February 10, 2012

"What a fine place it was": Terrence Malick

“The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return. I thought what a fine place it was, full of things that people can look into and enjoy.” Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands.

Badlands is a poetic film about juvenile delinquency, outlaw culture, a 70s genre – the camera takes in a yellow moon over the plains, cloud formations, car lights at night – that anticipates the more self-conscious beauty of Days of Heaven, a film of impressive sights but less narrative drive. In both, an idyll comes after the set-up, making a second act. In both cases, pleasure: in Days of Heaven, the pleasures of not working (“The rich got it figured out”); in Badlands, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly hiding out in a tree house in the woods, living in nature, living as nature. A Malick gallery of the sensual life: close-ups of grass and trees, sunlight, people splashing in rivers. Holly talks of trees rustling overhead like whispers, an anticipation of the Malick soundtrack from The Thin Red Line through to The Tree of Life. Real holy laughter in the river.

“Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” Train (John Dee Smith) in The Thin Red Line.

In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel, later Jesus for Mel Gibson) has gone AWOL. He is brought back to the war by Welsh (Sean Penn) and a scene follows that would lead those who are scouting for Christian Symbolism in the Films of Terrence Malick to think of the confrontation between Christ and Pilate. “I can take anything you dish out,” Witt tells Welsh. “I’m twice the man you are.” Witt tells Welsh that there is a world beyond this one; Welsh refuses to see it. Witt talks with a peaceful certainty; the more macho Welsh never looks entirely convinced of his own militaristic position. The man of violence lives in fear – partly the fear of being found out. Ten years later, Malick would get Penn back to do much the same thing in The Tree of Life.

Family dynamics in The Thin Red Line anticipate The Tree of Life. Staros (Elias Koteas) thinks of the troops as his sons. He defies the suicidal orders of the autocratic, bullying Tall (Nick Nolte); together, Staros and Tall mirror the saintly mother and autocratic father in The Tree of Life. In this scenario, Penn’s Welsh is akin to the older brother and Caviezel’s Witt to a younger, gentler one. As in The Tree of Life, Penn has something to learn from his brother’s death.

“I’m your father. A family can have only one head and that is the father.” Bosche (George Clooney) in The Thin Red Line.

On The Tree of Life, Malick and his small crew roamed entire suburban blocks which were open as one large outdoor set, using only natural light. Nostalgia for childhood follows, again as pleasure. The way weather felt, the way spaces felt, the perspectives you had. The simultaneous love and anger. A growing sense of the world beyond the family, of people who are richer and poorer, of injustice and unfairness. A realisation that there was a time before you existed (“Tell us a story from before we can remember”). All the attendant emotions come back as you watch it.

Now, the swimming underwater image that appeared as an addition to the Malick gallery in The Thin Red Line and The New World is movingly recast as a metaphor for being born. Bodies of water are intermediary spaces between life and death; the very last shot is of a bridge across a river. There is a quick shot of a mask in water near the end, within the film’s bright daydream of a resurrection of the dead, and you think (as Malick was/is a philosopher): “Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this?”

Edited from a longer post at werewolf.co.nz