January 12, 2016

Why Terrence Malick is One of Cinema's Greatest Visual Philosophers

Still from Badlands Malick No Film School
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 Linean 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.       

Your Comment

26 Comments

Love him or hate him, Malick's great. BASED even.

January 12, 2016 at 6:31PM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
798

`"Knight of Cups". Didn't work but even as a failure still has something interesting.

January 12, 2016 at 9:44PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
950

I've never felt so much boredom (and without exaggerating with boredom I mean of such a level it was completely and almost painfully unbearable) like I did in "tree of life". And I'm sure I'll never watch any movie from this guy again...

January 13, 2016 at 3:07AM

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The Thin Red Line is probably is best, but their some moments that are questionable

January 13, 2016 at 10:11AM, Edited January 13, 10:13AM

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I love Thin Red Line, but it feels a bit awkward because 1) you could feel his rustiness as a director to a degree and 2) it felt a bit like a sequeway between old Malick (visual but still narrative-driven) and new Malick (completely visceral). I think it was an excellent change but it made me feel like Thin Red Line was being pulled in two directions.

January 13, 2016 at 12:27PM

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Sean Voysey
Creative Director
81

Well at least we can confirm via what you've written, Mariano - that you're a complete moron. Great.

January 14, 2016 at 12:09PM, Edited January 14, 12:10PM

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Are you more than one person or why are you using the word "we" - trying to mask insecurity? ;) Otherwise, trust me, I don't care what you or anyone thinks because I don't base my personal taste on that from internet nobodies.

January 15, 2016 at 3:39AM

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Terrence Malick: Hollywood's Most Pretentious Filmmaker

January 13, 2016 at 9:26AM, Edited January 13, 9:26AM

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Adding to that, it's the cinematographer that pretty much does all the talented stuff for the guy. They deserve the credit. Even though I'm not sure about those extreme wide angle head shots in Tree of Life

January 13, 2016 at 9:29AM

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Except that Malick movies all look good and look good for similar reasons but don't all share the same cinematographer. Something tells me Malick is highly talented at creating striking visuals in collaboration with his also talented DPs.

January 13, 2016 at 12:59PM

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But he hires proven and academy award winning cinematographers. You don't think that helps?

January 14, 2016 at 9:33AM

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Every top director hires proven and award winning cinematographers. You know why? Because they are top directors. What do you expect Malick to do? Lure a guy away from his hot dog stand and shove a camera in his hands? Your argument is silly.

January 16, 2016 at 11:06AM, Edited January 16, 11:06AM

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Yeah, totally hit the nail on the head with that one Nick.... MUST be "pretty much" all the work of the cinematographer. How dastardly that they didnt get the credit they deserved when THEY were the ones who really made that movie......

loololololololoolololollol

January 14, 2016 at 11:57AM

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Even though he doesn't do any interviews or press, actors regularly talk about how great it is to work with him, and he is known to be very kind...

Pretentious is a bit far I think. Arty maybe?

Also, there's no doubt his DPs are excellent, but the reason we're talking about him is how he crafts the vision, atmosphere, set, story etc. I love Malick, so I'm biased - but the fact he has such a palpable quality to his films points to his directing.

January 13, 2016 at 10:23AM, Edited January 13, 10:43AM

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Well I meant his films, not the man himself. Don't know him personally

January 13, 2016 at 11:50AM

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Make a film as good as Badlands... then you can criticize

January 13, 2016 at 9:48AM, Edited January 13, 9:48AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
837

Jesus, this logic. So if you think Britney Spear's "Toxic" is a crap song, you got to create something as good/ or better /or as popular/ or more philosophical to have your stamped one-of-a-kind law of the land approval to criticize?

January 13, 2016 at 10:08AM

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Agree.

January 13, 2016 at 12:28PM

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Sean Voysey
Creative Director
81

Yes

January 13, 2016 at 11:21PM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
837

K

January 14, 2016 at 9:30AM, Edited January 14, 10:08AM

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Gotta chime in for the other side: I love his films. Very few directors treat me (as an audience member) with such dignity and ask me to participate in the story like he does. He purposely leaves a gap for you to fill.

He's like Bjork in music to me. Super divisive, a bit weird, but plowing unique ground that is wholly his. People love or hate his stuff, which is its own kind of compliment to his style.

January 13, 2016 at 10:48AM

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I think that's a fair assessment. I really enjoyed Tree of Life, and watched it many times, but To The Wonder just doesn't hold my interest. He demands a lot from his viewers, which very few film makers do. Malick obviously isn't trying to please everyone, so I applaud him for following his own vision.

January 14, 2016 at 4:52PM

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Dave Patterson
Preditor (producer/editor)
358

I haven't seen "New World" yet....What are your thoughts on that one and how it plays in his body of work? Some people tell me it's his best while others loathe it.

January 13, 2016 at 12:31PM, Edited January 13, 12:31PM

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Sean Voysey
Creative Director
81

Really appreciated this review of Malick, so well articulated and thought through.

January 13, 2016 at 1:15PM

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Stephan Kielas
Film Student
24

Justin, this is a really great post, bravo! With a few words, the basic distinction of the directors and the connection of Kierkegaard's statement, you described, more or less, the intentions of Malick. And I really believe in people's pure intentions, sometimes more than the final result. And you know, he has nothing to say because he shows pictures and these pictures can communicate better than words.

January 14, 2016 at 5:47AM, Edited January 14, 5:47AM

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Panos Arvanitakis
Filmaker / Director of photography / Photographer
13