We are a creature that is prone to longing. We imagine our beautiful home, a perfect lover, a belief system that makes sense, answered prayers and a world “where our hearts of stone may become hearts of flesh.” Wherever those things are, they are not here and if we can only get to that place, all will be right with the world. But we are conflicted as to direction. We are caught between over there and back there, between the place not yet seen (sehnsucht) and the place known too well residing in a repressed past (saudade.)
In coming to ponder on this longing, I have taken to watching Terrence Malick’s prairie movies, where longing inhabits nearly every frame. There are four of these: “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “Tree of Life,” and “To the Wonder.” The quest to find our home and to satiate our longing is never far from the surface of Malick’s films.
Whether he ever gets us there is debatable. His autobiographical films “Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” when taken together (as some critics have suggested should be done) has a possible “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him” message. “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” are more linear and the conclusions drawn are more about what happens to us when we fracture our lives and the lives of others. In these films, longing is present, but its object unattained.
“Badlands” is a good place to start when considering Malick’s prairie imagination. It is the story of two young serial killers who live for a while in a tree house. “Moonrise Kingdom” is said to be indebted to this film. After their idyllic existence is shattered by the forces of the law, they take to the highways of the Dakotas and head for the mountains. (Travel in an eastward direction is impossible in TM movies.) As they are practiced in violence, they never get there. Malick who understands biblical imagery quite well will not allow them to attain the place where the law is given (Exodus) and “where there will be no harm” (Isaiah).
What becomes obvious in “Badlands” is that Malick has a respect for creation and allows “rocks, fields, and floods” to speak every bit as much as his characters. It is a tendency that becomes more pronounced with each successive film.
Like “Badlands” all of the prairie movies involve geography and travel, even if the travel is an interior one. In each, childhood informs life and the interplay of a man and woman is always present. Then there are the obvious acclamations to creation. Water, high places, grasslands, and the world at magic hour are everywhere. In short, God has given us great gifts in being one with the other and putting us on this beautiful earth. Not to worry, however. We are bound to muck it up somehow.
One can certainly have fun with the formula. For instance if you are a guy and you want to live in Malick’s world, you do not have to kill your boss (“Days of Heaven”) or girlfriend’s dad (“Badlands”). Just find a woman, put her in a long skirt and take her out to the prairie where she can twirl around, throw her arms to the sky and reflect on God. Meanwhile you can stand there with a stoicism that makes Spock look like the king of Mardi Gras and wait to be saved by the sacred feminine. If that happens, you failed. Find another woman and prairie and try again. Make sure you have the first woman’s phone number. Call her, date her, make love to her, marry her. Then you can have a family and screw that up, fulfilling yet another Malick storyline. Whatever you do make sure you are driven toward work, callous on the surface, feeling of failure, and thinking yourself beyond all redemption. Try not to think about your “Mrs. O’Brien” (“Tree of Life”) and God loving you in spite of yourself.
That is obviously overplayed, but it speaks to a point. Terrence Malick has obsessed on the difference between men and women. Without a woman, a Malick male is incapable of finding God. He probably won’t anyway, but it is impossible without a woman. Granted there are the priests, though even in the one prominent role that a priest occupies in these films (“To the Wonder”) he is beset with doubt. Besides a priest is removed from the world of sexuality, which is ever present in Malick. Even if sexuality is not so obvious, it is necessary in that it gives the world children and children are all over the prairie movies. Even in “Badlands” Holly is more child than lover.
There emergences in this coupling of male and female a revelation about Terrence Malick’s world. The earth needs men, men need women, women need children, and children need the good earth. With few exceptions the dependencies are tenuous. Men wreck the earth, women do not stand with their men, and children lose their innocence. The one exception is a big one. The Tree of Life’s Mrs. O’Brien delivers Malick’s most forceful argument for grace and she is nothing less than a holy mother and the archetype of the beautiful and feminine.
And holy people are archetypes. Though To the Wonder was not as appreciated as other prairie films, it did the best job in showing this, at least in the beginning. Here we find the archetype of holy couple ad holy family. There is a loving mother and a joyful child. They are under the protection of a man who loves the mother and child, though he is not the child’s father. Though the remainder of the movie presents the man as cold as a stone, the beginning has him sharing the joy of a family. All that remains is marriage to make it sacred. In the clearest of biblical imagery the man and woman are given the flood of mercy that makes them frolic and laugh and allowed to ascend to the high place where the Creator dwells in a church atop a mountain. Being Terrence Malick, the man and the woman cast themselves down. Having attained what they think is the highest form of love, they have no other place to go. What they fail to see is though God is content to be with them on earth, there is a heaven above and a love higher still.
“Without the companion the man will cease to exist.” If you are truly a geek, you get this as the second Star Trek reference here. Without the ability to rise above eros and unable to forgive, To the Wonder’s man ceases to exist (not literally.) The woman who plays both the role of the “woman of the apocalypse” and the “whore of Babylon” makes a decision to see heaven and Malick’s formula of the male/female dichotomy holds. In any case the longing is there. The man longs for a companion (“it is not good that the man should be alone”) and the woman longs for another child and a knowledge of God. In both cases they seek that which they do not know. They lack courage, are indecisive, and cannot commit to love. All the while a child is ignored and violence is visited on a creation that God says is good. For Malick the the most obvious sins are tearing up the good earth and even worse tearing down each other.
And yet in all of these prairie movies….God loves them and us anyway. In spite of who they are, they are loved. God loves the heinous Kit and Holly, the couple masquerading as brother and sister, the family who only knows grace through their mother and the cowardly man and woman who in spite of a great romance are unable to commit. Though women throw their arms up in proclamation only to bring them down and men are incapable of seeing what the woman sees and children lose their innocence as a dying world beats them down, everyone is loved. Never mind that they cannot love even if they are commanded to do so. Never mind that they long because they just don’t get it. They are loved. Every shot taken at the magic hour when the world trembles between the bright day and sacred night testifies to it. And though we do not know that for which we long, there is the unseen One in Malick’s art who knows for what He longs. He longs for us.
The Prairie Movies: This post makes more sense if you have seen these movies. If you have not, here is a brief synopsis of each:
Badlands: Based on the real life serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, Terrence Malick gives us a true road movie. Holly and Kit go on a shooting spree and yet somehow spend time living in a tree house and dancing in the morning. They race across the Badlands until the law catches up with them. Resembling James Dean, Kit is a bit of a folk hero as he awaits extradition and death.
Days of Heaven: In a retelling of Genesis 12:10-20, Billy a steel worker from Chicago accidently kills his boss and flees with his girlfriend Abby and her young sister to the Texas panhandle. They pretend to be brother and sister and come under the employ of a wealthy older land owner. In an attempt to acquire the rich man’s fortune, Abby enters a fake marriage with him that becomes real as she falls in love with him. Disaster results in the form of a plague of locusts and Billy and Abby are left to move on.
Tree of Life: A film that uses Job to answer why evil occurs. This movie involves a family that must deal with the death of a child. Interspersed are scenes of creation and the platitudes of grace. This movie gives us the Mrs. O’Brien who with To the Wonder’s Father Quintana is Malick’s most archetypical and likeable characters.
To the Wonder: A man and woman have a great romance that falls apart in marriage. All the while a priest typifies a higher love that is exhibited in acts of kindness. This movie shows us the necessity of forgiveness and the command to love which leads us to redemption.
Image: Sunset over Iowa Prairie, CC license by Phil Roeder