Rohstoff Filmmagazin
Cover Fanzine 2: I don't know. I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess.*

Can Terry Malick tell a joke?

The serious and the absurd in Terrence Malick's Lanton Mills.

by Theresa Schwartzman

When Terrence Malick donated a copy of his thesis film Lanton Mills to his alma mater, The American Film Institute, he stipulated that scholars be allowed to view the film in the AFI library in Los Angeles, but nowhere else. The film cannot be copied or checked out. The inaccessibility of this film subtracts one more piece from the puzzle of what people often call the “enigma” of Terrence Malick — a director who has only made three films, with a 20 year gap between the second and the third, who notoriously refuses to give interviews, and has it written into his contracts that he will do no publicity. In fact it has become almost a cliché to call him “the J.D. Salinger of cinema.”

In this void of biographic or other information to help us decipher the puzzle of Terrence Malick, Lanton Mills stands as a cult-object of desire for diehard Malick scholars and fans. If you search for the film online, you find numerous sites that reveal only the cast list and a mistaken running time of 12 minutes (it actually runs 17). No hint to the film's substance, or even its genre. Pounding away further on the Internet yields a near-desperate appeal from an Australian film librarian, trying to find a copy of the film for a patron in 2001. A little more surfing unearths several members of the My Space Malick fanclub who claim Lanton Mills as their favorite film, though nothing on the site hints that they have actually seen it. So when I screened the film on VHS at a little monitor in the AFI library, I felt like a birdwatcher who had glimpsed some rare near-extinct species, a bird I hoped would harbor secrets.

What struck me most about Lanton Mills in the context of Malick's other work was simply how endearing it is. Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line are often described as works of genius — inscrutable, philosophical, sublime, but certainly not endearing. In contrast, Lanton Mills is marked by a goofy, sprawling, messy humor that puts it squarely in the comedy genre, and much of its comedy resides in Malick's own touching performance as a slow-witted cowboy buffoon. Lanton Mills is a Western. Sort of.

The sparse plot recounts the story of two cowboys (Terrence Malick as “Tilman” and Harry Dean Stanton as “Lanton Mills”) who set off on horseback to rob a bank. On the way, they stop to see their boss, the “Old Man”, only to discover he has been murdered by another cowboy, John Sparks (Warren Oates). After Oates announces his claim to fame as the “slowest gun in the West” Stanton cursorily shoots him (an easy feat given cowboy Sparks' leisurely draw time!). It seems to take forever for Oates to die, and his dying is punctuated by lots of nonsensical banter and funny business. At last the two protagonists ride off again through the scrubbrush. There is a fade-to-black and in the next shot reveals our two heroes riding their horses in the middle of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard. A muscle car follows slowly behind them, and there is no hint to whether or not the cowboys are surprised by their new surroundings. They enter the bank, a glass-doored, orange-carpeted behemoth, and suddenly they seem to notice they're out of place. Gun cocked, Stanton falteringly declares “Nobody get upset now!” in a voice so soft no one hears him. Meanwhile, Malick delightedly grabs publicity brochures and office equipment off the desks, apparently thinking that they are some form of money. With the help of their antiquated guns, the two finally succeed in robbing a teller of two sacks of “petty cash,” but not before he pushes the emergency button. The film ends with the two cowboys fleeing from the LAPD. The cops shoot Stanton dead and then shove a handcuffed Malick into a police cruiser.

What makes this sudden time shift intriguing is its uncertain parameters. Have the cowboys actually time-traveled, falling out in a world completely foreign to them? A comment the Malick character makes when he hears the police sirens belies this idea. He mutters wryly: “Well, it all goes to show, you can't hear radar.” His familiarity with “radar” raises the possibility that the cowboys have been living in the 20th century the whole time, simply confining themselves in some isolated rural area where they can make believe it's 1885. On the other hand, later dialogue implies that the Malick character has never seen an automobile. The clues to the nature of the time shift point in opposite directions, leaving the cowboys' status in Los Angeles an insoluble problem. Perhaps we might glean something of Malick's intent in a rare published interview with the director (1975 Sight and Sound) where he explains that in Badlands: I tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.

A plot summary cannot do justice to the experience of watching LANTON MILLS. Visually, it is rich in elements that would become Malick's trademarks. Daylight assumes a tactile presence — though here it is not the diffuse “magic hour” light (i.e., malick-light) of later films, but a bold late afternoon sun that streams through leaves, creating shadow and dappled highlight on the characters' faces. The camera angles tend to be either wide or wider, even in dialogue scenes. Also familiar from Malick's later films is the attention to landscape and nature — a few hens strut past Warren Oates as he is shot and a humongous pig noses around him as he dies.

But what makes Lanton Mills feel completely different from Malick's later work is its unrestrained, anarchic comedy. In the 1975 Sight and Sound interview, with reference to Badlands, Malick makes a distinction: There is some humor in the picture, I believe. Not jokes. In Lanton Mills, there are jokes, plenty of them. Though the jokes play out in an absurdist, disconcerting key, they still make us laugh (or at least shake our heads with a puzzled smile). The joking begins right away, in the musical score that Malick himself composed, a score that sounds more appropriate to a Pink Panther film than a Western. Over shots of cowboys riding hard through the prairie, Malick places lounge music featuring twangy electric guitars and a tongue-in-cheek melody that warns the viewer that we're about to embark on a long shaggy-dog story. Lanton Mills keeps the viewer in a perpetual expectant, nervous titter. The film's nature as shaggy dog story is also announced in a bit of early dialogue, after Stanton invites Malick to ride out on the bank job. Starkly silhouetted in the afternoon light as he saddles up his horse, Malick asks (in a totally over-the-top Western twang):

You like a particular kinda joke?
Stanton (wearily, expecting the worst): What kind?
Malick: Well, you hear the one about the rabbit? This rabbit, see ---
Lanton (cuts him off abruptly): Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I did hear that one.

I should note that Lanton Mills is an extremely “talky” film and most of that talk teeters on the edge of vaudeville or jabberwocky. When our heroes first meet Warren Oates' character, he introduces himself like this: Name is John Sparks and I'm a bumblebee. But we never find out what it is that makes Oates a “bumblebee” — it's a joke without a punchline. Later as Oates lays dying, he nevertheless pops up to chat whenever he has something interesting to add to the conversation. Then he lays back down placidly, so we're never really sure if he has made his final exit. Malick asks him if he can take his gun when he dies, Oates graciously agrees, and Malick steals it anyway, along with the dying man's pocket watch. The scene pure burlesque, and throughout the dialogue Malick munches happily on a large round piece of food that is either a loaf of bread or a melon.

In fact, all this nutty talking starts to figure into the plot as tension arises between Stanton and Malick over talk vs action. Stanton is forever trying to get a move on towards the bank job, while Malick's character operates as a restraining force on the forward movement of the story. He constantly stops things from happening with his nonsensical patter. In one of the first lines of the film, Stanton tells Malick, in the patronizing tone one uses with half-wit sidekicks: I'd give a great deal to be able to stand here and talk all day… but the old man has big plans about hitting a bank.

The tension between stasis and motion crystallizes when Malick and Stanton sit under a tree cooking up some cowboy coffee. Malick suggest they should bury their “things” (an idea about defying time that will reoccur in Badlands), including an old photo of a Victorian lady, because: Somebody dig this up 100 years from now, they won't know any more about this lady than you or me. And we'll come back some day maybe and they won't be any different, but we will. Stanton reacts with exasperation: I just know two things, one thing, you haven't got any sense. Apparently not noticing the put-down, Malick announces he might as well do his big bird.

Reminiscent of the place of songs in classic Hollywood musicals, the whole film seems to halt for the extraordinary dance sequence of Malick's “big bird.” Malick careens down a hill, arms pumping like a chicken, legs and hips ambling rhythmically in a slow jig. He dances with naïve abandon, and then, without warning, his dance turns into a dejected walk. He slumps, his gaze hanging down, while his stomach hangs out. He stops still, looks around aimlessly as if unsure what to do next, then goes back into the big bird strut. Malick's faltering, starting & stopping dance carries on for nearly a minute.

In Lanton Mills, as in the Commedia dell'Arte, each character is denoted by an expansive idiosyncratic physicality, with exaggerated mannerisms and tics. Malick himself assumes a loping, clownish gait, as well as a habit of fiddling compulsively with objects, either brushing off invisible insects, or throwing down a half-smoked cigarette with such vehemence he seems to believe it is alive. On the other hand, Warren Oates's performance is marked by exaggerated daintiness. When our heroes first meet Oates on the porch of his homestead, he says howdy to them and then carefully pauses. He slowly strolls to the door, holding his body in perfect Greek contrapposto, allowing the tiniest hint of a private grin to play across his lips. While he dangles one hand near his gun, he keeps the other raised and slightly turned out, as if he's holding a teacup. In Warren Oates' balletic stroll, there is a distant echo of those long, hard pauses perfected by actors like John Wayne when they want to make sure the force of their words sinks in. Only in Lanton Mills, the long, hard pause has evolved into a kind of drag.

While Oates' feyness perhaps suggests his character is gay, it also works to negate and mock the excessive masculinity of actors in classic Westerns. In this heady mix, Harry Dean Stanton plays the straight man, the only character you could actually imagine encountering in a real Western. But even Stanton's performance occasionally slips into a tentative mode that suggests he is only rehearsing for a Western, rather than living one. For instance after shooting Oates, Stanton sniffs his hands curiously as if unfamiliar with the smell of gunpowder. Then he wanders around the ranch shooting his pistol into the air, trying out different poses as he goes. At the end of the film, before he dies, the cop asks Stanton why he “did it” and Stanton replies: I dunno. I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess, just not this big of one. A line that might easily have been spoken by Kit in Badlands, another character who seems trapped in a role not entirely of his own making.

In an interview about The Thin Red Line, Nick Nolte offers an anecdote to explain Terrence Malick's working method: Terry would come to me and show me a few pages he'd written, and I'd read this wonderful poem. I'd say: "That's great, Terry, but it's six pages." He said: "Yes, take those six pages and edit it down to what you would say." So I would edit it down, show it to Terry and he'd say "It's a bit long" I'd end up with one or two lines out of six pages.

Watching Lanton Mills, you begin to suspect that what distinguishes it from Malick's later work is simply the fact that he never bothered to “edit it down.” Here perhaps lies the dividing line between jokes and what Malick called “some humor,” between a shaggy dog story and the Kierkegaardian absurd. The substance is the same, but one points in the direction of laughter, the other towards reflection. It's a strange dividing line. While Lanton Mills never approaches the metaphysical ambivalence of Malick's later films, the trembling state that gives them their power to awe, I can't help regretting that Malick, the endearingly foolish “Big Bird,” stopped letting us in on all his best jokes.

Lanton Mills, dir. Terrence Malick (1969)
Lanton: Dean Stanton, Tilman: Terrence Malick, Gunman: Warren Oates, Phantom: Lash Larue, Mute: Tony Bill, Teller: Paul Ehrman, 1st cop: Ken Smith, 2nd cop; John Schmitz, Camera: Caleb Deschanel, Music: Terrence Malick, Editor: John Palmer, Producer: John Roper

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