On Friday, October 21st, acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick made a virtually unprecedented live appearance at the Princeton Garden Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey following a screening of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy. I wrote about Malick’s thoughts on the digital revolution, Italian cinema, and seeing films in the “shared awe” of the movie theatre for Little White Lies, which I encourage all of you to read first.
Below, as an addendum to that piece, I’ve written some additional thoughts about the context of the event and the scene before and after Malick’s Q&A, which was made possible by Princeton Fellow Pacho Velez and the Lewis Center for the Arts.
Every several months, the Princeton Garden Theatre publishes Previews, a thick brochure detailing all of the films and events coming to the modest two screen theater throughout the forthcoming season. Closely associated with Princeton University, the nonprofit’s schedule comprises predominantly foreign, independent, or otherwise limited releases alongside a well curated selection of repertory titles; frequently films are followed by discussions with faculty and staff from the University and the museum or with the filmmakers themselves, such as writer-director Charlie Kaufman, who was in attendance for a screening and discussion of his film Anomalisa this past September.
Issue ninety seven of Previews was, superficially at least, like any other that preceded it: titles, dates, times, and descriptions of a few dozen classic and contemporary films; ticketing information; a membership application; and a promotional still from a beloved older film on the cover. On issue ninety seven, that image was of George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy, which was scheduled to screen on November 10. Turning a few pages to the event listing for Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist-infused masterpiece, however, one discovered not only the standard technical specifications and cast and crew information, but tucked discreetly at the bottom of the page was a single sentence that served as a clarion call to eagle-eyed cinephiles: To be followed by a live Q&A with acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick.
One could be forgiven for assuming this was a typo. In the forty three years since his first feature, 1973’s Badlands, was released, Malick has only consented to about half a dozen published interviews, all in the 1970s; until very recently, pictures of him numbered about the same. In 2012, amidst an unprecedented flurry of productivity from the reclusive director (during which he was simultaneously shooting and editing no less than four pictures, including his recently completed documentary Voyage of Time and the forthcoming Weightless), TMZ filmed the press shy director without even realizing it. And though people in his hometown of Austin say they frequently see Malick out and about, particularly at events held by fellow filmmaker Richard Linklater’s Austin Film Society, he refuses to attend premieres and screenings of his own films, sometimes sending his wife Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace as a surrogate.
For a month, the announcement flew pretty much under the radar, but when the theatre created an event page to announce that the date was being moved from November 10 to October 21, the few remaining tickets sold out instantly. Industry news sites like Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and IndieWire quickly reported upon the virtually unprecedented event, prompting the theatre (presumably under direction from Malick) to scrub any mention of the filmmaker in relation to the screening, replacing his name with the vague reference, “a speaker… as previously described.” Programmer Mike Kamison wrote in an email, “More than that we are not permitted to say,” and Entertainment Weekly issued a partial retraction, changing their headline to read “Terrence Malick may make rare public appearance.”
Arriving at the theatre to pick up my tickets in advance of the 7:30 screening, however, it was apparent that this was no ruse, or miscommunication; there was a palpable enthusiasm in the box office (and a larger staff than usual) and as theatre manager Betsy Kowal noted as patrons filed into the theatre, striking up conversations with strangers and looking expectantly at the two vacant rows of seats marked RESERVED, “there’s a lot of excitement in the room right now.” At about 7:35, with the theatre nearly at capacity, Mike announced that Malick was taking a leisurely tour of the Princeton campus and would be joining us after the film and reiterated that there was to be absolutely no recording or photography of any kind, in case any of us had missed the many boldly printed signs admonishing us against the same. The lights dimmed, and we sat in thrall to Rossellini’s masterpiece, the last of the six films he made with wife Ingrid Bergman.
After the rapturous applause that followed the talk, Malick didn’t rush off through the emergency exit, but stood at the front of the theatre alongside Velez, speaking amiably with the theatre staff and members of the audience. A few people disregarded the ‘No Photography’ request and surreptitiously snapped a few shots on their phones, but most respected Malick’s wishes. About half of the audience funneled their way out the exit, while the other half stood in the aisles talking amongst themselves or leaning in to hear what Malick was saying. For the most part, however, Malick didn’t speak, but listened as students respectfully approached and thanked him for his work and his time and shared with him stories of their own projects. His wife Alexandra stepped away to speak with friends, insisting that they come for dinner the next time they were in Texas; “We don’t do email,” she demurred, “we just delete them if we don’t recognize who they’re from.” Her husband, meanwhile, was politely shaking hands and accepting scraps of paper, presumably containing the email address and websites of strangers.