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The Sounds of Terrence Malick

The Sounds of Terrence Malick from Fandor on Vimeo.

When one thinks of the sounds that fill the worlds of Terrence Malick, the thoughts inevitably land on his seemingly patented and ultra-recognizable voiceovers. In a 2001 article, Joan McGettigan calls attention to the subjectivity of the narration, which “makes us suspect that we have not in fact seen as much as we should, or that at least we have not seen what the voiceover narrators have seen.” That is plain to hear, but what could be easily missed is the way the sounds emitted by natural elements are paramount in the creation of a world larger than the frame.

You can often hear the sounds of birds chirping and tree leaves rustling, when neither are in the frame. Take The Tree of Life, for example, when Brad Pitt’s character leans closer to the pavement of an airstrip, Malick magnifies the sound of a church bell chime. In the next shot, Jessica Chastain hears it too, while lying in bed. Where does the sound come from and who of the two can actually hear it? Does it even exist inside the world of the movie, or is Malick creating it just for us? Here are the elliptical sounds of Terrence Malick.

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A Hidden Life

Based on real events, from visionary writer-director Terrence Malick, A HIDDEN LIFE is the story of an unsung hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. When the Austrian peasant farmer is faced with the threat of execution for treason, it is his unwavering faith and his love for his wife Fani and children that keeps his spirit alive.

A Thin Red Photogram

A Thin Red Photogram: Regarding a Millisecond in Malick's Antiwar Epic from RW on Vimeo.

Since I first saw Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE (1998) the year of its release, I’ve been intrigued by an instant of screen time – a flash of red when opposing forces finally meet at bayonet range. Second and third viewings were needed to confirm that I had, in fact, seen this flash. Years later, when I examined a 35mm print of the film at the level of the strip, I saw that this brief shock of red was the work of two photograms, side by side. 

What is this spliced-in shot doing in the scene? 

Visually, the color rhymes with a spurt of stage blood from a Japanese soldier shown a few beats earlier, but the photogram itself is not an image of blood. It looks as though a red cloth has been placed over the lens, with a few creases of the fabric visible, and a bit of ulterior light making its way through the stitching. 

Malick’s films always have micro-rhythmic inserts that have more to do with visceral sensation than with the filling in of narrative context. In this case, perhaps, the red flash is chiefly there for the sake of indicating the impact of a violent act. But in an antiwar film, red is surely a loaded color. If it evokes the national flags of the two military forces in question, it also bears an association with the cost of life, on both sides. 

“It’s not blood, it’s red,” Godard famously remarked of the mise-en-scène in PIERROT LE FOU (1965), but at some level, this red flash in Malick's film is "not red, it's blood." Better still, it is blood and red at the same time: both representational and abstract. Whose blood? It is hard to say, and the confusion is the point. 

At heart, the film explores the spatial interval between two sides. Hence the eerie shot-countershot between the bunker atop the hill and the valley below; hence the low-tracking camera that traverses the field between, which often seems alive in its own right, pulsing with insects and wildlife, its grass blades like the tentacles of an organism. The red flash occurs when this interval collapses, in the form of combat at close quarters, amid fog. 

Nearly every commentator on THE THIN RED LINE makes a point of distinguishing it from the significantly more patriotic SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), and rightly so. Where the blood in Spielberg's film connotes courage, trauma, and sacrifice, ultimately for the sake of nationalistic commemoration and the gratitude expressed by the elderly Ryan in the film's bookending scenes at a cemetery, Malick's more poetic and pensive treatment of the war regards that very sentiment as an obstacle to the kind of sensitivity that THE THIN RED LINE wants to inspire.

This red flash prompts us to share in the film’s running meditation on interrelatedness and otherness. Despite its ambiguity, the flash issues from the film's rather anti-violent embrace of alterity in a communitarian key. As such, this chromatic gesture undercuts whatever satisfaction we might be inclined to feel as we see the Japanese troops overtaken by the Americans, the side with which the film has primarily (and self-critically) aligned us.

Viewed in this light, this semi-abstract burst of red thematically ties in with the film's ongoing dialogues (between Witt and Welsh, between Tall and Staros) on the value of human life, the laws and proclivities of “nature,” the madness of combat, the possibility of escaping its pathologies and the cynicism they breed. The red flash militates against not only adversarial reductions of the other, but also against the property-oriented thinking and careerist egoism embodied by the higher-ups in the military system (See Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit's reading of the film in FORMS OF BEING: CINEMA, AESTHETICS, SUBJECTIVITY (London: Palgrave BFI, 2004)).  

THE THIN RED LINE is not a film that shows us, fully realized and without lingering problems, the condition of interrelatedness for which it yearns. As is often the case in Malick’s films, scenes of “paradise” (from the forest interlude in BADLANDS (1973) to the Native American camp in THE NEW WORLD (2005)) are depicted with no small measure of self-negating irony. What THE THIN RED LINE powerfully lyricizes through its cinematic style is the limited, fragile beginning – not the utopic fulfilment – of a selfless, non-hostile openness onto radical alterity and exteriority as such.

This millisecond of red onscreen goes hand in hand with the film’s endeavor to awaken us to the wonders of what Witt defines as “another world," which is actually a different way of perceiving and co-inhabiting this world, the only one we have.

Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

Song to Song


Song to Song is an upcoming 2017 American drama film written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring an ensemble cast including Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett.

The film will have its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 10, 2017.

Voyage of Time

Narrated by Brad Pitt and set to play in IMAX theaters this October, “Voyage Of Time” is essentially Malick’s version of the Godfrey Reggio’ 1982 experimental doc “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.” That film was more or less a visual tone poem about the relationship between man and nature, and that’s what Malick seems to be going for here as he explores time, space and the universe. We told you it was ambitious.


The official synopsis reads: “‘Voyage Of Time’ is a one-of-a-kind celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos, transporting audiences into a vast yet up-close-and personal journey that spans the eons from the Big Bang to the dinosaur age to our present human world … and beyond.”

Roger Ebert's reviews of "Elephant" and "The Tree Of Life".

Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" is a record of a day at a high school like Columbine, on the day of a massacre much like the one that left 13 dead. It offers no explanation for the tragedy, no insights into the psyches of the killers, no theories about teenagers or society or guns or psychopathic behavior. It simply looks at the day as it unfolds, and that is a brave and radical act; it refuses to supply reasons and assign cures, so that we can close the case and move on.

Van Sant seems to believe there are no reasons for Columbine and no remedies to prevent senseless violence from happening again. Many viewers will leave this film as unsatisfied and angry as Variety's Todd McCarthy, who wrote after it won the Golden Palm at Cannes 2003 that it was "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst." I think its responsibility comes precisely in its refusal to provide a point.

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Van Sant's "Elephant" is a violent movie in the sense that many innocent people are shot dead. But it isn't violent in the way it presents those deaths. There is no pumped-up style, no lingering, no release, no climax. Just implacable, poker-faced, flat, uninflected death. Truffaut said it was hard to make an anti-war film because war was exciting even if you were against it. Van Sant has made an anti-violence film by draining violence of energy, purpose, glamor, reward and social context. It just happens. I doubt that "Elephant" will ever inspire anyone to copy what they see on the screen. Much more than the insipid message movies shown in social studies classes, it might inspire useful discussion and soul-searching among high school students.

Van Sant simply follows a number of students and teachers as they arrive at the school and go about their daily routines. Some of them intersect with the killers, and many of those die. Others escape for no particular reason. The movie is told mostly in long tracking shots; by avoiding cuts between closeups and medium shots, Van Sant also avoids the film grammar that goes along with such cuts, and so his visual strategy doesn't load the dice or try to tell us anything. It simply watches.

At one point he follows a tall, confident African-American student in a very long tracking shot as he walks into the school and down the corridors, and all of our experience as filmgoers leads us to believe this action will have definitive consequences; the kid embodies all those movie heroes who walk into hostage situations and talk the bad guy out of his gun. But it doesn't happen like that, and Van Sant sidesteps all the conventional modes of movie behavior and simply shows us sad, sudden death without purpose.


"I want the audience to make its own observations and draw its own conclusions," Van Sant told me at Cannes. "Who knows why those boys acted as they did?" He is honest enough to admit that he does not. Of course a movie about a tragedy that does not explain the tragedy -- that provides no personal of social "reasons" and offers no "solutions" -- is almost against the law in the American entertainment industry. When it comes to tragedy, Hollywood is in the catharsis business.

Van Sant would have found it difficult to find financing for any version of this story (Columbine isn't "commercial"), but to tell it on a small budget, without stars or a formula screenplay, is unthinkable. He found the freedom to make the film, he said, because of the success of his "Good Will Hunting," which gave him financial independence: "I came to realize since I had no need to make a lot of money, I should make films I find interesting, regardless of their outcome and audience."




Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I've seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and it lacked Malick's fierce evocation of human feeling. There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. Malick has stayed true to that hope ever since his first feature in 1973.

I don't know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of "The Tree of Life" reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick's gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things.

The three boys of the O'Brien family are browned by the sun, scuffed by play, disturbed by glimpses of adult secrets, filled with a great urgency to grow up and discover who they are.

I wrote earlier about the many ways this film evoked my own memories of such time and place. About wide lawns. About a town that somehow, in memory, is always seen with a wide-angle lens. About houses that are never locked. About mothers looking out windows to check on their children. About the summer heat and ennui of church services, and the unpredictable theater of the dinner table, and the troubling sounds of an argument between parents, half-heard through an open window.

Watching the film, I remembered Ray Bradbury's memory of a boy waking up to the sound of a Green Machine outside his window — a hand-pushed lawnmower. Perhaps you grew up in a big city, with the doors locked and everything air-conditioned. It doesn't matter. Most of us, unless we are unlucky, have something of the same childhood, because we are protected by innocence and naivete.

As I mentioned the O'Brien family, I realized one detail the film has precisely right: The parents are named Mr. O'Brien and Mrs. O'Brien. Yes. Because the parents of other kids were never thought of by their first names, and the first names of your own parents were words used only by others. Your parents were Mother and Father, and they defined your reality, and you were open to their emotions, both calming and alarming. And young Jack O'Brien is growing, and someday will become Mr. O'Brien, but will never seem to himself as real as his father did.

Rarely does a film seem more obviously a collaboration of love between a director and his production designer, in this case, Jack Fisk. Fisk is about my age and was born and raised in Downstate Illinois, and so of course knows that in the late '40s, tall aluminum drinking glasses were used for lemonade and iced tea. He has all the other details right, too, but his design fits seamlessly into the lives of his characters. What's uncanny is that Malick creates the O'Brien parents and their three boys without an obvious plot: The movie captures the unplanned unfolding of summer days, and the overheard words of people almost talking to themselves.

The film's portrait of everyday life, inspired by Malick's memories of his hometown of Waco, Texas, is bounded by two immensities, one of space and time, and the other of spirituality. "The Tree of Life" has awe-inspiring visuals suggesting the birth and expansion of the universe, the appearance of life on a microscopic level and the evolution of species. This process leads to the present moment, and to all of us. We were created in the Big Bang and over untold millions of years, molecules formed themselves into, well, you and me.

And what comes after? In whispered words near the beginning, "nature" and "grace" are heard. We have seen nature as it gives and takes away; one of the family's boys dies. We also see how it works with time, as Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) grows into a middle-aged man (Sean Penn). And what then? The film's coda provides a vision of an afterlife, a desolate landscape on which quiet people solemnly recognize and greet one another, and all is understood in the fullness of time.

Some reviews have said Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt, crew-cut, never more of a regular guy) is too strict as a disciplinarian. I don't think so. He is doing what he thinks is right, as he was reared. Mrs. O'Brien (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) is gentler and more understanding, but there is no indication she feels her husband is cruel. Of course children resent discipline, and of course a kid might sometimes get whacked at the dinner table circa 1950. But listen to an acute exchange of dialogue between Jack and his father. "I was a little hard on you sometimes," Mr. Brien says, and Jack replies: "It's your house. You can do what you want to." Jack is defending his father against himself. That's how you grow up. And it all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space.