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Roy Anker

"The Mysterious Nature of Nature"

On the films of Terrence Malick.

In the sometimes very peculiar history of American filmdom, hardly anyone has proven more mysterious, elusive, and plain old intriguing than Terrence Malick, a Texas-reared, Harvard-educated (philosophy) auteur of the first water. No small part of that rep derives from his inveterate reclusiveness, which is a hard feat to pull off in the American movie-making kingdom. In this regard, he ranks as a veritable phantom or perhaps, from the days of radio yore, the Shadow himself ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"). Note the history. In the early 1970s, not long after bailing from an Oxford philosophy doctorate, young Malick (b. 1943) tried journalism, soon writing for places like The New Yorker, but ended up in film school, and from there he made the still dazzling Badlands (1973), a fictional take on North Dakota serial killer Charlie Starkweather (Kit in the film, played by Martin Sheen) and his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek playing Carol Fugate). With Badlands a critical triumph, Malick five years later released Days of Heaven, starring Richard Gere and Sam Shepherd, the tale of 1920s migrant workers in Texas, a film some have called the most beautiful visual display ever put on screen. And then, well, nothing, for Malick simply disappeared, AWOL to France, the rumor has it, where he taught philosophy at the Sorbonne.

And then, surprise, after that twenty-year hiatus, from out of seeming nowhere, a return with The Thin Red Line (1998), an imposing, unconventional adaptation of James Jones bestselling war novel on the costliest of all American battles in World War II, the struggle to take Guadalcanal island in the South Pacific. In 2005 came The New World, a lush, even sumptuous recounting of the legendary Jamestown romance of adventurer John Smith and native maiden Pocohantas. And due out later this fall is Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life, a contemporary tale of generational conflict, starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt (in the place of the late Heath Ledger, who withdrew before shooting began).

As intriguing as all of this is for the making of filmdom gossip, two things about Malick transcend the oddities of his career. First, as a viewing of any of his films readily indicates, Malick is a flat-out remarkable filmmaker whose cinematic reach pushes the medium to places it has not very often gone, especially not in this country. Second, those destinations rouse central philosophical questions, as numerous books and essays on Malick's work have already amply noted. Here it is important to note that back in his philosophy student days, Malick published what is still the standard translation of Heidegger's The Essence of Reasons (1969), a daunting accomplishment that has inclined philosophers to claim him as one of their own (and how often does that happen?). More remarkable still, though, is that Malick's work insistently explores, much to the consternation of some of those philosopher devotees, religious responses to perennially irksome metaphysical riddles such as, in the words of one scholar, "the source and nature of evil, the existence of the spiritual, and the role and meaning of love."[1] To these we can add "the mysterious nature of nature," the phenomenology of perception, the religio-aesthetic power of natural beauty, and the immortality of the soul.[2] In fact, it is possible to argue that Malick's filmmaking, from the very beginning to the present, is a thoroughgoing dramatization of human longing for wholeness and the divine itself. Might there be any something at all beyond the transient sorrow of our days?

Not all of this blooms full from the start, but a trajectory is clear enough. The two young protagonists of Badlands, he 25 and she 15, seem throughout remarkable in their lack of affect, especially given the extremity of their actions, all performed with a sort of detachment, whether it be sex or murder. The pair seem to breathe roles prescribed by '50s pop culture, he James Dean's rebel cool and she the romance mag gush that soaks her voiceover narration of the tale. Lost souls, indeed, already adrift in the slag wash of media-stoked dream life, a youthful downscale version of Walker Percy's wanderers. Martin Sheen's amiable, rootless Kit of South Dakota updates Fitzgerald's young James Gatz of North Dakota (later the great Gatsby) a step or two further, just as Gatz mined Ben Franklin.

And on it goes, bedazzled by dream, feckless and self-absorbed, only made alive by occasional music heard on the car radio, Buddy Holly or Nat Cole. Malick's lost souls seem indifferent to the spectacular natural world his camera unsentimentally displays: the world about them, no matter how lush or barren, serves only as a stage for their self-dramatizations.

That same sort of obliviousness afflicts even more so the characters in Days of Heaven, where Malick films a rapturously beautiful, albeit simultaneously terrifying natural world. Again, the primary figures are on the lam, lighting out for the frontier—in this case from Chicago where Bill (Richard Gere) did in his mill boss. To Texas they go to harvest vast wheat fields. Bill takes Abby (Brooke Adams), his comely girlfriend, and little sister Linda (Linda Manz), who narrates the film in a raw back-alley vernacular. There they meet a shy Farmer (Sam Shepherd) residing in a Victorian mansion out in the middle of nowhere. He takes an interest in Abby, who Bill passes off as his sister (a redo, as some have suggested, of one of Abraham's stunts). The other major character is that imposing landscape, to which the characters themselves seem largely oblivious, perhaps wisely, though audiences no doubt sense something remarkable in what they see, awe-full in gorgeousness and, as it happens, terror.

And here, full-blown, is the agony of one of Malick's central questions, "the mysterious nature of nature." On the one hand, all seems tranquil and luminous, a fit place for delight and worthy of veneration—even, perhaps, a habitation of the divine—but on the other, Darwin invades, big-time, nature and people becoming agents of predation and death amid a landscape that otherwise seems fit for wonder and devotion. And whatever this "nature" is, it surely seems not to care a damn about the fate of any creature. What prettiness we see is at best a cipher and probably, in the end, simply blankness, an accident of irrepressible longing amid prevailing brokenness. Realism suggests the joke is on humankind's fanciful wishes for a benign realm that somehow blesses its inhabitants. So it goes, the irreparable breach between beatitude, thirst, and a tragic, blood-soaked earth. Viewers perhaps see it; the characters don't.

And then the long hiatus, after which Malick seems to recalibrate the impasse. In The Thin Red Line, an audacious, unconventional film, the scene changes from the North American plains to the lush jungles of Melanesia, and so does Malick's response to those fearsome riddles of nature. To be sure, there's no less ambiguity, but it now resides articulate, more or less, in a central character, an untutored but pensive ordinary soldier. Private Witt (Caviezel) marvels, as does Malick's camera, at landscape and people, perplexed by the pervasive duality of everything (indeed, the film seems a potent thematic redo of Moby Dick). In extensive voiceovers, Witt broods and wrestles on the nature of nature, immortality, evil, perception, and beauty, to name a few. Other characters do some of the same, especially Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) who daily survives by recollecting his erotic bond with his wife. And there's also the fierce Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), a long passed-over West Pointer who will now at any cost to his troops win battles to achieve promotion.

Mostly, though, there's Private Witt's perceptual wrestle, one that Malick and cinematographer John Toll strive to render without words (the many ruminative voiceovers were apparently written and recorded after shooting the film). What's displayed for us is a daunting world of unsettling opposites: horrific combat, brutal, voracious, and full of caprice, set against natural splendor—whether in water and light, landscape and animals, and even people, though they are in themselves an agonizing moral puzzle. Finally, after long reflection, Witt seems to find hope in the transfixing dazzle of being: "One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain, that death's got the final word; it's laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird and feels the glory, feels something smiling through it." Light does shine, and darkness has not swallowed it up, though it seems a close call. The ending makes emphatically clear that for Malick, to adapt the film's last words, all things do shine. In the end even nihilist Welsh (Sean Penn) petitions that he "feel the lack" if "I never meet You in this life," knowing full well that "A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours."

Seven years later came The New World, a poignant and intriguing retelling of the John Smith-Pocahontas story. Jamestown explorer Smith (Colin Farrell) and the maiden (Q'orianka Kilcher), favorite him. Another man sees that same bird and feels the glory, feels something smiling through it." Light does shine, and darkness has not swallowed it up, though it seems a close call. The ending makes emphatically clear that for Malick, to adapt the film's last words, all things do shine. In the end even nihilist Welsh (Sean Penn) petitions that he "feel the lack" if "I never meet You in this life," knowing full well that "A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours."

Seven years later came The New World, a poignant and intriguing retelling of the John Smith-Pocahontas story. Jamestown explorer Smith (Colin Farrell) and the maiden (Q'orianka Kilcher), favorite daughter of a chief, fall in love enveloped by a rapturously photographed nature, a veritable Eden into which crashes, needless to say, imperial appetite and inexorable cultural conflict. The film is far from a stock politicized tale of Western culpability, stretching at last to show a different, albeit hard-won path to conciliation. Critics were mixed on the film, as they were on The Thin Red Line, especially because Malick's remarkable visual storytelling seems at times to overwhelm narrative focus. Regardless, it is just that focus on the "fresh, green breast of the new world" that seems to so enchant so many viewers, finding themselves compelled, in "aesthetic contemplation," quoting from the close of The Great Gatsby, to confront "face to face for the last time in history … something commensurate to [humankind's] capacity for wonder."

A posture of essential, even breathless wonder suffuses Malick's work from start to finish, regardless of what else is going on. At the very least viewers leave his filmic kingdoms with a sort of hushed, even preverbal awe, as well they should amid the multiple shocks of seeing and being alive. Through all the films, though especially the later, agape at the mystery and splendor of this world, Malick strives to recover, by cinematic means, a lost register of experience that affords entre, if only potentially, to a luminous, transfixing vision of a world that shines in all of its guises. On the boundary between the natural and the numinous, a threshold where body and soul meld, the self ventures into a unique domain of experience wherein the full "glory," as Witt calls it, of this visible, palpable world blazes forth or, for that matter, as in most such experience, simply glimmers ever so faintly. In any case, recognitions of this sort ever after color and sculpt experience, attuning the self to apprehend "all things shining," as does Witt, having come at last maybe to see the whole of this world as God sees it. In other words, in the era after Darwin, Malick wishes to test out the old claim, "devout Episcopalian" that he is, that "heaven and earth are full of your glory" (so said Time magazine, October 13, 1997). A resplendent hope it is, especially amid earthquakes, tsunamis, and oil spills.

The big question, of course, is what comes next. That will be answered, apparently, sometime before the end of the year. The Tree of Life will finally appear, though here in early July a release date has not yet been announced. The word is that it offers a pilgrimage, told in retrospect, from childhood delight to disillusion, "a lost soul in the modern world," and then a return to an embrace of "beauty and joy in all things" and "unselfish love."[3] If this proves true, it could be that Malick lays out front and center the signal beliefs, seemingly markedly religious, that inform his late films. From this cinematic master, and a lifelong serious fellow, that's a long way from Heidegger—and for film buffs and others an event worth anticipating perhaps just a little less than, say, the Second Coming.

Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College. His most recent book, Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies, has just been published by Eerdmans.

1. Ron Mottram, "All Things Shining: The Struggle for Wholeness, Redemption, and Transcendence in the Films of Terrence Malick," in Poetic Visions of America: The Cinema of Terrence Malick, ed. Hannah Patterson. 2nd Ed. (London: Wallflower, 2007), p. 20.

2. Robert Silberman, "Terrence Malick, Landscape, and 'What is this war in the heart of nature?' " in Patterson, p. 169.

3. That's the report at comingsoon.net.

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