Rosy-Fingered Dawn: The Natural Sublime in the work of Terrence Malick – Dimitrios Latsis

“And now the rosy-finger’d morn appears,
Shows every mournful face with tears o’erspread,
And glares on the pale visage of the dead.”
~ Iliad XIV 110 (Trans. Alexander Pope)

"Darkness and light, strife and love
are they the workings of one mind?
The features of the same face?
Oh my soul… look out through my eyes.
Look at the things you made,
all things shining."
~ Pvt Witt in The Thin Red Line

“Malick is haunted by place and nature…
In his films he is trying to capture that ghost.”

~ Sam Shepard

Midway through Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) (a war epic on the battle of Guadalcanal, based on the novel by James Jones) and while the battle is in full swing and bodies, napalm, grenades and bullets are flying all around, the director suddenly abandons this macrocosm of chaos for the intimacy of the microcosm of a dying man’s last moments. Attended by Capt. Staros and Cpl. Fife, a young soldier, Bead, is breathing his last. This scene of death departs from conventional war film depictions, in that it is shot from the point of view of nature. All diegetic sound is silenced and a recurring soft, hymnal music theme accompanies successive shots of foliage with sunrays washing over it from above. Finally, through dust and smoke, the thick light stream is seen penetrating an array of leaves through the myriad holes on them (the work of caterpillars, bullets?) as the young boy underneath succumbs.1

This quiet, isolated scene is an ideal illustration of a preoccupation Terrence Malick has maintained throughout his oeuvre: his films abound with scenes of a sublime nature and the toll that the human (technological) civilization is taking on it. Whether experiencing the effects of war and death through light-drenched leaves, distinguishing between free-spirited, harmoniously living naturals and intruding colonizers (as in the New World, 2005) or illustrating the introduction of industrialized farming in the as yet untamed pastures of the early 20th century Texas Panhandle (as in Days of Heaven, 1978), Malick has, through his penchant for powerful visuals and his experiential approach to cinema, filled his films with iterations of sublimity and more specifically -as I will argue- of a natural sublime redeemed triumphant over its technological counterpart. In what follows, I will attempt to explore the conception of the Longinian sublime as it emerges from Malick’s films (with emphasis on Days of Heaven and The New World), the way such an aesthetic construct is privileged through sight, sound, narrative ambiguity and the director’s philosophical outlook and how the two aforementioned models of sublimity are outlaid and contrasted.

Despite their philosophical preoccupations and existentialist outlook, Malick’s films haven’t received much sustained critical treatment through the years and have been regularly panned by the popular and middle-brow critical establishment, for a feature that will prove to be crucial in my analysis, namely their ambiguous, inconclusive narratives. In this spirit, Pauline Kael would call Days of Heaven “a series of pictorial effects that seem unrelated, pieced together” (Kael 1991, 177); Jonathan Rosenbaum muses that: “since Badlands his storytelling skills have atrophied” (Rosenbaum 2006); Roger Ebert complained that in The Thin Red Line “Malick isn’t sure where he is going or what he is saying” (Ebert 1999, 27) in his departure from Jones’s novel; while Leonard Maltin also diagnoses that for him “story is second priority” and that his films begin to wander without “glue” (Maltin 2009, 323; 1397). On the other side of the Atlantic, too, British and French journals have generally also adhered to this “great visuals, confusing narrative” mantra that has accompanied Malick’s films from the beginning.2

It would be fair, thus, to concur that the perception of Terrence Malick’s oeuvre has tended towards an iconoclastic, mystical (owing partly to his constant retreat from the public sphere) but narratively confusing and vague regard. Indeed, and most pertinently to my case, his pictorial sensitivity has been repeatedly characterized as tending towards the “sublime”, albeit with the more generic and impressionistic sense in which the word is usually encountered in the popular discourse3. In short, it has always been clear that in Malick the Image and not the Word, is God; in fact, as will become clear, the image is the word too, that is to say the mise-en-scene of nature assumes a narratological function.

Recently, there has been an attempt at looking into his work from a more philosophical and aesthetic vantage point. In their contribution as part of a recent edited collection, Mark Furstenau and Leslie MacAvoy put forth that Malick’s cinema can be seen as an attempt to visualize a state of being-in-the-world that is aligned with the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher to whose theories we know that Malick has been a distinguished disciple4. As for his take on the sublime, they observe that “Malick’s camera effects the upward glance to the sky, where the divine is intimated yet concealed” (Furstenau & MacAvoy 2007, 190). Stanley Cavell (Malick’s thesis supervisor at Harvard) before them, had pointed out that “the extremities and successions of beauty [in Days of Heaven] are those of a beauty left vacant, that crushes human beings”; hinting at one of the primary generative causes of the sublime (the pondering between the concrete and the metaphysical) he later adds: “one has never seen the arena between earth and heaven quite realized this way on film before” (Cavell 1979, xv-xvi). Finally, Hannah Patterson aptly notes that “Malick’s handling [of the American mythology] and his rendering of time and place ̶ of the sublime ̶ is intrinsic to his poetry” (Patterson 2007, 2)

Despite the unanimity around Malick’s treatment of natural iconography as one akin to a great degree of sublimity, there is still a difficulty in specifying how this sublime is manifested on screen (beyond emotional evocations and affect) and (on a more ontological note) how is it that an inherently technological medium such as film can even offer itself to the artistic expression of a natural sublime. Darrol Bryant hinted that this could be up to “cinema occupying a privileged position in modern technological culture that has inherited the alchemical dreams of the past” (Bryant 1983, 105). Such a view concurs with André Bazin’s remark that “cinema is in itself already some kind of miracle” (Bazin 1992, 393) However, even if we grant such a hybridity between dream and craft, fantastic aspiration and material base, the co-habitation remains problematic and Malick’s films serve as an ideal depiction of this seeming contradiction as James Orr observed from early on: “Malick is interested in the crossover between landscape and the machine. […] It is the tense co-existence of natural and industrial sublime which give his picture such generative power.” (Orr 1998, 174)

In order to better understand how such a split between the natural and the technological sublime exists and is manifested in art, one should start with traces of it found in the original, Longinian treatise. There already, the 1st century AD scholar discerns two classes of the sublime in his theorization on the grandeur (“peri hypsous”) in literature: the natural (to which he attributes the first two characteristics: conception of great thoughts and strong and inspired emotion) and one pertaining more to artifice (grouping three other traits). He goes on to say that “natural greatness is the most important of all” (§9.1) and in the subsequent analysis he concretizes the divide by referring to the natural sublimity of the dramatic and the exciting in The Iliad as compared to a “narrative” sublimity in The Odyssey5 (§9.13). Finally he refers to “image production” and visualization (§15.1) as the chief means of attaining weight, grandeur and energy, all necessary elements of the conceptual and sensorial elevation that the sublime entails (Longinus [trans. Fyfe], 1965).

Despite the fact that this foundational text cannot be said to anticipate visual media and current artistic practices as a field for the application of its ideas, one can nonetheless detect a prevalence of visuality (what is elsewhere called “rhetorical visualization”, §15.9), as well as its derivatives, concealment and amplification, over argumentation and the narrative, in the construction of the natural sublime. “Our attention is drawn from the reasoning to the enthralling effect of the imagination; and this effect on us is natural enough” (§15.11, my emphasis), the author comments and distinguishes that “accuracy is admired in art and grandeur in nature, impeccability in the former, erratic excellence in the latter” (§36.3-4).

With the revival of the sublime as an aesthetic object in the eighteenth century, the tension between categories of the sublime more aligned to the visual and those more pertinent to the locutory element also returned. Here already, there are signs of the ambiguities that Edmund Burke and others inquired into: Is the sublime a fact of nature, or art (techne and therefore artificial), or of both? In analysing the various ways in which the sublime can be manifested and experienced, for example, Burke states: “words seem to me to affect us in a manner very different from that in which we are affected by natural objects, or by painting” (Burke 1998, 149). Here the visual arts (via painting) are identified with nature and distinguished in the consideration of the sublime, from the other category, that of words. Burke of course, is defensive of words as generative of an equal degree of sublimity and declares poetry as more dominant of passions in producing the sublime than painting. This however still means that he maintains the aforementioned divide.

In his preface, Burke also reports that any excitement of passions on which the sublime hinges, is ultimately reliant upon nature (ibid, 1-6). Such a conception of an elemental sublimity in nature that is then manifested under various guises, occurs in Kant, too. According to Frances Ferguson, “Kant’s treatment of the sublime [is articulated] with the production of duplicity, by finding aesthetic pleasure in nature – outside, that is, of the question of design or intention” (Ferguson, 1992, 130). Consequently, the sublime in nature, is beyond any narrative or exposition, tropes that are assigned to it a posteriori in human perception. “The experience of pleasure in nature is by definition, indifferent to your reactions.” If art is then to accurately convey the natural sublime, it must shun the particular, the humanly determined and expressed, shun representation, and engage the abstract (what Kant even calls “confusion” (Pease 1986, 36), that is presentation.

It is, I would argue, just such an intention that permeates Malick’s cinema and that can account for the multiple charges of arbitrary or lagging narratives. Malick sets out precisely to present nature and through it to invite the spectator to experience any story by its effects on the natural order. More close to home for Malick, Heidegger perceives something as sublime thanks to its emphatically being-in-the-world, when faced with nothingness. Malick’s entire oeuvre could be seen as responding to a relevant prompt of the great philosopher that once asked: “Should the work [of art], in its capacity as work, not point towards that which is not available to man, towards the concealed, so that the work not say only what we already know, possess and do?” (Heidegger 1983, 22). Thus, sublimity is of the first order: it is, rather than a second one: “I call it so, I detect it existing”6. In cinematic terms, Malick’s camera always maintains a neutral perspective, not augmenting the luminosity of this sunset or emphasizing the infiniteness of that landscape which awes, but rather by serenely revealing their presence, not for the viewer but even in spite of her. In short, if in Malick’s universe “all things are shining” (Silverman, 2005) they do so, because we see them presented in their elemental, non-utilitarian and yes, sublime, hyperbatic form for the first time on the cinematic screen.

“Nature creates its own art”, Ferguson deduces while examining landscape portraiture from a Kantian perspective (Ferguson 1992, 142) and it is easy to see how this applies to the films of Terrence Malick: In Days of Heaven industrial workers escape to rural pastures and nature frames their labour, violence and death, rather the other way around; In The New World, a sublime and virginal hinterland predates the arrival of the conqueror and the Powhatans are shown in a pure state of being-in-it (they are called naturals throughout), that John Smith will later also come to approach. Indeed Kant, when talking of the dynamical sublime, he posits empiricism (the anthropocentric approach) against transcendentalism (the nature-centric approach) and notes that the latter’s implicit power in causing terror then gives way to the human power of supplying the idea of might in nature7. The progression in this dynamic model is from an inherent, existing sublime, to one interpreted, conceded to nature, after the introduction of the human point of view. Nature is sublime even before humans recognize it as such.

John Dennis, the English dramatist, was one of the first to recognize the resonance of the sublime in nature, in the concomitant sense of harmony and horror stemming from visually experiencing it (Dennis 1996, 30-39). But the first treatment of the natural sublime in the arts beyond literature is arguably to be found in theorists like John Baillie, Shaftesbury and Joseph Addison. Latching onto the late part (§36) of Longinus’ critique where he talks about the large rivers, the oceans and stars, they established the ‘great’ in nature as a separate category of the aesthetic experience of it, and -crucially for Kant’s conception- they separated the causative object from the experience itself. There is thus a fundamental non-unity between the experience of the appreciator and the aesthetic object per se. Thus, Joseph Addison would speak of a primary, experiential sublime stemming from nature and a secondary, summoned up indirectly through the work of art in which he includes the sublime of “words” (quoted in Walzer 2002, 66). Baillie would similarly say of landscape painting that “it may likewise partake of the sublime, representing Mountains; it can fill the Mind with nearly as great an Idea as the Mountain itself, inciting the Passions” (Baillie 1996, 99). Schopenhauer, too, associated the highest three of his six degrees of beauty with the sublime in nature (Schopenhauer [trans. Payne] 1966, 202-203).

Observations like these anticipate pictorial treatments of the sublime scenery ranging from James Ward’s Gordale Scar (1812), to the so called visionary landscape portraiture of the English Romanticism, to the spanning vistas of early Westerns that Deleuze would class under his “image perception”, to the Malickian prairies shot during “magic hour”, where the director is playing a game with nature through photography, as if trying to exorcise the apparatus and capture the being-there-ness of nature in its purity8. In such a conception, there persists the notion of the grandness in the commonplace, an everyday sublime, that in view of our explosive technological civilization and the awesomeness of the machine might seem dated, a relic of the Enlightenment. But if one is to look further on, into the nineteenth century and the sublime in the American pastoral poetry and art, to which Malick stands as the cinematographic inheritor, there is just such an outlook and Walt Whitman’s work is most enlightening.

The sublime in an American context has very often been associated with the outdoors and the gradually escalating dichotomy between nature, land and wildlife on the one hand and city, machine and technology on the other9. One of the most famous stanzas in Whitman’s poetry attests to this tenuous interplay:

I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars…
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery
(Whitman 1973, 55)

When E.M.Forster quotes these lines in “The Longest Journey” (1907) he adds, “Ordinary people! Why, they’re divine! They’re forces of nature” (Forster 2006, 237-238), proclamations that bring to mind the common soldiers facing their mortality in The Thin Red Line10 or Bill, Abby and the Farmer set against the millions of grasshoppers in the field in Days of Heaven. From Ralph Waldo Emerson onwards, American artists of all forms, would try to negotiate a twofold sublime: the transcendence in nature and the overwhelming power on the advancing technological civilization: Whitman’s description of the power of steam locomotives (as in “To a Locomotive in the winter”, 1876) and Edward Weston’s transition from the photographic sublime of the New Mexico desert to the grandeur of early industrial architecture are eminent examples. Indeed, John Orr speaks of a similar contrast in Malick when he says of the train in Days of Heaven, “it echoes early photography and painting, evoking a tense co-existence in the West between the natural and the technological sublime” (Orr 1998, 174). This latter “technological sublime”, as Leo Marx first described it (1956, 27-42), has been associated by many with a narrative structure that contrasts with the abstractness and existential questioning with which the natural/pictorial sublime has been associated, as shown above. David Nye, for example, summarizes the stakes thus: “the historical narrative that was emerging with the technological sublime [was one] from discovery to conquest, the explorer giving way to the engineer” (Nye 1996, 83). The sublime allure of the machine is in the American subconscious always tied to the narrative of Empire, the narrative of the pioneer.11

With this duality ever present, we arrive in the twentieth century and the advent of cinema, which from its “attractions” period gave a moving image treatment to the sublime in nature. Tom Gunning notes how early “panoramic travel films relied upon the experience of absorption in the contemplation of nature” and sees them as a direct descendant of the “romantic sublime landscape painting which pictures nature as a sublime force“ (Gunning 1998, 32). Sergei Eisenstein, himself, spoke of landscape as “the freest element of film, the least burdened with servile, narrative tasks and the most flexible in conveying moods, emotional states and spiritual experiences” (Eisenstein 1987, 217), all three characteristic of the affective dimension of the natural sublime. To better understand how the natural/technological split in the sublime was carried into the new century by cinema, one could contrast the above statements with the first fictions, the pioneering Great Train Robbery (1903) summoning images of Whitman’s technological sublime of the railway and the science fictions of Méliès, with their fascination with space travel which Sean Cubitt sees as “pointing the sublime towards a post-modern time” (Cubitt 2004, 68) Science fiction can be seen as an exemplary mode in encompassing the technological sublime’s narrative articulation12, replacing the indomitable and un-speechifi-able in nature with the grandness of the machine and the reveries of human domination over it. As Scott Bukatman observes: “The presence of the sublime in science fiction – a deeply American genre – implies that our fantasies of superiority emerge from our ambivalence regarding technological power, rather than nature’s might” (Bukatman 2003, 101).

There is a sense, therefore, that to the natural sublime which transcends words, the twentieth century comes to add “the rhetoric of the technological sublime” (per Leo Marx). From the spiritual transcendence described by Longinus and taken up by Kant and Burke, we transition to a sublime in cultural materialist terms, suited to the commodity-based aesthetics of post-modernism, as seen by Frederic Jameson and Jean-Francois Lyotard13. It is because of this transition that Malick and those who like him continued to privilege the natural (ex to various degrees Tarkovsky, Bresson etc) have come to be seen as the exception to the rule of technological domination in modern cinematic articulation.

Malick may share ̶ through the sociohistorical stance that his films seem to adopt ̶ Heidegger’s ambivalence towards technology, as expressed in his “Die Frage nach der Technik” (1953), but that does not mean that his films do not feature the technological apparatus in sublime renderings, as –if nothing else– a point of contestation. In Days of Heaven, for instance, the peace of the pastureland is interrupted by the invasion of the brand new, powerful steamroller, carrying President Wilson on his ‘Whistlestop Tour’ (as if coming from another America). Later on, the cropdusting biplane performs maneuvres that to the eyes of the farmers must have appeared unearthly. In The New World, meanwhile, the depiction of the frightening canons of the English ships, the mechanized cultivation of the land and the big city world of Elizabethan London that Pocahontas is forced into, all serve similar ends: the close attention to nature’s detached beauty in the midst of human mayhem, a theme that culminates with “this war in the heart of nature” that plays out in The Thin Red Line.

Arguably, both these kinds of sublimity have been taken up in cinematic terms before, the natural in films like Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), the pastorals of Robert Bresson, the painterly landscapes of Peter Greenaway and the experiments on nature’s might in Bill Viola’s Fire, Water, Breath (1997); the other in technological utopias ranging from the autocratic (Metropolis, 1927; Alphaville, 1965), to the comic (Playtime, 1967), to the excessively self-conscious (any effects-laden blockbuster of the last quarter century). It is in Malick’s oeuvre, however, that the two meet and where they are critically evaluated in their philosophical context. Here, “nature and humanity are inextricably bound up in conflict and power struggle […] as the spectator is enveloped inside a combination of epic painting and pastoral poem”, Ben McCann professes (McCann 2007, 85). As I have already established and will further outline below, Malick effects a reverse trajectory to the one the sublime has taken in the history of western thought, shifting, as he does, from its technological incarnation -of narrative, the machine and representation- back to the natural origins of sublimity, rendered in terms of abstract visualization, nature and presentation.

This shift, which in Malick’s films is illustrated as the pursuit of a recourse to a more authentic, natural mode of existence can be accurately evoked, in its theoretical articulation, by the connections that Mikel Dufrenne draws up in his “Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience”:
“the natural object is nonhuman and wild […] a possible aspect of the non-human is the sublime which challenges man with its grandeur. This, at the same time is a test or a trial, to acquire strength through contact with an object or landscape which has not been tamed or emasculated by man.” (Dufrenne 1989, 81-82) A return, thus, that is plotted from a domesticated, controlled sublime of technology to the free but threatening, non-figurative but lived-in sublime of nature.

In Days of Heaven, Bill’s family decides to leave the steel-furnaces of Chicago for the promise of the open-plains, where their tragedies are played out against the background of a nature by equal measure unrelenting and rewarding. The change in setting is as stark as possible: from the apparently endless metal-and-smoke world of the steelyard (straight out of Sinclair’s Jungle (1906)), via the mighty, smoking railroad crossing tall bridges and unending tracks (the mechanical repetitiveness of the locomotive’s noises contradicting the amiable, pastel-coloured landscape), the prairie grassland is finally reached. From there on, the vast sea of wheat is shot in the semi-obscureness of the golden light of sunset, as if to emulate what Adorno wrote on nature’s sublime: “natural beauty is close to the truth, but conceals itself at the moment of its closest proximity.”14

James Morrison and Thomas Schur write of the multiple ways in which the film embraces the sublime, not just through the beauty of its images but in the way it is structured and through its characters:

The genre of the romantic sublime [Note: an alternative term for the natural sublime in the 18th century] has supplied two dominant images, that of the solitary wanderer and that of the ebullient throng. Days of Heaven furnishes many variations of both transcendent solitude and threatening crowds. […] A sublime effect doubling itself: at once a fear of isolation and a terror of being absorbed in the crowd.(Morrison & Schur 2003, 56)

For Malick, as well as Heidegger, the sublime is not what Kant called “unimaginable, but conceivable”; it is rather inconceivable but imaginable in nature. It cannot be put into words and thus conceived (words are a part of the technology of the sublime per Burke15) but it can be visualized and thus imag-ined. The natural sublime has not been lost in contemporary theory and art and it is not a relic of the nineteenth century British and American naturalists16. It survives in the form of visual poetry, the one that Malick uses as an end in itself in film after film and that accounts for his predilection for pictorial quasi-narratives (or non-narratives according to others). Such a poetry, an act of cinematic poiesis -creating the world in image and sound- is the key to how cinema, an essentially technological art form can successfully invoke the transcendence in nature: not by narrativizing or representing it, but by merely en-framing it, “to reveal luminous appearances in time”, as Robert Sinnerbrink puts it (Sinnerbrink 2006, 35). In Malick’s films the spectator is solicited into contemplation, not of a special effects phantasmagoria or a freewheeling visual symphony, but of the higher aesthetic power within the most ordinary of objects.

Through the resonance of the images themselves, the filmmaker infers and discloses the storyline: objects acquire symbolic stature, facial gestures, animals, the weather, all point towards, without forcing, an experiential mode of viewership. Malick’s poetry can be seen as part of a modern wave of writers, visual artists and musicians who, through the emotive and intellectual potential of sounds and images as critical instruments for the delivery of sublime imagery, conceive of artistic manifestation as profoundly participatory. The spectator must be baffled, scared and even repulsed, for the artwork to be able to point him to a level beyond the material conditions of its creation. The more Malick relies on the visual elements as story-tellers, without spoken dialog (even Abby’s or in The New World Pocahontas’ and Smith’s voice-overs are more eschatological invocations of a world beyond or inside them, than play-by-play explications), the more the film will offer a universal, lyrical and sublime experience. By conveying emotions without using exact messages of words, a film can transcend the two dimensions of the screen.

In trying to gain an insight into the method of this visual poetry, one able to communicate the natural sublime over and above the technology of the cinematographic apparatus, it is instructive to consider some of the propositions and insights put forth in the documentary Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Film on Terrence Malick (2002) by the Italian filmmaking collective Citrullo. In it, for example, Jack Fisk, the set designer on all of Malick’s films, testifies how the “action” was to be confined at an un-natural inner space (inspired by similar interiors in the paintings of Edward Hopper), contrasted with the expanse of nature outside, where scenes do not advance the plot but are mainly of a contemplative function, played out over Moriconne’s music (taking its cue from Saint-Saëns dreamy “Aquarium”17) or the voice-over of Abby who at a point quotes in length from the Book of Revelation. A most fitting example is a sequence where from an argument taking place on the inside of a barn, with people confined next to machinery (technology again), without a cut we transition to the radiant field outside where not a word is spoken for the rest of the shot. Even Rosy-Fingered Dawn itself gestures towards this divide, using abstract urban footage of beggars, preachers and traffic or sweeping night vistas of downtown LA for half of the time, and sunsets in idyllic beaches or sunbathed grasslands, the other half.

This collision of cultures (big city corruption vs agrarian innocence, progress and technology vs a notion of self defined in conjunction with the land) and their corresponding sublimes persist in Malick’s latest film, The New World, transmuted here into a double trajectory: first the technological world of the settlers invades the purity of the American Indian habitat with its violence and then, in the final act of the film, Pocahontas –having been kidnapped to the big city– brings with her the spirit of primal interaction with the natural world, which she enacts in the film’s final scene. Here, the well-trimmed hedges and flower beds of her English country now substitute for the untamed wilderness of the Virginian marshes and forests.

The invocation of a dual sublime is manifested throughout the film: Pocahontas opens the film with a Homeresque invocation towards mother Nature “from out of the soul of whom her people rise”. She’s seen repeatedly (with or without John Smith) dancing mutely around marshland to the tune of the rising semiquavers of Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold. We then witness a native village consumed by giant flames and the next moment the camera glides on the surface of a quiet, glowing stream for what seems like minutes on end. On the technological end of the spectrum, there is an increasing stupor of guns, canons and swords concentrated in the Jamestown settlement (it is not by chance that most narrative progression happens around the colonists and their attempts to import a technical civilization), a display of gunpowder that appears like magic to the locals, disorienting scenes of warfare, fire and destruction and finally the pomp and circumstance of the English court whose technical sophistication Pocahontas contrasts like an exotic bird in a cage. In considering such contradictions and the “artificial” sublime, Bukatman also finds the association of a postmodern, technological sublime with colonialist narratives potent, when he contrasts the latter sublime’s “narrative of confrontation, mastery and the colonialist usurpation” with the “landscape sublime’s predilection for the “virginal landscapes” of the Americas” (Bukatman 2003, 107).

Ultimately, Malick’s films speak of a fundamental loss: the perversion that our existence as humans could have corresponded to the natural and aesthetic beauty that his films celebrate, were it not for the violent incursion of the artificial systems that man has devised. Malick portrays both ends in extremis, calling upon the sublime in his audiovisual “utterance”, the better to emphasize the disjunction between the two. By bringing together visual and aural elements operating either in conflict or in conjuction with each other, his non-verbal imagery deepens and magnifies the films’ impact at a profoundly emotional level.

Perhaps this is Malick’s way of bypassing the aphorism with which Jean-Francois Lyotard concludes his consideration of the artistic sublime in today’s fragmented, post-modern, market-oriented world: “Sublimity is no longer in art, but in speculation on art” (Lyotard 1988, 106). To that Malick, with the exiling of the narrative and reason and his privileging of affect and experience, seems to be answering with works that do not appeal to one’s rational faculties but to an aesthetic sensorium whose existence one could be forgiven for forgetting, in the midst of the overtly expositional and commercialized techne that often passes for art today. If the sublime in art is ineffable and elusive by definition, then in answering how Malick pursues the natural sublime in its resplendent visuality, in an affirmation of its being-there-ness, one should return to an exchange in the beginning of The Thin Red Line between Sergt Welsh and Pvt Witt:

“Welsh: -There ain’t no world but this one.
Witt: -You’re wrong there, Top. I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my
imagination.Welsh: -Well, then … you’ve seen things I never will.”

Terrence Malick has never ceased to ask and provoke his viewers to glimpse that other world.


1 The natural portions of the scene are not in the screenplay (Malick 1996: 87-89) and, like many of the environment shots throughout the film, they were captured on the spot. Nick Nolte discusses this in an interview with Charlie Rose (Nolte, 1998); see also Schneider 2004, 173-174.
2 Indeed the very first film he wrote Pocket Money was received as “elliptical” (Ebert 1972) and “with no real plot point but a great deal of character and mood” (Canby 1972, 50)
3 See for example Film Comment (January/February 1999, p.11), New York Times (January 10, 2006, p.8), The Guardian (August 29, 2008, p.10). Malick’s work was also prominently featured in a recent Dossier Special on the “sublime on screen” in Positif (June 2008, p.109-111)
4 For assessments of Malick’s cinema on terms of Heideggerian philosophy see Sinnerbrink 2006, Fusternau & MacAvoy 2007, Critchley 2005 and Silverman 2003.
5 Malick has included allusions to Homer’s poems in virtually all his films (Easton 2008) and even quotes directly from the Iliad in The Thin Red Line when Col. Tall intones “Eos Rhododaktylos” [Rosy- fingered dawn] with all the poignancy that the mental image of dawn has to the essence of the natural sublime.
6 cf analysis in Rosiek 111-297, 499-507.
7 cf the discussion in Budd 2002, 78-81.
8 In fact, instead of relying on period photographs to recreate the natural scenes (of harvest etc) in Days of Heaven, Malick and his cinematographers turned to American painting (Edward Hopper) for its illustration of the qualities of light. Maurizia Natali (2006, 118) comments on the parallel ways in which the painters and the filmmaker conjure up visions of sublimity.
9 See on this Arensberg 1986; Nye 1996; and Den Tandt 1998.
10 Sean Penn sums up Malick’s intentions in the film thusly: “to show that while we’re killing each other, 10 feet away in the grass, a new life is born” (Barcarolli & Hintermann, 2002, cf filmography).
11 For a discussion of Malick’s rapport with Whitman on nature and how that contrasts with the technological sublime of Leo Marx see Michaels, 2009: 55, 73, 75-76.
12 Wicke (1996, 302-318) demonstrates this by discussing the narrative dimension of the technological sublime in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).
13 Cf especially Lyotard analysis of the modern avant guarde in terms of the sublime (Lyotard 1988, 89-107).
14 Nestor Almendros, Malick’s cinematographer in Days of Heaven, elaborates in his biography on how “magic hour” was used deliberately for shooting to convey a subliminal iconography (1985, 167-186); for a discussion on Adorno see Rosiek 2002: 503-504.
15 cf de Bolla 1989: 69-70.
16 cf Shaw 2006 Ch.2 (27-47)
17 For the use of music in Malick, in connection with the sublime (Saint Saëns here, Wagner and Mozart in The New World) see Power 2007. Haskel Wexler in the documentary says “Morricone’s music in the film was the best photography I ever did!” while he reveals that “each camera movement [Malick] wanted to be justified, natural.”


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Terrence Malick

As Writer:
Pocket Money. Dir. Stuart Rosenberg. National General Pictures, 1972.

As Director:
Badlands. Warner Bros Pictures, 1973.
Days of Heaven. Paramount Pictures, 1978.
The Thin Red Line. 20th Century Fox, 1998.
The New World. New Line Cinema, 2005.

Other films referenced
Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Athos Films, 1965
Earth. Dir. Alexander Dovzhenko. Wukfu, 1930.
The Great Train Robbery. Dir. Edwin S Porter. Edison Manifacturing Company, 1903.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Universum Film, 1927.
Playtime. Dir. Jacques Tati. Specta Film, 1967
Rosy-Fingered Dawn: a Film on Terrence Malick. Dir. Luciano Barcaroli, Carlo Hintermann, Gerardo Panichi and Daniele Villa. Citrullo International, 2002.