Tag Archives: Badlands

To the Wonder

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Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder, released last week in select theaters, as well as on demand and on iTunes. It’s a characteristically visceral experience of a film, meaning I STRONGLY suggest you try to see it on the big screen rather than on a computer screen. See here for theater release schedule. 

I have been following Malick’s career with great interest for more than 15 years (basically since I saw The Thin Red Line in 1998), and have written quite a bit about the man and his films. See here, here, here, here and here for a sampling.

So it was with great pleasure that Christianity Today gave me the opportunity to write a lengthy review essay about the film, in which I synthesize the themes and cinematic vision of Malick’s larger body of work by a taking a close look at To the Wonder (which I’ve already seen three times). Below is one section of the review, but if you have a bit of time and you’re a fan of Malick, I’d strongly suggested reading the whole thing.

To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It’s no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil’s own cell phone camera (as they travel by train “to the Wonder”). It’s the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; “All things shining” (The Thin Red Line).

Malick’s camera has a particular gaze. He spends more time than most on almost gratuitous beauty (puffy clouds, swimming turtles, beautiful hands). And his lens lingers on the mundane: empty rooms, walls, appliances, even a laptop displaying a Skype conversation. Everything is interesting to Malick.

Everything except himself. In both To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the actors portraying the adult Malick (Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, respectively) come across as passive observers—quiet, contemplative, almost awkward bystanders in the movie. They are fitting representations of a man who seems far more comfortable paying attention to the world around him than bringing attention to himself.

Much has been made of Malick’s tendency to hire big-name actors for his films, shoot tons of footage, and then leave them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors ultimately cut out completely from To the Wonder. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from the big-ego actor’s point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos.

In this, Malick is suggesting that it’s far more important for us to see well rather than to be well seen. Insofar as cinema has a purpose, it should not be about audiences glorifying actors or actors glorifying themselves, as much as creating an environment of focused vision and contemplation wherein the beauty of this world confronts and perhaps transforms the audience.

The whole of Malick’s oeuvre seems to be a call to put aside our hubris and wake to the Divine all around us. Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life “wanted to be loved because I was great,” but by the end of the film he recognizes that he was foolish for paying no attention to “the glory all around us . . . I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

But when Malick speaks of being awakened to the “glory all around us,” what does he mean? Is it a sort of pantheistic deification of nature? A deistic affirmation of some vague, removed divinity? With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder, I am convinced that he is speaking of “the glory” of the world not in the sense of being the thing to be worshipped but as pointer to the Being to be worshipped, namely the Christian God. To adopt this way of seeing is to engage with external activators of the sensus divinitatis built into our very being—an innate proclivity to suspect God’s existence.

Read the full review at Christianity Today. I’d also suggest you read this fascinating piece on Malick’s filmmaking process for To the Wonder.

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Advent & Malick

Terrence Malick has never made a Christmas film, but I think his films, collectively, have a lot to say to us as we meditate on the meaning of Advent. Before you groan and say, “here McCracken goes about Malick again,” let me explain.

At it’s core, Advent is a season in limbo, in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a season about eschatological longing as much as it is about nostalgic joy for the Incarnation of God as man. It’s about longing for and awaiting the coming kingdom, the restoration of creation to a state of shalom and fully realized glory. A key word is “restoration,” for within the mystery of Advent is a deeply felt longing and remembrance of that original Eden, so long ago lost and yet made possible again in Christ.

In many ways, Advent is about existing in between two paradises. One lost. One still to come. Both are ever present in the believer’s consciousness, as persistent reminders of fallenness intermingle with persistent, grace-filled interjections of hope. And it is here that I think Malick’s cinematic vision has much to offer.

Consider his most recent film, 2011’s Tree of Life, which very literally depicts an original paradise (at least the creation of it) and a eschatological one (which, even if just a reverie or dream, is still very much an eschatological vision of Shalom restored). The Bible begins and ends with the “Tree of Life” (in Eden and in the Revelation 22 New Jerusalem), and in many ways the film echoes this bookended structure, with the middle section being the story of existence–struggling between sin/nature and redemption/grace–writ small in a tiny Texas town. In Tree of Life, Malick’s characters experience that Advent tension between darkness and innocence lost on one hand and a coming reconciliation/restoration of goodness on the other.

Malick’s other films reflect similar themes. In Badlands, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Adam/Eve type characters who “fall” and are banished from Eden, shamed in their fallenness and yet curiously moved by the beauty of life around them, even on the run. Days of Heaven features similar themes of shamed sinners in search of redemptive paradise and a fresh start in the picturesque wheat fields of West Texas. In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel) opens the film in paradise, on tropical beaches and indigo blue waters in Papau New Guinea. But then the reality of sin sets in, and war and death; everything is changed, and yet Witt still sees a spark of glory. The film ends with images of Witt once again in paradise, and the rest of the soldiers on a boat leaving the horrors of Guadalcanal, heading to some new shores of a better world.

Malick’s next film, The New World, picks up that image by opening with colonists on a boat, landing on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia: the New World. But as with Malick’s other films, the Edenic idealism of this “new beginning” paradise is disrupted soon by famine, war, and a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas that doesn’t last. And yet as the film goes on, something keeps pushing Pocahontas on, in spite of great shame and hardship. Glimpses of glory call her forth, giving her reasons to hope; perhaps the best is indeed still to come.

An inherent aching for Eden persists in each of Malick’s films, as each character instinctively strives for a fresh start in the midst of our brokenness. Indeed, I think every human feels this. Time and time again we fail, and yet some animating spirit of good keeps us on track, keeps us striving for the best, between the two trees.

This is what Advent is about: a hope that keeps us going, keeps us exploring, creating, cultivating, loving, making order out of chaos. It’s the lingering instinct of our created purpose; it’s the impact of the Incarnation: the Divine Creator come down to creation to redeem mankind and succeed where Adam failed, providing an example of humanity as it was created to be.

If Easter is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Advent is about the curious thing that happened next. Jesus didn’t stay on earth to rule his kingdom. He ascended unto heaven and left his followers–the church, animated by the Holy Spirit–to carry the torch of kingdom work, to long and ache for Jesus’ promised return but in the meantime to strive to be the humans we were meant to be, to spread the good news, to resist evil, to order creation and bring about flourishing.

Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It’s Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.

Badlands

The film career of Terrence Malick began in 1972 when, after two years studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the former Rhodes scholar began work on his first feature, Badlands. A deeply atmospheric, myth-driven retelling of the infamous 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, Badlands explores the phenomenon of innocence in the midst of that most disturbing of evils—the evil of the everyday. Citing influences such as The Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, Malick has stated his intention of capturing the concept of “innocents abroad”—of innocence in the face of overwhelming drama. Indeed, the focus of Badlands is on the curiously sedate mindsets of its characters who witness and partake in evil as if it were just another mundane activity to engage in.

Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen) live out a Bonnie & Clyde road-trip fantasy in the film, and their interactions, voiceovers, and demeanors allude to a genuine disassociation from the concept of sin; or more specifically, their sin.  Kit kills people right and left and Holly watches with bewildered detachment; neither seems to associate exterior circumstances with their interior thought.  Malick himself described Kit as a child who “can only really believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions—they’re all sort of abstract for him.” It is no accident that Sheen greatly resembles James Dean in the film. The character of Kit is truly a rebel without a cause.  We never know why he does what he does, and apparently neither does he.

What, then, are we to make of this seemingly arbitrary, inexplicable, “innocent” sin?  The film is completely uninterested in explaining the causes of its characters’ behavior or judging their amoral actions. Malick’s point is perhaps that judging or explaining human action covers up for the fact that our world and values are more fragile than we think, and unable to account for certain human possibilities. The implication of this notion is that sin and evil inhere within nature itself; within the everyday.

A consistent biblical allusion in the films of Malick is certainly Eden, and Badlands introduces it beautifully. Kit and Holly are like Adam and Eve insofar as, post-“Fall,” they are less concerned with the fact that they’ve sinned than they are with their “nakedness” and the necessity to hide from God. Kit and Holly hide out in the trees from pursuing authorities. They’re constantly on the run–a guilty couple expelled from the Garden, evading capture as well as ownership of guilt. The parallel to the Genesis story climaxes near the end of the film when Kit and Holly dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “The Blossom Fell.” The classic scene evokes the dread of sin and consequence, of paradise lost: The dream has ended / for true love died / the night a blossom fell / and touched two lips that lied.

The rest of Badlands is an extended chase sequence as Kit and Holly evade authorities, but it’s also a search to recover the innocence lost and to reconcile the self with some sort of pure, forgotten ideal. In his essay, “All Things Shining: The Struggle for Wholeness, Redemption and Transcendence in the Films of Terrence Malick,” Ron Mottram notes that central to film is “an Edenic yearning to recapture a lost wholeness of being, an idyllic state of integration with the natural and good both within and without ourselves.”

In Badlands, as with Malick’s other films, this yearning is often represented in the beauty of the natural world–which in spite of industrialization, war, and other sorts of human folly still stands as one of our most persistent and powerful signs of a higher good.  The peace, calm, and indifference of nature form the constant backdrop to the human dramas of Malick’s films and often overshadow the narratives. Images of nature—beautiful and menacing—pervade all four of his films, though to different degrees. In Badlands, natural sounds and images are everywhere (birds, dogs, fish, flowing water, trees), though in relation to Heaven, Line, and The New World, nature is much more distant. The plains of South Dakota, the badlands of Montana, mountains far off on the horizon: it’s as if Eden—or epiphany—is out of reach. Nature feels distant, cold, fabled in Badlands, reflecting the widening distance between Kit and Holly “the mythical outlaws” and Kit and Holly as they were created to be.

Badlands ends, as does Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, with a climactic chase scene in which the male protagonist flees pursuant forces bent on killing or capturing him. In Badlands, Kit flees the police in a Dukes of Hazzard-esque dust-up, yet his motivation is less out of fear or obligation to life than out of a desire to gain a glorious notoriety and fulfill his pulpy myth through spectacular capture. He doesn’t hide or try too hard to evade the police. He desires an end for himself not as a redemptive purge of his rebellious behavior (because by all appearance he never sees his actions as sin), but strictly because a spectacular denouement is the proper end to his myth.

Kit and Holly never re-connect with themselves or achieve any sort of substantial understanding of the self as existing in the world. What motivates them, seemingly, is a desire to escape boredom and the mundane everydayness of life. They’re desperate for some sort of difference and thereby transcendence, and thus they embark on their rebellious, murderous misadventures. As Mottram notes, Kit “has chosen to trade his life for a fleeting recognition of his existence.”

Perhaps this is just another iteration of the original sin: Pride. We all want to be significant in some way–even if it means being a notorious criminal. In this way, Badlands can be seen as “a paean to identity, lost motivations, of what it means to be in the world and the difficulty of making a mark,” as Adrian Danks wrote in Senses of Cinema.

More than simply a morality tale couched in 1960s post-war nihilism, Badlands is a timeless tale of the human search for significance and the resultant battle between rebellion (pride/significance through freedom of the will) and redemption (humbly submitting to something bigger and recovering that union with creation and the Creator). Perhaps this is still a tension Malick is exploring… “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace.”