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Anticipating Knight of Cups: A Reflection on the Phenomenon of Terrence Malick

May 6, 2016

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For cinephiles in the UK not fortunate enough to have had preview access at a film festival, 6th May 2016 marks a potentially significant date in their cinematic year. Many of those cinephiles will have ritualistically highlighted the day in their diaries, ready to make a pilgrimage to their nearest movie screen to pay homage to Terrence Malick and his latest release, Knight of Cups. The very words “ritual”, “pilgrimage” and “homage” all conjure a suitably reverent semantic field for Malick – evoking not only the cult mystique that has emerged around the sparseness of his work over forty years but also his films’ utterly distinctive, ‘spiritual’ idiom.

Previous to the release of his fifth feature film as director, The Tree of Life, it is a reasonable assertion to make that Malick’s work was, by and large, extremely well received by critics. A small part of it may have even been a by-product of that parsimony of released work. Especially when that work has been revered, the delayed gratification of follow up creates a sense of anticipation but also a space through which this phenomenon or mythology over the “elusive artist” can build up. Popular legends invariably proliferate in that space, according the inactivity to some form of artistic chastity or an irrevocable incompatibility with the industrial and commercial stakes inherent in filmmaking. It was a paradigm similar to that which I explored in a 2010 interview with another less-than-prolific but critically championed filmmaker – Terence Davies – when he had just emerged from a near ten-year hiatus in filmmaking[1]. Of course, it could just be that Malick’s signature and affectations were naturally viewed through the prism of novelty at the early-to-middle juncture of his career – a quality that the release of The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder in a much shorter six year period no longer afforded him.

Arguably though, the biggest reason that Malick is now almost a divisive figure in the critical community, but also still commands this religious devotion from his advocates, is that his two most recent films have seen him descend ever deeper into what had already been a highly idiosyncratic and uncompromising aesthetic. Story, characterisation, social context and almost any form of hegemonic commentary have essentially been jettisoned for a series of impressions that privilege the individual, experiential quality of life. Perhaps it is this markedly different ‘style’ rather than familiarity breeding contempt that is the truest cause of the current Malick dialectic?

But before one tries too neatly to ascribe a specific watershed to Malick’s aesthetic upsurge (and thus the deepening of a critical fault-line), it is worth revisiting those six films to see if perhaps this convenient trajectory isn’t a little too simplified.

In tribute to the tarot card framing device of Knight of Cups, here is a brief retrospective of Malick’s directorial achievements so far:

 ELEGY

(Badlands, Days of Heaven)

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Of Terrence Malick’s body of work, his first two films are those wedded closest to a conventional notion of narrative structure. Both possess linear chronologies and have ‘storyworlds’ that constitute the entirety of their diegeses. Peer beyond those dramaturgical trappings though and there are more than enough hints of the virtuoso impressionist that Malick was to become.

While both films have a trajectory of events that Malick is clearly invested in telling us – even creating conventional suspense; the voice he accords over these storyworlds creates a different perspective or tension, with Malick ingeniously refracting both narratives through two of cinema’s finest exemplars of detached and ironic voiceover. Sissy Spacek’s wide-eyed, feckless overview of the killing spree of Badlands and Linda Manz’s callow, heartbreaking evocation of the halcyonic Days of Heaven are both testimonies designed to decontextualise and transcend the people politics of the world around them, and to place those events in a wider, eternal tenor. Thus we drift from story to fable (almost into the territory of a “fairytale”) and the on-screen events – far from being diminished by their hazy narration – accrue an even greater, timeless import.

Malick’s interest in landscape and nature was also at its subtlest peak in his first two works. Although both films seem intrinsically linked to the specificity of their stories’ time and location, they have a remarkably deep and pastoral subtext but without the grandiose exposition of his four later films. And has anyone ever come cinematically closer to conjuring Scott Fitzgerald’s sense of the “dark fields of the republic” than in Kit and Holly’s early, subversive ‘Babes in the Wood’ existence in Badlands or the mesmeric ‘magic hour’ sequences of the migrants set against the unending, arcadian backdrop of Days of Heaven?

 RAPTURE

(The Thin Red Line, The New World)

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After his twenty year exile from our screens, Malick showcased a clear transformation in his sensibility with his next two films, The Thin Red Line and The New World. They are perhaps his two most romantic and purely rhetorical works, functioning as odes to paradises found and lost. They are also both centred on two notional Messiah figures (Witt in The Thin Red Line and Pocahontas in The New World) tragically caught up in the colonialist-imperialist machinations of their era.

Gorging on the sentiment of both characters’ saintly example, Malick’s exposition moves exponentially upwards to the exalted and reverential. Gone are the subtle, secondary narrations of Badlands and Days of Heaven for a more soaring and allusive use of voiceover. At its best, this new conception of voiceover lends greater emotional weight to the drama while also offering a propulsive, poetic accompaniment to the increasing verve and crescendo of the films’ musical choices. In The Thin Red Line, this works best in Witt’s profound early reflection on the death of his mother and her example of “calm” – offering him a lesson in dignity for when he is to be confronted by his own mortality at the story’s end. In The New World, in a quite staggering, rhapsodic sequence, Malick finds exactly the right imagery and words to portray the schism in colonialist John Smith’s conscience. Flashbacks of Smith with Pocahontas in a natural idyll clash with his present-day acknowledgment that the corruption of the “natives” is now complete when they engage him in mercantile activities; all this suddenly juxtaposes to a highly evocative, endless river at ‘magic hour’ time as Smith muses on his desire for transcendence, “start over, exchange this false light for a true one….”

And it’s perhaps in the privileging of music that Malick’s sensibilities are outed most strikingly in his third and fourth films. In fact, one could argue that the biggest players in these two films are Hans Zimmer and the Melanesian Choir of The Thin Red Line to Wagner, Mozart and James Horner of The New World. That’s not to overlook that Malick had already employed highly proficient soundtracks in Badlands and Days of Heaven, but much like with his new approach to narration, Malick was now largely interested in almost the overemphasis of sentiment, akin to opera, rather than creating any oppositional effect.

 BELONGING

(The Tree of Life, To the Wonder)

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The reception of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder has been the most divisive of Malick’s career so far. More than anything, Malick has become a victim of his own increasing productivity: his first three films were released a whole twenty-six years apart, his second three films a mere six years. Thus his idiosyncracies have ceased to transmit as novelties but, to some of his detractors, now come under the auspice of affectation – especially as Malick has descended ever deeper into a notion of cinema where diegesis is more about sensory ephemera than homogenised dramaturgy. As if to test this credo, the only hooks Malick employs are in The Tree of Life where a middle-aged man simply wakes up one morning, says ‘no’ to the inexorable flux of life and starts to remember, while in To the Wonder, an American man and a European woman conduct a chequered relationship across two continents.

Highlighting the increasing refinement and abstraction of Malick’s craft – if his ‘chorus’ for his first two films is the hazy voiceovers of Spacek and Manz, and for the following two films it’s the emotion and bombast of Horner, Mozart, Wagner et al., in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder it’s Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera. In a mesmeric exposition of pure cinema, the camera – the ‘gaze’ – becomes both a narrative conduit and our guiding spirit: in The Tree of Life it personifies Sean Penn’s character’s rapture at his youthful reminiscence, while it’s a form of omniscient sanctity in To the Wonder, offering flashes of divinity amid the geographical and spiritual crises of the three main characters. With Lubezki’s cinematography, these characters devolve into ciphers – transient spectres in Malick’s overarching privileging of the transcendent, glorious arena of ‘life’ around them.

[1] “What Money Brings: A Meeting with Terence Davies”, The Drouth: Licence #37

(May 2016)

NB: A condensed version of this article – “A Beginner’s Guide to Terrence Malick” exists at the following link: https://oneroomwithaview.com/2016/05/05/a-beginners-guide-to-terrence-malick/

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