Dancing in Terrence Malick's New World
In celebration of the filmmaker's 80th birthday.
Sitting through a Terrence Malick film is an ordeal for a lot of people. Even for a lot of cinephiles, who may even be massive fans of the director’s first two films - Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). Malick’s unique brand of cinema has evolved over the decades, and over the course of 10 films, into the epitome of acquired taste.
As a student of philosophy, particularly influenced by the works of Martin Heidegger, Malick’s cinema was always destined to be different.
The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist. Neither is without the other.1
These are films whose screenplays are more like rough sketches than blueprints; foundations built with matchsticks, not concrete. Actors are more like vessels than performers. Suspended on the starved opposite end of the chewed up scenery left by the Leonardo DiCaprio’s of world. Narratives are nebulous at best, and the conventional cogs that usually drive story - action, conflict, inciting incidents, build ups, climaxes - melt away like the clocks in a Salvador Dali painting.
What this all amounts to is that, for a lot of people, Malick’s movies are that most accursed, unforgivable thing that’s anathema to the 21st century movie watcher. They’re boring. Their plotless natures, coupled with a complete lack of obviousness and theatrical bravado, make them seem aimless, listless, perpetually tempting your attention span to break.
But for some other people…
Hearing the music
There’s a brilliant quote attributed to (but not actually confirmed to come from) Friedrich Nietzsche, and that Megan Fox has a tattoo of, which is quite fitting here.
Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
There are those cinephiles among us, who - for whatever, unanswerable reason - dance to the tune of Malick’s music. If you hear it, and you feel it, you know that it’s the kind that has transformed the way stories are told on screen. It’s a whole new language, unlike anything else you’ve ever seen or heard, and it has the power to open your mind’s eye to a whole new world of meaning.
The heavy use of deeply-felt voice over, at times so internalised it comes out as a single whispered word. The never-still camera and its sense of freedom - turning away from our protagonist to focus on the way the sunlight is piercing through a leaf. The painterly cinematography and composition. All of these have become Malickian trademarks, along with his infamous post-production editing process that can last years, his never yelling “Cut!” on set so that the film just rolls on and the editors have millions of feet to sift through.
Viewed collectively, this entire process and end result, makes Malick perhaps the purest artist - in the philosophical sense of purity - in cinema.
It’s not a coincidence that those who work with him readily speak of his ‘genius’, ‘sensitivity’, ‘curiosity’ and sense of ‘wonder’. He is often likened to an orchestral composer or a painter, and in the editing room he refers to film footage like a flowing river.2 I am now convinced that, while all of his peers and colleagues direct, Terrence Malick simply films. And there is great beauty and truth to be discovered in a piece of art that is infused with that much freedom and devotion to its natural power.
The relationship between a moving image and sound is redefined in his films, and in the process, like a caterpillar transformed into a butterfly, liberated. Unaffected and unencumbered by star performances, Hollywoodised politics, clever plot twists, thrilling action that fades from memory just as quickly as it enters, and unrealistic dialogue from unrealistic characters who find themselves in unrealistic circumstances.
Terrence Malick distills the artform down to an elemental level, where film is at its most vulnerable, confounding, and beautiful. It contains multitudes, all within itself.
But is the work ever accessible in itself? For this to happen, it would be necessary to remove the work out of all relations to what is other than it itself, in order to let it rest upon itself alone for itself. But in this direction aims already the ownmost intention of the artist. The work is to be released by him into its pure standing-within-itself.3
A moment from The New World
My personal journey of acquiring the taste for this one-of-a-kind filmmaker and hearing his music, started with The Thin Red Line (1998). I hope to one day write about what that movie means to me because not only do I consider it the greatest war film ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made, period.
To conclude my piece, however, I turn to a fleeting moment in The New World (2005) - another breathtaking masterpiece that in hindsight marks a clear fork in the road in the filmmaker’s evolution.
Released seven years after The Thin Red Line and six years before The Tree of Life (2011), The New World sees the ink of Malick’s signature setting in. Following a fixed story and narrative like his previous three films but beginning to experiment more with voice overs, camera work and stream-of-consciousness editing that would go on to define much of his films that followed thereafter, especially the so-called “Weightless Trilogy” - To The Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017).
In The New World, there is a moment that defines Malick’s modus operandi as well as any other from his filmography.
During John Smith’s Presidency of Jamestown, after he had come back from his time with the Powhatans and Pocahontas, a daddy long legs spider crawls along a branch. The branch is gorgeously spotted and exotic, and the spider’s movement is smooth, balletic, indiscernible.
It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, quite literally – I don’t think it lasts for even one full second. It also appears completely out of the blue; a seemingly random shot that may as well have come out of some nature documentary and accidentally got cut-and-pasted into the film by some poor, sleep deprived editor.
Amidst the chaos unfolding in the story – John Smith (Colin Farrell) torn between his longing for Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and his duty as a leader (the perennial battle of heart vs. mind), while his men starve, desperately dig for gold, suffer from disease and generally lose whatever morsels of hope they’re still clinging onto by the minute. With the hope, go the minds – as the ever-searching camera finds Savage (John Savage), ranting fragments of nonsense that may or may not be alluding to the death of civilization.
The degradation of mankind unfolds thusly. Between the madman’s ravings and Smith’s heartsick introspection, we see the flash of a shot of our spider. Just being a spider. Plot-wise, it has no business being in the film. It doesn’t further the narrative by a single iota. What’s it doing there? What kind of strange, accidental, indiscernible, ambiguous, beautiful moment is this?
The super-close up shot of this spider doesn’t even linger as you’d conventionally expect a shot like that to. Gorgeous shots of nature and all of its critters and creatures tend to at least serve the purpose of providing a couple of beats of pause. To take a break, reflect, soak in the beautiful environment the characters of our story are in and – sure – be a bit of a navel-gazing exercise from the director. There’s none of that here. Amidst the external chaos of the Jamestown conditions and its residents, and the internal turmoil swirling within John Smith, a spider – for the briefest of moments – just is.
By the time the receptors in your brain even have time to light up with signals of recognition (“Oh, what? A spider? Crawling on- what is that a-”) it’s gone, never to be seen on screen again.
We are left to wonder, if we are even lucky enough to not have blinked and missed it.
These kinds of moments are woven into the experience of the film throughout. The spider is but one of many indiscernible, beautiful, natural, seemingly random, slightly puzzling, moments in The New World. Plants, trees, grass, birds, ripples in the river, loving eyes, cruel eyes, sad eyes, intense eyes, known gestures of kindness, unknown gestures of tradition and ritual, children, babies, the sky – life fragments of context disconnected from convention but very much in harmony with the whole unconventional experience that colors the entirety of Terrence Malick’s new world.
A distinct language all its own.
A music I’m grateful to be able to hear and dance to.
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“The Origin of the Work of Art”, Martin Heidegger.
From the special features of The New World (Criterion Collection).
“The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger.