Some of the films I watch have what I call an anti-narrative (i.e, an explicit avoidance of a story, which is a story itself). For example, Claire Denis’ ‘Beau Travail’, Carax’s “Mauvais Sang” and early Godard are quintessential cornerstones of the form, although, they are all French and rooted in intellectual French stylism (filmic and literary references).
But there is an American form of anti-narrative, which I believe originates with Malick and ‘Badlands’. I’m not sure of the history of it, but recent Gordon Green, and Korine, all seem to point to it. Even Jem Cohen who succeeds at a smaller degree borrows strokes from Terry.
With the French, the idea is to have an explicit dialog between the filmmaker and the viewer that has little to do with the story unfolding. It is a series of comments that the filmmaker makes on the art of film. These are stylistic mini-vignettes that at times can be vacuous (most of the time), or can possess some explicit profundity, depending on how much of an artist the filmmaker is.
Now with Malick, there is a story that you can take seriously. It can stand on its own as a linear narrative. But what he adds is this: he enwraps the story in a swaddling aura–with ethereal music, voiceovers, and editing techniques, he gradually weaves a world that encompasses the narrative, and we too, build this world, cooperatively as we go along.
This is why you might call the effect his films have ‘hypnotizing’ or ‘haunting’. Compare it to basic comprehensible poetry that touches the soul, or the rare few works of art that transcend your notions of purity.
My favorite of his is The Red Line project. That is because the story gave way for broader thematic exploration. Here, he explores love. Specially the cinematic notion of it, the meeting of two souls, the possibility of purity, the dreamy haziness, the loss. He interrupts this with a perspective on the purity of Native life, a Malick idealization.
The problem arises when the meditations become episodic. Red Line avoided this precisely because the story was about going, exploring, running away, attacking. Here, it’s about cycles of love (budding love) and the fate of lovers. The seeking is there, but static, the exploring if there but scarcely, it bumps against ‘love’.
I must say, the best acting comes from the extras. This is intentional. Farell is not allowed to be good (not like they stopped him from it), because the characterization needs to be flat somewhat in order for the other elements (music, voiceovers) to give dimension to the world.
Every good movie is a New World. For Malick, each one of his movies is a poem part of one book. All chapters are essential readings. But my vote goes to Red Line.
Go see this, and look for Pocahonta’s brother. He anchors the first half of the movie. He is our way into the World.