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Still from Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ (2011)

Terrence Malick, visionary film maker, apart from being an artist of the moving image can also be considered a public intellectual. In the sense that he expresses his ideas to the public through the medium of cinema. When it comes to the origin of his ideas, it is important to look at his own intellectual history, in order to establish what experiences and studies led him to create films that touch on fundamental philosophical and spiritual questions. Here I attempt a short sketch for an intellectual biography of Terrence Malick. I will not refer to the films as they speak for themselves, but will just give an overview of his studies before he started making films.

Terrence Malick’s father was Emil Malick, of Lebanese Assyrian Christian descent, whose parents had emigrated to the United States from Urmia, currently in Iranian Azerbaijan, in 1917. Terrence’s mother was Emile Thompson, of Irish Catholic descent.

Terrence Malick attended the St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. St. Stephen’s describes itself as  ‘inclusive of all faiths and grounded in the Christian tradition’ and aims to nurture ‘moral growth and values the potential and dignity of every human being’. It further describes itself in this way:

St. Stephen’s, a school rooted in the Episcopal tradition of education, encourages and nurtures the inner life with daily chapel and theology courses. Interfaith and international, the St. Stephen’s student body learns respect and appreciation for other religions and perspectives. Students exposed to diverse belief systems develop tolerance for divergent points of view, an understanding of universal tenets, and a deepened appreciation for their own religious tradition.

In 1961 Malick began his studies in philosophy at Harvard University. He attended a course taught by Paul Tillich called ‘The Self-Interpretation of Man in Western Thought’. Paul Tillich was a Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian of German origin. He was the son of a Prussian Lutheran pastor, and he himself became a Lutheran pastor in Germany. In 1933, while Professor of Theology at the University of Frankfurt he was dismissed from his role as his teachings contrasted with the views of Adolf Hitler in irreconcilable ways. He was then offered a job at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary which he accepted and moved to the US, where he learnt English and later began teaching at Harvard.

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Paul Tillich’s gravestone in the Paul Tillich Park, New Harmony, Indiana.

Terrence Malick’s tutor and supervisor at Harvard was Stanley Cavell. Stanley Cavell, of Jewish origin, is a philosophy professor, currently the Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Cavell’s influences include Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Thoreau and Emerson. Cavell later wrote a number of books in which he exposed philosophical concepts through his examination of films, including the seminal ‘The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film’.

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Book cover for Stanley Cavell’s ‘The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film’ (1980)

Malick, whose dissertation was on how Heidegger’s thoughts on epistemology related to the analysis of perception of Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and C.I. Lewis, during his student days traveled on a “pilgrimage” to Germany where he met Heidegger in his hut in the Black Forest among fields of eyebright and arnica. It is likely he discussed his interpretation of some writings by the German philosopher that Malick translated as part of his dissertation studies.

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Heidegger’s Hut in Todtnau-Todtnauberg, Black Forest, Germany

In 1965 Malick was awarded a degree in philosophy with summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honours from Harvard University. He subsequently won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, to write about the concept of the world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Due to an intellectual disagreement with his supervisor at Oxford, Gilbert Ryle, Malick left Oxford without completing a doctorate. Fellow Rhodes scholar Jonathan D. Culler said of Malick’s unsuccessful attempt on being supervised on a Doctorate on Heidegger at Oxford:

These were the days [when] Oxford was analytical philosophy, the last thing anyone at the philosophy department there wanted was to supervise a dissertation on Heidegger. So he kept on hitting a blank wall.

Culler said that Malick in the end gave up Oxford “in digust”.

Following his time in Oxford, Malick taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Malick’s course was on Heidegger’s philosophy, yet Malick believed he did not have the qualities or experiences to make a good phenomenology teacher and following a lecture in which he failed to identify with Heidegger’s writings on anxiety he decided to quit teaching. Malick translated Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (The Essence of Reason) publishing it in 1969 for the Northwestern University Press. The translation was well reviewed, yet he decided to not pursue an academic career after completing it.

Further to this Malick worked for Newsweek and the New Yorker. In 1968 he worked on a major work of journalism on Che Guevara and French philosopher Régis Debray. Malick flew to Bolivia to attend Debray’s trial and arrived the day after Che Guevara was killed. He spent four months in Bolivia, yet he never completed or published his work. He later said that he did not understand at the time the complexity of the political dimension of what was happening in Bolivia, so was not able to conceptualize Bolivian politics after the death of Che Guevara. The only main article he published was a piece he co-wrote with Jacob Brackman, a Comment, on the assassination of Martin Luther King. The article is available to New Yorker subscribers here. His career in journalism was short lived.

At this time, the American Film Institute (AFI) was created by the newly formed National Endowment for the Arts under the Kennedy administration. The AFI run a film specialization school, and as its founder stated:

We were less interested if they knew how to focus a camera or operate a moviola; we were interested in what kind of people they were, what they would bring to the film medium once they learnt how to do it and I think Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Paul Schrader are all good examples of choosing people who really had some artistic and intellectual sensibility that would make them interesting filmmakers, rather than film mechanics.

Malick, through his contact and friend Jacob Brackman, was chosen as one of the first ten students to attend the AFI. George Stephens Jr., founder of the AFI, said of Malick at this early stage of his film career:

He loved European cinema, but he was not unique in that way – it was the era of Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman – everyone had a knowledge of European cinema.

And the rest is history.

Read more: Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected

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