I first saw Badlands in a screenwriting class during my junior year of college. I remember being completely taken not necessarily with the bizarre story, but more largely with the incorporation of the classic Western panorama, those wide-open deserts stretching for miles into a horizon dotted with jagged Rocky Mountain peaks. It was these moments that moved me deeply, and re-instated the utter isolation and loneliness felt by the young couple as they retreated further into the unknown.
Never had any movie made me feel so vulnerable to the power of the Western landscape. Perhaps it was my time spent living in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a young boy that connected the film more immediately with my personal experience. After viewing Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and most recently the majestic Tree of Life, I soon realized that Terrence Malick held the supreme talent for capturing earth’s natural aesthetic more organically and evocatively than any other director of his era.
Perhaps it’s the simplicity that lies at the root of his genius. Actors in his films are portrayed in their most raw, ethereal, and wholesome forms. Close-ups are used not to glamorize, but rather to reveal the hidden beauty within. Glassy eyes gaze patiently into the distance, a pair of weathered hands rubs soil into the wind, a toddler attempts to make his first steps. It’s these remarkably candid shots that Malick includes as dream-like reminders of a time lost. The final product is not merely a film, but a journey through shifting moods.
Malick inspires me to use my natural environment as a living, breathing, talking character in all of my films and photographs. Within the highly-evolved 21st century world of 3D movie-making, animated main-stream cinema, digital compositing and CGI, perhaps it’s time to stop using artificial means to outdo one another technically. I agree that quality is crucial, and some mechanical details must be considered. But as Malick has proven time and again since his first feature in 1973, sometimes all that is needed is the right natural light at the right time.
For many, viewing a film is the closest thing we know of to experiencing a dream. Like dreams, films require not only a reflection but also a descent into the unconscious elements of our psyche. Because films do not show us the entire life story of a character, but rather compressed versions of a particular struggle and subsequent resolution, they invite us to “fill in the blanks” by enacting further consideration of how the personal conflicts played out by the film’s protagonist are similar to our own.
Some of my earliest and most vivid memories are of my father’s bedtime stories – not the actual stories themselves, but rather the dreams I would experience shortly there after. As my world was turned upside down in the haziness of my fatigue and the darkness of the outside world, I was guided through an alternate universe by the sound of my father’s voice. Unable to distinguish where my father’s stories ended and my dreams began, I explored forests with talking trees, soared over deserts with purple pyramids, and conversed with exotic animals. It was this initial introduction to a complex form of communication, of losing myself completely in the fabric of my father’s stories, that inspired my initial passion for filmmaking.
Thus, I am drawn to filmmakers who acknowledge the power of dream imagery in their films. It seems as though many modern filmmakers can become enamored with grand themes and mythic patterns, but I feel that a film’s depth depends far more on the small things: a gesture here, a line there, the look of a room, the right light at the right time, or eye contact between two characters. When we awake from a dream, we do not readily remember the dream as a whole, but rather, the tiny moments that unsettled or derailed us. These same moments must be consciously incorporated in a film in order for it to effectively breach the threshold of the viewer’s psyche and solicit within him a powerful emotional response.