Last week it was announced that Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life will open in Britain next month, on May 4.
One can only imagine the shock among Cannes Film Festival organisers, who had been expecting to welcome stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn to the Croisette for the world premiere a week later. The news won't have pleased other distributors handling the film's global rollout, either. I suspect we haven't heard the end of this saga.
Somehow, among the world's leading film-makers, only Malick could have inspired such mayhem. There's no other director alive whose work is the object of such awestruck and jittery anticipation, fuelled by the long wait his devotees must endure as he pieces each new offering together.
By Malick's standards, the period that has elapsed since his last film, 2005's underseen Pocahontas epic The New World, is little longer than the blink of an eye -- his 20-year absence between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) is the stuff an entire legend is built on. Still, when you bear in mind that shooting for The Tree of Life began in early 2008, and the film was first tipped for release during in 2009, the delay has been torture enough.
What's more, Malick has supposedly already finished shooting his next project, tentatively entitled The Burial, with Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem in key roles. At his current work rate, we can expect to feast our eyes on that one some time around 2017.
Partly because of his devotion to a meticulous, artisanal approach to film-making, and partly because of the sheer secrecy in which his projects are enshrouded, a Malick film is more than an event -- it has the religious quality of an ecstatic unveiling.
He has only four films under his belt, with two still to be assessed, but some argue he has yet to make anything less than a masterpiece. The sheer quality of filmography places him in cinema's very select perfect-achievers' club, up there with Jean Vigo (L'Atalante, Zéro de Conduite) and Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter), each of whom had far shorter-lived directorial careers.
The myth of Malick extends back even before his first feature, Badlands (1973), which was hailed as the greatest debut by an American director since Citizen Kane. He was born on November 30 1943, either in Ottawa, Illinois, or Waco, Texas, depending on which sources you believe.
A second-generation Assyrian, he grew up working on oilfields before graduating from St Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, studying philosophy at Harvard under musician-turned-thinker Stanley Cavell, and then continuing as a Rhodes scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford.
The tenets of 20th-century philosophy inform Malick's cinema more than anything else -- certainly more than other people's movies. Both calm and troubled, his sensibility is so unusual in a Hollywood context as to make his films as exotic as tropical birds; indeed, ornithology plays a more integral role in his work than any jumped-up editing tricks or nods to Hitchcock.
It can be said with cast-iron certainty that he is the only man to have both coaxed Colin Farrell into giving his subtlest film performance (in The New World) and also published a translation of Heidegger's The Essence of Reasons (in 1969). It's Malick's esotericism, wedded to a near-impenetrable reclusiveness, which lends his work such tantalising mystique.
How did he end up in film-making at all? After stints of journalism and teaching, he made good contacts at the American Film Institute, leading to jobs doctoring scripts in Hollywood. These are the highly prized, well-paid gigs for the industry's most bankable writers.
It's another mysterious Malickian contradiction that this intellectual giant of the cinema has paid the rent with this most lucrative form of hackwork. Indeed, the invisible hand Malick has had on other directors' films has been a rumoured constant throughout his career.
He has the writing credit on Stuart Rosenberg's crime Western Pocket Money (1972) and -- these are the most persistent theories -- is said to have written early drafts of both Dirty Harry (1971) and the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! (1989).
On set, his reputation for prickly perfectionism and mercurial inspiration rivals that of Stanley Kubrick -- he's famously capable of departing from script and shooting schedule to chase a sunset, capture grass swaying in the wind or document parrots for half a day, leaving the actors to sit around in their trailers, waiting for their moment.
He feels his way into a film and through it, to the bitter end of the editing process, perusing endless reels. Few directors truly "find a film in the edit" like Malick. The stone-cold depiction of a true-crime murder spree in Badlands perhaps stands as his most taut and disciplined piece of storytelling, thanks to the economy its small budget imposed.
Story, though, is frequently the last thing on his mind. His quest for a poetic cinema, threatening to cast off narrative moorings altogether, has aggravated mainstream critics as often as it has earned him disciples.
When you consider why actors still queue up to work with him, you have to weigh the facts. It's not an easy ride: his fights with Richard Gere, who played an itinerant turn-of-the-century labourer in the astonishingly beautiful Days of Heaven, were notorious even before its release.
And yet look at the performances he gets -- Martin Sheen is quite something in Coppola's Apocalypse Now, but not half as good as he is as restless greaser Kit in Badlands, wearing the character's gangly, careless bravado like well-worn jeans. Sissy Spacek gives Malick credit for plucking her from obscurity and moulding her into the actress she became. Her narration as Holly, Sheen's teenage moll, is a marvel of eerie affectlessness, a feat also pulled off by Linda Manz, who plays Gere's younger sister in Days of Heaven.
The success of these first two films established Malick as an important and original artist at a time when Hollywood was unusually interested in the breed. Days of Heaven, even so, had been a nightmare. Malick and cinematographer Nestor Almendros insisted on shooting most of the film in the 25 minutes before sunset, which gives the movie its slanting light and evanescent glow, and won it the Best Cinematography Oscar, but drove it considerably over schedule and budget.
One thousand locusts had to be shipped in to the Alberta prairie, while peanut shells, dropped from helicopters simulated the big swarm. The editing process, setting the pattern that still persists, took two years to complete.
What Malick got up to in the next two decades is anyone's guess. There was a project called Q, about the origins of life, which it seems The Tree of Life has now become. The first attempt was abandoned in 1983, after much effort and expense spent photographing jellyfish around the Great Barrier Reef and ice shelves breaking off in the Arctic Circle. Suffice to say that the dialogue-free screenplay he would send to Paramount filled them with more confusion than confidence.
He moved to Paris. He was offered an adaptation of D?M Thomas's famously unfilmed Holocaust novel The White Hotel in 1989, but turned it down. He tinkered away on abandoned projects, toying with Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Larry McMurtry's The Desert Rose and a stage version of Mizoguchi's great Japanese samurai tragedy Sansho the Bailiff. In between, he notched up the most famously prolonged wilderness period in Hollywood history.
Malick's comeback, The Thin Red Line, took shape as his most monumental endeavour yet, and was received by the industry with something between hearty applause and vague bewilderment -- nominated for seven Oscars, it won none.
Overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan the same year, this rangily ambitious South Pacific war poem happens to be this writer's favourite film, but I doubt the same could be said for Adrien Brody, who thought he had the main role until he saw it, and realised that he was the ultimate victim of Malick's scissor-happy assembly methods. In the final cut he has about five minutes of screen time. There are trees in the film as prominent as he is now.
Among the famous names Malick had cast to help Fox bankroll the film, many others (Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Viggo Mortensen) found their contributions expunged altogether. Though Malick's original six-hour version has never been made public, the three-hour cut is still majestic and profound as a statement on man's destruction of his earthly paradise.
One of the reasons our wait for The Tree of Life has been bearable is the hope that it will help Malick bypass the messy reception of his last release, The New World, which was screened to critics in a rush before he was entirely finished editing, then recut by a further 15 minutes for its theatrical release.
Speculation about the new film is rife, fuelled by trailers and posters that play up its abstract gorgeousness and make the plot -- spanning decades in the lives of a Midwestern family, with Pitt as Penn's father -- hard to discern. It appears to be about life, death, the galaxy, the ocean, jungle canopies -- and dinosaurs. Everything, in other words.
Whatever Malick has pulled off this time, his grand ambition and uncompromising methods continue to make him one of a kind, a director worth following to the ends of the earth, which is very often just where he wants to take us.
The Tree of Life is out on May 4.