2 ou 3 choses que je sais de Malick

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

Today I will offer you something a bit crazy. I found it waiting in my computer and, with some adaptations, it quickly became ready to be posted. Now you have something better to read while I am not here than the post about Linda.
I am going to interview myself about Terry’s work. This is not intended to be a freaky narcissist exercise. It is a way of explaining myself to you, like a “frequently asked questions’ page”. Enjoy.


What’s the basic idea of this blog?
It is an explanation of Malick’s work from itself, a sketch of his artistic project. From a review of The Tree of Life spring many posts of different size and importance that try to bring light over the subject. The review was severely rewritten, altered and corrected for some months. Malick’s world is complex and I am trying to understand it from zero, what is both compelling and difficult. I made several mistakes. From time to time I make a general revision of my ideas. Everything is progressively more coherent, I can say. But my aim is not to produce a synthesis. As an idea comes to my mind I try to develop it into a post. The blog can go on indefinitely or end at any time. For now, I have still a lot to say.

You have a very particular understanding of Malick’s work. How did you develop it?
I went to see his film a bit by chance and I developed great curiosity for it. All that I could read about The Tree was pretty bad, simplistic, tendentious. I started to write something like a description of the film, a map of its themes, quotations, formal rhymes. The Tree of Life was evidently stuffed with different materials and I wanted to identify the most of them so I could have the spiral’s big picture. Not that I feel that it is important to do such a thing with every work or artist, but The Tree was so polished, so intentional in its movements… When I was thinking about the bridge I first made a visit to Heidegger, a cliché with Malick. To say the truth, I don’t remember if it was Heidegger who reminded me of Hölderlin’s poem. The film had an icon of Romanticism, the waterfall, an image of the “sublime”. Probably both things brought Heidelberg to my mind. What I can honestly say is that then every coincidence seemed just that. And so I skipped it. Because of the “eternal feminine” subject – clear as water – I felt it was a good idea to have a look into Faust. Goethe’s work was the responsible for the first unpleasant associations produced in my mind about The Tree. But these associations were yet totally strange to the director’s intentions. And one day I was watching the film one more time and there was a “click”. Everything suddenly found another order of meaning: “Long have I loved you and for my own delight would call you mother”. It wasn’t exactly a shock, like Chastain’s. I just found myself saying: OK,Malick, very funny… He wanted to create an object that dissolutes if you get too close, if you close the door 50 times. A naughty boy’s experiment.

Your personal tastes and philosophic affinities made it easier to understand the “joke”?
Sometimes they made it more difficult. I don’t have much in common with Malick. Take Badlands. I like Nicholas Ray but all the James Dean stuff is pretty strange to me. Like I said, Kazan is not in my favorites’ list. And so my confusion with Sargis. It should have been so much easier to understand. I took months to recognize those allusions to Kazan. First, he seemed Godard. At one point I asked myself if he wouldn’t be Griffith as he is somehow the father of the cinema… He was just poor James Dean/Kazan. By the way, if you want to know, I think that most of Giant is horrendous. Kubrick, so important to Malick, is not one of my favorite directors. As for Goethe, Bataille, Foucault, Bachelard and all that jazz, we are talking of authors known by everybody, like them or not. One more thing: I am not a pyromaniac; I am a “pieromaniac”, i.e., someone crazy about Piero della Francesca. Ironically, this is all a question of being truly open to understand the other.

Before continuing: you said that Malick’s work had something of Susana. This sounds strange.
Probably there are many examples of this kind. A magnificent but simple film, nothing like The Tree of Life, Susana is a typical Buñuelian narrative: a certain social set is destabilized by a new presence; in the end, this strange element is expelled or absorbed and everything goes on as before. It is extremely violent, one of Buñuel’s most corrosive films. Just think in that final sunrise… And yet, at the time, it was taken by a great deal of people exactly as the contrary of what it was. It were precisely some of those at the director’s sight that saw in his film a defense of the good family virtues, the story of a bad girl who gets what she deserves. The director’s irony was so extreme that it passed unnoticed by the more angelic audience. They just couldn’t conceive it. With Malick you have to swallow your pride and recognize yourself in a situation that maybe you felt that belonged to “stupid” people.

It’s difficult to accept such a dark view of Malick’s life and work without a precise explanation for it.
Well, sometimes I think that this is like one of those films built on a huge ellipsis. Like Cato’s Johnny Guitar. Why Malick “died”? Does he knows or suspects why? How does one become a monster, accepts to be one?

A monster?
There is no other word to describe someone who keeps something like this for 40 years knowing that he is going to destroy everyone who made his films possible, everyone who liked him, lived with him, a part of his fans. Of course, the position of Malick’s victims is variable. Some will be just scratched, some will be deadly wounded. But let me continue. I can understand the curiosity, but we have to accept Malick’s silences. Although I first believed the contrary, in his films there is nothing about this. He just left a few words about his youth in those interviews: “And there’s something about growing up in the Midwest. There’s no check on you. People imagine it’s the kind of place where your behavior is under constant observation, where you really have to toe the line. They got that idea from Sinclair Lewis. But people can really get ignored there and fall into bad soil. Kit did, and he grew up like a big poisonous weed.” How did he fall into “bad soil”? You certainly aren’t going to blame the Midwest… Midwest, ego te absolvo.

Sometimes you seem to suggest that we can blame the cinema, Holly...
Put the blame on Mame, boys? Let’s see. Malick tells you plenty about the period between his “death” and his “rebirth”. That’s one of his favorite themes, the “shame” period. There is no necessary truth in what he says, he is building a narrative about himself, but he suggests that his existence had become a prison, “the cosmos become a cave,” he writes in the script. Among others, one film is persistently associated with this period, L’eclisse. Life without the sun, you see.
Malick did not become a filmmaker to philosophize, everything but that. But one thing you can take for granted in his world, the “death of reality.” “Organized unreality,” he calls it in the script. A traditional enquire into this would lead certainly to the discussion of the theme of the “death of God”. The majority of people sharing that position try to accept a condition which is irremediably broken, fragmentary. Malick does not. He wanted a “new creation”. He aspired for that lost unity. And, I believe, the call of fire was the answer.

That he found in Hitchcock’s cinema?
We’ll get to that. First, he was someone who said to himself: this is what I want; it is here that I am at home, in the movie theater. “All else is unreal.” Life is only worth living while watching a film. To Malick, saying goodbye to “shame”, to accept the power of images and of the imagination, is to forget the other. What can you say of such a thing? He describes in the script the condition of which he was ashamed: “Each a shadow to the other, each with his own eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, absorbed in his private world. Spectators in a movie theater.” And then there was the “revelation”. Let’s lend it a biblical tone: And he saw the glory of Holly and she said to him: “follow me.” What was a source of existential shame could became a source of infinite joy, everything turned into a play, an eternal childhood, life’s golden tree. He inverted everything. If the cosmos had become a cave, a cave – the movie theater – became the cosmos. Reality, his lost home, was sent to the garbage can and cinema became his new home. The shame became the glory. The creature the creator. Good was refused for evil. LR, Larry Raymond, truth and kindness towards the other, was substituted by RL, the River of Life, Lilith, etc. Jack became O’Brien.

The spectator became the director…
He is not of the passive kind. He took possession of what he loved. His destruction has something of a romantic act of love. Like Mrs. Danvers, burning Manderley so that nobody else would have it. He will not just stare at the films and secretly confess to their inhabitants I love you before being condemned to go back to the real world. Put it this way: what is unacceptable for him is that when Death in Venice ends and the lights are turned on he is still alive. In one unfortunate day for humanity he had an idea about Vertigo. He saw the thin red line where nobody had. And if… From that moment he could forget it or he could try to do it. The allure of evil is great and proportional to the punishment. That’s its erotic power. But, like I tried to explain, only a psychopath would choose the second option. The violence of crossing the door is immense, both towards the other and himself. There is no way of going back, it is really a suicide. Pardon my French, but Malick was someone who just said: I’m going nowhere like this; fuck it, let’s burn everything. Cinema is his way of separating himself from the rest, of finding himself, of becoming who he is. To find home. In the heart of evil.

Will Malick change? Is that possible?
I don’t think so. This is a Pepping Tom situation: he is going to play this game to the end.

You keep stressing that all his work is a game.
Never too much. “Dies alles ist ein Spiel.” Everything that really matters about Malick is in the relation he establishes between image/cinema, game/gambling, fire and evil. Jack, Malick’s spectator, brings to my mind two verses of Silesius: “All this is a play that the Godhead gives itself / It has conceived the creature for its own sake.” He was in Malick’s hands all the time and he certainly had a good time with him.

But is it a game or a play?
Well, like a game, it has a goal, RL, but it has the freedom and the joy of a play. I think that I will have oportunity to write more about this in the future.

Back to the cinema itself. Is there something in it inclining us towards… evil?
There is something in our relation with images that is indeed frightening, as Freedberg described so well. When by some chance you become aware of that, when you open the drawer and get the nightgown out, when the sun gets through it – “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” – you might just panic. Malick is right on that point. You might become ashamed or an iconoclast. Or you can try to deal in acceptable terms with the power of the images. Or you can dive headlong into it. To the end, like Welles’ sharks.
There is nothing that absolves or condemns cinema in this trial. Cinema can be but not necessarily is something at the service of narcissism, alienation and demented manipulation. So, Hollywood will get off “with probation” even if with “a lot of nasty looks”. In Badlands, she says: “Later, I married the son of the lawyer who defended me.” Malick knows and keeps saying with pride that he is an aberration. Holly will end in a nice bourgeois marriage, don’t worry.

On the other hand, you can say that films, like other artistic expressions, are saturated with evil. Bataille saw literature, the one that matters, like the embracing of evil. There is that extraordinary moment in The Birds in which a woman turns to Melanie, turns directly to the camera, to us, and screams: “I think youre evil. Evil!” She is both accusing Melanie, Hitchcock (the camera) and us. We wouldn’t be so interested in the film if there wasn’t something evil going around. We develop a variable degree of participation in it. Malick certainly shares this point of view. The question is that Bataille’s evil is relative. As he believed in no absolute, good and evil could only be relative. You see, the moment that Malick saw his thin red line in Vertigo the literary experiments described by Bataille became, somehow, good. Or less evil… There was a new world for him to explore, a new-self, if he just had the will to transgress this new barrier. The point is that for Malick the true alienation is the care for the other. He sees it as a kind of preconception.

Is Bataille that important to understand Malick?
He is convoked by the director himself by allusions working as self-comments. It is a way of saying what this supposes to be for him, what is the nature of his “inner experiences”. Of course, like I said, The Tree of Life is no illustration of someone else’s thought. The reference to Bataille has something of ironic too. This is a very personal experiment. All Malick’s allusions only find a plausible meaning as a network. This said, yes, Bataille is important. I tend to understand Malick’s references to Apocalypse Now in that light. In Bataillean terms, horror and ecstasy are one in the sovereign moment. Now that I think of it, with Duel in Sun, Coppola’s film is probably the most intense, even disturbing exploration of sunlight that I have seen in a film. It’s really a sick sun, its dying beauty invading, melting everything. You know, some people joked about Malick’s insistence in filming the sun, saying it was the main character of the film. They weren’t far from the truth.

Let’s change the subject. How did Monteiro get into this discussion?

There are three or four of his films that I have seen some 20 times. It is a universe that I know very well. At a point I realized that much of what Malick did was so evident to me because of my long acquaintance with his work. I was used to confront a filmmaker addressing me directly about his films in a very unorthodox way, speaking about the possibility of tasting the “final glorious ice” and that sort of idiosyncratic conversation. Although the nature of the speech is totally different, it is just like Kit at the “train station.” He is the main character of the Trilogy of John of God and he even plays with characters from the history of the cinema, assuming the skin of Murnau’s vampire, for example. Mentioning Monteiro was a way of explaining to my readers why what was probably strange for them in that that I wrote about the nature of Malick’s self-referentiality was so natural to me. The fact that Malick didn’t play Kit’s role is really not important. The author can even be present but not self-portrayed. Cindy Sherman’s works are not self-portraits. It is not that simple.

Also Monteiro alluded to The Birds. But if Malick identifies the force of his work with them, Monteiro associates the birds of Hitchcock with society, with the brainless destructive mob. In God's Comedy, when John of God gets out of the hospital he find his home and treasures destroyed. The whole thing is now occupied by pigeons and the walls are covered with insults and allusions. You see the M for Monteiro, the vampire of Lisbon, the swastika and some private jokes (there is an allusion to a former friend and more). 

It is between the ciné-fils like Monteiro that you put Malick.
Yes, never Daney’s (Monteiro’s friend) expression found a more literal meaning than in The Tree of Life. Malick is a son of the cinema – and a son of a few more things, if you ask me. He eats, drinks and breaths “Mother”. Un drogué du cinéma. And you could say that there can’t be a more self-conscious artist.

He is totally aware of what he is making. Of the power of his art, of the nature of his love for cinema, of his influences, his style, the kind of interpretations his films stimulate and, most of all, of the monstrosity of his work. He knows that this game ends in the “electric chair” and that only the “murderers” would like him. The Tree of Life is the fulfillment of his own destiny, the destiny he chose for him when he finished Badlands in 1973. He said it then: “My girl Holly and I have decided to kill ourselves.” To my knowledge there is nothing like that speech in the entire history of art. The whole thing is from someone totally “from the wrong side of the [mental] tracks.” Totally fucking crazy is the only possible diagnostic.

Every work of art is made of other works of art. You suggest that Malick dramatizes this, what isn’t exactly new. Isn’t this one of the ways in which he is a self-conscious artist?
Of course. Barthes said that “text is a tissue of quotations”. Some people are aware of this and others aren’t. But even between the first, rarely they choose the tissue’s fibers one by one, with absolute intentionality. You must have very particular reasons to do that. And as I mention Barthes, Malick’s work seems at times, to some extent, a rather funny parody of the “death of the author”. Falling into the way of nature, being expelled from paradise, is to understand that in these films there is really a god imposing a meaning, that you cannot kill this author. That he really appropriates himself of these materials. There is certainly a range of interpretations still possible in the “way of nature” but once you have noticed it there is no way back to the “way of grace”. Staros is a funny example.

You have promised to tell who Staros was.
I did. Actually, many people already know – without knowing – who he is, I have checked in the internet. He is Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas, of course. Through the way of grace we might say that Staros’ confrontation with Tall is reminiscent of Paths of Glory. We might say that Malick wanted this to be easily noticeable (see the way he filmed the “how many lives” conversation between Tall and Staros) so that we could also understand the differences between the two characters, between the two situations. Because, apparently, it is all much more ambiguous in Malick. We would say that he is a self-aware artist purposely making one of his sources transparent so that Staros and Tall’s relation with Paths of Glory would work as a source of meaning for his film. Just like what he did with Solari’s seaweeds after Chastain floating, saying: this is really from Tarkovsky, think about it. The problem is that through the “way of nature” you notice that Staros is a lawyer. Like Paths of Glory’s character. And, most of all, that he is Greek: “You’re Greek, aren’t you, Captain?”, says Tall. Kirk Douglas interpreted Spartacus – a Thracian, a “Greek” – in Kubrick’s next film. That film in which Crassus orders Spartacus/Kirk Douglas and Antoninus to duel to the death. As you know, Spartacus deadly wounds Antoninus and he expires in his arms: “Have you ever had anyone die in your arms, sir?”, asks the moved Staros/Spartacus to Tall. Elias Koteas was chosen to play Dax/Spartacus in the middle of Malick’s war. In the script Malick went to the point of putting Witt studying “the ants crawling on the ground.” A reference to Kubrick’s Ant Hill.
This is Terry having fun. He picked one of his preferred soldiers, Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas, and took him to his maniac war to confront the man’s care for his brother in arms. The character has a good heart and refuses to obey to the suicidal attack ordered by Malick. And so he gives him a lesson: “Now, I know you’re a goddamn lawyer! This is not a court of law. This is a war. It’s a goddamn battle!” A way of saying to him: I am not like your father, I’m a maniac, my films are not a “court of law”; this is Apocalypse now; if you are not tough enough, go home. A boy playing with his toys. My comment? Like Kit would say, “Good a way to kill time as any.”

The Thin Red Line was the film responsible for establishing Malick as the filmmaker of Nature. Any comment?
I think that Nature most be as interesting to Malick as the Round Table chevaliers to that boy in Splendor in the Grass. Adapting his comment: Well, it is very green and nice and things like that. Malick is really poisonous, a very, very dangerous crocodile. It was the film that generated the greatest confusions about his work and the film that definitely divided the waters, lovers and haters, because of such things as his supposed… Emersonism!!! This discussion will stay for later, but I can’t resist telling you that he actually paraphrases Emerson on Plato in the script of The Tree: “The supreme misery: to be cheated of the sight of essence”. A bait, like the sermon, took from Kierkegaard.

You have written a post dealing with literary devices.
Yes. Malick will be widely discussed in that field. His work is a paradise for scholars dealing with narratology – his Annunciation goes to the point of narrating the future of his own work – and reflexivity. That’s something that Cervantes made a central, and often obsessive, theme of the very works of art. Robert Stam could end in Malick his Reflexivity in Film and Culture: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, he could write an entire book about him. You can say that Malick took what has been called Quixote’s “ontological vertigo” to the limit. Fictional characters made of fictional characters meeting characters who represent the creator of the fiction going on in the skin of some fictional character which at one point – in the confrontation of Sargis and Kit – is exactly the one he is facing; personifications of fiction, Malick’s Hollys; the spectator turned into a character. His spiral tries to blur everything. The aim is that “fiction” will vampirize “reality”.
To conclude, you will naturally enter in the field of literature – and of the other visual arts – because Malick does things that are very rare in films but not in books. Like the use of personifications. If someone told me that there was a new film using personifications I would not be encouraged to see it. It sounds like a rather corny thing. If you think in famous films, probably just Bergman’s personification of Death will come to your mind.

You mentioned Don Quixote. Has Malick something of one?
Quixote became cuckoo because he read too many romances of chivalry and Malick because he saw too many Hollywood films? I think the comparison is poor.

You keep saying that his work is also a kind of diary of his voyage through the land of dreams.
His poetics of the voyage is very curious. Memory – and fetishism, but let’s forget that for now – plays an important role here. Malick reminds me of the Portuguese painter Joaquim Rodrigo. He made a series of works dedicated to car travels in which he accumulated memories in the form of very simple signs. Narratives, but fragmentary, built with minimum organization.

Madrid - Vallauris, 1969

With Malick, something like this might be the starting point: Lilith’s ice, Lang’s clown, Madeleine’s necklace, Sternberg’s swing, Rebecca’s nightgown, Godard’s early editing style, the can of Viridiana, the sprinkler of L’eclisse, the helicopters of Apocalypse Now. But the “new creation” is about to make all this inseparable from his life in a kind of indissoluble unity that can only be granted by the fire of madness. In the end, his home is like an extremely odd but coherent eclectic building where Shirley Temple meets Norman Bates.

Tell me, what does property has to do with this?
“The whole fucking thing’s about property.” To be understood as the whole fucking thing’s about appropriation. Malick made the world of movies his. He made Holly tell the story of his life. He transformed cinema in his home. His allusionist spiral absorbes, vampirizes everything. His fire spreads through the entire house. His aim found an outstanding image in Badlands’ poster. I suppose you have already understood what it is.

What is it?
It is an allusion to the maximum symbol of Hollywood, Gone with the Wind. We see Kit with his riffle and Holly at his feet. It is his way of saying: I have come to take possession of the whole place. Even if I “have to lie, steal, cheat or kill,” nothing will stop me. Got it? Appropriation is a major theme in art, let’s leave it for now, I will probably dedicate a post to it.


Much has been said. To end, if you had to judge Malick, what would be your sentence?
I condemn you to life, of course. Actually, I think that I would just give him a t-shirt: with Vertigo’s spiral with this written over it: