Mr. Sargis and the Art of the Malickian Allusion

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

Seemed the right time to a general revision. I found out that I had been a victim of my “impressions” and of vague coincidences. Sorry, Mr. Sargis is not Godard, I was mistaken. This post will be the occasion to correct some “deciphering” errors of mine and to summarize Malick’s ways of building allusions (the review was corrected, of course).

Steve is preparing all the pieces for you. You just have to put them in the right place. But sometimes we make mistakes... like Malick expected: “He nods at a wrecked car lying in a ditch beside the road. Kit: They’re probably going to blame that on me, too, bastards.” (Badlands)

Pierrot le fou seems to more than one person to be one of Badlands’ important influences and Kit’s copy of James Dean’s mannerisms has an obvious precedent in Belmondo’s conscious imitation of Bogart in Breathless.

We tend to reduce Kit’s relation with James Dean to something took from the story of Charles Starkweather. The cinematic precedents are as much important.

Malick seems to be totally aware of this, as that shot of Holly’s face rhyming with the kitsch picture is clearly a reference to Godard (Seberg/Karina and the Renoirs of Breathless and Pierrot). But if Mr. Sargis with his cigarette pending from his mouth looks like a lazy retired Belmondo it is just a coincidence. What is the problem? First of all, the redhead.

Malick is very precise in building his puzzles, especially in Badlands. A resemblance, an intuition, most be always confirmed by various means before a “positive identification”. I was rush. It is now clear that Malick does not trust our intuition to get his message. That message is his life, something too important to be in risk of misinterpretation.
Mr. Sargis’ most important attribute is Holly, his redhead daughter. Follow that clue and you will discover that Kit – James Dean, this is – also makes part of the Sargis family. Mr. Sargis was the first one to go because he is Kit’s father too (it is my impression or this sounds like a soap-opera revelation?).

Her hair has the color of fire.

Who is James Dean’s father? Elia Kazan. Who was James Dean’s redhead? Julie Harris. It is that simple. Kit keeps insisting in her red hair and that should have been noticed even through the eyes of “Grace”. She is the perfect complement to his fantasy. We had clear allusions to Rebel Without a Cause (Cato/Plato, Kit’s car) and to Giant (Kit with the riffle, his boots). We had to find some to East of Eden. As usual, it was just in front of our nose.

“He was provoking me when I popped him. That’s what it was like, a POP.” This is not just a joke with Sargis’ profession, like someone noticed, but first of all a cinematic joke: Malick “popped” himself (Kit) and Kazan (Sargis) in beautiful colors. (The specter of painting is present in all his films; the brushes in the dead boy’s room bring again the analogy.) This is clear as water in the trailer (the red paint), a masterpiece of the genre. The important is this: Kazan’s greatest provocation was not Holly. It was James Dean: “I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off.”

I am not sure if the brown suit used by Pitt in Jack’s conception sequence alludes to Dean.  

The cause of the confusion was strictly personal: no interest for Kazan’s films. Their existence was forgotten, what is difficult to forgive considering the circumstances: we are trying to assembley the kit of Malick’s druthers, not mine’s (remember Kit’s comment to his name?: “Sounds a little too much like "druthers," doesn’t it?”). I had not seen one for ten years or so until last week. Happy surprise, some of them are much better then I remembered (although The Arrangement is really dreadful).
Under the light of A Face in the Crowd, Baby Doll, East of Eden and Splendor in the Grass it seems we get most of the jokes around Mr. Sargis and the Fort Dupree period. Let us see. Holly twirling the baton in front of her house alluds to Lee Remick’s character (A Face in the Crowd).

I suggested this was a reference to Lolita. I was completely wrong. A girl with a baton is a girl with a baton.

Sargis is arriving home with groceries when he sees Holly talking with Kit in the street and calls her. He jokes with her (sparkles some paint over her feet) as he is preparing himself to restore a John Deere sign. Watch Holy in the beautiful iron chair, so childish. These are the two pieces of the first puzzle. The chair evokes Baby Doll’s crib and the sign is not there because of some tractor, but because of the deer head which Eli Wallach picks to frighten Carroll Baker in the film’s climax.

Under this new light, I think that Malick probably sees those signs around Sargis as allusions/jokes with Kazan’s movies/themes. Nothing really important, but we can amuse ourselves trying to identify them. The BAIT full of holes: Zapata’s death? It is our bait too, isn’t it? Michel Ciment interviewed Malick to Positif about Badlands before its release in France. He explained that Malick accepted it because he had published a book of interviews with Elia Kazan and the author of Badlands was a fan of that particular director.

That marvelous Kauzer’s billboard (it would be too much to call it Kazan’s) that Sargis is finishing in the middle of nowhere when Kit arrives to talk with him about Holly, wouldn’t that be an hilarious image of Warren Beatty’s rural idyll of Splendor in the Grass?


We watch Holly’s discomfort walking with Kit in the street, watching a football game, the jokes about sex – all allusions/jokes to/with that film? “He said that if the piano didn’t keep me off the streets, maybe the clarinet would.” Remember this?

It would be too much to see in that FRIGIDAIRE sign another joke with Kazan (East of Eden)?

And you know who this is? Kazan played a clarinet player in Blues in the Night.

About the name, Sargis, the least important. Sometimes Malick’s passwords are simple and direct, like with Cato/Plato/Nick Ray. Sometimes they are awfully complicated, like with the rich man’s name or Mrs. Kimball’s. This is clearly the second case.
My best guess. Sargis (or Sarkis) is an Armenian name. Kazan’s family is from the region, from Anatolia. But why Malick chose Sargis? Maybe it was because of Elli Wallach – Mrs. Sergio/Sargis Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). More or less like he did with Hitchcock and Laughton, although Leone’s importance to Malick seems to me minimum, contrary to what happens with the director of The Night of the Hunter. Crazy hypothesis but with this guy things are often far more strange. (I could continue inventorying some probable allusions, like Kit’s peach [Viva Zapata!], Sargis jeep [Man on a Tightrope] and wardrobe details, but let us keep with the most important.)

Conclusions? With this number of coincidences with Kazan’s films, I must forget the Godard hypothesis. Not everything is as it seems. If Godard escaped Malick’s killing spree, what can I say? Well, “you can’t kill them all.”
One question is left open. Might Sargis be composed of allusions to more than one director? Holly is the daughter of all fathers, but what about this kind of character? Might the director create a masculine character (besides those identifiable with him) condensing allusions to two or more fathers, aesthetically close to one another or with some other form brotherhood? Something to think about.

Tarkovsky (Nostalghia) guarding Malick’s island (Solaris).

Allusions are always more or less covert, implied, or indirect references, demanding (in any art, in any case) some kind of background knowledge to be identifyed. With Malick’s, you certainly need to have seen a lot of films to be aware of them. Those few hundred films, the “classics”, although his most dear loves can be put in a 20-30 items list. Cinephilia is necessary to understand his world/work. You must know his “Mother” very well. He is a ciné-fils in the deepest and craziest way.

The Tree of Life and Peter Pan.

Allusions in Malick are intentional and precise, produced by the clothes, body types, physiognomy and name of the characters, by the architectural elements, landscape and ambiances, but most of all by words, objects and concrete situations. Style/expressive devices function more rarely as allusions.
Detecting allusions is a tricky game. Although he is saying that just about everything in his films is some sort of allusion, reference or quotation, this “artist” will never tell you if you are right or wrong.

Malick produces some pretty eccentric allusions, like one to Cape Fear when Holly leaves school to run away with Kit: “I could of snuck out the back or hid in the boiler room”. See probable allusions to Thompson’s film in the dead dog on the street and Kit’s straw hat. The idea of rape is interesting, I might leave a few thoughts about it in a future post. 

For example, we would be encouraged to seek for references to They Live by Night in Badlands, one of the fathers of the genre (the father is You Only Live Once). Naturaly, we would think that Nick Ray got that bullet for his first film too. But Malick said to Positif that he had  not seen the film yet when he shot Badlands. There is no reason to believe he was lying and so any coincidence is just that.
Malick was young then and at that time not all the classics were easely available. But Holly warned you: “Kit made me get my books from school, so I wouldn’t fall behind.” This is true for the cinema after Badlands as for the cinema before Badlands. At least since The Thin Red Line, take for granted that he has seen just about everything.

I would like to stress that I was being  “impressionistic”. My hypothesis was not being sufficiently confirmed by the pieces of the puzzle, it was avoiding confrontation with the details. In Malick, something as simple as a John Deere sign is not just a sign, at least if a character interacts with it or if the camera confers it some importance. It is that precise sign you must decipher. And he made his puzzle so well that you have all there to confirm your hypothesis. If you doubt that The New World’s princess is Murnau’s girl (Tabu), you find there that oyster presented to Smith (“We’ll live like kings”). If pure at heart to the point of thinking that she was not transformed into Hitchcock’s Rebecca in Malick’s fort, you will find her kneeling by the ropes in which Mrs. De Winter stumbled when she died (just before the village is set on fire and Murnau expelled).

Most of Malick’s allusions are allusions to films and directors, although some are cross-modal too, like the bridge of The Tree of Life, alluding to Hölderlin’s poem, which functions like a key, if necessary, to the way of Nature. The pine cone, sun/sunflowers and the volcano alluding to Bataille, the children’s heterotopias and the maritime elements alluding to Foucault’s work (which, just like Bataille, functions more like a poetic reference than a historical/philosophical one), the candle to Bachelard. But, my experience with his films tells me, even these cross modal allusions are partial, this is, they are always combined with allusions to some film, if not to several. This can happen in just one shot.

“Can you pass the butter please?” (Jack, The Tree of Life) Something tells me this butter was made in Eisenstein’s farm (The General Line). The allusionistic game is all about to condense allusions to very different films, some of them with nothing “evil” whatsoever, in one unified flux of images, a strong cinematic river with a precise direction chosen by the director. That is The Tree of Life’s vertiginous spiral. Paradigmatic cases of condensed allusions are found in Mrs. Kimball’s feet or in Mother floating.

It was not said yet: Malick’s generation was addicted in allusionism. If you are not familiar with the phenomenon, just read something like The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond), by Noël Carroll. We just cannot seriously consider Hollywood from the late ‘60s onward if we ignore allusionism and the new public that made it possible. There is much to say about it, but let’s leave that to a future post.
In this point, the difference between Malick and his contemporaries is that (through Grace) you just find 10% of them. Your “vertigo” keeps you from understanding all this as the biggest and sickest cinephile joke ever.
Allusions are generally made by style, sometimes by visual quotation. Malick rarely does this and when he does they are easily recognizable – and so apparently innocent –, with one evident exception in Days of Heaven.

In this case, style (top-down shot, this is) really functions like an allusion.

But to allude by objects, things, like Malick does most of the time, is more uncommon. But even through Grace a cinephile can’t deny that he does it. If you know Tarkovsky’s work, certainly you were between those who immediately recognized an explicit allusion to The Mirror in The Tree of Life. Malick could have just left Mrs. O’Brien floating graciously in front of our eyes. Some of us would still identify a parallel with the Russian film. Even so, would we be 100% sure about Malick’s source of inspiration? Maybe not and he does not like that. The message must be as clear as possible. And so we see Solaris’ seaweeds next.
This kind of “self-consciousness” can be acepted without problems through Grace. That is why it is so explicit. Let’s now see a hermetic example: the shot of a water can and a small wheel in Holly’s home on fire. Malick can produce this kind of association only with objects too.

First remember that Malick will not make games with objects that pass unnoticed in the films to which he wants to allude (and to “burn”) and that these objects will always represent some major influence or part of his message/jokes. One more thing: he only deals with the classics.
In this case Malick’s game seems tremendously hard, doesn’t it? A watering can. What the hell is that? Free association – recommended by the director himself (“Next word is volcano. Next word is socket” is not just a spelling exercise) – is the best way to get the answer. Sit back and think… Watering can… Watering can… True Heart Susie?

If you ask me, it is a perfect picture, but it was very unlikely the one in Malick’s mind. A better hypothesis: Renoir. There is a film in which a watering can has great symbolic relevance, Boudu. But the wheel is certainly not Boudu. And so we should ask: and if this is just like Mother floating and the seaweeds, a reference to two different films of the same director? If so, Boudu’s watering can might just be there so we could identify in that small wheel a reference to The Golden Coach (the front wheel of the coach). And why a reference to this film? The famous and sublime ending (I prefer in Italian, but OK):

Don Antonio: Don’t waste your time in the so-called real life. You belong to us…the actors, acrobats…mimes, clows, mountebanks. Your only way to find happiness is on any stage…any platform, any public place…during those two little hours when you become another person…your true self.
Camilla: Felipe…Ramon…the viceroy…disappeared…gone. Don’t they exist anymore?
Don Antonio: Disappeared. Now they are a part of the audience. Do you miss them?
Camilla: A little.


Notice that Kit and Holly meet under a tier: “Our time with each other was limited and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other away from all the cares of the world.” And if those precious hours did not end?

There is a strong reason for such an allusion. Malick is saying goodbye to the theater of “real life”, of which he seems to be less than a fan, to embrace his imaginary (and/but true) self, his crazy game and fire. Badlands has something of a mortuary rite, something that finds a poetic paralel in Magnani in black all alone in the stage.
Of course that the way of Nature is as rich in possibility of meanings as Grace’s is. You can also aply this “goodbye” to Holly, dragued from her civilized life to the bad-lands of a wacko.
Let me give you some examples more.
When there isn’t much time make you see who is a certain fellow, Malick makes someone say something to clarify it. In Badlands, that is probably the case with the gas station attendent:

KIT: Hi... Say,, you got any shells for a Savage, a .300 Savage?
KIT: Damn. I pissed all mine away shooting up bottles... You want to fill her up for me? Please?

Already it was said: it is a reference to Bonnie and Clyde, one of the inspirations of Badlands. And so the natural and plausible thing is to see the attendent as Arthur Penn, whom Malick thanks in the credits, as you know. In this case, the entire gasoline station with its painted signs seems to function as an allusion to (the visuality of) that film.

A gas station is the stage of an important scene: the formation of the gang.

Probaby not by chance the final car chase starts here too. And I think Kit’s gesture – trowing Holly’s things to the can: “If you want any of that junk, it’s yours” – is clarifyed by the identity of the heir. Malick left Penn Holly’s things because his muse refused to die with him, like Bonnie did and, so to speack, promised Malick. Nice ironic touch.
Sometimes Malick’s allusionism takes much more complex ways: he alludes to his own films too. The shot which begins the sequence of the “Glory speech” (let’s call it this way) is a piece of Waco. Seems to be there just to make the transition to the factory. It is not. We see the railroad and the ALICO building in that shot.

After considering these two elements (ALICO=insurance company) we are in condition to identify the allusion. Looking back to Badlands through Nature tells us that Malick is a great lover of Double Indemnity, which gave him a fine joke: his speech to the masses in the rich man’s house (in that particular house, notice). The director is doing nothing more than establishing a connection between the two speeches, making the first an introduction to the second: “Listen to your parents and teachers...”

I have been asking myself what that helicopter searching for Kit is, who is piloting it. The answer is probably in that denim jacket so superbly wear by Martin Sheen that made him a fashion icon. Think: Kit is very particular about his clothes, boots, his haircut, his car. Everything is chosen intentionally; as he is an imitator of James Dean, you would expect him to wear a red jacket or a piece of cloth evoking one of his other film characters, but that’s not the case.

The denim jacket must be something from another rebel’s wardrobe. My guess is that it came from Jack Burns’, Kirk Douglas’/David Miller’s individualistic cowboy. Lonely are the Brave is a magnificent man hunt film, a film of the mountains, Kit’s “magical land beyond the reach of the law.” Burns fits Kit’s mythology perfectly: “Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him.” No home among the others. He is a conscious misfit refusing society, law, barriers and non self-imposed forms of identification. As he explains to a policeman: “I don’t need [identification] cards to figure out who I am, I already know.” I leave you just two more notes: Kit grabs an old truck fender to use it as a small shield while running for his car: was that some kind of funny joke with Spartacus (Douglas’ gladiator shield)?; It is the helicopter that separates Kit from Holly lonely are the Brave.

Outside this list are examples of allusions made by sound or by music. Let us see one made by sound in the next post.