Friday, April 1, 2016

Malick's Badlands as an example for Philosophy and Film

Comments on "Earth and World: Malick’s Badlands" by Jason M. Wirth (Seattle University)
Transcendence and Film Panel, Jaspers Society, American Philosophical Association Meetings,
March 31, 2016

(As Wirth's paper has not been published, I have deleted quotes from these notes.  I should also stress that the paper Wirth gave at the conference was quite different from the one I received earlier, and also that my comments were extemporaneous and only roughly based on these notes.) 

The classic problem in the new and growing field of Philosophy and Film (or, as it is sometimes called, Philosophy through Film) concerns how film can be philosophical.  Of course this has to do with the broader question of the definition of philosophy itself.   One easy way to find philosophy in film is to find philosophical dialogue within the film or perhaps some thesis presented which could be described as philosophical.  Jason Wirth follows a somewhat different approach in his study of Malick’s Badlands. (This might be considered an example of strong Philosophy through Film.)  As he puts it, the movie is philosophical in that it thinking itself as it emerges in a context between the thoughtless world of the main characters and the earth.  Thus we have a Heideggerian approach to a film being philosophical, one that draws on such notions as “world” and  “earth.”  The task is made somewhat easier by background knowledge we have about Malick himself, that he was a philosopher already before taking up the job of film director, and that he even has written along Heideggerian lines.

I often teach the “The Origins of the Work of Art” and am always looking for illumination of Heidegger's confusing idea of the relationship between earth and world.  So I thought that this movie and Wirth’s analysis could help me in this direction.  Before I go on I must confess that I find it very difficult to watch films that involve serial murder.  So, although I did watch Badlands as preparation for giving this paper, I did not see it when it was first released.  Moreover, I eased my way into viewing it by seeing video clips on-line and by learning the plot first.  Even before seeing the film and in just looking at these clips one of the things that struck me was that the combination of the haunting background music, the amazing clueless girl-next-door rendering of Holly by Sissy Spacek, the James Deanish feel of Martin Sheen, and the often sublime scenes of nature, make this movie memorable.  It is a good movie.  But is it philosophical?  It might be if we can see it as saying something about the earth/world dialectic.  Wirth argues that the landscape is more than mere background, more than just scenery.   There is a contest between foreground and background in the film in which the background, as the earth, intrudes on the foreground.  The earth both limits and resists worldhood: the earth presumably resists the way in which the worldhood of a world seeks to achieve totality.  Hence there is contestation between foreground and background, the foreground being world and the background being earth.

Recently I have been writing in the aesthetics of nature. Many aestheticians, for example Allen Carlson and Glenn Parsons, see the aesthetics of nature, as entirely a matter of getting one’s scientific facts straight and then appreciating nature in terms of those facts.  However a much-maligned approach which I have defended elsewhere is to appreciate nature by way of the arts. I agree with Wirth that Badlands features a tension between world and earth in which earth is represented not as mere scenery or even as mere background but as a character, a force, that dynamically interacts with the story.  Making and watching this film could be, I want to suggest, a way of appreciating nature. 

I often have my students apply the ideas of Aristotle as developed in his Poetics to a movie.  This is possible with Badlands, as it is with practically any movie, most of which have some of the elements of a tragic play.  The trouble is that by doing so one would focus on what Aristotle calls plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle, without taking into account the earth/world dynamic Wirth describes.  This is interesting in light of the fact that Heidegger often saw himself as in a tensional dialogue with Aristotle.  Natural scenery, and the environment generally, plays a role here not simply as spectacle, although Aristotle would see it in this way, i.e. as staging, but as something more like the chorus in relation to characters on the Greek stage.  I am thinking now of the scene in which Holly and Kit are living Robinson Crusoe like in the woods, in a tree house, preparing for intrusion of the bounty hunters.  We see shots of flowers and birds that might normally seem like a cheap add-ons, but somehow, with the music, increase the wondrous nature of the movie.  Let’s say then that one of the things a movie can do, and does in this case, I entirely agree with Wirth, is to bring out the tension between earth and world.  It does this perhaps by implicating us, the viewers, in a world that we find abhorrent but with which we are continuous (whether or not Wirth sees us as continuous with this world is open to question). The earth/world relationship in tension is going to be, phenomenologically, something quite different from the natural world as something that can be appreciated as we understand it scientifically.  Those who hold to the scientific cognitivist model of nature appreciation allow no room for exploring this tension, and I think this a major failing in their model. We necessarily explore nature from our own standpoint, from our world, and if our world is out of joint, then the relationship is going to be not only tensional but deeply so.  I should also mention here the concept of the sublime.  Here I am just thinking in terms of Burke’s version of the sublime in which sublime experience of nature is a function of both pain and delight, and which is summed up in the notion of astonishment.   Sublimity in this movie is not just a function of what we see, the vast spaces and big skies, for example, but also of the truly big questions it asks in terms of our relation to the earth.

The philosophical point of the movie according to Wirth is roughly that we live in a world of environmental degradation in which our thoughtless world does not recognize its distinction from earth. (He did not mention this view when he gave the paper in San Francisco.)  Now if we are going to take the idea of film as philosophy seriously we should focus not only on the interconnections between a film and a philosophy or on that plus description of the film in terms of the philosophy.  We should also focus on the truth, insightfulness and/or wisdom of the philosophical claims implicitly made.  In an era of human-caused environmental disaster it is hard not to look for the source of the problem in human ideology, and the confusion of world with earth is a fair starting part.  As philosophy, Badlands may have the advantage of being on-the-mark.  But also, care needs to be taken in not going beyond the available evidence.  My one criticism of Wirth's paper is that he may do this in his talk of the purity of the earth.  This can only make sense within the context of a romanticist mythology in which earth has pure being and we and our world or worlds do not.   Also questionable is talk of the earth absolutely exterior to world.  Wirth combines this talk with reference to the original sin by which we lost Eden, a place presumably where there was only earth and no world.  This may make sense as interpretation of Malick’s movie or of Heidegger’s writing, but not, in my view, in terms of what is true or insightful or real about our own condition.  It can’t be true since we just are the result of natural activity of evolution.  And if the idea of Eden, of the absolute and the pure is intended to be metaphorical, what is it a metaphor for?  I cannot make sense of absolute exteriority or the idea of original sin in any non-religious way, and if we are to understand this in a religious way then we seem to have left the realm of philosophy.   

Still, I like Wirth's idea that the world we live in operates tacitly, not recognizing its own contingency and often determined by the overly simplified cultural ideology fed us by Hollywood.  I even can agree with his idea that the problem goes much deeper than the influence of Hollywood and has to do with perception itself.   As I understand it, for Wirth, and probably for Malick, there is a friction between earth and world which is also between being and meaning and which comes out in our seeing the world around us as though it were a bad movie, thus through the lens of Hollywood etc. in an interestingly negative way. (One could also see the world around us as if a good movie, and ironically seeing the world around us under the imagery of Badlands it is seeing it as or in terms of or under the guidance of a good movie.)   As is suggested by Wirth, the bad movie that is the world depicted in Badlands is in tension with a the film’s own transcendence based on the earth.  

But what is meant by earth-based transcendence? Transcendence is usually associated with the heavens, not the earth, although one finds roots of the notion in Kant’s idea of the transcendental as a grounding that replaces traditional metaphysical transcendence, and also of course in Nietzsche’s idea of being true to the earth (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 1), and Heidegger’s development of that.   The idea of earthy transcendence is associated with that of two kinds of myth, myth which opens the world to the earth (Being of beings) and myth that closes up a world as ideology, totalizing because with no outside, the closed world being the one of Kit and Holly in the movie.  Wirth speaks of meaning circulating in a Platonic Cave.   Non-thoughts in this closed world pose as thinking. But isn’t portrayal of the closed world of Kit and Holly in the context of the earth world dialectic that which allows a kind of transcendence?  In this case, don’t we go down into earthy transcendence through the art of film?

I would like to raise the question here of whether acceptance of a Platonic conception, based on the imagery of the cave, doesn’t go against a truer, more Nietzschean, perspective.  Nietzsche in the first two chapters of The Birth of Tragedy calls on us, implicitly, to “dream on” and urges that there is something redemptive in the dream (life is only worth living as an aesthetic phenomenon):  he re-validates the world of the cave while rejecting simplistic forms of transcendence he associates with Plato and Christianity.  The dreamworld is not just Apollonian but is also Dionysian since it is in the moment in which the Dionysian reveler in his ecstasy sees the gods of the dreamworld as on a stage that the Dionysian and the Apollonian are combined in Tragic art, the highest form of art.  The idea of an earthy transcendence may more happily cohabit with the notion of a dreamworld itself revealing, with the idea that we somehow need to go deeper into the world of illusion before we get to Being itself.  This is perhaps what Malick is trying to do.  (This would be truer to art’s autonomy from philosophy, and would keep Film through Philosophy from becoming Film as illustration of Philosophy.  Film as art is constantly in tension with Philosophy, as Plato well knew.)  We can read this as a mythology of the extreme which is also dis-continuous with our world in the sense that we simply reject it as monstrous.

Wirth insists that we should not see the main characters as exceptions in their world but as continuous with it.  And yet perhaps it is equally a mistake from another perspective to see it as continuous with our world and as separate from us only in degree, as though we are in some sense guilty of their crimes or their ideology.  (Wirth could reply that he is not saying it is continuous with our world, but then why all this talk of “bad movie” and “Hollywood.”) True, our world is not generally thoughtful enough, has not yet begun to think in any deep way, or is at least resistant to that, and yet our world hardly condones, and is in fact repelled by, the extreme thoughtlessness of these two characters, as we also see exemplified today in the activities of Isis.

It should not be surprising then that I have a lot of trouble when Wirth says, that Badlands is less about failings of characters than about how to re-imagine original sin, which he understands as the way that worlds hide themselves from the absolute external nature of earth.  Nietzsche might look at this and say that it turns the earth into something other than the earth, something more like the transcendent realm, and it turns life, that is, living in the world, into something that needs to be denied.  To say yes to life is to refuse all re-imagining of original sin and all talk of absolutes of any sort.  Whether it is Malick’s film that makes these kinds of points I cannot say.


Something seems to have been left out of this discussion.  Going further with the Nietzschean perspective I developed above I would say that Malick presents us with a world1 that contains two aspects which can be called the world2 and the earth aspect.  World1 represents our world and the tension between world2 and earth can also be found to some degree in our world.  In reply to my comments Wirth said that there are no symbols in Malick.  That is both right and wrong:  I doubt that there are one-to-one symbols in which one could clearly say "this symbolizes that."  But, at the same time, everything in the world of the work is presented to us as a symbol for our world.  One of the scary things in our world is the way in which people can sink into thoughtlessness.  Badlands as a movie was inspired by a true-life story of a mass murderer who saw himself as a James Dean like figure, a rebel without a cause.  The Dionysian truth reveals to us underlying horrors of existence.   But the Dionysian in conjunction with the Apollonian is a Dionysian that is tamed, transformed.  In a sense we can better handle the horror of existence through this transformation.  The happens in Greek Tragedy and also in Malick's film.  Moreover, this symbol is a kind of cypher in the sense of Jaspers.  As a cipher it refers to transcendence, not to a transcendent realm but to a way in which we can be transcend ourselves.  Another way to put it is that it reveals Being itself.    

I would also like to suggest that the Philosophy of Film and Philosophy through Film are closely allied.   To understand what film is and how it can be art we need to understand how it can stand as a symbol for our world.  We need to recognize that art and philosophy both attempt to give us wisdom, but in very different ways.  Both are autonomous and neither can be subordinated to the other.  This not not just a matter of form but also of content.  A film will not, qua film (and qua art) make statements or develop arguments.  The environmental background of the Badlands cannot and does not gain priority over the world of Kit and Holly.  No character in a play or movie has the final word.  In short, a movie is not a treatise.  But more important, it is common today for philosophers to say that we cannot escape our worlds.  This is not true, and we know it because such a view cannot be held by an artist.  Art presents us with a world that is other than our world, and we do escape from our world into that world, a world that is a symbol for our world.  The escape of course is never total:  it is as if we were in another world.  It is also an escape, ironically, that, in the best art, makes our world more clear, more understandable, and more infused with spirit.  Digging deeper into the world of illusion gives us whatever redemption we can have.  It is a matter of digging into our own unconscious, whether individual or collective. To escape into the worlds presented by art is also to escape from the mundane fantasy worlds and from the simplistic categorizations that trap our thinking.  Ironically this escape digs deeper into the meaning of our world.  

No comments: