Category Archives: Film

Jon Baskin on Terrence Malick

I mean to see Terrence Malick’s most recent film, To the Wonder, this week. In preparation I’ve returned to Jon Baskin‘s 2010 essay (pre Tree of Life) on what he refers to as Malick’s “Perspective.” The essay originally appeared in The Point, a Chicago-based print journal he founded with fellow-Social-Thought-students Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick. It remains the most convincing ‘read’ of Malick I’ve encountered (say the most compelling witness), and more than that, a rich meditation on what it is to proceed, not by argument so much as by vision. Below you’ll find the opening paragraphs and a link to the full article. CL

pocohontas_on_horseback-1

Q’orianka Kilcher, as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)

 

THE PERSPECTIVE OF TERRENCE MALICK by Jon Baskin

One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain, that death’s got the final word … Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory.

— Welsh, The Thin Red Line

Is it the essence of the artistic way of looking at things, that it looks at the world with a happy eye?

— Wittgenstein, Notebooks

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.

. . . Click here to continue reading.

Forthcoming: The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman (David LaRocca, ed.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, David LaRocca’s most recent book project — an edited collection of essays on “The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman” — will soon be out. It includes essays by Bill Day (Le Moyne), Garry Hagberg (Bard), Richard Deming (Yale), Samuel Chambers (Johns Hopkins), K. L. Evans (Yeshiva), and Mario von der Ruhr (Swansea), among others. To pre-order a copy on Amazon, please click here.

Here is the publisher’s description of the volume:

From the Academy Award–winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Academy Award–nominated Adaptation (2002) to the cult classic Being John Malkovich (1999), writer Charlie Kaufman is widely admired for his innovative, philosophically resonant films. Although he only recently made his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York (2008), most fans and critics refer to “Kaufman films” the way they would otherwise discuss works by directors Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, or the Coen brothers. Not only has Kaufman transformed our sense of what can take place in a film, but he also has made a significant impact on our understanding of the role of the screenwriter.

The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, edited by David LaRocca, is the first collection of essays devoted to a rigorous philosophical exploration of Kaufman’s work by a team of capable and critical scholars from a wide range of disciplines. From political theorists to philosophers, classicists to theologians, professors of literature to filmmakers, the contributing authors delve into the heart of Kaufman’s innovative screenplays, offering not only original philosophical analyses but also extended reflections on the nature of film and film criticism.

–B.R.

CFP: Essay collection on “The Philosophy of War Films”

David LaRocca has just sent us the following CFP (click on the flyer below to enlarge) for a new collection of essays that he’s editing on “The Philosophy of War Films.” Please pass this CFP along to anyone you think might be interested, and please email David with any questions you might have at: davidlarocca@post.harvard.edu. (David’s most recent editorial project, a wonderful book of essays on The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, will soon be out. It includes essays by Garry Hagberg and William Day among others. To find out more about it, or to pre-order a copy, please click here.)

CFP: 4th Annual Film-Philosophy Conference (July 6-8, 2011, Liverpool, UK)

The organizers of the 4th Annual Film-Philosophy Conference (to be held in 2011 at Liverpool John Moores University) have issued a call for papers that we thought would be of interest to our readers. To visit the conference website, please click here.

Here is the conference poster (click on it to enlarge):

Robert Pippin: “Philosophical Film: Trapped by Oneself in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past” (NLH)

Robert Pippin (University of Chicago) has written an essay entitled “Philosophical Film: Trapped by Oneself in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past,” which you can find in the current issue of New Literary History (the same issue that includes Rupert Read’s essay on PI as a war book). To access the article, please click here.

Here is its abstract:

In many classic film noirs of the 1940s, characters are often depicted acting, but without a clear sense of why they are doing what they are doing or even without a clear sense of exactly what it is that they are doing. Moreover, whatever they end up intending to do is often portrayed as irrelevant. They have no power to direct or control future events and often invoke notions of fatalism and chance that seem out of place in modern contexts. I argue that these films, and especially the one subject to analysis here, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past, raise a number of difficult and thoughtful questions about standard philosophical accounts of agency, especially about the capacity of individuals to achieve the self-knowledge and to exercise the deliberative control of events often taken to be necessary conditions of agency. Moreover, this and other such films also suggest what it would like to acknowledge such limitations and still attempt to act.

Winter 2011 issue of Critical Inquiry: Pippin on Film and Kramnick on Literary Darwinism

The Winter 2011 issue of Critical Inquiry is now available online. To access the table of contents, please click here. We thought readers of this blog would be particularly interested in Robert Pippin’s essay on “Agency and Fate in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai and Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism.”

Kyle Stevens: “Tossing truths: improvisation and the performative utterances of Nichols and May”

The October 2010 issue of the journal, Critical Quarterly, includes an essay that we thought would interest a number of you. Written by Kyle Stevens (Film Studies, University of Pittsburgh), the essay is entitled “Tossing truths: improvisation and the performative utterances of Nichols and May.” To access the essay online, please click here.

Here is the essay’s abstract:

This paper theorises the style of improvisational comedy innovated by Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nichols and May’s commentary relies on the listener’s willingness to grasp – and to mock – conventions of ordinary language, and I recount the duo’s history while examining their affinity to the contemporaneous work of J. L. Austin. Doing so allows me to demonstrate that Nichols and May complicate Austin’s class of ‘performatives’ by recuperating the importance of truth, and that their work occupies a middle ground between referential and fictional language.

And here is a preview of its first page (click on it to enlarge):