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Terrence MalickReview - Terrence Malick
Film and Philosophy
by Thomas Deane Tucker and Stuart Kendall
Bloomsbury Academic, 2011
Review by Michael Funk Deckard, Ph.D.
Apr 7th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 15)

When Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy was released, the same year as Malick's fifth film, The Tree of Life, Malick had written and directed four films in a nearly forty year career, averaging one film a decade. To put it pointedly, Malick is not a typical Hollywood director. All of his films are careful existential explorations of history, memory, nature, love, violence, and human nature. As a student of Stanley Cavell's who translated a Heidegger work in 1969 and quit before finishing his PhD in philosophy and chose film instead of academia, Malick is an enigma. There are no simplistic explanations for what a Malick film does to the viewer or to the actors, photographers, or critics that engage the film. Already this explanation might fall into a subject/object relationship where a viewer passively "watches" a film—but for the phenomenology of film, which might best describe Malick's approach, there is no longer a subject/object relation or opposition. Instead, the viewer "makes" the film in a certain sense, playing the game of back and forth in dialogue with the director and others, or to put it in Heidegger's language: truth happens in a way that the world worlds. "This does not mean that something is correctly represented and rendered here, but that what is a whole is brought into unconcealedness and held therein." (Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," quoted on p. 20) Films do not present some external reality which we must accept. "To hold originally means to tend, keep, take care." To view a Malick film is to hold it in this sense, but this is not the only way to experience his films. The essays in this book, all but one written by men, approach Malick from a different angle. Instead of following the order of the table of contents of this book, this review comments on his first two films, discussion of which takes up more than three-quarters of the book, using some of the articles as descriptors of the texture, the unconcealedness, that is a Malick film. I conclude with a comment on what is missing in this book concerning the portrayal of women in Malick's films, including his most recent release, To the Wonder (2012).

 

Badlands (1973)

Malick's first film, released when he was 30 years old and barely out of film school, is a "take" on the historical case of Charles Starkweather (1958). A rebel without a cause, Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend, Caril Anne Fugate, went on a killing spree. It must have captured Malick's attention in a way that embodies the "popular American imagination." (7) Steven Rybin in his chapter, "Voicing Meaning," puts this in terms of "cinematic geography": "Sometimes the camera's ability to perceive what human agents cannot is implied in a stylistically more modest manner, as in the opening image of Badlands, in which we see a shaft of light emerging through a window behind Holly (Sissy Spacek, whose co-star is a young Martin Sheen), suggesting a world of experience that exceeds her own, called to light the cinema's perceptual apparatus." (18) The image in the film of Holly looking through the stereopticon also points to this cinematic geography: "Malick's film itself echoes Holly's stereopticon." (23) This has many meanings, but can perhaps be interpreted as our own limited perspective, or world, that shines light upon that which we see through our lenses. The landscape and culture shape our own perception—in such a way that we are often blind to other worlds of viewing.

John Bleasdale, in "Terrence Malick's Histories of Violence," sees fire, war, and trigger-happiness in Malick's films: "A moment of violence, but also a cauterizing of memory, an erasing and, as in Badlands, a strategy to rewrite the scene of a crime, or crimes…Fire can be both symbolic of violence and an act of violence in itself." (40–1) Bleasdale describes the violence as pointless, a "philosopher without a coherent philosophy." (43) How do we thus find meaning in Badlands? "Badlands portrays the Brave New World of youth, giving us perhaps Malick's most in-depth portrait of the violent innocent. A genre-challenging piece of work, the film represents a True Romance, a road movie, a portrait of a serial killer, and a period piece. This generic ambivalence mirrors the inability of the characters themselves to decide on an identity." (51) In this sense, youth itself embodies the badlands that is becoming who you are, who one is meant to be. To try out different identities is part of what makes this film an exploration of the interaction of socially-defined roles with authenticity, "caught between lighting out for the territories and growing up in a world of phonies…all of [Malick's] films are histories of violence…In this way, Malick refigures innocence as an active choice not to commit purposeful evil, rather than a simple ignorance of evil." (53, 55)

Thomas Deane Tucker, one of the editors of this book, takes Badlands as his test case in his "Worlding the West: An Ontopology of Badlands." The mountains and landscape are worlds in which loneliness and restlessness, as well as homelessness, reigns. In this sense, the American West is a fugitive landscape, a topography of self and place. The texture of the film itself, Tucker defends, becomes the unconcealment of this world of the dwelling, projecting a "height and breadth…juxtaposed in the memory of the spectator." (96)

 

Days of Heaven (1978)

Filmed over 73 days in 1976, the title taken from Deuteronomy 11:21, and similarly to BadlandsDays of Heaven is a thickly textured film, whether viewed as a commentary on gender or class, on the one hand, or as interpreted in terms of history and place. The land and the sky fill every shot in a way that, as Matthew Evertson argues, the author Wright Morris revealed in his literature. Like Tucker's "Ontopology," Evertson describes the sparseness, the "isolation and defiance" of the open landscape. (110) Here, badlands is contraposed to flatlands, in which the importance of geography is further exposed: the scene of "heaven's gate" over against the hell that is the working class life: "Days of Heaven, like Badlands and much of the writing of Morris, also places great emphasis on this notion of vulnerability, and of verticality set against the broad horizon, exposing the inhabitants in various moments of 'being.'" (116-7)

Even as Saint-Saens' The Carnival of the Animals opens this film along with black and white images before moving to a scene of silent violence in a steel factory, the very experience of watching film is open to both misreading and misremembering. As Ian Rijsdijk writes, "I am as interested in how a memory went wrong as in why memories that are right occur when they do." (129) He takes one short scene and compares it to how he once remembered this scene. Here a Cavellian analysis contributes to the diegetic space of the film: "Hollywood narrative filmmaking depends largely on creating the illusion of spatial unity and continuity of action in the diegesis through conventions such as shot/reverse shot, eyeline matches, synchronized sound, and sound fidelity; but Days of Heaven fractures these conventions in critical ways, creating apertures within the narrative that provoke the viewer not only to 'fill in the spaces,' but also to question the ways in which the film structures meaning for the viewer." (133) Rijsdijk's (as well as others in the book) filmic analysis points to how the camera, sound, light, etc. aid the construction of a story and this story is not just a love triangle, or just about class antagonism or just a western, rather he argues it is a film about how space is transformed into place, "sublimely rootless." (142, quoting John Orr)

Every film of Malick's captures a mood, a time period, a texture, and a spirit, but cannot be limited to one of pure vision. Every chapter of this book highlights an aspect of a Malick film or films. In one sense, Malick is doing different things in each film. In another sense, they overlap significantly, particularly in terms of landscape and texture. Even by looking at only the first two films of his from the 1970s one can take in much of his oeuvre and perspective. Even by reading a few chapters of this book, one realizes the very core of how film may speak in a way that books do not regarding our condition. The film moves as readings of the film guide our thinking. It is thanks to these editors for bringing some of this to light, bridging the filmic and the philosophical. If only there had been a few more women.

 

Whether it is the mother (played by Jessica Chastain) in Tree of Life, Marina (played by Olga Kurylenko) in To the Wonder, or Holly in Badlands, Malick shows women whose lack of agency is palpable. Like the eighteenth-century categories of sublime and beauty, the flesh and violence of masculinity opposes the tenderness and beauty of femininity. Must these be so divergent? Women seem to never be portrayed as truly knowing what they are doing. But is Malick making a point here? To the Wonder has Marina walking away from the scene of adultery with shame, like Eve in the garden. The scene follows her taking Eucharist in a Catholic church and saying like the Biblical Paul, there are two women inside of me: one that leads upward, and one downward. She asks forgiveness, but the scene precedes a brutal angry Neil (played by Ben Affleck) who kicks her out of the car to the side of the road and begins divorce proceedings. There is no mercy. Is this Malick's flaw throughout his films or is this a highlight of the power difference between male and female? The discomfort a viewer feels at Holly's acquiescence in Badlands, Abby's duplicity in Days of Heaven, or Marina's adultery seems to point to a consciousness, a worlding of worlds beyond Heidegger or phenomenology, nevertheless existing beyond the subject/object distinction spoken of earlier: the viewer must still tend, keep, take care. Indeed, if Malick's flaw is that he idealizes women in all of his films, the Freudian challenge of sublimation is equally palpable. As a student of mine commented: "The lack of agency in women is not in itself sexist (a female character not being the protagonist does not make the artist an anti-feminist), but I question the overall portrayal of the women that are shown. What is he saying with people like Holly? What could be interpreted by those who already have an anti-feminist agenda? Why does he do it that way, and should he do it better?" These final reflections go beyond Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy, but if anything Tucker and Kendall miss, it is this.

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Paul Custer, Mindy Makant, and Jordan Makant for comments on earlier versions of this review.

 

© 2015 Michael Funk Deckard,

 

Michael Funk Deckard, Ph.D., Lenoir-Rhyne University, NC


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