Bright Lights Film Journal

What do Terrence Malick and Steely Dan have in common? Part 1

  • Let’s start with the most obvious correlation, other than perhaps the fact that both artists are likely to appeal to folks like me who strongly identify with the technical experimentation and pervasive undercurrent of disillusionment that characterizes most mid-70’s masterworks. Which is that both Terry and Steely (Donald Fagan/Walter Becker) — working on their own or with a collective of professionals — are utter masters of craft, individuals who are self-proclaimed students of their respective modes of expression (as well as others) and steeped in both the language of tradition and innovation. True, Malick never performed a cinematic tip of the hat analogous to the Dan’s covering “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” but there are plenty of buried allusions to silent, classic, and (what would have been fairly) recent filmic tropes (the flying circus unexpectedly landing in Days of Heaven is like something out of a gentler Renoir, or Claude Berri, or maybe Pagnol). Malick and the Dan approach their films/albums or scenes/songs as puzzles to be solved, then fragmented again, and presented, ever richer, to the public. The angular chord changes of “Black Cow” and the odd imagery of The Thin Red Line are both mind-bogglingly complex and intuitive: the mark of both expertise and long, grueling, deliberate production. We cannot blame either for their 20-year hiati.
  • Both careers have also had clear enough trajectories. They had student efforts (You Gotta Walk it Like You Talk it and Lanton Mills), a fast maturation period (Badlands and Can’t Buy A Thrill) and delivered bonafide masterpieces on their full-length sophomore efforts. The difference is that the Dan continued and unleashed a virtually unchallenged string of gems whereas Malick left his gestation after Days of Heaven up to the imagination of the public. I hesitate to claim that Malick may have the upperhand here in the sense that we feel the Dan growing more cynical by the album, not only towards the music industry but towards the human race in general, until Everything Must Go is so misanthropic that it doesn’t seem to care whether we listen to it or not. Malick may have spared his ego the scarring experience of failure and abuse by dropping out of the film scene, and I’m also fairly certain he was never hit by a car while a newbie engineer was erasing his favorite track off the new album (Becker’s experience from Gaucho, for those who might be lost). Still, I would not characterize either of their approaches as humanistic or even human — but where the Dan spits venom Malick seems more humbly fascinated.
  • Both artists methodically shape their objects in layers, leaving nothing to happenstance. A Malick script with copious dialog is just as likely to wind up wordless after months of post-production tinkering and ADR. A Steely Dan record with 13 tracks in the can is just as likely to be released with 9, several of which might have been hollowed and digitally re-constructed, with guitar solos patched from earlier sessions, etc. Malick and Fagan/Becker tend to work furtively and independently, aside from the efforts of a crew who’s prime objective is to realize his/their vision with the least amount of essence-loss possible (producer Gary Katz, editor Billy Weber, etc). The length of time they spend on their art — and their clear devotion to perfection — means that some dismiss the end result as too glossy, too smooth, or too calculated. Indeed, there isn’t much spontaneity, even in Badlands (with all its gorgeous, muted violence) or Countdown to Ecstasy (where the guitar and keyb solos seem to have been manneredly pre-written). But some would argue that the hyperkinetic, spontaneous style of a Godard or a Sun Ra lends itself to predictability just as often, if not more, than the draconianaly scripted. Both Malick and Dan recognize the spiritual alchemy of captured and controlled energy — their works seldom climax, but they seldom fall apart.
  • They mostly allow others to take center stage as meets the eye/ear — Martin Sheen or Néstor Almendros or Larry Carlton or Elliot Randall — and yet even these instrumental wizards strike us as pawns on the director’s chessboard. Our tendency is to praise the performance that Malick coaxed from Colin Farrell or Richard Gere rather than the actor, just as we marvel at how delectably placed a Rick Derringer improvisation is in “Third World Man”. It’s not that the director(s) hasn’t/haven’t allowed any hint of the individual personality of his/their players, as is the case with Bresson. Malick marvelously allows Sissy Spacek, Sam Sheperd, and Q’orianka Kilcher to be as they are, probably with more magnanimous freedom than is often bestowed in the movies. Similarly, the Dan allowed safe havens for (after the post-Pretzel Logic breakup of the band proper) the studio geniuses of Jeff Pocaro, pre-Doobies Michael McDonald, and Larry McCracken, individuals who would have surely languished, band-less, in the session-snub days of pre-punk had it not been for the open arms of ABC/MCA (and the revolving door of Joni Mitchell’s backing group/potential sex objects). But each director also knew how to use these individual personalities to best meet his own/their own goals with expediency. The pieces seem singular and alive, but the glue and the backdrop are academic and all-encompassing: Malick and the Dan visually/aurally pin their painstakingly preserved dragonflies to an audaciously auteur felt tapestry.
  • A simpler point, but both artists have used bleeding edge technology/methods in a disastrous manner befitting modern myth. The mad restructuring and over-dubbing of Days of Heaven is well-known, as is the fact that shooting took place primarily during “Magic Hour” — which, as Malick himself later pointed out, is a bit of a misnomer given that it only lasts about 20 minutes. The Dan have also been perpetually plagued by technical ambition. The story behind their shamanic mixing of Katy Lied is like a studio fairy-tale — the new DBX anti-noise mechanisms (and a strange incident with a very humid control room) wrecked what could have been the mo
    st artfully assembled album of all time, up to that point. The horns of “Doctor Wu” and “Throw Back the Little Ones,” as well as an expertly orbiting piano/guitar solo in “Bad Sneakers” — perhaps the only remaining remnants of this original plan — appear to be haloed in dying sun.

Read Part 2 over at The POWERSTRIP.