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Terrence Malick

The Inexpressible Gap


There are plenty reasons why Terrence Malick, who was born in Waco, Texas in 1943 according to one source, 1945 in another, and 1950 in a third, remains one of American cinema’s great enigmatic auteurs. One is that while he is assumed to be amongst the most articulate of filmmakers (translator of Heidegger and acknowledged friend of philosopher and film thinker Stanley Cavell,) he has little to say about his own work. Another is that he appeared and disappeared before reappearing again twenty years later. After Badlands and Days of Heaven in the seventies, he returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, offering a film in an idiom so out of step with the other major war feature of its year, Saving Private Ryan, that it seemed not only to be set in the past but filmed there also.

We exaggerate the latter point for effect, for it isn’t especially that Malick’s war movie indicates another decade; more that like his first two features it proposes another world. One may at first take Malick’s work to be nostalgic, but if his films are always set in the past it is as though he wants from that past not the sentimental but the elemental, as if nature somehow sticks to the past more firmly than it does to the present. When Neil Campbell’s article ‘The Highway Kind’, in The Cinema of Terrence Malick, uses Heidegger’s term ‘frenetic inertia’, or ‘uninhabited hustle’, he captures well the position Malick takes that refuses to give prominence to the present whilst neither settling into the past. The past helps dislocate Malick’s characters from the moment, and allows a space between the day to day life of frenetic inertia, and the possibility of another life beyond the contours of that everyday existence. Cavell, meanwhile, notes, or rather footnotes, in The World Viewed, that Badlands is a “film that invokes and deserves the medium’s great and natural power for giving expression to the inexpressive…For in the end something must be said for our lives”. The question is what can be said beyond the frenetic inertia, and how does one say it?

First of all there is of course the voice-over. For some, like Robert McKee in his screenwriting manual Story, voice-over is a danger as beautiful images are narrated over to cover gaps in the story that have been left untold visually: “…the trend toward using telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art”. For others it allows for ironic distance, as in a film like The Royal Tenenbaums, or indeed in many a film noir. Malick certainly wants distance, and his films are undeniably made up of beautiful images, but the voice-over is less narrational or ironic, than curiously contrapuntal: it wants in the gap between the images we see and the voice-over we hear a distance that Cavell accepts is basically an ontological given, this “mismatch between the depth to which an ordinary human life requires expression and the surface of ordinary means through which a life must be expressed.” Now most filmmakers close this gap and allow it to sit as subtext underneath the film; and McKee is useful here when talking about the well-written screenplay which always insists that what is said and shown contains something else that is hidden. He gives as an example a scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway talk, and while she admits that her sister is also her daughter, what she doesn’t say is that she needs Nicholson’s help. When Nicholson replies that “we’ll have to get you out of town”, this is Nicholson really saying that he loves her and will do anything to help her. McKee insists that if Dunaway said she needed help and Nicholson replied that he loved her and wanted to prove it, the film would be too literalised, and give the actors nothing but obvious and categorical emotions to work with. Up to a point we agree, but we may notice in McKee’s take on Chinatown there is still the categorical sitting underneath the scene as subtext.

In their books, both Cavell and McKee invoke Humphrey Bogart, but while McKee sees subtext, Cavell notes the inexpressible. In one dialogue exchange in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman talks of leaving the titular city soon and McKee reckons that where in “the subtext, Ilsa’s kind, forgiving prose is a clear goodbye”, Bogart’s simple stare in return says he “will have none of this”. Cavell is more interested in what he calls “secular mysteries”, the idea of the gap between the ordinary means of expression and the requirement of that expression. Where McKee notices sub-text and a floor of meaning; Cavell sees enigma and reckons, “…in everything from the enforced social silence, or shyness, of Chaplin and Keaton, to the enforceable personal silence, or reserve, of Bogart and Cooper,” we sense something mysterious that the films search out but also usually contain.

Malick is a filmmaker who isn’t interested in sub-text, but in opening up the inexpressible gap that sits in most films as sub-text, and finds ways to turn these gaps into metaphysical enquiries. If we look at the opening moments of Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, we notice how the director creates the space by generating a question much greater than sub-text can contain. In the latter film, Malick starts with scenes of an idyllic island and one of the soldiers saying in voice-over “what is this war in the heart of nature”, then shortly afterwards shows a sergeant and a private talking about the latter’s incompetence. Here Malick doesn’t create sub-text, for there is nothing especially sitting underneath the scene; more a presence hovering around it. As Malick gives us shot/counter shots of the pair talking, we may notice, as Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit astutely observe in their book Forms of Being, that while Sergeant Top Welsh (Sean Penn) is complex he is also intelligible. “His appeal is surely linked to that: he suffers, he is torn, the inhumanity of war pushes him to close himself to all human contacts, and yet he cares, perhaps even loves…” As they later note that Penn’s performance is a masterpiece of squinting, so they observe the “openness of [the other character] Witt’s look”, and so we may say what interests Malick is less potential sub-texts, than possibilities in expressing states that aren’t hidden but are nevertheless not readily expressible. In the exchange between Top and Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), Witt says to the sergeant he is twice the man Top is, and he means by this basically that he has seen another world whilst the sergeant insists there is only one. This isn’t Witt holding his ground as a superior dresses down a subordinate; it is a character alluding to a world the other cannot see or believe in. Sub-text is irrelevant next to surplus; next to the secular mystery Cavell invokes.

At the beginning of Badlands, Malick looks not for sub-text but if you like a predicate: a secular mystery upon which to hang his story, and finds it in characters that are not quite motivated enough by the violent actions in which they partake. Holly’s (Sissy Spacek) voice-over is an affectless description of events that would seem instead to demand contrite expression, while when central character and Holly’s lover Kit (Martin Sheen) gets caught he seems oblivious to his impending execution; more interested in whether he’ll be seen as an icon. Malick appears not to want a broader social sub-text that will muse over the society out of which such characters have been created; more the sort of surplus that indicates what they want and need, and can’t even begin to express, is another world. There are hints of this possibility when Kit and Holly set up home in a forest, but Malick situates this as half Emersonian dream; half childish nightmare. Malick wants to create the maximum possible gap between inexpressive characters and enquiring mise-en-scene not for the purposes of viewer smugness, but to understand a yearning that cannot even be acknowledged. When Cavell says, as we have seen, “for in the end something must be said for our lives”, and adds “to what end does one wish to leave one’s mark upon the world?” Malick more than most frames the emptiness of the question. This is not empty in the sense of fatuous, but empty both because of the vastness of the enquiry and the world, and the smallness of one’s being within this world. Frequently in Badlands, Malick gives us shots that create a sense of the paltriness of the characters’ lives but at the same time do not create in the viewer an assumption of their own superiority. When Kit and Holly are out in the country, sleeping rough, Malick frames them initially in a medium long shot as they talk over the camp fire, and then afterwards slowly pans from an empty space to Kit standing looking at the sky on his own in a gesture half James Dean/half scarecrow, before cutting to various shots of nature that may or may not be from Kit’s point of view. Afterwards Kit and Holly are canoodling in the car and Holly moans about the lack of things to do out there in the seemingly empty plains of America. Where in another work this would be ironic sub-text as she fails to see the beauty that Malick has just shown us, at the same time Malick has shown it to us in such a way that we should be able to understand that this wouldn’t immediately be Holly’s idea of the good life.

In the exchange between Witt and Top in The Thin Red Line, Witt, as we’ve suggested, feels he is twice the man Top is because he has seen two worlds not one. In Badlands Malick shows us hints of another world, but that doesn’t mean it is a world the characters can quite share. Maybe the best they can hope for are micro-epiphanies, shafts of the secular mysteries that surround us. It isn’t an ironically detached point of view Malick offers; more a distance that can only be closed by a certain questioning Malick invites us to embark upon. When Witt says he has seen another world, and Top insists there is only one, is Top refusing the invite, refusing to become twice the man he happens thus far to have been?

An aspect of Malick’s work that is unusual is its naïve intelligence, and we notice this most obviously in the use of narration in Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. None of the narrators are articulate in any grammatically conventional sense of the term, and in Forms of Being Bersani and Dutoit note there are other characters who could more readily carry the weight of metaphysical inquiry, including the colonel (Nick Nolte) in The Thin Red Line who can quote Homer in the Greek and studied at West Point, and the captain (Elias Koteas) whose background is in law. But they also observe that “language raises questions which, Malick’s film suggests, language may be inherently unable to answer.” The colonel and the captain would be in no better a position to answer the questions than anybody else: the inexpressible gap still yawns. What interests Malick is the space between what is expressed and what cannot be expressed, and though Cavell observes this is central to film, what is interesting is how filmmakers who choose to deal with it open the problem up in different ways. If Antonioni often does so through neurotic, wealthy characters, Resnais through containing his characters within a broader sense of time and space than the characters’ own existence, and Scorsese by proposing any anger within his characters is greater than the situation, Malick does so through creating a naivety of response met by the unusual sophistication of the form recognising and respecting the epic nature of this naivety.

There are numerous moments in The Thin Red Line exemplifying this approach, and they are often scenes that in themselves contain the ‘cinematically naïve’, the use of convention not too far removed from the commonplaces Malick’s characters would offer. Throughout the film we’ve heard one soldier, Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin), telling us how significant his wife’s love is, and Malick gives us voice-over, flashbacks and an exchange between Bell and another soldier to illustrate how important the relationship happens to be. But then of course she sends him the dear Jack letter and it is all over. In purely script terms this is cliché, but in cinematic terms Malick captures well Jack’s inexpressibility in the face of loss. As we hear the letter in his wife’s voice-over, and as we see flashbacks to their time together, Jack staggers around as if drunk, before we see a plane landing in the near distance. In the plane’s landing Malick achieves the opposite of the pathetic fallacy and instead what we might call, clumsily, the ‘anthropometaphorical’. If in cinema the pathetic fallacy utilises the idea that nature and the characters’ general surroundings reflect their inner state, evident when characters break up and the rain starts, Malick is more circumspect. While it is true that the music on the soundtrack and the flashbacks take us inside Jack’s turmoil, the plane is a breathtaking moment of disinterest that is nevertheless not remotely insensitive. The anthropometaphorical manages to balance sensitivity towards character with a broader sense of the world’s indifference because of its magnitude. It doesn’t say a person is bigger than the world, and thus offers a pathetic fallacy as the world reflects his joy or pain, nor does it say the person is utterly irrelevant, more that man, however small, is a meaningful part of that world. If the pathetic fallacy gives human feelings to nature often all the better to reflect human feeling, Malick sees that nature and the world is not simply reflective of human thought and feeling, but encompasses it.

Now disinterest and insensitivity in Malick’s work are not at all the same thing, and this is where critics of his seventies films would seem to have missed the point. When Pauline Kael in Reeling and Stanley Kauffmann in Before My Eyes respectively accuse Malick of “tasteful effects while he demonstrates Kit’s and Holly’s nothingness” and “all that Malick seems to care about is not to seem to care too much which he apparently thinks will be ultra-cool in the middle of scenic splendour”, are they not confusing disinterest with insensitivity? If Malick were to search out too readily the sensitive, he wouldn’t perhaps achieve the ‘one big soul’ Bersani and Dutoit refer to in their essay, but this doesn’t mean he arrives at the insensitive as a consequence. It is more that his distance from sensitivity gives space to the inexpressible. This is evident in another scene with Bell that again could pass for cliché. After the soldiers have taken a key hill top post from the Japanese, Bell sits shaking with a range of emotions as he doesn’t so much seem to be thinking, as neurologically feeling; is this not yet again the sensitive character facing the horrors of war? That is true but this is not how Malick couches it. The director doesn’t seem much interested in coping strategies, maturity and adjusting to tough situations. The director is more concerned with the absence of calm, in the failure of Bell not to be a man, but failing to be disinterested in the face of a brutal situation.

He is the opposite in this moment of the great calm both Witt and Bell invoke earlier in the film. Witt comments on his mother’s death that the immortality he didn’t see is hidden in the calm that he did witness. Later on Bell talks about a similar sense of calm that emanates from the love of his wife. In each instance they have sought out a sort of situational disinterest that is at the very heart of Malick’s work, is even the soul of it. One’s place in the universe is tiny, but it is a place. In the moment with Bell on the hill top it is more the opposite: the world’s enormity doesn’t create a bigger calm, but a greater chaos; a feeling much greater than Bell’s immediate situation.

When we earlier mentioned the historical dimension to Malick’s films, we did so with the idea that the past creates the first stage of distance. Such an approach in-itself allows for nostalgia, and indeed critic Paul Monaco once referred to nostalgia as ‘memory without pain’. But maybe the first stage is memory with pain, and a stage beyond that, is memory with disinterest. How to perceive existence from the calm of the beyond whilst still capturing the situation as it takes place? In the three Malick films we have talked about, the director searches out violent situations without filming them violently, melodramatic scenarios without narrating them melodramatically, and situational extremes without leaving the viewer inside that situation. In Days of Heaven, for example, what the script gurus call ‘the inciting incident’, where in the film the central character loses his temper and ends up killing a work colleague, is filmed with the sound of the factory but without the sound of Richard Gere’s voice as he initially argues vociferously with the other man. Malick retreats from the given drama, but doesn’t retreat at all from expressive states. Thus while Malick appears interested in the inexpressible gap as a failure to communicate one’s feelings, at the same time Malick creates characters that in voice-over do try and express them. Malick often retreats from expression dramatically, and then alludes to it instead in voice-over. Whether it is Holly missing her creature comforts whilst on the run with Kit, Linda Manz’s character saying that we have half devil/half angel in us in Days of Heaven, or the various soldiers in The Thin Red Line musing over the fundaments of being, these are characters not in retreat from expression, and Malick searches out the disclosing of it by filming the inarticulate enquiry with articulate disinterest.

What Malick offers is a curious form not of condescension as critics like Kael and Kauffmann assume, but instead surely its opposite: a form of empathic aesthetics, a point Bersani and Dutoit and Cavell seem to be proposing. When Bersani and Dutoit believe that Malick creates forms of being not especially out of what the characters in The Thin Red Line say, but in how they look, it is the director’s purpose to capture this look in the faces of the actors, and also to capture it in the use of the camera. As the writers note the wide-eyed expression of Witt, and the exaggerated wide-eyed look of another character, Fife, so the film also seems to open its eyes wide to the beauty and the horror in front of it. This isn’t a war movie which looks schemingly and suspiciously at the events that unfold. It is instead a film that wants to find form for befuddled wonderment, for the sort of calm that can still that frenetic inertia. The characters openly express it in voice-over; and Malick matches that means of expression in visual form that completes the articulation. When Manz’s Linda muses over having half devil/half angel inside us, Malick gives credence to her semi-articulation by showing how that manifests itself in the images in front of us as Bill (Gere) is killed. In this moment the articulation is not an illustration – taking into account what McKee condemns earlier – it is an additional expression. As the film moves towards Bill’s death, we don’t expect Linda’s words to continue explaining her metaphysical insight; the burden of proof rests in the images. As Bersani and Dutoit say of The Thin Red Line, “the film proposes something…that does not exactly answer Witt’s questions and yet takes them all into account.” This is what Malick does with Holly’s voice-over in Badlands, and Linda’s in Days of Heaven. These are not especially unreliable narrators; more limited ones, and the images help to expand upon those limitations.

Something must be said for our lives, Cavell rightly insists. “We are saying something now, always, or allowing it to be said.” It is often believed that certain films give voice to the poor, the destitute, the hungry, but this is a materialist ethics that very understandably wants greater rights for the dispossessed. Malick, though, is one of those filmmakers, perhaps a little like early Fellini in La Strada, Pasolini in Accatone and Mama Roma, who wants to find a spiritual dimension to that dispossession, and expand upon it to say that we are all constantly in danger of being spiritually dispossessed. Perhaps it is only in escaping the uninhabited hustle, to find a place of calm disinterest, that the inexpressible gap can be articulated. In an essay called Idealism, Emerson says “’the problem of philosophy’, according to Plato, ‘is for all that exists conditionally, to find a ground unconditioned and absolute.”’ Film is for Malick the immediate form in which to couch this abstract problem.

©Tony McKibbin