Künstlerroman, Roman à Clef, Muses and Personifications: Some Thoughts

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

Not yet in the proper mood for writing something about The Thin Red Line. This post contains simple considerations about some fictional and symbolical solutions used by our distinguished filmmaker. I hope that they will help those less familiar with these questions to understand the sort of things written around here. It continues in Nous voici encore seuls.


Malick’s work is a Künstlerroman. Obvious. He identifies the Architect/O’Brien/himself with Aschenbach, RoarkOrpheus, Leopold Stokowski and Guido (and with F for Fake’s Welles ). Moi, l’artiste. What he tells you is nothing but the story of an artist, the artist making his films. The story of how and why he did them. The story of the films themselves. A (metafictional) Künstlerroman, a member of a tradition beginning in the cultural milieu in which Malick picked up the main key to his game, Hölderlin’s Heidelberg, the romantic Germany where grew Mephistopheles’ golden tree.
A substantial – most of the time the dullest – part of what is written about these literary works  concerns the relation between the writer and the protagonist or another Künstler around. Autobiographical? A true roman à clef? Semi-autobiographical? Is the Künstler in question an alter-ego of the writer or not? All this questioning is pretty much useless (at least) in one situation: when the Künstler is presented writing or imagining the very book that we are reading. As far as it goes for the act of writing it, the two are one. As for the rest, the distinction may be total.

After thinking it over, I guess the lamp-post is an allusion to The Blood of a Poet, to the (card) game between the artist and the statue (and the suicide, etc.; although it is not to exclude a combined allusion to The Night of the Hunter). I’m not implying that it was a reference to this movie, but note that Kit and Holly also played cards under the tree.

This is, of course, also valid for the other arts. I have written that was alluded both by Penn’s suit and, more unequivocally, by the shot of the windy transparent curtain. (The beach set might also recall somehow that The White Sheik commented by Malick in Rome; “real life is the life of dreams”). And I said that Fellini’s film was also the story of itself. This is not exactly proclaimed in the film. It is just a possible (and not rare) way of understanding the end, identifying Guido (Guido’s work, Guido’s film) with Fellini(’s). Considering what we see not as (or not only as) the beginning of an unseen imaginary film, but like a representation of the author’s mastery of his own inward chaos which is as a whole. This and the breaking of Malick’s own solitude (the breaking of L’eclisse, more of his eccentric allusionistic diarrhea) to join the wondrous fauna from the depths of the sea of cinema is staged in his eternal beach. 

There are not many examples of characters representing unequivocally the director of their films, their “father” or god, as Malick would say. My favorite is Anton Walbrook as the meneur de jeu in La Ronde. Unlike Kit and his followers, he has none of the leading roles. From his omniscient position he just makes his characters turn until la ronde is finished. 

Oliveira started his Porto of My Childhood with a maestro directing an invisible orchestra. It is not impossible that he inspired himself in Fantasia, like Malick. Both the Portuguese and the American are metaphorically conducting memories that form their films.

Much more common is to find the director himself in the films. As an actor or a voice (a narrator, a commentator). As a cameo. There are lovely jokes, small ironic secrets, like Godard’s cameo in Breathless, denouncing his own lawless character to the police. Or It’s for television... don’t look at the camera... just go by like you’re fighting... (Apocalypse Now) But the director’s presence is normally not of a particular significance as the director. One obvious and great exception is F for Fake. It continues the line opened by Georges Méliès, the director as magician. Other, is Testment of Orpheus (in his first, Cocteau already spoke of it as “how I was caught in a trap by my own film”, but the degree of identification between the character and the director is not total, as in La Ronde). Other, the two first Pasolinis of the Trilogy of Life: the painter painting the film, the writer writing the film. One much less known is Oliveira on voice over closing his Doomed Love (“I will never again open Doomed Love”) while the sailor’s hand picks up the letters of the lovers from the sea (from which the story is told). The same director used in his Voyage to the Beginning of the World one of Malick’s favorite metaphors: the car. In fact, he plays the discrete driver who conducts his characters during their voyage, during the film (the road’s identification with the fatal movement was not new in his work). In The Divine Comedy he did again something very à la Malick. The actor playing the director of the asylum died without a crucial scene being shot. His character was prepared to look like the ambiguous Caligari, director of an asylum where the entire film takes place. The “residents” think themselves Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ, Lazarus, characters of Dostoevsky and so on. Oliveira took his place, creating a moment where the two directors fuse. If Godard played the mad artist in Prénom Carmen, Oliveira played the master of his own (divinely) mad world.

I found a 2005 article by Jean-Marc Limoges (Mise en abyme et réflexivité dans le cinéma contemporain : Pour une distinction de termes trop souvent confondus, have a look yourself) with some few examples more of the “story of itself” category where Malick’s work finds its place. Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie is the most eloquent.

It all depends of our approach to the films, our interests or critical proposal, but it is certainly difficult to ignore our recognition of Godard’s own voice in his films (much more his role in First Name: Carmen) or – a more problematic example – the fact that The Saga of Anathan’s narrator is Sternberg himself, especially having in account the nature of his last story. Even so, the greatness, the complexity of the film is in absolute independent to our speculations about things like if the shot of the last dead Japanese soldier advancing to the camera, advancing to Keiko, is the creepiest of self-portraits.

What is just a possibility of interpretation (and maybe not a very interesting one) for us to explore in Sternberg’s film must impose itself in Malick’s work. Through the way of Nature, the characters assuming the director’s cinematic “one big self” must shout “I am Terry Malick!” And how his “Nature” is able to reduce our space of interpretation to the absolute minimum (to kill the reader and resurrect the author, ha! ha! ha!)? Constant, noisy, self-comment. One of the true ironies about this director is that he is known for being extremely reserved about his work when he actually delivers himself to an orgy of eccentric real-time self-criticism. The cherry on top of the cake are those sunflowers.

RL was entering The Time Machine.

You know, time is one of the most complex problems in this experiment. One of the things that I have found myself asking was: is Malick’s work a true real time Bildungsroman/film or a false one? The fact is that he is building himself towards an end closed in his first opus: to become a criminal, to be condemned, to be “sentenced to the electric chair”. And the essential of his credo – this is, the credo reproduced in his following films – seems to be in Badlands already. From then on, in a sense, what we see is the past of that future. Badlands was made for after The Tree of Life. From the present point of view – and there is no other – the question seems to have been not so much what he would become but how he would become a “criminal”. Both a work in progress and a work finished right from the beginning. To become a criminal was not inevitable until The Tree of Life, of course. The “Vertigo Project” could have been aborted. Malick could have changed the direction of the ship. But he didn’t. I ask myself if what comes next will connect itself to that “eternal beach”, going back to The Tree of Life, or if we will see just some kind of afterword-films.


For the sake of what I have called his “Vertigo Project”, Malick has to work in the roman à clef format. But I will not apply this label to Malick’s Tree of Life (let’s call his entire filmography like this) without further considerations. Its characters, themes, objects (very important), settings and ends are veiled but – and this is the main point – are unreal in most cases (purely fictional, this is). Even if eccentric, Kit’s jobs are typical roman à clef situations. But the adventures of Kit Caruthers with Holly[wood] are not. On one side, the people they meet are a synthesis of characters and situations from the films of the same “father” created in the fertile imagination of Terrence Malick. When the story seems to have at least an anchor in a historical event – Starkweather killing spree, Guadalcanal, Pocahontas, Malick’s childhood, the creation of the world – what is being told is the story of fiction disguised as (fictionalized) reality. On the other side, if the roman/film à clef is a solution commonly adopted to allow artistic exploration of personal experiences without self-exposition, Malick’s work is, most of all, an experiment for the purpose of creating his secret personal experiences. And he is absolutely unable to restrain from joking with the public character of this secret world. Take the extended cut of The New World. What’s the first thing on the screen? 

How much they err,
that think every one which has been at Virginia
understands or knows what Virginia is.
Capt. John Smith 

So funny that it became the header of this blog, Capt. Malick 
As for the clef/key of the front door (hypothetically you could enter by some back door or window, but that was improbable) of the director’s strange home, Hölderlin’s Heidelberg: ironically, it was chosen outside the film world. But Malick’s appropriation was an understandable choice, even because the critical approaches to his work often pass through German Romanticism. Sooner or later you had to bump with that poem and the too clear and numerous coincidences with the film. “Long have I loved you and for my own delight would call you mother…” Sooner than later vous aurez fait l’hypothèse and you would find yourselves looking to Carlotta’s necklace. Like I did. Paradise Lost.


Lotte Reiniger, The Tenth Muse, Beinecke Library, Yale University. Reiniger called the girl Cinoterpe. I find Holly a much nicer name, don’t you?

What’s worth to say about muses and personifications? 
Although those familiar with the history of art know how old the creation of personification of rivers is in the western tradition, it seems doubtful that a long incursion in that problem might clarify somehow this River of Life. The standard river-god iconography is far from resembling Malick’s RL, the peak of the director’s kitsch madness. There are Roman examples represented as young men, examples swimming, etc., but what comes to our mind is a reclined bearded figure turned to us on a rock.

  The Nile (Museo Vaticano). Not at all like RL.

But what is really important is that their meaning is totally strange to Malick’s Tadzio. Keep just this in mind: the personification of rivers is commonly found in Roman triumphal iconography, as symbols of the conquered territories. Cinema’s final offering of “the great river that never runs dry” (The New World, extended version) to Malick is a symbol of his conquest, of his property of the land of dreams, transformed into his home. RL is the maximum symbol of this territory. Malick’s full appropriation of Hölderlin’s Heidelberg tells you nothing more: “You had fed him with streams, the fugitive, given him / Cool shadow, and all the shores looked on / as he followed his way…” From Badlands, the river was getting stronger and stronger, faster and faster. Finally, as the director elevated himself to a godlike position, as he had broken the final taboo, he could sacrifice himself in its waters “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”.

In that first and fatal night, as Madeleine goes out of the restaurant, freeze in a Renaissance profile painted against the obsessive red of the wall, she stops in front of Scottie, the camera, us, in what might be Hitchcock’s greatest shot. The power of Madeleine is inseparable from the power of images. And that is why I deviated from Malick’s self-comments to brought to this discussion Freedberg’s study.

To speak about Holly as a personification of Cinema and Malick’s muse is much more interesting. As you know, Painting, the poor girl, had to wait until the Renaissance to be (or to start to be) elevated from the mechanical to the liberal arts. What seems to be her first modern personification is in the house of Giorgio Vasari (in his home), in Arezzo, and dates from 1542. Let me forget her modest predecessors and take Vasari’s fresco for Holly’s oldest ancestor. It is found in the Stanza della Fama. The room has its name from the figure in the center of the ceiling, Fame. In the corners we see Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Poetry. Painting is portraying a man holding a scroll, the poet Dante, probably evoking the maxim ut pictura poesis and so subtly underlining the equivalent nobility of these arts. There are ovati (added some ten years later) with images of painters related to Arezzo or to Vasari himself, who is also included.

Vasari was, of course, a very special man. An important painter and architect, he was at the establishment of the Florentine Academy. Most of all, he was the Voragine of the artists, the author of Le Vite. A work at the same time one of the most powerful instruments for solidifying the new social position of the western artist and one of the highest symbols of that process. Vasari intentions are made clearer by the engravings of Le Vite. Now the girls are just three and the theme is associated with the resurrection of the dead. In the 1568 Giuntina edition we read: “This breath will proclaim that these men never perished and never were vanquished by death.” These are not just any dead and this is not at all the Christian Resurrection. The trumpet of eternal fame of which Vasari’s work is the first chapter is awaking from the oblivion of men le più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori.

From its beginning, the “era of Art” is inseparable from this desire of immortality of its protagonists in the memory of humanity. Malick does not escape from it or tries to do so, much for the contrary. Kit is obsessed with his coming fame: 

“Kit doesn’t see himself as anything sad or pitiable, but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and to future generations. Like Holly, like a child, he can only really believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions – they’re all sort of abstract for him” (Sight and Sound, 1975). 

It is a common comment to the film that he clearly has no idea of the proportion of his place in history. I would not bet on that. In the shore of eternity, when at Steve’s signal the trumpets sing to make the wave roll, he is ordering the phantoms of cinema to rise from his imagination. These great resurrection to which he wants to join forever is also an image of the future announcement of the Way of Nature, his way to eterna fama. (But if he could choose his place at Madame Tussaud, would it be near the other directors?)

Some asserted that Chastain was the image of (Mother) Nature. They were right, of course. They just weren’t getting what this totalizing Nature was, as they weren’t aware of the kind of war going on in its hearth (The Thin Red Line). Back to Vasari’s girl to understand better the economy of Terry’s acute narcissism. I have to ask you to imagine something: in Malick’s home, in its Stanza della Fama, although she has many faces, there is only one girl, Holly[wood]. But, since 1973, she is occupied painting/filming the master of the house himself, not some old poet. If you understand that the director is telling us his story through the land of cinema by its means, his story with Holly through Holly’s art (tricks, frauds, lies), you also understand why she is the narrator of Badlands. She is what will remain after his body, she will grant him eterna fama. His work is entirely built from that perspective. You have certainly noticed that she speaks from a future without Kit. In 1973 what that future would be was very uncertain yet. Malick could never be sure that he would be able to “do it”. He even confesses some doubts to a friend in Days of Heaven: “And one day you wake up…you find you’re not the smartest guy in the world. Never gonna come up with a big score. When I was growing up, I thought I really would”. In the end, he did. You know what’s the strength of his kind of sociopaths? They know what they want. Remember Kit’s words? “You hadn’t seen me when I’m going after something.”

Look, Holly[wood] is telling Kit about Hollywood. “Rumor: Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth are in love... Fact: true, but not with each other.” Nice little joke with two of his “Hollys”, Rita Hayworth (The Lady from Shanghai) and Shirley MacLaine (Some Came Running). Yes, a bit of Malick’s girl is from Minnelli’s masterpiece. Holly is “stupid” (“Well, that’s the point, stupid”; “Well, I shouldn't expect miracles, should I?”), because she is Ginny Moorehead too. What is Ginny? The revelation of unconditional love: “I don’t understand you neither, but that don’t mean I don't like you. I love you. But I don’t understand you. So, what’s the matter with that?”