of British archeologist Gertrude Bell premiered more than two years ago at the Berlin Film Festival to poor reviews, and is only this week making its way onto American screens. Why this should be is not immediately clear, the ins and outs of which international art house films make it into domestic distribution is far too complex a matter for my mind to comprehend, but I believe it involves some combination of corporate nepotism, the star system and random chance. The stars in this case are what make the film worth watching, as Nicole Kidman can enliven even the deadest of features, and this might be her most heroic effort in that vein to date. There’s almost nothing of Werner Herzog in the film, though there might have been once: Bell superficially appears to be his kind of a hero, obsessed with a harsh landscape, driven outside the bounds of society to do something remarkable, but at nearly every level the film feels compromised. Herzog is the only credited writer, but this has all the hallmarks of a film written and edited by a committee.
Making its way to Seattle last week for an unheralded run at the Pacific Place, then quickly dropped to a single show in town and shunted off to Tukwila’s Parkway Plaza was the latest film from the most singular artist working in mainstream American film today. As with every Terrence Malick film since his reemergence with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Song to Song has been met with baffled derision by much of what passes for the Hollywood intelligentsia, that dense Ouroboros of movie reviewers, Oscar bloggers and self-appointed box office gurus that pass as journalists in our debased world. The complaints are familiar, cheap and lazy, ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick doesn’t make movies like They expect movies to be made. Unable to conceive of possibilities beyond their narrow imaginations, his refusal to conform is viewed alternately as pretension or incompetence (see for example Christopher Plummer’s whining about Malick during The Tree of Life‘s Oscar campaign that Malick didn’t know how to edit films, a complaint (I believe, perhaps uncharitably) ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick cut out most of Plummer’s performance in The New World). Malick doesn’t make conventional movies, and it’s easier to snark about twirling and poetry (the nerve!) than it is to wrestle with what he does make.