Monthly Archives: May 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is not the only recent film release that has probed the big questions and explored the wonders and mysteries of the natural world with a gloriously sincere, child-like awe and wonder. Werner Herzog’s astonishing, engrossing Cave of Forgotten Dreams has the same sort of existential curiosity as Life; the same operatic majesty. Both Malick and Herzog are explorers, philosophers, taking their cameras to the far reaches of the earth to create a cinematic meditation as interested in the science of the natural world as it is in the longings of the human heart.

Herzog’s Cave takes audiences inside the Chauvet cave in southern France, where in 1994, discoverers stumbled upon the earliest known prehistoric cave paintings. The cave, which had been sealed by a rockslide many thousands of years ago, had preserved a vast array of cave drawings (of horses, lions, bears, panthers, hyenas, etc.) painted by prehistoric man more than 30,000 years ago.

To cave is so historically significant that, in order to preserve its priceless relics, only a handful of humans (mostly scientists, archeologists, historians) are allowed to enter to the cave, and then only for a few hours at a time at a certain time of year. In other words, you and I will never be able to go inside. But thanks to Mr. Herzog, and the power of cinema to take audiences into forbidden, forgotten, unreachable places, we do get to take a look inside.

After receiving special permission from the French minister of culture, Herzog and a crew of three were allowed entrance to the cave to film the documentary, using custom-made 3D camera equipment and limited lighting. It’s a testament to Herzog’s artistry that, even with so many limitations (they could only enter the cave for a few hours at a time, and could never step off a metal walkway inside the cave), the film feels as grandiose and epic as an opera.

As in Herzog’s previous films like Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which explored the culture of scientists working in Antarctica, or Grizzly Man (2005), which observed the eccentric life of Timothy Treadwell amidst the grizzly bears of Alaska, Cave is preoccupied with the interplay between natural wonders and the humans who’ve dedicated their lives to exploring them and  understanding them. Herzog’s films feature jaw-dropping natural imagery and documents of wonders that feel genuinely undiscovered, but sometimes his camera seems even more interested in the humans he encounters in the process of discovery. Like any documentary, Herzog’s Cave features talking head “experts.” But they’re more than talking heads. For Herzog, they are the subjects and stars of the film, embodying the mysteries and themes of the film as much as the cave paintings themselves.

Featuring his characteristically subjective, speculative voiceover, Herzog turns Cave into more than just a History Channel-funded documentary of one of earth’s most important historical sites. He uses the film to ask big questions about what makes a human human: Are these cave paintings representative of some transition in the development of the human soul, where man discovered art, representation, culture for the first time? What can we learn from these paintings about the nature of man and his relationship with the world around him, with God? What drives man’s curiosity about existence? What drives him to create art?

These questions arise on at least three levels in the film, as reflections of 1) the prehistoric humans who created the cave art, 2) the humans today who have devoted their lives to understanding things like history, and 3) Herzog himself, who finds himself compelled to make films like this, a sort of meta analysis of the human activity of culture.

In the end, Cave is more than just an document of a historical wonder. It’s a self-probing meditation on the very meaning of civilization, of culture, of creation. It takes us all the way back to the very beginning of culture, to help us understand just how glorious, unexpected and valuable is man’s facility for self-conscious reflection on himself and his world.

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How to Watch a Malick Film

Yesterday, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was released in theaters, and audiences in NYC and LA got to experience its curious beauty for the first time (viewers elsewhere in the country will be getting the film in coming weeks).

Click here for my review of the film for Christianity Today, or here for a commentary piece I wrote on Terrence Malick’s themes/philosophy, for the June 2011 print issue of CT.

The Tree of Life, like Terrence Malick’s other 4 films, is rich with layers of beauty and meaning, but its also stubbornly ambiguous at times and potentially maddening. It’s not a film you can fully “get” on a first or second viewing, if at all, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have intense and immediate pleasures and gifts to offer, if one is willing to receive.

Below, and over at Relevant, I’ve offered a few tips for those willing to give Tree of Life a try. These are themes and ideas to keep in mind when approaching his admittedly unconventional, sometimes elusive films.

Remember Eden. Each of Malick’s films contains imagery of some sort of Eden, of Paradise found and Paradise lost. Whether a hidden treehouse hideout (Badlands), an idyllic farm life amidst glistening wheat fields (Days of Heaven), or a Thoreau-esque residency in the primal forests and tropics (The Thin Red Line and The New World), each Malick film beautifully portrays a blissful period of utopian living, followed by the loss of it—usually on account of sin. Malick’s films evocatively capture Edenic visions of perfection and natural beauty, and then, in their lack, a visceral groaning for renewal and reconciliation. The films are haunted by memories, reveries, vestiges of a more perfect, unified creation, and each film leaves a lingering feeling that redemption is still—somehow, somewhere—within reach. In The Thin Red Line, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) articulates a common sentiment of existential pondering in Malick’s films: “This great evil. Where does it come from? … Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known.”

Become a child again. Innocence is a big theme in Malick’s films. His protagonists are frequently children, or at least “child-like” in their points of view. In Badlands, Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen play outlaws on the run, living a Tom Sawyer-type adventure, as innocently and whimsically as is possible for a murder spree aside. Days of Heaven and The New World both prominently feature the perspectives of innocent young girls, curiously exploring and experiencing the good, bad and ugly in the world around them. But the most significant child-like perspective in Malick’s films is Malick himself. The director’s gaze is thoroughly investigative, observational, awestruck and curious about creation, discovering wonder all around. Writing about The Tree of Life in the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton quotes C.S. Lewis to describe Malick’s “childish” approach:

“Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism: ‘If we are to use the words ‘childish’ and ‘infantile’ as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing,’ Lewis wrote. ‘Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity and to admire?’ It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that onscreen, and much more besides, that he’s one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country.”

Don’t be afraid to see “Christian themes.” Finding “Christ figures” and “redemptive themes” in the movies can be overdone and convoluted, but if ever there were films where it was appropriate and natural, it would be Malick’s films. The director grew up Episcopalian and his films are full of biblical imagery, language and Christian motifs. God is constantly being questioned, searched out, relied upon in his films—whether visually through upward glances at the sun and sky, or through voiced inquiries (“Who are you to us?” “What was it you were showing me?” “Lord, turn not away thy face …”). Baptismal imagery is prevalent (at least two of his films contain literal baptism scenes), as are scenes of prayer, liturgical music and references to specific Bible passages and characters (Adam/Eve, Job, Cain/Abel, Ruth, the Book of Revelation). Though Christ is rarely, if ever, mentioned by name, Malick’s films are deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian conceptions of God and the biblical narrative. The Tree of Life, for example, is one gigantic whistle-stop tour through existence, taking us from Genesis to Revelation, reflecting on the nature of God all along the way. As Roger Ebert says of Life: “It’s a form of a prayer.”

Let it roll over you. Though Malick’s films are quite philosophical and vocally metaphysical (voiceover questions about God, evil, death, love are ubiquitous), they should not be processed in the way one would read a term paper. This is not to say they shouldn’t be thought about, analyzed or deconstructed after the fact (because certainly his complicated films invite all manner of critical response and worthy engagement). It’s just to say that, in the midst of experiencing the films, it’s best to receive them with eyes and ears wide open rather than trying to figure them out in the moment. Heavily influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford and MIT before he made his first film), Malick wants his films to be experienced viscerally before they are understood cognitively. The J.D. Salinger-esque director doesn’t do interviews or comment on his films, but in a rare 2005 screening of The New World in his hometown of Bartlesville, Okla., Malick fielded a few questions and suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.”

39 Facts About Terrence Malick

(Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, is now out in select theaters. See early reviews of the Palme d’Or winning film or read my review of the film for Christianity Today).

There is so little magic left in cinema, and so few figures characters who loom large enough to inspire the kind of bigger-than-life mythos formerly reserved for the likes of Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Kubrick. Terrence Malick is one of them. He’s a rare breed—a iconoclastic, shadowy figure who guards his privacy so fiercely (and in the process, bolsters his mythical stature) that he doesn’t even appear at the Cannes world premiere of a film he’s spent 30 years planning. (Although—wait—he was there, hiding in the back like an entertained angel unaware).

Whether or not Malick takes pride in his J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon-esque reputation (doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t let any camera near his face), as opposed to him just being “very shy” (the official explanation), is beside the point. It’s part of his process, integral to his art. He wants his films to be experienced on their own terms—phenomenological confrontations with truth and beauty, unencumbered by silly things like “director’s commentary” or other such explanatory tools for “understanding.” Malick’s films aren’t to be understood. They’re to be experienced, embraced, surrendered to.

As such, Malick’s biography is hardly germane. Or is it? As an auteurist to the core (i.e. a follower of directors and their recurring cinematic preoccupations), I have to believe that Malick the man informs Malick “the oeuvre.” Certainly Malick’s biography plays a big role in The Tree of Life. And so, for the sake of understanding perhaps a little more of what makes Malick tick, here are 39 random facts (some substantiated, some only of plucked from a single, negligible Internet source) about the venerable artist:

  • Malick was born on November 30, 1943 in Ottawa, Illinois.
  • He grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, the son of Emil (an oil geologist originally from Lebanon) and Irene (who grew up on a farm in Illinois).
  • “Terry” was the oldest of three boys.
  • His brother Chris (the middle son) was badly burned in a car crash that killed his wife. Youngest brother Larry went to Spain to study guitar, but committed suicide in 1968.
  • Malick went to high school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Westlake, Texas, where he played on the football team.
  • He went to Harvard as an undergraduate, starting in 1961 as a philosophy major, studying under respected film theorist Stanley Cavell, who provoked Malick’s interest in German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
  • Following his junior year at Harvard, he traveled to Germany, met Martin Heidegger and translated The Essence of Reasons.
  • In 1965 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard.
  • In 1969, Malick published The Essence of Reasons as part of the prestigious Northwestern University Press series, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. This “marked a substantial contribution to American Heidegger scholarship,” notes Martin Woessner in Heidegger in America.
  • During summers in college, Malick worked as a farmhand or on the oil fields.
  • Following Harvard, Malick went to England as a Rhodes Scholar, studying philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford.
  • He had a disagreement with his advisor, Gilbert Ryle, over his thesis on the concept of the world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, and ultimately left Oxford without taking a doctorate.
  • In 1968, he was appointed to be a lecturer in philosophy for one year at MIT, though he admits he “was not a good teacher.”
  • In the late 60s, Malick wrote for Life Magazine and The New Yorker, which sent him to Bolivia to do a piece on Che Guevera.
  • Malick contributed to the obituaries for Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in The New Yorker.
  • In the fall of 1969 he came to Los Angeles to study film at AFI, where he was in the same class as David Lynch and Paul Schrader.
  • In 1971, Malick wrote, produced & directed his thesis film, the 18-minute long Lanton Mills (starring himself, Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton).
  • His first wife was Jill Jakes, an assistant to the director Arthur Penn. They divorced in 1978.
  • In his early career, Malick did script rewrites on film like Dirty Harry.
  • He wrote an early version of the Great Balls of Fire script as well as script adaptations of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose.
  • At the end of his second year at AFI, Malick began work on Badlands, which was influenced by his love of books like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn—“all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head.”
  • Malick appears in a cameo in Badlands, only because the intended actor didn’t show up on the day the scene was shot.
  • Malick is knows the Bible well and is an Episcopalian.
  • Following his second film, Days of Heaven, Moved to Paris (in the summer of 1978) and began work on a project called Q, which dramatized the origins of life (this eventually became The Tree of Life). Paramount poured $1 million into the development of Q, but it went nowhere.
  • For 20 years, Malick dropped off the Hollywood radar, returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line.
  • During this time, Malick traveled the world and indulged his love of nature. He explored the ancient caves of Nepal, climbed in the Alps, embarked on long excursions in Greece, Nova Scotia and the south of France.
  • During his “sabbatical,” home base was an apartment in Paris and later two apartments (one for living, one for writing) in a prefabricated building in Austin, Texas.
  • In the early 80s, Malick fell in love with Michèle, a Parisienne who lived in his same building in Paris and had a daughter, Alex. After a few years the three of them moved to Austin, Texas
  • Malick married Michèle in 1985, but they divorced in 1998.
  • Malick married Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace in 1998 (his rumored high school sweetheart from his days at St. Stephen’s). They are still married and currently reside in Austin, Texas.
  • Ecky Wallace is the mother of actor Will Wallace, who appears in The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life.
  • Ecky’s father was an Episcopalian priest in Houston, and Ecky herself is very devout. She attended seminary at the Seminary of the Southwest and received a master’s degree in 1997.
  • Terrence and Ecky attend an Episcopal church in Austin, possibly the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • Malick loves classical music, Italian cinema, bird watching, astronomy, ornithology, German philosophy, French philosophy, English literature, among other things.
  • Zoolander is one of Malick’s all time favorite films.
  • Starting with The New World, Malick has instituted “rules” in his filmmaking, including  using only natural light, no cranes, no big rigs, and handheld cameras only.
  • He speaks French fluently.
  • Malick was (relatively) active as a producer in the 2000s, producing such films as  David Gordon Green’s Undertow, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, and documentaries The Endurance and The Unforeseen.
  • He recently finished filming his 6th film in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (where he lived as a boy). The film stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem and Rachel Weisz.

Tree of Life Debuts at Cannes

On Monday morning, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was seen for the first time in public, at its monumentally anticipated premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. At long last, after years of delays and steadily building hype, Life was seen by its first public audience.

The screening took place early in the morning at 8:30am Cannes time (reportedly there were long queues even at 7am, including fights, pushing, and near-riots), or 11:30pm PST, so of course I stayed up to monitor the feedback on Twitter. Predictably, the initial buzz is all over the map, with some heralding it as a masterpiece and others scratching their heads. Reportedly the screening was met with both sustained cheers and a few isolated boos (not atypical for Cannes). In any case, Malick’s film is certainly the talk of the festival.

Here’s a selection of some of the first comments on the film (updated):

Roger Ebert: “Terrence Malick’s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence… It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.” (full review)

Manohla Dargis (New York Times): “[It] serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn’t that these life questions aren’t asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it’s the directness of Mr. Malick’s engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain.”

Peter Howell of the Toronto Star: “Words inevitably fail any description of Malick’s masterpiece, but try wonder, dread, hope.”

Sasha Stone (The Wrap):  “Is there anything ever put to film as mysteriously beautiful as ‘The Tree of Life?’ I don’t think so.” (full review)

Justin Chang (Variety): “Something extraordinary… a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy’s 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth’s origins.” (full review)

Andrew O’Hehir (Salon): “A massively ambitious work of allegorical and almost experimental cinema that seeks to recapture the lived experience of a 1950s family, after the fashion of a Texas Proust, and connect it to the life of the universe, the nature and/or existence of God, the evolution of life on earth and even the microscopic chemistry and biology of life… The Tree of Life may appeal to more adventurous Christian viewers.”  (full review)

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter): “A singular work… An exceptional and major film.” (Full review)

Michael Glitz (Huffington Post): “It’s brilliant. Let’s get that out of the way. If you like director Terrence Malick, rest assured his new film fits in snugly alongside Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. It features extensive voice-overs musing on the nature of life, stunning images that convey a wealth of emotion and a surprisingly detailed storyline conveyed almost entirely without conventional narrative.” (full review)

Matt Zoller Seitz: “Indescribable and magnificent. Conventional critical strategies are inadequate to grapple with it. Joycean and Proustian with dollops of Ray Bradbury. Tons to savor no matter who you are, but it will hit Texans especially hard.”

Total Film: “Utterly mesmerising first hour, slightly listless second, generally unmissable.”

Eugene Hernandez (Film Society of Lincoln Center): “A movie I’d love to sit down & watch again right now. It’s beautiful, dense. Love the music so much.”

Xan Brooks, The Guardian: “Book of Revelations by way of Main St. Almost ridiculous, always sublime”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guadian: “A cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love. visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale.” (full review)

Erik Kohn (indieWire): “The greatest expression of heady Malickian concepts, which usually involve humanity adrift in the chaos of the universe and the meaning of everything (or lack thereof). In this situation, he removes excess story and assembles a sweeping visual poem. ” (full review)

Geoff Andrew (British Film Institute): “Malick’s back with a lavish, disappointing, but bizarrely beautiful prayer of a film. He’s got God!”

Sunday Times Culture: “Tree Of Life is a tsunami of spiritual imagery and tasteful/euphoric sound design encasing a slim “daddy’s mean to me” storyline.”

The New World

In some ways, The New World serves as the perfect lead in to Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. Why? Because TREES are a major theme of World. Yes, trees.

Throughout World, Malick’s fourth film, trees are an essential image and metaphor. Early in the film, trees anchor the boats as the European colonists arrive. At the end, tree comprise the final shot. We look upward at a towering cathedral of trees, and then the film ends with the delicate drop of a leaf.

There’s something sacred about trees. On his “Gospel of Trees” website, Alan Jacobs writes this:

The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.

“Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds,” says one character in The New World to Pocahontas. “If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching towards the light.” The New World is about resiliency—about pushing on amidst hardship, pain, suffering, and striving to make the best of one’s circumstance. Trees are like that—always growing, pulled toward the sky, even when winds and rain and hardship come. They weather all seasons, even if they lose some pieces along the way. And this is the journey of Pocahontas; the journey of life. We’re all familiar.

The New World begins where the Malick’s previous film, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, ended: with a boat of weary men escaping a brutal past and hoping for a new start. Though Line is set some 335 years after World, both films evoke a vision of humanity’s quest to transcend imperfect circumstance and begin anew. It is a sentiment of man’s soul that has driven him since he lost Eden. How do we regain what was given us? Can we ever reach those distant shores and “exchange this false life for a true one”?

That question is posed by explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell), in World.  Smith arrives on the shores of a new start in 1607, ushering in the critical confluence of native and European cultures that painfully birthed what would eventually become a great nation. Smith is determined to make “a fresh beginning where the blessings of earth are bestowed upon all,” and he takes up an Emersonian-style residence with the native Powhatan tribe (mirroring Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line). Following the familiar myth/fact legend, Smith soon falls in love with the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas (stunningly portrayed by  Q’Orianka Kilcher), and lives a beautiful period of utopian bliss.

The first act of World features a peaceful, “calm before the storm” ambiance. We know it is transitory and that something will soon disrupt the balance, but for a time all is well and transcendence is near. The New World fulfills its promise for Smith in the beginning, but soon the reality of war, destitution and man’s ailment (sin) spoils the garden. Paradise is lost, though glimpses of what was, or what could be, are always apparent.

The film’s chief tension lies in the love triangle that develops between Pocahontas, Smith and John Rolfe (Christian Bale). When Smith is pulled away from his mythic romance with Pocahontas and called back to England, tobacco-pioneer Rolfe takes over as Pocahontas’ suitor. The two men epitomize different poles of a familiar dynamic—fleeting, reckless joy (Smith) on one hand and more stable, long-term security (Rolfe) on the other. The film’s bittersweet resolution to this tension reveals a sort of “living in spite of” theme. Pocahontas might have preferred John Smith to Rolfe, just as she’d probably have opted for a continued life among the Powhatans rather than the Europeans, but she must cope with the circumstances in which she finds herself. She must take inspiration from trees, which keep growing even when branches fall off. She is a metaphor for America: an ever changing, flexible experiment that must adapt to survive, concede setbacks and allow for dissent and frustration in order to move forward.

From the breathtaking opening minutes of the film, an extended montage sequence of sensory crescendo (to the music of Wagner’s Das Rheingold prologue… repeated again in the middle, and end of the film), we know that World is not a conventional film. We do suspect it is a Terrence Malick film, however, and during the next two+ hours of 65mm nature photography, hushed voiceovers, elliptical editing, jump-cut storytelling, hyper-attentive sound and scarcely little dialogue, we become convinced of this fact.

In 2005, Malick made a rare appearance at a December 26, 2005 screening of World in his (rumored) hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and actually fielded a few questions. The artist suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.”

A film like this cannot be read like a book. It is not as black and white as your average American history lesson. Malick understands that America is more complex than that; that existence is more than one nation’s mythology; that any “New World” is not an end to the journey. The Virginian shore was just the beginning for Smith and the other early settlers. The New World is, as Malick told the Bartlesville audience, above all a story of hope: “Maybe the true shore is still yet to be discovered.”

The Thin Red Line

After two acclaimed films in the 1970s, Terrence Malick fell off the Hollywood radar for two decades, moved to France, and lived the quiet life of a recluse. No one knew when or if he would ever make another film. But in 1998 he emerged with a third film, a big-budget WWII film (adapted from a James Jones novel) released the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It’s as if Malick wanted to hold the unresolved tension of his first two films as long as possible, waiting for just the right project to release the catharsis.

If The Thin Red Line is anything it is certainly a catharsis. The line between the holy and human is never as blurry within the Malick corpus as it is here. Even the form of the film, with its indistinguishable voiceovers and exchangeable characters, echoes this uncertain harmony. From the opening line of the film (“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”), the dualistic balancing act in nature takes center stage. While the protagonists of Malick’s two earlier films (Martin Sheen’s Kit and Richard Gere’s Bill) both encounter this “war” in nature, neither recognizes the simultaneous horror and rapture of existence for what it is. Only Line’s Witt (Jim Caviezel) sees the transcendental “light” amid the darkness all around him. Where others in that film succumb to desperation or nihilistic ambivalence, Witt sees sparks of a heavenly glory. He recognizes the seemingly paradoxical notion that “even—no, especially—in the throes of self-annihilation, man can apprehend the sublime,” as Gavin Smith wrote in his Film Comment analysis of the film.

The film’s World War II backdrop underscores the message of conflict as an elemental part of life, something running much deeper than just guns and bombers. It is a very Heideggerian notion—that reality shapes itself through conflict and struggle. As Heidegger puts it, the world (humanity) and earth (physical nature) are in a constant and essential striving, opponents that “raise each other into the self assertion of their natures” (“The Origin of the Work of Art”). Malick turns the philosophical concept into artistic exposition by showing how our existence is driven by conflicts between war and peace, darkness and light, love and strife, Paradise found and Paradise lost. It’s a film that is more interested in the fact that the world is governed by contrasts and conflicts, and less in the question of which side is right and which is wrong.

At the heart of the film is the notion that this warring tension is evidence of something other—some oneness and perfection just out of reach. It is perhaps what Chesterton deemed “divine discontent”—the happiness that comes from both loving and disdaining the world around us. If pure happiness is possible for man in this life, Chesterton says that it “will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance.” Happiness in life comes from the deepest longing for the other—for the filling of “the lack.” We see through the inhumanity of battle in Line that beyond the divisions of people and nations there is a common humanity that longs for that oneness and reconciliation which nature—in its beautiful brokenness—reflects.

As in all of his other films, Malick places his characters within gorgeous settings and idyllic landscapes, where they “move from innocence to experience haunted by a dream of Paradise” (Robert Silberman, “Terrence Malick, Landscape and ‘This War in the Heart of Nature'”). Indeed, the specter of Eden is ever present in his films–a haunting remembrance of some distant, more perfect world. In Line, the romantic longing is expressed in the film’s last monologue (which also foreshadows Malick’s 4th film, The New World): “Walked into the golden age. Stood on the shores of the new world.”

In Line, as in his other films, Malick uses raw and (relatively) unmediated nature as a chief expository tool. Much more than just a setting (the jungles of Guadalcanal) or a pretty background, the imagery in Line forms the heart of the film. Nature is at once cruel (creeping, suffocating vines) and beautiful (light filtering through the canopy), though in either case indifferent to human affairs. Like the final shot of an improbable palm sprout on the shores of a battle-weary beach, nature pushes on despite our best (or worst) intentions. The war in nature is eternal (at least as long as this world exists), and our own inner battles are indifferently digested in nature’s “neverthelessness.” Even so, there is a cleansing, redemptive power within in. Our transitory place within the realm of the physical brings us into an intimate bond with it. Water imagery in Line shows this, as does light.  The baptismal quality of the former appears throughout—when Witt swims with the natives, when the soldiers swim during their leave, when the G.I. huddles in the cold, drenching rain, longing for purification. The divine illumination of the latter also offers redemption—lighting our dark hearts, warming our cold souls, and keeping the “spark” alive.

If nature is the heart of this film, then the character of Witt is its soul. Witt sees the spark in others, even when they don’t see it in themselves (as in Sean Penn’s character). Witt looks into the eyes of the dying, and where others might see depravity and waste, Witt sees the glory. What Witt sees in his comrades and enemies is less the ‘heart of darkness’ than the ‘heart of the ordinary’—ordinary men bound by the thin red line which encircles them as they walk the threshold between life and death, in the fragile, liminal space between meaning and meaninglessness.

Witt approaches death with startling metaphysical calm. He begins the movie skeptically, musing about his mother’s death: “I was afraid to touch the death that I see in her. I couldn’t find anything beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t never seen it.” Over the course of the film, however, Witt comes to realize that mortality and immortality are symbiotic rivals, at war and peace with each other like most else in nature.

At the beginning of the film Witt explains his longing to meet death in the same way as his mother (“with the same calm”), because “that’s where it’s hidden—the immortality that I hadn’t seen.”  When death comes knocking, Witt faces it with similar peace, looking upwards at the light as it ushers him out of time. His selfless action–leading the enemy away from his company and offering himself as a sacrifice so that others might live–is a fitting culmination of the film’s redemptive momentum.

Witt comes to a peace about an unsettling question that defines the film’s existential pondering (and is expressed in the closing monologue): “The darkness and the light, are they the workings of the same face?” Sure, it’s true that “nature’s cruel” (one of Nick Nolte’s best lines in the film). But Witt sees that even in spite of the cruelty of nature, beauty and grace prevail: “All things shining.”

Even in the hardened face of the character (Sean Penn) who seems resigned to the “survival of the fittest” way of nature, Witt is able to recognize the way of grace: “I still see a spark in you.”

It’s this sort of interplay between nature and grace, security and passion, survival and sacrifice, that has always interested Malick. It’s a heavenly light glimmering through deteriorating leaves in the canopy, an alligator swimming freely and an alligator bound (two images in Line), aggressive waves crashing against a passive shore. It’s beauty through dynamics. The harmonious consonance of seemingly conflicting, dissonant things.

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven is the second film from Terrence Malick, and probably his most accessible and aesthetically stunning film.

Heaven follows Bill (Richard Gere), a fugitive from Chicago who tries to make a new life for himself, his little sister (Linda Manz), and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) in the wheat fields of West Texas. Having killed a factory worker, Bill is propelled westward in search of a new start—a redemptive return to Eden.  The trio arrive at a farm and start their blissful new life there as fieldworkers, until the Farmer (Sam Shepherd) falls in love with Abby and an unstable love triangle forms.  From there, the film plays out in the precarious borderlands between love and jealousy, depravity and redemption, and the particularly Malick-ian terrains of grounded earth and infinite sky.

Set in 1916, Heaven has been read by some as being a statement about the onset of modernism and the death of the pastoral myth. Others focus on Heaven’s incredible visual style, aptly suggesting that the film’s Oscar-winning cinematography (much of it shot on 70mm film) is among the most beautiful of all time. Still others interpret the film within the American paradigm of manifest destiny—the ubiquitous images of iconic open spaces (amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty define the typical vista in the film) providing an elegiac photo essay of a country hoped for, but not quite achieved.

The question of just what Terrence Malick intended this film to be is still a mystery (Malick never comments on his work), and critics and essayists have rarely agreed on what this monumental film means. What is generally accepted is that Malick, in each of his four films but especially in Heaven, aims to bring cinema back to its humblest origins, of presenting unmediated reality by focusing our attention on image and sound rather than narrative.  The film shows Malick’s affinity for the silent era in this regard—his understanding of cinema as chiefly a “physical” (not mental) experience that should elicit wonder before any impulse to interpret or understand its meaning.

The director’s background in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (which he studied at Oxford and MIT prior to becoming a filmmaker) becomes evident in such style. Heidegger believed in the early Greek notion that the world should not be experienced as a collection of substances to master and analyze, but as a groundless source of mystery. Heidegger and devotee Malick (he translated some of the German existentialist’s significant works) share the idea that the world reveals itself to us through our moods and emotion, not cognition and rationalism. “Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves,” wrote Heidegger in his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” “Color shines and wants only to shine… when we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone.” Thus, it is easier to grasp Malick’s emphasis on flowing imagery and sensory-heavy cinema—films not as interested in how the world is, but that it is.

While Malick’s first film, 1973’s Badlands, invokes Adam/Eve mythology, Heaven more closely mirrors the Cain/Abel incident. Bill is provoked by a stinging jealousy of Sam Shepherd’s character, the Farmer.  Bill also mirrors Cain in the setting of his murderous attack: the isolated midst of a field.  The parallel continues in that he must leave the ranch (Eden) and hide from the authorities (God), shamed by the recognition that—as he proclaims to Abby—“He knows!”

This delicate shift in man’s internal relationship to evil is symbolically seen in the film’s external images of nature, which contextualize the existential dilemmas of the characters. While dominated by impossibly beautiful nature shots and sounds (blowing wheat, rippling brooks, golden sunsets, grazing bison) the “avenging power” in nature, which will be further explored in The Thin Red Line, is also introduced. The plague of locusts (another biblical reference) on the wheat crop and the subsequent fire in the fields demonstrate the hellish potential in nature—further demonstrative of the precarious balance between depravity and divinity which Malick so poetically explores.  The nature in Heaven envelops you in its transcendent beauty while at the same time exerting an unsettling aura of control: “Often it is an undulating sea of grass or wheat which opens itself up without resistance to human encroachment, yet defeats all attempts at mastery,” wrote Bill Schaffer in Senses of Cinema.

It is man doing battle with himself—trying to overcome nature with will; recognizing that the two can never be separate. Indeed, Malick’s camera frequently frames his characters within—almost at one with—the wheat fields. As the actors walk in and among the golden waves of wheat, the mobile camera flows organically around the scene, grounding the humans in the nature they are threshing. Like in The New World, which uses the upward metaphor of the tree to evoke human perseverance and longing, Heaven equates the being of humanity with the being of wheat: in both there is growth, harvest, resilience and redemption.

There is a deep unsettledness to the film, however—a nagging unease pervading its abundant beauty. An early shot in the film captures it well: as a group of white-clad priests consecrate the fields at sunset, hundreds of observing field hands (cloaked in mourner’s black) stand intermittently throughout the wheat—like charred tree stumps in a devastated, though rejuvenating, forest. Similarly striking images of dark and light abound in the film (black horses dusted by a coat of white snow, for example)—adding to the paradoxical tension of evil invading Eden, sin disturbing innocence, and the precarious balance of good and bad within every living thing. Near the end of the film, Linda Manz sums it up in voiceover: “Nobody’s a perfect person … You got half devil and half angel in you.”

With its emphasis on the duality of nature and by association man, Days of Heaven envelops us in the lack and loss of Paradise. As reflected in its title, heaven is temporal in the film—an all too evanescent state of dwelling. The film thus exudes a palpable Edenic yearning—a longing to recapture our lost wholeness of being. In the meantime, we are stuck in a world where the glory and avenging power in nature are both intensely evident—a troubling paradox in which, Malick infers, ultimate reconciliation can be achieved only in death.

Death, so prevalent in Malick’s films, is the resolution to the knowing guilt of the innate depravity that characterizes our natural existence. But transcendence is possible before that point, if one can make peace with the dualistic battle within nature and self—a battle stemming from the feeling that things are upside down—that our insistent nature is strangely contradictory to the divine spark within. And thus we are constantly asking questions about evil and ontology—where we came from, what’s this evil, and why?

For me, the real value of Malick and a film like Days of Heaven is that it raises these sorts of “big questions,” but not directly or didactically. Rather, the questions tend to flow organically out of the visceral experience of what’s on screen. When I watch Heaven, for example, I feel something in my gut—something about the presence of God through His seeming absence. Something about my own wretchedness and deformed beauty. But however melancholy that may sound, it is films like this that expand and enliven my salvation—channeling truth through beauty and making grace all the more majestic.