Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Cosmic Cinema: On the Philosophical Films of Terrence Malick

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Cosmic Cinema: On the Philosophical Films of Terrence Malick

Article excerpt

Since winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2011 for his fifth feature film, The Tree of Life, the American director Terrence Malick has embarked upon the most prolific period of his filmmaking career. It has been quite a turnaround. In just five years his cinematic output has doubled, and there are more projects on the horizon. The 2016 premieres of Knight of Cups and the IMAX spectacle Voyage of Time, along with the forthcoming release of Song to Song, have ensured that a filmmaker who was once known primarily for his reclusiveness is now the subject of almost constant media attention. For over forty years Malick has sequestered himself from the gossip and publicity networks that comprise the Hollywood system-the setting, in fact, of Knight of Cups-but his determination to stay out of the public eye only seems to have heightened the sense of awe and intrigue surrounding his films. He is now one of the most talked about American directors of recent memory, with each of his films receiving the kind of reverential analysis that is usually reserved for the work of canonized filmmakers such as Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick.

Whether it takes the form of websites, blogs, or old-fashioned books and articles, fascination with Malick and his cinematic work is widespread and fervent. It has been so from the beginning. His first film, Badlands, wowed audiences when it was first screened at the New York Film Festival in 1973-the story goes that Malick hand-delivered the reels to festival organizers after flying across the country with the canisters on his lap. But never again would Malick play such a personal role in promoting his work. His twenty-year absence from the director's chair, stretching from his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), to his third, The Thin Red Line (1998), transformed him into a kind of cinematic Sasquatch, rumored to be here, there, or anywhere, so long as it was not a film set. But it is the films themselves, not Malick's persona, which generate most of the commentary today. In part, this is because they defy easy categorization. They are variously described as meditative, poetic, or picturesque, or by some combination thereof, as his fourth film, The New World (2005), usually is. But they are also viewed as somehow philosophical, and it is their philosophical content that has sent many viewers to the discussion boards.

Unlike the usual Hollywood fare, Malick's films tackle some pretty big questions. In the words of film critic A.O. Scott, reviewing Tree of Life for the New York Times some five years ago, not many directors "venture so boldly or grandly onto the primordial terrain of philosophical and religious inquiry where the answers to basic and perennial questions seem to lie. Why are we here? How do we know? What does it mean?"1 Indeed, The Tree of Life, which tackles the themes of mortality, alienation, identity, community, and memory, is a kind of philosophical testament. It is a loosely autobiographical account of Malick's own childhood in Texas, but it also dramatizes nothing less than the creation of the universe, the meaning of human life, and the possibility that the two might be entwined somehow. The film is a stunning example of what the philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink has called "cinematic thinking"2 It doesn't just depict philosophy, it does it.

In some respects, The Tree of Life is merely a prelude to Voyage of Time, an IMAX film that also tackles some pretty big themes, and does so without relying upon the handful of traditional cinematic tropes Malick deploys in the earlier work. Gone is the family drama and the coming-of-age plot. In its place we find a poetic meditation on the nature of existence, tackling everything from the Big Bang to a possibly post-human future. Short on running time but long on intellectual ambition, Voyage of Time guides us through, among other things, the origins of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the mysterious appearance of consciousness-all in just about forty minutes. …

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