Nous voici encore seuls

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

This post is to be understood as the continuation of Künstlerroman, Roman à Clef, Muses and Personifications:Some Thoughts in what concerns the presence of the director in his film precisely as the director. It is about the filmmaker who most often comes to my mind when I think of Malick. Would I ever had gotten our friend’s joke so fast without being acquainted with his work? I doubt. I owe him most of my practice with Malick’s kind of idiosyncratic artistic discourse. Who is he? João César Monteiro, more precisely Monteiro as the author of the Trilogy of God: Recollections of the Yellow House, God’s Comedy, The Spousals of God. (And Come and Go, Le Bassin de J. W., but leat’s leave that).

Like Malick, I will also warn my readers. Attention, attenzione: to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to Malick what belongs to Malick. There is not a glimpse in Monteiro of anything like what is at the heart of Malick’s work, the “Vertigo Project”; Monteiro’s work has a political dimension in absolute strange to Malick’s; it’s richer (than Malick’s nature) in layers of meaning and, like with any true artist’s, resists all too systematic and totalizing interpretations; his are not films mainly about films and made of films, mirror into a mirror and that sort of stuff; last but not least, Monteiro was not even close to the assumed psychopath with whom we are dealing with in this blog. To those not familiar with the director in question, are we understood? Then we can proceed.

Why Monteiro comes to my mind? Not so much stories about paradises and paradises lost or the thousand jokes permitted by the name of the director’s persona. Not doubtous epileptic crisis. Not those bed bugs attacking John of God in the middle of the night, even if that had something to do with it too, as I suspect they stand for all the bastards of this world:

“Not even one at last, squashed between my nails squirting blood all over. The cowards only dare to come out in the dark. And even so, they probably come out camouflaged, masked by the dust that gathers in the mouldy corners of the room. l’d put a match to it and set the rotten straw mattress on fire [traveling over the city, toll of the bells], and then l’d joyfully dance over the flames while listening to them ''crack, crack'' popping like chesnuts in the fire.”

The real point is that Monteiro found through John of God a very particular way to speak about his films, about his self-imposed mission through them. The seduction relies in how he managed to do it, direct but not explicitly and never messing up the “comedy” going on (and with immense humor). With Chaplin, Keaton, Tati, Lewis or Allen this is absent, sporadic or accessory. Not with Monteiro, especially in God’s Comedy. Inspired in Godard (Prénom Carmen is alluded), like with Malick, a major influence, he takes to the extreme a game between the character and the director.

Jean Douchet tasting John of Gods creation: « Mais monsieur, votre glace... cest de la merde ! »

Monteiro’s “mission” might be synthesized like this: to have the courage “to exalt life” (God’s Comedy) and “give them work” (Recollections of the Yellow House). It assumes the form of a Joycean voyage through a labyrinth of erotic obsessions (including pubic hairs, his worldly famous Ariadne threads), aesthetic affinities – literary, musical, cinephile –, memories, his personal family of phantoms. To play with all that, to satirize and insult the established powers, to provoke, to ironize and to self-ironize, to philosophize: “to give them work”. To find an escape from the great Yellow House (prison) that life can be, that prison of which in the dark of the movie theater John of God (a name so charged of suggestions of authority as of insignificance) speaks in the beginning of Recollections, quoting Céline:

“Here we are, alone again. It’s all so slow, so heavy, so sad… I’ll be old soon. Then at last it will be over. So many people have come into my room. They’ve talked. They haven’t said much. They’ve gone away. They’ve grown old, wretched, sluggish, each in some corner of the world.”

This is not far from Kit’s/Malick’s despair, no? The comparison can be extended to other areas. We also find in Monteiro, much more abundantly, the metaphor of “public health”. Both directors are sons of Bataille, experts in the arts of transgression, so to speak, although Monteiro is a much more orthodox one.

“Go forth...and give them work.” Monteiro was master in building self-referential labyrinths. Old Livio, a character from a 1971 short, reapers in Recollections, interpreted by the same actor. In the first film, he was doubled by Monteiro himself... When he finds him at the hospital, John of God asks him “What have you been doing all these years?” He answers: “I’ve been hanging around, waiting for you.”

The long ritualized relation with the girls, the complicity of the camera in the erotic games, the obvious relation established between John of God’s gelati and Monteiro’s film-poems, make most times impossible to distinguish between character/actor/director. The owner of John of God’s lost “Ice Paradise”, one face of the authorities hanging over him, gives us a full report of his (artistic) crimes:

“(…) immoral behavior with staff and customers, abuse of trust, practices of singularly unwholesome falsification, harmful both to public health and our good reputation. (…) My good man, you’re lucky I’m not taking it further. I fed and clothed this creature. I did the best for him. When he first came here in rags it was enough to break your heart. I felt sorry for him but I was too soft. This is how he paid me back. Tore the arse of my best employee, a poor orphan, just up from the boondocks, who cried her heart out in my arms. (…) A good girl, Rosarinho. Then he got involved with a child, caused a lot of talk, a scandal. Girl’s father heard about it, he took the law into his own hands, and beat this fellow up. Bless him! A pity you’re still alive! Had it been me, I’d have strangled you. Killed you like a mad dog. He’s sick, a sexual pervert. He even drools when he eats ice-cream.”


Paradise Lost (to the American Ice Cream)

John of God’s character, between the psychiatric hospital and jail because of his liberties, his affronts to “law and order”, plays with two Romantic stereotypes of the artist, the lunatic and the outlaw, claimed by Malick persistently and humorously since Badlands. This assumes clearly the form of provocation in the two directors. Both find ways to confront their audiences with their different audacities, crimes, transgressions, let’s say, they provoke us. Of course, many artists, filmmakers or not, do that. But rare were those who did it in such a direct, violent and persistent way as Monteiro. (In Malick’s “Vertigo Project”, provocation is accessory, what really counts is pure and simple aggression, but let’s forget that now). Take the court scene of The Spousals of God. Just one shot.

The camera is in the exact place of the judge, facing Monteiro. “Will the defendant please rise,” we hear. Vis-à-vis, Monteiro gives us his straight answer: “You stand up, you bastard.”

Saluting the audience...

In God’s Comedy, we hear something which Malick could say of his films: that they are “the final sovereign luxury of a free man”, his nonnegotiable mark in the world. Good, respectable, didatic intentions are not welcome here: “I don’t know how to give advice, and I detest respectability.” (God’s Wedding) When he buys 60 packets of milk to bathe one of his nymphets, the adorable Joaninha, John of God is asked: “Is it to help starving children in Mozambique?” He solemly replies: “We’ve got to help one another.”
Like Monteiro, Malick has an immense pleasure in describing his work, his mission. The difference is just that Malick puts his words in the mouth of his actors.

One example in Monteiro. In what is probably one of the most beautiful scenes of the ‘90s, John of God’s dialogue with Rosarinho in the coffee shop, he famously says about his work, contrasting it with the “empire of the American Ice cream”: 

John of God: It isn’t based on ordinary, everyday tastes, but on constant innovation, on the ceaseless search for the splendiferous, perhaps unattainable perfume of perfumes.
Rosarinho: Seek and ye shall find.
John of God: We are not seeking truth. We are seeking our Ariadne. Good Lord, under such trying conditions! Just one small, human error, sudden carelessness by our staff, and we lose everything. Not just anyone is chosen to enter the gates of Paradise.”

No, not just anyone is chosen to enter the gates of Paradise and not anyone is chosen to enter the gates of evil. If you like, think of The Tree of Life as Malick’s “perfume of perfumes”, “the final glorious ice”, that supremely sick creation able to finally give him his River of Life.


It is worth to extend the comparison to one last aspect, the ways by which Monteiro and Malick used their cinephilia to build narratives and self-portraits. Above, you see John of God transformed into Stroheim (he had a poster of him in his room) as Malick transformed himself into James Dean. The last, rebel without a cause; the first, a rebel who said that his politics was “the ice. Both are cases of mith vampirization. And as we talk of vampires, let’s not forget that both directors assumed the role of cinema’s most famous vampire, Nosferatu. They actually used not only Murnau’s film in a similar way but also Pickpocket. Both appropriated themselves of their mains characters, both vampirized these masterpieces.

As some of you will know, Monteiro was a huge fan of Nosferatu, a film alluded both in The New World and The Tree of Life (above). For the Portuguese director, even if with other implications, the always present metaphor of the vampire was no less central. Rising from the gutters after leaving the nut house, we see him in the end of Recollections of the Yellow House to haunt the living (and maybe even the dead), “to give them work”, to feed himself of their blood for his pleasure.

The doll with the girl’s money, a The Night of the Hunter’s reminiscence. The violence of Monteiro’s cinephile appropriations finds a symbol in John of God acting like the dead whore’s doll Jack the Ripper. God forbides this game to become one of those sentimental and nauseating “homages to cinema”.

The assumption of Michel’s skin happens in the end of God’s Wedding. After asking her a pubic hair and some things more, he says to his Jeanne those final famous words: “what a strange path I’ve followed in order to reach you.” The final words of John of God, who finally found his soul mate.

Most of times, what we find in Monteiro is what we find in everybody else, inconsequent allusions, recreations of famous scenes, parody with other directors, cinephile fetishes. Even so, two examples, one from Recollections of the Yellow House, the whore’s red flower and the cosmic image opening God’s Comedy (used again in the next film).

The whore and the cinephile, a cinephile’s whore.

The first is an obvious recollection from Minelli’s Some Came Running, a way of evoking the most famous whore of the American cinema, to convoke a ghost (who also belongs to the family of Malick) from the director’s collection to the film. As for the second, it is a clear precedent of The Tree’s use of space images. The spiral galaxy, whose solemnity is interrupted by the voice of a kid presenting the film, is a metaphor of the director’s universe, that universe where, for two little hours, he is God.

Not just anyone is in condition to enter the gates of Malick’s Nature. Maybe Monteiro’s work will help those interested in doing so.

Come and Go (2003) and The Last Dive (1992): after what was written, are comments necessary?

Monteiro said in God’s Comedy. “I am a man of peace. Who knows? I might have been a criminal (…)”
Who knows. We will talk about this in a future post, to be called Tabu.