The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick

“Do you trust in God?”
(Asks the priest during the sermon, The Tree of Life)

(“Attention”; we hear distinctively in one of the skyscraper’s rooms, The Tree of Life)

  Grey, my friend, is every theory
  And green is Life’s golden tree.
  I swear it’s like a dream to me: may I
  Trouble you, at some further time,
  To expound your wisdom, so sublime?
  As much as I can, I’ll gladly explain.
  I can’t tear myself away,
  I must just pass you my album, sir,
  Grant me the favor of your signature!
  Very well.
(he writes and gives the book back)
Student (reading Mephistopheles’ Latin inscription)
  Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum.
(“You shall be like like gods, knowing good and evil”.)
(the student makes his bows and retires)
   Just follow the old proverb, and my cousin the snake, too:
  And then your likeness to God will surely frighten you!
(Faust, Goethe)

The director as architect

Architecture, the art of building, is a metaphor applied to any product of elaborate human activity, individual or collective, mental and/or physical, be it a philosophy, a political system, or simply a book, a film.
The Tree of Life is a voyage through the mind of an architect. We are used to admire the filmmaker portrayed metaphorically, in particular as an artist. Indeed, depictions as writer, painter, photographer, maestro and theatre director are well known to us. But not as an architect.
Strangely, because comparisons of architecture and cinema are quite popular since the 1920’s. Indeed, they have proven to be a rich ground for thinking both arts.
There are at least two important models/archetypes of (the artist) as architect to be remembered. First of all, in a film that show us the beginning of the universe, God, the supreme architect who “laid the foundations of the earth” and latter conceived the Temple, to inhabit among men. Second, Daedalus, the conceiver of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, where those who enter may never come back. Daedalus, also sculptor, inventor and craftsman, creator of Pasiphae’s wooden cow, so real it enflamed the bull, and of animated statues. A producer of deceitful images, a master of illusion, the trickster craftsman. It is in Mr. O’Brien that we will find both divine and Daedalian attributes. He is the architect on the other side of the door, on the other side of the frame, his metamorphosis. The contemporary sequences represent a past preceding the film (although constituting it too), a past overcome by the decision to make it, the decision of crossing the doorway.

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
 (Godard) The best graphic representation would be a spiral, but this might help.

Filmmakers like to play with the ambiguity of cinematic images and we are usually willing to participate the game. Who, we ask, if anyone, sees what is being projected on the screen? It is seen, remembered, imagined, invented or both? The secret of films like Persona or The Last Year in Marienbad is to leave this unresolved, so our journeys through their labyrinth might be infinite. Films like The Cabinet of Doctor Cagliari, The Woman in the Window and The Tree of Life are of a different kind in this respect. At some point – in the two first, during the very film, in the last, of our experience of it – what we see is going to be attributed to someone in a precise condition. Our fascination about the object might weaken or strengthen, but our understanding of the work, our future interpretative effort, however creative, will be conditioned – framed – by the discovered “frame.”

“The chapter is closed. Stories have been told.”
“What you gonna do?”

Like Proust’s Recherche, this work is the story of itself. If you prefer a filmic example, think in Fellini’s , an important film to understand this one. The Tree of Life is much the same. For many decades its director tried to do it. Crossed a long and difficult desert (remember the architect crossing the desert?). Finally made it and gave it to us and himself: “I give him to you. I give you my son/sun.”
That is why we see a metamorphosis of the beginning of the film (a very Fordian beginning) after the passage of the doorway: the candle (the Lumia’s “flame”) brought by the woman and the girl opening the door (like she opened the window, the screen). Then the architect following young Jack, in search for him, like the creation sequence had (it ends with Jack’s birth). Finally, he gets his family eternally together around his tree, his film.
Concentrate on those too much despised contemporary sequences. That is the architect imagining his film. Robert Wiene’s Francis walking around the insane asylum. Just that.
The director told us that The Tree of Life was about himself imaging it in more than one way (or himself imagining himself imagining it...). One example. In the wall of the architect’s kitchen there was a TV. We see all the messy cables behind the screen. If the wanted to avoid it, it would be the easiest thing. It was a metaphor for what was happening in front of our eyes.
The entire film is in the architect’s home and those skyscrapers. We even see the big tree inside them as the elevator goes down after that “I give him to you.” But there are also interesting suggestions in Waco. RL is stick on the fridge (a full body drawing) in the scene in which father orders Steve to leave the table when he could not avoid to smile, the house is on the kitchen table in the form of a wood model when O’Brien goes on his trip and there is a model of the school in its corridor. A way of telling that these are the architect’s projects.

Does not this image resembles some shots of David Bowman’s eye during 2001’s star gate sequence? An enormous burning eye – the eye of God, the eye of the director or both?

The contemporary sequences start with a reference to Kubrick and a question “How did you come to me? In what shape? What disguise?” The 2001’s “star gate” allusion (a river of light) transformed into a road (we leave Waco in O’Brien’s car: it disappears on the road of time; or in the river of life?). The architect awakes from his dream: a room with a door to the exterior; the “door” in the desert, the seagulls flying, the salt flat. We will see all this latter. He is dreaming about the moment when he finally crosses the “door” to embrace the woman, fire and rebirth. His present life is scaring. Has no communication, it is as cold as a tomb (intended Antonionian touch). But something starts to awake inside him: the dream, the water coming from the tap (the fall; there is a blue monochromatic painting in that house: it probably stands for the wave; there is a fountain and a small tree by it: the river and the tree). His wife puts a flower in something like an altar and there are women by the altar in Waco, after the service. He ignores her. He lights the candle. O’Brien will light one in the church too. We see the boys. She stands just behind him.
Would it be too much to approach this candle to the Lumia’s hypnotic flame like wavering movement opening (with the architect’s voice) and closing the film? Certainly not. Bachelard devoted a book to The Flame of a Candle, with famous poetic considerations about its image producing and reverie stimulating powers (“Of all the objects in the world that invoke reverie, a flame calls forth images more readily than any other. It compels us to imagine; when one dreams before a flame, what is perceived is nothing compared to what is imagined”; “The flame is a world for the solitary man.”; etc.), a work the director knew for sure and that seems pertinent to convoke. Have you noticed how the camera is attracted by all the lamps in Waco, exterior or interior? And how the 50s narrative ends with the candle, like the architect had never left its vision, or at least had transported it in his mind?
This candle has been understood as part of a ritual related to the architect’s brother death anniversary. It is only the pretext to light it.

In the “shore of eternity” the woman approaching from the architect’s back seems to be an association with his wife, who was behind him when he lighted the candle. This last shot sends us to back to Vertigo: Barbara Bel Geddes visiting the alienated detective. “Johnny, please try. Try, Johnny. You’re not lost. Mother is here.” “You don’t even know I’m here, do you? But I’m here.” When he goes to the city. We see the skyscrapers, filmed like the prehistoric forest. We see a poster on a post. The wind makes it produce a sound like: “ting, ting, ting”. That is so to rhyme with the bell of the school, where young Jack will fall in love. He enters the building. Enormous. People walking (the school corridor). Has more visions. The big window in the office is like a screen. He changes a few words with a colleague. He is talking about to “experiment”. This term will be used one more time in the film: when the boys put the frog in the skyrocket (“Did he go to the moon? ... It was an experiment.”). He sees a woman passing by and looks to her (“I just feel like I am bumping into walls”): another association with the school episode. Water seems to press those glass walls. He is between meeting rooms and somber people. “The world’s gone to the dogs. People are greedy and just keep getting worst. Try to get you into their hands.” (Saw the painting of the desert in that room? There was one with a waterfall in the other meeting room.) Hands are a main theme in The Tree of Life, especially God’s hands. Someone asks him: “What are you thinking?” He doesn’t answer. We see a woman reflected in a opaque glass wall, just a shadow, like Jack will see that neighbor through the white sheet or mother through the curtains. The entire ambience is aquatic (the neighbor was associated with the sea too, by the sound of the waves). Suddenly, we get projected to the tree, filmed in contre-plongée like in some shots of baby Jack’s period. Then comes the wave and the question: “How did I lose you? Wandered? Forgot you?”

The director as father
He is the almighty Father, the lord of the house who makes all the rules, loved but feared. Fire is a divine attribute. Cosmic or terrestrial, in flames or liquid, seen or evoked, it is central in The Tree of Life. It is an explicit symbol of the power, of the authority, of the father. As O’Brien lectures Jack (about Toscanini) at the barbecue, the camera show us the burning coal.

The control of fire signals manhood. Bachelard confessed in his famous study: “I still take special pride in the art of kindling I learned from my father. I think I would rather fail to teach a good philosophy lesson than fail to light my fire in the morning”. Bachelard speaks of the desire of “intellectual mastery of fire” as the Promethean Complex, “those tendencies which impel us to know as much as our fathers, more than our fathers, as much as our teachers, more than our teachers”. To deny authority, to steal the creative energy of the gods. The desire of dominion of fire is the desire to be godlike.
It should be added that O’Brien (with his wife) is also the lord of water. He controls the hose, his garden’s source of life, which serves refreshing plays in his hands. Water, sometimes associated with fire, is a no less important element in the film. Notably, in Waco, also from a garden hose, it is charged with erotic power in Jack’s encounter with his beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Kimball.

O’Brien’s godlike authority and knowledge is professionally expressed through technology. He runs a factory. He is an inventor, the proud owner of “27 patterns.” Of his projects we are just permitted a glimpse, but we can see there a form shared with the Glory Window (Chapel of Thanksgiving, Dallas), a metaphor of the film as spiral of images, a mise en abyme. The circular movement of the camera in this last shot is significantly repeated with the sequoias and the canyon, embracing or trespassing the film, so to speak.

“I am confident the deal is going through.” He is trying to sell his creations, to make them true, not giving up. Like happened with The Tree of Life for 30 years: “Can't say ‘I can't’. Say ‘I am having troubles’. ‘Not done yet’. Can't say ‘I can't’.” He carefully opens the suitcase. He shows a certain number of objects to his sons, but when Jack tries to see what is inside his Moleskin, he tells him immediately: “Put that down son”.
Interestingly, he transforms the kids’ room into a shadow theatre (RL holds the lamp), a form of pre-cinema. But he is not an architect. He is a musician, a fan of Toscanini, the perfectionist maestro, whom he impersonates during dinner. The antiquity of the tradition linking music and architecture is attested by Greek mythology, by the wonders of Amphion. It is responsible for aphorisms like “architecture is frozen music” and “music is liquid architecture.” Might Mr. O’Brien be an image of the maestro of the film? Might the church’s organ be nothing more than Wilfred’s “light organ”, the hypnotic flame in which the film seems to burn, the candle he lights in the church, like the architect did in his home?

O’Brien plays the piano, the organ of the church and controls the record player (note that the record player, playing Kit’s confession, was an essential element in Badlands). In a film with such a lavish soundtrack and at times so close to a visual symphony this has high significance. You can see the director as a musician who plays every element of the film as instruments, a one-man band, or as a maestro directing an orchestra. As a matter of fact, a famous godlike maestro insinuates in Mr. O’Brien: he plays BWV 565 in the church. Conducted by Toscanini’s rival, it opens Fantasia, a major inspiration of the creation of the universe sequence.

Artistic creation – or fatherhood – is often an all-consuming activity, physically but most of all mentally. Artists imagine, conceive during such time certain projects and work so hard on them that they can become as emotionally attached their creations as to their family. Or even more. In 1894, the symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes confessed his sadness for his near separation from an American commission: “… like this, on the other side of the ocean, three years of my life will disappear. Never again I will accept such a task. I am like a father whose daughters would enter a convent” (« … ainsi disparaîtront, de l'autre côté de l'océan, trois années de ma vie. Plus jamais je n'accepterai pareille besogne. Je suis comme un père dont les filles entreraient au couvent. »). We have all already heard an artist talk about his work as a father, as a loving creator. Who does not remember someone saying “I have no favorites, they are like my children” and things of the sort? Expressions of an emotionally charged relation with objects that is not exclusive to artists. Collectors are often as attached to their “children.” Museum curators and librarians too.

If the director was the film’s and characters’ father, the omnipotent master of his home, Mr. O’Brien, who would be his wife?
From this point of view, no doubt we would say Mr. O’Brien is a man “married with his work.” Or art. A commonplace as appropriate to the workaholic white collar as to the caricature of the romantic artist confined to his ivory tower, alienated and absorbed by his creations to madness and death.
As we are talking of “moving pictures” (kinesis) and one’s love for his art, Daedalus animated statues and passion inspiriting simulacra recall us of a no less important figure of Greek mythology, one true symbol of all adoring image maker, Pygmalion. His story is the model of all narratives of obsessive relations between creator and creation. But although the bridal symbolism associated with Mrs. O’Brien is by no means irrelevant, she is first of all Mother. Let us follow that clue.

That “I give you my son/sun” seems indebt to Olympia. Strange influences.

The eternal feminine exalted in Mother’s ritual offering has many faces, as it is implied in the choreography. The Gothean tone of the scene is obvious. As you know, Faust ends with the vision of the Mater Gloriosa/Virgin Mary/eternal feminine (“ewige Weiblichkeit”): “Woman, eternally,/ shows us the way.” It was a woman who had shown the way – the way to the door –to the architect. She had guided him to the door and waited for him on the other side. He had to take the decision to reach her. Actually, she is somehow the door, as the architect would enter her, like blown by a violent wind. To identify this woman is easy. She gives the architect “looks” just like Jack’s school love. “Next word is VOLCANO. Next word is SOCKET”, said the teacher. She was the girl who he did not have the resolution to reach on the way home. The girl stopped in front of the camera, as if waiting. That moment is the axis of The Tree of Life.So, she is not just some girl. She is the woman. Jack’s desire floats between several feminine figures, but the trio symbolically fuses in the end to underline their unity. All the women in the film are multiple faces of the same crystal, or multiple walls of the same house of mirrors. Mother herself fuses with a mirror. And her body is shown as a home and as a garden (Jack’s birth), two totalizing symbols of Waco, if not of the film.

The shot with mother looking to her home through the car’s back window has a perfect cinemascope format, like it was the end of some ’50s movie.

It is true that the image is often maternal, a womb for one to sleep and to rest from the world to the point of what we sometimes call alienation. In few places it can aspire to reign more omnipotently than in a movie theater. It was indeed as more than a ciné-phile (cinephile), as a ciné-fils (son of the cinema), that the great film critic Serge Daney famously defined his relation with the moving pictures, although the expression is rich in meanings not at all entropic. Here we can take it as the self-designation found by someone who was born and lived in a time where cinema was the “book of art and the book of life” (Sontag). Someone who found in cinema, in contrast with the surrounding reality, a strong feeling of belonging, a family, a home. A home where one could learn and feel things, forbidden or inaccessible anywhere else, vital things whose knowledge fed one’s inner reality.

Godard, patron saint of almost every filmmaker, associating Persona (boy caressing his mother’s image) and Louise Brooks, one of the models of his Nana (Vivre sa vie), in a gesture that send us back to his famous depiction of fetishism of the cinematic image in Les carabiniers. Histoire(s) du cinema.

Scénario du film Passion

Yes, the director depicts himself not only as Father or God to/in his creation and as an artist married with his art, Cinema, but as a ciné-fils too. He does it through Steve, the youngest of the three brothers, the portrait of the artist as a young man (Steve is the diminutive of Stephen, Joyce’s hero; the director was a pupil at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin).

A different perspective: Steve inside his home, mother, mother-home.

Before the Lumia’s last appearance, closing the circle, there is a bridge (Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York), a bird flying along it, and a big building on the far shore (Fort Wadsworth). The image contains an allusion to a poem by Hölderlin called Heidelberg. It confirms that Mrs. O’Brien is a personification of Metropolis, the director’s home/home-town, Cinema. And it tells us that it is a territory crossed by the River of Life. It goes like this:

Long have I loved you and for my own delight
Would call you mother, give you an artless song,
You, of all towns in our country
The loveliest that ever I saw.

As the forest bird crosses the peaks in flight,
Over the river shimmering past your floats
Airy and strong the bridge,
Humming with sounds of traffic and people.

Once, as if it were sent by gods, enchantment
Seized me as I was passing over the bridge
And the distance with its allure
Shone into the mountainscape.

And that strong youth, the river, was rushing on down
To the plain, sorrowing-glad, like the heart that overflows
With beauty and hurls itself,
To die of love, into the floods of time.

You had fed him with streams, the fugitive, given him
Cool shadow, and all the shores looked on
As he followed his way, their image
Sweetly jockeying over the waves.

But into the valley hung heavy the vast
And fate-acquainted fort, by lightnings torn
To the ground it stood on; yet
Eternal sun still poured.

Its freshening light across the giant and aging
Thing, and all around was green with ivy,
Living; friendly woodlands ran
Murmurous down across the fort.

Bushes flowered all down the slope to where,
In the vale serene, with hills to prop them, shores
For them to cling to, your small streets,
Mid fragrant garden bowers repose.


You will remember that the architect hears RL’s call (“Find me”) on a bridge full of people: “Once, as if it were sent by gods…” The woman kissing RL through the curtain (her kiss seems to touch the architect) is “The Messenger” [Irene Bedard], in a probable appropriation of Greek mythology. A special and modern kind of bridge – a glass and steal passage over the road linking two skyscrapers – but still a bridge (the “bridge” is filmed from the outside, from the elevator, in the end of the movie). This road/river association is not new in this directors cinema. In Badlands Kit’s car crossing the road (the lovers leaving Fort Dupree) transforms into a tree dragged by the river. In the vision RL was in the “distance with its allure” and “shone into the mountainscape” (literally, he had mountains behind him). And those who have seen the movie carefully know that RL is persistently associated with water: the waterfall and the river (for example, when Jack hurts him in the finger).
RL is something, not somebody. An imaginary brother. If O’Brien is the Father and Steve the Son, RL is the Holly Ghost of cinema. Thinking in advance that the fall destroys him is wrong. He might just be the fall, a fall into which the architect jumps “to die of love, into the floods of time”, the River of Life. And so he prays to him: “Keep us [me and cinema]. Guide us. To the end of Time”. The Tree is an artist’s mystical marriage with his art.
Hear the film carefully and you will understand how RL is associated with an element of mythological meta-cinematic value, the train. The first time we hear that train threatening Jack is when he confronts with RL in the garden (mother: “No! No!”). And the last, it seems, is when Jack cries with Steve and RL. The train sound fades into the sound of water in that scene. Indeed, the expression River of Life is used in the script: “A locomotive approaches the end of the tunnel. The light draws closer. Soon it shall burst out into the day. No longer a blind mechanism, it has become (quick dissolves, quick cuts) a river – living, flowing – the pure waters of the river life rushing down from a mountain peak.”

It may seem preposterous, but the shots showing us the architect hearing RL’s call (“Find me”) in that bridge are inspired in Death in Venice: Aschenbach, an artist who chose the river of life, seeing Tadzio in the sea. That is the film in which it is said: “Wisdom? Human dignity? What use are they? ... Evil is a necessity, it is the food of genius.” Got whose door is that?


Whatever way we see it, the question of evil is not dissociable from this film. It even begins with an extract of the Book of Job, one of the pillars of its discussion in the West. Evil has been associated with artistic creation since Romanticism, as rebellion against the world, as a transformative power of the self, as life’s scalding river. Between the many filmic narratives in which evil is central, Le testament du docteur Cordelier has a special place (Experiment in Evil, it is also called). An extraordinary Renoir, as the great master dialogues with another heavy weight of the business, Alfred Hitchcock. It is a film in a film. Renoir arrives to the TV studio to present his show, Jean Renoir Presents, the fictional equivalent to the famous Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As for Cordelier, he is a man fascinated with the question of evil. Searching for a way to extirpate it from the soul, he ended falling into its abyssal reality, from where there is no way back, as we learn from his terrible recorded message. In the end, the director does not resist to both ambiguously asking us if he had not played “the finer part.” Above, Holly playing with a cane: Cordelier’s? The chosen soundtrack and the scene that follows makes believe the answer is affirmative.

Homo ludens
This film is full of plays, both apparently innocent and cruel, particularly children’s plays and plays with children. If almost everything can be put under the designation of architecture, so it can under the one of game or play (sometimes a different concept). Particularly art. Artists play – play in the face of death – with words, images, sounds, with memories, personal and collective, with the patrimony of their own arts. They all have an enormous playroom in their minds where all the memories we find in a new work of art are combined.
Certainly you have seen that Mr. O’Brien is a gambler. Of what game one should ask. The lovers of Badlands danced under a song that gives us the answer: “Love is strange. Lot a people take it for a game.” O’Brien’s game is the game of love, love for (and with) his art. Cine-philia. 

The game began in Badlands. “Tell us a story from before we can remember”. “I went for a ride in a plane once. It was a graduation present.” This is nothing but self-referentiality: that “graduation present” was Badlands, the director’s first movie Remember Kit asking Holly: “Do you want to go for a ride?” In the end, the two lovers get a free ride on a plane, but note that plane sounds almost the same as plain. The film is evoked by the sense of freedom of the weightless airplane. In Badlands, we first see Kit working in the city trash service. This can only be Malick’s philosophy studies, the garbage studies and his teaching activity (maybe that guy driving the truck, Woody, is Heidegger, who liked to walk in the woods; not sure if he is the man who tells Kit that he was fired, the one paring a red apple; he has a German Shepherd). Those keys that he throws to the oil container when he leaves the job must be a joke with the Phi Beta Kappa key. Then he gets a job as a cowboy, treating cattle, his studies at the AFI Conservatory (an Hitchcockian joke - actors are like cattle - whose sense was broadened). He had met Holly and one day he formed his plan. And he killed her father and took her for the craziest ride. Below, Kit like he was in front of a screen seeing his baton twirler (A Face in the Crowd: this is Kazan’s daughter). That house is cinema. There is an upright piano like in Splendor in the Grass, a boll with golden fishes like the one in the Double Indemnity house, a dog apparently from The Misfits (but filmed like it was Dorothy’s Toto in the first shot of the film), we see a beer sign burning outside the house, probably for The Postman Always Rings Twice (Holly’s complaints about their traveling conditions, having no future), the doll of Lilith... and a director’s chair in the garden (scene with Mr. Sargis painting the signs.) He makes a joke about it: there is a box of a Big 10 Perfect Picture Puzzle on the piano...

The Tree of Life, “life’s golden tree”, is nothing but this game. Remember Holly talking about her tree house? “There wasn’t a plant in the forest that didn’t come in handy. We planned a huge network of tunnels under the forest floor, and our first order of business every morning was to decide on a new password for the day.” (Badlands)


Badlands is, like The Tree, an extravagant dramatization of nowadays rather traditional conceptions and metaphors. In that first film the conducting thread was Oedipal struggle, an important theme in this last. The artist had to kill his fathers/influences in order to possess the object of his desire – Mother/Holly – and make his film. It is rather incredible that Badlands was released the same year The Anxiety of Influence was published. As we are talking of Harold Bloom, keep this in mind: “To live, the poet must misinterpret the father (…)” (Map of Misreading). He kills Kazan, the sign painter (think of Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, The Arrangement). Next he kills Cato/Plato/Nicholas Ray, (remember what was a chicken in Rebel Without a Cause?; compare Kit’s gesture with Dean’s below; Cato’s slow death is a parody with Bitter Victory; Kit puts his body in a dark place to take him out of the sun, as he explains to Holly: Plato was a creature of the night, the time of dreams). The big unfriendly Roughneck (script) whose truck Kit wants has an oil rig. Kit offers him a “fair deal”, like Hudson to Dean in Giant. In Badlands the deal is a Cadillac for a truck. James Dean drove one in Giant. Stevens is the third of Dean’s fathers. If the director wanted to confront the other two, would he forget Stevens? But he did not have the chance to kill him. The police arrived... In the next film, Days of Heaven, the killing business continues. Holly is just his. But, what’s funny is that she killed one of her fathers too, Orson Welles: he was her catfish (you will find them in The Lady from Shangai’s aquarium). Now “mother” is Malick’s sharky.
Apparently, all the names, all the situations, all the characters are allusions to that magical land over the rainbow. But, as the director must keep them secret, his code, his password, is always changing and is sometimes very hard to decipher. Not that names are important to understand this game. Most of them just appear on the credits. In fact, one does not need “much more” than all the memory of cinema to get out of this labyrinth.

Malick and Renais. All the memory of cinema is feeding this furnace.

Cinema is a world where this director can transform into what he loves and get what he loves, that empty house where James Dean and Natalie Wood play with Plato in Rebel Without a Cause. It is the territory of the imagination. His allusionistic puzzle comes often in the form of rather strange “kits.” Everything is possible, every combination. This is not a “logical” territory, although meaningful syntheses result from this ars combinatoria, as this review tries to show.

This image seems a metaphor of the process.

Two of the sons born from this love-game were already mentioned. Not young Jack. Is he another face of the director? No, at least not any more, and he is the center of the game.
Specularity insinuates itself in The Tree, as it was mentioned. In mirrors, windows, water. In Jack, a man in search for himself, double, gazing at his own reflection (dream, desert). There are two Jacks in the same space not only when the architect follows the kid in the desert, but earlier, when the architect lights the candle, and we see the same boy both throw and beat the ball with the bat. Like he was in some sort of strange house of mirrors, a rather infernal one, forcing an endless throw-and-beat-the-ball game, a Sisyphean task. Or as if Jack1 was playing with Jack2. With his double.

Jack is the English diminutive of John. But Jacques - French for Jacob, from Jacobus - and John are almost homophones. Jack goes for Revelation’s John; for Jacob; for Jack one and all; for a servant or laborer (and this Jack is definitely one); even for a playing card.

Jack, one and all
What seems to be the general idea of The Tree of Life? Nothing but the Genesis. Naturally we started to understand the episodes and the Grace vs. Nature speech (taken from Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ) in those terms, identifying situations similar to the ones described in the first (and not only the first) book of the Bible, etc. But we would never think that we were Adam and Eve and that if there is some God in this film he is the director (“Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.”)
Maybe not even after closing “the door quietly 50 times”, as O’Brien tells Jack to do (not by chance a “door”, a screen door). The truth is that the entire film is the Garden of Eden and the Grace vs. Nature speech is made to the spectators and only to them. There are two ways of seeing this film and you will probably only get in one piece at home through the way of Grace (“... no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end”). You ate that slice of cake which Jack took from grandmother (“It’s mine!”). It tasted well. But there was something there to harm you, and one more or less distant day you will know it.

Lilith, Robert Rossen. What was that special wake up with mother slipping ice cubes down Steve’s pajamas? Lilith likes icy games with boys. She was softer with Jack. That monarch butterfly (an imago) was maybe filmed in Chastain’s hands just by chance. But it was not included in the film because it was nice. It seems a reference to Lilith (title sequence). This film is alluded since Badlands: “at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown, so I could watch”. RL is also the “River of Lilith”. Know Rossen’s film? Lilith asks Warren Beatty: “What was your mother like?” The guy didn’t have to answer. Faust: “Beware of her./ Her beauty’s one boast is her dangerous hair./ Then Lilith winds it tight around young men/ She doesn’t soon let go of them again.” Think, of course, in the waterfalls of Shock Corridor too.

“You act as you’re in trouble. You don’t wanna fight... The moment you see him blink, crack him, ok?” Nothing gives more pleasure to a thief than robbing you while saying: “I beg of you, M’sieur, watch yourself. Be on guard. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere, everywhere.” What breath-taking pleasure hearing your grateful answer: “Ha, ha, thank you, thank you very much”. I am quoting from Casablanca. This is a delicious situation to watch in Curtiz’s film. But when it happens to you it is funny no more.

Badlands is the confession of the “crime” perpetrated almost 40 years later in The Tree of Life. Not in detail, but it was planned since those days. What comes next will be “posthumous”: “Kit: My girl Holly and I have decided to kill ourselves, same way I did her dad. Big decision huh? Well, the reasons are obvious, and I don’t have time to go into them right now... One thing, though... He was provoking me when I popped him. That’s what it was like, a POP. Course nobody’s coming out of this thing happy, especially not us. You can’t deny we’ve had fun, though. Which is more than I can say for some.... Mmmm. that’s the end of the message. I run out of things to say... Thank you.” What’s written outside that Private Recording Studio? “Record your voice; It’s fun!”
The Tree of Life is a criminal experiment of which you are the victim. You were played like a piano. The best example to explain it would be a “reversible jacket”. It functions both sides, but the meaning gets completely inverted on the side of Nature.

Buñuel’s Susana, that’s the concept, a film that is one thing if you are naïve, and another if you are not. But in a much more complex version: Buñuel’s “Nature” is still, by far, “Grace” around here. Buñuel’s sunrise: a parody of Murnau? Evil expelled, the family together again, it was all a bad dream...

It is true that much of what we see in The Tree of Life is compatible with the story of the directors family, including his father’s career and his middle brother’s death. It is only an appropriation from his own biography and a disguise. He knows what you know – or think you do – about him. And he is using that to build something beneath the appearances. A beautiful Trojan horse.

Badlands: “KIT: Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat them like enemies. There’s always a chance you could learn something. (he pauses for a moment) Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoint of others. Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted. (again he pauses) Course Holly and I’ve had fun, even if it has been rushed, and... so far we’re doing fine. hadn’t got caught. (annoyed) Excuse the grammar.”

Double Indemnity: “I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. I don’t like the word confession. I just want to set you right about one thing you couldn’t see, because it was smack up against your nose.”

All the “holes” in this picture – the telegram that we do not read, the phone calls that we don’t hear, the funerals with no bodies, etc. – have a precise reason. Without them the “reversible jacket” would not properly function. All things connected. This film was masterly built not to be understood the first “50” times that we see it. But it was its creator intention that one day we would. He left everything there so we could solve this enormous puzzle (there is one in the film, saw it?).

“Well, I got it all planned... and I’m taking Holly off with me.” Badlands , À bout de souffle and Pierrot le fou: Don’t tell me you prefer the Renoir... After that Godardian moment with Jack and his brothers playing in the fields, at dinner, father asks: “What’s that, sweetheart? You know this. It’s Brahms!” (recorded by Toscanini...; note the repetition of the maestro’s face). Someone asked Parvulesco in one of Breathless most famous scenes: “Est-ce que vous aimez Brahms?” (“Do you like Brahms?”) What is father reading? The “Waco Tribune Herald” (Breathless: “New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!”). Malick’s first picture, Badlands, was deeply influenced by Godard, Pierrot le fou. Holly was already cinema and Kit, the “rebel without a cause”, the director. He is an American Godard, a very special American Godard, understood. Like in Sherlock, Jr., he wanted to pass into cinemas wonder land, neverland. And then stay there forever: “He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.” (Badlands) The magic moment must never end. What you can never forget is that if he made a toast to his love for cinema, it would be like Kane’s: “to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows - his own.Logic (grey theories) is not welcome here. By the way, that Breathless interview ended with Seberg asking: Quelle est votre plus grande ambition dans la vie ? Answer: “Devenir immortel... et puis, mourir.”

The baby who came from his uterine home to Waco was already born. Until then, the film functioned as a preparation, like that story about Carlotta, the dead woman possessing his beautiful wife, told by Gavin Elster to his old friend Johnny O in Vertigo, the most powerful inspiration of The Tree of Life. He knew that he had vertigo, he knew that he could not go all the way to the top of the tower (the same thing as through the “door”). He knew that he would fall in love with his creation. And, more important, he knew that he trusted him (“Do you trust in God?”, asks the priest during the sermon; “I trust you”, says RL to Jack). He was perfect for him to commit his crime. “He was in God’s, hands the whole time”.

The rich man of Badlands was no more than Hitchcock and the deaf maid a reference to You Got to Have Luck, a story with Cassavetes playing another mother’s boy on the run, one who knows that he can’t be convicted for his crimes. “We needed supplies, so we went to a rich man’s house.” The house has the Victorian ambience of Hitchcock’s houses (Rebecca, The Paradine Case, Psycho, etc.). The director even appears at the rich man’s house (with blueprints under his arm) as a cameo, like Hitchcock used to do. More important, remember that Kit said before leaving: “Oh, and here’s a list of everything we borrowed. Car’s on there, too.” He likes the guy especially (“You’re my friend, aren’t you?”): he didn’t kill him. At least in that film.

The uterus is father’s garden. Remember the first shot, with the woman pointing to the gate? She tells something to the baby (“Where were you...”) and we see two ways: the “Mouth of Hell” and the staircase. Next, there are several children by the river, even a little blond Eve. The woman shows a little book to the boy (Grace vs. Nature speech). She guides the children through the garden. And then we see the baby in his house, a baby whose conception was shown as a luminous mystery (the lamppost; all began with light, Wilfred’s organ; cinema is nothing but light), a secret between Father and Mother.

The Mouth of Hell (“ogni pensiero vola”, “all thoughts fly”, it was written) and the staircase are the two ways seen before the “shore of eternity”, the ladder and the dark church door, where the architect enters That colonial church alludes to the San Juan Bautista mission of Vertigo, the place of the crime (“...when I come to the end there is nothing but darkness, and I know when I come to the end I’ll die”; “I stood alone on the green searching for something. Then I started to walk to the church. Then the darkness closed in...”). It is the first thing seen after the tree when the architect asks: “When did you first touch my heart?” Here, The Last Tycoon entering the studio: the church of the architect?
What our vertigo was? Remember Jack’s fight with his almighty father? Wasn’t as lucky as Jacob. Ended on the ground in a few seconds (“Hit me! C’mon Jack, hit me!”). K.O. The one in the Bible was hurt in his thigh during the fight. Malick is a perfectionist. A Toscanini. His Jacob (you) is fighting with him and must hurt himself in the same place. Don’t remember when it happened? The problem was that you were distracted. You shouldn’t. “If you’re good, people take advantage of you”, father warns Jack. You, like Jack, were looking at the man with club foot. You couldn’t see what was in front of you. That is why Jack bumped into a car and hurt himself in his thigh. Better not to be so distracted. If you have seen Five Graves to Cairo you will know that not every club foot is what it seems. (The previous scene has a similar meaning: he made you drunk; saw how Steve took RL’s place in between?).

The film is synthesized in the dinosaur’s episode. After the sharks, two fetuses form: the “bad” dinosaur and the “good” one. We see the eye of the “good” one and then Vertigo’s sequoias (the heart of Johnny O’s hallucination). The dinosaur starts to explore. A shot of the waterfall, but it is almost dry. The dinosaur appears at the river very badly hurt, or so it seems. Comes the “bad” one. Puts his foot on the other’s face. Looks at him with interest. He goes on, eventually letting you think that you saw some eternal truth, some advent of Grace. With the three in the background, the dinosaurs were 5, like the O’Briens.

Can’t you imagine who this guy was? Suffering is always serious, at least to serious people. Death. The “big questions”. Things like the story of a man whose brother committed suicide (self-aggression is clearly suggested by O’Brien’s “One night he punched himself in the face...”) when he was 19 and a mother asking God why. You get serious if you think that you are going to hear that kind of story. And then people like this director can “take advantage of you”. Trick you. Try to hurt you. This film is nothing but that. All until the baby’s birth (who ends in father’s hands...) was Gavin Elster’s speech to his old friend Johnny O, but much, much more powerful, because we tend to think that this is not just a movie, that it has a real story behind.

 All those shots with the camera following Chastain (“I didn’t know how to do her hair”, someone said in the office...), the sequoias and the stained glass spiral are nothing but an insinuation of Vertigo.
As someone said, the first time that we see it, we are as manipulated as Johnny O. Like him, we fall in love with Madeleine, with her mysterious image. That is the power of the cinema. We identify with the detective. What is fake becomes real.

Why Malick’s bridge resembles so much Hitchcock’s?

Hitchcock was our Gavin Elster that first time. He knew that we trusted him, but he did not take advantage of us, or at least too much. At some point he tells us friendly enough that it was all a game. He plays fair.
But, hypothetically, if he was a pure manipulator trying to destroy his spectators, what then he would try to do? Extravagant but simple. To make that first time you saw Vertigo something that only started the moment that you would leave the cinema. He would convince you to take Madeleine home, so she would enter your life and become something as important in it as possible. A complete cosmology. A life of your life.

Remember that “Mother...make me strong...brave” ending with Tarkovsky’s “mother” floating in the air and Solaris’ weeds? It contained a reference to Renoir too: Nana making her entrance in the vaudeville show and Picnic on the Grass (the weeds). Who is holding Mother’s strings?

But one day you would see the necklace… And she would die in front of your eyes (“The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away.”). And, in a sense, you would die with her too. That is The Tree of Life. And of this director’s entire work. This is just the last chapter of the only film that he did.


Vertigo: Judy: “Can’t you see?” The famous kiss Grace Kelly (with a pearl necklace) gives J. Stewart in Rear Window probably also inspired this shot. What was the EXIT sign so clearly filmed in the office? The equivalent to Vertigo’s FIRE ESCAPE, one of Hitchcock’s jokes (in the corridor of Judy’s hotel).

The other space
What is a movie theater to this director? The concept of heterotopia is the most capable of answering to this question (the discussion is huge, so let us concentrate in Michel Foucault’s Of the Other Spaces). This is the film of the “other spaces”, the “heterotopias”: the garden, the tree house, the Indian tent (look for it in Jack’s “No!” to his mother), the parents’ bed (saw it?), the bathtub, even the house itself when father goes on a trip and his authority is absent (etc.). All these are spaces where some kind of “normality” (i.e., the order of things which surrounds them) can be suspended or inverted. As there is no need to go deep in heterotopology, this will do.

One of the shots of the late ‘60s room. It has a painting of home just over the bead. There are brushes, with which he painted the “morning stars” for us (space images are just like paintings, Turner watercolors or something; Stan Brakhage was correctly pointed out as an influence). We see a photo camera, in probable reference to Antonioni. There is a book, “Mexico”. It stands for cinema itself and Godard (allusion to Les carabiniers, see here). The Mirror is alluded by the one dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. A tape-recorder sends us back to Renoir’s The Testament of Dr. Cordelier. The guitar, at the center, is for Death in Venice/Visconti. There is a feather for Murnau/Faust (also present in The New World). There are two porcelain figures, a boy and a girl. The boy seems to play a flute. If it is really so, they must be Peter Pan and Wendy, for Disney. In the boy’s room in Waco, there was a skull for 2001, it seems. The game is not easy, but you might try to guess why each identifiable object is there.

But the great heterotopia is the film itself. The Tree of Life is the director’s heterotopia, the movie theater the space where he can suspend normality, that belly you see O’Brien putting his ear to listen what is inside (compare with Godard’s Virgin), the space where he can play God and make all of you his sons: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together... and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” – were you not you seated on the cinema’s chair? I was. It is the director asking. He is God in this movie. Nothing but a riddle, like the Sacro Bosco ones, to be solved in the end of the film. But he just had to put that on the screen – your infinite smallness – to get you in his hands, right?

The Thin Red Line: “Only one thing a man can do. Find something that’s his... make an island for himself.” Welsh said it: “Property, the whole fucking thing is about property.” This director’s cinema is. Peter Pan seems to be around here. Father playing with his kids in the bedroom seems like a Peter Pan situation. In particular, Mother is associated with Wendy in her levitation (note the blue dress) and RL with Peter Pan, when she caresses his shadow in the salt flat. He is the spirit of eternal childhood.

If you know Foucault’s famous 1967 work on the heterotopias, you will remember it ends with reference to the boat and the sea (as Malick’s last film, The New World, with the men going to the America to conquer it):

“… the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, …, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens…
… the boat … has been … the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”
Simply put, this is a film of a pirate: “Don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything you can’t do.”; “You make yourself what you are. You have control of your own destiny.”

Holly. Why this name? Maybe it is just for Holly[wood]. But might be a reference to The Man who Shot Liberty Valance too. It is a film about a girl, Hallie (Vera Miles), who two men dispute, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Ramsom is “Mr. Law and Order”. Ramsom, “the pilgrim”, believes in these two forces and preaches them in the middle of the gunfighters. He even opens a school, one of Ford’s most memorable and ironic creations, where we read in the board: “Education is the basis of law and order”. The dumbest pupil in the “law and order” school was a Carruthers, like Kit. And Tom Doniphon? He is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the absolute outlaw, with good manners: “Liberty Valance’s the toughest man south of the Picketwire – next to me.” In the end “Mr. Law and Order” gets the girl. Tom burns the house that he made for Hallie in a furious way remembering Kit burning Holly’s house (look for the Fabulous Steaks sign, seen in the moment in which Holly’s house is put on fire). In Badlands the director invited the girl for a totally outlaw ride.

It is full of maritime imagery: O’Brien is in the navy and wears its uniform, the sea wants to enter through the skyscrapers (we can hear the water), that just before the architect enters the “bridge” seem just like a ship starting to depart; and, above all, there is that wave, that fabulous wave which Steve makes “sing” in the “shore of eternity” with the seagulls, like he was a maestro. (There was a boat on Steve’s t-shirt when he plays at the window with Jack, before leaving the house. RL buried a fish and a shell under the tree with his toys.) There were even pirates’ games (or Indian and cowboys’) with father in the kids’ room. And the night that Jack heard his mother crying he was reading a space book, and the universe, where Malick sailed in the creation sequence, is a “sea without shores” (2007 script). And there was the sound of the sea under Wilfred’s Lumia and even in the architect’s home. (And the paintings, the ship wheel lamp mother turns off, mother showing Jack the boat in the chinaware, etc.)

Seems that the boat (The Thin Red Line) was going to The Tree of Life. Death in Venice, the great film of “decadence” is also the great film about the merge of life and art, all this director dreamed to achieve with The Tree.

Father’s favorite toy
Understand that this pirate has a most strict “code of honor”. It is essential to his pleasure. He never lies during the entire film (Jack/Pinocchio is the liar, not him: Mother: “Liar! Never do it again. Jack: “Will you tell dad?). Not a single time (“I will be true to you. Whatever comes”, Grace vs. Nature speech, she was talking to you). In this house of mirrors the spectators believed in what they wanted to believe.

“It’s an old Gestapo trick. Shoot one of your own people to show that you’re not one of them. They’ve just freshened it up a bit with blank cartridges.” (North by Northwest) Think in O’Brien hurting RL (“Be quiet... Please.”). What says Jack just before that happens, touching the gramophone record? “Lies…Pretends...” That’s it. All you heard next was a lie (with the director telling himself in the form of “Mother”: “You turn my own kids against me!”...). The idea came obviously from Orson Welles’ F for Fake. When O’Brien hurt RL the director was lying... while we told you that he was lying. So, he was being true, keeping his promise. This film is evoked most subtly during The Tree of Life (“The world lives by trickery”; “Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe?”; Welles says in his film: “this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies. Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie”). At the very beginning of the documentary Welles (like Malick) tells his spectators that all they will hear during the next hour is absolutely true. And it is. Incredible but “true”. Just as the chronometer touched the first second after that hour, Welles started to lie compulsively. Because we trusted him, we weren’t looking at our watch. Didn’t even think about it.
At some point, Jack tells his dad: “It’s your house, you can kick me out whenever you want to. You would like to kill me.” This last part is most untrue. Dead we are worthless to Father. The kind of pleasure that you give him can only be achieved if we are alive and healthy. So, as we enter Waco, he must prepare you for the core of his game of humiliation and profanation, which only really starts in that first family dinner (“Come home, boys! Come home!”). Because from the eyes of the director there are no “two ways”. He is both “mother” and “father”. The spectator is just a toy in his hands, something he can play with, like that frog that the boys found in the backyard. “That’s the way he is.”

Near the end, a mask falls in the water, an ironic allusion to Confidential Report. Do you know the story of the frog and the scorpion? “I cannot help it, it’s my character.” (“Character” = “nature”). “A certain great and powerful king [malick] once asked a poet 'what can I give you of all that I have?' he wisely replied 'anything sir ... except your secret.'”

Parental responsibility demands that he baptizes you (to protect you from “sin”, the “world” and the “devil”, from the “way of Nature”), educates you, tells you the name of things, heals your wounds, etc. He introduces you to RL, his brother and son and makes you fall in love with mother, what is essential: “Were you afraid? Come here...” She is your Madeleine/Carlotta. He makes you at home in his little “heterotopia”, in that house which somehow remembers the one in Badlands.

In a sense, the director is no more than a kid playing in the parents bed (Foucault). A very cruel and crazy game it might be, but children’s games are often cruel and crazy. Did you saw that he filmed Hamilton Pool Preserve - “How do I get back where they are?” - like it was the mouth of the devil, in a childish detail? And how the dog’s ass is towards Jack in his last shot in Waco? The actors and everything else are the toys that RL buries under his tree (and not for chance RL has a geological collection over his bed). The director is Bill (R. Gere) playing with Linda like she was a puppet in Days of Heaven. This is not a “logical” territory. It is the territory of the imagination. Everything is possible, every combination. Cinema is a world where Malick can transform into what he loves and get what he loves, the Rebel without a Cause planetarium surrounded by “law and order” or that empty house where James Dean and N. Wood play with Plato. Above, Carlotta O’Brien Valdez just arrived to Waco “from among the dead”. The dress suffered the necessary aggiornamento, but nothing that would spoil the director’s phantasy.
He gives you a rule, an imaginary line separating that house from the neighbors. The scene begins with a dog smelling something. Outside that house we will approach danger (most of all, in the woman’s house). We were warned.

Is it just my impression or Jean Cocteau (not Jean Marais) was invited to fool around with us? On what side of the mirror we stand? To be put in connection with Jack and Steve’s play at the window before leaving the house. Images of a process of transformation, the death and rebirth of the poet/artist, follow the crossing of the doorway. Cocteau is around here.

During your first years in Waco you were always the “sucker” (the baby sucking his finger) looking to those reflections on the wall (the Lumia; impossible not to think in Truffaut playing with a mirror with his wild child), the rat that ran up the clock, “dickory, digory dock”; that fish (Pinocchio’s?) in grandmother’s hand, the boy running for soap bubbles and dreaming about God in the swimming pool or in the bathtub; wondered with Cocteau’s tricks, looking for his mother in the mirror (a synthesis of this “heterotopia”); screaming joyfully in her hands (“He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?”). Father could sit back and watch his show.

Every kid has a favorite toy.

Unnecessary to enumerate all the ironies. “Help me not to sass my dad. Help me not to get dogs in fights. Help me to be thankful for everything I’ve got... Help me not to tell lies.” Those thousand times Father puts his hands on Jack, hurts him, tells him what to eat, makes him work, kiss him, tells him that he “must get it by the root”, “mother” and “father” (“You will not call me dad!”) were the same thing with different names: “Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that he gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn his face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”
That was pure Nature. The church (The New Sweden Lutheran Church) was another image of the movie theater: the pulpit and the organ (double meaning because of Wilfred’s “light organ”) represent the three liturgies, word, music and image. The entire sermon is a big joke (the most is from Søren Kierkegaard). You were trapped in the architect’s film, in those weed that seem octopuses, Solaris’ weeds. You accepted being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepted all insults and injuries without even notice (Grace vs. Nature speech).

You were “full of Grace”, like the Virgin Mary, so you will have your Annunciation. Now you know what was on the telegram. The scene is nothing but an (inverted) Annunciation, filmed from “grace” to “gravity”. The character impersonated by Chastain in the late ‘60s seems to be “Mother” no more, but Jack’s new face. Father is at an airport (the noise is a reference to Confidential Report). He hears that his game has been discovered.. It is all filmed during sunset. O’Brien makes his final prostration before the sun. Game over, his sick sun goes finally down for him, and that sun you believed beautiful goes down for you. Above, Joan of Arc being informed that she is going to be burnt. This still is taken from Vivre sa vie, a film where “Mother” (Holly is identified with Nana in Badlands; see this post) confronts Dreyer’s Joan: “How did she bear it, Mother?” “God knows where he leads us, we understand the path only in the end of our journey!” (“Dieu sait où il nous mène, nous ne comprenons la route qu’au terme de notre chemin !”) “Yes, I’m his child.” (Vivre sa vie) The priest tells her “He’s in God’s hands now.” The answer is unnecessary to explain. It is  filmed against the “Love your neighbor” stained glass.

“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” You will definitely need Mrs O’Brien’s beatific recommendations (with a touch of The Brothers Karamazov) when you start to see this movie with the eyes of Nature.
In that sinister attic (The Night of the Hunter is around here) Jack was close to see what home was his. In the nightmare scene, with the director appearing as the clown (a joke with Lang’s Spies; note the theme of drowning, to be understood as suicide in front of the ignorant public, Jack). We read: “Creation”, “Amazing attractions”.  The sunflower in the clown’s jacket, the supposed image of grace, throws water at Jack’s face. He makes a fool out of him. Then a giant (seems to have a Bible in his hand) tells him stories. Makes him spin eternally around himself.
The glory
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love your live will flash by.” You just were not imagining the kind of “love” it was. This director knows what is the power of images and the very special power of the cinema. And he knows that nothing is more painful than discovering that something that we loved was not real. He wants to create that thing and then kill it just before our eyes, showing it was supremely perverse. To hurt us in the flesh, like we see Chastain doing herself after the funeral. Because those who ever cared for something that this director did, if his films were important to them some way or another, those will be marked after understanding this game.
So he had to profane everything. That’s also the “Glory” of which O’Brien talks about in the end (“Look, the glory around us...”), “Life’s golden tree”. He is not talking about “Trees, birds” (or if he is, these are Hitchcock’s; he is joking with his birdwatcher fame too, it seems). What do we see? Steve and his mother. He and his creation. “I lived in shame”, he says. This must be understood as shame of the morbid nature of his love for cinema.

There is a bit of every movie Malick did in this “shore of eternity,” where the family of cinema gets together. First, the mountains (Badlands), essential in his mythology from Badlands: “We took off at sunset, on a line toward the mountains of Saskatchewan, for Kit a magical land beyond the reach of the law.” A kind of promised land. There is an Indian man (The New World), the beach filmed from a low angle and a “tree” (The Thin Red Line), the pavilion (Days of Heaven). There is inspiration in ’s famous end. Those transparent curtains of the pavilion must be a reference to Fellini. The architect’s suit with a black tie evokes Mastroianni’s. The general idea is very much the same, but in Malick’s film his family includes all the cinema he loves. “He was disappointed in the world. So he built one of his own - An absolute monarchy” (Citizen Kane). He collected all the Venuses that he wanted and built Holly’s new home with pieces from the entire history of the cinema. Everyone, from the Arabian man (Lawrence of Arabia?) to the big black nanny (Gone with the Wind ?), must be related with some branch of cinema’s tree. In some shots, the disposition of the figures in the landscape seems indebt of The Last Year at Marienbad We see the candle of hope in the girl’s hands and the fall of love/lust/life, etc. (The waters of the River of Life are waters of fire; comparisons of a flame to a stream aren’t new: “La flamme est un feu humide”, Joubert; Bachelard comments “Il voit cette flamme humide, ce liquide ardent, couler vers le haut, vers le ciel, comme un ruisseau vertical”, The Flame of a Candle) We see the baby’s house door opening and mother searching light through the water: this is the story of itself. There is a shot of the foam of the waves touched by the wind: Aphrodite’s foam, of course. Now the architect can say: “at home at once with our Eternal Love” (The Shore of Eternity, Frederick William Faber).
“I wanted to be loved because I was great...a big man.” The architect said during his first phone call: “When you are young it is all about your career. You don’t understand anything. I feel like I’m bumping into walls.” No more bumping now. That was a long time ago. Now he does not want to be loved at all. He found his island, his Holly. O’Brien’s “I’m nothing” sends us back to Welsh’s speech to Witt in The Thin Red Line: “A man in this world is nothing.” So, what’s left to a man? “Find something that’s his... make an island for himself.” Do you know the name of that stained glass spiral, of that spiral of images? The Glory Window (Chapel of Thanksgiving, Dallas)…
The “glory” is to play with everything and everyone. “Insults people... Doesn’t care...”, like Jake said. The creation sequence is a complete parody, it is all summarized in the act of destroying the egg (a symbol of creation; an allusion to Buñuel too?) in the boy’s games, all the grey theories (the garbage can, Badlands). It must include the producers, the consultants, the actors, the critics, the spectators. Everyone.

“Then you crush ‘em without mercy.” (says Travolta, Brig. Gen. Quintard).
Malick’s most popular, may be is sickest film. Welsh warns you in the end: “Everything a lie. Everything you hear and see. They just keep coming, one after another. You’re in a box. A moving box.” What war was going on in The Thin Red Line? The director’s war against the world. In the end Clooney’s character (Capt. Charles Bosche) says: “I prefer to think of myself as a family man, and that’s what we all are here, whether we like it or not. We are a family. I’m the father. Guess that makes Sergeant Welsh [Sean Penn] here the mother. That makes you all the children in this family. Now, a family can have only one head, and that is the father. Father’s the head, mother runs it. That’s the way it’s gonna work here. If any of you wanna see me about anything, anything at all, you will find that I am available. This war is not gonna be over by next Christmas. It’s gonna be a long time before we get home...” The troops are a theater of the director’s self. Who do you think is that crazy Col. Gordon Tall who wants to take the island no matter what it costs, the one whose son is a bait salesman? “Worked my ass off. Brown-nosed the generals. Degraded myself for them and my family. For my home.” He tells Staros (Elias Koteas): “Guadalcanal may be the turning point in the war.” He knew that this film was his chance to arrive someday to The Tree of Life, the a-bomb bomber. It had to be perfect: “I’ve waited all my life for this. I’ve worked, slaved, eaten... oh, untold buckets of shit to have this opportunity!”
Who’s Witt? Interesting question. He is the light of this film, the spark visiting Welsh in his ruined house, his “lonely house”. “You ever get lonely? Only around people.” Sergeant Welsh calls him a “troublemaker”, someone who disturbs that war (who tries to escape from the world of the boat in some Murnauesque paradise), who disturbs his frozen heart. Witt is Henry Fonda/John Ford, the friend of his fellow man. He quotes Steinbeck’s/Ford’s “one big soul”. His death is a reference to Fort Apache, his name was chosen because of My darling Clementine (Witt/Wyatt), etc. Witt is somehow Grace, a chance of grace with humanity: “I still see a spark in you.” He had to die so that the war could continue. Without mercy.

And, in a film full of men, there is that woman in the swing, entering the sea, by the curtains, love. “I was a prisoner. You set me free.” But she fell in love with an air force captain. Bell is the director, of course, but why he loses his girl? The most “reasonable” answer is that he loses her in order to take her again from one of her fathers, a very special one, Murnau. That’s the story of The New World. “We’ll meet again some day,” she promised. Murnau, who served in the Luftwaffe, is probably the air force captain (same kind of joke when Travolta speaks of the “Admiral watching”, Ford [Witt, Witt’s father]).The girl getting asleep and awaking as a woman on a swing is taken from the beginning of Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. The film of the bells of lust and power, with plenty of candles too... (Now you understand why Jack goes on the swing when he arrives from the woman’s house? But it wasn’t a game for him...) In the film, the girl asks: “Can I become a hangman someday?” Remember what was between the girl and the “beautiful woman” on the swing? That’s you in the director’s hands.
“Why does he hurt us, our father?” He had to do something unforgivable as much as possible or it would not fit his purposes. And they are, of course, besides to hurt you, the sensation of power – to see and not to be seen, the “eye of God”, to congregate the family of cinema – and the “acceleration”, the adrenaline, the River of Life born from this experiment. Even more: a true desire to destroy, to soil, to mark with damnation the memory of cinema with something unlimitedly low and evil. No poetry after The Tree of Life.
The nightgown: fear and shame
To understand in full the architect’s dream/visions we must go right to the beginning: “How did I lose you? Wandered? Forgotten you?” The key is found in young Jack’s break into that seductive neighbor’s house.
The desert door is no more than a frame, an elementary geometry of wood, so it can value for the film’s many doors (including gates, etc.). It is the door. A door is a threshold, something we cross to access beyond, somewhere else. But often we cannot or should not cross it. “The forbidden rooms – frequently empty, as the Holly of Hollies, but also taking their value from the presence of a woman, or an image – are found like a true anthropological constant in innumerable initiation rites, marriages first of all, and in innumerable myths or tales” (“… les pièces interdites - vides bien souvent, comme le Saint des Saints, mais aussi prenant leur valeur de la présence d'une femme, voire d'une image - se retrouvent comme une véritable constante anthropologique dans d'innombrables rites d'initiation, à commencer par les mariages, et dans d'innombrables mythes ou contes.”, G. Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde, 1992). This door resembles curiously Robert Morris’ Pine Portal, a lost 1961 work (there is a more recent version of it inspired in Citizen Kane, with mirrors on both sides of the interior). The resemblance with a coffin (see his Box for Standing) suggested the comment that with it Morris made of every door a tomb and of every tomb something to be risen and confronted (ibidem). What is on the door’s other side? That void that looks at us face to face through Morris portal?

The dream starts with the architect refreshing himself and drinking a bit of water, like everything started with the woman: she first gives young Jack to drink from the garden hose. Then he enters a small canyon. We hear the wind. He touches the rock. This is all about the disturbing scene in the empty dining room with the table prepared for dinner, before ascending to her bedroom: touching the curtain, feeling the wind. Then he is out. Gets to a plain. Sees a hill. Runs for it: and he has the vision of the “disappeared house”. Something that is not there. This was what happened to young Jack: when he returned home (to his mother; that woman is nothing but his mother’s substitute and that house a place where he can enter his parents’ bedroom to investigate certain things), it was not there anymore, was something else (remember Jack spying his mother in nightgown?; later he will ask himself: “How do I get back where they are?”). And so he saw his house (or one most similar) in a grassy plain, like it had been removed to some far country, in a brief shot (the “disappeared house”, so to speak, is filmed the same way; this association his strengthened by sound).
“Who are you to live in all these many forms?” (The Thin Red Line)

What Jack felt in that house? What made him panic? Go back to the origin of Life. We see the white jellyfish. Then a rose/red one between the white. It will turn into a fish (first feminine, afterwards phallic). The next animal appearing on the screen, after the wind touching the dune and the tree, is the dying plesiosaur in the beach, at sunset, wounded by another animal on the side. Then blood. Then the sea full of sharks. And if the white jellyfish became the dying dinosaur and the rose one the sharks? Many turned to one and one to many, like the audience and the director? The answer to this question is allusionistical. To serious movie lovers “blood” + “sea full of sharks” means one thing: The Lady from Shanghai:

“Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.”
In Jack’s boyhood, the rose/red jellyfish reappears in the form of the nightgown in the drawer. He admired it through the sunlight. Put it in bed. Then the camera turned to his mouth, where all the tension concentrated. Cut. Panic. Jack ran to the river and the nightgown transformed into the fish again.
So, what Jack felt, discovered? Not just “sexuality”, in that common sense: that he was a “man”, his mother a “woman.” Something a thousand times more powerful and dangerous. He experienced the “hunger”, “the lust of murder like a wind” (the scene in the dining room with Jack touching the curtain and hearing the wind, evoked in the architect’s dream). He felt that he was a beast, a shark. Nothing will be the same. When you “get it by the root”, like Mr. O’Brien puts it, that “lust” is the core of the way of Nature. Jack will start to hurt RL and to defy his mother. “What have I started? What have I done?” Sound reinforces the same association (the pulsation of the fetus heard after the sharks is very perceptible when Jack panics, and the soundtrack is the same when he goes on the swing after seeing his mother).
But let us not stop here. Jack hides the nightgown under a wood plank before throwing it to the river. Just because a boat was passing by? What looks like the wood plank, what is the impression? The lid of a coffin? Go back to the neighbor’s house. The insistence in gauzy and lace curtains gets mortuary. The bedcover could be the silk lining of a coffin. A strong, disturbing, smell of death can be felt in the house.
The director is probably paralleling his idolatry for “mother”, his extreme Pygmalionism, his decision to totally surrender to the power of images (“dead things”, after all; mother is as real as Mrs. Bates: “a boy’s best friend is his mother”), with necrophilia. And he wanted to give you a taste of it through Jack. Like he was fulfilling Lilith’s wish: She wants to leave the mark of her desire on every living creature in the world.”

Snow White adds an extra dose of necrophilia to this film. That pink magnolia of the O’Briens might be a reference to Disney’s film: “… the Prince, who had searched far and wide, heard of the maiden who slept in the glass coffin.”

Jack, the spectator, is a voyeur (his walks around the neighborhood are a Rear Window situation), but one who does not know what he is seeing, what he is desiring, fetishizing. When he would understand why Jack panicked, he would become ashamed, like the director was a long time ago. That seems to be the idea. The nightgown is a ghost of light. Cinema.
There is that incredible speech in which he cries for you. “I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was. One night he punched himself in the face for no reason. He was sitting next to me at the piano and I criticized the way he turned the pages. I made him feel shame... My shame... Poor boy... Poor boy...” Remember that night? It was the night in which he put Carlotta’s necklace just in front of your eyes, the most evident proof of his crime. If he hadn’t done so, you might had never abandoned the “way of Grace” those nuns talked about (certainly some Hitchcockian nuns). From that moment you “had to find reasons to be unhappy when all the world was shining around you. And love was smiling through all things”. You were “afraid”, but there were “things you had to learn”.
Jack is Johnny O. Hitchcock once said that Vertigo was a film about a guy who wanted to go to bed with a dead woman. Speaking of this guy is speaking of you, so one must ask: Did you want to? No, not just being provocative.
If the point was to add some romance to this review, we would say that one day this director entered some theater to watch that fatal Vertigo. And he fell in love with Madeleine. Madly. He wanted to go to bed with her, so to speak. The moment when he felt that, he panicked out of the cinema,
like young Jack. He had desired an image – nothingness, something dead, let us say – like he had never desired someone. The most disturbing power of images. Then on he lived in “shame” (we see a shot of Jack when O’Brien refers it). Until he heard the call: “Follow me!”

A parenthesis to mention the The New World. The shadow (and light) of Murnau (Tabu and Nosferatu) is everywhere. It is the story of an impossible love, a “fresh beginning”. Smith arrives as a prisoner. He resurrects: “There is only this. All else is unreal.” “You are my America.” But the world of the Fort was too strong: “Wait two months and then tell her I got drowned”. The King had great plans for him (the director’s wife interprets the Queen, “malick” means more or less king). He killed his “America’s” god, as she tells us. She acquaints another man. She is baptized as Rebecca. This is no ordinary name. This is the name of the first great necrophiliac film of Hitchcock. The first film that he did in the New World. And this Rebecca dies in a mansion like Manderley with a husband who looks like a 17th century Olivier. And in the Fort she had a maid who told her to think about how a tree must search light while brushing her hair. Jack examines the brush in Mrs. Kimball room. The nightgown t was Rebecca’s too.

The King also had great plans for Rebecca. She had to resurrect from among the dead. She does in the end of The New World and in The Tree of Life: she is that woman coming from the grave (saw the tonality of her skin?; she is somehow the schoolgirl too: compare the bell we see after Rebecca’s marriage with the one in the school of The Tree of Life). The women’s hands were filmed just like in the underwater shot of The New World (after the “from the grave” shot [Vertigo, Carlotta’s grave] we see the hands of the women given). Compare the shot of the empty bed in the late '60s with Rebecca’s empty bed in the end of the film: that is Hitchcock’s bed, Malick’s playground I Compare too Steve running in the cemetery with Rebecca playing in the park as a living dead; the same thing for Rebecca playing in the mansion’s park with her son and RL with mother after that “Find me.”: the second is the first’s conclusion. This was the last stop before going to war in the boat (Nosferatu) seen in the end. We see a bird flying first. And we see the river after. And the sun through the leafs (the shot seems a reference to Rashomon). And in the last shot we see a tree, The Tree of Life. The film starts with an invocation of “mother”. In the end, Rebecca tells us: “Mother, now I know where you live”.
Can you imagine someone plunging into the realm of images “to the end of time”? Not a soft, tender, but a delirious, criminal and self-destructive dive, an experience similar to the one of Welles’ sharks, so excited with blood that they just can’t stop until every one of them is dead? “Grey, my friend, is every theory…”
This film has clearly the pretension to become a cruel experience of self-knowledge. “You are afraid. I see it”, says a boy to Jack before the nightgown episode. Fear and shame were two terms used by David Freedberg to characterize our relation with images in his classic The Power of Images. Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Why people pray to images? Dress images? Why they attack images? Why images have erotic power over them? Why all those stories about images that become alive, people falling in love with images? Under certain conditions, an image does not work like a re-presentation to us (all of us) – it works as a “real thing.”

“As we have surrendered talk about imagery to the conventionalists and only tolerated that which we think the generality of our peers can know and tolerate, so we have relinquished the hard, the brute and sweet reality of the image.” I can do no better than send you back to Freedberg’s conclusion: “we repress the evidence of responses clearly revealed by past behavior because we are too embarrassed by it, and – just as in the past – because we fear the effects of images on ourselves.”
“We see the image: "There she is; she is really there," we exclaim, as Barthes does. But there is nothing on the other side of the paper, or even within the wood or stone (unless some priest hides within it). "Alas", says Barthes, "however hard I look, I discover nothing: if I enlarge I discover nothing but the grain of the paper." We think we can escape bad dreams by talking about art, even about the grain of the medium; but the dreams return to haunt us because we have not dealt with reality, only illusion.”
The director wanted to be sure that you would feel “shame” someday, be naked in his eyes and expelled from paradise: he had to be that sentimental (Vertigo: “You shouldn’t had been that sentimental”, said Johnny O to Judy at the tower). He wants especially to play this part of God’s role. Leave you the shame of having loved lies and corruption. That was the tree planted for you. Probably, he believes that once you understand what was that water that mother gave Jack after the funeral, once you understand the nature of Jack’s desire in that room, there is no way back. That is why he is adult Jack. His “golden tree” is now old and strong. He knows Carlotta/Madeleine is stronger than Judy. That she has no power against the ghosts of desire. And that the fire of the gods, the fire which he stole, is too attractive for those who glimpse it to forget it. He wants to leave you at the point that we see Johnny O in Vertigo’s end and he is inviting you to jump.
“You are all I have and all I want to have”. Without his sons, he would be “drawn a zilch”, a “0”, an “O”, a Johnny O. Indeed, before crossing the door, in the architect’s house, he identifies with him, as we saw.
The architect is going up in the elevator when we see him entering the “door”. We hear the bells. When he comes back from his vision, the elevator is going down and he is at the street in black tie (like in the dream). We feel that he has just touched the ground after skydiving. What is implicit is the jump from the top of the tower (a situation explicit in the very different 2007 script, before the beginning of the creation of the universe sequence: “He finds himself on a high building. He leaps off the edge, into thin air, without giving a thought to how he might survive the fall.”). In this film, the theme of the fall must be related with Vertigo.
He is saying that he lost his “shame” and jumped to join the world of ghosts, Madeleine’s world: and so we hear the bells of Vertigo. He wants to rise these ghosts for his criminal purposes, becoming a Gavin Elster, but he wants to dive into their realm too, into the authenticity of cinema’s illusion, the only authentic thing that he knows, “to the end of time”. And the truth is that even Hitchcock’s Johnny O becomes somehow is own Elster when he finds Judy, creating his own illusion, fraud, for him to dive into. From this point of view, this film was the director’s way to stop being “Jack one and all.” Here is the explanation for the phone call joke: “I think about him every day. I am sorry. Shouldn’t said what I said” It seems to be a reference to Jack’s question: “Dad [pause], why was he born?” Through the “way of Grace”, Jack is talking to his mother. But it seems that Jack is asking Father (well, Father=Mother) why RL, or The Tree of Life idea, was born. Jack (comprehensibly) was failing to understand that he only exists because of the River of Life, the divine fire which he gives to his Father: “Son, reach me my lighter.”

Steve: he died when he was 19
What were the architect’s words?

I see the child that I was.
I see my brother.
He died when he was 19.

None of Terrence Malick’s brothers died with 19 years of age. This “died” is for Terrence himself. The “child” he was to the image of his brother. All that was true and kind in him.

What is between the girl who stopped in front of the camera and Mrs. Kimball? Death. When the girl disappeared, death took her place. That is the episode of the drowning. The one which made Jack question: “Why should I be good, if you aren’t?” Who died in the river/pool? Who was Mr. O’Brien not able to save? (that underwater shot seems to fuse the gigolo’s death in Sunset Boulevard with the detective’s fall in the void in Vertigo). Remember Steve’s reaction? He plays with RL at the funeral, they somersault. This means transformation. The next time that we see Steve is in the macabre scene in the cemetery (see the name on the grave: “GRACY”). Jack spooks Steve two times. Steve runs frightened through the graves. We see the boy buried alive. Laying in half-profile in the dark grave, he looks very much like Steve. Before entering the river the camera quickly superposed them, producing the same kind of association built between Mother and Jack’s feminine neighbors. We have to understand this episode beyond its strict appearance. Steve asks: “Was he bad?” We see the three boys looking to the bottom of a water well, Steve plunging his head. The next question Steve asks is: “Will you die too, mother? You’re not that old yet.” We see Snow-White inside her beautiful glass coffin.

First hypothesis: Terrence “died” when he was 19. He was studying at Harvard. In favor of this are his allusions to The Birds, a 1963 movie (Malick made 20 in November 1963). A film about evil, alluded in important moments: the dream, “Was I false to you?”, “When did you first touch my heart?” (the birds are passing by Vertigo’s tower...) and in the shore of eternity.
Second hypothesis: Terrence “died” when one of his brothers was 19. If it was Lawrence, that happened between May 18, 1965 and May 18, 1966. If it was Christopher, that happened between June 6, 1967 and June 6, 1968. 

That door is also the monolith of 2001. No doubt. Primarily, the creation sequence (and the destruction of the earth) is a dramatization of the genesis of the very film. It is Malick’s game at its most abstract. It consists in a number of allusions to works and directors combined in The Tree of Life, although harder to identify than usual. Kubrick is obviously alluded (including by the presence of Jupiter [or beyond the infinite]), but it begins with a joke with Hitchcock, the smoke invading the screen, like in Saboteur, but against black background, like in Cocteau’s The Testament of Orpheus. Antonioni (Red Desert) and Tarkovsky (Nostalghia) are alluded by the cells merging: “1+1=1”, a metaphor for the director’s fusion with his “wife.” Interesting to note the presence of Saturn, a planet with connotations with artists’ work (and a god who ate his sons). In the end, the asteroid (the film) reveals its deadly purpose. About Kubrick: might be some intention to (partially) allude to the Dawn of Man scenario (to the discovery taking place there) with the architect’s desert (particularly by the wind). Is that illustration of Aesopus’ The Monkeys and Their Mother some parody wih Kubrick? The Monkeys and Their Monolith? That cut when Jack touches the curtain in Mrs. Kimball’s house feels very Kubrickian. The lightning might be one of the references to the fort of the poem: “...by lightnings torn/ To the ground it stood on; yet/ Eternal sun still poured. /Its freshening light [image above] across the giant and aging/ Thing...; we will see another one next.
The film most explicitly and dramatically alluded in The Tree of Life is 2001: “How did you come to me?”; “Follow me.” A film released in April, 1968. This year must have been a turning point. The next year he went to the AFI to become a filmmaker. He was walking towards the “door.” Surely and coldly he formed his plan. But the decision to “do it” does not necessarily coincides with the recognition of his own psychopathy (that is the word), his moral death. That could have been earlier. As a matter of fact, having a thought and without trying to clinicize this discussion, according to what is known about psychopaths it should have been.
Take the 1963 hypothesis. The allusion to Kubrick’s 2001 would be a way of signaling his rebirth from the oppressive life of the architect. After all, Kubrick’s film, ending with the star-child, is a story of a rebirth (told with massive doses of irony). Which brother Malick refers to? In the middle of those two times Welcome Happy Morning runs in the end there is Fernando Sor. Maybe it is a reference to Lawrence Raymond (he was a guitarist). The second time the melody plays phony, like coming out of a pianola: the “two ways” and grace in the middle? RL as the inversion/opposite of LR? If that was the idea, it must be Marlenes pianola: “Your futures all end up. Why don’t you go home?” (Touch of Evil).

Linda, the little girl in Days of Heaven, likes to see beautiful books with animals, like The Jungle Book with Charles Maurice’s illustrations, also used in this film). She also makes adorable speeches, like this: “The devil just sittin’ there laughing. He’s glad when people does that. Then he sends them to the snakehouse. He just sits there and laughs and watch while you’re sitting there all tied up and snakes are eating your eyes up. The snakes go down your throat and eat all your systems up.” We had seen a snake swimming in the river before arriving Waco (allusion to Swamp Water/Renoir?; every important director to the film’s “kit” seems to incarnate at least one person or animal): “Just follow … my cousin the snake” (Goethe). Steve is filmed like a snake in bed when mother reads the boys Kipling: “and they went off to look for Kaa, the Rock Python. They found him stretched out on a warm ledge in the afternoon sun, admiring his beautiful new coat.” And he is seen with a lizard, nothing but a snake with legs (or a small dinosaur). And a sentimental reference to Pepping Tom?

Speculations that should not make us forget that this “brother” is a symbol of the director’s “fellow man”. It is not really important to know which. Whatever happened, the “child” who the director was died a long time ago. Nothing true and kind remained. Whatever happened, Steve became “young Ivan”. In The Tree of Life, Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood is alluded a moment before the question “Will you die too, mother?”: the ruined house with the water well, Ivan’s well.

The well will appear one more time, when Jack quotes Saint Paul: “What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” And we see the boys playing in the empty house; remember RL playing with the sunlight?: “...yet Eternal sun still poured. / Its freshening light across the giant and aging / Thing, and all around was green with ivy...” That was the fort. Note that the architect refreshes with water in the beginning of his dream like Ivan did from the bucket.

The well of the fort: The New World: “Damnation is like this.” “Everyman will stop what he is doing right now and start digging the well.”
Ivan’s story is very simple. His parents were killed during the war and he wants to fight the Germans. Lives between dreams, in a semi-real world. The soldiers do not take very seriously his wishes. Neither does the spectator. But in the end Tarkovsky says to you in one shot that he was a killer. Nothing remained of the innocent child. Probably the director is saying that in that fatal 1968 RL’s call was heard and “Mother” could kiss him through the curtain. He feels at war against the world and cinema is his weapon. His dreams were the dreams of a killer and with this film he embraced for good the “way of Nature.” The other one was closed for him. His former house had disappeared. Steve’s Snow-White is the bride waiting for him on the other side of that door. Nothing kept him anymore from reaching her.

The house in Days of Heaven was nothing more than an evocation of Psycho (the similarities have been noticed for a long time, they share common inspiration, but they are not just similarities). This is the woman’s house of The Tree of Life, the “lust of murder” house with wind chimes sounding like sirens (just compare Gere entering the house when his “sister” goes on her honeymoon with The Tree of Life episode). The Farmer (Sam Shepard), whom Bill (Richard Gere) kills, the one whom he takes advantage of, represents “Norman Bates”, a “mother’s boy”, like Malick. The girl they dispute, Abby (Brooke Adams), is, of course, cinema, Holly’s new incarnation. The director could kill himself in that film. He was also the young girl, Linda, the littlest rebel, the one who does sweet speeches about hell and everybody burning. The journey could go on in the end (a very Modern Times end). That plain of Days of Heaven was an “ephemeral paradise”. It is evoked in the “everlasting paradise” of The Three of Life (the curtains of the pavilion, for example: the beach pavilion is behind “mother” when she hugs the architect).

If you saw Days of Heaven right, you noticed that when Bill dies his head plunges into the river. The shot, remarkable, is taken underwater. That is Sunset Boulevard (by Billy Wilder, “Bill”). We even got the Stroheim butler around there (Stroheim’s Greed is palpable), that one who loves “Bates” like a son, the Foreman (Robert J. Wilke), the one who warns Bill that he knows what he is up to. Abby makes commentaries about Bill’s shoulders in the draft script - “I love how nice and hard your shoulders are.” - like Swanson to W. Holden: “Perfect. Wonderful shoulders.” We see also a circus arriving from nothing in two planes and giving performances like the ones Norma arranged for Gillis. There is something of Rebecca there (the conversation between the farmer and the doctor - “How long you give it?” - is an allusion to Hitchcock’s film: “I want to know the truth.”). The Farmer had discovered the game and gets mad. Bill kills “Bates”. He is on the run again. But the policemen got him on the river.

The name that you saw in the cemetery was GRACY because Grace died in the river. Who killed Gracy? Why do you think Mr. O’Brien is Mr. O’Brien? Simple: because of Murnau’s Sunrise, the film of all films. It is the story of a man, interpreted by George O’Brien, divided between two loves: the night and the day, the moon and the sun. “Couldn’t she got drowned?”, asked the night. Murnau speared the day and expelled the night. Malick decided differently (the architect also said on the telephone: “I know you did everything you could...”; he was talking about “Gracy”). In the capital moment of that “Look, the glory around us!”, Steve and his mother are crossing Waco (the night is also “the woman from the city”). We see two shop sign: “FULL MOON” (with a smiling moon) and “ANTIQUES”. The Tree of Life is Malick’s moonrise, the rise of the powers of the darkness. Saw the way in which he filmed the architect’s shadow advancing to the “door”? That was Nosferatu. And he wants to vampirize the entire history of the cinema. He promised: “My girl Holly and I have decided to kill ourselves”.

“Did he go to the moon?” Since Méliès, the moon is a symbol of the magical territory of the cinema, that planet whose shine in the dark of the theater calls us again and again for new voyages. Compare the architect walking in his home with G. O’Brien walking in the night to meet his lover.

Going through the “door” was choosing the way of fire, the way of magma, the way of the volcano (“Next word is VOLCANO”). Bachelard would put this under the Empedocles complex: “In these circumstances the reverie becomes truly fascinating and dramatic; it magnifies human destiny, it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano, the life of a log to the life of the world. The fascinated individual hears the call of the funeral pyre. For him destruction is more than a change, it is renewal.”

“Fire smolders in a soul more surely than it does under ashes. The arsonist is the most dissembling of criminals.” (Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire) From Badlands, this director showed an intense attraction by fire. He has a pyromaniac’s rib, no doubt. He “hears the call of the funeral pyre.” (Bachelard) In Days of Heaven, a film almost starting in a steel mill, Linda tells us of apocalyptic fires. The film’s love triangle is solved spectacularly in flames. In The Thin Red Line there is plenty of fire too. The Indian village is burnt in The New World. In Badlands we never see extinguished the glorious fire that Kit lights in Holly’s home. Her home, cinema, is on fire since those days. Whose doll is above? Holly’s doll (Badlands). In Lilith, the doll is also a substitute for the loved woman. It is a toy too. As this is a big child’s game, that should be kept in mind (see the dolls’ house in the same scene).

Bachelard shows, using Georges Sand as an example, that the enchantment of the fireplace is enough to evoke the volcano. If the reverie is strong enough, the candle has the same power: “As soon as the reverie becomes concentrated, the genie of the Volcano appears. (...) "Come, my king. Put on your crown of white flame and blue sulphur from which there comes forth a dazzling rain of diamonds and sapphires." And the Dreamer, ready for the sacrifice, replies: "Here I am! Envelop me in rivers of burning lava, clasp me in your arms of fire as a lover clasps his bride. I have donned the red mantle. I have adorned myself in your colors. Put on, too, your burning gown of purple. Cover your sides with dazzling folds." (...) In the heart of the fire death is no longer death. "Death could not exist in that ethereal region to which you are carrying me... My fragile body may be consumed by the fire, my soul must be united with those tenuous elements of which you are composed." "Very well!" said the Spirit, casting over the Dreamer part of his red mantle, "Say farewell to the life of men and follow me into the life of phantoms."

Crossing the door is Malick’s very personal way of saying “Let’s go home, Debbie”. He is really going home with his love, RL playing the role of John Wayne. The salt flats are an allusion to The Misfits: “Rosalind: Don’t you have a home? Gay: Sure. Never was a better one, either. Rosalind: Where is it? Gay: Right here.”
So, after the drowning episode, we hear the wind of “lust of murder” at the window, we see the house on fire (Badlands) and the burned boy, a dramatic expression of his desire to change, to be consumed by “Nature”.
He was burned for good. The boy appears at the end conducting Jack to father. And in the “shore of eternity”.
Conclusion: cows and sunflowers
“But this act of destruction becomes, at the final point of development, an act of liberation: delirium escapes from necessity, casts off its heavy mantel of mystical servitude, and it is finally only then that, nude and lubricious, it plays with the universe and its laws as if they were toys” (Bataille).
For its director, The Tree of Life is “an ocular tree”. A tree “drunk with the sun” (Bataille), RL, a vertiginous kaleidoscope where all his films – and with them the entire history of the cinema – merge deliriously in a hallucinatory experiment/experience always demanding for “criminal debauchery” (Bataille).
Malick’s sunflowers are eyes burning in ecstasy like the sun they try to imitate. While Jack kisses RL’s arm (“I am sorry. You’re my brother.”), he plays with a pine cone, a complex symbol. Bataille’s “pineal eye”, that one like a tree, is a good clue: it “plays the role of a fire in a house; the head, instead of locking up life as money is locked in a safe, spends it without counting”. An ocular door to the River of Life. Those apparently “full of grace” sunflowers spit on you, like the clown nightmare revealed. The director was apparently thinking in the same author, in his writings on Van Gogh, in his “deleterious and sick” sunflowers, the imitation of the sun, playing the game of inversions so dear to the French writer, transforming what is thought as the highest symbolically speaking into the lowest. Indeed, the film began with a paraphrases of Kempis’s Imitation of Christ and Christ is often associate with the sun. The cows were the “full of grace” ones. Cows do not know that they are cows. As long there is grass, they are happy. They do not know that they will be someone’s meal: “Remember proletarians” (Strike).

This is the perfect crime. Badlands, the confession, had to be made in first place so that its author could say that he would be caught only when he wanted to. Like this, at least in his very particular head, he would always win the “fight”.
O’Brien explains to Jack that the most important thing is to keep your guard up while punching.

Pickpocket: “Are you a gambler?” « Vous êtes joueur ? Michel: Ô, moi...»Badlands: “Sheriff: Now put the other one on yourself.” Badlands: “Often I’ve wondered what was going through Kit’s head before they got him and why he didn’t make a run for it while he still had the chance. Did he figure theyld just catch up with him the next day? Was it despair? He claimed to having a flat tire, but the way he carried on about it, I suspect this is false.”

Malick wants to be caught also because he waits for his coming fame. That is obvious. He even ironizes with it through Kit.
Probably his dream trial will be something between The Night of the Hunter (“He’s Satan hiding behind the cross!”) and The Fountainhead, with the entire Hollywood industry at the head of some hysterical mob.
The Fountainhead: “guilty by his very nature”. An allusion to The Fountainhead, no? “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way.”

Let’s end with Badlands:
“They kept him in solitary, so he didn’t have a chance to get acquainted with the other inmates, though he was sure they’d like him, especially the murderers. (...) Kit went to sleep in
the courtroom while his confession was being read, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On a warm spring night, six months later, after donating his body to science, he did.”

“Just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it.” (The Misfits). The Tree of Life is the grand final of a 40 years project. Above, Fantasia.