Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 33, June 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Bleasdale

 

Please Make More Films:

On _The Cinema of Terrence Malick_

 

 

_The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America_

Edited by Hannah Patterson

London: Wallflower Press, 2003

ISBN 1-903364-75-2

195 pp.

 

Defining the cinema of Terrence Malick is a dangerous task. To begin with, in the space of thirty years he has made only three films, each one in a different genre. This in itself shouldn't create much difficulty. However, the films are themselves highly resistant to the generic categories they inhabit. _Badlands_ (1973) is ostensibly a serial killer/road/youth movie, but it is not really any of those things. Neil Campbell describes it as 'a hybrid mix of youth rebellion text, road movie and western'. [1] Kit murders several people but, as with Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's darkly comic novel, he so lacks everything we normally associate with a killer -- his murders read more like elaborate accidents. Aside from the killings, his rebelliousness is non-existent: he instructs his imagined audience to listen to their teachers and parents and feels an obvious desire to impress the policemen who capture him. Neither is Martin Sheen that young -- playing a 20-something Kit while in his early thirties. _Days of Heaven_ (1978) is another quirky brew. On one level a Greek tragedy, and on another a meticulous reproduction of the kind of history frozen in the still photographs of the title sequence, with its agricultural machinery and brutal class politics. And finally _The Thin Red Line_ (1998), a film that some critics rather ridiculously refused to define as a war film and one baffled critic, Jonathan Romney of _The Guardian_, awarded four question marks rather than stars. If each film is individually so combative of categorisation then it would seem hopeless and perhaps even pointless to try and succinctly characterise his whole output, small though it is.

 

Hannah Patterson and many of the contributors of to _The Cinema of Terrence Malick_ opt for a literary term: Malick's cinema is poetic and he is a poet. And yet the phrase 'poetic cinema', like poetry itself, immediately seems to beg more questions than it answers. John Madden, in defining poetic cinema, offered this list: '1. Open forms, 2. Ambiguity, 3. Expressionism, 4. Non-linearity, 5. Psychology, 7. Subjectivity, 8. Revision of a genre.' [2] Hannah Patterson, in her Introduction to this critical anthology, is suitably cautious in approaching the term, but decides that three of Madden's criteria are present within the work of Terence Malick (1, 2, and 8). The book itself carries within the subtitle the phrase 'poetic visions', yet this is indeed 'slippery', as Patterson concedes. [3] Could Madden's criteria be said to define only poetic cinema? And why 'poetic'? Why not 'novelistic cinema' or 'lyrical cinema'? The identification of Malick as a 'poet', or a 'philosopher-poet', or an 'esoteric visual poet', is concerned as much with aligning Malick to the literary as with telling us about the type of filmmaker he is. Likewise, his reclusiveness and lack of productivity is compared to literary figures such as Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger, and in a larger context could even be read as part of his art -- the way the hermit novelist of Don DeLillo's _Mao II_ realises the cultural interest in his absence has become more potent than anything else he can say. Ron Mottram describes Malick as a director who has,

 

'avoided being swallowed up in the desperate enterprise of American commercial cinema and who has truly moved to the sound of a different drummer. That the result is the limited output of only three films over a quarter of a century simply reinforces the uniqueness of his vision and the seriousness of his purpose.' [4]

 

In fact, in these days dominated 'by the simplified lies of commercial and political speech, and the desire for diversion, Malick asks the kind of questions that, in American intellectual history link him to such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and James Agee'. [5] This comes close to claiming that Malick's not-making-films is a positive bonus. The opposition of the almost literary auteur to mainstream commercial Hollywood is reductive at best.

 

John Orr presents a much more convincing and rewarding setting for Malick when he compares him to one of his contemporaries, the filmmaker Arthur Penn. Both have produced films that deconstruct the myth of the west rather than revise the genre in the way Peckinpah, Leone, and Eastwood have done. _Bonnie and Clyde_, with its displaced sexual energy and charismatic bandits, is contrasted with _Badlands_ and Kit and Holly's casual evil, asexual and vacant. _Days of Heaven_ is compared to Penn's _Missouri Breaks_, but here the contrasts are great. Penn's socially vibrant 'filmic theatre' and perhaps more than anything Brando's loquacious performance are worlds away from Malick's vision, which, with its 'paucity of words and profusion of images', seems to 'use film as a medium to invert the hallowed tradition of all sacred texts, where the word reigns supreme'. [6]

 

Joan McGettigan sees the film as a product of Malick's 'fundamental insistence on challenging generic expectations'. [7] A series of familiar tropes are set up only to be revealed as empty. The Farmer, although initially presented as enigmatic and heroic, is not a farmer at all so much as a rich landowner, a businessman pure and simple. The relationship to the land and the people who actually do the farming is remote and exploitative. Male-bonding, an essential feature of Westerns such as _Shane_, between the farmer and the outlaw Bill fails, and Bill's killing of the farmer is messy, confused, and accidental, leading to a similarly messy and confused revenge narrative. Bill is gunned down by indifferent policemen as he runs into the river. As McGettigan notes, 'there is no redemption in it; it only inflicts more pain, deepening the bitterness'. [8] Bill's death does produce one of the most remarkable shots in a film which is rich in remarkable shots. As he falls face first into the river, presumably at the point of dying, if not already dead, we are given an underwater shot looking up at Bill's face as it suddenly enters the water. Although brief, the shot is significant for several reasons. Of course it's a nice visual analogy: Bill is leaving one element to enter another, the image suggests. It provides Bill with a death mask, a moment of astonishing beauty at odds with the futility and hopelessness of his fate. This shot could also be seen as typifying Malick's wider methodology; his telling of brutal stories with images which suggest an almost terrible beauty, which the audience and director see but to which the characters are for the most part blind. For the audience, Bill's death is strangely a beautiful moment (the attack of the locusts likewise).

 

The landscapes of Malick's films make them a rewarding viewing experience, but the characters generally have a much more pragmatic view of the world around them. Characters in all Malick's films tend to live and eat and die outside. Houses and shelters by comparison are places of death: the tomb-like house in _Days of Heaven_; Holly's home in which her father is killed and which is burned down; the house in which Cato dies; and even the machine gun dugout of _The Thin Red Line_. Despite or perhaps because of the prominence of landscape in Malick's work, we never quite know where we are. As Ben McCann writes: 'The landscape provides us with recognisable co-ordinates, but we are rarely given exact spatial specificity.' [9] In _Days of Heaven_ we know there is a house and a river, but we don't know where one stands in relation to the other. This gives us an almost dreamlike geography -- as McCann notes: 'The very human dramas unfolding in both landscapes attain an even greater poignancy and reverberation when one realises they are occurring against the backdrop of a passive landscape, one that is simultaneously detached from, and vital to, the development of relationships, power struggles and co-existence with nature.' [10]

 

Unlike Malick's earlier films, the soldiers of _The Thin Red Line_ are vitally alert to their surroundings. Being able to read the landscape correctly has a direct connection to survival, whether it involves calling in the precise co-ordinates for an air strike, hiding in the long grass, or using a river to escape. Like the migrant workers in _Days of Heaven_, the soldiers do not belong to the world they find themselves fighting in. It is something exotic and mysterious. The bewildered infantry man discovers the reflex of a blade of grass in the midst of battle. The main characters seem eager to read in nature analogies for their own world view. Just as the parasitic vines allow Colonel Tall to justify his own cruelty by illustrating that nature is cruel, so Witt finds signs of divinity in the beauty of his surroundings. He idolises the village where he and another soldier are AWOL, asking a local woman why the children don't ever fight. Her answer, which has not been heard by some critics and probably not by Witt himself, is that Witt hasn't seen it, but they do fight. [11] Any reading of nature (and Witt sees the villagers as natural) which seeks to validate human ideology is going to be necessarily partial. This can also apply to Malick's construction of nature. His promotion of the natural beauty and his specific concentration on light effects align him to Witt rather than Tall. The crocodile from the opening shots which could have suggested a natural origin for malignancy is later shown captured and trussed on the back of a military jeep; pathetically weak in comparison to the levels of wickedness and destruction man can achieve. Any notions of the crocodile as a symbol of moral value is another way of manhandling and trussing nature.

 

_The Thin Red Line_ almost seems to have pushed Malick's technique to breaking point. The voice-over narration is no longer the single and strongly individual female voice of _Badlands_ and _Days of Heaven_ (explored by Anne Latto in her fascinating essay), but rather a regiment of voices who mutter like a kind of philosophising universal soul, at once vital and distracted. The landscape becomes a character in the film and the contrast between the beauty of the world and the horror of events reaches its most extreme manifestation with the corpse of a Japanese soldier literally blasted into the earth.

 

In recognition perhaps of the discontinuity of Malick's career, the film is considered separately in the anthology. Martin Flanagan focuses on the phenomenon of the film's release and reception. He suggests its critical and commercial under-achievement as a result of the film's generic unorthodoxy. Likewise, in reviewing the difference between the film and James Jones's novel, Stacey Peebles Power concludes: 'It is a war film that, ultimately, is no longer about war; appropriately, it *transcends* the genre. In fact we might better classify Malick's _The Thin Red Line_ with his other films . . . in a genre defined by the auteur rather than by the subject matter'. [12] And yet the film is the most generically placed of Malick's film. It quite simply is a war film. Although it has little in common with _The Sands of Iwo Jima_ and _Saving Private Ryan_ and the other blockbuster treatments Martin Flanagan cites, the film can be happily placed in a genre that also includes _The Big Red One_, _Apocalypse Now_, _Paths of Glory_, and _Das Boot_. To conclude that the film 'transcends' the genre of war film concedes far too much to those who would limit genre to the replay of prescriptive formulae.

 

The last essay of the collection defines _The Thin Red Line_ in a new genre entirely: Heideggerian cinema. Prompted by Malick's background as a student and translator of the philosopher, Marc Furstenau and Leslie MacAvoy read the film as a cinematic expression of Heidegger's 'poet in destitute times'. Witt and Welsh in their discussions and voice-overs present varying points of view of humanity in the world. But 'for the film to be poetry and for Malick to be a poet', the authors assert, these questions must not simply be presented, rather the director 'must present these questions and issues in such a manner that they become questions and issues for us. The film must poetically bring forth its subject, and since that subject is human existence or dwelling, the film must present this dwelling, and it must do so in a reflexive way that draws attention to this presenting.' [11] In this way the camera glancing to heaven comes to represent 'a measuring in which our position with reference to the gods is assessed'. [12]

 

Finally, I should also mention Richard Power's essay on the music and James Wierzbicki's essay on the sound design of _Days of Heaven_, effectively reclaiming some aural space for an artist who has been overwhelming seen as primarily visual. This collection is the first concerted critical appreciation of Malick and will undoubtedly provide the starting point for what in time will no doubt be termed 'Malick studies' -- if only he would make more films.

 

University of Ca' Foscari

Venice, Italy

 

 

Notes

 

1. Neil Campbell, 'The Highway Kind: _Badlands_, Youth, Space, and the Road', p. 37.

 

2. John Madden, _The Poetry of Cinema_ (Kidderminster: Crescent Moon Publishing, 1994), p. 1.

 

3. Hannah Patterson, 'Introduction', p. 2.

 

4. Ron Mottram, 'All Things Shining: The Struggle for Wholeness, Redemption and Transcendence in the Films of Terrence Malick', p. 13.

 

5. Ibid.

 

6. John Orr, 'Terrence Malick and Arthur Penn: The Western Re-Myth', p. 72.

 

7. Joan McGettigan, 'Days of Heaven and the Myth of the West', p. 50.

 

8. Ibid., p. 60.

 

9. Ben McCann, 'Enjoying the Scenery: Landscape and the Fetishisation of Nature in _Badlands_ and _Days of Heaven_', p. 83.

 

10. Ibid.

 

11. John Streamas notices it and uses it to combat the idea that Malick is presenting the villagers as exotic savages; 'The Greatest Generation Step Over _The Thin Red Line_', p. 145.

 

12. Stacey Peebles Power, 'The Other World War: Terrence Malick's Adaptation of _The Thin Red Line_', p. 158.

 

13. Marc Furstenau and Leslie MacAvoy, 'Terrence Malick's Heideggerian Cinema: War and the Question of Being in _The Thin Red Line_', p. 183.

 

14. Ibid.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

John Bleasdale, 'Please Make More Films: On _The Cinema of Terrence Malick_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 33, June 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n33bleasdale>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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