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home > undercurrent > issue 2 > The New World  

about the writer

David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, professor emeritus of theater and film at Long Island Univerity, and adjunct professor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, His most recent book is Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film Reader.

Film, Philosophy, and Terrence Malick
By David Sterritt

Terrence Malick clearly isn't in it for the fame. He avoids press interviews, keeps public appearances to a minimum, and doesn't like to have his picture taken. But it's harder for a filmmaker to dodge publicity than it is for, say, a novelist like Thomas Pynchon, also known for an aversion to cameras. About five clicks on the Internet brought me to a gallery of online Malick photos showing the shy celebrity as a teenager, then a fledgling movie director, and now an éminence grise of independent cinema. One picture is labeled "the ubiquitous Malick photo." So much for the cloistered auteur as master of his own public image.

While it's interesting to look at these, I can't help sympathizing with Malick's wish for privacy. That ubiquitous photo — snapped in 1998, when his World War II masterpiece The Thin Red Line was in production — is a standard-issue shot (big smile, casual clothes, earphones draped around neck) conveying no hint of what makes this director different from countless others who've obediently said "cheese" for studio photographers. While there may be a whiff of aloofness in Malick's disdain for the publicity fray, it's possible he just doesn't want to distract attention from what really matters, which is the work he does. He also has an egalitarian streak, refusing interviews on the principle that "he's not different from anyone else," as a New Line Cinema executive claimed recently.

New Line released The New World to theaters late last year, and the company would surely have been happier if Malick had glad-handed journalists the way less reclusive directors do. Such marketing work is especially important when a film might have trouble "finding its audience" without some extra pushes. The New World was such a film theatrically, and while its DVD edition (from New Line's home-video division) will surely do well over the long haul, it's hard to imagine copies of this artfully diffuse drama flying pell-mell off the shelves.

The story itself is commercial enough, revolving around colonial-era characters — the seventeenth-century English explorer John Smith and the Native American adolescent Pocahontas, his friend and perhaps his lover — who have enthralled Americans for ages. The movie chronicles their deepening intimacy in the context of Jamestown's gradual evolution from a frontier outpost to a burgeoning North American town. It also shows Smith's flight from Pocahontas when adventures beckon in other climes, her subsequent marriage to tobacco pioneer John Rolfe, and her eventual visit with Rolfe to England, where they and their young son are greeted as exotic celebrities from afar.

Terrence Malick's The New World.  
Rolfe and Pocahontas  

This frequently heroic, often bittersweet material has paid Hollywood dividends more than once over the years; but true to his reputation, Malick didn't handle the story with big-time ticket sales in mind. While he serves up the love scenes and battle sequences most moviegoers demand from historical sagas, he's couched the story in a loosely strung-together structure with a dearth of dramatic climaxes. Nor is the cast exactly lustrous: Colin Farrell as Smith, teenager Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, and Christian Bale as Rolfe, who doesn't enter the picture until it's two-thirds over. The film has so little dialogue that it's been likened to a silent movie. And sometimes the screen goes blank simply because Malick's sense of visual rhythm calls for it.

All of this must have given New Line the jitters, especially since Malick's previous epic (The Thin Red Line) failed to recoup its $52 million budget theatrically despite seven Academy Award nominations and many good reviews. (Plus the fact that it opened at a propitious moment for World War II films, vying with Steven Spielberg's vastly less interesting Saving Private Ryan in the Oscar race.) The New World is a less expensive movie, at $40 million, but it's certainly been a considerably harder sell — due to both Malick's uncompromising style and the fact that (aside from the animated Pocahontas released by Disney in 1995) there's never been an automatic audience for films set in Jamestown some 400 years ago. Malick is obviously not alone in his deep commitment to film as a fine art, but comparatively few of his indie peers share his increasingly keen taste for epic formats, correspondingly high budgets, and the meticulous attention to detail that distinguishes even his smaller-scale works. Given the paucity of risk-taking production companies, it's little wonder that his filmography comprises only four features: Badlands, his 1973 melodrama about serial killers on the road; Days of Heaven, his melancholy 1978 romance; The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones's eponymous 1962 novel; and The New World, a project dear to him since the late 1970s, when he started to write the screenplay. Each contains Malick's distinctive trademarks: sumptuous images of the natural world, a great deal of voiceover monologue, and an unabashed interest in such grand issues as the purpose of life and the meaning (if any) of death. Pay attention to the resonant layers of image, word, sound, and music that weave through these movies and you'd think you were communing with a philosopher.

Which is exactly what Malick is. Although he's no more extroverted about his biographical data than about his photo, some aspects of his personal and intellectual history have made it into the public record. They are atypical, to put it mildly, of the movie-directing crowd.

  Martin Heidegger.
  Martin Heidegger
  Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  Ludwig Wittgenstein

Born in Texas in 1943, he earned a philosophy degree at Harvard College, graduating (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1965. His honors thesis on Martin Heidegger's theory of knowledge was overseen by Stanley Cavell, whose books on cinema (including The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, his major theoretical work) are the most influential by any American philosopher. This took Malick to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, which he chose not to complete, reportedly because tracing conceptions of "world" in Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, and Ludwig Wittgenstein didn't seem "philosophical" enough to his Oxford supervisor. Back in the United States he taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and penned articles for Newsweek, the New Yorker, and Life.

He reached a crossroads in 1969, publishing a significant philosophical book — an edition of Heidegger's essay The Essence of Reasons in Malick's own translation — and being accepted by the American Film Institute's fledgling Center for Advanced Film Studies, then in its first year. He decided to enroll at the AFI, earning his MFA there and making such helpful movie-world contacts as Jack Nicholson and agent Mike Medavoy, who found freelance script-doctoring work for him.

After launching his directorial career with Badlands and Days of Heaven, both of which fared better with critics than at the box office, Malick vanished from public view for some twenty years (living and teaching in Paris and Texas, by some accounts) before The Thin Red Line went into production. With that movie and now The New World he stands as a last Mohican of the personal-epic mode pioneered in the 1970s by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, who had the resourcefulness to obtain — and the audacity to risk — many millions of other people's dollars on highly intuitive, even eccentric visions.

Terrence Malick.  
Terrence Malick  

At a glance, it appears Malick made a comprehensive career decision by choosing film school over philosophy. But he's not an either/or sort of thinker, and his intensely idiosyncratic pictures are philosophical to their bones, exploring an ambitious set of ideas in terms at once cinematically concrete and intellectually abstract. The New World is no exception. Its marketers have presented it as a romance ("First and foremost we've created a love story," producer Sarah Green told a reporter) and as both an "elegy" and "celebration" of the American past, to quote New Line's publicity. Yet while the film does portray Smith and Pocahontas as lovers, its leisurely pace and discontinuous style work against the emotional impact most romantic movies strive for. As history it's even more dubious, starting with the fact that — as most scholars agree — Pocahontas and Smith weren't lovers at all, just a friendly couple whose allegedly torrid relationship was less a matter of reality than of Smith's tendency to write about his adventures in exaggerated, self-aggrandizing terms. From all appearances, neither love-story passion nor historical veracity were what attracted Malick so persistently so this project or induced him to film it in his characteristically painstaking way, shooting for months on authentic-looking locations with few artificial lights and almost none of the digital enhancement common in movies today.

The true motivation for Malick's fascination with The New World lies in his intellectually based insistence that human personalities and behaviors are phenomena no less "natural" than the environments (invariably far from the "normal" terrains of industrialized civilization) that surround them in his films. The New World affords Malick a perfect opportunity to examine contrasts between the Romanticist notion of a timeless "harmony with nature," represented by Native American society, and the post-Enlightenment ideal of instrumentally taming and harnessing nature to accomplish humanly determined goals, as the English colonists do. Malick doesn't just ponder the contradiction between "harmonizing with" and "prevailing over" nature, moreover. He explores it within the very fabric of his film, testing whether cinema itself can function as an organic part of the natural world. He thus questions the widely held assumption (articulated most forcefully by Siegfried Kracauer in his 1960 book Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality) that film's essential purpose is to capture and record reality (therefore "dominating" nature) rather than to blend with reality in a seamless, harmonious whole. This assumption has been questioned by filmic philosophers in the past, including the hugely influential André Bazin, who argued in the 1940s that material objects are physically linked with their photographed images by the particles of light that travel between them when a picture is taken. This doesn't apply to computer-driven techniques, of course, and it's revealing that Malick bucks the contemporary trend toward heavy use of digital imagery by using it only once in The New World — to show a Carolina parakeet that couldn't be filmed "live" because its species is now extinct.

Terrence Malick's The New World.  

Malick also shies away from tripods, steadicams, and other devices that give conventional movies a synthetic visual stability. He prefers hand-held cameras affected by the moment-to-moment jolts and wobbles of actual, spontaneous movement through actual, real-world space. He even took the unusual step of shooting some New World sequences on 65mm film, which is costly but provides a more expansive surface and therefore a crisper, richer image than standard 35mm stock. This bears out Malick's interest in unifying the natural and the cinematic — an effort with an almost mystical ring, intimating that an extra-large emulsion layer might absorb not just the light but the mysterious essence of people, places, and things. Bazin, who saw photographic "tracings" as clues to hidden spiritual realities, would surely have cheered Malick on.

Such techniques mark Malick as a sort of cinematic alchemist, hoping to unveil occluded connections between physical and metaphysical realms. Related to this is his great affection for voiceovers, from the drawling narrations of Badlands and Days of Heaven to the intricate webs of internal monologue woven through the Thin Red Line and New World sound tracks. While conventional movies use voiceovers to explain plot events or reveal the psychology of characters, Malick employs them for profound semiotic purposes, implying that language is the inescapable bedrock of all thought and activity. "Everyday language is a part of the human organism," wrote Wittgenstein in 1921, "and is no less complicated than it." Malick makes an aesthetically powerful case for that contention in every one of his films, subordinating the social dimensions of dramatic dialogue to the meditative dimensions of unspoken inner speech.

Besides being a philosopher and (arguably) an alchemist of film, Malick might be called a theologian as well. His films incorporate a broadly pantheistic vision in which a sort of divine spirit suffuses the ordered, integrated whole that our limited mentalities divide into natural and human domains. He's concerned with the origins as well as the attributes of that whole, and on many levels The New World is a cinematic Creation story, using an American legend to explore the idea that all stages of existence — birth, growth, maturity, death — are entwined with one another in both cultural histories and individual lives. Even the music score expresses this: The film's first shots are accompanied by a passage from Richard Wagner's overture to Das Rheingold, wherein the ripples and ridges of a single minimalist-style chord conjure up the gradual journey from a river's dark, primordial depths to the sunlit, smoothly flowing surface that brushes against the sweeping realms above.

In some respects Malick is a dualist and a skeptic, wondering if forces of creation and destruction are forever battling each other in the world — if we humans are subject to "not one power but two," as the Thin Red Line character named Witt phrases it. Both that movie and The New World narrate large-scale sagas of violent, sometimes deadly struggle involving denizens of an Eden-like land and "civilized" interlopers with utterly different agendas. In the end, though, these epics reflect an optimistic belief (with almost a gnostic tinge) that the cosmos is ultimately harmonious, in the all-embracing realm of spirit if not the circumscribed one of materiality. "Darkness and light, strife and love," muses Witt in The Thin Red Line, "are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh my soul... look out through my eyes. Look at the things you made, all things shining." The New World again suggests that all things, properly perceived, partake of cosmic harmony — as when a matronly English guardian exhorts Pocahontas to face life's tribulations like a tree, always reaching for the light even after vital branches have been stripped from it.

The noncommercial slant and deeply personal preoccupations of Malick's cinema make him hard (and maybe undesirable) to imitate; although he's been a filmmaker for more than three decades, the only American director who might be called his disciple is the relatively little-known David Gordon Green, whose George Washington (2000) and Undertow (2004) are openly influenced by Malick's poetic imagery and leisurely, allusive storytelling. In the big picture of modern American cinema, Malick's main legacy (aside from his own films) may be less as an "influence" than as an increasingly active producer of movies directed by others. In the eventful year of 2004 he produced both Undertow and Hans Petter Moland's drama The Beautiful Country, about a Vietnamese man searching for his American father. His current producing projects include Michael Apted's historical thriller Amazing Grace, about an English abolitionist in the 18 th century; Carlos Carrera's drama The Marfa Lights, about two young men exploring a possibly paranormal phenomenon; and Robert Redford's action movie Aloft, based on Alan Tennant's book about adventurers tracking a peregrine falcon. This is a busy schedule, suggesting that if Malick's movie-directing pace has been less than fiery (four features in 32 years!) it's just because he likes operating at his own deliberate speed. Like a handful of other radically original American filmmakers — from the prolific Robert Altman to the decidedly unprolific Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the figure Malick resembles most — he has managed to play the film industry's game (telling stories with appealing stars) just cooperatively enough to fund a (very limited) number of (extremely risky) productions that he finds truly, philosophically compelling. Then again, Malick's influence on other screen artists may be quietly increasing, albeit in ways that elude the money-fueled radar screens of commercial film. The superb Australian documentary The Ister, written and directed in 2004 by David Barison and Daniel Ross, subtly echoes Malick's meditative revisionism vis-a-vis cinema's kinetic properties — interweaving streams of poetically inclined philosophical discourse with lucidly edited depictions of topographies shaped by nature and humanity alike — as well as his fascination with the intricacies of Heidegger, whose study of Friedrich Hölderlin's hymn to the Ister river undergirds the film's visual, intellectual, and political trajectory.

The main conclusion to be drawn from Malick's career so far is that intellectual interests have far more importance for him than practical considerations of career momentum and Hollywood street creds. While the complexities and conundrums of his work can't be neatly clarified with quotations from his favorite thinkers, Wittgenstein's observation that "the world and life are one" could be his guiding motto. Like that philosopher, Malick is concerned less with the psychological self (crucial to conventional fiction) than with the "philosophical self," defined by Wittgenstein as "the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world — not a part of it." Few film directors give much thought to where the limit of the world might lie. Malick makes movies about it.

David Sterritt

A different version of this essay appeared in the Review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2006.




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bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
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issue #2 (7.2006)

Perpetual Rediscovery
bullet. Dovzhenko/Earth
bullet. Dovzhenko Exhibition
bullet. Madigan
bullet. Conte d'automne
Recent Cinema
bullet. The New World
bullet. Lady Vengeance
Man's Favorite Short
bullet. "The Civil War"
Criticism of Criticism
bullet. Import or Confront?