Poetry News

Terrence Malick: "Hollywood's poet returns"

By Harriet Staff

Claiming that "Hollywood's poet returns," The Telegraph discusses reclusive director Terrence Malick, who just won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film The Tree of Life. "A story about transcendence that divided critics, who were alternately transported and turned off by its religious themes and elliptical storytelling, it is the first film from Mr. Malick since The New World (2005)," reports the NYT (that makes five in total, counting Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), and, after a 20-year absence from the movies, The Thin Red Line (1998).

In her review, Manhola Dargis of the New York Times noted some poetic influences on the film, stating:

The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” — taken from a passage in which God, like a hectoring, aggrandizing father, challenges Job with questions. It’s a section that Walt Whitman, as readers of the poet have long pointed out, seems to answer in “Song of Myself” (“In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass”), a work that Mr. Malick may have drawn on, given how both the poem and the film exult in a cosmic oneness with the world and are more circular in form than linear. Any number of the poem’s lines (“The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag”) could describe images from the film.

The Telegraph also notes that: "Story, though, is frequently the last thing on his mind. His quest for a poetic cinema, threatening to cast off narrative moorings altogether, has aggravated mainstream critics as often as it has earned him disciples."

The piece goes further:

He has only four films under his belt, with two still to be assessed, but some argue he has yet to make anything less than a masterpiece. The sheer quality of filmography places him in cinema’s very select perfect-achievers’ club, up there with Jean Vigo (L’Atalante, Zéro de Conduite) and Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter), each of whom had far shorter-lived directorial careers.

The myth of Malick extends back even before his first feature, Badlands (1973), which was hailed as the greatest debut by an American director since Citizen Kane. He was born on November 30 1943, either in Ottawa, Illinois, or Waco, Texas, depending on which sources you believe.

A second-generation Assyrian, he grew up working on oilfields before graduating from St Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, studying philosophy at Harvard under musician-turned-thinker Stanley Cavell, and then continuing as a Rhodes scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford.

The tenets of 20th-century philosophy inform Malick’s cinema more than anything else--certainly more than other people’s movies. Both calm and troubled, his sensibility is so unusual in a Hollywood context as to make his films as exotic as tropical birds; indeed, ornithology plays a more integral role in his work than any jumped-up editing tricks or nods to Hitchcock.

Whether The Tree of Life turns out to be perfect poetic cinema is still up for debate (hasn't everyone seen this?), but yes, most likely the film is as philosophical as they come. And informed by Heidegger, if you believe this guy. Well, Heidegger's poetry, anyhow?

Watch the trailer for The Tree of Life right here.

Originally Published: May 24th, 2011