Terrence Malick

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A Stitch in Time
Chris Wisniewski on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and The New World

Let’s start with a simple, reasonable assertion: In his four films, released over a period of thirty-odd years, Terrence Malick has developed a rather consistent and distinctive style (if this were Cahiers du cinéma circa 1955, I would undoubtedly get away with calling the director an auteur, but we can leave that can of worms unopened for now). Those rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light; the striking use of music—here is a filmmaker with a clear sensibility and aesthetic who makes narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion, and idea through image and sound.

Yet these attempts at summation and generalization elide differences from film to film and a larger stylistic break between the movies Malick made in the Seventies and his more recent work. However artful or difficult they may be, Badlands and Days of Heaven are also both linear and spare, and each clocks in at about 95 minutes. Comparatively, the movies Malick made after his two-decade break from filmmaking, The Thin Red Line and The New World, aren’t simply longer—much, much longer—but also far more diffuse, elliptical, and structurally radical. To what, though, can we attribute the differences?

Let’s continue, then, with a hypothesis: What if we said that the difference lies in the editing? On the one hand, this is a somewhat obvious suggestion, not simply because of running time: the more recent films have flashbacks (the earlier films don’t) and jump cuts (again, mostly absent in the earlier films). On the other hand, such observations only go so far in explaining the shift that occurred between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, and capturing the extent to which editing is not simply one aspect of the marked change in Malick’s aesthetic but maybe its central feature. To make such a bold claim, though, requires contextualizing his movies as products of specific time periods and certain methods of production, particularly with regard to the technology of film editing and its impact on the craft.

The filmmaking process has transformed dramatically, technologically and industrially, since 1978, but few changes have been as significant or little investigated as the transition from analog to digital editing. On a flatbed editing system, editing is a physical task—footage is reviewed; decisions are made; the film is cut and spliced—but on a nonlinear digital system, editors can test countless options with the click of a mouse and see the results more or less immediately. It’s become commonplace now to speak of a filmmaker “going digital” when he dispenses with celluloid and starts shooting with digital video cameras, but the postproduction process went digital over a decade ago, taking nearly everyone, Malick included, along with it.

It’s a simple matter to identify the efficiencies created by nonlinear editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro, but more difficult to gauge the aesthetic impact of the digital postproduction process. This is because digital editing systems, by and large, don’t make the things we see in movies possible; they make them easier to achieve. Digital editing systems make it easier to cut more frequently. They make it easier to sift through, recombine, and reorder vast quantities of footage without strict regard for continuity editing. Does it necessarily follow, though, that an incoherent mess like Moulin Rouge would not have been possible in an analog world, or that it has a “digital editing” aesthetic? How different, in a broad sense, are Baz Luhrmann’s experiments with time and space from Bob Fosse’s, and what makes the former “digital” and the latter “analog,” except the tools the filmmakers had at their disposal? Perhaps we harp on the celluloid/video break precisely because the difference is palpable and objective. To speak of “going digital” in the context of editing takes a conceptual leap of faith predicated on tenuous counterfactual speculation, a guess—that the tools and the process have impacted the final result in ways we can more or less deduce, even though we can never know with certainty that the film we’re watching would have been different if the tools used to edit it were different.

To set a movie like Days of Heaven next to something like The New World is to compare two films that have been assembled with completely different technologies, products of two different filmmaking eras. But there are similarities between these productions: both films spent over a year in postproduction, and though each movie follows the basic plot and structure laid out in the shooting scripts, the final films depart significantly from those scripts in letter if not spirit (Days of Heaven editor Billy Weber has noted that he and Malick spent their time in the editing room “whittling away at the dialogue,” and on New World, too, his actors would begin with many pages of dialogue which he instructed them to act out silently or which were later cut away in postproduction). In at least some sense, these are both movies that were “made”—or perhaps the better word is reconstituted?—in the editing room.

Still, where Malick and Billy Weber worked over many months to shape Days of Heaven in postproduction, their process hardly resembles the one that resulted in the currently definitive cut of The New World. That film was edited by four different people, initially in different physical locations, each using their own Avid systems. Malick reviewed all of their work, and in postproduction the various pieces were reassembled and made into a two-and-a-half hour version that was screened to critics and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, then released into theaters. This version of the film was then abruptly pulled from theaters, as Malick and his editors continued cutting, and the film was rereleased in its current two-hour-and-fifteen-minute form a few weeks later. It’s less like a Hollywood production than a Google doc—Collaborate! Share! Publish! Publish again!—unquestionably the product of the digital era.

There was a fair amount of press regarding the differences between The New World’s two cuts (the short answer: there isn’t much of substance that was changed—trimming, reshaping, streamlining) and some dialogue about the debt Malick’s process owed to nonlinear digital editing (on this point Dave Kehr wrote quite incisively on his blog), but even as critics noted that Malick could not have made The New World in the same way in an analog era, few remarked on the impact of Avid on the film’s aesthetics, except in passing— again, perhaps because doing so requires relying, in part, on conjecture. It’s easy to say that Malick could not have turned around his streamlined version of the film so quickly on a flatbed, quite another to find evidence for saying his movie has an Avid aesthetic.

Here, the comparison to Days of Heaven is illuminating, and if it doesn’t provide an answer, it does at least provide a way into unknotting these knotty issues. Though set in different time periods, Days of Heaven and The New World have similar subjects: each is a period romance about a tragic love affair undone by avarice, in which a short-sighted, ambitious man pushes his lover (deliberately or indirectly) into the hands of another and finds that the happiness to which he aspires existed only in his past—in a love that slipped through his hands because he wanted more. In Days of Heaven, this drama plays out around 1916 in the Texas panhandle, with Bill (Richard Gere) posing as the brother of his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams), whom he convinces to marry a wealthy, terminally ill farmer (Sam Shepard). The New World follows the doomed love affair between Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell), set against the backdrop of the colonization of Jamestown.

Malick renders these grand romantic dramas in fleeting, ambiguous vignettes. In both films, the relationship of each scene and shot to the narrative is frequently indeterminate; images, moments, and sequences don’t so much build as accumulate. About twenty minutes into Days of Heaven, Bill talks to a reticent Abby about moving to New York and marrying, as the harvest work is interrupted by a brief bit of snow (the snow seems like a parenthetical break in the film’s chronology, and in the very next sequence, the farm workers sweat their way through a day’s labor with their sleeves rolled up as if this strange snowfall had never occurred). A few minutes later, Bill and Abby frolic in the river, and Bill now tries to convince Abby to take the farmer up on his offer to stay past the harvest. Malick follows the two of them in elegant, gliding Steadicam shots, and then cuts to a close-up of Bill making his case to a shocked, angry Abby. But when Malick cuts to a reverse shot, we don’t get an eyeline match. Instead, Abby’s back is to the camera, and she is walking away, in medium shot. After a cut back to Bill and an insert shot of animals in the river, Bill is embracing a smiling Abby from behind in long shot. Their fight has no resolution, and the image is spatially incongruous. It just seems to hang there, more a coda than a continuation of the scene. I have puzzled over this sequence, time and again, trying to make sense of it chronologically and dramatically, but this kind of sense-making isn’t really possible in the face of Malick’s casual disregard for continuity editing and conventional narrative storytelling.

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In The New World, Malick elaborates on the impulses already present in Days of Heaven. An hour into the film, John Smith, close to tears, barters with a group of Native Americans. Malick interrupts the scene with a strange insert shot of Pocahontas, and then a few seconds later, another one, this time of Pocahontas and Smith together, as the dialogue from the original scene continues to play as an extended sound bridge. He then cuts back to Smith bartering, and finally back to Smith and Pocahontas for the duration of the sequence. If from the cross-cutting and sound design it first seemed that Smith was remembering or fantasizing about Pocahontas, it becomes evident by the end of the sequence that Malick is actually cutting between two separate events, allowing them to flow into one another without establishing how they relate to one another in the chronology of the narrative. At the end of this sequence, Smith asks Pocahontas in close-up if she would like him to live with her again. As they are about to kiss, Malick cuts to a medium shot of her approaching him, and the moment is gone—the kiss is over before it’s really begun. Towards the end of the film, Pocahontas asks Smith if he ever found his Indies. He replies, “I may have sailed past them.” This sentiment comes close to expressing the elusive sense of time and event in both films, one that defines Malick’s cinema—his characters push forward as their dreams of happiness slip into the past; the present is the meeting place between aspiration and loss, the moment of almost-happiness, a collision of dream and memory. Continuity editing could hardly suit such a purpose.

Sound and image conspire to upend our sense of time and story in The New World, as they did in Days of Heaven, but here it is more complicated, less linear, more textured. Violations of the 180-degree rule, abrasive jump cuts, and unmotivated insert shots pervade the film at a level that takes the small discontinuities of Days of Heaven to an extreme. Just after Smith leaves Pocahontas, and before she is told (falsely) that he has died, Malick cuts from Kilcher to a Native American woman dancing in a field across a series of jump cuts, and then back to Pocahontas in Jamestown. The images function almost as nondiegetic inserts (Who is this person? Where is she? What is her relationship to the narrative at hand?), and the effect at times resembles that of Soviet montage cinema more than classical Hollywood narrative. In an earlier scene, in which Smith is about to be executed by the Powhatan tribe and Pocahontas intervenes, the cuts come at a breathless pace (the average take length here is 2.7 seconds); jump cuts obscure the action to the point that it is impossible to follow; and Smith’s reprieve is intercut with a billowing sail falling from a boat, another of those perplexing insert shots. A similarly climactic scene in Days of Heaven, in which the farmer confronts Abby, pulls a gun on her, and ties her up, has one barely noticeable jump cut and clips along at a comparatively sluggish 4.4 second average take length.

That the layering and ordering of sound and image in both Days of Heaven and The New World break from strict principles of continuity editing is beyond dispute, but in The New World these transgressions are more consistent and prevalent. And it is here that we return to the question of digital editing, since these differences are what we would expect in comparing a movie edited on a flatbed to one edited on an Avid (especially one assembled in the oddly decentralized and collaborative fashion of The New World). I can offer no proof and no certainty that we can attribute these differences, in any part, to a tool or a process—I can only offer a tentative hypothesis supported with speculation and observation.

So let’s conclude with a caveat: This could all come down to coverage, or even to a filmmaker’s changing aesthetic sensibilities. Malick and Weber had about 100,000 feet of film to work with on Days of Heaven, a pittance compared to the 1,000,000-plus Malick shot for The New World. The more elliptical and radical editing rhythms of that film could easily be explained away on the basis of coverage alone, and that’s not even considering the possibility that Malick’s approach to storytelling just might have evolved in the three decades that separated the films. So our investigation is inconclusive. Because even though the art of filmmaking changes with the technologies filmmakers use to create their movies, no film is ever simply the product of a tool.