Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Notes on Voyage of Time - Life´s Journey, by Terrence Malick, USA: 2016


This is one of three versions of this project. The Imax-version i(narrated by Brad Pitt) s only 40 minutes long (and it seems to be rather a different film than another version) and there is a third one as long as Life´s Journey and projected with Live-music ( which is considered as Malick´s preferred version). The version Life´s Journey wonderfully narrated by Cate Blanchett (and the only which is available for me now – and that only thanks to the French Blue Ray -Release).

Another thing always confuses me: Voyage of Time is often mentioned as a heir of Malick´s legendary Project Q, another epic on the history of the world which he began and abandoned decades ago. After all what I have heard and read about this project, The Tree of Life refers as much to this Project Q as Voyage of Time. Both films are nurtured by this abandoned unfinished project. Considering Voyage of Time, I asked myself if this, Malick´s only non narrative film about birth and death of the world can work without the extreme dynamic of The Tree of Life between a very personal, even autobiographical inspired family story and the history of the universe. In a surprising way and despite its resemblance with the formation scene in The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey works on its own. It is not only a great companion piece for The Tree of Life, but also to most of his more recent films. The cosmic perspective is one important but only one of several different currents in his last 5 films which are best compared with complex living organisms. The fatal fashion among a lot of critics to ridicule these last films is the only unpleasant implication whenever a new film by America´s greatest living filmmaker is released.

As Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey (which I call for now the “Cate Blanchett”-Version) is the second new film by Malick I saw this year, and because of that 2017 will be a film year to remember. Song to Song is still very warm in my memory and it grew after every time I saw it.
Even though the “Cate Blanchett”- version is the only version I could see, it is hard to imagine a finer narrator than Cate Blanchett. It is like a recitation of a poem and a good example of what Christopher Nolan calls “the complex relationship between images and sound” (and in this case the narration included) The text often begins with Mother as an abstraction of this All.

As an admirer of his films since The New World, the biggest challenge was for me in Life´s Journey to get used to deal the lack of Lubezki`s permanently moving camera. Just alone the collaboration between Malick and Lubezki belongs to the most inspiring ones between a director and a cinematographer.

Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey is recognizable as a recent film by Terrence Malick but it looks also like a kind of missing link between Malick´s early films from the 1970s and his films from up to 1998. It is his most scripted film since Days of Heaven but another aspect which distinguished it from other more recent films by Malick, is it´ essayistic aspect. It is like we see a typical film by Malick from an engrossed angle. Blanchett, the invisible narrator is something like a hybrid between Job quoted in The Tree of Life and the Pocahontas from the New World but also an abstraction of the always searching Malick-characters. The text is even rather structured in exact pointed verses evokes doubt, questions and tries to find orientation in the face of gigantic cosmic processes compared with the short life span of a human being.While music and words are references to culture rooted in human visions of the world, the images of exploding stars, cosmic dust cosmic gas and the giant natural forces hint to a world which existed long before human consciousness and probably will still there when all traces of culture are gone. Despite a certain opulence Malick´s first approach in essayistic non-narrative cinema reminds me in Marguerite Duras´ Les Mains Négatives. Both films work with this “complex relationship” of image and over voice narration and both films are dealing with the nakedness of men in contrast to the forces of nature. Like the nameless man who lived 30000 years ago in Les Mains Négatives, we are in Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey exposed to front of huge physical and chemical processes. In Malick´s films everything is exposed to the natural but also the socio cultural history of the human world, that includes his protagonists, here even the invisible narrator, us and Malick himself. At least in the use of over voice narration, Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey is deeply connected to his extraordinary films since his comeback with The Thin Red Line.

Blanchett´s over voice narration with its long pauses correlate with the rhythmic appearance of total darkness between the images and structure the whole film like in verse.
Where comes the voice of Cate Blanchett from? In this film literally all things begins or comes out of the darkness and they will disappear in it at the end. The newborn sun has to assert its light against clouds of dark dust. The film celebrates at the same time the victory of the light over darkness as the basic condition to the evolution of life but at the same time for cinema itself.

Malick´s famous over voices are here reduced on one single female voice and it is for most parts of the film the only human reference point in the vastness of cosmic processes.
Mother you walked with me before there was a world, before there was day or night.”
This is the opening sentence of the film which literally comes out of the darkness. The reason that Malick is often blamed by superficial critics as esoteric is a result of a disastrous ignorance of how Malick works with the visible and traceable matter of the world and cinema as the visualization of it but also with poetic abstraction and religious moment as possibilities of interpreting the world. Finally science, religion and poetry are never opposites in Malick´s films. As the film´s narration is like a poetic monologue which goes its own way. Sometimes science and poetry come together, sometimes not. Some aspects of my fascination for the films by Terrence Malick, I can describe, others come over me like a natural force.

Between the moments of the foundation of the universe and the evolution of life, there are small moments of coarse grained documentary clips about groups of people from cultures all over the world, mostly people in despair, refugees, extreme poor people or people in distress.Even a burning landscape will be shown. It refers to another aspect of the films by Terrence Malick, pain and mourning. That can be caused by natural events but also by these human civilizations.

Mother, will you abandon me?”
The text becomes sometimes a prayer and poetic abstraction at the same time but it is also crucial for Terrence Malick who does not only celebrate the life but who also reminds us in the vulnerability of life.
We remember how Brad Pitt describes Malick´s work on The Tree of Life like: “I call him an imperfectionist. He finds perfection in imperfection. He is like a documentarian that´s just waiting for the moment to happen (...) (Q&A with Brad Pitt on The Tree of Life) In its last consequence, this imperfectionism means for Malick the highest artictic freedom imaginable.

It is interesting that at least compared with the legendary Project Q or the epic The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey seems to me much more “unfinished” than anything else Malick has done despite the presence of the mighty IMAX images.And it is not the first time that seemingly limitations are actually the most inspiring. The magic, the whole richness of a film by Terrence Malick enfolds very often after several watchings. I remember there was a critic (obviously from the category Malick-hater) who ridiculed the scene with the first men who are moving naked through the landscape. One has to be quite demented to find this moment ridiculous. It does not only refer to Malick´s The New World but it is also the most essential expression in Malick´s work of the above mentioned vulnerability of human life. In all its opulence, in all its cinematic attractions, Malick always goes back to the nakedness of mankind confronted with a new culture and the still mystic power of nature.

It is not just a film on birth being and decline of the world, it is an offering to get an idea about this process through many perspectives. There are documented and created images, the music and the over voice narration. The montage integrates all these elements but keeps them as own units. Despite the use of Imax images, special effects (digital and analog) in the cinema of Terrence Malick, the whole complex cinematographic apparatus will always be a, imitation of our senses, a perfect one but still an imitation.
One of the seemingly least spectacular but very moving moments, – like so often in a film by Malick –occurs near the end. A lonely girl plays on a lawn. In the background we see modern contemporary buildings. It could have been a scene from The Tree of Life, To the Wonder or anything Malick made in the last years. This landscape seems very triste but the child seems to be so involved in its own imagination, an imagination we all had once, we all forgot so often and a film can often bring these lost mood back to our mind. In the background we hear the typical North American train signal. A shot of another girl, playing with a group of children in a strangely deserted urban landscape. A detail shot of a girl´s profile, the ear appears in a close up. It is an image of a human being who experiences the world with all her senses, theses senses depending on her physical existence. We remember from the beginning a close up of a female face focused on the eye and another shot of a close up of a reptil´s eye. My description how Malick always tracks back the most beautiful visions to the physical world might sound a bit sober but it is part of his unique poetical concept of cinema. The little girl´s ear remains in my memory like the huge physical and chemical processes which formed the universe and the landscapes of the earth. (1)

A last and small chapter deals with the decline of the universe, the death of the sun and its planets and finally the end of all things. I remember the moment when the family tragedy in The Tree of life turns into this amazing sequence of the birth of the universe. I remember how much some people were irritated by this but I was sure from the first time I saw it that it was placed exactly where it belonged, right after a shot on the devastated mourning mother and as a visual echo of the job quotation from the beginning. Here in Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey, Malick offers not only his complex relationship between image sound and spoken word but also between science and faith, between a factual and a poetic vision of the world, between the matter and what it evokes in our mind and soul. The last master who approached such thing was Jean Renoir in 1951 with The River.
As we see images of the dying sun who burns our planet to ashes, the over voice paraphrases these moment in a poetical abstract but nevertheless very moving text:
The shadows flee ashore,
Time goes back to her source.
(We see a Black Hole)
Mother, I take your hands.
I dream no more.”

The last image shows a clouded sky until it sinks back into the darkness of the ending credits. The “intervals” of darkness in Voyage of Time-Life´s Journey is close to the clay formed from the bottom of Renoir´s The River. The statues of gods and goddesses formed out of clay are brought back to the river after the ceremonies where it becomes again mud on the river´s bottom.

What remains is a more simple truth: in only 6 years Terrence Malick has released his 5 most beautiful films. And always when the last scoffs, slating reviews or misunderstandings caused by blind ideological prejudice fade away, all of these wonderful 5 last films are already turning into true classics of the cinema of the 21st. Century.

Rüdiger Tomczak


(1) It is not enough for me to be astonished about this film or to be impressed by it. There is so much more what is evoked in me by this work. Malick uses a lot of artifices. But the amazement and the emotion evoked by these artifices seems to me something that Malick is sharing with us. There is no moment in this film which I can imagine as something different as something real felt or experienced. Not till then – I imagine- Malick confides these experience, these perceptions or probably some of his own memories and  experiences to the apparatus of film making. While seeing this film and despite my awareness of these instruments which record, conserve and visualize -  these recorded moments seem to dissolve away themselves from them. This feeling for the authenticity of every single moment in The Tree of Life or his previous films The Thin Red Line and The New World are shining much brighter than all the complex and imposing instruments used in this film I would like to call „The Malick-Paradox”. (from my text on The Tree of Life)