Why Terrence Malick, and why now? When I asked poets, novelists, artists, and critics about the films that meant the most to them, Malick was the figure that kept cropping up in our conversations. I got notes back written in brilliantly divergent moods of awe and controlled anger. There’s a sense in which Malick’s films are spectacularly out of touch with our era, in the best and the worst possible senses of the phrase. The experimental sensibility of his recent work contains a multitude of wonders and flaws. His early films, long since canonized as contemporary classics, remain volatile and require insistent questioning.
The pages that follow investigate Malick’s films from Badlands (1973) to Song to Song (2017). I asked each contributor to reflect on one film, but in two cases—Days of Heaven (1978) and Knight of Cups (2015)—the films called out for a double take from a second point of view. Some of the pieces are personal essays while others offer critical perspectives. Some of the writers remain in Malick’s corner, while others are falling out of love before our eyes. Writers take it personally when Malick fails to live up to their expectations, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves when they describe their devotion to his films. This divisiveness itself is a virtue worth preserving.
Malick’s career so far can be divided into two categories. There are the four painstakingly constructed films he directed over four decades: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005). Then there are the five films he released at great speed within a six-year span, all but one collaborations with the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups, Voyage of Time (2016), and Song to Song. These phases in Malick’s work represent some of the most acclaimed American films of the last fifty years as well as some of the most poorly received pictures of the twenty-first century by a major director.
I admire the imperfections and blunders, the gambles and disasters, and the thousand tiny searching glimpses of life caught up in the vast net of Malick’s more recent films. So much is wagered, and so much of it painfully lost, in Malick’s frenetic efforts to claw back something purely cinematic from a mainstream culture afflicted by stylistic sameness. Malick is aware of the risks he’s taking. Isn’t he speaking to his audience indirectly along with Faye (Rooney Mara) when she notes in the much-misunderstood Song to Songthat “I don’t seem to bring people happiness anymore”? And later: “What if I don’t become an artist?” Surely that is a question driving any valuable work.
In his new films Malick is thinking aloud, opening his notebooks and delving into the creative process itself. We’re attempting to emulate something of that sensibility here. “There’s something else,” Faye suggests in Song to Song, “something that wants us to find it.”
—J. M. Tyree
In this issue (NER 39.2):
JENNIFER CHANG Watching Badlands in New Jersey
A. VAN JORDAN A House Is Not a Home: The Farmer’s House Holds Passion in Days of Heaven
MICHAEL PARKER Mud Doctoring: On Days of Heaven
ELIZABETH BRADFIELD Beauty’s Failed Seduction: The Thin Red Line
SKIP HORACK On Parakeets, in The New World
JUSTIN ST. GERMAIN Dinosaurs and Dads: On The Tree of Life
MORGAN MEIS Two Letters About Two Viewings of To the Wonder
KRISTI McKIM Moving Away and Circling Back: On Knight of Cups
IMAD RAHMAN I Watch Knight of Cups
MAUD CASEY A Speck in the Universe: On Voyage of Time
DAUPO Four Moments from Song to Song