This post continues both the last one and the one dedicated to Buñuel.
The burned boy caught my attention. A brief but strong presence in the film, both through Grace and Nature. He deserves an autonomous post.
I suppose this is his house.
Two possibilities: he evokes some character who suffers a burn or is burnt; the burn is strictly symbolical. I was tending to the first when I noticed that he was consoled by whom I called the “Buñuelian angel”.
Who likes Hitchcock usually likes the Spanish director too. Apparently, that is Malick’s case. Yes, the burned boy seems to have been adopted from Buñuel’s family.
We haven’t got much to identify the boy. Before the shore of eternity, he appears three times. First, in a decisive moment, a moment of transformation: after the drowning episode and before Mrs. Kimball. He is looking to some men working, occupied in a small demolition. We hear their hammers. There isn’t much more: Jack plays with him with the cans; and he is (apparently) deaf-mute.
As you know, one of Buñuel’s most extraordinary characters is Saturno, the deaf-mute boy of Tristana.
Buñuel was really great: he made a mute mute in this scene.
And if you know anything about cinema, you also know that Buñuel’s masterpiece, Viridiana, has two moments of unsurpassable intensity, not only the famous “last supper”, but also the angelus.
I believe we are very much authorized to see in the sound of those men’s hammers an allusion to this film. Not only because it is the film of the “bad beggar” who is forced to walk around with a can (and so the boy is playing with one in Waco), but because fire has an important presence in Viridiana: it burns the nun’s arma Christi, a symbol of her abandon of a pious project of life.
Malick was raised as a Christian. Such an allusion seems to ask an interpretation in that light. This is not surprising. Malick’s references to Pickpocket already inscribe his game in a theological framework.
Viridiana ends playing cards with Shake Your Cares Away on the record player but the game chosen by Malick was much, much more acid, much more destructive. It is the game of madness. Fire is hard to control and spreads quickly. It fascinates and its quick spreading fascinates more. When you notice, the whole house is on fire.
The O’Briens’ home on fire is seen after the boy’s first appearance. Although you may find it strange, it is burning since 1973 (Badlands).
If the director might be indicating what burned first, he is just doing that. His fire has consumed much more than what is usually meant by “religious beliefs”. Maybe it is not a bad idea to convoke Lilith to this discussion. After all, Lilith is part of Malick’s family, and he used a line from Crime and Punishment in The Tree of Life’s trailer and borrowed a bit from Brothers Karamazov in the film:
Patient: Tell me, have you read Dostoyevsky?
Vincent Bruce: I’ve read Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov.
Patient: Oh, have you? Tell me, do you believe it? Do you believe that if there is no God, there can be no such thing as virtue?
Lilith is, beyond doubt, one of the truly important films to understand Malick. You have to know well her dangerous river. By the way, that joke with the ice cubs was brilliant, wasn’t it?
Jack shooting Lilith’s river. Bad boy. If it wasn’t for RL he wouldn’t exist. He is his brother.
“We exalted passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss.” (My Last Sigh, L. Buñuel)
My general opinion about Terrence Malick’s Nature has not changed much since I was first introduced to his “family” some months ago. His River of Life has two powerful streams, one cynical and one romantic. All that I can say is that the cynical seems stronger now.
But my mind has changed about several important points in what comes to the decipherment of the thousand allusions of which his films are made. If you have visited this blog more than once, you have certainly noticed it. Like I said before, it was not clear to me then how precise his jokes and puzzles are. I made some mistakes, like with Holly’s father.
My comprehension of Buñuel’s immense importance in Waco is relatively recent. It began with the stained glasses, afterwards with Mrs. Kimball’s feet, Snow White, the “angel”, Fabre’s praying mantis (Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques was among Buñuel’s favorite books; he discussed it with Dali) and then with the burned boy. Malick’s reference to Bataille (and even his love for Hitchcock) should have made me underline that his River of Life had affinities with some of the darker corners of Surrealism, “the call of the abyss”, in Buñuel’s words.
My discovery of the Spanish director’s importance to Malick forced me to rethink something of which I was most certain: O’Brien’s words after church about Frank Johnson, that man who “looks after half of the real estate in town”, the one who “built something big”. If you remember, I wrote that Malick was talking about himself, making jokes about his own film. Now, I doubt. Why? Because Frank “started as a barber”.
It seems that I was rushing about this too. For more that I try, this comment doesn’t make sense applied to Malick. And so I asked myself: who could have started as a barber? Which director? The answer was Don Luis Buñuel. I gave a good laugh. After all, Malick was making a joke with something like the most famous shot of the history of cinema.
Buñuel’s first film, Un chien andalou: the barber preparing himself...
Because the stained glasses’ shots are references to Buñuel (see this and this), it seems the perfect timing. The reference to the Holy Trinity comes very much to purpose too (although I maintain the conviction that he is thinking of directors). The boys play with their dog...As for the name, it is not so simple. I can’t find any Johnson related to Buñuel except one. Buñuel’s eccentric memories (My Last Sigh) mention his acquaintance with a boxing legend, the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who was living in the Palace Hotel in Madrid in the early ‘20s. The Spanish director affirmed to have vanquished him at arm wrestling, one of his specialties (he was a great sportsman). Not bad, if it is true… I think that the first name, Frank, is one of those doubtful taste jokes in which this director is expert. It is the name of the Spanish dictator who invited Buñuel to film what became Viridiana, Franco. So, after all, I believe O’Brien was just saying hello to his old friend Franco Johnson, heavyweight champion of the surrealist cinema.
“You just astound me, as always.” (Rope)
Besides Jack, there is another boy who interacts briefly with the burned child. His name appears to be Robert. He is the boss of the Waco gang. I promised not to rely on the script. It is a good idea. Even so, let’s see what it says about this charming friend of Terry: “He is lucid, calm and cynical. There is an odd, motiveless malignity in him.” In the film he doesn’t show to be that evil, does he? But he is very important. He is the one who smashes the trash can (the “grey theory”), the one who says “It was an experiment!” and, most of all, the boy who speaks Mephistophically to Jack through a string, like the devil to Eve or something: “They are trying to scare you. To Keep you ignorant. Things you got to learn. How can we know stuff until we know?” He adds after: “They say we can’t try stuff? They do. What do you need to be afraid off? You are afraid, I can see it.”
Who is he? As he any relation with Buñuel? Well, who is Buñuel’s best friend?
Robert is (not explicitly) inviting Jack/us to enter the Kimballs, and that is what he/we does/do next. When Jack is coming back home from the river, Robert seems to be spying him at the distance. Like I said, Mrs. Kimball is first of all a Hitchcock & Buñuel partnership, although the British director is the main stockholder (there are more). That’s why Mr. O’Brien says “He inherited”, remember?
I suspect that these two stars of the gang are the members of the referred partnership. They are both “Mr. Kimball”, so to speak. Robert is from Hitchcock’s family and so he has the honor of leading the gang and destroying the can. As you have certainly guessed, this will now turn to Rope. If it is through such thing that Jack hears Robert (a string is a thin rope), we must consider this famous movie. With some important differences, its story is the story of Malick’s oeuvre.
As you know, in Rope a couple of NY dandies decides to commit murder. Brandon, “lucid, calm and cynical”, of an “odd, motiveless malignity”, is clearly the leader. We enter their apartment the very moment the crime is being committed and we will not leave it anymore. They hide the body in a chest in front of everybody. Before their party begins, Brandon gives us his testimony about their idea. He is obviously in very good mood, a happy child: “Actually done it. Not a single infinitesimal thing as gone wrong.”
“Well, murder can be an art too. The power to kill might be so satisfying as the power to create.” Change “murder” for “crime” (in the profound sense), “to kill” for “to commit a crime”, and there it is, Malick’s idea: why not to combine the two? Their crime is as purposeless as Malick’s (“We’ve killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. You can’t have fear, neither of us can”). This is, it has the same purpose, the adrenaline of Evil (“I felt tremendously exhilarated!”). We even find an ironic comment about what would make their crime even more exhilarating: “Pity we couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight. Well... We can’t have everything, can we?” The Tree of Life was just the way of solving this limitation. The crime is made just in front of the whole world. As you see, this criminal’s adrenaline most be multiplied by 1000.
I can’t help to notice that Brandon even uses that supremely important word:
“This is the difference between us and the ordinary man. Everybody talks about committing the perfect crime but nobody does it. Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it. Nobody, except us.”
Brandon’s “furious will”.But the differences are also sensible. Brandon presents himself as a Nietzschean superman, someone beyond Good and Evil who can play with the entire world. As for Malick, he believes in Evil, he declares his Tree an act of faith in it. We have to combine Brandon’s philosophy with more or less the sense which Bataille gave to Evil (like I tried to underline in a previous post) to understand what is at stake in this cinematic crime. And, most of all, we must remember that this criminal wants to be caught. He is more than “lucid, calm and cynical”. As he knows, he is nuts. I think Malick was sensible to this and gave Brandon a little bit of another famous Hitchcock character. One who is certainly nuts, Bruno, interpreted by Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train). One who says you should do everything before you die (Kit says something similar, “I’ll try anything once”, and gives a lighter to a soldier in the end...). So, like with the burned boy,this character is made from more than one film. A very refined Hitchcockian sociopath.
I thought and thought about this shot. It reminded me of something familiar, I couldn't tell what. Probably it was inspired in Bruno spying Guy (Farley Granger) in Washington.
*Why not to end this post with some images of the fire of Malick’s fathers? Just as complement to My girl Holly and I have decided to kill ourselves.
Kazan’s fire: “Do you believe in ghosts, Mrs. Meighan? I do. I believe in the presence of evil spirits. (…) The spirits of violence and cunning...malevolence, cruelty, treachery...destruction. (…) Evil spirits that haunt the human heart and take possession of it. They spread from one human heart to another...the way a fire goes springing from leaf to leaf... branch to branch in a tree…till the forest is all aflame with it.” (Baby Doll)
The Fabolous Steacks movie: Ford’s fire.
The Fabolous Steacks movie: Ford’s fire.
Cato’s fire: Johnny Guitar.
Lang’s fire: Metropolis. Notice that there are some peacocks (present in a famous scene of Lang’s film) in the farm of Days of Heaven. I thought about it and those lanterns that the men bring in the night might allude to Metropolis (rather than to Sunrise, like I first said): “Let’s watch the world go to hell!”
Walsh’s fire: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Like I said, I am inclined to see a reference to High Sierra in Kit’s “I could’ve held off an army if I could’ve gotten behind a rock in the mountains.”
Kubrick’s fire: “It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!” We have to talk about this one day.
And Hitchcock’s fire. I have just noticed that the scene which shows the woman transmitting the fire of her candle to the little Scarlet Empress might contain an allusion to Rebecca. After all, Malicks last love affair before Waco was with Rebecca and this scene is an image of The Tree of Life’s beginning.
It would be a crime not to finish with Vertigo. Malick’s entire filmography is born from this film.
Next post is about Badlands: starts with garbage and cattle. And more Hitchcock. OK?