terrence malick | senses of cinema
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Terrence Malick! Hwanhee Lee " December 2002 # Great Directors $ Issue 23
b. November 30, 1943, either Waco, Texas or Ottawa, Illinois, USA
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Your eyes Your ears Your senses will be overwhelmed.
The tagline for Days of Heaven
The later concepts of nature, we said, must be held at a distance from this: phusis means the emergentself-upraising, the self-unfolding that abides in itself. In this sway, rest and movement are closed andopened up from an originary unity. This sway is the overwhelming coming-to-presence that has not yetbeen surmounted in thinking, and within which that which comes to presence essentially unfolds as be-ings.
Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics
Terrence Malick is an American director whose films can be characterized as radical reevaluations of the cur-rent understandings of cinematic concepts such as image (and sound), character, and narrative. His films areintensely visual, abound in beautiful nature imagery and they elude explanation, in the sense of the reductionof a given phenomenon (say, a characters behaviors) to various (psychological, sociological) causes, usuallyfavoring expression of moods instead. To articulate the intentions behind such choices would be the task inhand in trying to make sense of his films. Malick studied philosophy and worked in journalism before heturned to film. He produced a translation of one of Heideggers short texts (1) and the philosophers writingsappear to have influenced the films greatly. Malick also worked for publications such as Life, New Yorker andNewsweek. (2) His other influences seem to be the writings of philosophical figures such as Wittgenstein, (3)the works of realist, non-abstract modern painters such as Hopper and Wyeth, and silent films, embracing boththe documentary tradition of Flaherty and the expressionist tradition of Murnau (by questioning, or ignoring,their oppositional status).
Malicks first film Badlands (1973) is ostensibly a semi-factual account of a mass-murderer and his girlfriend,set in the 1950s. Whats immediately unusual about the film is its lack of interest in trying to explain the caus-es of its protagonists violent behaviors, and furthermore, its lack of moral judgment of these individuals orthe culture that produced them. Instead the films focus is concentrated on their experience of alienation fromthe world that they inhabit and its values. As Heidegger might put it, the intelligibility of the world and thevalues people share are, at bottom, not based on justifications, nor are they arbitrary. It is a given fact, if youwill, that they are based neither on unshakable foundations nor on arbitrary consensus.
Malicks lack of interest in the causes of the characters behaviors should not be understood as itself a moraljudgment, as if their actions are in some nebulous way justified. This film is not a polemic, like KislowskisA Short Film about Killing (1988). Rather, Malicks point seems to be that mere condemnation, or trying todetermine the causes of their actions, essentially evades the fact that our world and values sometimes are un-able to deal with certain human possibilities. The film could easily have been given a particular interpretiveframework: it could have been a condemnation of American mass-culture or juvenile delinquents, or apolemic about the death-penalty and justice system. However because the film eschews any particular moralstance, it makes the viewer realize that attempts at trying to judge the characters as inhuman (or look for ex-planation for their actions) cover up the fact that our world and values are more fragile than we think they are.In fact, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) are barely aware of the monstrous nature of their acts,and they have no particular reasons for their actions either, except for the fact that they are running away fromthe lawmen. One of the films more indelible scenes involves Kits inability to explain to the policeman whyhe has done what he has done, after hes just been captured (of his own accord, no less). He even finds peoplein general Okay, and is not a particularly hostile character throughout the film.
The film is also perceptive on the nature of a human beings relationship to his or her world. Here, a phe-nomenon like alienation again is not given an explanatory angle: Kit and Hollys loneliness and detachmentfrom their world are not due to some particular psychological reasons or their places in a society. Rather, ex-periences such as alienation, anxiety, and listlessness are shown to be fundamental facets of human life, as lifeoscillates between the stable everyday world and its tasks and the realization that its stability is not based onunshakable foundations. Malick is insistent that human action is not always motivated by psychological caus-es. In effect, he challenges the traditional notion of the character as primarily defined by psychology, deeplyburied within a persons mind, instead preferring to envision human beings as by nature tied to (or beingrobbed of) their worlds, which forms the basis of any sort of human experiences. In fact, the freedom that Kitand Holly experience, as they retreat more and more from society, is an oppressive, unbearable one.
James Monaco has described Malicks films as mythic in appearance, but rather than imposing myths ontothe reality, Malick finds mythic material out of the reality (or to use his own words, Malick deduces mythsout of the reality, instead of inducing them). (4) It is a perceptive comment, for Malicks films usually evoke(rather than explicitly reference or replay) various (cultural, literary, cinematic) myths. Malick himselfbelieves Badlands calls to mind Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Swiss Family Robinson, (5) as they andhis film look at our form of life, its values and rituals, from a distance. Days of Heaven (1978) is vaguely bib-lical both in tone and plot (the title itself, as Stanley Cavell has noted, has a biblical origin). (6) It evokes otherfilms, without specifically commenting on them, and many believe it to be heavily influenced by MurnausCity Girl (1930) and Sunrise (1927), and even George Stevens Giant (1956). Similarly, even though The ThinRed Line (1998) (7) actually quotes various religious and literary texts, such as The Bhagavad-Gita, (8) TheIliad (9) and The Grapes of Wrath, (10) as well as alluding to films such as Murnaus Tabu (1931) and CornellWildes Beach Red (1967) (and From Here to Eternity, the James Jones novel, as well as Zinnemanns film), (11) one still wonders as to what such allusions are made for, since unlike most films that self-con-sciously refer to other films or myths, Malicks films do not engage with them in a particularly critical manner,nor do they understand the notion of myth as something that obscures truth, or legitimizes ideological inter-ests, etc. so that it needs to be demystified and revised, as in the films of someone like Altman or Godard.Instead, Malick understands myths as cultural paradigms, if you will, that function as a precondition formaking sense out of the human experience, and that shape the sensibilities of the culture that produces them.Indeed, myths, as recognized as such, are not hypotheses that might or might not turn out to be true, as theyserve a completely different function from the presentations of facts.
The lack of much critical work on Malicks films is partly due to the fact that (besides the lack of outputs) it ishard to articulate the motivations or concerns behind them. In the case of Days of Heaven, the difficulty iseven more pronounced than the directors previous film. Primarily a tragic love story, the characters and theplot are almost dwarfed by the overwhelming scale and the beauty of the films nature imagery. In a ratherperplexing but nevertheless moving way, the film feels detached (in an almost religious sense, one might say)from the specific events within the film, never really delving deep into the particular emotions and minds ofthe characters. Pauline Kael, perhaps with impatience, likened the film to an empty Christmas tree: you canhang all your dumb metaphors on it, (12) which makes one wonder why she thought the film had to bemetaphorical. The critics also have persistently noticed Malicks sympathy towards the aesthetics of silent cin-ema. As stated, Days of Heaven is largely thought to be borne out of various biblical narratives, and also aself-conscious homage to certain silent films, which makes one curious as to why particularly silent films arebeing evoked. Is it a case of mere nostalgia? A more likely answer is that such evocations result from Malicksunderstanding of notions such as image and narrative in relation to cinema.
It is often asserted that cinematic images are signs (and the films texts) that are in need of deciphering,according to certain critical traditions and methodologies, that they are presented to us as something to be un-derstood (or at least that understanding films, in various ways, requires theories). (13) Malicks films are insome sense a profound challenge to such notions, as their primary concerns are not plots and characters withcomplex psychologies, nor some kind of intellectual engagement with ideas. Rather, Malicks films are mostdistinguished for the primacy and beauty and poetry of their imagery, which reminds the viewers of the factthat the most primal and direct way in which cinema engages its audiences is via the power of images. (Theyalso force the viewer to listen carefully as well to the sounds that the world produces, including the differentpoignant human voices). And the intention behind such relative lack of regard for the conventions of narra-tive cinema is not to be characterized as a subversion or aesthetic gamesmanship. Rather, the films are con-cerned with bringing cinema back to its humble origins, of presenting unmediated and uninterpreted reality,before its natures have split into different theoretical positions and approaches, such as the dichotomy betweenrealism and expressionism, fiction and documentary, and the division of cinema into various genres and move-ments. Rather than merely paying homage to silent cinema, it appears to be a certain fundamental or primitivecondition of cinema that he seeks, for most silent films are neither primitive, unmediated, nor uninterpretedpresentations of reality.
Still, Malicks sympathy towards silent cinema may be thought of as some sort of yearning for purity in im-ages, and may be borne out of a refusal to see cinema (and particularly cinematic images) as governed by vari-ous abstractions or opposing theses, instead understanding cinema as first and foremost a physical phe-nomenon that elicits awe and wonder before any impulse to understand and interpret it in terms of its mean-ing. In a sense, Malicks films are both fiction and documentary, as they closely document the world that welive in and its inhabitants, akin to, as some have commented, National Geographic programs; as well as realis-tic and expressionistic. Indeed, contrary to some misconceptions about them, Malicks films (and their im-ages) are profoundly anti-abstract, anti-symbolic, and anti-modernist.
Malicks understanding of cinema seems to be influenced by Heideggers contention that it is a cardinal symp-tom of modernity (which he claims has its deepest roots in Greek thinking) to apprehend reality as somethingto be differentiated from how it appears to a subjective consciousness, and that the reality is understood at themost fundamental level as something to be mastered. (14) Surely, one of the guiding preoccupations of cine-ma, if one is to understand it as one of the chief products of modernity, is defining what a cinematic image ul-timately is; is it a component of a narrative? A representation of the reality? Objective reality or subjective(psychological) reality? Psychological reality of the filmmaker or the characters? Is it a reflection of ideologi-cal values?
Heidegger believes the early Greeks, who did not ground the nature of reality in constant presence (15), expe-rienced the world not as a collection of substances (or what appearances really are) to be analyzed, but as agroundless source of mystery (and it is not insignificant, for the present context, that Heidegger thinks theworld reveals itself to us via our moods, not cognition). Or as phusis, which has since degenerated into na-ture in the sense of the products or resources produced by nature. Phusis, in his words, means everything thatcomes-into-presence, or what unfolds itself in appearance, and the emerging-abiding sway, which, with itsoverwhelming power, has not yet been mastered by thought. (16) Malick, likewise, is wholly uninterested inenvisioning his films as epistemological (or moral, or sociological, or what have you) inquiries for the audi-ences and the characters, instead preferring to envision them as a presentation of the world, in all its variety,as something to be faced with reverence. One might say, borrowing Wittgensteins phrase, Malicks films arenot interested in how the world is, or what happens to be true, but in that it is, the uncanny (and tragic andwondrous and humbling) fact of its very existence (which is to say, they are not trying to say something atall). (17) Days of Heaven, perhaps, cannot be described with more accuracy than by describing it as a certainembodiment of the site of human passions and tragedies, overseen by the gods and the cosmos where every-thing, human or nonhuman, has its place.
Malicks third, most recent and most uneven film, The Thin Red Line, is a further engagement with his con-cerns. If Badlands deals with the nature of our engagement with the world and Days of Heaven shows theworld in a particularly primordial way (or a presentation of the reality as phusis, one might say), The Thin RedLines inspiration (other than the primary source, the James Jones novel) seems to have come from, again, oneof Heideggers claims, made in regard to Heraclitus fragment 53, that phusis shapes itself through polemos,(18) i.e. that reality shapes itself through conflict and struggle. Indeed, it becomes gradually clear that thefilms opening query, whats this war in the heart of nature?, is not referring to a specific war, nor nature ina specific sense (such as Darwinian wars in the heart of nature, or the violent human nature at war withitself). As the film progresses, the terms senses become multiplied and relevant to natures and wars both cos-mic and local, and of individuals, ideas, humans, and animals, and it is perhaps not overly interested in takingpositions in the various wars that are being presented, nor in how their various natures are being under-stood. The film is interested in the fact that the world is governed by conflicts (between opposites war andpeace, darkness and light, etc.), not in whos on the right side of each of them.
In fact, limiting the films identity to a war picture or an anti-war picture, or understanding the films point asvarious declarations (or arguments) about what war and nature are (and they would translate into utter ba-nalities, or even redundant sentences, in any case, such as war comes from violent human nature and war isa crime against Mother Nature, and so on) would be confusing the films aims and the nature of the questionsthat are asked by the films characters. Like Wittgenstein, the soldiers in the film ask where does (something)come from? not as a demand for a causal explanation (and besides, as the philosopher puts it, explanationscome to an end somewhere) (19) but as the expression of a certain craving that the explanation cannot satisfy.(20) If the film does make moral judgments of any kind they are not about justifying why there shouldnt bewars and destruction of nature but are about a certain (modern) understanding of nature that allows humans tosee the natural environment as a monolithic, meaningless abstraction, where destruction is allowed to happenwith impunity and, as in Days of Heaven, the characters are less in control of nature than they think, as natureboth nurtures them and violently rejects them in equal measure.
As with Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malicks concerns manifest themselves primarily in cinematic termsin The Thin Red Line. In the earlier films, particularly in Days of Heaven, the constant flow of images has verylittle spatial continuity, thereby making each image a discrete world existing on its own (or an emerging-abid-ing sway, one would say) rather than a small bit of perceptual information. A characteristic surge of images isthe sequence that begins with the departure of Bill (Richard Gere) with the circus performers and ends withthe time-lapse image of sprouting seed; there is no dialogue, save for the offscreen narration, no narrative con-tent, and no continuity, but only the overwhelming power of the images which have not degenerated intosigns or symbols.
The Thin Red Line is comparatively more complex in its structure. It is structured in terms of various opposi-tional elements (or wars or polemos). These include oppositions such as those between individual andcollectivity (or the self and the other), as exemplified by the films extremely odd use of voiceover narra-tions. The voiceovers are read by different characters, but not necessarily the ones that are on screen while thelines are uttered. Furthermore, the flashbacks and the subjective, mental images are insufficiently distin-guished from the objective, corporeal images. When we first see Tall (Nick Nolte), it isnt clear whetherwhat follows (the conversation with the general [John Travolta]) is the event recalled specifically from hispoint of view, or something that follows in chronological order. The shot of Witt (Jim Caviezel) lookingaround at his comrades is followed by a shot of Bell (Ben Chaplin) thinking by himself, and a shot of prayinghands, before the scene continues back to Witt. And perhaps most tantalizingly, during Bells musings, a shotof his wife (Miranda Otto) standing by herself is disrupted by a figure that enters the frame from afar, vaguelyrecognizable as a man in military uniform; is he Bell as he imagines himself, or some projection of his fear (ofher infidelity), or is the scene about what actually happens to her (that she falls in love with another soldier)?
Ultimately, however, the films primary weakness is that its verbosity (and overly self-conscious poetic ef-fects) seems a less convincing sign of the directors commitments to the characters (not as characters, but ashuman beings) than the piercingly simple dialogues and voiceover narrations used in the previous two films. Itappears as if Malick was torn between presenting a convincing drama (which Badlands and Days of Heavenare), and a philosophical inquiry unencumbered by the various demands upon it (as a war film, as a drama, asa popular film). As it is, it is not really convincing either as a drama, of men in war, or as a philosophical in-quiry influenced by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Yet the film that we do have is still a fascinating combinationof different impulses and motivations.
Malicks unique cinematic style has produced many admirers, but not many acknowledged disciples. One re-cent exception is a young director called David Gordon Green, who admitted Malicks influence in his filmGeorge Washington (2001). Since The Thin Red Line, it looks like the director has entered another period ofinactivity (there were twenty years separating it and Days of Heaven), at least in terms of directing. It is hardto say what further course Malicks career will take, but undeniably, the three films he has made so far aresources of much beauty and provocation.
FilmographyBadlands (1973) also Writer, Producer
Days of Heaven (1978) also Writer
The Thin Red Line (1998) also Writer
Select BibliographyJimmie E. Cain, Jr., Writing in His Musical Key: Terrence Malicks Vision of The Thin Red Line, FilmCriticism, Fall 2000
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1979
Richard Combs, The Eyes of Texas, Sight and Sound, Spring 1979
Terry Curtis Fox, The Last Ray of Light, Film Comment, September/October 1978
Charles Guignon, Being as Appearing: Retrieving the Greek Experience of Phusis in A Companion to Hei-deggers Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001
Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, New Haven, Yale Uni-versity Press, 2000
Phillip Lopate, Above the Battle, Musing on the Profundities, New York Times, January 17, 1999
Colin McCabe, Bayonets in Paradise, Sight and Sound, February 1999
James Morrison, The Thin Red Line, Film Quarterly, Fall 1999
Gilberto Perez, Film Chronicle: Days of Heaven, The Hudson Review, Spring 1979
Susan Schoenbohm, Heideggers Interpretation of Phusis in Introduction to Metaphysics in A Companion toHeideggers Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001
Gavin Smith, Let There be Light: The Thin Red Line, Film Comment, January/February 1999
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, New York, Knopf, 1994
Beverly Walker, Malick on Badlands, Sight and Sound, Spring 1975
Tom Whalen, Maybe All Men Got One Big Soul: The Hoax within the Metaphysics of Terrence MalicksThe Thin Red Line, Literature/Film Quarterly, Volume 23, Issue 3, 1999
Robin Wood, Days of Heaven in Nicholas Thomas and James Vinson (eds.), International Dictionary ofFilms and Filmmakers-1, Films, 2 Edition, Chicago and London, St. James Press, 1990
Carol Zucker, God Dont Even Hear You, or Paradise Lost: Terrence Malicks Days of Heaven, Litera-ture/Film Quarterly, Volume 29, Issue 1, 2001
Articles in Senses of CinemaOn Malicks Subjects [HTTP://ARCHIVE.SENSESOFCINEMA.COM/CONTENTS/00/8/MALICK.HTML] by Michael Filippidis
The Shape of Fear: The Thin Red Line [HTTP://ARCHIVE.SENSESOFCINEMA.COM/CONTENTS/00/8/THINREDLINE.HTML]by Bill Schaffer
Death Comes as an End: Badlands [HTTP://ARCHIVE.SENSESOFCINEMA.COM/CONTENTS/00/8/BADLANDS.HTML] byAdrian Danks
Web ResourcesCompiled by Albert Fung
Film Directors Articles on the Internet [HTTP://MYWEB.TISCALI.CO.UK/FILMDIRECTORS/MAKAVEJEV-MURNAU.HTM]Several articles can be found here.
Film Force [HTTP://FILMFORCE.IGN.COM/ARTICLES/324/324778P1.HTML] Opinionated piece on Malick.
The Flicks of Terrence Malick [HTTP://WWW.ESKIMO.COM/%7ETOATES/MALICK/] Dedicated fan site on Malick.
Click here [HTTP://WWW.AMAZON.COM/EXEC/OBIDOS/EXTERNAL-SEARCH?TAG=SENSESOFCINEM-20&KEYWORD=TER-RENCE%2BMALICK&MODE=BLENDED] to search for Terrence Malick DVDs, videos and books at
Endnotes1. Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Reasons, trans. T. Malick, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 19692. Beverly Walker, Malick on Badlands, Sight and Sound, Spring 19753. In the introduction to The Essence of Reasons, Malick finds Heideggers notion of world similar to Wittgensteins formof life.4. James Monaco, American Film Now: The People, The Power, The Money, The Movies, Oxford, Oxford University Press,1979, p. 2775. Walker, Malick on Badlands, ibid6. Stanley Cavell, An Emerson Mood in The Senses of Walden, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 1567. Adapted from the novel by James Jones. In an instructive paper, Jimmie E. Cain, Jr. corrects the received opinion that thefilm has little to do with the novel. In fact, the aspects of the film that are thought to be irrelevant to the novel (such as nature-worshipping, equating modern warfare with modern technology, allusions to nirvana, etc) come from either the novel itself,or Jones other writings and personal beliefs (based on his readings of writers like Emerson and various religious texts). Cainbelieves Malick is intimate with Jones works as a whole. The film incorporates Jones From Here to Eternity heavily, perhapsin awareness of Jones claim that the main characters of The Thin Red Line are spiritual continuations of those in FromHere to Eternity, and the film explores the relationship between the two works. It is reasonable to say that what drew Malickto Jones novel in the first place is the affinity he detected in Jones concerns with his own, rather than a desire to transpose hisown concerns onto the novel. See Jimmie E. Cain, Jr., Writing in His Musical Key: Terrence Malicks Vision of The ThinRed Line, Film Criticism, Fall 2000. For a study of Jones spiritual beliefs, see Steven R. Carter, James Jones: An AmericanLiterary Orientalist Master, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1999.8. For example, Your death captures all, you too are the source of all thats gonna be born comes from The Bhagavad-Gita(10:34) (trans. Stoller Miller): I am death the destroyer of all, the source of what will be.9. For example, rosy-fingered dawn, the human corpse eating by dogs and birds, Those birds up there, they eat you raw,an allusion to 16:976 (trans. Fagles), etc. come from The Iliad.10. Maybe all men got one big soul everybodys a part of comes from Steinbecks book.11. The films dialogues are mostly preserved from the novel but where they are not, the lines seem too densely allusive (to
Hwanhee Lee [HTTP://SENSESOFCINEMA.COM/AUTHOR/HWANHEE-LEE/]Hwanhee Lee has written for Senses of Cinema.
the point where its almost impossible, and pointless, to identify all the sources). Bells how do we get to the other shores?looks like an allusion to arrows of longing for the other shore, an expression in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (or to the Sanskritterm paramita). Welshs glance from your eyes seems to be alluding to Heideggers use of the term Augenblick. Welshsyoure in a moving box is from he was in a moving box in Red Badge of Courage (chapter 3). The films frequentmention of glory seems to have come from Heideggers use of the Greek term doxa. However, one wonders why he iswriting in this manner, since the lines sound quite awkward, or dramatically unconvincing. An exception is Welshsdeclaration to Witt, In this world, the man, himself, is nothing. And there aint no world, but this one, (a wonderfullyHeideggerian-sounding sentence) which sounds almost like a response to a line in the film From Here to Eternity (in a scenethats almost a replay of the similar one in Zinnemanns film), A man dont go his own way, hes nothing.12. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York, Henry Holt, 1991; She writes (quite aptly) What is unspoken in thispicture weighs heavily on us, but were not quite sure what it is, and then seems to conclude that what is unspoken has tobe reduced to something else, namely, the metaphors. Still, she writes extremely perceptive things about the film, such as theunrelated and pieced-together quality of the overpowering images.13. For an illuminating paper on this tendency, see Karen Hanson, Provocations and Justifications of Film in Cynthia A.Freeland and Thomas E. Wartenberg (eds.), Philosophy and Film, New York, Routledge, 1995, pp. 33-4814. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt,pp. 103-11115. As opposed to what emerges in absence, and what conceals in presence. Interestingly, Cavell says things on film arepresent in their absence-or absent in their presence; Cavell, The World Viewed, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press,1979, pp. xiv-xvi. As if cinema is concerned with presence of what is present, not what is present, and that is not atheoretical statement, it is what is ordinarily meant by things on film. They are there by not being there, and they are notthere by being there!16. Introduction, pp. 15-16, 6417. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden, London, Routledge, 1922, 6.4418. Introduction, p. 6519. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans, G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford, Blackwell, 1955, sections 1 and 8720. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. 85
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