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Paradise Lost: The Films of Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has made just four movies in three decades, but each one is marked by a singular religious vision—man fallen from grace, disconnected from nature, divided against himself.

The New World

"We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The New World was the latest, much-anticipated vision from Terrence Malick, a phantom auteur who has released a grand total of four movies in the last three decades. The paucity of his output invites frequent comparisons to Stanley Kubrick, another notoriously unprolific director, but Kubrick had directed twice that many movies before turning 30. Malick is certainly a rare parrot in the trendy atmosphere of commercial Hollywood: a maker of snail-paced, non-linear, non-character-driven films that are unapologetically "spiritual"a word I'll use broadly, for the moment, to summarize Malick's interest in man's relationship to the natural world and, through the world, to God.

How can only four films in thirty years so firmly entrench a director's place in the cinematic canon?
Studios award him substantial budgets and that Holy Grail of filmmaking, Director's Cut, to make epic, eccentric films that don't make much money. How can only four films in thirty years so firmly entrench a director's place in the cinematic canon? I would go further than that. Malick has actually made one movie: a ten-hour meditation projected on screen as a visual tone poem. No other director is quite so singular, so focused in his vision, marrying a trademark visual style to a staunch philosophical position. Is this oeuvre the work of a cinematic genius or a guy who desperately needs some fresh ideas?

Let's start at the beginning. Like Athena springing fully-formed from the head of Zeus, Malick broke-out onto the movie scene in 1973 with one of the most auspicious debuts in cinema history, Badlands. Starring a swaggering young Martin Sheen and pre-Carrie Sissy Spacek, the movie loosely interprets the infamous Starkweather-Fugate murder spree of the 1950s as a symbolic loss of American innocence. The young couple, Holly, a high-schooler, and Kit, a twenty-something rebel without a cause, leave a trail of victims across the Dakota badlands beginning with Holly's father.

Badlands is a lovers-on-the-lam precursor to Natural Born Killers, and is also Malick's tightest, most "mainstream" movie. Clocking in at a lean 90 minutes, the story moves chronologically, from the couple's desultory courtship, through the murders, the road odyssey, and eventual capture. Despite the conventional structure, Malick's distinctive style is firmly set in place: the starkly poetic visuals, the use of voice-over narration, the classical soundtrack, and a thematic concern with human violence set in stark opposition to untainted nature.

A narrative interlude points in the direction of his future movies. Kit and Holly, on-the-run from the authorities, hole out for a spell in a forest. They live off the land like a prelapsarian Adam and Eve, at one with their surroundings. Holly, played by scarily precocious Spacek, says in voice-over, "I grew to love the forest. When the leaves rustled overhead, it was like the spirits whisperin' all the little things that bothered them." Here's the first strain of animism in Malick's thought, the sense of nature infused with a spiritual presence. But the idyll cannot last. Brutal violence shatters the tranquility. 
For Malick, humanity's destruction/disruption of nature is an expression of our fallen state, our spiritual poverty.
Malick's opening salvo shows the promise of a filmmaker of considerable technical prowess, but also a complete, and completely insular, cinematic sensibility. His artistic maturity may have resulted from his earlier training, during his formative college years, in the rarified sphere of Ivy League philosophy departments. Malick's a Harvard man, was a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, translated Heidegger, and went on to become a philosophy teacher at MIT before finally applying to the American Film Institute. He found his vocation. Malick, from his first movie on, demonstrates fluency with cinematic language that takes other filmmakers a lifetime to acquire, if they ever do at all. His style is reductive. Like silent-era filmmakers, he strips cinema to its most basic elements: sight and sound.

Granted, his movies (or "films," rather—they merit that snobbish label) have the maddening self-indulgence and self-serious air of a scholarly polemic—long-winded, humorless, and distancing. But they are also startlingly beautiful, tactile, and passionate. Malick is an intellectual sensualist. He conveys Big Ideas through the poetry of pure cinema. In our cynical age, an age that questions man's ability to know anything, Malick's enduring sense of wonder at the God-created world is refreshing and, I dare say, unique.

Many consider Days of Heaven (1978) Malick's masterpiece. Ostensibly, the movie is about a love triangle on a Texas farm, but ends up being more about the farm and less about the love triangle. Richard Gere plays Bill, a hothead factory hand whose fisticuffs with a foreman force him to find farm work out West. It is 1916, the twilight of the American frontier. Bill brings along his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams), and his little sister, Linda, the movie's narrator (Malick's second young female narrator). They settle at a Texas farm owned by, naturally, "the Farmer," a taciturn Sam Shepard, who takes a romantic interest in Abby.

That's the set-up for a story that could have been filmed as a square-jawed melodrama, but Malick subverts our expectations. He's not interested in the people so much as their relationship to the farm. Linda says, "I got to like this farm. Do anything I want—mull in the fields, talk to the wheat patches. When I was sleepin' they'd talk to me." Linda shares Holly's connection to the natural world, and is thus granted the pre-eminent narrative voice. Why? Because the narrator's voice is Malick's—the spiritual connection to the natural world is his and he forces his audience to see the farm the way he sees it. Filmed mostly during the "magic hours" of sunrise and sunset (photographed by lensing legends, Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler), Days of Heaven belongs on a shortlist of the most achingly gorgeous films ever made; a list that might also include Barry Lyndon, Lawrence of Arabia, or In the Mood for Love. Superlatives like "hypnotic" or "poetic" or "achingly gorgeous" have been dulled through overuse. They do, however, apply to Days of Heaven.

Indeed, the images are what endure, especially within Malick's elliptical narrative style—a style that frustrates expectations of causality. Human elements of the drama are pushed to the background. As moviegoers, we're used to operatic emotions splashed across the screen in eye-popping Technicolor. Love! Passion! Revenge! Malick refuses formula. He shifts perspective, reorienting the human drama in the greater context of the vast landscape surrounding it, a landscape that dwarfs the characters. The rolling oceanic fields of wheat swallow the small quartet of personalities. Nature is circumscribed by human hubris, symbolized in Malick's exegesis by the farm itself, and the plot (such as it is) climaxes with God's vengeance: a plague of locusts flown in from the Old Testament.

His style is reductive. Like silent-era filmmakers, he strips cinema to its most basic elements: sight and sound.
For twenty years Malick laid low in France. A Salinger-esque mystique developed around him, and the Hollywood whisper went that Days of Heaven would be his swan song. Again subverting expectations, he returned in a big way in 1998 with a divisive World War II movie, The Thin Red Line. His 70s films were like warm-up exercises for this sprawling, epic account of Guadalcanal, a decisive battle in the South Pacific. The film has the terrible beauty of a desperate prayer.

But prayers are interior—an internal dialogue with God—and not meant to thunder like a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Malick's mode of quiet meditation did not compare well to Steven Spielberg's visceral, virtuosic, and gut-wrenching Saving Private Ryan, released the summer of the same year. Many moviegoers grew impatient with Malick's laborious storytelling and mock-profound voice-over musings. I can say that because I was one of them. I was in high school when I first saw the movie, and some of the quotes ("Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea"?) sounded like the would-be poetry scrawled by a morose goth in the margins of a black notebook. In the film, privates and colonels and generals all weigh in on the soundtrack with pensive thoughts and cosmic commentariesa huge cast of "Who's Who" young Hollywood (see if you can spot Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly in blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameos) becomes indistinguishable in Malick's landscape. Who could tell them apart?

I've since seen the movie twice, and my appreciation of The Thin Red Line has grown with each viewing. At the risk of performing intellectual contortions to play a Malick apologist, I'll hesitantly float the idea that the indistinguishableness of the characters is part of Malick's overall philosophical system. And the fact that I just used the world "indistinguishableness" probably discredits me from discussing philosophical systems, but bear with me. I began with an Emerson quote and here's another: "Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE." In other words, we're not meant to see these characters as individuals, but rather as part of a collective whole. Consider the monosyllabic last names of the characters: Fife, Bell, Welsh, Tills, Talls, Whyte, Witt.

Consider also one of the most effective performances in a Malick movie, which arrives by way of Jim Caviezel. His distant, thoughtful eyes seem to see the world as Malick does. He plays Private Witt, an American soldier AWOL in the South Pacific living among the indigenous people of a paradisical island. Perhaps he is Malick's double: a philosopher drawn to a culture at one with nature. His voice-overs frame Malick's main concerns: "How did we lose the good that was given us? Who's robbing us of life and light?" Witt recognizes man's fallen nature, and sees it expressed through the brutality of war and the loss of man's Edenic connection to Nature. Witt wonders if "maybe all men got one big soul, which everybody's a part of. All the faces are the same man ... one big self." This is Emerson's Over-Soul, a crux of Malick's thinking. If all of humanity is connected—a single Over-Soul in communion with nature—then war, a destroyer of both human life and nature, is the ultimate spiritual poverty.

In an age that questions man's ability to know anything, Malick's enduring sense of wonder at the God-created world is refreshing and, I dare say, unique.
Only seven years, a short span in Malick-time, passed before he sat again in the director's chair. And so we've crossed Malick's cinematic past and arrive at The New World. The story of Pocahontas and John Smith (the subject of a recent Disney movie) becomes, once again, the philosopher/filmmaker's vehicle for an abstract commentary on mankind's unhealthy, even unholy, relationship to itself, expressed through a disconnect with nature. Not something the Disney film ever addressed, that I recall.

The "New World" of the title is, of course, America, a land of natural wealth and plenty. What will the colonists do in this virgin land they christen "Virginia"? Malick envisions the New World as Paradise Revisitedan opportunity for mankind to redeem its original fall.

For a brief spell, that seems possible. Our intrepid hero, John Smith (Colin Farrell), travels upriver to establish a trade connection with the Powhatan tribe. There he meets Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), beautiful and spirited young daughter of the chieftain. Smith is attracted to both her and her way-of-life. If Malick romanticizes the "other," the Native Americans, it is because they represent an ideal for his double, Smith: "They are gentle, loving, faithful...lacking in all trickery." For Smith, America is a virgin land of pristine lakes and endless forests—an earthly Utopiaand the people who live there have an insight into "the Good Life" that the materialistic Europeans lack.

The tentative attraction that develops between Smith and Pocahontas is one of innocent curiosity and mutual wonder. Their chaste puppy love, expressed through lingering glances and delicate touches, is experienced in direct relationship to the land. Smith later tells Pocahontas, "I thought it was a dream ... what we had in the forest." A middle passage in the movie could be called (at the risk of perpetuating a well-flogged phrase), "dream-like," as we watch, spellbound, as lush shots dissolve and flow to the melancholy notes of Mozart's 23rd piano concerto. Camera magician, Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot the film in the nearly obsolete 65 mm format (a format generally associated with the great epics of yesteryear), uses a floating Steadicam and completely natural light to create an immediacy that is both gripping and appropriately ethereal. Like Kit and Holly, or Bill and Abby, Smith and Pocahontas are another Adam and Eve in a New World—a world of renewal and possibilities.

And yet, as Tolkien has reminded us, "there is no story without a fall." Smith eventually leaves Pocahontas and returns to his English settlement, Jamestown, which Malick portrays with all the sympathy of Dante observing one of the lower circles of Hell. It is a dank cesspool of deviants and disease, and the opportunity for cross-cultural understanding is narrowly missed. We know, of course, how things turned out between the colonists and the Native Americans.

This is not revisionist history. Malick is creating a new mythology to supplant an old one.
This is not revisionist history. Malick is creating a new mythology to supplant an old one. The tired story of the first American settlers and their encounter with the Native Americans is re-imagined here as though none of the main participants foresee the tragic outcome. Malick captures the initial curiosity and awe of two entirely distinct cultures suddenly meeting, and the missed chance to create a New World, a better world.

For Malick, humanity's destruction/disruption of nature is an expression of our fallen state, our spiritual poverty. His films are a lament for a lost world of innocence and for subsequent disunity with the physical world. This is a pre-Christian, Old Testament view of the world—we have not been redeemed. We've been expelled from the Garden, cut-off from the presence of God in nature. Each film is Genesis retold: a paradise lost, a fall from grace, man divided against himself.

February 24, 2006

JOHN MURPHY writes from Oregon on film, literature, and art.

©2006, GodSpy. All rights reserved.

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03.06.06   Godspy says:
Terrence Malick has made just four movies in three decades, but each one is marked by a singular religious vision—man fallen from grace, disconnected from nature, divided against himself.

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