Lesson 8: Terrence Malick; What Is a Visual Ellipsis?

“Unless you love, your life will flash by.” These are the last words of the voice-over for Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life trailer. There isn’t much that distinguishes them from others appended to other posters for other movies, except that they carry the literary expectations we have for the person who chose them. Malick is our eyes’ Poet Laureate. His gift is making images from ideas; words are his back-up tools.


The new film (apparently booed in Cannes but who cares we love him anyway) stars Sean Penn, who also starred in Malick’s The Thin Red Line, too. A non-traditional “war story,” Line was an adaptation of James Jones’s novel. Here is the trailer.

Writing About War

Jones wrote beautifully and brutally, but what Malick did with his words was less an interpretation of a story than an interpretation of an idea; the idea in that case was war (the promise of the “idea” for the new film is evolution, and family). Spielberg chose the beaches, but Malick chose the jungle.

Jones wrote:

"When compared to the fact that he might very well be dead by this time tomorrow, whether he was courageous or not today was pointless, empty. When compared to the fact that he might be dead tomorrow, everything was pointless. It just didn't make any difference. It was pointless to the tree, it was pointless to every man in his outfit, pointless to everybody in the whole world. Who cared? It was not pointless only to him; and when he was dead, when he ceased to exist, it would be pointless to him too. More important: Not only would it be pointless, it would have been pointless all along. This was an obscure and rather difficult point to grasp. Understanding of it kept slipping in and out on the edges of his mind. It flickered, changing its time sense and tenses. At those moments when he understood it, it left him with a very hollow feeling."

Poets distill battles down to a few lines. Malick took a battle and drew it out—to a dream.

Ellipsis, Made Visual

Unless you love, your life will flash by is not Shakespeare. Malick’s films give meaning with very few words. The words are important, but the value is in the spaces between the words. It’s ellipsis, made visual. And visual ellipsis is an elegant metaphor for how many soldiers experience the memories of battle.

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