The very notion of a man who translated Heidegger into English (The Essence of Reasons; Northwestern University Press; 1969) being allowed to film mega-budget Hollywood movies starring George Clooney, John Travolta and Colin Farrell is enough to make some of us believe there’s justice of some rough kind in the world. Terrence Malick grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, the son of an oilman, and, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship to study philosophy at Oxford. He was well-embarked on completing his doctorate (on Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Heidegger and their conceptions of the world) when he fell out with his advisor, Gilbert Ryle, and returned to the U.S. to teach philosophy at M.I.T., to dabble in journalism at The New Yorker, to go through the inaugural program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He made his first feature-length film, Badlands, in 1973, and won instant comparisons with the other bright new wonder, Steven Spielberg, who had recently made Duel. In the 33 years since, Malick has made exactly three more movies and given not a single interview.
Around such a man, the Thomas Pynchon of the modern cinema, rumors inevitably cluster. He lived in Paris for many years, and studied Buddhism in the Himalayas, people say. He was all set to make a movie based on the Jerry Lee Lewis story (which is hardly surprising if you recall that Lewis is said to be possessed, and plays out the all-American tale of devils in the wilderness speaking through a graduate of the Southwestern Bible Institute and cousin of Jimmy Swaggart), and spoke of filming Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In an industry where the important thing is to keep your name and face in the news, Malick went twenty years between his majestic second film, Days of Heaven, in 1978, and his third, The Thin Red Line, in 1998, a brooding meditation on the idea that “We’re dirt” and “We’re meat.” The actors who work with him are always asked to comment on the mystery, and tend to use words like “very, very gentle,” “very kind” and shy; Nick Nolte grumbled that all Malick was interested in was light–he was filming the whole Thin Red Line, unbeknownst to the studio, in “the magic hour”–and that the director would hand him six pages of exquisite prose poetry and ask him to reduce them to a single line he thought he could deliver.
The other important thing to say about Terrence Malick is that he does in the cinema what that other uprooted child of West Texas, Cormac McCarthy, does on the page. Both construct flawlessly beautiful grand canvases on which scenes of the most fearful, even apocalyptic violence play out. Both plainly believe that God has given man a bounty, especially in the Promised Land of America, and yet man, men, squander their blessings always by going where they should not go. Humans are no more than disposable ants in their landscapes, pawns with which such grand, abstract forces as Nature and Fate and Time fiddle. In Malick’s most recent film, The New World, it is fair to say that almost nothing happens in its almost two and a half hours. Yet what the film underlines is that he is a Plains mystic, much like McCarthy, who finds in the American grain the charred ashes of the paradise we’ve lost, and the haunted echoes of the possibility of recapturing it again.
I hurried off to the Cineplex as soon as The New World arrived in my town, knowing that Malick movies are as rare as the sightings of a comet (and illuminate the landscape as comets do in the fourth acts of Shakespearean tragedies). Very soon, the handful of other heads in the theater seemed to be nodding off, as voice-overs played out the arrival of British settlers in 17th century Virginia, the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas and then the Indian maiden’s transportation to the British court in sentences so uninflected at times, so unfallen, that I was reminded that visionaries pay a price at times (this is certainly true of McCarthy) for living so far from the daily world. Yet when the credits came up, I could hardly move from my chair, so strongly had I been taken, now and then, to the heavens.
He’s not for everyone, I told my friends, but what Malick does by not bothering with a complex narrative or cluttering the space with characters and words is take us, very occasionally, to places inside ourselves beyond the reach of words, to what seems to belong to the realm of Eternity as much as to time. Indeed, the fact that one of the most articulate men in Hollywood (quoting Homer in the Greek while men roll in the mud near Guadalcanal) is so clearly under the spell of silent movies–and that one of the most learned men in film is so committed to the dissolution of the mind–shows just how deeply Malick is devoted to catching the Ineffable where it hides.