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