Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film

Steven Rybin,
Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film
Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-7391-6675-8
US$65 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Lexington books)

For a filmmaker renowned for his reticence and lack of haste, Terrence Malick has been undergoing a burst of creativity of late. With a number of films either completed or in production (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Lawless/‘V’), the oeuvre of Hollywood’s most reclusive director is clearly far from complete. Something similar might be said about the critical reception of Malick’s work, which has followed a familiar pattern of reticence and perplexity, followed by acknowledgement and appreciation. Steven Rybin’s Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film joins the growing number of Malick books to have appeared over the last decade[1] and does so as the most comprehensive, thoughtful, and lucid study of his films to date. A standout example of contemporary film-philosophy, Rybin’s eloquent study of Malick’s body of work – from Badlands (USA 1973) to The Tree of Life (USA 2011) – combines film criticism with philosophical reflection in an exemplary manner. While agreeing with many scholars that Malick’s films are philosophical, he does not treat them as illustrations of pre-existing ideas but as unique and complex works of art that open up a dialogue with philosophy via cinematic means.

There are a number of features of this fine book that merit attention. The first is Rybin’s impressive handling of the relationship between film and philosophy. Unlike some exponents of philosophical film criticism, Rybin takes the time to explicate his rationale for interpreting Malick’s work from a variety of philosophical perspectives. Avoiding the temptation to approach Malick as a ‘Heideggerian’ filmmaker (because of his early career as a phenomenologist and translator of Heidegger), Rybin defends a style of film-philosophy that is receptive to aesthetics as much as to history, situating Malick’s characters and films within their respective historical milieux (p. xxii). Instead of applying a readymade theory to a particular film, Rybin takes Malick as a cinematic artist and thinker “who puts into motion a series of images that inspire us to think philosophically alongside the films” (xxx). Instead of applying philosophy to film, Rybin responds “to Malick’s creative imagination with a set of concepts” (xxxi). Drawing inspiration from Deleuzian conceptual construction and Cavellian philosophical criticism, Terence Malick and the Thought of Film articulates a series of critical responses to the aesthetic experiences afforded by Malick’s art. The result is a rich work of film-philosophy that deftly combines theoretical reflection with aesthetic responsiveness: “a text performance done in relation to the rhythms, sounds, and fictional existences I see and hear in his films” (xxx). Indeed, Rybin shows how criticism, theoretical reflection, and philosophical insight can combine in a manner at once rigorous and receptive.

The second notable feature of Rybin’s approach is his focus on an aspect of Malick’s work that has often been criticised: the diffuse, evanescent, fluid nature of his fictional characters. While the question of voice, voiceover, and subjectivity has attracted critical attention, little consideration has been given to character, the spectral figures inhabiting Malick’s films.  As Adrian Martin observes, “they float like ghosts, unformed, malleable, subject to mercurial shifts in mood or attitude, no more stable or fixed than the breeze or the stream” (quoted at pp. 59-60). Rybin defies the received topos – that Malick’s characters are aesthetic figures or symbolic mouthpieces rather than living personages – by arguing that “the rightness and viability of his characters are a crucial starting point for considering our own unique experiences of his films”(xii). This claim is borne out via detailed discussions of a number of Malickian characters, or couples, from Holly and Kit in Badlands, Witt and Welsh in The Thin Red Line (USA 1998), to Pocahontas and John Smith in The New World (USA/UK 2005). Indeed, the question of character and identity remain “open questions in Malick’s work” (xii) – perhaps no more so than in The Tree of Life, Malick’s epic memory film, familial melodrama, and cosmopoetic myth, the subject of a thoughtful and enlightening postscript in Rybin’s book (171 ff.) emphasising, among other things, the film’s philosophical treatment of the flashback (175-179).

Other noteworthy features of Rybin’s study are his defence of what we might call ‘philosophical auteurism’, and his emphasis on historical context, both in regard to Malick’s unique fictional worlds, which are themselves distinctly historical, and in relation to the history of cinema, towards which Malick shows an acute and reflexive sensitivity. Rybin deflects standard criticisms of auteurism by construing Malick not as a “biographically, historically existing film author” but as “the creator of an experiential frame that enables the viewer’s thoughtful exploration”(xxxiii) – a perspective that foregrounds the viewer’s own performance of film-philosophy (xxxiii). By situating Malick’s unique cinematic worlds within historically distinctive milieu (the 1950s Midwest, the Texas Panhandle in 1916, Guadalcanal in 1942, the Virginia tidewater region in 1607), Malick’s films are given a historical embeddedness that offsets the limitations of ‘classical’ auteurist studies, and that deepens and augments our understanding of these films’ philosophical significance.

Rybin’s aesthetically nuanced readings of Malick’s five films to date each time foreground a particular philosophical question or problem by way of close analysis. He begins with the question of voice, how Malick’s characters “voice meaning” through gesture, expression, and performance, a dramatic presentation that is further complicated by his signature use of voiceover (1 ff.). What unfolds in Malick’s films, Rybin argues, is an existentially charged dialogue between character and viewer (2); a lived and embodied encounter with fictional personages that Rybin explores from the perspective of existential phenomenology (2). Instead of Deleuzian hapticity or Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh’, Rybin turns to Heidegger’s thinking on the work of art (13 ff.), the ontological strife between world and earth that discloses truth, applying this to character, with the help of Michel Chion’s account of voice as “semi-acousmêtre” (20), a voice unmoored from a defined subjectivity. Chapter Two develops these insights in relation to Badlands, stressing the gap that opens up between the viewer’s perception of the characters’ experiences and their own limited perspective upon themselves and their world. Rybin elaborates Malick’s idiosyncratic rendering of the 1970s American “crisis of the action-image” film, underlining his cinematic meditations on place, nature, dwelling, and death (45 ff.). Chapter Three on Days of Heaven continues the focus on character but now situates the latter within a (Cavellian) projection of world, one combining character, landscape, and myth with moments of subtle self-reflection (72 ff.). The question of Heidegger, the war genre, and myth are the subject of Chapter Four on The Thin Red Line, a ‘Heideggerian’ film that questions, rather than comments on, the experiences of soldiers in ‘C for Charlie’ company during the battle of Guadalcanal, presenting an implicit critique of the hierarchical social structures of the military from the perspective of the soldiers’ singular yet collective experiences and the impersonal force of nature dwarfing the human historical drama (114). Chapter Five on The New World adds further variations on these themes, focusing on the relationship between character, nature, and myth (135-145), stressing Malick’s implicit critique of the colonialist violence marring the nascent encounter between Old and New worlds. Here Rybin links the mythic dimensions of this historical encounter with the figure of cartography, analysing how the film explores the relationship between dream, myth, and history through a mythical rendering of the colonialist dream of mastery through the conquest, mapping and cultivation of the land (145 ff.). Style and narrative form become fused in The New World, a work that culminates in a rapturous sequence that evokes an aesthetic sublimity or philosophical cinephilia rather than determinate historical or dramatic meaning (157-167) – a fitting conclusion for a study that aims to evoke aesthetic experience as the key to the appreciating the philosophical meaning of Malick’s work.

Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film features philosophical readings of Malick’s oeuvre informed by Heidegger and Cavell, without allowing these to dominate film aesthetics or critical analysis. Rybin also draws attention to Malick’s subtle acknowledgement of history and film history, thus confirming his modernism as against his alleged ‘naivety’. One question is whether there are other philosophical sources or dimensions that remain implicit in Malick’s work; his fascination with origins (of life, of violence), with cosmology and metaphysics, with the reconciliation of science, art, and religion, as well as his films’ complex literary and artistic inheritances (American transcendentalism, the history of photography, painting, poetry, architecture, music, religion, and mythology). The Tree of Life, moreover, recasts the question of Malick and philosophy, since it is arguably his most spiritual-religious work, one that forces a revisionary glance at the transcendent resonances that appear in all his films. This raises the question of the limits of film-philosophy, how it articulates the aesthetic experience of cinema in language that seeks to transcend and transform philosophy. This is not a criticism so much as an invitation to further reflection inspired by Rybin’s excellent book; the most accomplished effort yet to do justice to this remarkable filmmaker’s unique body of work.

[1] James Morrison and Thomas Schur, The Films of Terrence Malick (Westport CT: Praeger, 2003), Michel Chion,  The Thin Red Line: BFI Modern Classics (London: British Film Institute, 2004), Hannah Patterson (ed), The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America 2nd edition (London: Wallflower, 2007), Lloyd Michaels, Terrence Malick (Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), David Davies (ed) The Thin Red Line: Philosophers on Film (London: Routledge, 2009), Thomas Deane Tucker and Stuart Kendall, Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy (London/New York: Continuum, 2011).

About the Author

Robert Sinnerbrink

About the Author

Robert Sinnerbrink

Robert Sinnerbrink is Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is the author of Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film (Routledge, 2016), New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum, 2011), Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007), and is a member of the editorial board of the journal Film-Philosophy.View all posts by Robert Sinnerbrink →