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INTERVIEW: Matt Zoller Seitz on the metaphysical cinema of Terrence Malick

INTERVIEW: Matt Zoller Seitz on the metaphysical cinema of Terrence Malick

EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play would like to thank Alef Magazine, an art, culture and design magazine based in Tehran (Iran), for giving us permission to reprint this interview Matt Zoller Seitz gave to writer Liliane Anjo about the films of Terrence Malick. It was conducted in May 2011, shortly before the release of The Tree of Life. Interspersed amid the text are the five chapters of Matt’s video essay series All Things Shining: The Films of Terrence Malick, which he created for the Museum of Moving Image. In addition, Matt introduced Malick’s The New World at a showing in the main theater of the Museum of Moving Image on May 15, 2011; video of the introduction is included below.

By Liliane Anjo
Press Play Special Contributor

Liliane Anjo: In Terrence Malick’s films, the characters are typically anchored in a hard physical reality. Whether portrayed as murderous lovers on the run (Badlands), hard-toiling migrant workers (Days of Heaven), soldiers fighting during World War II (The Thin Red Line) or individuals torn by their encounter with a – from their point of view – strange population and unknown land (The New World), Malick’s characters are seen in the harsh reality of human existence. These stories are crosscut with images of absolutely stunning natural beauty. What does this repeated contrast in Terrence Malick’s cinema express?

Matt Zoller Seitz: It expresses a lot of things. Chief among them, the idea that we – the individuals – are not the center of everything. This is not a radical notion in a lot of the world’s cinemas, but it is in the West and particularly in the United States. I think that the American commercial cinema is one that is constantly affirming the supremacy of the individual experience. We are told when we go to film schools or when we study filmmaking that it’s always about the story of the individual.

This has always been true of any sort of storytelling everywhere, but that’s not all there is to a story. Part of storytelling is assessing one’s place within the larger universe or within a continuum that includes society, nature and also beyond that, time and space. These are aspects that often get neglected. I would say that they are neglected probably 95% of the time when you look at American movies. Terrence Malick does not neglect them; they are at the center of his films. In fact, when you look at Terrence Malick’s movies, starting with Badlands and then continuing through Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and finally The Tree of Life, you can see him growing increasingly interested in this idea of the world beyond the individual, and the relationship between the individual and other forces. It’s a decentralized narrative that he is interested in.

Liliane Anjo: You’ve just mentioned the decentralization from the individual’s perspective. Environmental consciousness has indeed become Terrence Malick’s signature. In his films, humanity is seen as part of Nature rather than an entity that would be in opposition with it. Does Malick’s work convey an environmentalist thought or is it all about a philosophical worldview?

Matt Zoller Seitz: I think it’s more a larger philosophical view than it is an environmentalist view in the political sense. However, I’m leery of hanging a label on it in any way. Because one of the things that is so distinctive about Malick is that when you watch his films, you are clearly seeing the point of view of one person. It’s like you have been granted access to the mind of Terrence Malick. So much so that a lot of people find his films rather off-putting, difficult to understand and to empathize with. He has a lot of admirers, but he is not a director who is a household name in the United States. Not even now. He is not like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Michael Bay, Quentin Tarantino or someone like that. If you mention the name of Quentin Tarantino to the average person on the street in the United States, they would know immediately who you’re talking about. But Terrence Malick would provoke blank stares. I think a good deal of that has to do with Terrence Malick’s complete indifference to being liked. Quite honestly, I don’t think it’s high in his list of priorities.

I don’t mean to imply that I think he is arrogant, quite the contrary. Everything that I’ve heard about him personally suggests that he is quite a humble and shy person. I just mean that what he’s doing is giving us access to his, for lack of a better word, worldview. He happens to be someone who is deeply interested in the natural world and who is constantly reminding himself that the natural world is bigger than any one person and in fact bigger than any one country or race or religion. I am not a particularly religious person, but when I watch Terrence Malick’s films, I feel the ways that I think I am supposed to feel when I’m in church. His movies give me those feelings and they inspire that sort of contemplation.

The Thin Red Line is particularly interesting in light of the environmental question that you raise. Because when it came out, a lot of reviews fixated on this idea that it was an environmental film, that there was some sort of environmental statement being made or that the war machine was destroying the natural world. I don’t think that’s what that movie was saying at all. In fact, I think the movie is quite explicit in saying that human beings are animals just like all the other animals that are pictured in the movie. Human beings happen to be more sophisticated animals who can build machines and destroy the rest of nature, but they are nevertheless a part of nature. One of the opening lines of narration in the movie is “Why does nature vie with itself? What’s this war in the heart of nature?” We are so divorced from the idea that we are a part of nature. The industrialized man, the 21st-century man, thinks of nature so rarely that when he hears something like that in the movie, he says, “What? Huh? What is this nonsense? What is this poetic clap-trap? Am I being sold some sort of environmentalism disguised as a war movie? Who is this hippie Terrence Malick?”

But to Malick, it is not a statement or a political position, it’s just a simple, natural way of seeing the world. And I think it’s quite reasonable.

Liliane Anjo: Strong biblical imagery along with numerous allusions to themes such as heaven, hell, the Garden of Eden, guilt and punishment suggest the existence of a Judeo-Christian God in Terrence Malick’s cinema. In your own movies about Malick’s oeuvre (All Things Shining), you mention that there is however also a sense of continuum, i.e. the idea that humanity is merely a tiny part of a greater “Soul” which manifests itself in any element of life on Earth. In Islamic mysticism, we also find this idea that human beings embody only an element of a greater whole. Do you think that Terrence Malick’s vision of God is somehow universal?

Matt Zoller Seitz: Absolutely. And more than that. This may sound strange, but I believe that Terrence Malick’s view of religion is probably not that different from Stanley Kubrick’s view of religion in 2001: A Space Odyssey. By which I mean, I know that Stanley Kubrick didn’t believe in an afterlife and he certainly didn’t believe in a stereotypical Western God as a man with a beard in the sky pointing his finger and making things happen. But he did believe in mysterious forces that are beyond the understanding of human beings, not supernatural forces necessarily, but physics, mathematics, time and energy. And things that we are not evolved enough to comprehend. The aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey are essentially like gods, because they are so much more advanced than the people. And when we look at the apes, reaching out and touching the monoliths in 2001, that’s really the position of the so-called evolved human being when contemplating these larger forces that we don’t understand. These forces might as well be magic. Or it could be technology. It also could be another kind of creature or person. Or it could just be some kind of scientific process that our brains are not big enough to understand. I think Malick is perhaps coming from a similar position. I don’t think he is giving us any kind of answer, I think he is prompting questions.

One thing that I think personally is often overlooked is that Malick is a second-generation Assyrian-American. His dad was the son of an Assyrian Christian. Malick is a guy who has some philosophical or religious roots in the Middle East, but who was raised in Texas and went to an Episcopalian school as a kid. I’m from Dallas, and I can tell you who runs Texas. The Southern Baptist Christians run Texas. So think about what these two influences must have done to Terrence Malick: he could have either rejected one of those two influences completely or he could have tried to put them together. And I would not be terribly surprised if he had spent his entire life trying to reconcile those influences. And he is trying to do it in a very open-hearted and generous way. I think that at the very least it’s a pantheistic vision of life that he presents in his films. It may in fact be more or less than a pantheistic vision, it may be just a rejection of any kinds of boundaries. I recently had an interview with a critic from the Toronto Star, Peter Howell, who said that he thought The Tree of Life, more than any other Terrence Malick film, reaffirms his roots in a Christian tradition. I didn’t get that at all. I felt like it was affirming his upbringing in a heavily fundamentalist Christian part of the United States, but I didn’t feel the film itself was selling any kind of a Christian theology at all. And in fact, The New Yorker critic Richard Brody pointed this out: there is a moment in the film where the mother points out to the sky and says, “That’s where God lives,” and a piece of Hebrew liturgical music is playing. Something of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths are represented in this movie. And in The Thin Red Line we’ve got a little touch of Buddhism. I think Malick is inviting everyone into it.

Liliane Anjo: Is the reconciliation of influences you’ve mentioned somehow related to the decentralized narration that is so characteristic of Terrence Malick’s movies?

Matt Zoller Seitz: I think so. As I mentioned earlier, the progression in Malick’s movies, from being about a couple of individuals in Badlands to being about the universality of one experience in The Tree of Life, the idea that one person’s experience somehow contains elements of everyone’s experience. From Badlands through The New World, Malick’s work became increasingly decentralized as it went along. And even though Tree of Life is at least theoretically taking place within the mind of one man — the narrator Jack, or maybe Terrence Malick the filmmaker — it’s very decentralized, too, in terms of the ground it covers and how it covers it. I think the shift is also reflected in the way that Malick addresses religion and cultures. Look at what happened between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, which is a 20-year gap. Days of Heaven is a movie that is much more explicitly about the natural world and the possibility of there being larger forces at play, but it has one narrator. And the narrator is detached from the action somehow. She is not unreliable, but she certainly lacks the ability to really understand what’s happening. Even though she is straining to put it all in perspective.

Twenty years after that, Malick comes back with The Thin Red Line. And there we have several narrators. And whenever we have several narrators, we don’t always know who is speaking, we don’t identify the narrators a lot of the time. There are some people who have voice-overs who are not even really characters in the movie. I could not even tell you how many narrators there are in The Thin Red Line. In some cases, you hear one or two lines from one really marginal character. Martin Scorsese had a wonderful reaction to this, saying that he thought that The Thin Red Line was something truly new in Hollywood cinema, and that it was completely opposed to all the commercial clichés that rule those movies, because it is a film that has no beginning and no end. It seems that this movie started before you started watching it and that it is going to continue after you’ve left. Some critics were confused by the voice-over narrations and they were asking, “Whose voice-over is it?” And Scorsese said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s everybody’s voice-over.” I think that’s exactly right.

Liliane Anjo: Unlike the majority of American movies, Terrence Malick’s films do not invite the spectators to identify with their characters. Malick therefore persistently reminds us that his characters are not at the center of everything, either by distributing the film’s attention between several characters or by creating characters who are not depicted as heroes we would like to resemble. There is no concept of villain either. How come the spectators nevertheless feel involved with Malick’s characters?

Matt Zoller Seitz: It might be too much to say that everyone will feel involved with the characters, because in fact some people don’t. If everyone were inclined to open themselves up to Terrence Malick’s way of telling a story or making a movie, he would be a lot better known than he is. In the United States, he is known more for being the filmmaker who won’t be photographed and won’t give interviews than he is for the movies he has directed. Which is unfortunate. Even now I think that’s true. But I think that if you are open to Malick’s unusual and perhaps in some ways infuriating mannerisms, you can see that he has what you might call a transcendentalist attitude. There is a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays that I quoted a lot in relation to Terrence Malick. It says, “This human mind wrote history, and this must read it. The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.” And here comes the sentence that really gets to the point: “Of the universal mind each individual man is but one more incarnation. All its properties consist in him. Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises. Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era.” I think that probably speaks to what you’re talking about. That’s maybe the key. Malick’s cinema insists on this idea that everybody’s experience is in some way reflected in everyone else’s experience, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Liliane Anjo: Mowlavi, the 13th-century Persian theologian, philosopher and Sufi mystic known in the Western world as Rumi, describes in one of his poems how an elephant is exhibited to a number of men in a dark room. Each one of them feels the animal without seeing it and, depending upon where he touches it, believes the elephant to be a roof gutter, a fan, a pillar or a throne. None of them has the ability to comprehend the whole, so that each one perceives a limited part of the elephant (trunk, ear, leg, back) as being an absolute reality in itself. Rumi tells us that individual perception is limited and that the nature of truth is beyond our human comprehension. How would you relate this tale to Terrence Malick’s cinema?

Matt Zoller Seitz: I think that applies quite incisively to Malick’s cinema. The fact that all these characters are to some degree limited by their own perceptions. They can’t see the whole picture. I would say that the only major characters who are really striving to see a bigger picture can be found in the later films. For instance the character of Private Witt in The Thin Red Line who says he has seen a world beyond this one, or the character of Pocahontas who is constantly searching for the presence of her ancestors and her loved ones in the natural world. And the protagonist of The Tree of Life who goes into this reverie about his past and his own personal evolution connected to the evolution of the universe, time and space. But these characters are only grasping one small part of the elephant, no matter how hard they try.

Liliane Anjo: You’ve already revealed some information about Terrence Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life. What more can you tell us about this movie ?

Matt Zoller Seitz: It has been described as perhaps Malick’s most personal and in some ways impenetrable movie. It’s the least tied down to conventional narrative of any films he has done. It’s the most seemingly autobiographical. I say “seemingly” because there is so little information about Terrence Malick that he has provided himself, we just have to guess. But we know based on his age that he was a child in the 1950s, early 1960s, and the childhood we see in The Tree of Life is in that period. And it’s in a small town in Texas. It feels almost like a deathbed flashback in some ways. As I watched the film, I was reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which summarizes one man’s life in about ninety or a hundred pages.

But the beautiful thing about it is that you can’t really compare it to anything. It is probably the closest thing to a poem that Malick has attempted or that any big budget movie I’ve seen has attempted. You would have to go to experimental cinema to find works that are comparable to it. There is this ceaseless flow of memory and experience. It is very Proustian. If he never made another film again, I would be disappointed, but I would understand. Though, he has already directed another film and he is editing it now. I’m very excited.

Liliane Anjo: In what sense is it very Proustian? Is it a matter of temporality?

Matt Zoller Seitz: Yes. And also in the sense of a present-day experience triggering a reverie. The sense of the mind ceaselessly running throughout the past and the present to the point where there seems to be no past and no present. All those boundaries that we were talking about – the past versus the present, the natural world versus the man-made world, the secular world versus the metaphysical world – there is no “versus” in The Tree of Life. It’s all one big bang. And it does prompt reminiscence among spectators. Almost everyone I talked to, even if they didn’t like the film, they knew that they had seen something unusual and it made them think. I had a number of memories coming back to me that I had completely forgotten about for decades. The movie unlocked something. And I’m very thankful for that. It’s a very generous movie, as if Malick was saying, “I can’t tell your story, I wish I could but I can’t, so I’m gonna tell mine and hopefully you’ll find something in common with me.” I think that should be the impulse of every storyteller, but in a lot of cases it is really not. Actually, there is a recurrent motif in the film of people embracing other people, people shaking hands with other people, people welcoming other people, etc. As if the film was reaching out to you with open arms.

Liliane Anjo: So would you define it at as a cinema of emotions?

Matt Zoller Seitz: Certainly. Philosophy and religion become the means to understand and feel the seemingly inexplicable. Metaphors are all around us. You just have to be observant to see them, and Malick is clearly a very observant person. One of my fantasies was always that Terrence Malick and Abbas Kiarostami sit together having tea and I could sit there listening to them talk. I guess they would have a lot to say to each other.

Liliane Anjo: So if you wanted to compare Terrence Malick to an Iranian filmmaker, would it be Abbas Kiarostami?

Matt Zoller Seitz: Yes, it would be Kiarostami. Although Kiarostami is much more focused on the individual, but there is always a sense of tradition, religion and national history. And also a sense of the world beyond the one that we can see, some force beyond our understanding that is affecting what happens to us. And there is the question of how we respond to that force. I thought of Kiarostami’s movie Close-Up for some reason during certain parts of The Tree of Life. This idea that identity is fluid is an intriguing one. That’s an idea that Americans really instinctively reject, the idea that under different circumstances we would be completely different people.

Liliane Anjo: What about the fact that Abbas Kiarostami prefers to shoot his films outdoors? Does it create formal similarities between both filmmakers?

Matt Zoller Seitz: Oh, for sure! The way that Terrence Malick doesn’t distinguish between foreground and background, the fact that the camera is constantly in motion, the documentary aspects. And the light. The light is very similar with Kiarostami. And the sense that nothing occurs in a vacuum. No individual actions occur in a vacuum. There is always this other world and all these other lives.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the Moving Image Source, the online magazine of The Museum of the Moving Image website. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in Fall 2012 by Abrams Books.

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