(25/10/07) – Terrence Malick’s film career is, as the saying goes, a puzzle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Described as one of the least accessible American filmmakers working today, his reputation is built on only four films made over thirty-five years. 1973’s Badlands, made at the height of the ‘golden age’ of American cinema, introduced his major themes of alienated characters, unreliable narration and the influence place has on personality. It’s on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, one of only 450 titles to be so honoured. Malick followed this in 1978 with the Oscar-winning Days of Heaven, then famously disappeared, producing no public work until 1998’s The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones’ WWII memoir that was highly anticipated, but critically slated. The first edition of The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America focused on these three films, but 2003’s The New World has led to this second edition, with three new essays and changes to previous ones to discuss Malick’s full body of work.
It’s well known that Malick taught philosophy before switching to film-making, and that Heidegger was his greatest influence. Heidegger’s theories about technology and its influence on modern life and humanity clearly echo throughout Malick’s work; unfortunately, Marc Furstenau and Leslie MacAvoy’s essay, which most explicity analyses this, is so jargon-heavy as to be an unenjoyable read. Other essays fall into the trap of analysing the critical reception of the films, at the expense of insights to the films themselves, and embody the Heideggerian philosophy of technology’s ( i.e., film criticism) power to distort humanity’s (i.e., the cinema audience) basic needs. Malick might enjoy such an irony.
At its strongest moments, this book makes us freshly aware of Malick’s tremendous skill for images, buffeted by additional layers of sound which may or may not contradict the image, in sustaining mood. Richard Power and James Wierzbicki pay close attention to the soundtrack of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, deconstructing not just how Malick uses sound but also his specific musical choices. Ron Mottram’s opening essay is an excellent introduction to all four of Malick’s films. His balance of detailed exposition with nuanced analysis is steadily maintained throughout the book, a tribute to Hannah Patterson’s careful editing.
The essays which contextualise Malick along his contemporaries reinforce his uniqueness, such as John Orr’s comparison of Malick and Arthur Penn and Martin Flanagan’s contrasting of The Thin Red Line to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Sadly the section on The New World is the weakest, especially a personal appreciation by Mark Cousins that achieves little new critical insight.
Most films are not designed to reward close attention, but as this book reminds us, Malick’s work resonates more strongly with repeated viewing. As the blurb on the back says: "the essays made me want to see all the films again, and that of course is the highest praise." Whether or not you know the films, The Cinema of Terrence Malick is a thorough appraisal of a director whose work certainly justifies the attention.
The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America is out now on Wallflower. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.