Terrence Malick is a director that can’t stay still. A cinematic poet whose wandering eye has been the focus of equal amounts of derision and fascination, Malick’s images can seem fickle and arbitrary at first glance. Indeed, he does not approach images like a storyteller crafting shots from an obligatory laundry list, as if building a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are merely rearranged and the final image is already known. Rather he is like a child trying to catch fireflies on a summer evening. The images are all around him, traveling in the ether of ideas and emotions, waiting to be snatched through the lens of a camera.
Observe the scene in Days of Heaven where Bill (Richard Gere) talks to Abby (Brooke Adams) about a possible solution to their poverty stricken lives. Ankle deep in a river, the camera frames Bill in a full shot as he makes his proposal and then glides to Abby, anticipating her answer. As her diffidence grows, the camera lingers on her stilted reaction before cutting to an intense close-up of Bill, his eyes nearly looking straight into the camera as he makes his plea. Not interested in typical shot reverse shot, Malick maintains his focus on Abby from behind, the camera continuing to glide after her, essentially acting as a phantom probe into her character’s conflicted inner thought process.
For Malick, the act of listening is perhaps more important than the act of speaking. His characters are attuned to nature, dreams, and the hidden world. As a consequence, he allows his camera to speak for them, often through tracking shots that are constantly providing momentum to their ever evolving minds. With the steadicam, he does not observe his characters spatially like Stanley Kubrick or Peter Greenaway, ever the mathematicians of cinema, but like a lost soul trying desperately to push past the restrictive physical plane of three dimensional spaces. Even when his camera is still, it is often trained on an object in motion: the flowing reeds of grass in a field, the shimmering ripples of a pond, a bird in flight.
Just as nature is delicately synchronized with the Earth’s rotation, so too are Malick’s compositions synchronized with the natural rhythm of his films. This is never more apparent than in The New World, his most unapologetic tone poem. In the final of the film’s three montages set to the propulsive “Vorspiel” from Richard Wagner’s Das Reingold, Malick’s floating camera reaches its apotheosis. (Spoilers follow.) A playful game of hide and seek between Pocahontas and her son becomes a visual metaphor for her impending death. A simple steadicam track of both characters takes on new significance once she becomes lost, the camera unable to find her just like her son. When Pocahontas returns on screen, liberated by death and running fancifully, the camera now tries to catch up with her. A cut to a bird gliding across the sky becomes a transition to John Rolfe taking his now motherless son back to America by ship. The camera follows them from behind, pushing in on them ever so slightly once they stop to look out at the endless horizon. Like life, Malick’s images are impermanent but always moving. Infinity, it seems, lies just beyond the camera.