I'm two-thirds of the way through a Terrence Malick project: to see all of his films in a concentrated period. In the last week I've watched Badlands and Days of Heaven, both for the first time, The Thin Red Line for the second, and The New World for the first. By this time next week I expect to have rewatched Tree of Life and seen To the Wonder, which I somehow missed even hearing about when it came out. I guess there's something to this ivory tower thing.
I expect I'll have more to say then, but for the moment, here's where I'm at.
I think I like Malick when he's at his most untethered. He's not particularly interested in character or story, so he's at his weakest when he tries to stick closest to those things. Conversely he's at his best when his material is so mundane that he's able to leap freely into the realm of what he is particularly interested in. Accordingly, so far I think Tree of Life and Days of Heaven are his best.
I can follow him into the mystic. Communion with nature, film as religious experience, the epiphany, the world infused with the glory of God. All okay. To be honest I'm not there right now in my life, but I was once, and the memory of it is still vivid enough that I will argue for it as an important human experience, and a valid subject for artistic creation. I never want to get far enough into the material that I stop being able to appreciate Van Morrison or Gerard Manley Hopkins. And that's the kind of vision Malick has, essentially: "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."
That being said, I'm not sure that's the proper response to everything. Proper isn't the word I'm looking for there, though. I'm not sure that every occasion is created equal as an occasion for that sort of visionmongering. There are some stories, some subjects, that perhaps might ask (in a polite, querulous tone) for a more conventional treatment. Even if it might dictate different conclusions.
That's why The Thin Red Line and The New World leave me nonplussed. The New World is a triumph of technique and feeling, but in the end it repeats the same old myths with the same old noble-savage rhetoric at heart. The story demands more. The history demands more. The Thin Red Line is more promising - the bloodshed-in-Eden irony is rich with possibility - but the actual experience of guys in combat demands a little more respectful hearing than Malick gives it. Both movies are notoriously filled with actors who are underutilized or even eliminated in the editing, and I think that indicates more than just an inefficient technique: it indicates that stories are being considered and then discarded. Suppressed.
Saying that Malick is uninterested in story and character is another way of saying that he's uninterested in people, at least as individuals. As flesh and blood. He's only interested in humans in the abstract, or in his own vision, which in the end is the same thing. His mystic vision is the kind of religion that cannot allow for the messiness of real people. It's antihumanist. In a way that makes his films perfect for a particular kind of postmodernist: a lot of us these days are very comfortable with the idea of humanity's perspective being decentered in favor of something else. But this is also how the left wraps around and becomes the right: Malick's diminution of human individuality in favor of the Big Truth isn't so different, in the end, from that behind an overtly religious epic like The Passion of the Christ. Right? There's no point in telling John Smith's story, or Private Witt's, really, because the only story that matters is the One Story.
Which is why I find Malick most satisfying when he's not pretending to do anything else. Tree of Life and Days of Heaven are about nothing but themselves and the vision. The Thin Red Line and The New World feel, especially the former, like they were supposed to be something else, something altogether more engaged with humanity, before the director gave up and retreated into his private world.
Badlands is the odd one out at this point, which is no surprise since it was his first. I wish I could have known what it was like to see that without knowing what he'd go on to do. It feels at first blush much more character-focused, much more invested in its people as people, actually interacting with each other and their environment, then his later movies. But the archetypal aspects (retreat from man's world into the natural, yearning for the transcendent) are obvious. And the nods toward a pop-culture-savvy cynicism, which might have seemed quite bracing in the early '70s when this was his only film, are now barely perceptible, and easily neglected because they're clearly not where Malick's heart lies. Maybe they were then, though.