by Kaleem Hasan
A truly magnificent work from Terence Malick and really one of the very extraordinary films of recent times. The extended cut (which is really the director’s favored one) is a revelation in every sense. One gets the true rhythm and notes of the film and with this particular director these features become especially important.
I have long considered Malick to be truly important in world terms and though he has made just four films I rate three of these (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) as absolute masterpieces. The New World has a claim to be considered the director’s greatest. It possibly complements The Thin Red Line thematically but certainly stylistically.
Much could be written on Malick’s visuals, his sense of time, his ‘transcendental filmmaking’, his ellipses. Perhaps he is ultimately a director of das Mystische as Wittgenstein would phrase (though Malick probably comes to this a different way as an amateur translator of Heidegger) it. His work is always a little mysterious, a little about the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of language.
I do not intend to write anything remotely comprehensive on The New World here much less on the director’s oeuvre but there is one particular element of his visual grammar that I find fascinating. From Badlands to this most recent film Malick seems to have moved away from the notion of the earth as that which ultimately ‘grounds’ the human or the site of final ‘solidity’ towards a view where increasingly the earth is fragile because it is often as ‘liquid’ as water. From this perspective Malick’s evolution in terms of his visual choices could be considered an ever greater exercise in ‘liquidity’.
The granite quality of the Dakotas in Badlands gives way to the wind-blown grass in Days of Heaven which reaches human height at times and really drowns the earth’s ‘firmness’. The earth becomes increasingly unstable because it is only accessed in this film by way of such ‘liquid’ grass. Not only this. The whole film is shot in the brown and golden hues of sunrise and sunset enhancing the idea of ‘nature as process’ rather than as stable home. A ‘heaven’ this appears to be but not an ‘abode’ of final repose!
After a very long hiatus Malick returned to his own Iliad of a film in The Thin Red Line where nature became a little more mysterious. Even as humans struggle titanically in a battle it is the contours of the earth and all the ‘shifting’ qualities of the latter that complete the film’s dialectic. Here for the first time water becomes all important. Not simply an element that bounds the ‘earth’ but one kind of ‘liquidity’ juxtaposed with another – water and earth.
This new movement reaches its climax in the current film where this well known tale of colonialism becomes the perfect site to not just develop the visual grammar but also provide an omnibus effort of sorts for the entire thematic trajectory of Malick’s career. There are competing notions of the earth here, competing ideas of the foreign. The ‘native’ is privileged as ‘she’ who is equally at home on land or in water while the Western colonist is ‘he’ who only thinks of water as a place of crossing to get to ever more ‘virgin’ land. But also there is war as not just something that happens between humans but also an enterprise that involves the earth and water. To love is to engage in the ‘mystery’ in these last three films.
Antonioni in his Eclipse thinks of ‘nature’ as mysterious (the trees swaying in the wind..) but also a little menacing (the trees again but also the sun at the end.. nature as that which can witness human extinction). The New World could even be an odd rewrite of L’Eclisse (Antonioni is also concerned with African natives and Western stock markets.. the liquidity of the latter grounds the solidity of the ‘material’ while for the former there is no such distinction..).
One nonetheless objects. Why is there not the ‘animal’ in Malick’s world? So much earth and water, so much nature and yet the only access to each occurs by way of the human. In certain ways Malick subverts Heidegger by problematizing the latter’s entire earth/world dichotomy. The first of this couple is itself an earth/water dichotomy. It is fair to suggest that the ‘liquid’ is quite far from Heidegger’s basic grammar at every stage of his thought though one might find ‘air’ in the latter writings much as there is assuredly ‘fire’ earlier on. If one thinks of this elemental fourfold Heidegger misses water. Malick seems to have it all. And yet he is still faithfully Heideggerian in terms of not granting enough to the animal, not even as much as Heidegger does. The ‘animal’ is just not represented in such an important oeuvre.
Finally it should be added that Malick’s long takes are itself indicative of his ‘liquid’ grammar (as I see it) and perhaps for him the ‘cut’ is too ‘solid’. It is critical to point out that Badlands is the one film which is less easily assimilable to the stylistics I have laid out for the very reason I mentioned earlier on. It is all about terra firma here!
All of these are just meant to be very scattered reflections. It would take a great deal to expand on all of these points and really argue comprehensively for this entire view. The Heidegger influence is more obvious. I think a close reading of L’Eclisse couple with similar ones of Malick’s cinema could be interesting (perhaps beyond this.. is not Antonioni’s The Passenger his own ‘liquid’ desert world that emerges from the geometrical solids of the earlier films? L’Eclisse already hints at this, The Red Desert has an all important moment with ‘water’…)
Kaleem Hasan is a freelance writer whose specialty is literature, film, politics and philosophy.