An American Phenomenology: Terrence Malick Retrospective


Posted July 11, 2011 in Film Features

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Malick’s cinema sits within the American filmic landscape like the gaping maw of the Grand Canyon: a space in which crude metaphor is swallowed up by the wholly inconceivable and dynamic phenomenon of being, wherein the simile upon which this sentence is founded is gobbled up by the chasmic and indelible greatness of scope of cinema-as-everything and everything-as-cinema as it mingles with the master’s unique formal approach and its contemplative affect. No director is so directly concerned with the irreducible phenomena that populate our existence, nor so content to allow potentially chaotic and bewildering narrative aspects to exist outside of a taxonomy of metaphorical meaning; Malick meets intangibility head-on, without formal contrivance or fearful reduction, and the product of his method has been consistently spellbinding. His latest feature, The Tree of Life was released in Ireland on July 8th, after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2011 and garnering significant critical acclaim. Later this month, the IFI will be screening three of Malick’s four previous films in a retrospective of the director’s glittering (if infrequent) career.

Badlands, his 1973 debut feature, is one of the enduring classics of American cinema, iconic both for its visual beauty and its diegetic moral ambivalence in telling the story of a serial-killing couple as they traverse the American south (as well as its unforgettable score). Malick’s rejection (though not explicitly articulated) of psychological realism, as understood almost subconsciously in Western cinema (in its circuitous hermeneutical form), leaves the spectator at a loose end of sorts, exposed to the curious detachment of Kit and Holly (played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, respectively) from both the people they encounter and their frequently monstrous actions. The American landscape they explore is at once beautiful and claustrophobic, set against their desperate escape from the law; Malick renders their transgressions as an alien but connate element of the space they inhabit, ghosts within a still-shaking corpse. Sheen’s performance in particular is steeped within the iconography of American cinema (perhaps meaningless as a structure for understanding), playing a James Dean-like vagabond who seduces the virginal Holly, herself a quintessentially tomboyish “All-American” girl; but Malick’s employment of these established tropes seems not to serve a typically conservative nor polarised, self-critical or self-referential end. His characters behave almost entirely unemotionally, propelled by the mythic force of their own respective beings towards the oblivion upon which the entire film, perhaps the entire country and innate systems of identification and history, is balanced.

Days of Heaven (1978), his next feature, would be set in Texas in the 1910s , telling the story of Bill (Richard Gere), a Chicagoan steelworker who kills his boss and flees to the South with his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams, also posing as his sister). The distantiated, ethereal form of Badlands remains, with the beauty of the American landscape immaculately rendered (the film was shot almost entirely at sunset) by Malick’s transparent gaze. A love-triangle develops between Abby, Bill and the wealthy landowner upon whose farm they end up working – though the film is not propelled by narrative (as typically understood – a structure imposed onto a base “reality”) so much as it is by the lived experience of cinema as it represents its fiction. Malick’s unique primacy, his formal purity, transcends his often familiar subject matter, negating convention and rendering beautiful the banal. Needless to say, the film’s theatrical trailer does not give one an accurate impression of the transcendent experience it advertises.

After a twenty year hiatus, Malick’s World War II epic The Thin Red Line (1998) garnered huge critical acclaim for its uniquely visceral and contemplative depiction of the human experience of war. Adapted from the James Jones novel of the same name and so good that performances by Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke (amongst others) were cut entirely from the 170 minute finished article, which features stellar turns from Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas and a particularly brief turn from Adrien Brody, who publicly expressed his disgust at finding his role cut to two lines of dialogue and five minutes of screen-time, the film is, despite its subject matter, curiously as beautiful and tempered as the director’s two previous outings. A sprawling epic imbued with the sense of scale and unrivalled ambition that typifies Malick’s work, The Thin Red Line, with its Classical echoes, is perhaps equalled only by Apocalypse Now! as an American war film. Indeed, both films feature existential drama set against the richly significant backdrop of military conflict, though perhaps The Thin Red Line allows for a greater diegetic ambiguity (and disavows the quintessentially American longing for spectacular metaphor) than Coppola’s masterpiece.

Critical consensus on Malick’s next feature, The New World (2005), would perform an about-face of miraculous proportions between the time of its release and the present day. Having received lukewarm reviews on release, it has since come to be acknowledged as a modern masterpiece. Set during the colonisation of America by British settlers, Malick once again draws from the well of historical and cinematic significance present in American culture to decant a provocative and contemplative representation of the John Smith/Pocahontas story. His formal approach is of a significantly more poetic and ethereal kind than familiar in his previous films, with the myth-history narrative spectacularly distended by dissonant voiceover and images and set-pieces of astounding beauty and depth.

Badlands is being shown in the IFI on the 12th July at 18.40; The Thin Red Line on the 23rd & 24th July at 13.00 and 15.10 (respectively) and The New World on the 30th & 31st July at 13.45.

Words by Oisín Murphy

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