A few years ago, when Sarah Vap and I interviewed C. D. Wright for Hayden's Ferry Review (issue 34), we got to talking briefly about cinema. Wright mentioned the Terrence Malick film The Thin Red Line as being the origin for the title of her collaborative book with Deborah Luster, One Big Self.
Of Malick, Wright said, "I don't usually say this of films, but that film is a kind of poem...it's elliptical. It's not a straightforward feature; it does not a documentary make. There is not a lot of language in it—the language feels very chosen, and somewhat artificial, but chosen and crucial to the construction of the film."
I recently had occasion to see Malick's stunning new film, The New World, starring Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, and Christopher Plummer, and Wright's words echoed through my head during the feature.
With that in mind, I'd like to open up a discussion of what makes a film "lyrical," or, as Wright put it, "a kind of poem." I'm particularly interested in using poetic terms to deconstruct cinema and vice versa, as you can imagine, but I'm also interested in the ways in which these two arts can seed each other.
Language is, as Wright notes, very "chosen" in The New World; in fact, the majority of the language in the film is done in voice-over, as diary entries—and in that sense they are fragmented, devolved, decadent. Snippets, really.
There is no coherent narrative thread supported by the dialogue, which is both a beautiful and strange thing to behold. Like a poem, the film does not use conventional means to further a narrative. Rather, the juxtapositions allude to narrative; they cause in the viewer the metonymy of events that amounts to what we perceive as cause and effect. The language here does not illustrate as much as it comments on the narrative or accompanies it.
Additionally, the language used in the film is deeply poetic and—perhaps—elliptical in this sense. If you were to compare some of Wright's poetry alongside the screenplay for this film, you might notice a bit of similarity in this regard. Although I doubt we can ever come to an agreement of "elliptical" in a true sense of the word, the language of both artists resists cause-and-effect.
Malick's film—like other recent films including Brokebck Mountain—rely deeply on image to convey narrative causality in the way that other films cannot. Like the language, the imagery is a nearly frustrating series of seemingly-unrelated juxtapositions, jump cuts, and jarring editing. But this is the magic of cinema and, I think, one of its primary responsibilities: to surprise us through its potential for difference. Most film cannot use the image this way because conventional audiences are not patient enough to let the image take priority this way.
But in a film like this, where the cinematography is so gorgeous, opulent, sumptuous, and—most importantly—premeditated, everything carries a heavier burden than what you would expect. Two shots that stand out in my mind are a shot of a huge tree in a forest, looking straight up from the tree's base, held for upward of 10 seconds without movement of change in the image. Finally, a bird shoots out of the tree and flies away. I believe this is even the ending image of the film.
Filmmaking like this requires an enormous amount of trust between filmmaking and viewer: the contract must exist that the audience be willing to explore their own perceptive boundaries and the filmmaker must promise to deliver something spectacular (using "spectacle" there as the purposeful root of the word).
The other image is of a rooster in a doorway. No narrative relevance, and yet, I can't stop thinking about the rooster in the doorway, due to the framing and lighting of the shot.
When you can write and film a beautiful film about an amazingly erotic and emotional love story and cause me to remember this rooster detail among all the images, well, I'd say you're working against conventional notions of cinema
Few films really use sound to full effect in contemporary cinema. Film, when it begins, is a tension between what is heard and what is silent—this is why even "silent" film was meant to be accompanied. Silence is tension when we expect there to be something heard. Malick's film uses both an extensive orchestration throughout the film coupled with bursts or beats of silence and dialogue. It's truly fascinating—hypnotic, almost—and points toward an intrinsic understanding of how image and sound need to work together in film at its most powerful.
These are just notes...perhaps more will follow in time.
I highly recommend this film. Wonderful performances, but man, you can't believe the imagery.