The Perspective of Terrence Malick
By Jon Baskin
The director of four films beginning with Badlands in 1973, Terrence Malick studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell at Harvard before abandoning a doctorate on Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. A promising journalist and academic—as well as an outstanding high school football player—in 1969 Malick published what is still the authoritative translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons. That same year he ended his academic career and enrolled alongside David Lynch and Paul Schrader in the American Film Institute’s new conservatory, developed to encourage “film as art” in America. Although his background has long encouraged commentators to investigate his influences and sources, Malick’s films also merit consideration as artistic achievements that confront their audiences with a distinctive experience. Like any great filmmaker, Malick demands that we see in a new way. Unlike most filmmakers, his films are also about the problem of seeing—that is, of perspective.
Each of Malick’s films presents a conversation or debate between what he suggests is the dominant Western worldview and a competing perspective. Malick follows Heidegger in identifying the Western worldview with the Enlightenment drive to systematize and conquer nature. According to this point of view, man demonstrates his significance through technical and scientific mastery—and on an individual level, he falls into insignificance when he fails to win the acclaim of other men. The competing perspective in Malick’s films is the artistic or filmic perspective, of which the paragon example is Malick’s camera itself. Malick’s goal as a filmmaker is to educate the human eye to see like his camera does. If our habits of vision are characterized by ambition, skepticism and greed, Malick inspires us with the virtues of patience, appreciation and awe. He offers not new facts or arguments but persuasive images of the world as if filtered through such virtues. Alongside these images he presents a character in each film who expresses, with increasing confidence and dignity, the point of view epitomized by the camera. These characters conceive of a power or location they can only gesture toward with words: “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, but this never happened,” says Holly in Badlands. “I’ve seen another world—sometimes I think it was just my imagination,” says Witt in The Thin Red Line.
The characters in Malick’s first film, Badlands, express the consequences of the Western worldview in mid-twentieth-century America, the latest historical moment depicted in his oeuvre. The most conspicuous product of this worldview is the peon to “personality” called Kit (Martin Sheen), a soon-to-be laid off garbageman in the suburban town of Fort Dupree, South Dakota. Talkative, aggressive and brimming with clichés like “I’ll try anything once,” Kit deploys a medley of popular mid-century poses to mask feelings of shame and frustration. His act works on the 15 year old Holly (Sissy Spacek), who thinks he looks “just like James Dean.” Holly’s appreciation is echoed by the policemen who arrest Kit after he kills Holly’s father and convinces her to accompany him on a journey punctuated by at least two more clumsy murders. One of the cops compares Kit to Dean while another congratulates him on being “quite an individual.” The whole film is a meditation on the emptiness of a perspective from which Kit looks like “quite an individual.” This is the perspective of nearly all the characters in the film, but not, importantly, of the film itself. In contrast to the typically charismatic outlaw, Kit never fascinates the viewer of Badlands as much as he does the film’s secondary characters. Malick said Kit’s character was meant to combat the prevailing cultural “myth that suffering makes you deep.”
To Read the Rest of the Essay