Not too long ago I watched Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011). This prompted a visitation of his film before that, The New World (2005). Though one would not suspect a traditionally narrative film to possess the same spiritual quality as a wholly philosophical film (The Tree Of Life), there was an undeniable sense of the abstract and celestial to the images of The New World.
Typically, most audiences and critics cite Andrei Tarkovsky as the master of emoting the diverse realm of the human spirit with the images in his narrative films, but I find that the same is equally true and just as prevalent in Malick’s filmography. Even The Tree Of Life resembles Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), and not just in its unconventional structure, or in its fusion of a tangible reality with the fantastic. What’s most important to the spiritual potency in the films of Malick and Tarkovsky is the perfect hybrid of sound and image.
In most films, this marriage of technology is directed to articulating an aspect of the narrative. Walter Murch’s work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is a prime example of this intent. Every sound on the audio track gives the image a sense of space in our own shared reality, lending the film’s narrative credibility. If Gene Hackman’s character lifts a toilet seat, the sound will be exaggerated, though only slightly, to suggest the weight, material, and all of the other details associated with the object and the room that it inhabits.
Contrary to this traditional approach is Terrence Malick. Malick takes what Tarkovsky has done before and pushes it further into the abstract, which in this case is the world of the human consciousness. Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1979) has the most obvious example of this tactic at work. When Linda Manz’s character enters Middle America atop of a rail car we see first her face, then what she is seeing. What she sees is a sea of grain at magic hour, a golden ocean of grass expanding as far as the eye or the camera can see. In conjunction with these images are a mix of subtle diegetic sounds, non-diegetic music, and a voice over sitting on top of the mix. This image of nature and the suggestion of a tangible world provided by the diegetic sound suggest a familiar reality. But this reality becomes an unreal and expressionistic manifestation of the interior of the character’s mind. Though this may seem like the old parlor trick of any seasoned filmmaker, Malick’s films find a new spiritual depth in such moments largely because of his genius for choosing images of nature that are powerful, other worldly and yet familiar.
It’s this familiarity that sets Malick’s work apart from that of Tarkovsky. When Tarkovsky’s films began to probe more philosophical and spiritual issues more explicitly with Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), such powerful images were manufactured in part by the genre of the films, science fiction. The Mirror along with Tarkovsky’s later films come closer to what Malick is able to achieve, though Tarkovsky never really abandoned the more conventional approach to wedding sound with image in his films.
Malick has never really changed his approach to sound, but he has found more dynamic images for his moments of spiritual contemplation. The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World are both films dominated by the most grandiose of trees whose dominion over the frame is over whelming, though their natural beauty is never undeniable to the audience. Such elements of the natural world, when presented in this manner, become representations of complicated emotions experienced by characters within the films, though they are never verbally articulated in the film. They never really have to be.
Once I had revisited a few of Malick’s films I took a walk. I was surprised that these moments were so potent in their representation of emotional truth that I found myself truly moved when I happened to stop and gaze at a particularly gigantic elm. This is a rare accomplishment in the cinema. Often films manage to squeeze an emotional reaction or even rarer, revelation, if the film is done well. But to experience a new means to approaching one’s understanding of what one sees and it’s ramifications as a signifier is something to be cherished.