Martin Woenesser on the films of Terrence Malick, from "What Is Heideggerian Cinema?
Here we reach the paradox at the heart of Malick’s filmmaking—indeed,
of all filmmaking. If Malick’s movies offer us “the world viewed,” the world as it is, they are nevertheless—like all films—feats of monumental artifice and, furthermore, technological manipulation. Despite his traditional methods, and his naturalistic style, which never overlooks an opportunity to stitch visions of natural harmony and beauty into the human drama on-screen, Malick nevertheless works in a medium made possible by technology itself. In fact, as many of his collaborators have testified, Malick is somewhat of a technological whiz, the rare director who knows as much about film stock, lenses, and editing as any of the professional cinematographers and editors he hires. But each film’s presentation hides such technical virtuosity. The projected image covers over the materiality of its creation, even as it consumes huge amounts of matériel, whether in the form of capital, machines, or people. It offers up a world while simultaneously concealing its own world, its own origin. We can see the brushstrokes in the painting, feel the cuts in the marble statue, inhabit the spaces and places made possible by architecture—but film appears before us magically, as if independent of the massive process that actually manufactured it. Film gives us the world, another world even, but at what cost? In his essay “The Age of the World Picture,” Heidegger sought to explain the unrelenting grasp that the technological mind-set has on us by arguing that when we humans came at last to see ourselves as living on a world, we had finally replaced any notion of dwelling with a rationalist, external, and objectified vision of existence. “The fundamental event of the modern age,” he proclaimed, “is the conquest of the world as picture.” We had effectively enframed the world, turning it into “standing reserve.” Is Malick part of this?
The cinema of Terrence Malick is undoubtedly an instance of enframing,
but of a very different sort. Rather than give us a world to be manipulated, Malick’s films provoke us to question the world. They do not, in fact, offer us a “standing reserve” or even, conversely, a poetic home in which to dwell. Rather, they point always and everywhere beyond the frame, back to those very groundless grounds of human freedom Malick had reconnoitered as a philosophy student. His films, like the philosophy he studied, help us see being-in-the world as a gift, albeit one for which we alone are ultimately responsible. At the same time, they also point beyond our anthropocentric blinders. Malick’s films may not offer us the metaphysical comfort of a safe and secure place in the cosmos, but they do make us aware of the importance of this desire. They are neither more nor less important than academic philosophy, yet in addressing how the world is made—how we, in dwelling, make and remake the world—they may have achieved some of the very things that Malick sought to accomplish so many years ago as an undergraduate. I cannot agree with commentators who have interpreted Malick’s films as holding out “the possibility of reconciliation with the world”, if only because the world is not something external, something out there, to which we can be reconciled. But insofar as these artistic productions continue to give us, more humbly, “a sense of things,” they might continue to inspire further reflection. They might continue to spur us to thought, to reconsider just how it was that this world—my world, our world—has come about and what has been gained or lost in the process. In this day and age, when the technology of American-led globalization has finally conquered distance, when it has displaced, eliminated, or simply surmounted the boundaries and limitations of nature, such reflections are sorely, even desperately needed.