And what about Brahms? Well, ¡qué viva México!

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]
Found a little time to post you something simple but curious. I wrote in my review that Malick was an “American Godard”. To avoid the idea that I used the expression gratuitously, this post explains briefly to what extent he is such a thing. I will take the opportunity to leave some suggestions and to comment an image too.

I have not read everything “serious” written about Malick. I did a great deal of it, though. One thing that seems to be missing is a serious analysis of his writing process, one which thinks its consequences to the film viewing experience, compares Malick with other authors and determines his influences on this point. I am talking about something also valid for the “way of grace”. At least from The Thin Red Line on, most of his characters words reveal themselves a huge patchwork of quotations, paraphrases and allusions. I would suggest that the same thing happens with the images (sounds, music), that this is not occasional with them, but structural too. But you do not need to agree with me on that to verify the undeniable truth of the first affirmation. Just have a good look at a transcription of his films’ subtitles or at his scripts.
If you are a young man or a young lady versed in literature and/or film interested in writing something about our dear friend this is a good theme for you. Interesting through grace, even more through nature. Not that Malick’s process is rare. For a long time now it isn’t. Even so I think it would be a nice academic exercise to compare Malick on this with a “classic” author, a reference like Godard, about whom everything has been studied. The output could be a study like this (in French).

Trying to guess what that “beep” heard in Penn’s elevator evokes… And if it was Alphaville? A nice little joke: “The usual method was to seat them in a theater I saw... and electrocute them as they watched the show. The bodies were then tipped into huge rubbish bins... and the theater was ready for the next batch.” Malick’s cinema is a bit like that machine in Godard’s film, saying “insert a coin” just to give you a card with “thank you”. Those are Kit’s final words in his private studio. If the beep is really an allusion to Alphaville (might be to 2001, the arrival to the moon; or to both films) it is indeed ironic, as Malick’s is a kind of Wackoville. Maybe what is implied is the escape from “reality”/the world/Alphaville – “This dump of yours isn’t Alphaville, it’s Zeroville” – to his dream world.
Godard’s films are heavily built on allusions, quotations and appropriations of all kinds. From cinema, painting, literature, etc. This is, of course, more than personal. Although used to the limit of creativity and meaningfulness in Godard, it is a generational mark. In questions like this, as its most distinguished element, Godard can be taken for a symbol of the Nouvelle Vague. Antoine Doinel being accused of plagiary in Les 400 coups is a lovely satire of the critiques aimed at its directors.
But let’s stop at Godard. The cinema of Terrence Malick seems to me impossible without his, independently of how many allusions there might be to the first in the last. When you arrive to the way of nature, this is evident from the beginning. Even through grace you can feel it in Badlands (you tend to forget it afterwards): Godard is one of Malick’s fathers. This is not to suggest that these directors have similar ends, that they share an understanding of their art, that they use the same artistic processes always with equal intentions. The differences are evident and profound. But these creators were probably those who, each one his own way, took the art of playing to the films to the limit. It is the playful and frenetic way in which they use their immense knowledge and love for the cinema (I am thinking most of all in Godard’s first years) to build their stories, their films, their films about film, that unites them and promises a fruitful comparison.

Another, more specific task, seems worthful: to compare seriously Badlands and Pierrot le fou. I only know superficial comments on the subject, but maybe the problem is my ignorance. If it is not, that’s strange. Godard’s film is so palpable in those car conversations between Holly and Kit, in the tree house… Even Kit addressing us at the dictaphone sounds like a Godardian moment. Through grace this might inspire very interesting thoughts. Even more through nature. That he wanted to indicate one of his fathers we understand, but what of Pierrot Malick’s lovely allusion in Holly’s home (her face rhyming with the painting, see my review) convokes? Well, I suppose the escape from “la civilisation du cul”, “le jusqu’au boutisme”, the double man, “nous sommes faits de rêves et les rêves sont faits de nous”, suicide, the marvelous fluidity of Godard’s cinematic game, the characters speaking directly to the spectators…

I have already called to your attention that what we see in those shots of the child’s bedroom are the cinematic toys constituting the Malickian heterotopia. Not all, but a select number of them functioning as a symbol of his home, whose image is the most expressive element of the room. These toys are, as since Badlands, codified. Identifying them is not easy and mistakes happen in the process. But, I ask myself, is it important to identify all these minor allusions? You could say that my fixation on details is distracting me and my readers from the “big picture”, from the essential elements of the experiment I am writing about. That this first effort to describe and understand the way of nature should avoid to stop itself at things like the central position in that room occupied by a book called MEXICO (just at the left of the drum). I would agree with you if I did not know that… the devil is in the details. Many times, it is in things like this book that I find important clues to understand Malick’s experiment, to reinforce or revise my ideas about it.
I had already advanced some possibilities about this particular book. It could be an allusion to the mythical land where to the outlaws (of the American cinema) escape, having remarked that Kit mentions Mexico. But it could also allude to Buñuel, so central in Malick’s Waco. As I have told you, I am studying The Thin Red Line with care. The more I study this chapter of Malick’s work the more have I been able to understand the “heart of Nature”, the core of Malick’s game. It was in this film that I found out that MEXICO is just the name of that room, that’s why its position is so central. Yes, MEXICO is an allusion to the cinema itself. And not only this. It is also an allusion to the particular relation assumed by Malick with Holly. Last, to Godard and the centrality of his importance to him. Hard thing to believe, right?

One of Malick’s most humorous and elucidative allusions is found among Bell’s visions of his wife, Holly/Mrs. Cinema. I am speaking of the bathtub shot. Very simple: she’s bathing and we (just) see, from above (the viewpoint is important), Bell’s/Malick’s hand caressing her. Can you guess what that is?
Bathtub scenes are a classic. Thousand must have been filmed. We can find everything from the spicy humor of Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch to the unsurpassable sophistication of Mizoguchi’s Yokihi. As for Godard, he loved bathtub scenes. We find several in his films. But one is definitely more famous. It is found in a film, Le bain de la femme du monde, inside a film, Les Carabiniers. Michel-Ange goes to see his first movie. Just imagine what the name of the movie theater is: LE MEXICO.
Mexico turns into...


What happens with the poor carabineer is that he obviously mistakes the moving pictures for the “real things” they represent. That’s what happens when the allusions to the Lumière are projected and even more so with the blonde taking a bath (Le bain). We see a typical “love by sight of image”. Michel-Ange gets agitated, moves back and forth. He is unable to understand the illusory nature of the space projected in front of him and tries to see the woman when she walks out of the frame. When she enters the tub, he gets to the screen, caresses her, jumps attempting to look down at her. But, as it must, he fails and ends tearing down the screen. (If you don’t know or remember it well, here is a link.)

Mrs. Bell in the tub is a joke with a joke (although a very serious one) by Godard: Malick seems to suggest that the poor carabineer should have been informed that if he wanted to join the girl he should have searched for the door of evil.
This scene could bring Sherlock, Jr. to the discussion, but I do not have time for that. I say goodbye for now.


The Tree of Life calls the image to its cursed night or sick sun, the reign of idolatry in which it drives to nothing else than the void, the pure and necrophiliac fetishism of Rebecca’s nightgown. And, I am afraid J.L.G., there is no Bretchian distancing able to give a cold shower to Malick.