The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Tarkovsky’s Disruption of the Soul
Joshua McCrary | On Jun 13, 2015
In Spring 2015, Joshua Sikora led a Media Studies class examining the celebrated work of Terrence Malick, the elusive auteur behind films like Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life. This article, written by Cinema & New Media Arts senior Joshua McCrary, explores some of the interesting connections the class drew between Malick’s work and the pioneering films of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. We also invite you to check out other articles from the class as they’re posted throughout the summer.
Terrence Malick is an unconventional filmmaker. In a time when mainstream American cinema lives and dies by its entertainment value, and independent cinema is still trying to get out from under it, Malick is one of the few American directors who doesn’t seem to care if you’re entertained. At times it seems he wants you to feel bored. Sometimes he pushes the viewer to feel uncomfortable.
Most conversations about the purpose of film seem to almost always come to one of two conclusions: film’s value is either as entertainment or found in its ability to convey a message or central idea. Film’s purpose is either for pleasure or teaching. Films that manage to do both get the most universal praise.
But this is where Malick is interesting. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with either of these. He doesn’t care whether or not you’re entertained (somewhat more true of his later films than his earliest) and the deeper you push into his films, the more it seems they don’t have a clear message. Rather than a moral mandate or takeaway idea, Malick’s films prompt more questions than they answer.
We are left, then, wondering what is the purpose of Malick’s films, and by extension, what does Malick think the purpose of cinema is? Since Malick is famously silent about his work, we have to look to other similar filmmakers and artists to see if we can garner some wisdom from their thoughts. The great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, writes in his book on filmmaking, Sculpting in Time:
“The allotted function of Art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
Here Tarkovsky introduces an intriguing theory, what he calls “plowing” or “harrowing” the soul. Explaining exactly what he means by this could be an entire thesis of its own, but in short, it’s the idea that film (and art) is less effective at teaching the viewer than it is at disrupting and stirring up their soul. If teaching or communicating a message is thought of as planting seeds, then Tarkovsky is suggesting that art’s role is not that of the planter, but that of the plower, preparing the soil — that is, our soul — for the seeds of truth.
This, to me at least, is a compelling way of thinking about art, but how great art accomplishes this seems like a more complicated question to explore. I think the key to how art can “plow the soul” might have something to do with disruption. Plows are used to disrupt and churn up soil, taking things from their sedentary status quo and sending them back into a state of formative chaos. If Tarkovsky is right, great films plow the soul by disrupting our perception of the world with new images, thoughts, and experiences that challenge our assumptions or our presuppositions.
In The Mirror, Tarkovsky juxtaposes traditional images of a Russian childhood, but shot and colored in an unnerving desaturated green tone, juxtaposed with surreal and unsettling images of a floating mother and strangers who aren’t at the door. It makes you feel that same way you felt when you were a kid, and it makes you feel uncomfortable, because there is something inside you that still needs to be addressed. He does the same thing in Nostalghia, making audiences feel the unease of nostalgia, the pain that pulls you backward. Tarkovsky harrows your soul by making you feel the lack, sense your own longing for something more, and feel what’s broken. He makes you realize that something you watched just made you uncomfortable and maybe that something is worth examining.
I think Malick is doing something similar in his films, although unlike Tarkovsky, who wrote a book about his approach to cinema, Malick’s aims remain more opaque. One of the most obvious ways Malick works to disrupt the souls of his viewers is by asking questions. On the surface, this is one of the most noticeable components of Malick’s films, with the dialogue of his most recent films becoming more and more comprised of questions rather than statements.
But on a deeper, narrative level I think Malick prepares his viewers to find answers by asking the necessary questions they need to wrestle with. His films ask straightforward questions in very simple terms. Badlands asks where to find meaning, truth, and morality in world consumed by cults of personality and self. Films like Days of Heaven, and especially The New World and The Thin Red Line, spend time rolling in the depths of nature, wallowing in its beauty, all the while juxtaposed with human characters who are everywhere corrupting their beauty and goodness. They try to make us feel the lack this creates and the contradiction this raises.
To the Wonder spends most of its runtime ruminating on how broken human relationships are. It leads you to wonder why our love is so inadequate, so imperfect. Near the end of the film, the narrative culminates when Javier Bardem’s priest puts out a quiet, broken request — “Teach us where to seek you… Show us how to seek you.”
I think that’s the jumping off point. I think maybe this is how Malick tries to harrow and prepare our souls, to make us ready for truth and goodness. You can’t find the answer until you know the question and you can’t change until you realize you need to. This, I think, is the gap Malick and Tarkovsky try to fill with their art. In a very practical sense, film will never be able to change anyone, but hopefully, it can show us what needs to change and lead us to pursue the truth ourselves.
Joshua McCrary is a Houston native and a senior in HBU’s Cinema & New Media Arts program. He loves film and is interested in animation, game development, and graphic novels.