“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”
Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.
I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.
I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?
Ed Howard: You’re right, prior to this conversation I had only seen Days of Heaven, so I came to the rest of these films as an agnostic, aware of the two opposing and equally forceful reactions to Malick’s work and ready to be either awed or let down. Instead, I find myself thinking that there is room between the two reactions, or rather that there’s room to flow between them, to go from being awed one moment to bored the next, to vacillate between thinking that Malick’s distinctive sensibility is either sublime or silly.
In that light, I think one major reason that Malick’s films are so divisive is that they’re so nakedly emotional, that he’s so blatantly aiming for the sublime. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism. I admire and love all of these films to one degree or another, even though I never quite reach the level of awed transcendence that so many seem to find in Malick’s work. I’m saying that Malick aims high, that his films are often not grounded in storytelling or character—instead, his films drift almost irresistibly toward the clouds, toward the treetops, toward the allegorical implications of the basic scenarios he explores. Sometimes that drift sacrifices the human element in his films, so that the characters and their human-scale stories seem to fade into the beautiful landscapes, overlaid with larger allegories about human society and history as a whole.
All of which suggests a grand sense of ambition. Days of Heaven has a very familiar love triangle at its core, but it seldom feels like that story is the point so much as the larger thematic currents about WWI-era America and social hierarchies. The Thin Red Line is packed with individual characters, but the film is really not about any one man as much as it is about their common humanity in the face of mortality and the evils of war. The New World isn’t just—or even primarily—a love story but an allegorical fable about the origins of America and a deeply spiritual examination of the dialectic of progress and stasis. The point is, Malick thinks big, juxtaposing the transience and smallness of individual human lives with history-spanning events like the growth of a tree, the slow and unstoppable churning of natural processes. Maybe that’s why large, ancient trees are so important to Malick’s most recent films: The Thin Red Line begins with a tree, The New World ends with one, and a tree will presumably be at the center of The Tree of Life. A large tree, growing slowly over decades or even centuries, its roots stretching out into the earth even as its branches spread through the sky, is a perfect metaphor for Malick’s expansive perspective on life and death, those big-picture subjects that constitute the heart of his work.
JB: That’s true. And of course on a very basic level Malick’s tree shots evoke not just his themes but his tendencies. Malick’s films are famous for—or, in some circles, notorious for—their frequent observations of environment, which in most cases means observations of the natural world. In determining why Malick’s films prove divisive, it’s safe to start there, because there aren’t too many better ways for a director to be written off as pretentiously artsy than to point a camera at flora and fauna and observe them as something beyond mere scenery.
Malick regards nature with fascination and romanticism, replacing the metaphorical textual descriptions of poets with vivid celluloid images. He’s unashamed about his reverence, capturing creatures and plant life with the kind of closeups usually reserved for the productions of National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. In Badlands, we are shown branches and leaves, a gasping catfish and a big black beetle. In Days of Heaven, we stare into the husks of the wheat harvest and the tiny jaws of the locusts that devour them. In The Thin Red Line we encounter crocodiles, birds, a snake and a butterfly, all amidst a forbidding jungle. In The New World, it’s chickens, cattle, rivers, forests, storms and blue sky. I could go on. Malick presents such images with a deliberateness that makes many viewers uncomfortable, perhaps because nature is the stuff of poetry and poetry is the stuff of emotion and vulnerability. American audiences are accustomed to ogling cars, guns and cityscapes, but not nature. Nature in most American films is the stage on which the action happens. In Malick’s films, nature is part of the action itself.
Of course, nature in Malick’s films often feels like an observer of the action, too. That’s what you were getting at in describing the way Malick juxtaposes “the transience and smallness of individual human lives” with “the slow and unstoppable churning of natural processes.” In Malick’s films, man chops down nature to make his home. He harvests it to make his fortune. He hides within it to protect his life. He reshapes it to please his own eye. But he never fully conquers it. Nature is too big and too powerful for that, and only nature seems to know it.
EH: Exactly. If Malick’s films have one big overarching theme that runs through all of them, it’s the folly and ultimate insignificance of human ambition, and that idea goes hand in hand with the director’s loving depiction of nature as a stoic force beyond human control. That idea is present, certainly, in his first film, Badlands, in which the aimless young outlaw Kit (Martin Sheen) goes on the run with his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) after killing her father (Warren Oates), the first of many crimes they’ll commit on their meandering trek across a Midwestern American wasteland. Badlands is, I think, the one Malick film where the scenery and the allegory don’t overwhelm and de-emphasize the characters, but even here nature plays a big part in the film’s examination of Kit and Holly’s pointless rebellion. When they first go on the run, they stop in a remote forest clearing and construct a makeshift tree fort as their home. They live primitively, playing like children in the woods. Kit runs through the trees with his rifle held in front of him like he’s doing military drills. Holly puts on black makeup, drawing lines around her eyes like war paint, an image that Malick captures in closeup. The couple dance to rock music (Mickey Baker’s “Love is Strange”) on the radio, their feet shuffling back and forth lazily in the dirt.
If ever a sequence epitomized Malick’s view of humanity’s relationship to nature, this is it: people construct their buildings and homes, they play their games, they kill one another, as Kit does when some bounty hunters find the couple, and then they depart, leaving behind some trinkets and ruins as the only sign of their presence. Kit and Holly’s tree fort is filled with paintings and mirrors and other little mementos they’d taken from Holly’s father’s house before burning it down, and these things are simply abandoned in the woods, abandoned to nature and rot. Nature doesn’t care, just as it doesn’t care later in the film when Kit, thinking of posterity, fills a time capsule with some of the couple’s discarded junk and buries it for future generations to find. It’s an acknowledgment of the fleeting presence of humanity in the world, leaving behind only trash and ruin.
Maybe that’s why Kit is so driven by the desire for celebrity and recognition. The duo—but mostly Kit, since Holly, as she admits herself, is a follower: “he says frog, I jump”—commit crimes not for monetary reward but because they can, because they’re enamored of a romantic image of the outlaw and they’re happy to live out that fantasy for a while until they get caught. Unlike some of Malick’s later characters, who often seem as hypnotized by nature’s splendor as the director is, Holly and Kit are blind to the natural world around them on their journey. At one point, as they speed through the desert in a stolen car, Holly says in voiceover, “Kit told me to enjoy the scenery and I did,” but in the next shot she’s sitting sideways in her seat, facing away from the window, reading a celebrity magazine with James Dean on the cover, quoting aloud from an article about Kit and herself before moving on to celebrity gossip tidbits. As destructive and violent as Kit is, his biggest crime is perhaps his ignorance of his place in the world, his desire to be famous like James Dean. If Malick’s films repeatedly suggest that humanity is just a blip in the universe, then Kit is the Malick character who most explicitly struggles against that state of affairs.
JB: Well, that depends on how one views Kit, and I think we see him a bit differently. Kit’s desire for real celebrity might be within him, dormant, all along, but I don’t sense a genuine yearning for fame in Kit until he (1) realizes that he definitely won’t make it to Canada and (2) experiences what it is to be notorious, which doesn’t happen until very late in the picture when the helicopter tracks them down, finally giving Kit evidence of the manhunt he’s mostly imagined to that point. Sure, Kit models himself after James Dean. Sure, he wishes he had wealth, which usually comes with celebrity. Sure, he leaves recordings at Holly’s burning house and at the wealthy man’s mansion, which suggests he has a flair for the spotlight. But I think Kit is motivated by something simpler. I think he just wants to be recognized on a very basic scale, not necessarily one of celebrity.
That desire for basic recognition is something that we can trace back to Kit’s first conversation with Holly, when he finds her twirling a baton on her front lawn and tells her that he has a lot of things to say. Kit’s introduction could be interpreted as the statement of a man obsessed with celebrity, but to me he’s just a man in need of someone, anyone, to listen to him and recognize him. That, as much as anything, is the root of the violence against Holly’s father, because when Kit threatens him, even firing his gun into the floor to show he means business, Holly’s father doesn’t obey him, doesn’t hear him, doesn’t recognize Kit. Holly, on the other hand, does listen, which is why Kit likes her around. As you quoted already, when he says frog, she jumps. When Kit ultimately gives himself up to police and basks in the fascination of the small army that had been assembled to track him down, I don’t think it fulfills any desired end game for celebrity. Instead, the guy who used to thirst for any kind of acknowledgement finds himself drunk on previously unimaginable levels of attention. He really only craves celebrity once he finds it.
Still, I agree with you that Badlands, like each of Malick’s films, shows the “ultimate insignificance of human ambition.” But what’s interesting about Malick’s movies, and Badlands especially, is that Malick is sympathetic to man’s attempt to conquer new frontiers, even if it brings them nothing but trouble. Kit’s a killer—not naturally born but quickly matured. He shoots people in the back. He shoots them when they’re unarmed. He shoots Holly’s father right in front of her and barely blinks. But Malick seems to appreciate Kit’s need to find a place where he feels in control of his life, even if that control is only an illusion.
EH: You’re probably right that Kit didn’t start out seeking fame and notoriety. He took celebrity because that was what was offered to him in a life of very limited opportunities, but he probably would’ve settled for someone to accept him, for Holly’s father not to treat him as a joke and a loser. In that, too, Kit is not unlike his idol James Dean, a tough guy with a core of vulnerability, desperately yearning for a father figure to temper his hard edges. Kit seems to know that he’s no good, and that he’s stumbled into a fate beyond his understanding. “I always wanted to be a criminal I guess,” he says, “just not this big of one.” But once he gets a taste for his tough-guy persona writ large in tabloids and the popular imagination, he wants more. When he’s being chased by the cops toward the end of the film, he adjusts the rearview mirror and at first he seems to be looking behind him, trying to keep an eye on his pursuers, but actually he’s just adjusting his hair, checking his own image as though preparing to face death looking his best. He wants to make sure he looks good at his big final moment, to live up to his Dean-like aura. Later, after he’s been caught, all of the cops (implausibly) treat him with respect and camaraderie, and in their presence he becomes docile, humble, personable, very friendly and charming, like he’s just a decent guy after all.
That gets to the heart of what you said about Malick’s sympathy for his characters’ futile struggles with destiny and nature. Malick obviously does have some feeling for Kit, this cocky and aimless young man who increasingly allows his basest impulses free reign, seemingly for lack of anything better to do. Malick, sensitive as always to environment and atmosphere, almost immediately conveys the sense of a dusty small town in the film’s opening minutes, as Kit lazily goes through his garbage rounds, a job he obviously doesn’t care about and easily walks away from. There’s an emptiness to this town, as though Kit and Holly are the only ones in it at times. Their connection is intense but at the same time built on convenience, on the fact that a go-nowhere guy like Kit can represent adventure to a simple girl like Holly, while she can provide him with the acquiescent, worshipful attention for which he thirsts. The flat, empty land, so beautiful to look at yet so boring to live in, defines their lives, their opportunities and even their relationship.
JB: That’s a good observation. It’s certainly a peculiarly flat relationship, especially considering how eventful it is. While Kit kills, burns, builds, hunts, connives, drives, etc., Holly walks around in a kind of daze, disconnected from the events around her, or simply uninterested in them. In a way, she regards Kit as if he were James Dean himself, which is to say that she regards him like he’s a character up on a movie screen performing actions that she witnesses with intimacy but cannot touch or affect. It’s as if she knows Kit is a movie star before he does. And yet at the same time she seems to have no clue whatsoever that she’s in a runaway movie.
One of the film’s most memorable sequences is when Holly looks at some vistas and portraits in her now-deceased father’s stereopticon, the black-and-white images filling the frame while we listen to Holly’s dreamy and naïve narration: “It hit me I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was just a sign painter, and who had only just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought, ’Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me, or killed anybody, this very moment?’” She goes on to wonder what her future husband looks like, and if he’s thinking of her. “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land,” she admits, “but this never happened.” It’s a powerful scene because it shows Holly’s growing awareness of mortality—an awareness that’s taken the death of both of her parents to begin to set in—and because it unfolds with the haunting lyricism that is Malick’s specialty. And it’s an important scene because it shows that Holly isn’t emotionally aligned with Kit’s violence or even with Kit. But it’s also a slightly humorous scene, because even before Kit guns down the men who find their tree house in the forest it’s safe to assume that nothing in Holly’s future will ever be more eventful or fascinating than her present. The story she is living is the story she’ll be asked to retell for the rest of her life, and yet she’s completely disinterested in it.
Kit isn’t much more invested, really. The only difference is that he tries to convince himself that he’s having a good time. “We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there,” Holly says at one point. But then she adds, “Kit said that ’solitude’ was a better word, ’cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say. Whatever the expression, I told him we couldn’t go on living this way.” Explicitly, she’s referring to their life in the wilderness and on the run, but there’s a sense that these characters have always felt that way, that they have always found themselves adrift, that they’ve always been searching for some personal utopia. Again and again in Malick’s films, characters search and search for that dream, and in moments they even get close enough to see and touch it. But in Malick’s films, the harder one tries to find that sense of peace, the harder it is to grasp and retain.
EH: I find Holly such a fascinating character precisely because of the disconnection you’re talking about. She drifts along through the film, barely seeming to understand the significance of the events she witnesses. After Kit shoots his friend Cato (Ramon Bieri), a couple shows up at the remote cabin where Cato lives, and Kit takes them prisoner while Holly watches with an expression of boredom. While Kit leads the guy off at gunpoint, Holly meanders along behind them, chatting with the girl prisoner. The girl asks Holly what’s going to happen to them, and that’s when Holly says that it’s up to Kit, that she jumps when Kit says “frog.” The chilling implication is that Holly would be okay with whatever happens next, that if Kit wants to kill the couple she won’t much care, that these strangers can live or die and she’ll just go along with it, as she goes along with everything Kit does. She speaks so casually, strolling along with the girl as though they’re simply enjoying a nice day together. When Kit shoots through the wooden door of the underground chamber where he traps the couple, he wonders aloud if he got them, but Holly just shrugs as they run away. Dead or alive, it’s all the same to her. Afterward, she worries in voiceover that Kit is “the most trigger-happy man I ever met,” but that’s the full extent of her concern. She keeps emphasizing in voiceover how many opportunities she has to slip away or escape, but the thought never seriously crosses her mind.