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Things to Look Into:
The Cinema of Terrence Malick

Adrian Martin

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  The world was like a faraway planet, to which I could never return ... I thought what a fine place it was, full of things that people can look into and enjoy.
        – Holly (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands



When making a film, Terrence Malick speaks to his collaborators in poetic images. To Martin Sheen in Badlands (1973), he said: ‘Think of the gun in your hand as a magic wand.’ To the post-production team (editors and sound mixers) on The Thin Red Line (1998), he advised: ‘It’s like moving down a river, and the picture should have the same kind of flow.’ And to Jörg Widmer, his Steadicam operator for The New World (2005), he whispered: ‘You have the quail at the wing when it’s about to fly.’ What kind of directions are these to give your actors and technicians? Malick does not talk to them about the usual, conventional things: the inner psychological or emotional states of characters; the themes or intentions of the story. He does not even talk about the composition of the shots or the editing pattern he envisages for them. Rather, in every case, he asks those who work with him to inhabit a state, a mood, a feeling that is captured in a precise physical image: the wand in the hand, the water in the stream, the bird at the wing.

Furthermore, all these are images of movement, transformation, transience, ephemerality: the wand changes the form of things (and itself metamorphoses from a gun), the water is never a fixed body, the bird is still for only a moment. There is a touch of Stan Brakhage (who was a fervent Malick admirer) in this poetic ambition: to film the things of the world (people, animals, flora and fauna) before they acquire their names, before they coalesce into firm shapes, objects, identities ... Indeed, Brakhage made a film called The Animals of Eden and After – and could there be a better title for the cinema of Terrence Malick, with its obsessive central myth of Eden before and after the Fall?

Before and after ... but during? It is hard to find the decisive, dramatic moment when things happen in Malick’s films. When exactly does the relationship between Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) fall apart in Days of Heaven (1978)? When precisely does Holly (Sissy Spacek) begin to suspect that Kit (Sheen) is crazy in Badlands? When does the inner conversion take place that changes the soldier Welsh (Sean Penn) from hardened cynicism to reflective tears in The Thin Red Line? Malick likes to skip the middle of any story, any action, any state of mind or mood; indeed, his own career, with that twenty years of invisible activity between 1978 and 1998, is an enigma without a conventional mid-period (as we say of painters). Nick Nolte circled this enigma well, when he shared his realisation that Malick has what no other mainstream American filmmaker has ever had: time ...


1. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002), pp. 125-128.


  The time that Malick takes, and the time that he makes, that he hollows and stretches out on the screen, give us a sense of expansiveness: an epic and lyric feeling. But what is expanded, exactly? Never the moment that something happens, only the before and after ... And in this, he finds an unlikely artistic uncle in Jean-Luc Godard (although it is not so unlikely when one realises how much of Pierrot le fou there is in Badlands): in Le Mépris (1963) we can never grasp the moment when a wife stops loving her husband, and Éloge de l’amour (2001) offers (in an inverted chronology) the before and after of a suicide. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has a powerful way of describing this state of affairs: human beings, he argues, are always caught in a shuffle between feeling as if they are living just before the feast or just after the feast, but never at or in the feast; to live is to be perpetually out of phase with ‘the moment’ when everything (feeling, perception and action; self, other and environment) should click together. (1) To live in the moment, to live your destiny: these are common American delusions, but they are not the sort of Americana to which Malick is drawn.

The moment, the event, destiny, destination: most American cinema, what Gilles Deleuze called the cinema of the action-image, is obsessed with these things. In Tony Scott’s Domino (2005) – to take a purely random example – every clinch is slowed down, anticipated, replayed from every possible angle, as the heroine’s voice tells us, for the fiftieth time, her name, her aim and her game. She becomes herself in these high-point moments, her life becomes a theatre that she controls. Holly, too, in Badlands speaks the American vernacular of Manifest Destiny: ‘Little did I realise that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana ...’ But her narration is forced, unreliable, stuffed with fantasy-projection and mass-media cliché, and the drama of her time with Kit hovers forever like a tale that doesn’t quite touch her, that she is physically present for but somehow profoundly absent from. Yet Holly is not, for Malick, someone stupid or alienated: no more stupid or alienated, at any rate, than any of us, all out-of-phase with our experience. His films practice detachment, but they are neither ironic nor superior. It is a detachment akin to Buddhism, one of the several religions that Malick has explored in his lifetime.



  ‘You have the quail at the wing when it’s about to fly.’ Experience is something trembling and fleeting in Malick’s cinema: the bird has flown before we know it. It is striking to realise that all of his fictional characters to date are, in some sense, famous people, people caught up in what would be later recorded, endlessly rehearsed and re-presented, as momentous times in history: the ‘pioneering’ teen thrill-killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate (the basis for Kit and Holly), the soldiers in the decisive Guadalcanal battle, Pocahontas and John Smith during the very foundation of the American nation. Even the apparently anonymous figures of Days of Heaven find themselves unknowingly living out a grand narrative: in this case, a story from the Bible, the Book of Ruth. But Malick’s characters are never wholly there in their story, their history, their destiny: they float like ghosts, unformed, malleable, subject to mercurial shifts in mood or attitude, no more stable or fixed than the breeze or the stream. For the moments we observe them, they do not behave like historic figures who know they are forging either a personal or social destiny. The heroine of The New World is the most striking example of this process: only the end credits identify her as the mythic Pocahontas, and the only time this primal name is about to be uttered during the story, it is immediately interrupted by her substitute English name: Rebecca.  





2. Michel Chion, The Thin Red Line (London: British Film Institute, 2004).


3. Jean Douchet, ’14 Février 2001, Badlands, La Ligne rouge de Terrence Malick’, in La DVDéothèque de Jean Douchet (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2006), pp. 71-75.



4. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Marriage (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 271.


5. Simone Weil, ‘The Love of God and Affliction’, in Waiting on God (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 80.


That is why, in Malick’s cinema like in Godard’s, we are captivated by the rustles and murmurs of the world: the wind in the long grass, the sweeping changes in light, the waves of sound over the earth. Human beings exist on the same continuum as all this natural matter. Yet Malick’s vision of man-in-nature is not a reassuring or pious one. Michel Chion, in his book on The Thin Red Line, sees the essence of Malick’s cinema as its all-pervasive parataxis: everything co-exists, but remains separate, nothing joins up. (2) Hence Malick’s love for filming the horizon and placing it in the dead middle of the frame: the horizon – which is nothing real or solid or material in itself, not even a thin line – bisects the world in two, into the non-communicating vessels of land or sea and sky. Jean Douchet intuited this system from the first moments of Badlands: the story, with its tiny, unformed characters, is always poised precariously between a cosmic realm and an earthly one, but no correspondence between these realms ever occurs, no hierarchy of cause and effect ever begins to coalesce. (3)

There is a profound continuity, in this respect, between Malick’s philosophical background in Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Kant – with what Malick’s ex-teacher Stanley Cavell calls in Pursuits of Happiness ‘their continuous appreciation and interpretation of the threat of scepticism, the possibility that the world we see is not the world as it is, that the world is not humanly knowable, or sharable’ (4) – and the pitiless vision of the Catholic Simone Weil. For her as for the soldiers of The Thin Red Line, ‘affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love’. (5) The life of men on earth is a machine for Weil, a brutal succession of dehumanising events, and this worldly realm of the affliction-machine takes on meaning only in its unbridgeable distance from God and the cosmic realm, the vacuum of divine silence that fills the abyss of this gulf. All of Malick’s films resound across this distance and silence.




In the meantime, the logic of parataxis rules, separating everything from everything else: that is why, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, it is the sudden breaks, the inexplicable ruptures that really register, ‘after the fact’, in Malick’s fictions: the letter that bids a crushing farewell to a solider at the front in The Thin Red Line, or the mysterious transfer of a woman’s affection from her secret partner to the boss (Sam Shepard) with whom she was at first only pretending in Days of Heaven, marked by one of those matter-of-fact, definitive, even ‘hard-boiled’ voice-over statements from Linda (Linda Manz) characteristic of these films: ‘She loved the farmer.’ In The New World, John Smith’s ‘failure of heart’ in regards to the sublime, Utopian love he has shared with Pocahontas is more dwelt upon, but it is no less mysterious in its deep motivation.

Emmanuel Lubezki, the DOP on The New World, tells of the Dogme-like ground rules which Malick established first for the abandoned Che Guevara project, and then for this one: ‘Natural light, no cranes, no big rigs. Handheld.’ This is a clue to something extraordinary about every Malick film to date: surely very few filmmakers have filmed so much of their stories outdoors, in the wide open spaces of plains, fields, rivers and lakes. We know that Malick himself is an outdoors guy, specifically a bird watcher – like the reclusive hero played by Sean Connery in Finding Forrester (2000), a film that Gus Van Sant seems to have designed as a secret tribute to Malick. But there is much more to this penchant for the natural world.

In Badlands, we are given a portrait of a burning house in twenty shots: up in flames go a kitsch religious picture, peacock feathers, a chicken, table and chairs, a clock, a bed, a piano and its sheet music, a dead body. A surreal accumulation of perishable objects in little over a minute of screen time, overlaid by a serene, choral piece from Musica Poetica by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman – a piece originally composed for children to play. We might say that Kit and Holly are leaving home, leaving their childhood innocence behind, or, more strongly, destroying home and the values it stands for. But for that we would have to assume that Kit and Holly really own their story, that they are the controllers and heroes of their destiny, that they are living in the feast like anarchic rebels with a righteous mission – instead of being the formless, eternal children that they are. Even more crucially, such an interpretation would miss something primal about Malick’s cinema: fundamental to the instability of the world he conjures from film to film is the flimsiness of anything representing a family home – or even simply the physical shell of a house that stays in one spot and encloses relatively secure lives within its four walls. Instead, there are only endless, makeshift, mobile homes: the car and the temporary construction in the woods in Badlands; the trains and the barn in Days of Heaven; the ship and the trenches in The Thin Red Line, the pathetic ‘settlement’ in The New World.

Even those characters who have solid homes hardly seem to live in them. The house of Cato in Badlands is described by Kit as just a storehouse for ‘junk’. The Victorian mansion visited in the same film is more like a museum than a home. These are houses without community, doll-houses like the one we see burn in the Badlands montage. Most iconically, in Days of Heaven, the grand house of The Farmer has no definitive inside; we constantly see it from the outside, as people stream in and out its doors and off its porches, large and numerous windows pouring in light as well as allowing for invasive, inquisitive gazes. Only the central, lit-from-above construction of the native Americans in The New World offers an entirely positive representation of these dwelling-places invaded by the world and, hence, undetachable from it. The most inner, secret place of any ‘Western’ home – the bedroom – tends to be a chilly, heartless, rarely glimpsed space in Malick’s films; in another register, the beds seen in The Thin Red Line and The New World are associated to a passing-over into death either about to happen or just occurred.

A settled life, settling down, is a constant dream for Malick’s characters. Kit and Holly play at being a married couple out in the woods; Bill holds out to Abby the promise that one day their itinerant, impoverished lives will end; Bell (Ben Chaplin) can think of nothing but getting out of the war and back home to Marty (Miranda Otto) in The Thin Red Line. Everyone starts out displaced, or soon finds themselves displaced, from any centre in which any such settlement might actually, mythically occur; and it is the loss of this centre that makes the world "like a faraway planet, to which I could never return".

The only experience of settlement for all these characters is an experience of fleeting time rather than fixed place – an idyll, a rest or plateau between upheavals, between catastrophes (death is everywhere in his films). These are the days of heaven, the ‘days of happiness’ that ‘we’d never live again ... gone forever’ (Badlands), the ‘glory’ evoked repeatedly by Witt (Jim Caviezel) in The Thin Red Line in relation to childhood memory or the ‘virgin’ Melanesian island on which he goes AWOL (evoking a deep affinity with the films of Claire Denis, the memories in Beau travail [2000] or the Polynesian island retreat in L’Intrus [2005]). In his essay ‘Nature, Abstraction, Time’, which is like a prophetic vision of Malick’s films, the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote:



6. Octavio Paz, Alternating Current (London: Wildwood House, 1974), p. 30.

  Presence is the cipher of the world, the cipher of being. It is also the scar, the trace of the temporal wound: it is the instant, instants. It is meaning pointing to the object designated, an object desired and never quite attained. (6)  


  Malick’s characters enter a world that is other than home and hearth. It is not Man against Nature, nor simply it is nature divided against itself in anthropomorphic clashes of species against species, such as we see in Sam Peckinpah or Werner Herzog. Paz again:  






7. Ibid, p. 91.

  Light is fixed, immaterial, central. At once fire and ice, it is the symbol of both objectivity and eternity. It is the heaven’s gaze itself. Clear and serene, it traces outlines, delimits, distributes space into symmetrical areas. It is justice, but it is also the Idea, the archetype engraved upon a cloudless sky. Light: the essence, the realm of the intemporal. Water is diffuse, elusive, formless. It evokes time, carnal love; it is the tide itself – death and resurrection – and the gateway to the elemental world. Everything is reflected in water, everything founders in it, everything is reborn in it. It is change, the ebb and flow of the universe. Light separates, water unites. Paradise would appear to be ruled by two warring sisters. (7)  

8. Manny Farber, ‘Badlands, Mean Streets and The Wind and the Lion’, Framework, no. 40 (April 1999), pp. 19-23.

9. Félix Guattari, Soft Subversions (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), p. 167.










At its deepest formal, stylistic and figural levels, Malick’s cinema never ceases showing us this war between light and water, between the delineated and the formless. Badlands evokes (as Manny Farber noted) the hard-edged, severe, geometric, conceptual photo-art of the mid ‘70s: houses, shacks and billboards are cut-outs against the clear, burning light of the sky. (8) (Félix Guattari declared at the time: ‘There are colour elements, of blue, that are really agonising throughout.’) (9) We are always close to the brittle realm of what Deleuze called the cliché-image, the publicity or tabloid set-up that strangles deeper levels of experience; only the clouds in the final shot hint at another realm to be unveiled in subsequent works. Badlands is the most pre-planned, static and composed of his films (it had to be, as a low-budget, independent production), and its hard edges express all the parataxes of a world in which, as Malick said at the time, his characters ‘only know how to react to what's inside them. They do not communicate with the outside world, they don't understand what other people feel.’ Days of Heaven takes a quantum leap into the cosmological vision of a F.W. Murnau or Kenji Mizoguchi: suddenly all the forms and materials are in constant motion around each other, constantly defining, re-defining and transforming one another. In the later work, The Thin Red Line and The New World, we have entered fully into Paz’s irreconcilable struggle between light and water: the muted, muddy, dull colour schemes of serial military men in uniform, moving through grass or water, are confronted with dazzling, hard-edge apparitions of terrible beauty or sublime death.

One of the hidden keys to the cinema of Terrence Malick is a 1960 book by James Melvin Reinhardt, a Professor of Criminology who interviewed Charles Starkweather for eighty hours before his execution. In The Murderous Trail of Charles Starkweather, we hear the voice of a psychotic killer who, strangely, expresses a love of nature and a view of existence which finds many uncanny resonances in Malick’s films. Listen to this:



10. James Melvin Reinhardt, The Murderous Trail of Charles Starkweather (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1960), pp. 22-23.

  They say, this is a wonderful world to live in, but I don’t believe I ever did really live in a wonderful world. I haven’t ever eaten in a high class restaurant, never seen the New York Yankees play, or been to Los Angeles or New York City, or other places that books and magazines say are wonderful places to be at. (10)  


11. Ibid, p. 97.

  But the wonderful world, the New World of Eden, is also, the moment it is imagined or glimpsed or touched, also a lost world. ‘Childhood’, said Starkweather, ‘was sweet to remember but not real, for it was something lost.’ (11)  


  This is a revised version of an essay which has appeared in German translation in Ray (March 2006); in French translation in Trafic, no. 58 (Summer 2006); and in Drusilla Modjeska (ed.), The Best Australian Essays 2006 (Melbourne: Black Inc.).  

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© Adrian Martin and Rouge December 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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