The Garden of Cinephiliac Delights

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.] 

“Yes! it was indeed a remarkable undertaking, to establish my Elysium with a pack of thieves!” (Hyperion, quoted in The Last Dive)

Is Paradise a garden? Why not a film? Why not cinema itself?

The garden is one of the dearest and most pervasive metaphors of this experiment. Everyone will agree that this director consciously plays with it since days long gone.
The gates remember us that the paradise has walled boundaries. There is an inside and an outside the garden. Its guardians can let us come in and expel as they please. 
It is akin to the themes of the Fall and the New World, which we will barely touch in the present post. This is nothing but the pretext to join simple comments made about the garden and to share some allusions related to the subject.


Just some gates appropriate enough to be remembered: Kubrick, Welles, Tourneur, EisensteinWilder and Hitchcock, whose gate we magically cross.
The garden carries an heavy cultural burden. Paradise is a garden (with a tree and a river of life). A closed garden. The first home of the first couple. From its delights they where expelled. Outside its gates, they were condemned to stay.
Gardens made by human hands carry often the mark of exclusion (see the pleasure garden of Metropolis). They define social barriers. Like with the phenomenon of garden cities in the past century, a kind of anti-urban urbanism. Malick's work begins in the suburban gardens of Eden, a modest American middleclass (of English tradition) residential area where Kit is a bad weed, although the paradisiacal atmosphere of the neighborhood is more accentuated in The Tree of Life. In To the Wonder, the garden is a decayed Eden.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Thomas Cole. This popular doubtful taste painter also left us a River of Life (The Voyage of Life). Malick must know it, guess that at some degree there is parody with its pious spirit.
Private gardens develop around a residence or have an autonomous existence. Today, the first type is more common. But in the past, when the home was not “private” yet, it was often a place apart from curious eyes. Enclosed, even secret. A locus amoenus, a place for sensuality, love games, or to meditate, to rest far from the dirt, noise, smell of the cities of the past (and present).
Also apart from everyday life is the garden of the dead. In fact, the cemeteries are often arranged as so.

The medieval garden of love: Chaucer by Pasolini and the Roman de la rose. See the garden erotically charged in another cultural context in Arabian Nights. It is true, we find it at times in the center of the home, a small idealization of nature itself. From the Roman period to the Middle Ages (the cloister, from claustrum, enclosure; with paradisiacal insinuation) and afterwards.
Had to think for a while why the building ending in the tempietto interested the director: Fantasia, once again, the episode with the festival in honor of Bacchus/Dionysus (the relation between The Tree of Life and Fantasia is very intimate; I personally see a parallel between the final exaltation of the eternal feminine by Malick and the Ave Maria closing Fantasia). These structures where often erected in the parks of aristocratic and royal residences. In The Tree of Life, the city was transfigured by the arts of the imagination in the garden of delights and the architect was in paradise for a moment, like the couple of Sunrise (in the top of the post).

A place for the dolce vita, the garden/park is privileged for reveries, architectural jokes, tricks and plays, amusements to escape ennui, sol per sfogare il core, like Bomarzo confesses to the visitors. An heterotopia par excellence.
The film which emphasizes more the gate as an element of the garden is (as much as I know or remember) a marvelous 1958 work by Varda, Du côté de la côte: “Paradise: it was a beach and a pine cone. But the nostalgia for Eden is a garden. Not more the Côte d'Azur: it is a transplanted garden, an idea of a flower garden, lawned, columned, forgetting the nearby sea, the sweet place is a retreait, the water-lily, a sigh, and they are fake Eves, fake Adams, fake Cupids, misleading Venuses, fake caves anf fake nymphs. If these dreams are collective, gardens are not public. Fake Eden is not for us any more than Eden.” « Le Paradis, c'était une plage et une pomme de pin. Mais la nostalgie de l'Eden c'est un jardin. Ce n'est plus la Côte d'Azur, c'est un jardin transplanté c'est une idée de jardin à fleurs, à pelouse, à colonne, oubliant la mer toute proche, la pièce douce est un retrait, le nénufar, un soupir qui s'étale, et ce sont de fausses Eves, de faux Adams, de faux Amours, de trompeuses Vénus, de fausses grottes et de fausses nymphes. Si ces rêveries sont collectives, les jardins ne sont pas publics. Le faux Eden n'est pas pour nous non plus que l'Eden. » She is right, no? The combination of paradisiacal themes and images, including the island (“The Eden exists. It is an island.”; « L'Eden existe. C'est une île. ») and the sun, makes us guess an allusion to the French director.
This possibility is reinforced by the pine cone with which RL plays. Like it was written, Malick seems to combine every allusion to literature with a cinematic one. “Everything is cinema” is, it seems at this stage, a rule without exception. This is valid for all said to allude to Bataille. It does so, but it must also contain the memory of film. At this stage I would invite you to combine the Dionysian imagery (the thyrsus; RL as a baby Dionysus) and Bataille's pineal eye with Varda's paradise.
With strange marvels to impress your guests, to make them laugh, or to laugh at their expense, like hidden water jets (or hidden ways of nature...). The kind of thing that tends to grow infinitely in extension and sophistication, to consume the creator/owner, to become the labyrinth of his mind. To lose himself alone forever. Avec son seul désir.
“It seemed, at first, impossible to get lost there. At first. Along the rectilinear pathways, between the statues with their fixed gestures and the granite paving-stones, where you were now already in the process of getting lost, for ever, in the quiet night, alone with me.” (« Il semblait au premier abord impossible de s’y perdre. Au premier abord. Le long des allées rectilignes, entre les statues aux gestes figées et les dalles de granit où vous étiez, maintenant, déjà, en train de vous perdre pour toujours dans la nuit tranquille, seule avec moi. », L'année dernière à Marienbad, 1961)


To the Wonder: vade retro

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

Any attempt to consider Malick’s experiments will deal with ennui. All comes from there. No big deal. Ennui is the omnipresent demon of modernity.
Quintana is a curious presence in Malick’s city. What is precisely the nature of his malaise? It is a mix of sadness, loss (“no tengo ninguna experiencia de ti, no como una vez la tuve”; “I have no experience of you. Not as I once did.”), anguish, something more. One of the parishioners tells him “I’m going to pray for you, so you receive the gift of joy.”
Considering the context, acedia might be important to have in mind. Aquinas saw it as the refusal of the joy (gaudium) which has its source in divine love. In the end, the priest seems to find what he has lost with his parish, the body of Christ. The answer is to search in charitas that love that loves us.
The name of the priest’s character, Susana’s, told us that he came from Buñuel. Quintana is a priest because of Nazarín, a film alluded by The Tree of Life’s Ecce Homo stained glass: in me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left. If Nazarín was trying to help humanity, Quintana assists and consoles Malick’s parish. The film is alluded both by Marina’s exercises (above) and her attempt to playfully bite Neil in the mouth.

Marina like a tempting devilish Buñuel-girl.
One person visited by the priest is particularly important. It is the aged woman with the toad tattooed in her arm. She is very provocative towards Quintana, throwing his book to the ground and later going to his house. The allusion is evident: Simon of the Desert tempted by the devil.

The city continues to be the inner community of the director. Everything is nature: not a character or presence in this film escapes the allusionistic spiral. This includes all the roles played by amateurs, even when they seem to be playing just who they are. Sometimes the director might search for something and sometimes he might just find something which he can use.

What is this bizarre film, Simon of the Desert? The answers are infinite. Consider it as a work about boredom. From this perspective, that sudden transition from the column to the skyscrapers (an abstract city, like in the contemporary scenes of The Tree of Life) is much less absurd or arbitrary than some might think.

It is a terrible cliché to reduce the Italian master to such a label, but as we talk about ennui it should be remembered that allusions to Antonioni started in Badlands. I suspect of a partial allusion to Beyond the Clouds in these shots. 

Invert the film. If it would begin with contemporary boredom, why would we go back to the desert of the ascetics? Because, historically, that was the place of the crime. The oldest ancestor of what we can name boredom or ennui (as a concept) is usually identified in the sin of acedia, the “demon of noontide” (Psalm 91), first defined by Desert Fathers (who started to list the deadly sins). Acedia (from ἀκηδία, “non-caring state”) covered a realm of psychological states and behaviors developed by ascetics: listlessness, laziness, apathy, ceaseless wandering, physical and spiritual. This flight from the world led to incapability to perform one’s duties, extreme sorrow and, ultimately, suicidal despair.

The flesh breaking the realm of the spirit: the entrance of the Devil in the film happens in a moment of evasion and phantasy about a woman. Simon wonders, dreams about his mother, imagines himself playing with her and resting in her lap.

Maybe it would not be too wrong to say that in Simon – one of the most extraordinary films – we travel the scenario of acedia to ennui. From the beginning to the “final ball”. The end of history: the secular, capitalist, democratic, sexually liberated world synthesized by the frenzy claustrophobic atmosphere of the 60s disco. A world where apparently there is nothing else to do except to join the final dance or to die of boredom. Vade retro, says Simon. But someone took his place, and there is no coming back, answers the Devil. We can’t go home again.

Painting left us an extraordinary heritage of diabolical temptations through depictions of the life of Saint Anthony. It is their volcanic reality that feeds this director’s inner life.

The mythical world of Simon was the world of inner experience, of full deliverance to God. A world from where the Other is excluded is left with the same, with meaningless, endless, infernal repetition. For those unable to retain or regain a parcel of Simon’s faith, what is left? For Malick it is the parodic (pseudo-Bataillian) go back to the column where he hopes to find not God but the Devil – or Evil.
To some extent we could say the same of Buñuel himself. I wonder if he was not Simon’s substitute in that column… The apparition of his Devil, tan inocente, always reminds me of that Jennie portrayed in one of his favorite films. The Devil as the muse? “Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.” Change sex for eroticism, take it as the realm of art and... voilà!


“I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.” (Citizen Kane)

“Proud of my freedom. Or of my enslavement, Mother.” (“Orgulloso de mi libertad… O de mi esclavitud, Madre.”, Simon of the Desert)

“Recognizing two of her own, the Statue of Liberty gave us a friendly wave” (« Reconnaissant deux des siens, la Statue de la Liberté nous adressa un salut fraternel », Pierrot le fou).

From Badlands, Malick’s relation with American mythology is much the same he establishes with religion: something between parody and deliverance, executioner and victim. That is the play. With rare intuition he depicted himself as the crucified James Dean. An unifying image of these two realms: America (its myth factory, Hollywood) and the Cross/religion/sacrifice. Hollywood as the Holy Wood – or The Tree of Life. As for me, in this last film, it is easier to see a grotesque exaltation of the world of the disco than any little openness to whatever “sacred.” Malick: if you get to the conclusion that, despite of all, you are as bored as ever, I can’t tell you more than the Devil: “Ni "vade", ni "retro", ni nada.”

To be continued?