Terrence Malick, an auteur

A study of Auteur theory as evidenced by Terrence Malick and his films
by Brett V. Hoxie | 16 May 2012

“Terrence Malick’s remarkably rich second feature is a story of human lives touched and passed over by the divine, told in a rush of stunning and precise imagery.” Dave Kehr offered Malick that praise after watching Days of Heaven, Malick’s second film. Since then, Days of Heaven has become one of the most acclaimed films of all time, particularly noted for the beauty of the cinematography. It was at this point that Malick established himself as filmmaker who believes in the beauty of the world and the beauty of humanity. His films are remembered for their artistic nature, often resembling beautiful oil paintings of the natural world. This was the beginning of Malick’s camera pen and his styles that developed hereafter have become a staple of the film’s he creates. Terrence Malick’s work is the epiphany of auteur theory and presents many styles and themes unique to only him. It is hard to ague against auteur theory when one has watched all of Malick’s films, which are often criticized as being selfish or pretentious. These words by definition parallel the idea that an auteur is the master of ones films. Simple viewings of films such as The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life, present a view into the mind of Malick as if they were living as him. His movies all share the same view of the world and share the same philosophy of humanity. Malick’s films are also characterized as films made in the mid southwest, a region he was raised, and often parallels to his own upbringing. These as well as others prove that Terrence Malick is truly the master of his films. Each of the three films stated all share the same view. Each film presents a thesis, Malick’s, about the world we live in. We are shown the beauty of the natural world and our relation as humans living on it. We are also shown the intricacies and social connections we as humans share with each other, our emotions and philosophies.

After the creation of Days of Heaven, Malick disappeared from the world. A well-known recluse, Malick felt that his praise in Days of Heaven put him too much in the spotlight. Seen almost as an act of selflessness, he wished that the film took precedent over him. However this is not the case, as Malick seems to only be reluctant due to his own social disconnections with the people around him. The Thin Red Line was made 20 years later after Days of Heaven. He began writing the screenplay in 1989 and was eventually coddled to film it. Josh Young went on to say the producers began “catering to his every whim” (Josh Young, Entertainment Weekly, “Days of Hell”, January 7th, 1999). This allowed Malick to create the film with complete control. “By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel” (Austruc). Malick took this an opportunity to express his philosophy of the world as he saw it in a filmic nature. The Thin Red Line is riddled with images of the world in much the same way as a nature documentary such as Planet Earth would present itself. Film by itself is a glimpse into our own world. One crew member in production noted that actors were often frustrated at Malick when he suddenly turned the cameras in the middle of a take to catch a bird landing on a branch (“Making of,” The Thin Red Line Criterion Collection). Malick presents the world, as it would look before human interaction and after. With many shots of the untouched islands of the south pacific, Malick screams at humanities atrocities committed against nature. Later in the film, after war has torn the islands apart, Jim Caviezal’s character is seen has being disconnected from nature that he was once part of. This represents Malick’s idea of human destruction on the natural world. Malick makes heavy use of this technique in all of his films. New World was filmed with over 1 million feet of film and presents the world as it looked in the 17th century. As with his last film, New World is also a thesis on human destruction, the destruction of the New World by European colonists. Often criticized as being Malick’s slowest film, he takes the time to show the audience a natural American world. With little dialogue compared to other films, Malick takes the time to establish nature as being supreme. Once again, the world is presented as a documentary of nature, a nature that we as humans mustn’t interfere with. Finally this style is evident in Malick’s latest film Tree of Life. Just like Days of Heaven, Tree of Life is a film about his upbringing in Texas. The film, probably his most indulgent and selfish film, beautifully shows the world as it is. Emmanuel Lubebezki told readers in American Cinematography how he was told to follow a butterfly in the filming of Tree of Life. He describes traveling Waco for 45 minutes on dolly until by coincidence it landed on Jessica Chastain’s outstretched hand (Lubebezki, American Cinematography). This is once again an instance in which Malick prioritized the filming of the natural world over his own narrative. It also shows his emphasis on the visual images he wishes to express.

Another Malick style is his emphasis on human connections. In one sequence of The Thin Red Line, Ben Chaplin’s discusses his ideas of love and longing. Eventually he receives a letter from his wife asking for a divorce, which shatters his world just like the destruction of the War. Malick wishes to show the hardships of relationships. “All thought, like all feeling, is a relationship between one human being and another human being or certain objects which form part of his universe” (Austruc). Malick wishes to express his views on the relationship between human beings. Another example in The Thin Red Line is the interaction between Elias Koteas and Nick Nolte’s characters. Malick discerns the difference in thought over human life. Nolte’s character, hungering for selfish achievement, wishes for the men to take a bunker. Koteas refuses because he knows the assault will slaughter many of his men when an alternative can be found. In New World, Malick once again presents with insights of human interaction. The first is the interaction between John Smith and Pocahontas and later Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Both seem to present the differences of love between two people. In the former, Pocahontas loves Smith but he has been conquered already by his love of exploration. The latter is the love between someone who loves and someone who wants to be loved. Pocahontas and Rolfe’s relationship can be seen as a parallel to Ben Chaplin and Nick Nolte. Nolte loves himself and the idea of honor in the military (wants to be loved) while Chaplin truly loves the men he leads (love).Tree of Life presents us with a new human interaction. He attempts to explain this connection in conjunction with idea of existence. In this film he presents many different interactions: husband and wife, father and son, and brother and brother. As we have seen earlier, they are expanded thoughts that he had tried to express in earlier films. Husband and Wife were expressed in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and New World. Father and son love are paralleled in Caviezel’s reverence and protection of nature as well as Chaplin’s love for his soldiers. Brotherly love is seen in The Thin Red Line between soldiers who share the tragedy of war.

Malick’s most used and repetitive style can be seen in his use of voice over. “The fundamental problem of the cinema is how to express though” (Austruc). Malick seems to have discovered a way to blatantly lecture to his audience in the form of voice over. Introduced in Days of Heaven, Malick’s use of voice over has grown tremendously. Tree of Life and New World seem to be almost exclusively voice over. This allows Malick to tell his audience exactly how he views the world. Started in Days of Heaven, Malick has gone on to use the device almost exclusively in his films. Tree of Life can be viewed as an autobiography of his own life. Along with his use of imagery, Malick uses the voice over to first show you the beauty of his philosophy and then explain it to you.

With emphasis on the natural world through film, the beauty of human interaction, and the use of heavy voice over, create films that are truly Malick in nature. Each of his films since Days of Heaven have grown and developed these techniques. It is very easy to know a Terrence Malick film from the very first scene. Each movie seems to start in the same manner; a beautiful shot of the world voiced over by someone expressing his or her views on that world. Malick very blatantly is the artist of his own films especially when ones finds out the creative control he is given. Malick uses his films to allow the view glimpses into his own mind. As a socially private man, this could be his way of allowing the world to interact with him.  His life seems to be paralleled in all his films as he seems try and make sense of his own place in this world. Just as an artist signs his name on a painting or authors a book, Malick ironically creates films that are all attached to one another. This attachment is an attachment to himself, an attachment to the natural beauty of the world in which he most identifies with.