It’s extremely hard to be an independent film fan and not at least have heard of Terrence Malick. His tendencies for abstract plots in favor of gorgeous imagery is deliberate, yet in some instances, can come across as pretentious. In this clip from Tree of Life, you get all the hallmarks of independent cinema: water imagery, symbolism, a gorgeous score, dreamy cinematography, and a lack of dialogue. Despite the ubiquitous nature of his name in arthouse circles, Malick himself is a man who does not do much press, with most mentions of his name always being in a critical capacity. However, many think-pieces are done on his work, as there is always more to uncover. So, let’s take a crash course in Malick, his philosophy, and his art.
Terrence Malick’s educational background started with his interest in philosophy and boy, does it show up in his work. Of particular note is his history with Martin Heidegger, the man who helped coin Dasein, or the “awareness of being.” One key aspect of Malick’s films is the voiceover narration from one of the lead actors; this can be traced back to a cinematic translation of characters coming to terms with Dasein. Take this scene from The Thin Red Line (above), where the main source of dialogue is a letter from Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin) to his loving wife. The dialogue from the letter isn’t expository in terms of plot, nor does it move the character forward in any way, rather it fleshes out the mental and emotional state of Jack. Voiceover in Malick’s films are characters examining the self to work out complicated emotions, bordering on legitimate philosophical discussions. Another key component of Heidegger’s philosophy is man’s connection to nature, something that is essential in man’s recognition of the unity of being.
Next, let’s discuss Malick’s particular cinematic style. This clip helps emphasize the natural beauty of his work with cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), John Toll (Vanilla Sky), Néstor Almendros (Sophie’s Choice), Brian Probyn (The Satanic Rites of Dracula), Stevan Larner (Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs). While Emmanuel Lubezki has made a career working with Malick and adding the floating nature to his later films, it’s safe to say that Brian Probyn had a lasting influence on Malick’s oeuvre. Despite not finishing his work on Badlands, quitting, and being replaced temporarily by Fujimoto and finally by Larner, it’s Probyn’s initial work that left a lingering impact on the film. That particular dreamlike state has been a cornerstone of Malick’s features, something that he has brought to a finer point in later films such as Tree of Life. His movies always have a connection to nature. Even in the urban setting of Song to Song, he manages to find nature in connection with the main characters’ homes. The natural world never looks more perfect than in a Malick film, which as I mentioned before, is in line with Heidegger’s philosophical concerns about humanity’s tendency to focus on “theyselves” versus the world unifying “ourselves”.
Finally, let’s step outside Malick’s narrative work and turn an eye to his only documentary: Voyage of Time. This film has two distinct cuts with Brad Pitt providing the voiceover for one edit and Cate Blanchett narrating the longer cut. It’s an examination of the natural world from the early beginning to what potentially may be the death of the universe. The Blanchett cut, in particular, has a lot more discussion about the philosophical aspects of the universe. With no plot to tie him down Malick, is allowed to let the poetics of nature and philosophy dictate the story, creating fantastic imagery in juxtaposition with an awareness of being. Even though Tree of Life is the quintessential narrative film to best demonstrate Malick’s unique brand of cinema, Voyage of Time is basically a master class in both philosophy and artistry from a passionate teacher.
Malick continues his teachings with Song to Song, a feature that throws a lover’s narrative into a complicated timeline, creating less of a straightforward story and more of an amalgamation of emotional resonance. The characters are shells of humans, people distracted by the glitz of fame, who do not truly live despite having it all. Will any of them truly experience life, or are they bound to the facsimile of living? The film is a modern Heidegger parable, espousing a philosophical bent that won’t captivate most audiences. It’s no big blockbuster, despite the star power, but we’ll never be tired of learning more from Malick’s particular brand of filmmaking.