Date of Award
Master of Liberal Arts (MLA)
The cinematic legacy of Terrence Malick, while not settled because the director still lives and makes films, is already a turbulent one. A reclusive philosophy student, Malick’s early output accumulated admiration when Malick disappeared from cinema for twenty years. Like so many great 20th-century artists, including J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, Malick’s absence grew his legend, so his return was welcomed with anticipation and acclaim. As Malick’s output becomes more frequent, though, some are growing cold to his work, asserting that it is repetitive and pretentious, and borders on self-parody. Still others charge that Malick was only regarded as a genius because his mythic status remained shrouded in mystery. However, I argue Malick’s career turned with the release of his 2011 film The Tree of Life. While a preoccupation with the beauty of nature and the duality of man floods Malick’s previous films, each film from 2011 to present has ventured farther away from traditional narrative structure and the audience’s expectations of contemporary American cinema and closer to a cinematic memoir that blends aesthetic experimentation with a deep interest in the historically-influential philosophical notions of immanence and transcendence. While the philosophy of Malick’s films is recognizably Christian, as many critics and scholars will note, it runs deeper than that. Malick is concerned with the possibility of the human encounter with the sublime to, as Schopenhauer would describe, awaken self-consciousness. However, while Schopenhauer would have self-consciousness liberating itself from the will, Malick’s account of the sublime and human exaltation reaffirms the individual (his will and his intellect, among other things) through self-consciousness that results from a recognition of each individual person as also being a part of the story of humanity. In doing so, Malick’s phenomenology more closely resembles Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology” and conception of Being as “grounded” in, yet distinct from, a being. Understood this way, Malick’s choice to eschew traditional characterization in his films supports their philosophical interests. Likewise, his cinematography and editing patterns evoke the power of cinema to present memory as associated logic and time as free from linearity. My project will also include the study of neurocinematics to explore how Malick’s experimental aesthetics both underline his philosophical ideas and create a divisive experience for the audience. Particular attention will be paid to shot composition, elements of mise-en-scène, and editing techniques, specifically the duration of individual shots and the effect of juxtaposing different scenes together, to create an associative meaning only possible through non-narrative cinema. Finally, I will show how all of this makes for a Romantic humanism, which Harold Bloom would describe as “an attempt to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” Traditionally, transcendence is understood as that which goes beyond the physical level. For Malick, though, transcendence is an essential part of the human’s experience of the sublime in the natural, physical world -- in a word, “immanence.” Malick, in abstracting the specifics of plot, attempts to compose a cinematic representation of the essence of a human life by creating a highly-formal aesthetic experience which asks the viewer to consider the metaphysical shining through the mundane. Malick should be understood, then, as documenting the American experience through a complex aesthetic representation of being, transcendence, and immanence. In the final analysis, my project will show how Malick’s aesthetic experimentation engages the viewer neurologically in ways that both upset the expectations of narrative cinema and establish its own cinematic grammar. The philosophical concerns of Malick’s films -- namely, explorations of man’s relationship with the divine through an experience with nature, man’s spiritual journey from darkness into light, the fluidity of time and memory, and ontology of the soul -- necessitate a distinct style, one which seeks to represent a convergence of transcendence and immanence.
Chair and Committee
Mark Rollins, Ignacio Sanchez Prado
Keeley, Timothy, "A Phenomenological Approach to the Later Films of Terrence Malick" (2017). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1070.