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

I will have to make another vacation from the blog. I was working on plenty to post – fetishism, Linda, The Thin Red Line – but it is postponed by now. I have been promising my thoughts on Malick’s Guadalcanal for a long time and I felt it was fair to tell you something on the subject before saying goodbye for a few months. What follows is the continuation of Künstlerroman, Roman à Clef, Muses and Personifications: Some Thoughts and Nous voici encore seuls.


Difficult, delicate post to write. There is something necessary to do what Malick has done of which you can hardly have theoretical knowledge. That is what we call – with all fatal controversies – psychopathy. Let’s keep it simple: have you ever come across someone totally lacking of empathy, unable to feel remorse or guilt? If you possess only second hand experience of this human reality – scientific studies, all sort of film and romance clichés – it will be hard to imagine Malick’s kind of person. For a psychopath any of us is either: a source of amusement or gratification; something in their way. Responsibility to the other = 0. Any possible attempts to relate only led to a worsening of their inability to do so. “They want you dead. Or in their lie.” (The Thin Red Line) In the inside they are not only dead for humanity: they don’t “feel the lack.” If you know what such a person is you will understand that “He died when he was 19.”

I suspect that those German notes are a little joke with Lang. Like I have written, the clown is probably an allusion to Spies (below) and, after all, this is the experiment of the thousand faces’ cinematic man, Dr. Malick, der Spieler. Not that it is important, even RL asked O’Brien how he used them. Just a little joke. What is important is the allusion to the game/gambling itself: “Countess: I fear that there is nothing in the world to interest me for long. Everything that can be seen from a car, from an opera box, or from a window is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring! Mabuse: You are right, Countess – nothing in the world is interesting for long – except for one thing – Playing with people and their destinies.” (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler)

So, I am not thinking in the “artist psychopath”, someone at the margins of society or someone at war with social rules by the means of his craft for the sake of establishing something else by more or less revolutionary – even violent – means, the type suggested in Monteiro’s final quotation in Nous voici encore seuls. I am certainly not thinking in someone desiring any kind of social reform. I am speaking of those to whom it simply does not matter anymore if the world could be better or worse, more like this or more like that – those to whom the world is entirely dead.
Malick created his own image for this alienated state of being: the world is like a “faraway planet” (Holly’s words). This doesn’t deserve the expense of much philosophy. I can’t help remembering one of Monteiro’s blasphemous jokes, the words of his madman friend who thought himself as Christ after the Ascension: “When I rose to the heavens, I told every mortal: fuck each other now, because you won’t be fucking me anymore.”

It is wrong – even dangerous, i.e., capable of inspiring all kind of ideological opportunisms – to enter Malick’s labyrinth of allusions without this notion made clear: his experiment is not the (self-proclaimed) logic conclusion of some philosophy, some nihilistic conception of life. It will not become obvious why Malick did what he did by reading all Bataille or seeing Hitchcock’s films 50 times, although both things are highly recommended in order to do so. What is at stake is the appropriation from an absolute maniac of whatever he finds to feed the fire of his own Apocalypse.
You should read with care those interviews given by Malick to Sight and Sound and Positif. He really must have fun playing with words. Take this bit:

“He [Kit] thinks of himself as a successor to James Dean – a Rebel without a Cause – when in reality he’s more like an Eisenhower conservative. ‘Consider the minority opinion’, he says into the rich man’s tape recorder, 'but try to get along with the majority opinion once it's accepted.' He doesn’t really believe any of this, but he envies the people who do, who can. He wants to be like them, like the rich man he locks in the closet, the only man he doesn’t kill, the only man he sympathizes with, and the one least in need of sympathy. It’s not infrequently the people at the bottom who most vigorously defend the very rules that put and keep them there.”

More like an “Eisenhower conservative” exactly because he is indifferent to the world except as source of fun through his films, as Good that makes Evil possible, his “great evil” possible, as the very rules that put and keep him there, which make him special, before his eyes, first of all. He can’t make his a civilized game, like the rich man’s (Hitchcock). Why he sympathizes with Mr. Scarborough we can imagine, but they are on different sides of the thin red line, the line between “sanity” and “madness” (that’s its meaning in Jones and that’s its meaning in Malick, along with the idea of line of no return, the line separating him from The New World), which, somehow, Vertigo’s bells establish.

It is like if Malick’s river was the maniac version of several streams of the history of art from the Renaissance on, like he would like to drag the entire Western culture to his vertiginous pit of eternal damnation. Fortunately, that is not possible. Holly will end marrying somebody else and there will be (there is, I can tell you) plenty of poetry after The Tree of Life. But Malick certainly made the best possible attempt he could. The chimneys are a symbol of his “final solution”. For Malick this is really the end of the river. I have told you once that you should keep your ears alert during his films. Tell me, what you hear in this exact moment (final shots of the factory)?

Can’t you guess? What is that Buddha burning in The Thin Red Line? Some spiritual-philosophical comment? One of the main confrontations in this film opposes Gordon Tall to Staros. (If you have read this blog carefully, you should be ashamed not to identify Staros. I will tell you later, but my hints are: he’s a synthesis of two characters played by the same actor in films of the same “father”; we have talked about his father around here more than once; the actor in question plays a Greek in one film and someone dies in his arms by the end of the movie; he is a lawyer and an army officer in the other film; most of his characteristics come from this last.) Staros is the good guy. And what about Tall?

“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the trees, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”

That Malick’s Nature is cruel we know, but if I told you that this was an allusion too?

“Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that’s who he really took his orders from anyway.” (Apocalypse Now)

Remember Tall saying to a soldier “Get that blouse on, soldier. It’s not a goddamn bathing beach” ? Just another joke: it was not surfing time. Have you understood what the noise of O’brien’s ventilation fan is? It is “the end.” Welsh tells Witt:

“You’re running into a burning house, where nobody can be saved.”

That house is The Tree of Life. Apocalypse now. Final solution. The end.
This to say that Fire, the god of the volcano, is who Malick really takes his orders from anyway.


I have mentioned le divin marquis one or two times around here, haven’t I? Barthes’ considerations about his work can give you an idea of what Malick’s Nature does with – let’s use this word to simplify – style. It is well known, but the best is to quote:

“Sade makes extensive use of what might be called metonymic violence: he juxtaposes in the same syntagm heterogeneous fragments belonging to spheres of language normally kept apart through socio-moral taboo. Thus the Church, "fine" style, and pornography: "Yes, yes, Monseigneur," La Lacroix says to the aged Archbishop of Lyons, he of the fortifying chocolate, "and Your Eminence can plainly see that by exposing to him only the part he desires. I am offering for his libertine homage the prettiest virgin ass hole to be kissed that there is." What are here being overtuned are obiviously, in a very classical way, the social fetishes, kings, ministers, eccleastics, etc, but so too the language, the tradtional classes of writing: criminal contamination touches every style of the discourse: narrative, lyrical, moral, maxim, mythological topos. We begin to recognize that the transgressions of language possess an offensive power as strong as the moral transgressions, and that the poetry which is itself the language of the transgressions of language, is thereby always contestatory.” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola)

Malick works on a different scale of Good and Evil. His artistic “crimes” are much more complicate – transgressions of language become also moral because of the “Vertigo Project” – than the Marquis’, but Barthes’ formulation might still help you to understand his work. Through Grace, from Badlands to The Tree of Life there are continuities but there are also many differences, aren’t there? Not rarely those who praise Badlands dislike – or like less – what Malick did afterwards, especially from The Thin Red Line on and vice-versa. That’s why “every style of the discourse” is in bold. O’Brien said something funny to Jack in the draft script: “Every time I see a young guy walk by with a shirt and tie, looking sharp, that’s my kid I’m looking at.” Don’t be so proud to think that there is really a difference between those looking sharp and the others. There are baits for almost every kind. It is difficult to find someone who dislikes all Malick’s films, isn’t it? Happy few.
Malick’s tree of crime is a kind of rapping rage of everything that those living in that “faraway planet” care for, build their identity on, searche the sense of their lifes in. As savadge as he can imagine it: he did “pour son plaisir et selon sa volonté tout le mal qu’il pouvait.” (Bataille [int.], Le procès de Gilles de Rais) Everything consumed by fire. Even everything that in our minds is far from being associated with the world of “Good”. That final fusion of  Riefenstahl and Bataille – “I give him to you” – shows you just the kind of joker he is. His poetry is not “contestatory”. It is apocalyptical.

I took a while to understand what that feather was. Smith decides to leave after this scene, it had to signify something. It became clear what the feather was when I realized that Malick was on his way to “life’s golden tree” and that he was playing with Murnau’s girl: Faust’s contract (although Murnau’s film doesn’t follow Goethe’s version most of time). By the way, did you noticed the joke with Flaherty? I am not 100% sure, but it seems to me that when he leaves Reri he ends meeting Nanook... Those were definetly not Malick’s Indies.

The truth is that the experiment was only worth if it lead beyond all the “red lines.” A taboo is only a taboo if breaking it condemns who does so to be destroyed. Any doubts about Malick’s mental condition are dissipated by his identification with Kurtz – and his ritual sacrifice.


I hope you understand that underlining Malick’s extreme psychopathy is not to refuse the possibility of any historical-philosophical discussion of his experiment. It is just the way of not loosing dangerously the perspective of things. The moment you get that he is a psychopath, go ahead: Sade, Nietzsche, Bataille (what would he say about such an experiment?), or whatever you want (not necessarily included in Malick’s self-comments, that should be judged, anyway).
I confess that one thing among others interests me: where exacly Malick puts God in this game.

John of God: What attracts me is entering into the vice and diving headlong into it, to the end. Pay to see, as they say in poker. What does one need to pay to see everything?
Omar Rashid: Only God can see everything.
John of God: It’s the fundamental principle of tragedy.
Omar Rashid: He who plays against God is condemned to lose without redemption.
John of God: Nothing ventured, nothing gained…
(Gods Wedding)

This game is about to “pay to see” and it seems to be, to a great extent, a game with God. To go jusqu’au bout, jusqu’au bout of one’s destructive and self-destructive violence. Jusqu’au bout de l’horrer. The horror, the horror.

For one time, I will end with a poetic comment. It is also an homage to Monteiro, who must forgive me to have brought him to this sordid discussion in order to illuminate the aberrant fantasies of Terrence Malick.

“It is over, Diotima! our men plundered, murdered, indiscriminately, even our brothers were killed, the innocent Greek in Misitra, or they wander helplessly about, their deathly faces calling Heaven and Earth to wreak vengeance against the Barbarians, whose leader I was.
Now indeed I can go forth and preach my good cause. Oh now indeed all hearts will fly to me!
How cleverly I went about it. How well I knew my men.
Yes! it was indeed a remarkable undertaking, to establish my Elysium with a pack of thieves!

No! by sacred Nemesis! I have got what I deserved, and I will bear it too, bear it until the pain destroys my last consciousness.
Do you think I am raving? I have an honorable wound, which one of my faithful followers gave me while I was trying to avert the horror. If I were raving, I would tear off the bandage from it, and then my blood would run where it should – into this sorrowing soil.
This sorrowing soil! whose nakedness I sought to clothe with sacred groves! this sacred soil which I sought to adorn with all the flowers of Greek life!
Oh, it would have been beautiful, my Diotima!

Do you tell me I have lost my faith! Dear girl! the evil is too great. Bands of madmen are bursting in every side; rapacity rages like the plague in Morea, and he who does not also take the sword is hunted down and slain, and the maniacs say they are fighting for our freedom.
Others of these wild men are paid by the Sultan and do the same things.

I have just heard that our dishonored army is now scattered. The cowards encountered a troop of Albanians near Tripolossa, only half as many as themselves. But since there was nothing to plunder, the wretches all ran away. Only the Russians who risked this campaign with us, forty brave men, put up a resistance, and they all found death.
So now I am alone with my Alabanda, as before. Ever since he saw me fall and bleed in Misitra, that true-hearted friend has forgot everything else – his hopes, his longing for victory, his despair. He who is in fury came down upon the plunderers like an avenging god, he led me out of the fight so gently, and his tears wet my clothes. He stayed with me, too, in the hut where I have lain since then, and only now am I glad that he did so. For had he gone on, he would now be lying in the dust before Tripolissa.
What is to follow I know not. Fate casts me back adrift in uncertainty, and I have deserved it; my own feeling of shame banishes me from you, and who knows for how long?
Ah! I promised you a new Greece, and instead you receive only an elegy. Be your own consolation.”
(Hyperion oder Der Eremit in Griechenland)