Why Terrence Malick is One of Cinema's Greatest Visual Philosophers
In this video essay, Rachel Glassman explores the visual poetry in motion of Terrence Malick, who is perhaps Hollywood's most philosophical filmmaker, but not in the dialectical method of characters hashing out world views.
Just as some writers never got over the introduction of the typewriter, seeing it as a crude and vulgar intrusion on the connection of hand and thought, there were (and are) filmmakers who feel that the prelapsarian period of cinema was during its silent decades. To these purists, the introduction of synchronized sound and the dialogue it ushered in were akin to film's fall, its ejection from Eden into the desert of conversation. Terrence Malick is a filmmaker like the latter -- a silent filmmaker who makes films with sound.
Maybe the clearest (or simplistic) way to put it is that there are two types of directors; those who believe in the exegetic qualities of cinema, in its narrative drive and movement through conventions of plot and storytelling, and those who tend to eschew the more Aristotelian notions of "drama" (cf. Glengarry Glen Ross) in favor of the more dreamlike elements of film and the ways in which it can overwhelm with a sense of our place in the universe. Neither approach is better; both are necessary, and Malick's films do not eschew plot or dialogue.
That said, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that some directors aim to capture "life as it is", that is, with a pretense of earthy realism, while others have their eyes on the stars. For these filmmakers, characters exist within the universe they create on screen, and even when their fates are riveting, we are never less than aware of their place, their scale in the cinematic universe.
Malick's films have always been beautiful. In concert with cinematographic collaborators such as John Toll and Tak Fukimoto, he turns the everyday into an almost uncanny experience of the world that is both familiar and yet so much more gorgeous and strange than what we see in our day-to-day lives. He shows not the world as we experience it in time, but the world as it looks to eternity, and the pathos in his work rises from the fact that they are inhabited by humans too caught up in their lives to see the majesty through which they move, like Martin Sheen's midwest spree-killer in Badlands, his first feature. Likewise, in The Thin Red Line, an ensemble film that lacks a classical, singular protagonist, the main character in the film seems to be the islands where these men fight and die, oblivious for the most part to nature, just as nature is oblivious to them.
Badlands, based on the real-life spree killing by James Dean wannabe Starkweather and his 15-year-old girlfriend/hostage Caril Fugate, does feature a voiceover, but like all well-deployed voiceovers, it serves not to explain but rather add a dimension of inexplicability, as Sissy Spacek's teenager is the one who recounts the story of mayhem and murder, and does so in a voice hauntingly lacking any affect, recounting the murder of her parents and many others with the flatness of a schoolgirl giving a report on her summer vacation. Her voice adds to the mystery of Malick's ends, rather than solving anything for the viewer, filling in a backstory or motivation and instead leaving us to contemplate the strangeness of life.
A common theme, though, to all of Malick's films is one that he expresses in a purely visual manner, being the way he shows us the human form in nature, its finite insignificance contrasted against the overpowering mystery of the world. In Red Line, it's the Pacific Theatre; in Badlands, the endless flat expanses of America, a landscape as flat as the moral compass of its characters. His second feature, Days of Heaven, a look at human passion and violence in the Texas Panhandle right before World War I, again depicts humanity pursuing its violent ends (this time, with considerably more passion) amidst the glory of and power of nature, amidst conflagrations of flame and Biblical plagues.
Malick is a profoundly philosophical filmmaker, but his views are expressed in pictures. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once remarked:
So it happens at time that a person believes that he has a world-view, but that there is yet one particular phenomenon that is of such a nature that it baffles the understanding, and that he explains differently and attempts to ignore in order not to harbor the thought that this phenomenon might overthrow the whole view, or that his reflection does not possess enough courage and resolution to penetrate the phenomenon with his world-view.
There seems to be something of this sentiment at work in Malick's work, but just as he declines to explain himself as a director, as when he returned to film after a 21-year hiatus between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, the mystery in his films is never solved, and that is never the point. And far from ponderous, a charge leveled at him periodically, I would posit that Malick is pondering, and prefers not to say something when he has nothing to say that would add to his arguments, or presume to tell his audience what to think. His films are a kind of silent cinema, though it is a silence of hush and awe, of reverence to nature and the tragedy of the human preoccupations that blind his characters to the immanence that surrounds them, and waits only for someone to look.
Malick not only looks, he sees, and in doing so, shows us what we much too often ignore.