Who/Why is Terrence Malick

The illusive Terrence Malick is a name that, only since fairly recently, has become a big topic in both the film blogosphere as well as the industry as a whole. The American film maker seems to completely rewrite the rules for your average narrative feature; replacing a directors opinion with beautiful explanation eluding images, as well as an obsession with philosophical voice-overs and the impenetrable emoutions of his characters.

This recent rebirth is his popularity is mainly due to his most recent, and most ambitious (certainly from an artistic perspective) feature to date: The Tree of Life. Although he has been around since Badlands in 1973 he has directed only 5 films in 4 decades, disappearing to Paris from '78 to '98 and returning with the war drama, The Thin Red Line. Tree of Life however, which was released in 2011, really showed what Malick could do if he was really given the freedom and it seems that waiting forty years for the industry to mature was well worth it.

Winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes; The Tree of Life was an incredible testament to the changes in film opinion and the popularity of film becoming more easily considered an art form. This 130minute epic, staring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, follows not just the life of a family in a sheltered 1950s suburb but also the path of life itself. It very quickly becomes more that just about them but become about existence and self itself. I admit, it does sound like very heavy stuff, but it's really whatever you want to take out of it.

It is important to remember that Terrence Malick is a philosopher first, and a film maker second. And when you start to see the formation of the universe, all 2001:A Space Odyssey like, and evolution take place in front our very own eyes in The Tree of Life, you realise that Malick is going too far to be trying to create any sort of psuedo-artistic emoutional metaphors. Having a Harvard degree in Philosophy is something also worth mentioning about Malick. Although he says very little about his personal life, we do know that he is inspired by the teachings of Martin Heidegger, who basis his writings on 'being' and suddenly everything starts to make sense.

While The Tree of Life is very out-there, his style and radical ideas are found everywhere in his films. From the wind blowing in the fields in Days of Heaven to biblically poetic lines like “Conscience is a nuisance. A fly. A barking dog.” in The New World, it is clear that Malick has always found calm and beauty of the world with his films. It is as though his entire filmography is one long dream. Questioning the bare existence of ones self while you watch the sun pass through the trees is very Stendhal syndrome inducing to say the least.

His first film; Badlands (1973), is a semi factual account following a mass murder and his girlfriend in the '50s. Instantly one of the most interesting things about the film is its emoutional detachment from the characters. While we are shown their characteristics and hobbies, we are never shown justifications behind their actions, but nor are they arbitrary, other than escaping from the law. While keeping with Malicks style of voice overs, we are only ever given facts about the situation or philosophical insight (about existence, love and moods that in no way reveal purpose behind their actions) leaving us to form our own opinions about the protagonists à la the Dogma 95 movement.

Martin Sheen in Badlands
Following Badlands came a much more biblical tale for Malick. While his poetic voice overs and cinematic touches remained, his new tragic romance has much more space for the viewer to have their own opinion, it has been likened to an “empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it”. Days of Heaven follows a poor brother and sister, who are secretly in an intimate relationship, when the sister marries the rich farmer on whos farm they work things get complicated. While the characters go through rapid changes in culture; going from sleeping on hay in the snow to living with a wealthy landlord, we are left very detached from their emoutions sometimes shortening scenes to one lines then it cuts rapidly to something seemingly irrelevant.

One of the big things in all of his films is the way he destabilises signs and metalanguages. He doesn’t show you a sunset to represent emoution or the end of something, he never makes something that is to be generally 'understood' like in most films. From a budding arts student perspective: I feel he is the quintessential post-modern film maker. It wont be long before his films are looped in art galleries to show how 'god is dead' and other such profanities. 

Days of Heaven

Another philosophical aspect of Malicks is that how you see his films are based on your 'mood'. He has a very interesting angle never attacked by other film makers, which is strange because I'm sure psychological studies have been used finding happier ways of viewing film (i.e. while eating junk food). His movies focus on the individual experience, which is important because the philosophies expressed in the film focus on 'self' and wisdom that can never truly be shared.

Then came his 20 year disappearance from public view which, according to some, he spent teaching in Paris and Texas.

A powerful scene in The Thin Red Line
His reawakening in 1998 came in the form of The Thin Red Line. What is interesting about this war film is that it really does nothing new, from a story telling point of view. Staring Sean Penn and a few other big name, it tells the story of a US platoon in Asia during WWII, they fight battles, they miss their loved ones, they risk their lives for comradeship and such. Nothing new here. But what is new and revolutionary is the way it's told. At no point does Malick attempt to make any sort of statement on the war, honour or anything else that is usually so commonplace in other films of similar genre. Through further inspiration from Greek philosophies, he tries to convey an idea of conflict being something of nature rather than of man. The opening query, “what’s this war in the heart of nature?” in the film tries to show this. Malick constantly makes you think about conflict; rather than simple telling you what war and nature is, the characters' monologues centres around questions, rather than answers.

Through similar ideas about nature, found in his other films like Days of Heaven for example, Malick shows a certain uncontrollability aspect about nature – and in turn, about war. Malick is a duellist, asking if creation and destruction are forever battling each other in the world. This sometimes gives a certain fatalist aspect about his movies, a certain 'shit happens' feel, that directly affects his characters.

Colin Farrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World
Then came the appropriately named The New World in 2005 which follows the stories of some of the first settlers in America and their interesting relationships with the locals. This feature really shows Malicks' incredible talent in making beautiful cinematography. A minimal amount of artificial lighting was used, the camera was hand held for the most part, making the film just as natural and in the moment as can be. He also shot some scenes with 65mm film giving a much crisper look and showing that he is also a film alchemist of sorts. While at the same time; he continues to show his affection for voiceovers and their ability to expression a persons true self. "Everyday language is a part of the human organism," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, another philosopher of the mind (and another one of Malicks inspirations), "and is no less complicated than it."

And finally came his award winning and most bizarre film to date, The Tree of Life.

Terrence Malick now has three more films in the works: 'Knight of Cups', 'Lawless' and 'To the Wonder', which is to be released later this year. By the looks of it, Malick is back and here to stay and it is a well needed return. We are ready for you Mr Malick, show us what you can do.

For anything else Malick, you can check out his fan blog here.