Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher

Robert Sinnerbrink,
Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher
Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
ISBN: 9781350063624
Au$46.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Bloomsbury publishing)

Not many filmmakers started their careers as philosophers. Terrence Malick, however, pursued an academic, philosophical path before turning to cinema. This small but remarkable biographical fact has inspired many scholars to examine how his philosophical background influenced his filmmaking. In Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher, the Australian philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink goes beyond this biographical anecdote to examine the philosophical nature embodied by the films themselves. For over a decade, Sinnerbrink has sought to clarify the relation between cinema and philosophy through a comprehensive study of Malick’s oeuvre. Recently, Bloomsbury Academic invited him to contribute to Filmmaker and Philosopher, a series of academic monographs on various filmmakers – including Werner Herzog and Éric Rohmer – written by philosophers.

Throughout his book, and especially in the introduction, Sinnerbrink outlines the current state of the film-as-philosophy debate, comparing the arguments of its most prominent representatives, such as Thomas Wartenberg and Stephen Mulhall, to those of their critics. In doing so, he not only sketches the background against which he will conduct his own analysis of Malick’s cinema but, in the meantime, explicitly clarifies the methodology used, which is common in sociological film research but very rare in research on cinema. Although this conscious focus on methodology is desirable when interconnecting two academic fields that have only recently been extensively combined, it is more often than not absent. For example, Vittorio Hšsle’s study of the cinema of Rohmer – the first book to appear in the Filmmaker and Philosopher-series – contains nearly no reflective remarks on the possibility of unifying film studies and philosophy.

Sinnerbrink, however, has the intellectual courage to explain the methods he uses. His approach to the philosophical dimension of Malick’s cinema is consciously not genealogical but philosophical – that is: instead of revealing which philosophical ideas influenced the director and how they reached him, he reveals the philosophical concepts, debates or questions embodied by the films themselves. These philosophical concepts, Sinnerbrink explains, are ethical in nature. Adopting a broad definition of philosophy, he defends a conception of “cinematic ethics: the idea that the aesthetic medium of film has the potential to express and evoke ethical experience in ways related but not reducible to philosophical discussions of ethical questions and moral problems” (p. 5).

He firmly believes that cinema can do philosophy, provided that both disciplines stand in a well-balanced and dialectical relation – a method he calls “hermeneutic parallelism” (p. 12). Careful not to reduce cinema’s unique ontology to philosophical hermeneutics or, vice versa, philosophical theories to their concretisation on the screen, he analyses the philosophical meaning of Malick’s oeuvre. The American director serves as an ideal case study to demonstrate his conception of cinematic ethics. Already on the very first page, Sinnerbrink admits that his monograph is “about a great filmmaker – Terrence Malick – but also about the relationship between film and philosophy, indeed the idea of film as philosophy” (p. iix).

After this convincing introduction, Sinnerbrink examines all of Malick’s films and outlines an evolution in their relation to philosophy or, more specifically, ethics. In the first chapter, he discusses Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and describes them as both romantic and critiques of romanticism, as both myths and reflections on mythmaking. In Malick’s debut feature Badlands, the gun-crazy Kit (Martin Sheen) takes off with his younger girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) on a violent road trip. In Days of Heaven, the fugitive Bill (Richard Gere) encourages his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) to marry an ill landowner (Sam Shepard) in the hope of a great heritage. All these characters are de-psychologised, allegorical figures who cherish a romantic dream for the future (the American Dream), experience a mythological journey and are left empty-handed in the end. The ethical dimension of these films is not expressed in an overt moral message, but lies in their “possibility of morally charged reflection in response to aesthetic pleasure” (p. 34). Malick’s first films are philosophical because they are “thought-provoking” (p. 28).

Nonetheless, Badlands and Days of Heaven only approach the realm of philosophy, as the chapter’s title (“Approaching Cinematic Ethics: Badlands and Days of Heaven”) suggests. As Sinnerbrink explains in his second chapter, The Thin Red Line (1998) is Malick’s first truly philosophical film, Heideggerian in nature. He includes some bibliographical facts – such as the director’s forsaken academic career, his preparations for a proposed PhD on the philosophical concept of ‘world’ and his published translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons (1969) – but goes beyond the anecdotal, since The Thin Red Line is intrinsically and self-sufficiently philosophical. Following Kaja Silverman, Sinnerbrink argues that the engagement with Heidegger lies in the film’s attitude towards death and finitude: the narrative, as well as the visual style, are infused by a mood of calm that corresponds to Heidegger’s Gelassenheit (‘serenity’). Think, for example, of the prayer-like voice-over or the hovering Steadicam images. Moreover, these images are revelatory in nature and carry the metaphysical and religious potential of restoring our contact with Being – with the ontological state immanent to all beings. They overcome what Heidegger called ‘the forgetfulness of Being’.

In his third chapter, Sinnerbrink continues this Heideggerian interpretation. The New World (2005), a romantic adaptation of the Pocahontas myth, is not merely the embodiment of yet another phenomenological idea. Instead, the film adds something valuable to Heidegger’s understanding of ‘world’ and ‘worldliness’. As its title suggests, the film depicts the discovery of a new world – that of the local tribe by the Englishmen, and, vice versa, that of western society by the locals – and, subsequently, the creation of a new world in which both groups live together. Admitting that we, as human beings, do not know how to establish an intercultural reconciliation, Sinnerbrink praises cinema for its two-folded capability to create new forms of world disclosure: on the one hand, The New World tells the story of the discovery of a new world; on the other hand, the film itself is a concrete, artistic and technological creation of a new world. Sinnebrink argues that cinema, because of its world-constituting ontology, and The New World in particular, offers the spectator a unique phenomenological experience of “alternative forms of word-disclosure [and] new ways of being” (p. 77).

The title of the fourth chapter (“Cinema as Ethics: The Tree of Life”) introduces The Tree of Life (2011) as the culmination of Malick’s cinematic ethics. In what follows, however, Sinnerbrink continually describes the film as religious, reacting against scholars who shy away from using the term and/or criticise Malick for his religious interests. Because The Tree of Life expresses “a concern with the meaning of human existence in relation to the cosmic whole of nature”, he assigns to it a “religious temperament” (p. 117). Malick’s fifth feature renews the relation between the individual and the collective, between the human and the cosmological. Whether this beatific restoration is religious or ethical remains unclear. Although an attentive reader can conclude that Sinnebrink considers religious temperament to be an emanation of cinematic ethics – The Tree of Life restores our belief in the world, in a Deleuzian and Bazinian manner, and this act of belief encompasses “religious and spiritual experiences” among others (p. 126) – this once his analysis remains terminologically ambiguous.

In the final chapter, Sinnerbrink discusses the religious and philosophical discourses on love presented by what he calls Malick’s “weightless trilogy”: To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017). Reflecting S¿rgen Kierkegaard’s three modes of life, the trilogy offers a “phenomenologically rich exploration of different kinds of love, from the erotic-romantic, familial-communal, to the spiritual-religious” (p. 164). Through a pattern of repetition and variation, Malick depicts unstable, disorientated adolescents, who at first blindly pursue sensuous, romantic fulfilment but, to a greater or lesser extent, slowly recognise love’s ethical and even divine nature. According to Sinnerbrink, the abstract visual style and sparse narrative exposition enhance this sense of weightlessness, thus contributing to Malick’s observation that modern life is ethically and spiritually impoverished, that modern man has lost touch with what transcends, precedes and grounds him.

This focus on visual style is both unique and essential. Throughout his study of Malick’s cinema, Sinnerbrink continually examines formal elements (such as camera movement, lighting, editing and sound design) in relation to their philosophical and ethical value. Discussing The Thin Red Line, he explains how the Steadicam images reinforce the dominant mood of Heideggerian Gelassenheit. The flow of shots in The Tree of Life and Malick’s documentary Voyage of Time (2016) connect macrocosmological images of erupting volcanoes to microcosmological images of a tiny embryo. The editing links the personal to the communal and the finite to the infinite. In To the Wonder, Sinnerbrink recognises two axes along which the camera moves: “a vertical axis of spiritual transcendence and a horizontal axis of earthly immanence” (p. 185). Even though this approach might seem obvious – ontologically, cinema differs from the other arts in its ability to show rather than tell – many film-philosophers disregard audiovisual style in favour of narrative. Carefully analysing overt philosophical themes and recurrent narrative patterns, they lack the intellectual wherewithal to include the aspect of audiovisualisation. Sinnerbrink’s conscious avoidance of this typical pitfall is one of the book’s greatest strengths, alongside the reflections on methodology outlined in the introduction.

Although Sinnerbrink offers a consistent and well-argued analysis of the cinematic ethics at work in Malick’s cinema and, more broadly, of cinema’s philosophical potential, he acknowledges the impossibility of an all-encompassing, definite understanding thereof. In the book’s introduction, he “contend[s] that the question of the relationship between film and philosophy, especially in regard to a filmmaker like Malick, remains, precisely, a question, rather than something assumed or known” (p. 4). And indeed, Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher is an inspiring invitation to (re)watch Malick’s films and search for a personal answer to this ever-open question.

© Hanne Schelstraete

About the Author

Hanne Schelstraete

About the Author

Hanne Schelstraete

Hanne Schelstraete graduated in theatre and film studies at the University of Antwerp. She writes for Belgian film magazines including Fantômas and Humbug.View all posts by Hanne Schelstraete →