I would apologize in advance if these writings tend to get a little flowery or indulgent, but frankly, I’m not sorry. Of all the filmmakers to make their distinct mark on the art form, director Terrence Malick is my personal favorite– I’m no doubt going to find a lot to say about him and his work, and I’m damn well going to have fun while I do it.
My first brush with Malick’s films came later than most, about a year or two after graduating from college. I was a big fan of director David Gordon Green at the time (particularly his first four features), and my exploration of those films led me to discover that Green regarded Malick as a chief influence on his style.
Indeed, Green’s debt to Malick was so great that Malick had taken him on as something of a protege, serving as an executive producer on Green’s third feature, UNDERTOW (2004). Upon learning this, I embarked on what you might argue was a supremely early and bare-bones version of the process I would later adopt for The Directors Series; I maxed out my Netflix DVD queue with all of his films (which only numbered four by that point) and binged them in chronological order.
I don’t think I’d ever fallen for the style of a filmmaker so quickly and completely as I did for Malick– like Paul Thomas Anderson had done for me when I began college, Malick opened my eyes once again to the infinite possibilities of cinematic storytelling.
The terms we use to describe cinema allude to its nature as a visual art form: movies; motion pictures; films. The bulk of the medium’s first three decades of existence were almost exclusively visual, until 1927’s THE JAZZ SINGER popularized the practice of syncing picture to pre-recorded sound.
The image, therefore, is the most fundamental and most pure aspect of cinema; the most basic building block. The manner in which these various building blocks are arranged naturally determines the shape of story, but it also reveals the shape of the builder.
Some builders are content to arrange their blocks as others have done, following pre-established blueprints that guarantee structural integrity and a coherent form. Other builders, however, arrange their blocks in new shapes entirely, challenging our fundamental assumptions about cinematic storytelling.
Many directors use their work to break new ground in visual language, but very few have dedicated the entirety of their life and career to it like Terrence Malick has. Since his debut with 1973’s BADLANDS, Malick has consistently pushed the boundaries of narrative storytelling and structure, elevating his work from the realm of entertainment to that of poetry.
If cinema can be thought of as a visual art dealing in space, time, and motion, then there’s a case to be made that Malick is its purest practitioner — a priest who sermonizes through film and sees the moviehouse as a kind of cathedral where the faithful can gather for a shared transcendent experience.
Malick looms large in the cinematic psyche for a variety of reasons. His aesthetic has influenced a variety of pop culture mediums like music videos and commercials, and prominent contemporary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan cite him as a key influence.
One of the most mysterious aspects about Malick is his personal aversion to the spotlight– he’s gained a reputation as an eccentric recluse who values his anonymity to the point that he doesn’t make publicity appearances, give interviews, or even allow his picture to be taken on set.
He’s relaxed this position somewhat in recent years, but he’s still fiercely protective of his private life. There’s also his infamous disappearance from the industry altogether, with a twenty-year gap in the middle of his career where nobody can fully account for his whereabouts or actions.
Simply put, Malick endures because he has cultivated a myth about himself that’s larger than life. The same can be said of his work, which deals in the language of American mythmaking, folklore, and spirituality. The late Roger Ebert was a champion of his work– his final review was a rapturous, beautifully-written response to Malick’s TO THE WONDER (2012), a film that many other critics derided upon its release.
Ebert considered Malick’s work to have a single, unifying theme: “Human lives diminish between the overarching majesty of the world”. To put it another way, Malick’s work posits that our human dramas are rendered insignificant by the radiant beauty of the natural world. Yet, being creations of that world ourselves, we are inherently connected to it in a spiritual sense and made beautiful by association.
This sentiment echoes throughout Malick’s (to-date) nine films, his sensitivity to the poetry of life imprinting his work with an emotional intellect and strong philosophical overtones. With each subsequent work, he seeks to refine and perfect a special harmony between picture and sound– even as it ignores long-established storytelling conventions and puts him increasingly at odds with critics and mainstream audiences.
Especially as of late, critics tend to regard Malick’s work as obtuse, pretentious and boring– they charge that he keeps making the same film over and over again. To a certain extent, they’re correct– the same themes and aesthetic flourishes show up time and time again with a dependable consistency, right down to his use of meditative voiceovers delivered in hushed tones.
This shouldn’t be confused with the notion that he keeps remaking the same film, however. His signature themes– abstract concepts like the natural harmony of the universe, all of humanity belonging to one cosmic soul, transcendence, the eternal conflict between reason and instinct, the clash between the industrial and the agrarian, and the majesty of myth — are so vast and profound that a lifetime’s worth of feature films doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of a comprehensive exploration.
Malick is well aware he can’t possibly plumb the full depths of such heady concepts in one lifetime, so he fashions his films as ideological way-stations for us to anchor ourselves to while we forge our own expeditions into the Interior Unknown. His filmography has spawned many imitators in the decades since (this guy, right here), but he nevertheless remains an entirely original, unique, and vital voice in contemporary American filmmaking.
Malick’s own story begins on November 30th, 1943, in Ottawa, Illinois. The first son of Irene and Emil A. Malick, young Terry knew both pain and privilege in his formative years.
The American Dream had been especially kind to Emil, whose own parents had been Assyrian Christian immigrants from Lebanon and what is now modern-day Iran– he found intellectual fulfillment through his work as a geologist, as well as financial fulfillment when he became an executive for an oil company.
Terry’s childhood was spent in Bartlesville, Oklahoma as well as Austin, Texas, where he attended St. Stephens Episcopal School and is still reported to reside, at least as of 2011. The three Malick boys– Terry, and his brothers, Chris and Larry– were raised to excel in academics.
This high-pressure environment had differing effects on the brothers; whereas Terry’s intellectual inclinations propelled him to a summa cum laude AB degree in philosophy from Harvard, his musically-gifted younger brother Larry intentionally broke his own hands over the pressure of his music studies.
This episode, and Larry’s apparent suicide shortly thereafter, proved to be a formative experience for Terry, with echoes of the event reverberating through the interior dramas of films like 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE and 2015’s KNIGHT OF CUPS.
During the summers of his college years, Malick put his quiet life of academic privilege on hold in favor of hard manual labor in the great outdoors, doing back-breaking work on oil rigs and driving cement trucks in rail yards.
For his graduate studies, Malick left the US to attend Magdalene College at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, but after getting into a disagreement with his thesis advisor over the concept of “world” in the philosophical writings of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, he dropped out altogether.
Upon his return to the US, Malick taught philosophy at MIT and served as a freelance journalist for Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Life Magazine. All of this is to say that, at the tender young age of 26, Malick had already lived a well-rounded life full of many academic and professional accomplishments, and yet he’d barely scratched the surface of the man he was destined to become.
He would find his true calling in 1969, when he enrolled in the American Film Institute’s inaugural class (alongside future luminaries like David Lynch and Paul Schrader) in pursuit of an MFA degree in filmmaking. It was here that that he made his first film, a comedy short called LANTON MILLS that featured himself and a young Harry Dean Stanton as Old West cowboys trying to rob a modern bank.
Malick’s stint at AFI also proved beneficial in terms of his connections to the industry, marking the beginning of long creative partnerships with students like Jack Fisk and Mike Medavoy, who would go on to become his regular production designer and agent, respectively.
During this fruitful and exploratory time, Malick married his first wife, Jill Jakes, and began working as a screenwriter, doing uncredited passes on Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY (1971) and Jack Nicholson’s DRIVE, HE SAID (1971).
Under the pseudonym David Whitney, Malick also wrote the screenplays for POCKET MONEY (1972) and THE GRAVY TRAIN (1974). When his script, DEADHEAD MILES, was made into a film that Paramount found to be unreleasable, Malick decided to take his fate into his own hands and become a director himself.
By this point, Malick had become something of a protege of director Arthur Penn, most famous for his trailblazing crime classic, BONNIE & CLYDE (1969). Naturally, BONNIE & CLYDE provided the raw cinematic template for a fictional story that the 27 year-old Malick drew from the real-life murder spree performed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate.
Fascinated by Starkweather’s dark charisma and cool, narcissistic detachment from the magnitude of his crimes, Malick hammered out a screenplay during a road trip about two young lovers on the run. The more he wrote, the less his story became about the sensationalistic crimes of Starkweather and Fugate, and more about his childhood in Texas and the particular way he internalized the majesty of the natural world.
Giving his project the title BADLANDS, Malick set about putting the pieces in motion to make his first feature film. This being an independent film, the process of financing the picture was the most difficult, and most urgent, aspect to be dealt with.
Towards that end, Malick put in $25,000 of his own savings, and raised an additional $125k by pitching wealthy doctors and dentists. Around this time, he also met Edward Pressman, an aspiring producer who had recently inherited a successful toy company. Pressman managed to kick in a matching contribution, providing Malick with a combined $300k in funding to start shooting his first feature film.
Taking its title from the eponymous national park in South Dakota, BADLANDS begins in the tiny rural town of Dupree sometime in the late 1950’s. The story is told from the perspective of a naive and virginal teenage girl named Holly, played by Sissy Spacek in one of her first film roles.
Through her disaffected voiceover, Holly gives us a relatively banal overview of her world, sharing details about her beloved dog, the dollhouse-like Victorian home she shares with her stern and overbearing father (played by Warren Oates), and even her baton-twirling routine.
Malick meticulously set up this dreamy world of suburban nostalgia and childlike wonder, only to smash it all to bits with the introduction of an aimless 25 year-old trashman named Kit. Played by Martin Sheen in his breakout performance after toiling away for years as an obscure journeyman actor on television, Kit is detached, aloof, and emotionally distant to the point of sociopathy.
He fancies himself a small-town James Dean– only, without the talent or the ambition. After losing his job as a trashman, Kit finds temporary work as a ranch hand and fills his spare time by pursuing a romantic relationship with Holly.
Naturally, this comes as a contentious development for Holly’s possessive father, who expresses his displeasure by shooting Holly’s dog. When his pleas to the father’s sentimental side wither on the vine, Kit decides that the only way he and Holly can be together is to remove the father altogether.
He does just that, shooting him dead in cold blood and setting his quaint Victorian house ablaze before driving off into the night to start a new life with Holly. Drunk on the ambrosia of first love and blinded to the implications of their murderous actions by their youthful innocence, Kit and Holly slowly make their way westward– learning to live off the grid and racking up an alarming body count in an increasingly desperate bid to cover their tracks.
As they venture deeper into the wild American frontier, Kit and Holly realize that their passionate love affair is going to be short-lived, and that their day of reckoning is coming up fast on on the horizon. The triumvirate of Sheen, Spacek, and Oates anchors BADLANDS as a character-focused chamber piece despite the sprawling backdrop of open road and endless sky.
Other supporting actors come and go as needed, filling out their world with interesting shades of regional color. Indeed, Malick’s tendency to let his camera drift from his lead actors towards the fascinating facial landscapes of his extras begins here, with shots that linger on the weathered, corn-fed faces of America’s heartland and counteract the polished Hollywood beauty of the two leads.
In a way, the cameos of BADLANDS are more interesting than the performances of its supporting players– at least in retrospect. An inconsequential shot of two young boys playing in the street under a lamppost becomes much more compelling when we learn that those two boys are none other than Martin’s sons, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, making what one could argue is their film debut.
The most compelling cameo of all is the one belonging to Malick himself. For decades, the only public recording of Malick’s image or voice was as a 27 year-old briefly appearing here as an architect making a house call to a rich man that Kit and Holly are holding captive.
The move was made out of necessity, when the actor scheduled to play the role never made it to set and Malick had to step in. His brief appearance in BADLANDS is arguably one of the most dissected and analyzed cameos in cinema history, done in the hopes that the slightest of verbal quirks or physical mannerisms might hold some profound revelations about one of the art form’s most enigmatic personas.
Critics and audiences alike have come to regard Malick as an artist with a divine eye when it comes to cinematography, able to consistently capture some of the most beautiful images ever committed to film. BADLANDS begins this aspect of his reputation in earnest, adopting a sumptuous and majestic visual style in spite of its limited funds and scrappy production resources.
Indeed, the production history of BADLANDS is famously troubled, with no less than three cinematographers to its credit and a plethora of non-union crew members abandoning the film mid-shoot.
In deciding to produce on top of directing, Malick quickly thrust himself into the logistical chaos of making an independent feature film– David Handelman’s article for California Magazine, titled “Absence Of Malick”, details a rocky shoot in which the first-time director forfeited his own salary, asked his cast and crew to work for peanuts, and couldn’t even guarantee his investors that the film would be completed or distributed.
On top of that, Malick’s creative energies were constantly divided by insurance costs, equipment damage, an increasingly-rebellious crew, and, apparently, angry landowners brandishing shotguns.
His relative inexperience, combined with his total conviction in his artistic vision, drove a revolving door of cinematographers that began with Brian Probyn, who reportedly felt that Malick’s approach to coverage was incoherent and refused to shoot the film as his director desired.
The second cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, was eventually replaced by a third, Stevan Larner, before production ultimately wrapped. By virtue of shooting in unauthorized locations with very little money, Malick would later joke to the press that the process of shooting left him feeling like he too was on the run, just like his protagonists.
Handelman’s article goes on to note that, by the last two weeks of principal photography, all that remained of Malick’s crew were him, his wife, his art director and friend from AFI, Jack Fisk, and a local high school student.
Considering the film’s ridiculously troubled production history, it’s a minor miracle that the final product is virtually seamless, unified under an utterly unique vision that Malick could perhaps only articulate in the editing room.
Shot on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, BADLANDS adopts an observational style of cinematography, opting for relatively simple setups that aim to capture the rugged beauty of the natural world. Malick’s preference for natural light optimizes this approach, often filming his scenes during the golden glow of magic hour or the dim sheen of twilight just afterward.
Indeed, Malick’s propensity for shooting at sunset is one of the most visible aspects of his visual aesthetic, influencing countless waves of other filmmakers to embrace the radiant beauty it can bestow on a scene. Malick’s wider filmography has gone on to capture and dissect the fleeting impermanence of life and the natural world, finding a transcendent beauty in the cycles of day and night; of life, death, and rebirth.
He’s gained a reputation for letting his camera drift away from his actors mid-take to shoot something as seemingly innocuous as a butterfly landing on a flower. Critics tend to deride this behavior as either an act of distraction or affected pretentiousness, but in the context of Malick’s larger body of work, it becomes clear that this is an act of searching and exploration; he’s not trying to different or artsy for his own sake, but rather, he’s inviting us to see the world as he does.
In this light, Malick’s frequent use of magic hour photography isn’t just an attempt to beautify his images on a surface level– it’s an earnest attempt to capture the quiet insights into our interconnectedness via the scattering of dying photons. These images are pretty to look at, yes– but they are made so by virtue of their fragile ephemerality.
In a filmography defined by its radical experimentalism, BADLANDS is quite easily Malick’s most “conventional” work. He stages his scenes as the complete, self-contained building blocks of story that they are, arranging them in chronological order.
Through Malick’s technical execution, we can get a sense of what kind of filmmaker the budding auteur originally thought he might be. His use of clean dolly moves and majestic crane shots suggest an early inclination towards old-school Hollywood studio filmmaking, while his jarring incorporation of handheld camerawork during intense sequences — like Kit dousing Holly’s house with gasoline or the police’s armed siege on their treehouse camp — also evidences a director influenced by the bold reinvention of visual language in midcentury international and independent cinema.
Malick’s handling of a climactic shootout and car chase displays the same aptitude towards action that he brought to the screenplay for DIRTY HARRY while offering a glimpse into a tantalizing alternate universe where he chose to pursue audience-pleasing genre pictures instead of navel-gazing philosophical epics.
It’s in the editing of BADLANDS that the conceits we’ve come to regard as Malick’s stylistic signatures make themselves first known. Robert Estrin holds the corresponding editing credit for BADLANDS, but his cut was summarily rejected by Malick relatively early in the process– most likely when the filmmaker ran out of cash and had to fund the film’s finishing by taking on rewrite jobs for screenplays.
The cut that was eventually released to the world would be performed instead by an uncredited editor named Billy Weber, who has since gone on to cut all of Malick’s subsequent films. Whether by design or complete accident, the unique, lyrical nature of BADLANDS’ editing would nonetheless form the foundation of Malick’s artistic aesthetic.
His use of introspective and, at times, philosophically-rambling voiceover has become ubiquitous across his body of work– and a frequent target of derision by spiteful critics. BADLANDS establishes the basic template of the Malick voiceover device, which runs counter to the convention’s usual deployment as an agent of narration or exposition by expressing the protagonist’s unconscious monologue in broad, abstract ideas that speak to the shared experience of humanity at large.
Malick’s first iteration of this unconventional technique is, like his technical execution, decidedly more conventional than the rest of his filmography, adopting Holly’s perspective to tell the story of her ill-fated romance with Kit. Her voiceover plays like a disaffected, somewhat-bored reading of a teenage girl’s diary, subverting the brutality of Kit’s murderous actions on-screen with a gauzy, dreamlike quality that places the audience at several degrees of remove from the immediacy of their journey.
Indeed, BADLANDS often feels less like a lurid crime romance and more like a mythic storybook, or a fairy tale — a vibe cultivated primarily by Holly’s voiceover but also by Malick’s frequent use of atmosphere-generating cutaways and Fisk’s minimal, yet timeless, approach to the production design’s period elements.
Malick’s particular use of music, another major component of his artistic aesthetic, also reinforces the fairy-tale tone of BADLANDS. While George Alison Tipton holds the film’s credit for music, BADLANDS’ most notable music cue belongs to Carl Off, whose “Gassenhauer” from Musica Poetica becomes the film’s de facto theme.
The piece, initially introduced to Malick by fellow director Irvin Kirshner, is characterized by a suite of xylophones, timpanis and recorders that convey a playful, innocent tone. Kirshner prized the song because of its original purpose as a musical education device for children– indeed, the particular recording that BADLANDS uses in the edit is actually performed by children, sublimely complementing the air of childlike innocence Malick strives to create.
The track has endured as one of the film’s most iconic qualities, going on to influence later lovers-on-the-run films like Tony Scott’s TRUE ROMANCE (1993) (which features an original score by Hans Zimmer that plays like an inverted imitation of “Gassenhauer”).
BADLANDS’ other musical elements establish the consistent approach Malick would bring to the soundtracks of his later works– his use of choral music during the house burning sequence or the treehouse ambush foreshadows his later incorporation of religious and classical music, while the inclusion of a Nat King Cole song establishes a taste for contemporary pop music that’s been explored most recently and extensively in films like KNIGHT OF CUPS and SONG TO SONG (2016).
What’s perhaps most remarkable about BADLANDS is the impression that Malick’s debut announces the arrival of a fully-formed talent. Whereas many successful directors sculpt their artistic identity through the process of making their early works, Malick’s breadth of life experience and relatively narrow range of philosophical fascinations imbues BADLANDS with a self-actualized confidence that establishes the key thematic fascinations that inform nearly all of the director’s subsequent films.
The film’s plot might resemble a dime store romance, but Malick filters the story through heady, sophisticated themes like instinct versus reason, the loss of innocence, and the failing of language against the luminosity of the natural world.
Teenage romance is an interesting avenue for Malick to begin his cinematic exploration of the interior conflict between instinct and reason, precisely because teenagers often confuse instinct and reason into one muddled, hormone-fueled mess.
This is certainly the case in BADLANDS, with the protagonists following their instincts to their ill-fated ends without any regard for logic or rational thought. Indeed, in their minds, they’re the only sane ones in a world gone mad; the only thing that seems reasonable is the fiery, unpredictable passion that drives them.
In this regard, Kit and Holly are outliers in the pantheon of Malick protagonists– they have the gift of conviction about themselves and the righteousness of their efforts. Aside from her accompanying voiceover throughout, Holly’s gradual awakening to the seriousness of their crimes is the major clue pointing to her position as BADLANDS’ true protagonist (despite Sheen’s top billing).
Her literal loss of innocence poses a poignant counterpoint to Malick’s delicately-crafted storybook tone– her sexual relationship with Kit becomes akin to eating the fruit from The Tree Of Knowledge, and as punishment she must be cast from the Garden of her youth and naïveté.
Malick’s explorations of these interior conflicts are effortlessly juxtaposed against the exterior world, and often lean into the spiritual connotations of nature and creation. Indeed, his films treat nature as something of a cathedral, where one can experience spiritual and emotional transcendence.
Malick’s characters are imperfect figures in a perfect world; walking contradictions that are at once both ants insignificant comparative to the endless scale of the universe as well as individual vessels of godliness plugged directly into one cosmic soul.
In this light, the numerous cutaway shots that critics deride as the trivial, unfocused wanderings of a restless eye instead become profound earthly metaphors for his characters’ interior states and the natural rhythms of the world that surrounds them.
In BADLANDS, Malick hints at Man’s destruction of Paradise– a conceit that informs all his films– with cutaways that introduce decay and corruption into the beauty of the natural world. A fish lies in the grass, desperately drowning in the open air; Kit steps onto a dead cow for no reason but his own disaffected amusement; wildlife fruitlessly scours the desolate prairie for life-sustaining nourishment.
No words are necessary for Malick to convey these ideas– his eye for impromptu composition, flair for harnessing the sublime power of natural light, and willingness to follow his inspiration at the expense of all else empowers him with an almost supernatural ability to convey profoundly abstract existential ideas through entirely visual means.
It’s evident for all to see now that BADLANDS heralded the arrival of a major new talent in American cinema, but it hasn’t always been that way– indeed, the road to classic status was long and riddled with potholes. BADLANDS debuted at the New York Film Festival alongside fellow director Martin Scorsese’s breakout picture, MEAN STREETS, but even its selection for the prestigious festival was fraught with peril.
Anecdotes recount a catastrophic preview screening for the festival board where the picture was out of focus and the sound mix was unclear; even the print itself reportedly broke down. Despite this series of outright disasters, they still couldn’t deny the visceral power of Malick’s fresh new voice, and gave BADLANDS the prestigious closing night programming slot.
Based off the rave reviews from festival critics, Warner Brothers swooped in and paid just under a million dollars for the distribution rights. This, perhaps, was likely the worst thing that could’ve happened to BADLANDS at the time. The studio knew they liked the film, but it appears they didn’t know what to do with it.
Leaning heavily into a scheme that that marketed the film as a pulpy genre picture (which it most decidedly was not), Warner Brothers released BADLANDS as part of a double bill with Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES. The general release critics didn’t share the same view of Malick’s first feature as the festival critics did, and BADLANDS subsequently languished in box office oblivion.
Determined to prove that the film could indeed perform, Pressman and his team programmed a second release, booking BADLANDS into small regional theaters on its own. Pressman’s risky gambit proved inspired, with audiences finally catching on to BADLANDS’ brilliance.
As Malick’s filmography has grown, BADLANDS has only become more enshrined as a cinematic classic, as well as an iconic work in the New Hollywood wave of filmmaking that elevated such contemporaries as Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg to prominence.
BADLANDS’ mark on American culture was etched in stone when the Library of Congress selected the film for a spot in the National Film Registry in 1993– its first year of eligibility. Over forty years after its release, the power of BADLANDS endures, beckoning audiences again and again with a dreamy, golden-tinged nostalgia for an America that never really existed– except maybe in our own delusions.
DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978)
Many films lay claim to the honor of “The Most Beautiful Motion Picture Ever Made”, but the fact of the matter is that only a scant few are truly worthy of this superlative status. To my mind, the pinnacle of cinematic beauty is a draw between two iconic films: Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975) and Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).
There’s a good reason why I can’t decide between the two, and it owes mostly to the observation that they share an impeccably sumptuous visual style despite their immediate differences. Both films were produced in the heyday of the auteur-driven New Hollywood era of the 1970’s, and made evocative use of new stylistic techniques as well as radical innovations in film craft.
Both tell a relatively small story on an epic scale, elevating the respective plights of a shameless social climber and a deceitful farmhand into the realm of myth. Even in their differences, the two films complement each other quite harmoniously: BARRY LYNDON’s stately and cynical portrait of an ineffectual elite class and the European Old World balances against DAYS OF HEAVEN’s majestic romanticism of The New World and the endless bounty availed of those willing to work hard for it.
If push were to come to shove, however, my personal opinion is that DAYS OF HEAVEN wins out over Kubrick’s masterpiece as far as cinematic beauty is concerned. As the film’s fortieth anniversary rapidly approaches, it’s clear that DAYS OF HEAVEN continues to inspire and influence emerging filmmakers all over the world (myself included)– the cinematic equivalent of a beautiful, enigmatic flower still in bloom, revealing itself anew which each viewing.
One of the biggest challenge facing any burgeoning director working within the long-form narrative space is the sophomore feature, especially if the director’s debut film was well-received. If the second film succeeds, then the path forward becomes clearer and more open.
If it doesn’t, then that path can become a confusing maze that could take years to navigate– that is, assuming one is able to even emerge in the first place. The troubled creative process for DAYS OF HEAVEN is well-documented, suggesting that Malick routinely flirted with professional and artistic disaster during the making of his second feature film.
In the end, however, his unique artistic worldview pulled him back from the brink to deliver a film that would go on to become one of the shining beacons of 1970’s American cinema. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a film like DAYS OF HEAVEN being made within the studio system today; it is undeniably a product of its time– a time when ambitious auteurs drove the course of the industry and made intensely personal works that challenged our most fundamental notions of what a movie could be.
One of the most prominent personalities in this scene was producer Bert Schneider, the co-founder of BBS. BBS essentially spearheaded the New Hollywood zeitgeist, producing groundbreaking independent films like Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969) and Bob Rafelson’s FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), amongst others.
Malick’s 1973 debut with BADLANDS made a big impression on Schneider, and he reportedly sought out Malick in Cuba to discuss the director’s idea for the project that would ultimately become DAYS OF HEAVEN. Schneider’s producing clout would prove instrumental, setting up DAYS OF HEAVEN with a sweet deal at Paramount that gave the filmmakers $3 million in financing and complete creative freedom.
This early achievement is all the more impressive considering the historical context in which it happened. The auteur-driven era of filmmaking wouldn’t completely collapse for another few years, when Michael Cimino’s outlandishly expensive HEAVEN’S GATE opened in 1980 and performed so poorly that it forced its studio, United Artists, into bankruptcy.
However, studios in the mid-70’s were already evidencing signs of a shift away from artistic excess, bringing in a growing pool of network television executives who pursued the sort of middle-brow fare that routinely blared from the small screen.
Schneider’s involvement was prestigious enough that Paramount was willing to go for broke on a young, relatively untested director’s sweeping vision, but even then this came at a high cost– Schneider would have to personally answer for any cost or time overruns.
Nevertheless, Bert and his producing partner/brother Harold Schneider had faith in Malick, and in short order, the creative team had boots on the ground in Alberta, Canada– an idyllic, pastoral landscape of sprawling wheat fields and low-sloping hills that, knowingly or not, they would soon make iconic.
DAYS OF HEAVEN is set on the eve of the First World War, opening in the smoky industrial centers of Chicago to find a poor worker bee named Bill (Richard Gere) killing his employer after a particularly bitter argument, the details of which are obscured by the deafening clang of the surrounding machinery.
Rather than face justice for his crime of heated passion, he runs away instead, hopping a train with his quietly-elegant girlfriend and tomboyish kid sister. They whisk themselves away to the foreign landscape of the Texas Panhandle, where they quickly find work as farmhands for a wealthy local farmer, posing as brother and sisters so as to throw off any would-be pursuers.
When the terminally-ill farmer, played by the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard in one of his most classic and compelling performances, expresses a romantic interest in Bill’s girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), she and Bill hatch a conniving scheme to marry her off to the Farmer in the expectation that he’ll die soon and leave his sizable fortune to her.
As the central pair of deceitful lovers, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are confronted with the unenviable challenge of preserving a baseline of likability despite their craven misdeeds. Malick had already walked this line rather well with Martin Sheen’s murderous James Dean-wannabe in BADLANDS, and manages to direct Gere and Adams to similar effect here.
Like Sheen and Sissy Spacek before them, Gere and Adams were relative unknown when they joined Malick’s cast– DAYS OF HEAVEN was technically Gere’s first role in a motion picture, but the film’s delayed release would find the actor already well-known from his breakout performance in a subsequent project, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR.
Gere’s natural charisma and good looks allow him to quite literally get away with murder in the eyes of the audience; indeed, Malick refuses to judge the moral character of either Bill or his earthier accomplice, Abby. Their criminal calculations read as hungry passion, and their murderous offenses play instead as defense.
They are simply, like so many of the other weathered, faceless forms that populate the farmer’s wheat fields, trying to play the bum hand that life has dealt them. As the runaway trio ingratiate themselves deeper into the lap of rustic luxury and the farmer’s good graces, the farmer ironically finds his health improving.
The more time passes, the more reckless Bill and Abby grow in their concealment of the true nature of their relationship from The Farmer. The Farmer inevitably becomes suspicious, and thus the stage is set for a slow-burning confrontation with irrevocable consequences for not just all involved, but also for the romantic era of the agrarian frontier itself.
Like BADLANDS before it, the production of DAYS OF HEAVEN was a rocky, arduous slog marked by severe creative frustrations, Malick’s complete devotion to the fickle whims of nature, and a rebellious crew unaccustomed to their director’s unorthodox style of shooting.
Indeed, Malick’s insistence on the integrity of his vision was so total that he inevitably ran afoul of his own producers, forcing Bert Schneider into multiple confrontations about cost overruns and missed deadlines that put the cost-conscious producer in the loathsome position of having to ask Paramount for more money.
Stories abound about vaguely-specified call sheets that left each day’s work up to total improvisation, or wasting days of valuable shooting time waiting for the weather to provide an elusively-exact quality of light. At one point, Malick was so disappointed with the footage he’d obtained that he threw out his carefully-crafted script altogether, and started shooting untold miles of film with which to find the story in post-production.
This was a desperate move, to be sure, but also an extremely formative experience whose ultimate success encouraged him to adopt the technique in later works as part of his routine creative process.
Whereas BADLANDS’ production woes centered around a revolving door of cinematographers, DAYS OF HEAVEN finds Malick benefiting from a collaboration with two sympathetic cinematographers who were willing to indulge in his artistic whims.
After seeing Nestor Almendros’ camera work in Francois Trauffaut’s 1970 film, WILD CHILD, Malick wanted to hire the seasoned cinematographer so badly that he willingly contended with the fact that Almendors was actually going blind.
This arguably makes the film’s visual accomplishments all the more staggering– in a sublime moment of technical harmony with Malick’s fascination with the beauty of life’s ephemerality, DAYS OF HEAVEN’s luminous, unforgettable images reveal themselves as the creative product of a degenerating eye, quickly losing its ability to absorb the light so crucial to capturing these fleeting moments on film.
Malick had intended to shoot the entire picture with Almendros, but found himself caught in a situation of his own making, with the numerous shooting delays causing Almendros to depart fifty days into the production and fulfill a prior obligation to shoot Truffaut’s upcoming project, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN.
His uncredited replacement was maverick independent filmmaker Haskell Wexler, at this point perhaps best known for his incendiary countercultural rallying cry of a film, MEDIUM COOL (1968). After observing Almendros’ technique for a week, Wexler subsequently took over for the final weeks of shooting, generating so much footage that he would later claim as much as half of the finished film as his handiwork.
It speaks volumes towards Wexler and Almendros’ professionalism and creative commitment to their director that the finished product is virtually seamless in its visual cohesion.
It also speaks magnitudes about the strength and consistency of Malick’s vision for the film as a whole, which drew major influence from the iconic paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth in the conveyance of a world both profoundly entwined in, and yet entirely removed, from time.
One of the film’s centerpiece images is that of the Farmer’s imposing Victorian mansion, sitting alone amidst an endless wheat field– an image ripped straight from the canvas of Hopper’s “The House By The Railroad”.
Most films of the era would have built only the facade of the house and captured it from a limited number of angles, but Malick’s returning art director Jack Fisk built a whole house, inside and out, for Malick to move freely through and capture to film as he pleased.
The surreal image of the lone house rising from the sprawling, flat horizon echoes the Farmer’s own social isolation from an increasingly-modern world, and immediately projects a mythical stature upon Malick’s vision.
Indeed, DAYS OF HEAVEN plays as something of a creation myth, leaning heavily into majestic compositions, monumentally-minded camerawork and even biblical iconography to become a poetic allegory for Man’s remaking of the natural world in our image via the transformative innovations of the Industrial Revolution and the larger anthropological sweep of the twentieth century.
To achieve this mythic tone without falling prey to delusions of grandeur, Malick and company looked to the model of silent films, emphasizing pictures over dialogue and harnessing the power of natural light to expose the 35mm film image.
Much like it did during the actual time and place the filmmakers were depicting, natural sunlight served as the chief lighting source throughout the production of DAYS OF HEAVEN. With the exception of most interior and nighttime sequences, the filmmakers pushed the use of natural light well beyond their established limits.
The decision to expose most of the film with the intention of gaining an additional stop or two via push processing enabled Malick to capture usable images even after the sun had sunk below the horizon, exposing only off of the ambient glow of twilight during that short window of shooting time fondly known as “magic hour”.
At the risk of adding nothing new or valuable to the endless heaps of writings about DAYS OF HEAVEN’s innovations in magic hour photography, Malick makes extremely effective use of the technique’s dim, golden glow at every possible juncture.
As such, nearly every frame of DAYS OF HEAVEN is bathed in a romantic, sepia-tinged aura that perfectly evokes the film’s aspirations as a new kind of American myth as well as a nostalgic snapshot of an era now lost to the ravages of time.
Malick casts his actors as stark silhouettes against the bright landscape, using a variety of classical formalist camera movements to project a sweeping scope. Befitting his New Hollywood roots, Malick also incorporates newer techniques like emotionally-immediate handheld photography and rock-steady tracking shots that go where no crane or dolly dare to tread (thanks to the fluid mobility of the Panaglide rig, a contemporaneous competitor to the Steadicam).
While it’s a common refrain in industry circles that Oscar wins are political and don’t always go to the most-deserving party, it’s very difficult to argue that the Academy got it wrong when it bestowed the Oscar for Best Cinematography to Almendros.
Indeed, Almendros and Wexler’s cinematic innovations have only grown more beautiful with age, having gifted the medium with several unforgettable images that continue to shape and influence the art form today.
While DAYS OF HEAVEN’s cinematography is rightfully celebrated, one would be remiss not to mention the profound effect that Billy Weber’s edit or Ennio Morricone’s score had in shaping the presentation of these timeless shots.
After his uncredited services on Malick’s BADLANDS, Weber gets a proper cutting credit on DAYS OF HEAVEN— one that he most definitely earned. The post-production process for DAYS OF HEAVEN was almost as arduous and complicated as its shoot, stretching on for nearly two years while Malick and Weber labored to make narrative sense of the mountains of unscripted footage the director had acquired in the wake of his decision to toss the script altogether.
Most filmmakers would grow utterly discouraged, if not throw their hands up and quit altogether, to learn that their footage could not be assembled in any manner resembling the shooting script– but Malick was not most filmmakers.
A complete, radical reworking of Malick’s original vision was needed if disaster was to be avoided, but this moment of realization wasn’t just a creative opportunity; it was an artistic Big Bang that marked the genesis of Malick’s defining aesthetic as a film director.
The influence of the French New Wave is pivotal in this regard, with Malick’s resulting style sharing a strong similarity to the evocative reflections on memory that French director Alain Resnais brought to his groundbreaking works, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959) and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961).
Both films are marked by a ruminative, introspective voiceover that doesn’t as much narrate the plot as it does communicate the story’s interior themes. Like he did on BADLANDS, Malick turned to the conventions of voiceover as a way to string along a series of disparate images onto a single thread of meaning, giving DAYS OF HEAVEN a narrative form punctuated by ellipses– in other words, fleeting moments instead of fleshed out scenes with a beginning, middle, and end.
DAYS OF HEAVEN follows BADLANDS’ precedent of adopting an oblique perspective for its narration, delivering folksy, off-the-cuff commentary on the larger cosmic plight of the films’ respective leads as they observe from the sidelines. DAYS OF HEAVEN’s voiceover is delivered by Linda Manz in character as Bill’s rough-around-the-edges kid sister.
Manz’ words feel natural and unplanned because they are precisely that– improvised in the recording studio over the course of untold hours in the hopes of capturing unpolished nuggets of profound observation.
This proved to be the key in breaking Malick’s editorial logjam, enabling him with the confidence to jettison almost all of the film’s recorded dialogue, reducing a substantial number of scenes down to their central idea or purpose with just a single line, an evocative cutaway, and a lingering, atmospheric master shot.
Morricone, the Italian composer best known for his innovative work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, cements the elliptic, mythical vibe of DAYS OF HEAVEN with a quietly majestic orchestral score. The moody, romantic theme seemingly inverts the melody of Camille Saint-Seans’ iconic classical work, “Carnival Of The Animals”, which Malick uses for the film’s opening titles.
Beyond simply giving the film a musical cohesion and uniformity, this approach further echoes the stunning vistas seen throughout the film in a manner that several critics and scholars have described as a mirroring effect; the musical equivalent of the land reflecting the sky above it and vice versa, with the horizon line bisecting Malick’s 1.78:1 frame into two complementary, yet opposing planes.
Beyond a shared mythic tone that often blurs the line between history and fairy tale, DAYS OF HEAVEN builds upon the core thematic conceits that Malick introduced in BADLANDS, thus cementing them as key signatures of his artistic identity.
The director’s fascination with the clash between industrial and agrarian lifestyles is never more immediate than it is in DAYS OF HEAVEN, which initially presents an industrial cityscape as a veritable hell full of fire, brimstone, and the endless, deafening clang of machinery.
Bill and company’s subsequent escape to the pastoral fields of the Texas Panhandle, then, is depicted not as self-imposed exile but as cleansing refuge– a chance to start over and reinvent oneself in an untouched paradise. Of course, it’s only a matter of time until “the city” finds them, personified by the likes of a traveling circus troupe or the police.
Malick also uses the increasing mechanization of the Farmer’s equipment to reinforce this idea of the impersonal urban forcefully intruding on the intimate pastoral. As DAYS OF HEAVEN unspools, the farm’s workers labor with only their hands and raw, literal horse power, and end by manning gigantic, terrifying machines that plunder the landscape.
One of the film’s most memorable images can be found during a dramatic wildfire sequence, with animals scattering for their lives as a lumbering mechanical behemoth emerges unscathed from behind a wall of flame– a fitting visual metaphor for the industrial realm’s wanton disregard for nature that becomes all the more curious considering the man driving the vehicle in that shot is supposedly Malick himself.
In this light, Malick’s frequent use of atmospheric cutaways– usually of serene landscapes or members of the animal kingdom– become so much more than a practical way to hide the chaotic discontinuity of his shooting style; they actively enhance and reinforce his artistic exploration of civilization’s fundamental disharmony with nature.
Despite this profound disconnect between Man and the natural world, Malick nevertheless uses the language and iconography of spirituality and religion to illustrate a shared desire for harmony.
Malick’s lingering cutaways and frequent use of magic hour photography go a long way towards communicating his characters’ longing to be one with their environment, but he also employs rather overt religious symbolism towards this end– be it the devastating, godly wrath of a massive wildfire, a plague of locusts ripped straight out of the pages of the Old Testament, or even the murderous Cain & Abel dynamic shared between Bill and the Farmer as they tangle for the affections of Abby.
Indeed, if one were to try and succinctly sum up the unifying conceit of Malick’s entire filmography to date, the phrase “Paradise Lost” just might do the trick. His protagonists are exiles from a psychological Garden of Eden, even while they often traverse landscapes that could be described as a literal paradise in and of themselves.
One gets the distinct impression of a thematic loss of innocence when watching Malick’s work–BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN both adopt an evocative fairy-tale tonality in telling similar stories of lovers on the run.
DAYS OF HEAVEN even echoes BADLANDS’ particular narrative structure, like orienting its perspective to that of a young girl losing her childlike sense of innocence when confronted with mankind’s effortless capability for sin.
There’s even a similar sequence shared between the two films where a makeshift hideaway in the wilderness gets ambushed by the authorities– an image not entirely dissimilar to angry parents stomping into their children’s treehouse to enact some righteous discipline.
Still other ideas and images connect DAYS OF HEAVEN to BADLANDS as companion pieces indicative of Malick’s first wave of film work. Quaint Victorian architecture can be glimpsed in both films, be it DAYS OF HEAVEN’s iconic mansion all alone amidst the endless fields or the rich man’s house in which BADLANDS’ protagonists take brief refuge during their time on the lam.
Considering that Sissy Spacek’s character in BADLANDS begins her own journey of lost innocence in a small Victorian home, one could make the argument that Malick views this particular type of architecture as emblematic of a simpler, more romantic time that’s been lost to the rapid and rapacious modernization of the twentieth century.
DAYS OF HEAVEN also continues Malick’s inspired use of music as a form of commentary on the story, made manifest in the sequences of laborers playing and dancing to energetic folk music during their off hours.
There’s a strict separation between Morricone’s romantic score and the diegetic music sequences, naturally, but there’s a further division in the latter category: one that mostly falls along a racial line separating country folk music and early blues or ragtime that reinforces Malick’s larger exploration of the clash between agrarian and urban lifestyles.
Despite its troubled production and overlong editorial process, DAYS OF HEAVEN finally debuted in 1978 to a glowing critical reception. Its run at the Cannes Film Festival proved particularly fruitful, with Malick’s first nomination for the prestigious Palm d’Or and a well-deserved win for Best Director.
Despite a fair share of detractors, many critics were quick to praise its aesthetic beauty and unconventional, yet evocative narrative style, with some even going so far as to call the film an outright masterpiece. These plaudits did not translate to box office success, however– the film was written off as a commercial failure after barely breaking even.
Despite its inability to perform financially, DAYS OF HEAVEN nevertheless continued to steam ahead off the momentum of its critical praise, benefiting from the art-friendly atmosphere of the industry in the late 70’s. A slew of Oscar nominations followed to complement Almendros’ aforementioned win, highlighting DAYS OF HEAVEN’s technical achievements in the score, costume design and sound categories.
Time has only bolstered those early reviews proclaiming DAYS OF HEAVEN a bonafide masterpiece, with Malick’s second feature now universally regarded as a capstone of 70’s cinema– itself arguably being the capstone to a century of American cinema in general.
Watching DAYS OF HEAVEN today, it becomes clear that the film marks a pivotal point in Malick’s development as a filmmaker– an end, as well as a beginning. It’s the end of his early period, to be sure, but it’s also the beginning of a fully-formed artistic voice that would remain consistent through his subsequent pictures over the ensuing decades.
The critical success of DAYS OF HEAVEN positioned Malick for optimal circumstances in the event of a follow-up. Thanks to the enthusiastic reception of an early cut screened for studio executives, he had been set up at Paramount with a one-of-a-kind deal to do whatever he wanted.
For a while, he would develop an ambitious project about life, death, and the cosmos that he called Q, which eventually made its way to the screen in the form of 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE as well as 2016’s VOYAGE OF TIME. In 1978, however, Malick found himself burned out by the process of making DAYS OF HEAVEN in addition to his 1976 divorce from his first wife, Jill Jakes.
Indeed, he was so exhausted, he decided to abandon Q altogether and move to Paris with a girlfriend (5), presumably giving up on a promising film career before it had truly begun. Malick would fall absent from cinema for the next twenty years, with his extended hiatus and artistic silence slowly cultivating an air of mystery around him that eventually took on the same sort of mythic tone that marked his films.
THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
It seems that no discussion of director Terrence Malick’s life and career can be made without reference to “the absence”— a prolonged period of seeming inactivity that has taken on the same air of mythic folklore that marks his own films.
Every successful filmmaker inevitably experiences a fallow period, whether its due to his or her artistic tastes falling out of fashion, running into difficulty with financing, or even simply just wanting to take a break. These periods don’t usually define their respective creators, but Malick’s twenty-year absence from filmmaking is analyzed and dissected almost as much as the man’s work.
Indeed, this period of Malick’s life could constitute a full book in and of itself. A curious press— a body already prone to exaggeration— played its role by breathlessly inflating the mystery of Malick’s whereabouts, elevating his stature from mere mortal to that of myth.
Stories of his activities varied wildly throughout the years: he was maybe teaching in Texas, or maybe wandering the Middle East to discover his Assyrian roots. There were even rumors he was dead.
The reality, of course, was not nearly as dramatic… but it was no less fascinating. After “Q,” his ambitious, enigmatic follow-up to 1978’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, fell apart at Paramount, Malick retreated to Paris and later remarried to a French woman named Michele Marie Morette (who would later serve as the key inspiration for Olga Kurylenko’s character in TO THE WONDER (2012)).
His “absence” was less of an exile or long-term sabbatical than it was an interminably frustrating period of development hell, splitting time between Paris and Los Angeles over the ensuing twenty years.
Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of aborted projects that financially sustained Malick through this time, with many being shelved because of his producers’ impatience with his slow, deliberating pace as well as his tendency to sidetrack himself with impulsive creative fascinations.
Such projects included a script about comedian Jerry Lee Lewis, or one about 1800’s psychoanalysis called THE ENGLISH SPEAKER, and even a dueling Elephant Man project that was canceled when he learned fellow AFI alum David Lynch was about to make a film on the same subject.
There was also an adaptation of Walker Percy’s novel, “The Moviegoer”, which got as far as attaching Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins in 1994 before falling apart— Malick wouldn’t bury the project for good until the mid-2000’s, when he reportedly felt that Hurricane Katrina had all but obliterated the New Orleans depicted in Percy’s book.
Indeed, it seems the only complete work that Malick brought to fruition during this time was a stage adaptation of SANSHO THE BAILIFF, which debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993 to disappointing box office.
While the film world wondered what had happened to the so-called visionary filmmaker behind DAYS OF HEAVEN, the seeds of what would become Malick’s long-awaited follow up were, funnily enough, planted right at the beginning of his absence.
In 1978, producer Robert Michael Geisler approached Malick about making a film adaptation of the David Rabe play, IN THE BOOM BOOM ROOM. Nothing came of it, of course, but the two remained in contact over the ensuing years.
Ten years later, Geisler brought fellow producer John Roberdeau along with him to a meeting with Malick in Paris, where they pitched the idea of adapting the DM Thomas novel, “The White Hotel”.
Malick declined, but he was equipped with a pitch of his own— an adaptation of James Jones’ psychologically-sprawling war novel, “The Thin Red Line”. Geisler and Roberdeau liked the idea enough to pay him $250,000 to start work on a screenplay.
Malick’s first stab at the project is dated 1989, but it would ultimately take another decade to finally reach the screen. In this time, Geisler and Roberdeau paid the mortgage on Malick’s Parisian apartment while supplying him with an abundance of research material— some of which concerned subjects that must have seemed entirely inconsequential to the task at hand, like Australian reptiles, Navajo code talkers, and Japanese heartbeat drummers.
Indeed, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see how these seemingly-disparate research materials integrated themselves into the finished product. Nevertheless, Malick’s pace dragged on for several years, his attention split between this project and the continued work on his other script, THE ENGLISH SPEAKER.
By 1995, Malick had burned through two million dollars of his producers’ money, so they pushed him to choose between one project or the other. In the end, THE THIN RED LINE would win out over THE ENGLISH SPEAKER, spurred to completion by a $100,000 offer made by Mike Medavoy, Malick’s former agent and now CEO of the upstart production company, Phoenix Pictures.
Medavoy’s cash infusion gave Malick the necessary momentum to bring THE THIN RED LINE to cinema screens, but this was by no means the end of the film’s many production woes. The project was initially set up at Sony Pictures, until they pulled the plug after new studio head John Carley lost his confidence in Malick’s ability to deliver the picture for a budget of $52 million.
Malick and company subsequently found a new home at Fox 2000, when they agreed to put up a majority of the financing if Malick could secure five stars from a list of ten interested actors. This caveat was, of course, no problem— upon hearing the whispers of Malick’s long-awaited return to filmmaking, nearly every male actor in the industry was banging down the doors.
With the project financed and cast, Malick was all set to commence production on only his third feature film in over two decades, except for one last burst of admittedly-avoidable drama before cameras started rolling.
After developing THE THIN RED LINE with producers Geisler and Roberdeau for nearly ten years, Malick abruptly engineered a falling-out; when informing them that they would be banned from the set entirely, he used the reasoning that George Stevens Jr would be serving as the film’s producer on location, and Fox was allegedly allowing the ban in retribution for Geisler and Roberdeau denying Stevens an above-the-line credit. Malick failed to mention, however, that he also had a clause secretly added to his contract in 1996 barring the two men from participating during the shoot.
It’s difficult to excuse Malick’s actions here, even if the producer/director relationship is often fraught with perilous differences in opinion. Especially within the realm of studio filmmaking, a fragile harmony must be struck between the voices of art and commerce.
If anything, Malick’s unexpected power grab speaks to the shamelessly-indulgent artistic sensibilities he’d cultivated during his long hiatus, as well as his blossoming disregard for the conventions of contemporary filmmaking. As a result, THE THIN RED LINE becomes a decidedly singular expression from a man intent on blowing up the conventions of the war genre entirely.
Indeed, the finished product asserts Malick’s long-awaited return as one man’s all-consuming crusade to redefine the visual language of cinema itself, subjecting himself to a high-stakes gambit to reach a deeper emotional truth about our shared human experience.
THE THIN RED LINE details the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, a key event in World War II that gave American forces their first toehold in the Pacific as they advanced against the Japanese. Malick’s approach, like the source novel, adopts the multiple perspectives of the soldiers of C Company— a conceit that weaves a rich, sprawling tapestry about the emotional cost of warfare while making full use of the director’s philosophical fascinations.
The story follows C Company’s initial beach landing and their bitter fight to take Mount Austen, following through to their hollow victory over the Japanese as they venture deeper into the island’s lush jungles. The cast is a literal Who’s Who of major Hollywood stars and character actors during the late 90’s— Thomas Jane, Nick Stahl, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and John Cusack, amongst many others.
In an inspired move, Malick limits the presence of high-profile talent like John Travolta and George Clooney to mere cameos, evoking the prestigious celebrity status that officers frequently enjoy amongst the rank and file.
Even with a three hour runtime, Malick doesn’t have enough space on his canvas to lavish attention on all of the members of his sprawling cast, so certain players receive the lion’s share of screentime— in the process, becoming our emotional anchors for the narrative at hand.
If THE THIN RED LINE possesses anything in the way of a central character, it’s Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt, a soulfully observant man who is introduced to us as a man who deserted his company to go live with the island’s indigenous population.
The experience gives him an appreciation for mankind’s inherent purity; a state of being seemingly lost to the modern industrial world. This enlightened perspective stays with Witt throughout the film, even as he’s discovered and pulled back into battle.
He becomes almost omniscient in his interior musings, rendered in the hushed, regionally-inflected voiceover that has become Malick’s signature. In a way, Malick paints Witt not as a mortal man, but as a Creator walking with amazement amongst his creations; a figure of mercy who despairs over his children’s inclinations towards self-destruction.
Sean Penn, in the first of two collaborations with Malick to date, serves a similar purpose as First Sergeant Welsh: a stern disciplinarian who nonetheless shows a deep compassion towards his men in both his actions and his own interior monologue.
Nick Nolte, as Lt. Colonel Tall, illustrates the interior state of an opposing ideology. He spends the film angry as all hell, barking orders to his men like a furious dog. He favors a blunt, brute-force approach to warfare that cares little for the human cost as long as the objective is achieved, all while feigning intellectual sophistication with invocations of his West Point background, where he read Homer’s “The Odyssey” in its original Greek.
Nolte’s voiceover reveals an extremely frustrated and disgruntled career officer, forced to carry out the demeaning commands of his superiors even as he endeavors to join their ranks. Blind obedience and self-sacrifice is the only way to advance, which is why he comes into such explosive conflict with Elias Koteas’ Captain Staros, a conflicted and compassionate underling who defies Nolte’s character by refusing to send his men into a veritable meat grinder with very little tactical benefit.
Ben Chaplin and Dash Mihok are blessed with ruminative voiceover moments of their own, becoming key figureheads of Malick’s larger vision despite their relative inconsequence. Mihok’s internal monologue displays his character’s growth from a smug, relaxed private to a stunned combat veteran horrified by what he’s seen, while Chaplin’s subdued thoughts linger on the lover he left back home— played by Miranda Otto in fleeting flashbacks, the only female figure in the film that’s not also a member of the island’s indigenous population.
Adrien Brody’s performance as Corporal Fife is made notable by its absence: one of the first casualties of Malick’s ruthless tendency to cut entire members of his cast out during the editing process, Brody signed on to THE THIN RED LINE believing his character was going to be a central one; after all, that’s what it said, right there in the script.
We know by now that Malick’s scripts are by no means an even-remotely accurate blueprint of what the finished product will become, but Brody did not have the benefit of hindsight when he shot his performance. It wasn’t until he saw the finished film at the premiere that he learned his assumingly-meaty role had been savagely cut down to the barest sketch of a character— almost every line of dialogue had been excised, and he was left only with the silent terror that his eyes could visually convey.
In a funny way, Brody actually was one of the lucky ones; at least he had made it into the finished product. The same could not be said for other high-profile actors like Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, or Mickey Rourke, who all had made the long journey to base camp in the Solomon Islands and Queensland, Australia only for their scenes to be axed entirely.
Malick’s scissor-happiness extends to the voiceover aspect of the picture: actor Billy Bob Thornton reportedly recorded hours of monologue that never made it into the finished film. This haphazard, seemingly-wasteful approach can’t exactly be recommended for aspiring filmmakers to emulate, but it nonetheless works for Malick as as key component of his artistic process.
He’s not so much a “storyteller” as he is a “story-seeker”, gathering as much raw material as humanly possible and whittling it down to a shape that only reveals itself towards the end of the process. Case in point: THE THIN RED LINE was shot over 100 days, generating 1 million feet of film. There’s simply no way to make that omelette without breaking an obscene number of eggs. It speaks to Malick’s mythic stature amidst the industry that many actors stayed on for those 100 days — even after they had finished all of their scenes — just so they could sit and observe the mysterious filmmaker at work.
THE THIN RED LINE marks the emergence of Malick’s latter-day visual style, which combines his innate sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world with compositions and movement that evokes the restlessness of his characters’ interior conflict.
A cursory glance at Malick’s filmography reveals a director who disdains shooting on a soundstage or under the harsh glare of specialized film lighting, preferring to embed himself and his crew entirely on location. With THE THIN RED LINE, Malick scouted the actual battlefields in Guadalcanal, but the remote terrain presented severe logistical challenges for the shoot, and malaria concerns limited filming to daytime hours only.
As such, the Solomon Islands and Queensland, Australia stand in for Guadalcanal, providing Malick and company with a wide variety of lush jungle vistas. The Guadalcanal of THE THIN RED LINE is a primordial paradise; a veritable Garden Of Eden in which its indigenous inhabitants never ate from the Tree Of Knowledge and thus live totally free of afflictions such as war, disease, and sin.
Working for the first — and to date, only — time with cinematographer John Toll, Malick exposes the 2.35:1 35mm frame with an abundance of natural light in a variety of color temperatures. Much to his cast and crew’s consternation, Malick would sometimes shoot the same scene in three different lighting scenarios: broad daylight, diffuse overcast light, and the golden glow of magic hour.
This approach didn’t mean he could not decide how his scene should look, but rather, his particular creative process demanded a scene’s look be varied enough so he could place it anywhere he wished in the edit without breaking continuity.
It’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker getting away with this, but such was the wide creative berth and logistical trust accorded to Malick by his collaborators. THE THIN RED LINE was made and released at the same time as a competing World War 2 film, Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
The two works, even to this day, are locked into something of an of eternal competition, their shared subject matter inviting constant comparisons that seek to identify the “better” film. Such debates tend to miss the point, as their differences extend far beyond which theater of the war their respective stories take place in.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is a film about the horrors of war and the extraordinary courage of the men who fight it, whereas THE THIN RED LINE uses the prism of war as a psychological device, enabling an intense meditation on the damage that armed conflict does to a man’s soul while simultaneously expressing the idea that combat is simply a part of the natural order of civilization— not unlike a cleansing wildfire making room for an ecosphere to begin anew.
This naturally calls for an abstract, introspective approach that stands in stark contrast to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s visceral grit and chaotic handheld photography. THE THIN RED LINE maintains the same air of epic myth as DAYS OF HEAVEN, embracing formal compositions and camerawork that have an abstractifying effect on the action.
Evidenced in the many shots of the sun streaming through the dense jungle foliage, a kind of elemental spirituality reigns over the film’s visual approach: seemingly every shot is composed so as to emphasize one of the four elements: fire, water, earth, and wind.
Think to some of the film’s most enduring images: the breeze whistling through tall grass, the island’s indigenous population happily swimming underwater, a chaotic series of explosions back at base, and the dead Japanese soldier’s face peeking up from beneath the dirt floor.
Indeed, Malick’s depiction of the Japanese forces — the so-called “enemy” — is just as compelling and humanely oriented as his treatment of the Americans. At first they aren’t seen at all, belching out a fusillade of bullets from their vantage point up on the hill.
They are, in effect, an unseen force; lethal in nature. As we push forward with the American perspective, we get closer and closer to the Japanese. Shapes turn to silhouettes, then to recognizable human features. What was once a seemingly supernatural, unstoppable force is revealed to be fallible; fragile; vulnerable.
In other words: human. Malick’s camerawork echoes this conceit, using propulsive tracking shots in concert with majestic crane and dolly moves that underscore his filmmaking as an act of searching or questioning.
While THE THIN RED LINE had its fair share of shooting troubles, the overall production wasn’t nearly as troubled as either DAYS OF HEAVEN or BADLANDS before it. It helped that Malick’s artistic approach wasn’t constantly questioned by his own crew, thanks to the prior success of those films as well as the air of mysterious genius that enshrouded his twenty-year exile from filmmaking.
He also enjoyed the return of trusted longtime collaborators, like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber, who came aboard seven months into a long post-production process to oversee fellow editors Saar Klein and Leslie Jones.
Hans Zimmer’s original score has since become rather iconic, with tracks like “Journey To The Line” penetrating pop culture to a degree that film scores usually do not, and also becoming something of a go-to piece for other filmmakers’ temp tracks.
The stately orchestra reinforces the sweeping scope of Malick’s vision with a propulsive majesty, underscored by the subtle sounds of wind instruments that evoke his elemental approach to the visuals as well as a ticking clock that anticipates the character of Zimmer’s contemporary scores for fellow director Christopher Nolan.
Zimmer reportedly composed over four hours of music for THE THIN RED LINE, but much like Malick’s seemingly-merciless excision of his actors in the edit, little of the maestro’s score was actually used. In the end, Malick supplements Zimmer’s score with a collection of source tracks from classical composers like John Powell and Gabriel Faure, in addition to religious hymns sung by a Melanesian choir.
He also makes particularly pointed use of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question”, musically echoing his characters’ internal examinations and trauma. THE THIN RED LINE sees the full extent of Malick’s modern-day aesthetic emerge for the first time— almost as if he had spent his twenty-year absence honing it to personal perfection.
The mythic posturing that formed the thematic bedrock of BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN remains, but it’s immediately evident that Malick no longer considers himself beholden to entrenched cinematic conventions like self-contained sequences of story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Instead, we are treated to lyrical, fleeting moments that harken back to the ideological purity of Sergei Eisenstein’s pioneering theories on Soviet montage, whereby it’s in the manner in which shots are strung together that gives a scene meaning rather than the images themselves.
It’s easy for critics to dismiss this approach as superficial, or pretentious —made empty by the absence of action or plot progression — but such takes tend to betray a lack of attention or understanding at best, or a willing close-mindedness at worst.
Indeed, how one feels about Malick’s work as a whole often depends on how one feels about cinema as a whole: whether its functions as art or as commerce. THE THIN RED LINE posits that cinema can be both, leveraging its Hollywood-sized budget and war-epic framework to convey intimate, abstract ideas about man’s place in the natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
The creation that surrounds the film’s narrative — lush jungle, colorful wildlife, the eloquent cadence of the soldier’s innermost consciousness and self-awareness — is all-encompassing. No individual part is more important than the other. Man, and the natural environment that surrounds him, is simply part of one larger and interconnected cosmic soul.
Malick’s evocative cutaways illustrate this conceit, painting a larger portrait of the devastation that warfare brings to this soul with no more complex an image as a wounded bird trying to stand on its feet in the trampled brush, or blood splattering violently across long stalks of grass.
The same strain of soulful spirituality that marked BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN brings an added resonance to THE THIN RED LINE’s own sense of natural interconnectedness. Malick blends core ideas from the spiritual traditions of both Eastern and Western faith systems, invoking a higher power through the lush paradise of Guadalcanal and the gentle breeze constantly blowing through its dense foliage, or via images of American and Japanese soldiers alike fervently praying to their creators as they prepare for combat or lay dying in the battlefield.
Like BADLANDS before it, Malick draws from the biblical story of the Garden of Eden as a cultural waypoint, giving his audience something to anchor themselves to as he plunges headlong into deep explorations of abstract ideas like the clash between agrarian and industrial societies, the loss of our collective innocence via the prism of suffering & death, the careless plundering and wanton destruction of our natural environment, and even original sin.
Malick finds manners both religious and secular to convey these ideas, especially in lines of voiceover monologue like: “what seed, what root did evil grow from?”. Indeed, the bulk of THE THIN RED LINE’s hushed voiceovers grapple with mankind’s innate capacity for cruelty towards others, and how warfare has seeped like a poison into the purity of this one cosmic soul— rotting it from within.
The act of war, as implied by Malick’s approach here, quite literally invites a tangible hell on Earth, ransacking the Garden of Eden that has been made for us; forcing us out into an emotional wilderness.
THE THIN RED LINE’s existential unmooring stands in stark contrast to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s more-accessible message of warfare’s immediate pain and terror, which is understandably why the latter film had a higher profile at the box office and during awards season.
Simply put, THE THIN RED LINE is decidedly uncommercial: it’s a long, incredibly dense masterwork that applies abstract philosophical thought to the framework of the war genre. That’s not to say the film wasn’t a success— indeed, Malick’s big return to filmmaking after twenty years was hailed as a major achievement and one of the year’s best films.
Generally positive reviews and a Golden Bear award from Berlin fueled a $98 million gross at the box office, followed by a sweep of Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Score, and Malick’s first nomination for Directing.
Malick’s reclusive nature made for a peculiar show at the Oscars ceremony— when his name was announced in the Directing category, the telecast showed only a picture of a chair with his name on it. While it ultimately went home empty-handed, THE THIN RED LINE nevertheless re-established Malick at the forefront of American cinema after two decades of silence.
The mysterious, reclusive filmmaker was officially back in action— armed with a stunning meditation on the inhumanity and emotional devastation of war that continues to resonate as a modern classic.
THE NEW WORLD (2005)
There are many films I regret not seeing in a theater. Sure, watching movies at home offers the ability to avoid those annoying crowds and plunking down serious cash for two hours you may very well want back.
It now even offers a comparable technical experience thanks to advancements in 4K televisions and their companion UHD disc players. Still, even the sweetest home theater setup pales in comparison to the communal experience of the theater.
Hundreds of films, if not thousands, have been released over the course of my lifetime, and as someone who counts the experience of going to the movie theater as one of his earliest memories, I’ve made every effort to journey to cinema screens when duty demands it.
Even then, far too many films have slipped through the cracks. There is one film, in particular, that I most regret not having seen in its intended venue: director Terrence Malick’s 2005 opus, THE NEW WORLD— the trailer to which caused me to inexplicably turn my young, callow and unsophisticated nose up at the prospect of ever going to see it.
The trailer was everywhere that summer, but for whatever reason, the images didn’t speak to me in an appealing way. I had yet to discover Malick’s work as a whole, so I suppose I thought it another overstuffed period epic trying to ape TITANIC’s success nearly a decade on. What a stupid, ignorant fool I was. Because of this mistaken impression, I missed out on the opportunity to see what would one day become my favorite film from my favorite director.
Now, every time I watch THE NEW WORLD, I try to imagine how its majestic images would feel being twenty or thirty feet tall, washing over me in a cascading wave of sound and image that envelops my entire field of view… and I feel the sting of heartache that one might feel after The Rapture when he realizes he’s been left behind. I fully realize the ridiculousness of the statement I just made, but… damn it, that’s how it feels.
Having built his cinematic career on the foundation of American myth, Malick’s desire to tackle a film about its origins seemed a natural move. Indeed, the director had long harbored a desire to realize his vision of the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and its accompanying legend of Pocahontas and Captain James Smith.
His first draft of the screenplay for THE NEW WORLD would date back to the late 1970’s, shortly after the completion of his second feature, DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). He no doubt tinkered away at the idea during his ensuing twenty-year sabbatical from the industry, but it laid otherwise dormant until his re-emergence with THE THIN RED LINE in 1998.
Disney had released their own take on the Pocahontas story three years earlier, taking some of the wind out of Malick’s sails even as he expressed his fondness for the now-classic animated feature.
After the success of THE THIN RED LINE, Malick turned his attentions to a project about Che Guevara’s failed revolution in Bolivia — a story that would later be realized in 2008 by director Steven Soderbergh with the second half of his two-part epic, CHE.
When Malick’s Che project ultimately failed to find financing, leaving his development slate relatively wide open, his longtime editing partner Billy Weber reminded him of his old project on the Jamestown settlement. Ever since reading the original draft from the 1970’s, Weber had repeatedly expressed his desire to see Malick tackle THE NEW WORLD— and this time, Malick agreed.
Malick’s vision of the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia during the early 1600’s blends factual accounts with apocryphal myth to become a towering meditation on both the destructive, imperial nature of advanced civilizations as well as love’s ability to transcend linguistic and societal barriers.
There is actually no factual account that Captain John Smith and the Algonquian princess Pocahontas cultivated a romantic relationship — indeed, their significant age difference alone would’ve made such a prospect unlikely. Nevertheless, the legend endures, and it’s upon this legend that Malick bases the foundation for his staging of America’s complicated and bloody origins.
The settlers of Jamestown sailed from England to the New World looking not just for a passage or trade route to the Indies, but also for a fresh start. However, they brought with them the centuries of xenophobia, distrust, and craven greed that marked their imperial homeland.
They came not as settlers, but as conquerors, drunk on rumors of the untold riches that awaited them across the sea. Among the ranks of these would-be conquerors, Colin Farrell’s Captain John Smith emerges as an unlikely hero— a grungy, bohemian mercenary who arrived on these shores in shackles as a result of an attempted mutiny against his commander, Captain Newport (played by Christopher Plummer with his characteristic air of dignified prestige).
Farrell benefits from the real-life Smith’s extensive accounts of his travels, having pored through all seven of the Captain’s books to arrive at an understanding of a conflicted man at odds with his own people and utterly transformed by his encounters with Virginia’s native population.
When he’s ambushed and captured by members of a local tribe headed by August Schellenberg’s Chief Powhatan, he finds himself facing imminent execution— that is, until Powhatan’s teenager daughter, Pocahontas, throws herself on his captive and appeals to her father’s begrudging compassion.
As depicted by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher in a revelatory performance, Pocahontas is a lively free spirit, inspiring Smith to appreciate the wonder of the natural world that surrounds him. What begins as an effort to teach each other their respective languages for trading purposes blossoms into a full-throated romance for the ages— albeit one that threatens to tear the early Jamestown settlement apart at the seams.
As tensions between the settlers and the natives spill out into open conflict, these star-crossed lovers are forced to choose between their people or each other, pulled apart by the increasingly overwhelming forces that shaped America’s beginnings.
As the filmmakers themselves are quick to point out, THE NEW WORLD’s title works on two levels— there’s the New World the settlers experience in Virginia, and then there’s the New World experienced by Pocahontas when she sails to England for an audience with the King and Queen, played by seasoned character actor Jonathan Pryce and Malick’s own wife, Alexandra.
Pocahontas finds herself a stranger in a strange land, its cobblestone streets and manicured topiaries standing in stark contrast to the untamed wilderness of her home. Surrounded by the trappings of Anglo-Saxon civilization, she becomes an exotic specimen, comforted only by her husband’s loyalty and a watchful guardian from her tribe back home, played by Wes Studi.
In the first of several performances for Malick, Christian Bale assumes the guise of Pocahontas’ husband, John Rolfe: a former widower and tobacco farmer who takes the exiled Pocahontas into his homestead when news arrives that John Smith has perished at sea.
Bale is no stranger to the Pocahontas legend, having played the role of “Thomas” in Disney’s animated version prior, but here he serves as an emotional rock for the Algonquian princess. His quiet compassion knows no bounds, especially when John Smith re-emerges alive and well, and Pocahontas must make the last in a series of extremely difficult decisions.
THE NEW WORLD’s expansive canvas affords ample room for key supporting players to emerge, like David Thewlis’ treacherous usurper, or Ben Mendolsohn’s supportive settler. Some familiar faces from THE THIN RED LINE also join the fray in minor roles, like Ben Chaplin and John Savage, while still others can technically claim credit as a cast member without making any appearance at all— victims to Malick’s merciless approach to editing that compensates for his free-form shooting style.
It’s easy to criticize said shooting style on its face— after all, filmmaking as a commercial medium lends itself to nothing less than a disciplined, organized approach. It’s not so easy to maintain that criticism when one sees the images that result: a cascading flow of imagery that contains some of the most evocative and beautiful frames ever captured to celluloid.
Malick reportedly exposed over a million feet of 35mm film during the production of THE NEW WORLD, working for the first time with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki— the man who has since gone on to become arguably his most vital collaborator beyond returning production designer Jack Fisk and recurring producer Sarah Green.
THE NEW WORLD also marks Green and Malick’s first collaboration together, with Green’s gift for anticipating her director’s unpredictable, ever-changing needs creating an environment primed for creativity. Malick and Lubezki take full advantage of this supportive environment, quickly accumulating a staggering amount of achingly beautiful CinemaScope footage that would handily earn Lubezki an Oscar nomination come awards season.
THE NEW WORLD’s cinematography is also notable for its use of the 65mm gauge for select shots, becoming the first feature in nine years to shoot on the format for narrative purposes unrelated to visual effects work.
Having found his groove with a wandering, instinctual shooting style on THE THIN RED LINE, Malick pushes this approach even further to better capture the elegant chaos of the natural world, caring not a whit for pesky concepts like continuity or proper coverage.
Virginia’s plentiful sunlight aids in this pursuit, generating a textured, naturalistic feel that eschews any pretense of Hollywood glamor or polish. Malick and Lubezki repeatedly harness the beauty of magic hour, which casts lingering shots of lush woods and wetlands in a dim, rosy glow that lends itself well to the film’s pursuit of a mythic, epic aura.
Like THE THIN RED LINE and other subsequent works, Malick’s camera is characterized by a restless, searching spirit— a product of a fleet-footed shooting style that favors handheld and Steadicam setups. The overall effect is that of an eye-level account of history actively unfolding, with all the realism and visceral immediacy that implies.
THE NEW WORLD also retains THE THIN RED LINE’s use of elemental imagery, with Malick evoking the vibrancy of his surrounding natural environment by anchoring his compositions to the recurring visual motifs of earth, wind, water, and fire.
This conceit becomes increasingly resonant as the film progresses and we witness the Jamestown settlers continually diminish Virginia’s untamed wilds in their pursuit of civilization-building, ultimately making for a stunning contrast in the world that Pocahontas encounters when she sails across the Atlantic: a world of dirty cobblestone streets, soaring feats of baroque architecture, and manicured gardens with trees sheared into unnatural geometric shapes.
These visual comparisons strike at the core of THE NEW WORLD’s narrative conflict— the clash between those who endeavor to live in harmony with the world that sustains them, and those who conquer and manipulate that world towards increasingly unnatural ends.
THE NEW WORLD benefits from Malick’s continued partnership with longtime production designer Jack Fisk, who commits himself absolutely to the utmost historical authenticity. They had already achieved an authentic atmosphere by finding locations that were no more than ten miles away from the actual Jamestown settlement, but Fisk and his team went even further, rebuilding the fort with the same relatively primitive methods with which it had been constructed over four hundred years ago.
The Algonquin language, having long been considered a dead tongue, was fully resurrected so as to make the Powhatan tribe’s dialogue as accurate as possible — with the added benefit of making the language available for their descendants today and for generations to come.
Reason might expect only certain words and phrases to be recreated, according to what dialogue is mandated in the script. However, this being a latter-day Malick project, his team knew that it was only a matter of time until he threw out the script entirely in favor of informed improvisation— necessitating an entire language to be recreated and pulled from as the situation demanded.
Malick’s almost-casual disregard for his own script places an inordinate amount of responsibility on the shoulders of his editors, who must make sense of the mountains of film shot with no clear idea how it would be integrated into the final product, if it all.
Thankfully, THE NEW WORLD benefits from a crack team of editors including the likes of Hank Corbin and Saar Klein, who came aboard to expand upon the prior efforts of Richard Chew and Mark Yoshikawa.
While he served only as an associate producer on THE NEW WORLD, longtime Malick editor Billy Weber no doubt wielded a sizable influence on the post-production team, helping them make sense of Malick’s unique thought process and to “unlearn” what they had learned on other, more-conventional jobs.
The result is an impressionistic experience that builds upon the narrative foundations Malick laid with THE THIN RED LINE, telling his story with elliptical jump-cuts and lyrical vignettes; an ever-flowing river of images strung together and given meaning by meditative voiceovers.
Even in the thick of a chaotic battle, THE NEW WORLD’s characters express their inner monologues in Malick’s characteristic hushed timbre, lamenting the unfolding bloodshed as the loss of the dream upon which Jamestown — and America — was founded.
To take a job — any job — on a Malick production is to subsume one’s own ego or die trying; Plummer publicly expressed his desire to never work with Malick again after learning that his performance had been chopped to bits in the final edit.
Malick is unafraid of bruising the egos of his collaborators in pursuit of his vision, and those who excel in the face of challenge — actors like Christian Bale, Sean Penn, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman as well as craftspeople like Sarah Green, Jack Fisk, and Emmanuel Lubezki — are the ones who keep coming back to the director’s fold time and time again.
The venerated film composer, James Horner, would not join the ranks of Malick’s repeat collaborators after his stint on THE NEW WORLD — an experience that earned Malick the late maestro’s bitter enmity.
“I’ve never felt more letdown by a filmmaker in my life”, Horner exclaimed in an interview shortly afterwards, expressing his sincere frustration with Malick’s impulsive creative process and the manner in which his score was used…. or wasn’t used, as is the case with the bulk of THE NEW WORLD’s musical landscape.
Horner’s score here is very characteristic of his unique aesthetic — a stately blend of regal horns and majestic orchestration that immediately invites comparisons to his landmark scores for Mel Gibson’s BRAVEHEART (1995) and James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997).
Indeed, Horner’s approach underscores his initial impression that THE NEW WORLD would replicate the alchemy of sweeping romance and epic historical drama that made TITANIC such a cultural phenomenon; he even wrote an original song sung by Hayley Westenra called “Listen To Wind”, in a somewhat-transparent bid to succeed Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”.
Malick, however, had no interest in making the next TITANIC, and thus retains only the most relevant and resonant qualities of Horner’s score while falling back on an inspired selection of sourced classical works to fill in the gaps.
Well-chosen cues like Wagner’s “Vorspiel to Das Rheingold” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” lend THE NEW WORLD an aura of mythic timelessness and a rapturous sense of destiny while displaying Malick’s deep appreciation for the classical genre.
In choosing such operatic cues, Malick certainly runs the risk of inflating his narrative with the airs of pompous self-importance, but his unconventional approach to montage as well as his focus on the purity of the image delicately balances his musical palette’s operatic energy while further reinforcing the film’s contrasting of Virginia’s untamed wilds with the supposed civility of England’s contemporaneous society.
Malick’s artistic proclivities uniquely suit him to THE NEW WORLD’s storyline — indeed, it’s hard to think of a more harmonious match between artist and subject matter. The film’s narrative turns are anchored to the core conceits of Malick’s artistic profile: the radiance of the natural world, spirituality, the loss of innocence, the bitter conflict between agrarian and industrial societies, and the pursuit of a more-perfect cinematic realization of his characters’ interior lives.
Like THE THIN RED LINE before it, THE NEW WORLD is predicated upon the idea of conquest— specifically, that of an untouched paradise by a more-advanced civilization. “Conquest” is the prism through which all other ideas flow, evoking comparisons to the biblical story of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, whereby the Garden is sullied by the introduction of sin, murder, and money— that evergreen root of all evil.
After initial efforts to live in harmony with the indigenous population fail, the English resort to bloodshed and brute force to colonize Jamestown, violently remaking the land in their image. THE NEW WORLD’s elegiac tone stems from the loss of innocence incurred by this conquest— a stain tarnishing the purity of America’s baptismal gown.
Of course, that’s assuming a historical perspective that’s decidedly Anglo-Saxon, disregarding the fact that the native population had already been there for centuries, building a thriving civilization all their own. Malick treats these two societies — agrarian and industrial — as simply incompatible, their principles and values eternally at odds with one another.
Innocence against corruption; purity against filth; raw exploitation against sustainable ecosystems. In this manner, the centerpiece battle sequence that finds Powhatan’s tribe laying siege to Jamestown becomes so much more than a cinematic recreation of a key skirmish in Virginian history— it assumes the weight of apocalyptic stakes, deciding nothing less than the fate of the Americas themselves.
This conflict is also embodied in the contrast between each side’s spiritual beliefs. There’s the earthiness of the Algonquian belief system — an all-encompassing divinity in the world around them — and the celestial loftiness of the English’s Christian faith.
Shots of characters enraptured by the sun-dappled radiance of the natural world are framed similarly to shots of towering cathedrals and stain-glass windows, suggesting the common spiritual thread between the two factions; a universal language that allows John Smith and Pocahontas to communicate with each other, despite the worlds of difference between them.
This free-flowing, at-times agnostic spirituality has increasingly come to define Malick’s later work, but THE NEW WORLD arguably serves as the prime example of this particular conceit. It is here that Malick’s recurring references to nature as “Mother” first emerge, with Pocahontas using the term in hushed, prayer-like voiceovers to invoke the creation that surrounds her.
Her ephemeral, abstract monologues contrast with Captain Smith’s matter-of-fact narration, which itself was derived from Smiths’ many writings about his travels. Both monologues profess a profound awe towards this untouched paradise; a desire to become one with it rather than tame it.
This is the root of their connection, which renders their surface differences as minor obstacles easily overcome by simply listening to each other. Malick weaves these interior sentiments together into a coursing river of thought and speech, sometimes even overlapping the voiceover with the diegetic dialogue to create an immersive audio mosaic that’s not supposed to be necessarily listened to, but rather absorbed on a penetrating, subconscious level.
There’s little doubt that THE NEW WORLD stands as a staggering achievement by any filmmaker’s standards, but for Malick in particular, the film would struggle through several rounds of releases before achieving its latter-day status as a milestone work in his canon.
THE NEW WORLD would see the release of no less than three different cuts, each attaining their own lyrical pace and atmosphere while essentially telling the same story. Indeed, to watch the three cuts together in quick succession is to gain an appreciation for the subtle complexities of montage— more specifically, the manner in which the shortening or lengthening of shots can generate a cumulative impression or energy that’s entirely different to an alternate timing of the same sequence.
Perhaps the least-seen version of the film (until its inclusion on the Criterion Collection’s 2016 home video release), The First Cut is just that— the first version screened for audiences. Running 150 minutes, The First Cut screened at the world premiere despite the fact that Malick felt the film was far from finished.
Indeed, his editors would later recount sitting in the audience that night, actively taking notes on what they could trim. Further compelled by New Line Cinema’s mandate to cut the runtime down by at least fifteen minutes, Malick and his team delivered THE NEW WORLD to theaters in a version now known as The Theatrical Cut, keeping the same free-breathing, elliptical pace of The First Cut while condensing the length down to 135 minutes.
In retrospect, it seems that Malick’s sprawling, atmospheric vision did not benefit from quickening its pace; many contemporaneous reviews, while mostly positive, expressed an opinion that the narrative was too meandering, or too unfocused.
The late Roger Ebert, however, had nothing but high praise— his four-star review echoed the sentiments of other prominent critics like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, joining a growing chorus that praised the film as an outright masterpiece.
Unfortunately, mass audiences more-attuned to the straightforward conventions of mainstream cinema didn’t share this sentiment. In the eyes of the industry and its lofty financial expectations, THE NEW WORLD’s $30 million take on opening weekend was a major disappointment… despite being enough to recoup the production cost.
The third version of the film, known as The Extended Cut, was first distributed via New Line’s special edition re-issue shortly after its initial home video release. Running a staggering 172 minutes, The Extended Cut differs quite substantially from the two versions before it.
The longer runtime, longer even than The First Cut, creates much more of an experiential atmosphere, lingering on its sublime compositions while fleshing out its protagonists’ interior thoughts in deeper detail. A distinct literary influence courses through The Extended Cut, beginning with a direct pull quote from Smith’s journals and continuing on with chapter-like intertitles that break up the ensuing action into distinct blocks of story.
In the years since, Malick’s Extended Cut has emerged as the definitive version of THE NEW WORLD, but each of the other two cuts remain equally valid expressions of his immersive vision.
The work as a whole, even when compared against its multiple variants, has endured over the past decade, enshrining itself in our collective cultural memory as a new classic of American historical cinema — one that brings renewed vigor, immediacy, and — most importantly — humanity to a turbulent period long since relegated to stately oil paintings on canvas.
Four features and thirty years into his celebrated career, Malick had finally hit his stride, finding artistic reinvigoration through his development of a convention-shattering aesthetic and applying it to two sweeping historical epics in order to uncover the underlying humanity that drives them.
Something had been unlocked inside the enigmatic filmmaker, kickstarting an accelerated creative momentum that would thrust him headlong into hist most prolific and radical phase yet.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
Before he embarked on his twenty year hiatus from filmmaking, director Terrence Malick was laboring over the development of an ambitious passion project he had enigmatically dubbed “Q”.
The success of 1978’s DAYS OF HEAVEN had set him up to develop anything he wanted, and said effort would take the form of a sprawling meditation on life, death, and rebirth— albeit transposed against the infinite timescale of the cosmos.
The project famously collapsed shortly thereafter, in the wake of Malick’s self-imposed exile from Hollywood, but vestiges of the idea nevertheless continued to percolate in the director’s mind throughout the ensuing decades.
His return with 1998’s THE THIN RED LINE, as well as his subsequent 2005 effort THE NEW WORLD re-established Malick’s prominence in the industry’s prestige circles, and with it a renewed interest in the prospects of his unmade projects.
While in the early stages of his development of a failed project on Che Guevara with the production company River Road, Malick pitched his latest musings on the Q project to producer Bill Pohlad. Pohlad reportedly expressed his wariness about Malick’s “crazy” idea, but as the project took further shape he found himself so enamored with it that he would later provide the financing.
The production of THE NEW WORLD would give the long-gestating project some added momentum by establishing a strong creative collaboration between Malick and producer Sarah Green, who has since proven instrumental in ramping up the pace of the director’s finished output.
Malick had also been discussing the idea with other producers like Grant Hill, and Plan B Entertainment’s Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt, lamenting the difficulties he had faced in getting the film made over the decades.
Finally, after nearly thirty years of troubled development, Q’s imminent production was announced to the world in 2005 as THE TREE OF LIFE. Naturally, the trade announcement was by no means the end of Malick’s production woes— numerous prep challenges and a revolving door of attached leads that reportedly included the likes of Colin Farrell, Mel Gibson and the late Heath Ledger delayed the shoot by several years.
THE TREE OF LIFE finally went before cameras in 2008, when producer Brad Pitt decided to take on the critical role that they had so much trouble filling; that being Mr. O’ Brien, one of the three figureheads of Malick’s narrative.
I’ve mentioned before how Malick is not so much a storyteller as he is a story-seeker, shuffling through a stack of moving postcards that, when arranged a certain way, reveal the interior dramas that run through them.
THE TREE OF LIFE represents the perfection of an approach that he’d cultivated since DAYS OF HEAVEN, weaving an impressionistic tapestry of image, narration, and music that prompts a stirring meditation on creation’s inherent divinity.
The story unfolds over the entire course of Time itself, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with a vision of the inevitable heat death of the universe; similarly, the scale balloons to an infinite cosmic scale and collapses to the most intimate, cellular level.
In this context, Malick introduces two anchoring narratives that run parallel, both revealing intimate autobiographical details about the director even as they focus on a man named Jack grappling with the natural forces of growth and decline.
The first narrative essentially mirrors Malick’s own upbringing in 1950’s Austin, Texas, finding the O’Brien family living in the suburbs of Waco. The prepubescent Jack, played here by newcomer Hunter McCracken, is a moody, temperamental boy grappling with the trials and tribulations of boyhood while caught between the opposing forces of his mother and father— the way of grace versus the way of nature.
Pitt’s nuanced, haunted performance as Jack’s father, Mr. O’Brien, represents nature: stoic, unforgiving, evolutionary in a “survival of the fittest” sense. Like Malick’s own father, Mr. O’Brien is a geologist who works for an oil company, having fallen back on a conventional career when his love of music proved unable to provide for his family.
Both Mr. O’ Brien and Malick’s father would later fill that void by playing the organ at church— a development that likely conflated music with spirituality in Malick’s young mind. Jessica Chastain delivers her breakout performance here as Mrs. O’Brien, signifying the opposing force of grace by way of her soulful sensitivity and maternal compassion.
She is a source of comfort for the three O’Brien boys, becoming a place of refuge in the face of Mr. O’Brien’s tempestuous moods, which manifest in explosive displays of biblical fury and brute strength. Jack’s dynamic with his two brother echoes Malick’s own, focusing acutely on the boy’s relationship to his younger brother RL.
Played by Laramie Eppler, RL is a fictional stand-in for Malick’s brother, Larry; a sensitive, withdrawn boy who shares his father’s love for music and meets an untimely off-screen end as a teenager. It’s implied that this end is due to a car accident, and not a suicide as it was for Larry— however, a car accident was how Malick’s other brother, Chris, met his untimely end.
Tye Sheridan, making his film debut here as the youngest O’Brien boy, Steve, serves as Chris’ stand-in— however, Malick’s theatrical cut affords Sheridan scant time for his own development, turning him into a third wheel with little to add to the proceedings beyond his autobiographical importance.
Rendered in fleeting images that flash like memory, this thread chronicles formative moments from Jack’s boyhood: his birth… the birth of his brothers… the discovery of disease, decay, and death… the introduction of complicated adult emotions like jealousy, contempt, and lust… and ultimately ending with Jack and his family moving away from his childhood home.
THE TREE OF LIFE’s second thread finds Jack all grown up, working as an architect and living in modern-day Dallas. Sean Penn serves his second tour of duty for Malick after THE THIN RED LINE, imbuing the adult Jack with a quiet, haunted pathos that splits the difference between Pitt and Chastain’s opposing energies.
This storyline is far less defined than the 1950’s thread, finding Jack on the anniversary of RL’s death and wandering his cavernous modern home and sleek, airy office in the grips of his memories. He begins the day lighting a candle in memory of his late brother, and ends it with an impressionistic vision of a kind of afterlife where he’s reunited with his family amidst a crowd of wandering souls.
Penn’s storyline admittedly feels a bit underdeveloped— indeed, Penn has publicly spoken at length about his disappointment in a final product that doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with him beyond using him as a framing device for the 1950’s storyline.
The general idea connects to the creation sequences and the 1950’s footage well enough, but feels incomplete on its own. Malick’s scissor-happy approach to editing could be the culprit here, having whittled down Penn’s character to the barest sketch of an arc in the face of an overall narrative that was already complicated enough.
As of this writing, an extended edition of the film is due out in August 2018 courtesy of the Criterion Collection, boasting an extra 50 minutes of running time that will no doubt provide a deeper glimpse into Penn’s place within a sweeping and ambitious story that seeks to find a secular divinity within creation.
As mentioned before, THE TREE OF LIFE represents Malick’s attainment of something like perfection within his unique visual style, featuring a narrative that effortlessly lends itself to a series of fleeting vignettes and experimental, symbolic imagery.
Indeed, the aesthetic on display here is about as close as one can conceivably get to the definition of “cinema” in the purest sense, at least as it pertains to the marriage between image and sound. Returning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki proves instrumental in this regard, using only the light immediately and naturally available to him to capture some of the most beautiful and evocative imagery ever committed to 35mm celluloid.
Returning to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first time since DAYS OF HEAVEN, Malick and Lubezki retain the restless, penetrating style of camera movement that marked THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD, constantly propelling through the frame’s z-axis.
Their improvisatory style of shooting is evident throughout, using handheld or Steadicam setups that allow for the spontaneous capture of life in the present tense. Despite the relative chaos of said shooting style, the consistent use of lenses with a deep depth of field or compositions that favor magic-hour backlighting allow a cohesive vision to emerge.
Whole sequences are constructed entirely from these fractured snapshots and vignettes, made evocative by their implications. Lubezki would later describe this approach as meaning to trigger “tons of memories, like a scent or perfume”, and towards this end, he and Malick are astonishingly successful— especially within the 1950’s-set scenes at the O’Brien household.
Most people watching the film— at least outside of the real-life town of Smithville, TX, where these scenes were shot— cannot relate to Malick’s story of growing up in suburban Waco in the 1950’s; that is, at least on a superficial level.
That said, Malick’s enigmatic, oblique storytelling unspools like a sense memory, his fleeting images triggering flashbacks to our own childhoods as he charts Jack’s response to key episodes in his psychological development. Here, the emotional milestones are not birthdays, first communions, or vacations, but rather the discovery of disease & sickness in an otherwise-beautiful world, the confused shame of emerging sexuality, or the mortal terror of a father’s wrath.
The other narrative strands forego the earthiness and rambunctious energy of the boyhood sequences in favor of ethereal, dreamlike images that speak to THE TREE OF LIFE’s profound, secular spirituality. In a film full of intensely memorable imagery, these moments stand out— a child swimming out of a bedroom submerged entirely in water, Chastain’s character dancing in mid-air, or laying asleep in a glass coffin in the forest not unlike Sleeping Beauty.
Compositions continually land on images of figures or silhouettes aimlessly moving through space— a visual echo of the characters’ internal restlessness. This conceit reaches it apex during adult Jack’s celestial vision of what one might consider an afterlife, where he finds the younger iterations of his family amidst a legion of souls wandering a beautifully-blank landscape.
In his fifth consecutive collaboration with Malick, longtime production designer Jack Fisk uses his subdued and realistic period recreations to amplify the narrative’s visual symbolism— particularly in regards to the found architecture of their many locations: passing through gates comes to symbolize birth, climbing ladders implies ascension.
The film spends a significant amount of time in Jack’s childhood home — one of several charming little bungalows on a sleepy suburban street — tracking the O’Brien boys through the years as they careen around the house, filling it with laughter, love and life.
Malick uses the O’Brien’s eventual move from the house as the climax of the 1950’s narrative, showing us the empty husk of a house they left behind. In so doing, Malick seems to be suggesting that a space is given meaning not by its shape, but by the memories we infuse in it; the tone or energy of a building is a product of the manner in which its occupants inhabit it.
In this context, the modern-day sequences with adult Jack wandering his intimidating office tower suggest humanity’s alienation within these colossal structures— our cosmic insignificance laid bare for all to see.
Indeed, THE TREE OF LIFE is quite interested in Man’s place in the universe and creation. A large chunk of the narrative diverts from its focus on Jack to depict the birth of time & space, charting the evolution of life on Earth from the planet’s formation on down to the emergence of complex organisms.
Malick shoots these sequences on 65mm and IMAX film, giving them a majestic, staggering scale to match their subject matter. A large portion of this sequence is derived from landscape aerials shot from a helicopter, featuring a variety of stunning, primal vistas from all over the world that, when placed in just the right order, recreate the millennia-spanning story of the Earth’s creation.
Even more impressive are the shots depicting the cosmos, which amazingly forego computer-generated imagery in favor of practical effects. Towards this end, Malick would enlist the help of Doug Trumbull, the venerated visual effects artist behind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), bringing him out of retirement for the first time since Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER thirty years prior.
Trumbull utilizes high-speed photography, fluid dynamics and experimental techniques to render the majesty of the infinite, throwing a variety of chemicals, paints, dyes, smoke and liquids onto spin dishes and into water tanks. CGI is deployed, however, during what has become one of the film’s most-contested scenes: a brief exchange between two dinosaurs that Malick had reportedly intended to convey the genesis of complex thought beyond predator/prey instincts.
The admittedly-flimsy CGI undermines what is arguably an interesting effort to show how relatively-sophisticated ideological concepts like mercy are just as much a product of evolution as the biological aspects. As a whole, THE TREE OF LIFE’s creation sequences would prove highly inspirational for Malick.
In fact, he’d accumulate enough footage to create an additional feature, expanding his exploration of life’s journey into an IMAX documentary that he would release five years later titled VOYAGE OF TIME.
It’s not unusual for a Malick film to feature multiple editors, but THE TREE OF LIFE might take the cake in terms of sheer quantity. No less than five editors claim credit, with newcomers like Jay Rabinowitz and Daniel Rezende working alongside returning collaborators Billy Weber, Hank Corbin, and Mark Yoshikawa. Together they build upon the unique style established in THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD.
Whereas Malicks’ two prior films featured conventional dialogue scenes as part of its storytelling character, THE TREE OF LIFE minimizes the exchange of dialogue to maybe a handful of select scenes, favoring the art of suggestion by zeroing in on a scene’s essential image and deploying hushed, inward-looking voiceover for emotional context.
Music plays an important part in this approach, bridging sequences together as a singular river of story, ever-flowing. Alexandre Desplat provides a subdued original score — indeed, it’s hard to point to any particular melody or musical theme emblematic of Desplat’s work here. That said, THE TREE OF LIFE is filled with music— just not his music.
Like Hans Zimmer or James Horner before him, Desplat would see his work replaced by a suite of classical and religious deep cuts from Malick’s own collection. These needledrops infuse Malick’s cascading river of evocative imagery with the mythic aura that encapsulates his previous work. Religious tracks like John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle” or Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” underscore Malick’s approach regarding the inherent divinity of creation, evolution and the cycle of life.
Indeed, sequences like the birth of the universe, or Mrs. O’ Brien’s inconsolable grief over the loss of her son, use these tracks to capture the same kind of reverence one would bring to church. Malick also uses “Vltava (The Moldau)” from Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma vlast” several times throughout THE TREE OF LIFE, most notably in a sequence that features young Jack running around with his brothers, capturing the exuberance of life at its prime.
In a move that would unwittingly affect his subsequent work, Malick licenses a track from emerging composer Hanan Townshend, who would then go on to serve as the composer for the director’s next two films.
If one were to make the case that THE TREE OF LIFE is Malick’s best film (and there is indeed such a case), he or she might point to the autobiographical nature of the film’s thematic and aesthetic inclinations. While the reclusive filmmaker would never admit that the film is indeed autobiographical, the parallels between Jack’s story and his own upbringing in midcentury Texas are too close to deny.
The film’s thematic explorations conform immaculately to the shape of Malick’s artistry, unified by a restless, wandering spirit that manifests itself through a constantly-roaming camera, listless action within the frame, and reverential voiceovers that repeatedly invoke the familial divinity of creation via personifying idioms like “mother” and “brother”.
Indeed, THE TREE OF LIFE is a prime example of filmmaking as a form of prayer, animated by a secular spirituality that sees holiness in the chemical reactions that shape our universe, or the electrical signals that light up our brains with conscious, self-reflective thought.
However, as evidenced by the film’s opening with a quote from the biblical book of Job, Malick’s expression of nature’s divinity frequently favors the visual iconography and syntax of Judeo-Christian religions— a kind of grounding device from Malick’s own upbringing that serves as a springboard into the deeper world of spirituality.
The archetypical “loss-of-innocence” narrative is another thread that ties Malick’s larger filmography together, and THE TREE OF LIFE reveals itself as a key work in that regard. Milestone developmental episodes punctuate Jack’s narrative, detailing his reactions to the onset of puberty, the corruption of sickness, and the realization of death’s quiet permanence.
Childhood’s simplistic view of the world gives way to an increasingly complex understanding of its realities— the act of growing up is in and of itself an existential crisis.
Also like he’s done in previous work, Malick projects his characters’ interior tangles with corruption onto their surrounding landscape, drawing a distinct contrast between rural and industrial or urban backdrops. Jack’s boyhood home, located in the sleepy suburbs outside a small town, comes to represent the emotional purity of adolescence— all the intricacies of life boiled down to their essence, the scope of Jack’s world contained entirely within the limits of his immediate neighborhood.
Lush with sun-dappled trees and vibrant local wildlife, these sequences are observed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, leaning into the popular idea amongst the Baby Boomer generation that the 1950’s were a simpler, more idyllic time.
Kids were free to play in the street, people regularly went to church, and a middle class family could live comfortably off of a single source of income. To his credit, Malick knows that the 1950’s were far from perfect; while he doesn’t go as far as addressing major flashpoints like segregation, he nevertheless chips away at the era’s blissful ignorance by showing us the imperfections on the fringes: a heated domestic argument behind closed doors, children eagerly running into a toxic plume of insecticide smoke, police taking a criminal away from the scene of a crime in full view of the public.
Malick contrasts the simple perfection of Jack’s pastoral boyhood with the disorienting complexity of adult Jack’s urban surroundings, using towering glass skyscrapers and cold, cavernous interiors that actively seek to disconnect alienate Jack from his surroundings. Even his own home as an adult lacks the warmth, intimacy, and spatial cohesion of his childhood house.
Malick hammers home this stark contrast through the recurring use of an upward-looking camera that draws visual comparisons between trees and skyscrapers alike as awe-inspiring structures reaching towards the heavens. The overall effect is a constant, self-reinforcing circle of thematic unity, wherein Malick’s ideological interests feed into each other to create a visceral and immersive experience that’s much, much more than the sum of its parts.
Of Malick’s post-hiatus output, THE TREE OF LIFE is easily his most celebrated and well-received— despite casual moviegoers being so confused about its elliptical snapshot-style of storytelling that theaters had to post physical signs explaining that its enigmatic nature was intentional.
Contrary to, well, nearly every other filmmaker who ever lived, Malick’s films routinely spend years in post-production while he exactingly tinkers with his edits. Having missed its initial 2009 and 2010 release dates, THE TREE OF LIFE proved no different, finally premiering in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and taking home one of the most prestigious prizes in all of cinema, the Palme d’Or.
The mixed nature of early reviews soon gave way to the film’s rapturous embrace by prominent critics, who regarded it as nothing less than Malick’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker. Three Oscar nominations followed: one for Best Picture, another for Lubezki’s cinematography, and the third being Malick’s second nod for his directing. Despite losing out on all three categories, THE TREE OF LIFE has refused to lose its luster in the years since, displaying an enduring resonance as perhaps Malick’s most-defining work.
His soulful sensitivity imbues the final product with the palpable vitality of life itself, proving that the visual language of cinema is still evolving, and that a century-old medium still possesses untold secrets and boundless opportunities— containing nothing less in its potential than the scope of the heavens.
VOYAGE OF TIME (2016)
Part of the stated mission of “The Directors Series” is watching a given filmmaker’s output in chronological order, so as to better chart his or her artistic development. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Terrence Malick’s experimental documentary VOYAGE OF TIME (2016) is one particularly apt exception.
Sandwiched between the release of KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015) and SONG TO SONG (2017), VOYAGE OF TIME bears such an undeniable association with 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE that one simply cannot fully explore either work without the context of the other.
Indeed, the majority of VOYAGE OF TIME’s footage was captured at the same time as THE TREE OF LIFE’s corresponding creation sequences, suggesting that the two works continually informed one another throughout the course of production.
VOYAGE OF TIME shares THE TREE OF LIFE’s extensive slate of producing talent, boasting the oversight of Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad, and Dede Gardner, as well as his regular producing partners Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda.
Though this team had been actively producing VOYAGE OF TIME for the preceding 12 years on a budget of $12 million, Malick’s personal development efforts stretched back even further— both VOYAGE OF TIME and THE TREE OF LIFE were outgrowths of his ambition passion project “Q”, which he intended as his follow-up to DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) before subsequently abandoning it and commencing his two-decade absence from cinema screens.
Malick had always described his vision for VOYAGE OF TIME as “one of his greatest dreams” (2)(3), and indeed, there were so many points throughout development, production, and release where said dream could have gone unrealized.
Thankfully, not only does VOYAGE OF TIME exist, but it does so in no less than three different variants, each one endeavoring to expand on THE TREE OF LIFE’s cosmic creation sequences with a celebrative foray into the evolution of life and the universe.
Indeed, VOYAGE OF TIME plays very much like THE TREE OF LIFE, had the 1950’s Waco and modern-day Dallas narrative threads been excised completely. The general thrust of story is the same across all three versions, featuring stunning landscape and wildlife photography shot by famed nature cinematographer Paul Atkins, as well as evocative liquid physics and spinning dish effects by SFX supervisor Dan Glass working under Douglas Trumbull.
Comprised of a mix of 35mm film, 65mm IMAX film, and high-resolution digital, VOYAGE OF TIME adopts an omniscient view that effortlessly slides along an infinite scale, capturing scenes as minute as cells dividing as effortlessly as the the celestial birth of gargantuan star systems.
Majestic magic-hour aerials and swooping underwater camerawork document the evolution of life on Earth, doubling down on THE TREE OF LIFE’s controversial inclusion of dinosaurs by adding even more of them in all their dodgy CGI-rendered glory.
Despite telling the same story, the three cuts of VOYAGE OF TIME differ rather wildly in their respective technical presentations. The first version, running forty minutes and dubbed “The IMAX Experience”, is no doubt Malick’s intended exhibition format— if not his ideal length or narrative style.
Presented in the square 1.43:1 frame unique to IMAX, this first version’s comparatively-shorter running time forces Malick to dwell on said creation sequences almost exclusively, conscripting THE TREE OF LIFE’s Brad Pitt to provide a rather straightforward voiceover for narrative context.
The limitations of IMAX as an exhibition format — such as shorter run times demanded by the sheer size of the 70mm IMAX gauge when spooled up into reels, or the limited number of dedicated IMAX venues — prompted Malick to generate a second, longer cut dubbed “LIFE’S JOURNEY”.
Running ninety minutes and presented in the conventional 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this version is easily the most Malick-ian in tone and style. Cate Blanchett, fresh off two collaborations with Malick on KNIGHT OF CUPS and SONG TO SONG, delivers a lyrical, introspective narration in a hushed, prayerful tone.
Far more than just an “extended edition”, “LIFE’S JOURNEY” expands on footage seen in the “IMAX Experience” with low-resolution digital video footage presented in the square 1.33:1 frame, speaking to Malick’s latter-day interest in the juxtaposition of various formats and visual textures with the blown-out contrast and seared colors of cheap consumer video.
These sequences paint an observational, “slice-of-life” portrait of modern society in all its vibrant color and decrepit squalor, subverting Malick’s pristine celluloid images with chunky video resembling a home movie shot while on vacation.
Another narrative movement find early man at his most primitive, forging a meager hunter-gatherer existence in a harsh, unwelcoming environment. Some sources claim this footage actually dates back to the late 1970’s, back when Malick was developing the film in its “Q” incarnation—- however, this sequence (which was allegedly shot on 35mm film) admittedly looks a little too pristine for its supposed age, and the roaming, restless manner in which it’s shot feels too much in-line with his latter-day aesthetic to have credibly followed right after DAYS OF HEAVEN.
While these two versions are the ones commonly referred to when one talks of VOYAGE OF TIME, there is yet a third version, dubbed “The IMAX Experience in Ultra Widescreen”. This version — arguably Malick’s preferred cut of the picture — drops the narration entirely, in favor of an impressionistic soundscape comprised entirely of music and sound effects.
The footage was also re-scanned at a staggering 11,000 lines of resolutions and re-composed into a virtually-unrivaled ultra-wide frame boasting dimensions of 3.6:1. Despite receiving the widest theatrical release of the three variants, this version is arguably the most elusive, considering its extremely short exhibition window and the total radio silence concerning an eventual home video release.
Created under the auspices of a “documentary”, VOYAGE OF TIME nevertheless embodies the same experimental artistic stylings that Malick brings to his narrative work. This is especially true of “LIFE’S JOURNEY”, anchored by Blanchett’s prayer-like voiceover which, like the O’Brien family in THE TREE OF LIFE or Pocahontas in 2005’s THE NEW WORLD, invokes creation and the natural world using the humanizing, familial term of “Mother”.
This same strain of secular spirituality runs through Malick’s larger body of work, embracing nature’s maternal qualities and the delicate harmony of interconnected ecosystems. Indeed, Malick sees the divine in the fragile balance of creation— a long, wordless stretch finds erupting volcanoes giving rise to coal-black landmasses, the slow-moving waves of orange magma stopped and cooled by a frigid ocean perfectly calibrated to oppose its burn.
Together, these two opposing forces build up the earth that supports complex life through the millennia, eventually culminating in the massive, glittering cityscapes of modern human civilization. Even these artificial, man-made structures take on a symbiotic relationship with the natural world, sickening it via pollution and decay.
Malick has long used the visual contrasts between industrial and agrarian landscapes to better explore the theme of “innocence lost”, likening mankind’s aspirations towards industrialization to Adam & Eve’s casting out from the biblical Garden of Eden.
Since his return from a two-decade filmmaking sabbatical, Malick has increasingly explored this theme through the prism of human suffering and misery. This is where “LIFE’S JOURNEY”’s digital video vignettes achieve resonance, with clips shot in Los Angeles’ Skid Row particularly standing out as a display of the ravages of man’s corruption— disease, addiction, mental rot, and extreme poverty.
Nevertheless, Malick still presents these people as fundamentally human, capturing their misfortune with a compassionate eye. They too are the children of creation, and their estrangement from its life-sustaining purity is a development to be lamented— and if possible, rectified.
Without any narrative attachments to a central character, VOYAGE OF TIME becomes perhaps the purest expression of Malick’s thematic fascinations as a filmmaker— a towering chronicle spanning all of time and space in its exploration of cosmic creation and the evolution of life on Earth.
Following the course of nearly all his post-hiatus outpost, VOYAGE OF TIME spent an interminable amount of time in post-production, lagging behind THE TREE OF LIFE’s release by five years despite most of its photography occurring simultaneously.
The positive critical reviews out of festivals like Venice and Toronto didn’t quite align with a mixed reception by audiences— an outcome that speaks to Malick’s polarizing status within contemporary cinema.
Distributor Broad Green Pictures, the now-defunct company who also brought KNIGHT OF CUPS and SONG TO SONG to cinema screens, wisely programmed VOYAGE OF TIME at specialty IMAX theaters in nature & science centers rather than conventional multiplexes.
This strategy admittedly would limit the film’s box office potential, but it also reinforced a kind of academic pedigree usually accorded to nature documentaries. If we’re being honest with ourselves, VOYAGE OF TIME was never going to be a blockbuster anyway— one could argue Broad Green’s approach was sound in its decision to embrace the rarefied air of exclusivity that a limited specialty release would provide.
Regardless of reception, the film’s release represents the fulfillment of one of Malick’s longtime dreams as a filmmaker; the culmination of decades of thought and physical effort, molded in the shape of a once-in-a-lifetime work of cinematic art.
Since Broad Green imploded, VOYAGE OF TIME’s fate in the home video market has languished in the limbo of uncertainty— if you didn’t catch it in theaters, your best bet as of this writing is to cop the Japanese Blu Ray release on eBay.
Hopefully the Criterion Collection will swoop in and provide a comprehensive North American release, but until then, Malick enthusiasts should still make the effort to seek out VOYAGE OF TIME— both as an essential companion piece to THE TREE OF LIFE and a thought-provoking experience in its own right.
TO THE WONDER (2012)
Over the course of a filmmaking career that has spanned nearly four decades but only produced five feature films, director Terrence Malick has become more of a myth than a man. In the eyes of the filmgoing public, he has unwittingly cultivated the aura of a mysterious recluse, emerging from his hiding place every half decade with another long-awaited film that he refuses to do any press or publicity for.
The release of 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE would signal a shift in Malick’s artistic approach, in that he was evidently willing to mine episodes from his own life for narrative exploitation. This would be hailed by some as a grand revelation about the film’s enigmatic creator— a window into the soul of a man who had revealed so many secrets about cinema’s untold potential while absolutely refusing to yield anything personal about himself in the process.
What the film community could not anticipate was Malick’s imminent plans to blow up everything about the meticulous reputation he had spent a lifetime cultivating. Not only was he willing to draw creative inspiration from his own life, but he was also about to embark on a rapid-fire spurt of film shoots that would almost double his existing filmography.
Indeed, amidst all the buzz from THE TREE OF LIFE winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, there were whispers that Malick’s follow-up project was already in the can— secretly shot in Oklahoma with Ben Affleck as its lead.
It wasn’t long until rumor became fact; barely a year after THE TREE OF LIFE’s release, Malick dropped TO THE WONDER, a sweeping love story that he had shot in an exceedingly experimental fashion in late 2010.
Produced under the supervision of his regular partners, Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda, TO THE WONDER presented itself at the time as something of a companion piece to THE TREE OF LIFE— rendered in a similar visual style comprised of lyrical vignettes and fleeting snapshots, it seemed to counter the earlier film’s rapturous embrace of creation with a sobering meditation on the nature of decay and rot.
Several years later, it’s now apparent that TO THE WONDER is not so much part of a pair with THE TREE OF LIFE as it is the first chapter in a sprawling, semi-autobiographical trilogy about man’s moral reckoning with his flaws and the alienating effects of modern society.
While TO THE WONDER’s surface plot is heavily fictionalized, the broad strokes of its story nevertheless offer us our most intimate look yet at the enigmatic director’s interior life. Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an American caught up in a whirlwind romance with a Parisian woman named Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko.
After a brief fling in Paris, he invites her, as well as her young daughter Tatiana, to come live in Oklahoma with him— an offer they gleefully accept. At first, Marina and Tatiana revel in the wide open skies and the expansive fields, the pristinely sterile grocery stores, and the cozy confines of a brand new house in the exurbs.
But soon, disillusionment and unhappiness sets in— a homesick Marina abandons Neil to return to Paris, and Neil finds love again with an old flame, a ranch hand named Jane, played by Rachel McAdams. It’s only a matter of time until Marina contacts Neil, wanting to return to American and marry him so she can get a green card.
Torn between his two loves, Neil has to choose. What follows is an emotionally-sprawling investigation into the mystery of love; a contemplative elegy for restless hearts that draws from Malick’s own experiences in the twenty-year hiatus he took between DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) and THE THIN RED LINE (1998).
After leaving Hollywood for Paris in the late 1970’s, Malick began a relationship with a woman named Michele Morette. Following their marriage in 1985, the couple traded the City Of Lights for the pastoral tranquility of small town Oklahoma.
Malick and Morette would ultimately divorce in 1998, whereupon he quickly remarried a woman named Alexandra Wallace, the former high school sweetheart he affectionately called “Ecky”. It’s easy to draw the parallels between TO THE WONDER’s story and Malick’s own, but in offering up a rare nugget of autobiographical detail, the filmmaker only prompts more questions— ironically deepening the air of mystery that already surrounds him.
The first full feature film of Malick’s to be set in the modern day, TO THE WONDER works from the barest sketch of a script, with Malick instead opting for the spontaneity and emotional truthfulness of improvisation. More often than not, he would direct his cast to play out their emotions through their physicality, having forbidden them from speaking.
This results in a wonderfully kinetic approach to blocking and movement that better allows for Malick’s camera to organically react to the action in a given scene, imbuing TO THE WONDER with an unparalleled energy and vigor. Affleck’s character serves as little more than a cypher, anchoring a story that, quite frankly, doesn’t really concern him.
Often shot from behind, Affleck projects a silent, stoic presence with roiling inner conflict that occasionally explodes into volatile physicality. As a director himself, Affleck knows to trust Malick’s guidance in creating a courageous performance, even when it ostensibly leads towards his marginalization within his own film.
Indeed, TO THE WONDER’s dramatic sympathies and narrative interest instead lie with Kurylenko, McAdams, and Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, a priest caught up in his own crisis of faith and doubt. Compassionate and deeply troubled by the moral and physical decay he finds surrounding him, Father Quintana only tangentially connects to the main plot, occasionally providing spiritual guidance to Neil and Marina as the pastor at their church.
He’s used to people looking to him for answers, but he’s increasingly finding he has none. Indeed, there are only questions, the most pressing being: how far can his flock stray before the shepherd loses his own way?
If doubt and uncertainty, rather than direct action, are the forces that drive TO THE WONDER’s restless story, than Kurylenko’s Marina and McAdams’ Jane stand as its true protagonists. The youthful innocence that repeatedly sends Kurylenko frolicking through pastoral fields also belies a persistent melancholy and homesickness.
Her passion is volatile, swinging effortlessly from affection to hostility with the flick of a switch. As a Parisian who thrived in the hustle and bustle of a modern world-class city, she finds nothing but quiet isolation in the wide open spaces of Oklahoma, its endless open skies only amplifying the echo chamber of her doubts.
Simply put, she is a stranger in a strange land, and the love she has with Neil offers little in the way of comfort; the house they share is too cold and empty to truly be a home. By contrast, McAdams is much more steady in her emotional states, opting for a persistent, quiet grief stemming from the loss of a young daughter some years ago.
Her delicate frame betrays a profound toughness that seems to give Neil the psychological grounding he needs. She’s ready to start living her life again after an unimaginable personal loss, but unfortunately she’s chosen to live it with a man who isn’t fully present; whose heart still yearns for another woman on the other side of the world.
TO THE WONDER follows these four restless souls as they wander in search of unattainable answers to questions they can’t quite articulate, yielding very little in the way of consequential plotting, but an abundance of profound insights into the transcendent, complicated and often-overwhelming experience of love and its unknowable mysteries.
After two successful collaborations together on THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE, it’s fair to say to that Malick has found a kindred spirit in cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.
An unconventional shooting style such as Malick’s requires an intimate familiarity between director and camera-man, and the occasion of their third consecutive collaboration in TO THE WONDER gives both men the confidence to push said style to its extreme limits.
Shooting primarily on 35mm celluloid film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Malick and Lubezki use a combination of kinetic camera movement and anamorphic lenses to give a floating, ethereal flair to their fleeting images. Far from a dispassionate, distant observer, Malick’s camera is instead an omniscient, restless presence capable of capturing the hidden emotions of its subjects and suffusing even the most trivial and everyday of interactions with a profound existential subtext.
Organically-motivated handheld and Steadicam moves continually push through the frame’s z-axis, further adding to Malick’s penetrating and inquisitive storytelling approach while a sprawling depth of field beckons the viewer with a veritable bounty of detail extending towards the horizon.
Lubezki once again proves himself a master of natural light, consistently backlighting his subjects against a lighting source like magic hour’s dim glow to add an ever-present veneer of romantic realism. Other compositional conceits like lens flares or evocative light patterns cast by window panes are a recurring source of artful imagery throughout, helping Malick and Lubezki to further capture the quiet spirituality of the natural world.
Autumnal tones define TO THE WONDER’s color palette, rendering the astonishing beauty of Oklahoma fields in dusky golds, oranges and reds that both counteract and complement the sterile beiges and browns of Neil and Marina’s lifeless suburban tract home.
TO THE WONDER’s striking 35mm photography would be notable enough on its own merits, but Malick also uses the film as an opportunity to experiment with the juxtaposition of visual textures afforded by a mixed media approach.
Sequences featuring McAdams were shot using the larger 65mm gauge, which blends rather effortlessly with the 35mm footage while boasting a higher resolution that suggests a practical, visceral hyper-reality counter to the comparatively-dreamy gauziness of Kurylenko’s scenes.
It’s also worth noting that the camera becomes substantially steadier whenever McAdams is on-screen, visually reinforcing the calming quality that her affections bring to Neil’s restless passion.
Additionally, TO THE WONDER finds Malick incorporating digital photography for the first time— a sequence featuring Marina walking amidst the rain-slicked Parisian streets at night was shot with Red cameras to achieve a cosmopolitan sleekness as well as increased detail in a low light setting.
The film opens with chunky video footage shot on a specialized Japanese toy camera, instantly defying our expectations about how a “Malick film” is supposed to look. While many collaborators have come and gone throughout Malick’s career, the one constant presence has been production designer Jack Fisk.
From his debut with BADLANDS (1976) and onwards, Malick has yet to embark on a theatrical feature without Fisk at his side. Indeed, Fisk’s involvement has only grown more vital with each subsequent work, rooting himself in tandem with Malick as the director has increasingly shown an interest in exploring how people inhabit various spaces.
In the case of TO THE WONDER, Fisk works with Malick to create a rugged world filled with the heartache and yearning that consumes so much of its characters’ thoughts. This is done primarily through the intentional sparseness of Neil and Marina’s home; the lack of furniture, art, or color creates something of an emotional homeless that echoes the hollow center of their relationship.
Devoid of anything that makes a house a home, this empty structure — one of dozens of identical structures on a treeless street — becomes a beige prison; a carpeted cage that keeps their passion from taking flight. As they wander their empty home, trying to avoid each other, they come to realize they are simply playing house— and the game stopped being fun quite some time ago.
Fisk and Malick also go to great lengths to create a strong visual contrast between pastoral Oklahoma and the bustling cityscape of Paris. We hardly see any people walking around the streets of small town Bartlesville, save for the downtrodden populace that Father Quintana visits.
Malick’s Bartlesville, then, is a town of wide, empty streets; beautiful empty buildings; gorgeous skies devoid of air traffic. Here, the traffic jams are caused not by cars but by herds of grazing bison. Paris, on the other hand, is a teeming utopia of busy pedestrians, honking vehicles, light pollution and centuries of soot-stained history.
“We’ll always have Paris” is the cliche line, but in the case of Neil & Marina, it’s more than just a truthhood- it’s a painful embodiment of the ideal they’ll never attain as a couple. Fisk, then, has the unenviable task of providing TO THE WONDER’s title with its meaning— often regarded as one of the Wonders Of the World, Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France stands as a looming presence in Neil and Marina’s relationship.
The site of a romantic day date seen early in the film, the stunning landmark comes to represent the zenith of their happiness; a paradise rendered in gorgeous medieval architecture that they were able to physically experience for only a fleeting moment and yet can never return to in a philosophical sense.
Fisk and Malick manage to conjure a mythical, celestial aura about the space— it seems to belong more to the realm of the mind than as a physical landmark within the real world that anybody can visit. In rendering Mont Saint-Michel in this way, Malick and Fisk raise one of TO THE WONDER’s most salient thematic inquiries: if you could experience Heaven, then how could you possibly return to a happy existence back on Earth?
The answer to that question is understandably elusive — impossible, even — but fortunately, we have the rapturous wonder of music to lessen the sting. As such, music plays a huge role throughout TO THE WONDER. In lieu of clear plot progression, music steps in to string Malick’s sequences and vignettes together with an emotional through-line.
Having come to Malick’s attention when one of his tracks was licensed for THE TREE OF LIFE, the then-twenty-six year-old composer Hanan Townshend was invited to create the score for TO THE WONDER. Comprised mostly of brooding, atmospheric strings, Townshend’s score perfectly complements an aggressive selection of classical and religious source music from Malick’s personal collection.
The usage of Arvo Part’s “Fratres For Eight Cellos” has become somewhat of a staple amongst recent independent cinema of a certain mindset— that being of the dark and deadly serious variety. The appeal of Part’s work lies in the quiet majesty it imprints on whatever image it accompanies, an effect that TO THE WONDER employs to its advantage in helping the audience access the innermost restlessness and disquiet of its characters.
In a move that’s quite indicative of the importance that Malick places on the post-production process, TO THE WONDER credits no less than five editors. The efforts of THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE’s Mark Yoshikawa join those of newcomers like AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, and Christopher Roldan.
The editing team’s approach builds upon the template that Malick has slowly cultivated through the decades, foregoing the construction of scenes in the conventional linear fashion in favor of elliptical snapshots that zero in on the narrative essence of the scene while suggesting the fleeting ephemerality of life itself.
To help them wrap their heads around his desired style, Malick provided his editors with copies of relevant literature and screened classic works from the French New Wave like Francois Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1961).
While the experience of watching this approach unfold feels quite chaotic and free-form, the approach itself is actually exceedingly disciplined— oftentimes coming at the expense of the subjects contained within.
We’ve already covered TO THE WONDER’s cast of note, but few also know that THE TREE OF LIFE’s Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Michael Shannon all shot scenes for the film, only to find their characters ultimately deemed unnecessary to the central story as Malick ruthlessly worked his footage into coherent shape.
Indeed, it becomes immediately evident that Malick intends on finding the purest form of his relatively newfound voice, paring the building blocks of cinema down to their most essential constituent parts and then re-engineering their construction entirely.
If “plot” can be thought of as the support structure of conventional narrative, Malick’s approach prefers to build with “theme” and “emotion”, ultimately achieving a final form that one could credibly call the visual equivalent of poetry.
Much like poetry, Malick’s storytelling is predicated upon the art of suggestion, allowing the audience to fill in the connective tissue between scenes with their own unmanipulated emotions and experience. This makes for an exceedingly personal and deeply-felt viewing experience that strikes to the heart of Malick’s polarizing status as an artist.
The act of watching a Malick film is an active one, whereas many people simply prefer a passive watching experience that requires little in the way of emotional or intellectual investment. On top of that, the nature of his stories — especially those contained within his triptych of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and SONG TO SONG — prompts a high degree of self-reflection on the audience’s part, forcing them to reckon with their own faults and imperfections.
Naturally, many instinctively recoil at the suggestion of harsh self-evaluation, whereas others draw inspiration and focus from it. It wouldn’t be a surprise if there was a strong correlation between that dichotomy and the spread of Malick’s supporters and detractors.
Six features into his career, Malick has cemented the cornerstones of his artistry into a relatively narrow set of thematic preoccupations. While one might argue this should result in a predictable, repetitive filmography, the themes that appeal to Malick fortunately provide a lifetime’s worth of narrative and artistic possibilities.
The evolution of his particular aesthetic is driven by Malick’s never-ending philosophical pursuit of the answers to Big Questions: “why are we here?”… “what is my purpose?”… “who am I, really?”. Malick’s restless camera reinforces the inquisitive nature of his storytelling, and the increasingly-abstract nature of his editing serves to drop the audience into the mindsets of his characters.
By paring down dialogue scenes to their fragmented essence and supplying narrative meaning through ruminative, hushed voiceover, Malick crafts an omniscient — but not dispassionate — perspective of the world, allowing us to drift in and out of multiple streams of consciousness.
These voiceovers often have a regional twang to them, serving as further opportunity to convey character. TO THE WONDER distinguishes itself in this regard by leaning into the international nature of its plot, featuring subtitled voiceovers rendered in Marina’s native French, or Father Quintana’s reverent Spanish, in addition to the English monologues supplied by Neil and Jane.
The content of the voiceovers themselves varies only slightly from character to character, allowing Malick to hammer home on the film’s big ideas from a relatively comprehensive and unified standpoint while also reinforcing our psychological interconnectedness to one another as sons and daughters of creation.
While Malick’s cinematic explorations of spirituality have always been grounded in the syntax and iconography of the Judeo-Christian tradition, TO THE WONDER easily stands as not just his most overtly religious film, but as one of the most truly soulful experiences in recent memory.
The mention of “religious entertainment” normally calls to mind preachy, straight-to-video melodramas that induce only groans and jeering laughter from those outside the frenzied echo chamber of contemporary American Evangelicalism.
These cinematic “parables” wear their capitalistic ambitions on their sleeves, seeking only to impart cheap moral platitudes to the already-converted. Malick offers an alternative — and far-more intellectually satisfying — example of religion as a thematic device, framing his characters’ spiritual crises through the prism of Catholicism.
Serving as a kind of inverted mirror image to THE TREE OF LIFE’s rapture towards creation’s beauty, TO THE WONDER captures the Catholic guilt of lost innocence and the existential ache of creation’s imperfections— the latter of which is manifest quite viscerally in the disease, decay, addiction & deformity that Father Quintana repeatedly encounters.
Where THE TREE OF LIFE embraces faith, TO THE WONDER questions it; holds it at arm’s length and asks tough questions of it. From Malick’s perspective, blind faith is not the same thing as true faith.
Indeed, the foundation of one’s very being must be tested before achieving true spiritual actualization— the cold world, reinforced quite neatly by the film’s melancholy autumnal backdrop, must first beat us down before we can truly appreciate its fleeting beauty.
All of Malick’s work to date is predicated upon this idea of “innocence lost”, to the extent that most of his film’s narratives begin with the committing of a cardinal sin that the protagonist must then spend the rest of the story answering for. In BADLANDS, it was Holly and Kit’s lust for each other that caused them to shoot down her father and go on the run.
Pride drove DAYS OF HEAVEN’s Bill to kill his employer and escape to the Texas Panhandle. Wrath was responsible for the wanton bloodshed and destruction throughout THE THIN RED LINE. The conflict between the settlers and the Algonquin people of Virginia depicted in THE NEW WORLD was primarily caused by the settler’s greed.
The cardinal sin that drives TO THE WONDER is envy, manifest in the combative passion exhibited by Neil and Marina. Insecure in the knowledge that the foundation of their relationship will never be as solid as they want it to be, they swing wildly between breathtaking romance and seething contempt for each other, pushing and pulling like an unstable star about to go supernova.
That they are surrounded by the natural world’s beauty is a constant, nagging reminder of their estrangement from it. They are imperfect beings in a perfect world, and their awareness of this fact causes an existential unmooring that corrupts the soul.
Architecture plays an important role towards this end, with Malick finding the dramatic in the mundane by gliding through space with his camera, propelled by curiosity. If our lives are like a river — constantly flowing forward through time — then the architecture of both the natural and the built environment determine its course, guiding our movements as we pass through.
Coming from the soot-stained streets of Paris, Oklahoma might seem perfect to Marina. However, she gradually comes to know its corruption— the industrial decay; the health concerns; the pollution that is a direct byproduct of her idealized American lifestyle.
The cruel irony is that Paris offers no quarter either: the whimsical, vibrant Old World city where Neil and Marina first fell in love is not the alienating, overpopulated, and dirty Paris that Marina finds when she moves back. The manner in which Malick depicts these locations with his camera doesn’t necessarily change as the film unfolds— rather, its our perception of them that evolves, right alongside the characters.
This is one of TO THE WONDER’s artistic triumphs: Malick’s ultimate success in placing us so centrally within his characters’ internal consciousness that we unconsciously begin seeing the world as they do. TO THE WONDER is all the more remarkable considering it followed THE TREE OF LIFE only a year later, whereas Malick’s admirers typically have to go years between a new work.
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion before going on to mixed reviews from critics and middling box office. Many prominent critics thought Malick’s indulgence in an artsy, experimental aesthetic had reached its nadir— that a once-evocative and original voice had finally atrophied into incomprehension, pretentiousness, and self-parody.
This was not the case with Robert Ebert, who’s glowing review for TO THE WONDER would become his last; filed just mere days before his death in April of 2013 and published posthumously. Ebert’s review would not just be a counter-argument to the film’s many detractors, but a rallying cry for the importance of Malick’s voice in contemporary cinema as well as a fitting eulogy for the celebrated critic himself.
There is perhaps no greater testament to TO THE WONDER’s artistic value and Ebert’s legacy than the man’s last published words:
“’Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?”
KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)
Still basking in the recent glow of his Palme d’Or win for THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), director Terrence Malick had seemingly discovered a newfound burst of vitality by mining his own past for narrative inspiration.
2012’s TO THE WONDER had explored his time in Paris, as well as the former flames and complicated relationship dynamics that led to his current marriage— albeit heavily fictionalized and obscured through the veil of his lyrical, oblique aesthetic.
This allowed him to share the most intimate, personal details of his own life with his audiences, all while retaining his characteristic aura of enigmatic mystery. While TO THE WONDER didn’t quite perform to either critical or financial expectations, Malick nevertheless was compelled to say more to with this increasingly-experimental approach.
He turned his attentions to his time as a working screenwriter in Hollywood during the late 70’s, drawing from his experiences in the entertainment industry to fashion a story about success and wealth’s corrupting effect on one man’s soul, set against the hedonistic neon backdrop of modern-day Los Angeles.
Released to cinemas in 2015 under the title KNIGHT OF CUPS, Malick’s seventh feature film would continue his recent, polarizing strain of experimental dramas, and become his second entry in an ambitious triptych about restless exiles wandering an emotional desert in search of salvation or comfort.
KNIGHT OF CUPS marks Malick’s fourth consecutive collaboration with producing partner Sarah Green, who is joined by fellow producers Nicolas Gonda and Ken Kao in bringing the director’s ambitious and amorphous vision to the screen.
Indicative of the rumor mill that frequently churns around any given project of his, there are widespread accounts that KNIGHT OF CUPS had no working script to speak of. To hear cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki tell it, however, Malick did write a screenplay— albeit a 400-600 page behemoth that he actively encouraged his collaborators not to read.
If anything, the script was used by Malick alone as a deep well of inspiration from which to guide a totally improvisatory shoot, oftentimes dropping his actors into a location with no prep or direction, and simply reacting with his camera to the oblique dramatic alchemy that naturally occurred.
What results is a sprawling psychological adventure that paints Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and their surrounding deserts as a modern-day Babylon: a great, wealthy empire bursting at the seams with art and culture, and yet, perched perilously atop a cliff overlooking an abyss of vice and decadence.
In his second performance for Malick after THE NEW WORLD, Christian Bale anchors KNIGHT OF CUPS as Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter whose success enables a hollow lifestyle of excess and emotional detachment.
Malick molds Rick very much in the same vein as Ben Affleck’s Neil from TO THE WONDER— a lost soul wandering the landscape, often seen from behind; reacting more than acting, compulsively drawn to the fleeting surface pleasures of life even as his hushed inner monologue decries their emptiness.
Unlike most protagonists, Rick has no overarching goal; no clear objective to pursue. In lieu of a conventional plot, Malick structures Rick’s story as a series of episodic vignettes, each one styled in the theme of a different tarot card and anchored by the several women in his life.
While one could be forgiven for assuming this conceit would play like a parade of sexual conquests, the actual effect is one of insightful illumination on Rick’s behalf. They may be defined by their relationship to Rick, but Malick makes abundantly clear that each figurehead has agency over her own destiny.
Their humanity makes Rick’s lack thereof all the more glaring. With her colorful punk stylings, Imogen Poots’ Della embodies the vitality and ideological purity of youth; she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to conveying her disappointment in his moral failings.
Freida Pinto’s Helen holds a thriving and glamorous career as a model— one that is too busy for Rick to be anything more to her than a presence on the periphery. As the conflicted mistress, Elizabeth, Natalie Portman shades a nuanced portrait of a married woman grappling with the ramifications — and consequences — of her infidelity.
Teresa Palmer’s Karen possesses an unquenchable zeal for life, finding fulfillment and empowerment in her hustle as a stripper. As Rick’s Palm Springs getaway companion, Isabel Lucas seems more connected to the elements than to him.
Then there’s Cate Blanchett as Nancy, Rick’s weary ex-wife. Still living in the hillside home they used to share, her melancholy, passionate heart never stopped loving him even as their marriage collapsed to rubble. She is perhaps Rick’s only grounding to the real world outside of the entertainment industry’s glitz and glamor, using her God-given talents as a nurse to serve the city’s deformed and diseased population.
In addition to its comprehensive overview of Rick’s relationship to women, KNIGHT OF CUPS spends a great deal of time exploring his relationship to his family. Towards this end, Malick draws from his own family history as he had done previously with THE TREE OF LIFE.
Whereas that earlier work dwelled on Malick’s relationship to his brother Larry and the emotional fallout from his untimely passing, KNIGHT OF CUPS focuses on the particular dynamic he shared with his other brother, Chris, particularly as survivors of that loss. Wes Bentley plays Barry, a highly fictionalized version of Chris who still rages after the death of their other brother, driven to volatile outbursts and substance abuse.
He’s now clean, but his time on the streets of Skid Row has made him a compassionate advocate for those still caught up in the grips of addiction (a development that neatly parallels the real-life Chris’ founding of a residential treatment center in Tulsa, Oklahoma).
The seasoned character actor Brian Dennehy hobbles about the film as Rick and Barry’s father, Joseph— a stubborn old man, full of regret, seemingly always at odds with his surviving sons and stuck in a perpetual state of grief over their broken family.
Since his breakout success with BADLANDS, Malick has never had much of a problem attracting top-tier talent to his films; this leads to one of KNIGHT OF CUPS’ more-interesting peculiarities: the constant presence of highly-recognizable screen talent essentially parading around the frame as mere extras.
Most can be seen at a rowdy mansion party thrown by Antonio Banderas’ bacchanalian host, drawn to an open call for party attendees in the hopes of catching even the most fleeting of glimpses of the enigmatic filmmaker at work.
This sprawling sequence sees cameos from the likes of Joe Manganiello, Tom Lennon, Jason Clarke, Nick Kroll, and even Fabio, of all people. Still others, like Nick Offerman or Shea Whigham, make fleeting appearances in other sequences; minor background characters whose relationship to Rick is unclear but nevertheless serve to illuminate some small portion of Rick’s psyche.
KNIGHT OF CUPS’ visual presentation establishes itself as a continuation of the increasingly-abstract style set forth by TO THE WONDER, conveying Rick’s crisis of identity through a series of lyrical compositions and effervescent moments that evoke the nature of memory.
Malick and Lubezki’s ongoing collaboration has established a technical shorthand that had, at the time, sustained them through four consecutive projects. Informally dubbed “The Dogma”, this list of visual guidelines gives the crew vital shape in an otherwise-improvisatory shoot.
That said, the nature of “The Dogma” is such that it can be routinely disregarded when the moment calls for it— after all, why bother to draw up a list of rules if you have no intention of breaking them?
KNIGHT OF CUPS takes full advantage of this quirk, adopting an evocative blend of visual textures that include 35mm celluloid, digital GoPros, and the idiosyncratic Japanese toy camera that was previously used in TO THE WONDER.
These disparate elements mix together much better than they actually should, unified by a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a consistent approach that favors the naturalism of magic hour, backlighting, and lens flares.
Also like TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS finds Malick and Lubezki subverting the conventional functions of wide lenses for narrative effect, employing them for close-ups to achieve a distorted, penetrative quality that nevertheless feels emotionally correct— as the edges of the frame curl back around us, it feels almost as if we are stepping beyond Rick’s personal space to intrude on his very thoughts.
A combination of handheld and steadicam-mounted movements continually find restless figures wandering blank, elemental landscapes like the desert, the ocean, or the city. A series of surreal narrative vignettes dealing with Rick’s father add a touch of impressionism to an otherwise-grounded flair, observing him washing his hands with blood, or delivering a cranky, rambling diatribe to an audience in a smoky theater.
The overall effect is one of effortless transition between objective reality and the evocative theatricality of Rick’s perception. As Malick’s films have increasingly transitioned from the past to contemporary timelines, the nature of his working relationship with his longtime production designer, Jack Fisk, has also evolved.
Whereby their collaborations from BADLANDS to THE TREE OF LIFE revolved around recreating a certain historical period or look, their efforts in TO THE WONDER onward require little in the way of such effort. Instead, Fisk adapts and redresses existing locations so that Malick can shoot freely in any direction he chooses.
Befitting a narrative about the inherent emptiness of Tinseltown, Malick, Fisk, and Lubezki frame the contents of the image so as to highlight the constant visual impression of artifice. Several vignettes find Rick wandering empty studio lots, taking in the fake facades and painted skies with only his agents and the occasional costumed extra to keep him company.
The same could be said of the opulent hilltop mansions filled with extravagant furnishings but devoid of people to use them, or even the entirety of Las Vegas itself— a glittering sprawl of plastic and silicone fakery masquerading as class and sophistication.
If Lubezki’s two-dimensional frame cannot physically penetrate the surface of Rick’s counterfeit lifestyle, then Malick’s signature approach to editing becomes the third-dimensional tool that can expose this artifice.
TO THE WONDER’s AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase and Mark Yoshikawa join newcomer Geoffrey Richman to imbue narrative meaning to the mountains of footage accumulated during production, stringing it all together with hushed, ruminative voiceovers delivered by Rick and others in Malik’s “multiple-streams of consciousness” style.
As if Lubezki’s achingly beautiful work wasn’t enough to work with, Malick’s editors also implement a variety of found footage like satellite shots of auroras over the Earth, or edgy black-and-white video installations from artists Quentin Jones, giving the film an added degree of grandeur and sophistication.
The episodic nature of the story lends itself to a series of intertitles structured around various tarot cards that imbue KNIGHT OF CUPS’ title with its narrative significance. The film’s young composer, Hanan Townshend, reinforces this conceit with a subdued original score that deals in mysterious and mystical notes.
This being a Malick project, however, Townshend’s work takes a back seat to a selection of pre-recorded tracks from the classical and religious genres, in addition to a few garage-rock needledrops that infuse the soundtrack’s solemn grandeur with a punk edge that’s totally new to Malick’s artistic palette.
Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” becomes a recurring theme, its medieval flavor positioning Rick as some kind of noble knight on a quest or crusade for the ultimate artifact: a universal, spiritual truth that binds together all of creation in cosmic harmony.
As Malick’s second entry in his triptych of experimental tone poems, KNIGHT OF CUPS carves out similar thematic territory covered in TO THE WONDER and subsequently once more with 2017’s SONG TO SONG.
These themes — the loss of innocence, the spirituality of nature, and the built environment’s ability to alienate instead of shelter — also appear frequently throughout Malick’s previous films, but the Los Angeles setting of KNIGHT OF CUPS allows for particularly evocative twists on the formula.
Biblical allusions abound throughout Malick’s work, oftentimes framing his narratives with a Genesis-style template wherein his characters commit some mortal sin and are cast from the Garden to wander an existential desert. KNIGHT OF CUPS, however, models its chronicle of innocence lost after the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The film loosely follows the trajectory of this biblical story, detailed in the Gospel of Luke as a cautionary tale about the perils of vice and temptation as enabled by wealth, ultimately ending with the man forced to return home penniless but nevertheless embraced by his father.
We are told that Rick is a screenwriter, and a successful one to boot, but Malick never shows him at work— beyond a few dispiriting encounters with his agents and a script doctoring session he spends staring out the window. This is an active, important decision on Malick’s part: to better convey how Rick has been undone by the side effects of his success.
Rather than find fulfillment in his writing, he seeks to fill his personal void with booze-soaked sex parties and aimless joy rides around town. Each Dionysian encounter seems to sucks more and more vitality from his frame, causing him to increasingly resemble the forgotten addicts on Skid Row that once seemed to be another planet apart from his world of excess.
Much like the story of The Prodigal Son is a parable for God’s unconditional love, Rick’s ultimate redemption lies in his return to a fostering and compassionate entity— namely, nature. One might think the story and setting of KNIGHT OF CUPS wouldn’t necessarily lend itself to Malick’s longtime exploration of spirituality and creation’s inherent divinity, but his artistic sensitivity to the flow of the world around him makes for unplanned — yet no less evocative — insights into mankind’s interaction with environments both natural and manmade.
Indeed, Rick can only seem to find himself when he gets away from the glare of urban life. Biblical allusions to “wandering the desert” aside, it’s no accident that the film’s conclusion occurs in Palm Springs— a starkly beautiful, minimalist landscape that offers a blank canvas for one’s reinvention.
Far removed from gridlocked traffic, smog, and light pollution, the desert offers not only clarity and peace, but also a kind of forgiveness or mercy. Here, Rick can begin to imagine a different life for himself: a simpler, more fulfilling one where the pleasures of wealth and flesh are supplanted by the rapture of creation’s effervescent beauty.
A seemingly-random earthquake that happens early on in the film bookends this conceit, and while insurance companies might literally call it an “act of God”, its occurrence within the context of Malick’s spiritual meditations becomes KNIGHT OF CUPS’ de facto inciting event— a profound awakening that shakes Rick from his bacchanalian status quo.
Furthermore, Malick’s use of tarot card imagery and framing devices gives this spiritual character a mystical and exotic quality, enriching and diversifying a paradigm that otherwise draws primarily from Judeo-Christian iconography and traditions.
Like THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER before it, Malick uses the architecture of his many locations to amplify Rick’s sense of detachment and alienation. KNIGHT OF CUPS renders Los Angeles as a forest or jungle of imposing monoliths, their modern silhouettes beckoning toward a progressive future of ever-increasing human achievement.
And yet, they are also oppressive structures, blocking life-giving sunlight while continually reminding us of our cosmic insignificance. Malick hammers home this sense of environmental hostility with frequent cutaway shots to distant planes and helicopters.
Deliberately evocative of the cutaways to wildlife in his previous work, these false birds are rendered in metal & gasoline instead of flesh & blood, dangling the promise of freedom even as their artificial makeup reinforces our own entrapment.
Even Rick’s spartan condo is a form of prison, eschewing the creature comforts of home in order to become the physical embodiment of his hollow lifestyle. It’s very telling that Malick includes a vignette of Rick coming home to find armed robbers rooting through his material possessions, only to leave with nothing but utter bewilderment when they decide there isn’t anything worth taking from this supposedly “wealthy” person.
Rick’s condo provides only his most essential need for shelter, signaling a profound failing to integrate himself more fully with his environment and ensuring his perpetual alienation from it. After two long years in the editorial suite, Malick premiered KNIGHT OF CUPS in competition at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.
The film followed the general trajectory of TO THE WONDER’s reception, earning mixed reviews from critics and disappointing ticket sales from audiences. It’s something of a miracle that the film even saw a release at all, given the fact that it was distributed by Broad Green Entertainment— an upstart outfit created by Hollywood outsiders and dedicated to the acquisition of risky arthouse films.
Now since shuttered, the company would release only a handful of films during its very short existence, two of them being Malick’s subsequent efforts, VOYAGE OF TIME and SONG TO SONG. KNIGHT OF CUPS’ lackluster reception suggested that the polarizing nature of Malick’s increasingly-experimental aesthetic had seemingly reached the limits of audiences’ tolerance— his artistic vitality atrophying to diminishing returns.
Indeed, to hear some critics tell it, the “Malick Mystique” seemed dispelled entirely, replaced by that of an aging filmmaker turning to indulgent, pretentious curios with little if any relevance to contemporary cinema. What the naysayers could not see at the time, however, was that KNIGHT OF CUPS was only one part of a larger whole; one episode in a sprawling multi-part epic about the existential crisis of contemporary civilization.
That isn’t to say that the film holds no value on its own; in fact, KNIGHT OF CUPS stands as our clearest window yet into the “why” of Malick’s unique mission as an artist. If Rick is a narrative stand-in for Malick (and he most definitely is), then Malick’s distaste for Hollywood and the studio system becomes immediately palpable.
In Rick, we might see Malick as he was in the late 70’s following DAYS OF HEAVEN’s success: still young and impressionable, on the verge of being co-opted by the commercial agenda of a massive studio machine. We can see someone who has been set emotionally adrift by his own success; someone who, at the peak of his talents, yearns to escape entirely.
In its own oblique way, KNIGHT OF CUPS gives us the “why” for Malick’s move to Paris and his subsequent two-decade hiatus. At the same time, it also suggests an explanation for his dogged insistence on a polarizing artistic style— it gives Malick the energy to keep pushing, to keep exploring new realms of cinematic expression.
His is a dangerous quest; the further out he ventures, the higher his risk becomes. Malick’s artistic success comes with the very real possibility that he may never get to make another film again, and one day he may reach the great unknown regions of cinematic expression only to find that his luck has finally run out.
Until that day comes, his ability to create films like KNIGHT OF CUPS remains as something of a miracle. Malick’s career increasingly stands as a rebuke to the conventions of commercial filmmaking, helping us to realize that a century of effort has only begun to scratch the surface of cinema’s potential.
GUERLAIN: “MON GUERLAIN” COMMERCIAL (2017)
With the exception of his AFI short, LANTON MILLS (1969), director Terrence Malick has worked pretty much exclusively in the theatrical feature format, but his influence extends beyond them to music videos and commercials.
Fashion and luxury brands in particular turn to Malick’s style for inspiration in a bid to equate their products with high art. Perfume ads are notorious for this, routinely getting away with some beautiful images that just barely string together to form a coherent story (I’m looking at you, Dior).
Given his profound influence on the format, perhaps it’s surprising that Malick has never dabbled in advertising himself— or maybe we regard him with such an artistic pedigree that his theoretical involvement is literally inconceivable.
Thus explains the film community’s collective surprise when Malick unceremoniously released “MON GUERLAIN”, a 60 second ad for the fashion powerhouse’s eponymous perfume line. The piece features Angelina Jolie in a loosely-defined narrative that, ironically enough, makes perfect sense when compared to most of the perfume ads out there.
Malick shoots Jolie listlessly wandering an elegant room with draping curtains or frolicking in sun-dappled fields of blossoming lavender, his camera lingering on evocative details like the sweep of her hair or the faded ink of a shoulder tattoo.
Set to the sweeping strings of Andy Quin’s “Awakening” (which was previously used by Malick in the trailer for TO THE WONDER (2012)), these images are cross-cut with those of a man sniffing Mon Guerlain perfume, suggesting the idea of sense memory as the various fragrances he detects prompts a corresponding vignette from Jolie.
Even in its scant sixty seconds of runtime, one can find plenty of examples bearing Malick’s aesthetic and thematic signatures. The cinematography resembles that of his recent theatrical aesthetic, embodied by a restless, inquisitive camera.
Malick exposes primarily with backlighting, creating silhouettes and lens flares as he dwells on atmospheric details. Malick’s fascination with architecture and the manner in which people inhabit space and the built environment also informs certain compositions like Jolie running her hand alongside a stone bannister, or elegantly descending a staircase.
While he admittedly tamps down on any impressions of spirituality, Malick nevertheless can’t help but capture Jolie’s rapture as she basks in life-giving sunlight, or the man’s marveling at how something as simple as a scent can conjure the ephemeral magic of memory.
Once a rarity, brands are increasingly accommodating of filmmakers’ particular styles— a move that naturally elevates the medium. “MON GUERLAIN” is inarguably the result of Malick’s unique skill-set finding an appropriate product and a willing collaborator.
In the absence of any voiceover narration, the spot affords Malick the opportunity to develop his storytelling skills on a purely visual level. It remains to be seen if Malick will continue this foray into the realm of advertising, so until a new project emerges, “MON GUERLAIN” will stand as a fascinating and evocative curio in his venerated filmography.
SONG TO SONG (2017)
Since the emergence of his latter-day aesthetic with 1998’s THE THIN RED LINE, director Terrence Malick has seemingly pursued a relentless quest to discover the unknown edges of narrative and visual expression. This all-consuming adventure into the opaque inner mysteries of our shared existence promises untold revelations and philosophical riches– yet it stands to utterly destroy the adventurer in the process.
Once heralded as one of American cinema’s great visionaries, Malick’s recent experimental forays into nonlinear storytelling have seen his box office draw-power dwindle, his audience having splintered into various factions.
Judging by the near-universal praise of 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE, Malick had seemingly found the perfect balance of his lyrical, expressionistic technique — so structured as to evoke snapshots of memory, and convey the impression of a life lived beyond the confines of the film’s frame.
His subsequent efforts, however, have drawn exasperated criticism — if not outright hostility — for their ever-deeper incursions into abstract storytelling. At the same time, Malick’s die-hard fans have only grown more ready to embrace his flagrant disregard for cinematic convention.
Indeed, in a landscape increasingly populated by compound superhero franchises and tenuously-linked cinematic “universes”, these fans are vehemently arguing that Malick’s work is more vital than ever. It’s difficult to see the lay of the land from sea level; one must gain some kind of elevation to see the beautiful coherence of the earth’s chaotic topography.
The same could be said of Malick’s sequence of narrative features starting with 2012’s TO THE WONDER and culminating with 2017’s SONG TO SONG. On their surface, these films seem to be little more than increasingly-opaque experimental dramas about the existential identity crises of their upper-to-middle class characters.
But taken as one unified work comprised of three distinct movements, these films take on added meaning, further evidencing humanity’s cosmic interconnectedness while shining a floodlight on a personal history that Malick had previously shrouded in secrecy.
To describe these films as “autobiographical” would be something of a misnomer— while Malick may certainly be drawing from his own life experiences here, the narrative proceedings are coated with the thick veneer of fiction.
These three films provide less of an insight into Malick’s past as they do the profound forces that shape his creativity. To also call these three films a “trilogy” suggests they are connected together sequentially by plot, as if one sustained narrative thread was strung through them.
They are connected, but more so by theme and aesthetic rather than story. A more accurate term might be “triptych”— a word borrowed from the fine art world to describe a set of three works meant to be appreciated together as a singular idea or expression.
As the sequence of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015) and SONG TO SONG doesn’t yet have a formalized name to bind them together, I’ll call it Malick’s “Freefall Triptych”, taken from what could almost be a throwaway line uttered by Michael Fassbender’s character in SONG TO SONG in justifying his casual nihilism: “it’s all freefall”.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a better word to embody the tone of these works than “freefall”— the various characters seem to follow a uniform, downward-pointing arc in which they tumble into an existential void, desperately flailing for any kind of toehold in the form of vice’s fleeting and empty happiness.
As the culmination of his Freefall Triptych, Malick’s SONG TO SONG expectedly maximizes the movement’s core conceits, doubling down on the most evocative — and polarizing — aspects of his latter-day aesthetic.
Whereas TO THE WONDER drew from his self-imposed exile in Paris as well as his years in Oklahoma, and KNIGHT OF CUPS pulled from various episodes during his time as a Hollywood screenwriter, SONG TO SONG tackles a story set within the tumultuous music scene of Malick’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas.
The film follows the template established by his previous two films, in which Malick foregoes a written script in favor of organic improvisation through the entirety of the shoot— a risky endeavor that nonetheless captures the spontaneity and vibrancy of life as it actively unfolds.
The subtle, expressionistic narrative that would emerge from this unconventional technique details the shifting passions and allegiances that swirl around a love quadrangle comprised of Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman.
As a sensitive and soulful musician named BV, Gosling may seem the obvious candidate for the film’s key protagonist, but that honor arguably goes instead to Mara’s curious and sexually-volatile guitarist, Faye. They meet at a party hosted by Fassbender’s Cook — a wealthy music producer — and subsequently embark on a whirlwind romance across Austin (as well as a brief detour into Mexico).
Unbeknownst to BV, Faye and Cook have a sexual past and present of their own, actively conducting a secret relationship right under BV’s nose. Try as she might, Faye finds it difficult to swear off Cook entirely; his restless hedonism and casual, Lucifer-esque nihilism is irresistibly magnetic, drawing everyone into the oblivion of his dense orbit like a supermassive black hole.
For all his flaws, Cook receives an offer of redemption in the guise of Portman’s Rhonda, an ex-teacher who’s fallen on hard times and turned to waitressing at a diner to pay the bills. Portman presents Rhonda as a quietly devout woman from a lower-middle-class background, infusing her characterization with a melancholy aura.
She tries to keep an open mind about her new husband’s decadent lifestyle, growing increasingly despondent as Cook ventures down a path she can’t bring herself to follow. Malick surrounds these four with a sprawling ensemble cast that finds established names like Val Kilmer, Holly Hunter and Berenice Marlohe working alongside high-profile musicians playing themselves.
Cate Blanchett’s presence as Amanda, an elegant but emotionally-cold woman who briefly dates BV speaks to SONG TO SONG’s back-to-back shoot with KNIGHT OF CUPS — as does the casting of Christian Bale, whose part was ultimately cut from the finished film despite appearing prominently in widely-circulated set photos.
Singer/songwriter Lykke Li delivers the most substantial of performances from Malick’s collection of real-world musicians, playing an ex-girlfriend of BV’s who briefly re-enters his life during a rough patch with Faye.
Further cameos from recognizable acts like Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Black Lips, and Florence Welch lend SONG TO SONG an undeniable rock authenticity that enriches the film’s improvisatory energy.
Beginning with his regular producing team of Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda, and Ken Kao, Malick retains the key collaborators that have made the distinct technical components of his Freefall Triptych so stylistically cohesive.
Since their first joint effort in 2005’s THE NEW WORLD, Malick’s partnership with cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki has resulted in some of the most awe-inspiring images in recent cinematic memory. SONG TO SONG — their fifth project together — marks the further refinement of their unique visual aesthetic towards its outermost reaches.
This includes the gleeful, if not reckless, mixing of 35mm film with a variety of video formats that run the gamut from high-end digital cinema cameras to iPhones. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what format is used when, suggesting that Malick and Lubezki’s improvisatory approach compelled them to go with their gut and pick up whatever camera felt right for a given scene, rather than work from a predetermined technical dogma.
A 2.35:1 aspect ratio helps to unify these disparate, seemingly-incongruous formats, culminating in an impressionistic effect that evokes the multi-textured tapestry of memory. Beyond its pointing to Malick’s increasing interest in the volatile alchemy of various format combinations, this conceit also reinforces his idiosyncratic approach to coverage.
The restless camera rarely sits still to observe its subjects, preferring to duck and weave around on handheld and steadicam rigs like an aggressive ethereal spirit. Malick and Lubezki arrange other components of their shooting style to compensate for the organic chaos of their coverage approach, like the adoption of a sprawling depth of field and wide angle lenses that create a spherical distortion on the edge of the frame when utilized for close-ups.
Lubezki and returning production designer Jack Fisk work in tandem to create evocative environments for Malick’s characters to inhabit, comprised entirely of found locations that Fisk spartanly dresses to suggest a curated energy rather than one of lived-in authenticity.
There is a deliberate clash of architectural styles— home-y bungalows, cosmopolitan skyscrapers, and even ancient stone pyramids — their varying contours predetermining the listless flow of action within while allowing Malick to further explore the unique ways in which we inhabit and move through space.
SONG TO SONG finds the members of its central love quadrangle cavorting through these striking spaces in an improvised fashion, with the camera reacting to their spontaneous decisions rather than imposing a set path for them to follow.
Fisk’s dressing of said sets in a 360 degree fashion is invaluable towards this end, as is a lighting scheme that prioritizes available illumination— a free-floating camera would otherwise repeatedly capture film lights, destroying our suspension of disbelief.
This is arguably where Malick and Lubezki’s continued collaborations bear the most fruit, having developed a visual shorthand that employs backlighting so as to maintain continuity in the context of a fickle, fluctuating light source. The sun makes up for its volatile unreliability by offering a quality that electrical film lights can’t quite replicate— the dim, romantic glow of magic hour.
It’s become a common in-joke that Malick, like the common Instagrammer, can’t resist his sunsets, but their recurring presence throughout his filmography speaks to his unique ability to capture creation’s fleeting beauty and impermanence; his films feel alive in a way that others do not, each one containing a multitude of lifetimes that are experienced simultaneously.
Malick’s signature snapshot-style dramaturgy — executed in SONG TO SONG by a trusted editing team comprised of Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corbin, and Keith Fraase — reinforces this visual conceit, which can be described as “multiple lives lived as one”.
This stream-of-consciousness approach results in a dynamic, cosmic scale that is at once both unnervingly intimate and broadly communal; a churning brew of suggestive vignettes, jump cuts, and concise metaphorical imagery bonded together by oblique, lyrical voiceovers that effortlessly hop in and out of multiple perspectives.
Granted, Malick’s singular storytelling aesthetic doesn’t exactly facilitate a straightforward or undramatic post-production process. The first cut of SONG TO SONG was reportedly eight hours long, and the arduous process of cutting the picture down to size would subsequently drag itself out over the ensuing three years, forcing Malick to re-approach financiers for completion funds.
More so than any of his previous films, music plays an integral role in the overall fabric of SONG TO SONG — acting not just as an auditory backdrop to a story about the recording industry but also as a bridge between narrative beats that evoke Mara’s wistfully-voiced desire to live for the moment.
Malick has always used pre-recorded needledrops in his work, stretching back to BADLANDS’ use of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer”, but SONG TO SONG finds the director — for the first time in his career — foregoing an original score in favor of a musical landscape comprised entirely of sourced cues.
Said tracks span a wide range of musical genres and traditions, combining the indie rock and EDM characteristic of Austin’s music scene with Malick’s personal taste for vintage rockabilly, gospel hymnals and classical cues like Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” or Zbigniew Preisner’s “From The Abyss”.
Beyond Lykke Li’s cameo performance, her breakout track “I Know Places” gives a key passage a heavy melancholic presence that reflects the characters’ sense of self-alienation.
Befitting its place as the capper to Malick’s “Freefall Triptych”, SONG TO SONG plumbs the same thematic territory as TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS— indeed, the same artistic ideas and values that Malick has explored in all his work.
This is not to say that SONG TO SONG’s thematic subtext is stale, or even inert. The beauty of his expressive visual aesthetic means that even though he may be technically saying the same thing, he has an infinite amount of ways to say it.
As such, SONG TO SONG puts its own fierce spin on Malick’s brooding meditations, infusing them with the reckless passions of youth. The least overtly-religious of all his films, SONG TO SONG nevertheless finds Malick’s characters reveling in the purity and unconditional mercy of creation.
With the exception of a short sequence where BV comes across a quaint church in the Mexican countryside, it is the natural world that serves as their house of worship. Whereas TO THE WONDER’s Oklahoma was almost entirely agrarian, and KNIGHT OF CUPS’ California was almost entirely urban, SONG TO SONG’s Austin rests squarely in the convergence of these two realms.
The boundaries between the two are frequently blurred— indeed, most of the film’s chosen locations seem to deliberately emphasize a manmade structure’s attempts to incorporate the exterior world into its design. Infinity pools lap up against the ocean horizon; a huge glass facade essentially turns the grass lawn beyond into another room; a condo in a high-rise tower allows its occupants to quite literally live amidst the clouds.
It’s no coincidence that most of these locales belong to Fassbender’s Cook, who seems to have no less than three houses scattered across the city. Despite projecting an outward veneer of extreme confidence, Cook’s seeming inability to choose between the rural and industrial worlds robs him of a genuine identity.
There is no internal conflict like there is for BV or Faye— just a crushing void that he attempts to fill with the fleeting pleasures of sex, drugs, and alcohol. A literal black hole of vice and internal decay, Cook’s dense gravity threatens to stripmine the innocence of those caught in his orbit.
To associate with him is to make a deal with the devil — he can make you the next rock star, but it may very well cost you your soul. Naturally, BV, Faye, and Rhonda come to be caught up in his swirling, lustful vortex, begetting personal crucibles of their own.
Each experiences a Malickian loss of innocence tailored to their own specific archetypical identities: idealism being BV’s, sexuality being Faye’s, and loyalty being Rhonda’s. BV’s idealism drives his pursuit of a music career, and what initially appears to be a promising association with Cook leads to a friction-causing disillusion that will cause him to second-guess his aspirations.
Faye’s fluid sexuality enables a kind of personal liberty that’s driven by a genuine passion for life, but Cook’s refusal to honor the purity of her relationship to BV decays her sense of self, constricting her freedoms while muddling her ideals.
Rhonda’s loyalty to family — evidenced by her close relationship with her mother — revels in its black-and-white simplicity; Cook’s devious ability to persuade and tempt those in his orbit convinces her to indulge her new husband’s insatiable sexual desires in the name of personal growth and experimentation.
However, her roots as a down-home Texas girl who loves her family and her God means that she isn’t emotionally equipped for Cook’s nihilistic carnival of the flesh, and the loss of her personal innocence results in an ideological unmooring with cataclysmic repercussions.
If critics tend to deride SONG TO SONG’s continued exploration of a small set of themes (and many certainly do), they cannot deny the surprising personal growth on the part of Malick’s artistic character. For decades, the enigmatic filmmaker had cultivated a reclusive reputation, declining to do interviews with press or make public appearances in support of his work.
Up until recently, he had been the very definition of letting “the work speak for itself”. Imagine the film world’s surprise, then, when Malick himself showed up to partake in a post-screening interview after SONG TO SONG’s world premiere at South By Southwest.
It’s difficult to understate just how earth-shaking a development this was for the cinema community— the myth had revealed himself to be a man after all; flesh-and-blood, small, insignificant. Like the rest of us.
It remains to be seen whether Malick will maintain this level of visibility going forward; indeed, the surprise appearance was likely orchestrated by now-defunct distributor Broadgreen Entertainment in the hopes that his presence on the press circuit would gin up what otherwise promised to be a lackluster box office haul.
Its dismal financial performance and extremely-mixed critical reception seem to position SONG TO SONG as the nadir of Malick’s venerated filmography; the latest example of his radically-experimental aesthetic’s diminishing returns.
To those who actually sought out the film in theaters to make their own assessment, there seemed to be a general consensus that, for better or worse, Malick had reached the zenith of his experimental pursuits. He had so plumbed the outer reaches of cinematic expression, it appeared there was very little left to discover.
That isn’t to say that SONG TO SONG has a passionate audience of its own. To those who find a particular resonance within Malick’s latter-day frequency, the film is a compelling foray into the interior unknown and the mysteries of passion; its finger locked on the pulse of hipster cool thanks to its depiction of festival culture and its Austinite backdrop.
The film’s artistic value only deepens when considering its context as the conclusion to Malick’s Freefall Triptych; its mere existence serves to deepen and enrich the poeticism of TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS. The reverse is also true.
I wrote before that to call these three films a “trilogy” suggests a linear or sequential ordering, but that’s not quite the effect that Malick seems to be after. Just like the red, green, and blue channels of video combine to form a full-color electronic image, so too can the individual entries of the Freefall Triptych be overlaid on top of each other to form a greater picture of the cosmic interconnectedness of the modern human experience; their overlapping themes and contrasting settings serving to render a fuller image of their enigmatic creator.
With TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG, Malick has seemingly created a new form of cinematic autobiography— oblique… lyrical… authentic in emotion (if not experience). The more abstract his expression becomes, the more generous Malick is in revealing his most intimate self.
These films, if nothing else, are a precious gift to cinema from one of its most reclusive, crucial and influential voices; their very existence nothing short of a miracle.
“TOGETHER” VR EXPERIENCE (2018)
As a medium, virtual reality has primarily been the domain of tech-savvy, youth-oriented marketing outfits— advertisers saw an opportunity to define the contours of entertainment’s future, and they eagerly dove in with a wave of branded content that revolutionized the concept of “immersive” video.
Of its various genres and sub-formats, 360 degree video — video that fixes the viewer in one spot will enabling a full sphere of surrounding image — has emerged as the gateway into the wider VR world. Most audiences are already able to experience 360 video in-browser, with no need to purchase and plug into an expensive, admittedly-unwieldy headset.
This cottage industry has bloomed overnight, with nearly every major brand dipping their toe into the VR pool in one capacity or another. Despite this newfound potential to redefine interactive storytelling, VR has managed to attract scant few filmmakers of the orthodox cinematic tradition.
Indeed, the format is somewhat antithetical to a director’s natural instincts, forcing him or her to construct a story without imposing a predetermined field of view, doing away with the notion of composed “shots” altogether.
Leave it to director Terrence Malick to be one of the earliest high-profile filmmakers to embrace the format’s innovative promise. After the completion of 2017’s SONG TO SONG, Malick partnered with The Factory, Facebook’s in-house creative studio, to develop a 360 virtual experience called “TOGETHER”.
The five-minute piece is rather simple, conceptually, yet abstract enough to foster multitudes of interpretation. Malick’s digital camera, operated by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, tracks gently along the image’s z-axis as it oversees performance artists Jon Boogz and Lil Buck engaged in an interpretative dance about the physical and emotional walls that prevent human connection.
The environment is a dark soundstage populated with a series of billowing, free-standing curtains, upon which several elemental images of creation and nature are projected. Complete with a swelling orchestral accompaniment, TOGETHER plays something like a live stage adaptation of his 2016 IMAX documentary, VOYAGE OF TIME — a notion that’s hammered home by Malick’s ending on the image of a glowing galaxy hanging overhead, reminding us that, despite our many differences, we are all made of stardust.
Malick’s involvement no doubt served to elevate TOGETHER’s profile beyond that of a branded technological demo, disrupting VR’s distribution and exhibition precedents in the process by landing screenings at South By Southwest, Tribeca, and several other film festivals around the world.
As of this writing, Malick is set to delve deeper into VR’s uncharted territory with a project called “EVOLVER”, in which he’ll team up with composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to explore “the lifespan of the human condition”.
Until then, TOGETHER stands as Malick’s latest entry in a string of works that seek to distill cinema to its visual essence, so as to reconstruct it in a form factor that will carry a century-old medium well into its second.
GOOGLE: “PIXEL 3” COMMERCIAL (2018)
When director Terrence Malick’s commercial for Mon Guerlain fragrance arrived in 2017, many were quite surprised that the venerated, almost-mythic filmmaker could (and would) stoop to a supposedly “lower” format such as advertising.
Its very existence seemed antithetical to Malick’s artistic creed— a product generated for the benefit of a corporate entity, rather than a sincere expression of the human experience from a singular individual. Take another look, however, and the similarities between Malick’s experimental, ephemeral aesthetic and the fleeting nature of the commercial format become rather abundant.
Indeed, a cursory glance at the contemporary commercial landscape yields no shortage of work that wears Malick’s profound aesthetic influence on its sleeve; he fits into this world far better than he — or anyone else for that matter — could have ever predicted.
The debut of his 2018 spot for Google’s “PIXEL 3” smartphone came as quite a surprise to everyone, dropping with zero build-up or preceding fanfare. The piece tasks Malick with replicating his latter-day filmmaking approach, albeit exclusively through the use of the Pixel 3’s video capabilities.
Malick is no stranger to this technology, having incorporated snippets of smartphone and GoPro video into his recent features— the rapid-fire advancements in resolution and clarity continuing to blur what was once a stark dividing line between the mobile format and 35mm celluloid.
The piece foregoes a conventional narrative in favor of letting Malick run wild through a cascading wave of visual vignettes, in the process capturing nothing less than the joyful exuberance of life itself. The bright, saturated colors from the Pixel 3’s sensor paint a vibrant picture as Malick’s camera (well, phone) wanders restlessly around a multitude of moments oriented towards the ephemeral pleasures of childhood.
The quirky electronic soundtrack reinforces this idea of childlike awe at the surrounding world, rendered through Malick’s signature use of natural light (especially the dim glow of magic hour).
Funnily enough, the juxtaposition of Malick’s artistic eye with the burgeoning field of smartphone video illustrates just how much the medium has yet to grow before it can truly match celluloid film, digital cinema formats like Red or Arri, or even basic DSLR capabilities.
Speaking on a purely technical level, there’s a distinct chunkiness to the image, with a compressed spectrum of contrast and color thanks to a latitude that simply can’t match the aforementioned cameras. There’s also what I can only describe as a digital “flimsiness” to the image, which to my eyes appears to be rooted in the smartphone shutter.
The consumer-quality pedigree of the format has an anonymizing effect on Malick’s presence, despite the director’s singularly curious eye informing every setup. The effect is not unlike that of an amateur filmmaker who voraciously devoured Malick’s filmography in and then set out to make his or her own version of a “Malick” movie with a smartphone.
Of course, that very well may be the point of the entire exercise— with the Pixel 3 in their pocket (or any other 4K video-capable smartphone on the market, really) anyone can make beautiful cinematic images. If one so desires, the power to become the next Malick literally lies within arm’s reach.
In this context, Malick’s “PIXEL 3” spot slides in rather effortlessly into this portion of his career: a phase that has seen the celebrated director actively dismantle the mythic aura he had constructed around himself in order to become more accessible, more intimate, and more human.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———