The year 2016 witnessed two feature films of US director Terrence Malick being released: Knight of Cups and two distinct versions of Voyage of Time (one for IMAX that runs 40 minutes shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, and another a regular 90 minute version shown in the prestigious competition section of the Venice International Film Festival). Voyage of Time is a film on the creation of the earth and the human development of the planet over centuries and is scheduled for release worldwide in October 2016.
It is not unusual for a director to complete and release two films in a year. However, what is unusual is that Malick, the famous recluse among film directors, has become hyperactive in 2016. Between his second film Days of Heaven (1978) and his third film The Thin Red Line (1998), there was a 20-year hiatus. He has only made eight feature-length films over 43 years. Two of these eight were made in 2016. Even more unusual is that of the two feature-length films released this year, one is a feature length documentary with actors playing our ancestors. The Thin Red Line won him the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin film Festival and The Tree of Life (2011) the Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival, two of the highest recognitions in world cinema. Ironically, while European film festivals have been quick to hail the unusual talents of this American, he is yet to win an Oscar in his own country though he and his films have been nominated for the statuette several times. Only his Days of Heaven won an Oscar for Nestor Almendros’ stunning cinematography. Interestingly, a recent BBC poll of film critics around the globe identified three of Malick’s films made in the 21st century among their top hundred films of quality, one of which made it to the top ten.
Terrence Malick as an actor in his 1973 film “Badlands”
Malick is unknown to many for several reasons. He does not give interviews to journalists and evidently avoids media attention. Photographers were kept out by the organizers of the Cannes film festival when he did make a rare appearance after the screening of The Tree of Life . When TIME magazine ran a cover story on his third film two decades ago, the magazine found it very difficult to get a good photograph of the director. In today’s world of smartphones, a few photographs of the elusive director shooting his films have surfaced.
Malick, whose paternal grandfather migrated from Lebanon to the USA, is an unusual filmmaker not merely because he shuns publicity. He is arguably one of the most well-read and considerably educated among the tribe of film directors worldwide. He is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Harvard (USA) and Oxford (UK) Universities where he studied philosophy. Subsequently, he taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He joined the first batch of students at the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory in 1969 and earned a post-graduate degree. He even wrote articles as a journalist for the top of the line publications such as New Yorker, Newsweek, and Life.
Christian Bale and Kate Cate Blanchett in a Knight of Cups scene
It is, therefore, natural that Malick infuses each of his films with loads of philosophy and theology, constantly referring to unusual but important written works of literature and philosophy in his films. Most viewers fail to pick up the myriad metaphors and the connections between stunning visuals, interesting pieces of music carefully picked from around the globe and the loaded off-screen verbal narration by actors in broken sentences, unless of course the viewer is well read. Most of his later films are his own original writings and often autobiographical. Though much of his films are overtly Christian in spirit, the film The Thin Red Line referred to varied scriptures of other religions, such as the Bhagavad Gita, and the film Knight of Cups to the Persian (Iranian) mystic Suhrawardi (1154-91), the founder of Illuminationism, a school of Islamic philosophy. His film The Tree of Life was considerably linked to The Book of Job in the Bible, a religious figure revered by the Jews as Job and by the Muslims as Ayub.
Another reason for Malick’s cinema bewildering common audiences who are not familiar with various scriptures or teachings of philosophers referred to within the films is that in Malick’s films actors rarely speak their lines directly to the camera. The actors’ lines are heard more often as ruminations or thoughts and not captured as spoken lines as one is used to in conventional cinema.
Still from “Voyage of Time”
It is for this reason that actors and actresses such as Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Colin Farrell, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Jessica Chastain, and Natalie Portman, glide through Malick’s films as eye candy most of the time, emoting without speaking at length. Malick’s cinema offers a new option to what was accepted as “spoken” cinema for decades. In Malick’s films, the viewer hears the narrators and rarely sees them speaking those lines. What is seen in his films is linked to the spoken word heard on the soundtrack and the music chosen with considerable care to highlight those words. Thus actors recede in importance compared to natural and physical locations captured by the camera invoking a new kind of cinematic poetry.
Visually each Malick film is spectacular—the only aspect that does not demand much of the viewer. All his films, initially considered incomprehensible, have steadily gained in acceptance by viewers over time as being an unusual cinema with knowledgeable critics unravelling the depths of his cinema and helping viewers to enjoy and demystify what his films offer as entertainment of a serious and philosophical hue, in contrast to the world of thrillers and super-heroes.