All Things Burning, All Things Shining

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

My long promised post about the heart of nature. Please read Come out. Come out where I am and Tabu before proceding.

“These practices should be considered above all as a means of opening a door.” (Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros) 

Malick abandoned Qasida in 1979 and presented the first draft script for The Thin Red Line in 1989. So, 10 years. But during that time he seems to have worked a lot, and not only to support himself writing scripts for other people. He kept imagining films, working on ideas. The architect at the rich man’s door continued imagining his home:

“Worked my ass off. Brown-nosed the generals. Degraded myself. For them and my family. For my home.” (Tall)

Strange, strange thing, he wrote a play, Sansho the Bailiff. It was to be directed by Andrzej Wajda. The whole thing was aborted and seems to have been a horrible experience, as the making of The Thin Red Line, both to Malick and his producers, Geisler and Roberdeau. For what I have read, they are the people in the world with the worst idea about him – after me.
Sansho the Bailiff  on stage? Tell me: wasn’t this theatrical project something of a cheating on Holly? Wasn’t this a kind of extra-matrimonial affair? When you think about Bell’s conversation with Fife…

Fife: I read in your file that you were an officer before the war. How’d you end up a private?
Bell: Cos of my wife. I was in the corps of engineers. We’d never been separated before, not even for a night. I took it for four months and then I quit. Just resigned. They sent me back to the States. They told me I’d never get another commission. They said they’d see to it I got drafted and that I for damn sure’d be in the infantry.
Fife: Sons of bitches.
Bell: No, I don’t blame them.”

…you wonder if he wasn’t talking about this: cinema/architecture vs. theater/engeneering? Well, I suppose he wasn’t, as it comes in the novel, right? It must have been kept there for another reason. Or was it really that Malick found out a ready made joke in this dialogue and decided to include it? Right now, I am not in position to say.

The making of Malick’s films from Badlands to The Thin Red Line was progressively harder. In his debut his ideas were clear. The concept and the story were simple. Improvisation was occasional and controlled. He was happy with the actors. Even if he had some serious problems during the shooting, he is said to remember it with great joy. In the end, Malick was apparently very pleased with his “graduation present”.
With Days of Heaven things were harder from the beginning, although the concept is not substantially different from Badlands. Kit regretted not having shot the rich man and so he was back to Hitchcock. He needed more time there. But Malick apparently wanted other actors and had fights with Richard Gere and the producers. He spent much more time in the editing room, trying to compensate what he didn’t like. Furthermore, he made one important change from the draft script, transforming Ursula/Linda from one of Holly’s incarnations into one of his. This was really a great last-minute change. His enthusiasm with the final result is said to have been moderate. Funny, Abby disappeared in a train transporting soldiers to the war…
Writing and making The Thin Red Line was a battle of huge proportions. Just think what is to work on a film for almost 10 years. It was hard, but it was something much more ambitious too. Malick was using another man’s work, a very famous novel, and had to put there his own and very personal project, his Tree of Life, which makes its glorious appearance right in the beginning of the film. Unsatisfied, Malick did not attend the premier. It seems he had to cut the film much more than he wanted. Probably this is why some characters are rather dificult to identify.
This said, let’s have a close look to this third film. All Malick’s aborted projects must have been very interesting – especially The English Speaker and The Moviegoer –, but what really matters are those he made. The same way, to speculate about why he abandoned Qasida when he was getting so famous is of no importance. I really don’t know. But why he crossed the line, I do:

“Poured out like water on the ground. All I might have given for love’s sake. Too late. Died... slow as a tree.” (Tall)

If there was a chance that things could have been different, there was no more. “Too late.” The Thin Red Line was the beginning of the end. Malick’s voice-overs become heavily mystical from the beginning of The Thin Red Line. Never the duality of the “Vertigo project” deserved a more poetic interrogation than Train’s first musings about nature (cinema, Malick’s cinema):
What’s this war in the heart of nature?
Why does nature vie with itself?
The land contend with the sea?
Is there an avenging power in nature?
Not one power, but two?
The crocodile was back after 20 years, but to really hurt now. And, you know, after few minutes of visual poetry, Witt talking about the immortality he hadn’t seen and Murnauesque paradises, one way or another we were in Malick’s hands. Well, we were in Malick’s hands the whole time, weren’t we?

“In this world only play, play as artists and children engage in it, exhibits coming-to-be and passing away, structuring and destroying, without any moral additive, in forever equal innocence. And as children and artists play, so plays the ever-living fire. It constructs and destroys, all in innocence. Such is the game that the aeon plays with itself. Transforming itself into water and earth, it builds towers of sand like a child at the seashore, piles them up and tramples them down.” (Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks) If I was naif, I could suggest that Malick’s game had some afinities – or was even ilustrating – the concept of the Nietzschean/Heraclitus’ aeon. But I am not, and it would be just unforgivable to let you think this was at any level a “philosophical” film or a film about nature, whatever that is.

Permit me to reiterate an unnecessary advice: if you do not or cannot agree with my basic claim about this director (what I call his “Vertigo project”), it will be a waste of time to read this.
To his editors and sound mixers, Malick said: “It’s like moving down a river, and the picture should have the same kind of flow.” My readers, the river gets very fast in this film, so hold on. Although I could, I will not detain myself in identifying characters and allusions to particular films more than the necessary. I will leave it for future posts. This is a film complex like few are and I do not want to distract you from its heart.


The Birth of Venus-Aphrodite

I ask myself if the way of grace is not sometimes able to illuminate nature, even if modestly. I decided to revisit an impression from those long gone days and to think it through the light of Georges Bataille.
After the walk around the neighborhood the camera stops at Pitt’s face. Then we see the bedroom from the dark corridor for a second or two. The open door frames the bed. The room is tidy, the bed is made, the sun enters through the window.
This silent image stroke me. There is a deeply troubling obscenity in its confrontation of death. A death anguishing in the proportion of the absence of the body.
As you know, it is not unusual for Mary to be found suggestively near her bed at the moment of the arrival of the angel, neither to show the mystery of Incarnation as a luminous one. It is precisely to the body, to the flesh, that this image points, powerfully opens the door.
It is not only the confrontation with the origin and the site of origin of the now again absent body, the “back to nothingness” which is troubling. The point is that the bed is shown not used, but to be used. The power of the image is here, its essential obscenity. I ask myself if this is not the birthplace of the sinister eroticism that drives Malick’s work, the beach where his Venus is born, whose foam touches the shore of eternity.

“Indeed, to judge from appearances, eroticism is by all accounts linked to birth, to a reproduction that endlessly repairs the ravage of death.
It is nonetheless true that the animal, the ape, whose sensuality at times becomes exacerbated, knows nothing of eroticism. And this is precisely because it lacks all knowledge of death. To the contrary, it is because we are human and live in the somber perspective of death that we know this exacerbated, this desperate violence of eroticism.” (Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros)

Rebeccas bed, Hitchcocks bed, Malicks parents’s bed. “These counter-spaces, these locally realized utopias, are well recognized by children. Certainly, it’s the bottom of the garden; it’s the  attic; or even better, it’s the Indian tent erected in the middle of the attic; or still, during Thursday afternoons, their parents’ bed. On this large bed we discover the ocean as we can swim between the covers, it is the sky as we can bounce on the springs, its a forest as we hide in it, the night as we become ghosts between the sheets, it is pleasure, or at least until the parents come home and we are to be punished.” (Foucault) Yes, this one will be punished, he even thinks he is going to the electric chair.” And he might be right.

It is in the realm of total erotic violence that Malick’s Aphrodite arises from the sea of his imagination to call him to the door. Remember that the goddess herself was born from extreme violence, as she is the result of Cronus’ castration of his father. From Uranus’ genitals threw to the sea came the liquid which produced her foam (aphro).

Foam… “What is foam? It is the sort of whitish scum that forms on the surface of too agitated, heated or fermented liquids. It is the visible hazardous matter of the ramifications of the depths. It raves at the surface of the sea. It drips or sweats from bodies, from epileptic or furious mouths, wild animals, exhausted horses.” (In the original: “Qu’est-ce que l’écume? C’est l’espèce de mousse blanchâtre qui se forme à la surface des liquids trop agités, réchauffés ou en fermentation. C’est la matière visible, hasardeuse, des ramous des profondeurs. Elle extravague aux surfaces de la mer. Elle transpire ou dégoutte des corps, des bouches épileptiques ou furieuses, des animaux sauvages, des chevaux exténués.” (Georges Didi-Huberman, “La couleur d’écume, ou le paradoxe d’Apelle”, in L’image ouverte, Paris, Gallimard, 2007 [article published in 1986])

“In practice the scrutinized [fixé] sun can be identified with a mental ejaculation, foam on the lips, and an epileptic crisis.” (Georges Bataille, Rotten Sun) What’s waiting you is not pretty, I can tell you: “In the same way that the preceding sun (the one not looked at [the way of grace’s sun]) is perfectly beautiful, the one that is scrutinized can be considered horribly ugly.” (Georges Bataille, Rotten Sun) But if you are willing to: “Regarde donc de tous tes yeux, regarde!” (Jules Verne, Michel Strogoff)
I take this occasion to revisit one of Malick’s most violent verbal images, Linda’s snakehouse:

The devil just sittin’ there laughing. He’s glad when people does bad. Then he sends them to the snakehouse. He just sits there and laughs and watch while you’re sitting there all tied up and snakes are eating your eyes up. The snakes go down your throat and eat all your systems up. I think the devil was on the farm.”

An article by Carole Zucker already had noted the equivalence between the assault of snakes and the assault of the moving images not only on Linda but on us too ("God Don’t Even Hear You, " or Paradise Lost: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven”, Literature Film Quarterly, 2001, 29). In that previous post I presented it as a description of the “Vertigo project’s” effect on us. I think this is very much intended, although it does not exclude – it is even complemented by – another possibility of meaning that I choose to underline now: the snakehouse as self-devoration, autophagy:

“[the subject] alienates itself to the desire to devour itself – "to eat oneself" [se démanger], it was said in the sixteenth century; today, we say "this is eating me" [ça me démange] – as if to signify that the desire of the Other alienates and devours me.” (“Il s’aliène au désir de se dévorer lui-même – "se démanger", disait-on au XVIe siècle; aujourd’hui, on dit "ça me démange" –, comme pour signifier que le désir de l’Autre m’aliène et me dévore.”, Georges Didi-Huberman, “Le sang, le sens et la sentence. Une brève histoire du "corps-cliché"”, in L’image ouverte, Paris, Gallimard, 2007 [1987])

De l’Autre? Oui, du Mal.
Malick is voracious of his own self-consumption/combustion in the vertiginous experience of evil, in its fire. To the end, like the sharks. It is to this bestial hunger, will, lust, desire, autophagic orgy, fire that the shots of the dinosaur in formation (listen to his heart beat) and the one of Jack’s mouth point too.
As Bataille underlined in his already mentioned interview, there is a great danger in literature. “Un très grand, très grave danger”. Let’s extend this idea to all art and in particular to the cinema. Art’s value and danger is to expose human nature in all its violence, to open a door to a fire rarely perceived in our daily lives, in ourselves. In ourselves, I underline. A fascinating, a powerful fire.
Few take this danger seriously, if ever have the minimum consciousness of it. Books, films and paintings are supposed to be just books, films and paintings. This is the kind of (dangerous) innocence that one must not have in order to admire the way of nature. With Bataille, you and I will certainly agree that this danger should be confronted and lived. (The last significant discussion I can remember about the danger of a work of art was about Les Bienveillantes.) But if we truly accept that it is a real danger – do you? – we also must that sometimes things can go really wrong. Theoretically, even “totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.” That’s what Malick tried from The Thin Red Line on.

Well, you see Willard... In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, practical military necessity. But out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane. (General Corman, Apocalypse Now)

Very obviously. If you look close, Tall is identified not only with Kurtz, like I mentioned in an earlier post, but with Duvall’s (like my reference to the beach hinted) and Sheen’s characters. When he is standing near Staros with bombs hitting the ground few feet away, he is playing pure Colonel Bill Kilgore. When he orders a bombing of the Japanese positions before attack, Malick films nature Coppola’s way, from total serenity to fire (the opening scene of Apocalypse Now). Sheen’s character is evoked too by those shots with Tall smoking a cigarette in the ship as the boat advances towards the island. And probably even in that composition with a dead Japanese’s face buried in the burned soil, while we hear (notice the soundtrack’s rhythm):

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?”
See it this way: “It was more like beautiful flames of gold.” (Starkweather on his visions of hell) See it like Kit would.

What is the messy idea? Well it is his way of saying that all he “could think of was getting back into the jungle”; that his former home had totally disappeared; that he lived in visions of fire; that he was going to his own private Apocalypse; that he is both the sacrificed and the sacrifier; and that he would elevate himself to God’s position from this film on.

Inner experience
Terry: you could have sharpened the chiaroscuro, like Ribera...

“I myself am the war.” (“Je suis moi-même la guerre.”, Georges Bataille, Méditation héraclitéenne)

“To feel eroticism is to be fascinated like a child that wants to take part in a forbidden game. And a man fascinated by eroticism is like a child before his parents. He’s afraid of what might happen to him. And he never stops until he has a reason to be afraid. It’s not enough for him to only do what normal adults content themselves with. He has to become scared. He has to find himself in the same situation as when he was a child and constantly afraid of being scolded and even punished in an unbearable way.” (Georges Bataille on his book Literature and Evil)

Quintard: Do you feel it?
Gordon Tall: Yes, sir.”

The Thin Red Line is both an image of and an image for an “inner experience” that could be described as a voyage to the end of eroticism. What is to say to the end of evil. Or to the end of cinema, the cinema Malick loves, the paradise raped by his war. To the vertigo of his Tree of Life, whose glory is a symbol of the entire island, of the entire film, of all his films.
His Guadalcanal is the sensual body personified in Mrs. Bell, that deadly body waiting for the soldiers, fascinating them and conspiring their death. Could you feel their fear? Were you afraid too? Realized how the island let them penetrate in its interior, how the film gives us their feeling that death is waiting for them, insinuating in all that beauty? How the siren sounds at Bell’s first thoughts of his wife? This is nothing but the fear of the erotic transgression, the fear of its price, of its coin’s other side, destruction, death.
My reader, I want to believe you have sufficient experience of these things to know that in a work of art the meanings accumulate, sometimes very intentionally.

An image like the one of the mutilated bodies found by the soldiers with mute horror, the macabre secret that they could feel from the beach where they arrive without a single shot, might be more than an allusion to some film (Apocalypse Now, probably), always the first hypothesis to consider with Malick. Those brutalized body parts, that vision of horror, like it had to happen sooner than latter, reminded me of the author whose sun Malick took as the model of his, Georges Bataille. As you know, it was in a particular photograph of the lingchi, the death by a hundred pieces, that Bataille ended his famous voyage to the infernal lands of eroticism, that very particular history of art called The Tears of Eros:

The world linked to the open image [à l’image ouverte] of the tortured man photographed several times during the torture, in Peking, is, to my knowledge, the most anguishing of worlds accessible to us through images captured on film. The torture shown here is that of the Hundred Pieces, reserved for the gravest of crimes.
This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable. I wonder what the Marquis de Sade would have thought of this image, Sade who dreamed of torture, which was inaccessible to him, but who never witnessed an actual torture session. In one way or another, this image was incessantly before his eyes. But Sade would have wished to see it in solitude, at least in relative solitude, without which the ecstatic and voluptuous effect is inconceivable.
Much later, in 1938, a friend initiated me into the practice of Yoga. It was on this occasion that I discerned, in the violence of this image, an infinite capacity for reversal. Through this violence – even to this day I cannot imagine a more insane, more shocking form – I was so stunned that I reached the point of ecstasy. My purpose is to illustrate a fundamental connection between religious ecstasy and eroticism – in particular sadism. This book is not written from the limited experience of most men.
What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish – but which at the same time delivered me from it – was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.
And this is my inevitable conclusion to a history of eroticism.


“One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. But death’s got the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory. Feels something smiling through him.” (Train ?) Of which bird, of which kind of bird is Malick, the bird stuffer, talking about? Welsh is looking at Witt, but I am pretty sure this is at some level a comment on Bataille’s glory. Be that the voodoo sacrifier’s – “What the voodoo sacrificer experienced was a kind of ecstasy. An ecstasy comparable in a way to drunkenness. An ecstasy brought about by the killing of birds.” – or of the Chinese himself.

The image of the dead soldiers under the sunlight is indeed programatic and explains why this world is “blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it”. Bataille presented in these words his chapters on the photos of the voodoo sacrifice and the Chinese torture:

Le jeu que je me propose est de me représenter pour moi-meme, avec soin, ce qu’ils vivaient au moment où l’objectif fixa leur image sur le verre ou la pellicule.”
(Rather impossible to translate without loosing some of the possibilities of meaning of me représenter pour moi-meme: to picture, to represent to myself; to represent me to myself; to represent myself to myself: “The game I am setting up for myself is to me représenter pour moi-meme, carefully, what they were living at the moment the lens fixed their image on the glass or on the film.” )

G. Didi-Huberman ofered his comment on this:

“This expression, me représenter, is indeed curious. It means: to picture, to mentally dramatize. But it means as well: to represent oneself in the faced image, to make oneself in the image of that which face us. Then, spectator existence involutes itself in the Other, hysterically, body and soul, plays the game the Other, desires what the Other desires, and suffers the Other’s suffering. It is as if the subject could only constitute itself inside a movement of empathy, compassion.” (“Cette expression, me représenter, donne à réfléchir. Elle signifie : se faire une image, dramatiser mentalement. Mais elle signifie aussi bien : se représenter soi-même dans l’image qui fait face, se faire à l’image de ce qui fait face. Alors, l’existence spectatrice s’involue dans l’Autre, hystériquement, corps et âme, elle joue le jeu de l’Autre, désire ce que l’Autre desire, et soufre de la soufrance de l’Autre. C’est comme si le sujet ne se pouvait constituer qu’au creux d’un mouvement d’empathie, de compassion.”


Badlands contains an idea of self-crucifixion which is indeed interesting. Crucifixion with the very object the crucified uses to kill. Very much like his work. “To replay the sacrifice, the "constitutive" sacrifice, what is to say the Christic sacrifice, but deprived of that hereafter which, however, constitutes it. If this attempt is viable, then the word parody will assume its sense entirely.” (“rejouer le sacrifice, le sacrifice "constitutionnel", c’est-à-dire christique, mais privé de l’au-delà qui, pourtant, le constitue. Si cette tentative est viable, alors le mot parodie prendra bien tout son sens.”, Georges Didi-Huberman on Bataille, "L’image ouverte", in L’image ouverte, 2007 [article first published in 1986])
Probably here lies a fundamental key to understand how and why Malick lived and died with all those men from somewhere over the rainbow. And why is he indeed who is blowing to bits in that island, bleeding from the body of every soldier to the River of Life.

Some of the pièces de résistance of this film are those moments when light – formless constitution of the soldiers – pours through the leaves like the breath of life abandoning their bodies. All the shots of this sort have a metaphoric (and a mirror) dimension, as to say let there be cinema is to say let there be light (which is the name of a famous article written about the film, as you may know).

From the Genisis to the Apocalypse, Biblical themes are present in all his films, especially in Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life. That Cain and Abel story cooked between Jack and RL is quite something but I am particularly interested in Badlands’ Christic themes. One – Kit holding the riffle like James Dean – is obvious, the other – the ecce homo at the airport – is not at all, and so I pointed it to you in a previous post about will.
So, what you say: from Christianity to the religion of the cinema? From the love of Jesus Christ to the love of James Dean? From “in the name of the Father” to “rebelion with no cause”? The passion of Terrence Malick is imitatio James Dean.

One big self

“Maybe all men got one big soul who everybody’s a part of. All faces of the same man. One big self. Everyone looking for salvation by himself. Each like a coal drawn from the fire.” (Witt, The Thin Red Line)

“Maybe all men got one big soul and everybody’s a part of it.”
(Casey, The Grapes of Wrath [book])

“A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody”. (Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath [film])

There are many causalities in The Thin Red Line but nobody would dare to say that Witt’s death is not special. We will ask ourselves why John Ford dies in this particular film in another chapter. Let’s consider Witt’s words first.
These words have three basic functions: to identify Witt, John Ford’s Henry Fonda, what would be difficult without them, in spite of the physical similarities and of some Fordian shots of him; to precise an essential element of his [Witt’s] credo (carefully diverting our attentions to the book); to offer an image of the relation of all the characters in this movie to Malick.
Malick’s art is in letting Witt (Tom Joad) express his point of view while appropriating himself of his formulation to express something totally different.“Each like a coal drawn from the fire”: there you can feel whose soul is shining in that island, whose “one big self” (this expression his entirely Malick’s) is made to burning bits, “blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it”.
The film is a compromise between Badlands’formula – to kill the parents, be they the “Japs” or not – and something different – the “one big self” concept. What is to say the “family” concept, the Malickian family, two times mentioned in the film. By Staros: “You are my sons. My dear sons. You live inside me now. I’ll carry you wherever I go.” By Cpt. Bosche, after the battle: “That makes you all the children in this family.”

“These are all his children, man! As far as you can see.” I supose he quotes the Iliad because “He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense.” Well, you might consider the Trojan horse factor too.

There is a third mention to the “family”, I can hear you. Witt’s (or is it Train’s voice?; does it matter?):

“How’d it break up and come apart? So that now we’re turned against each other. Each standing in the other’s light. How did we lose the good that was given us? Let it slip away? Scatter it careless? What’s keeping us from reaching out? Touching the glory?”

It is not intended to be a John Ford’s Henry Fonda musing about the destiny of the human family (even if the voice is not Witt’s, it is he who is seen). It would be plausible came from him and that is important to Malick, but this one is about the destiny of the family of cinema, the world raped by Malick’s war: losing all the good given to it, all the generosity it is capable, all hypothetic transcendental power, that chance of reaching, of showing the glory of life. Appearing to try just that, but “mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.” (It seems to be an allusion to the same line of Emerson on Plato alluded in The Tree of Life’s script: “The misery of man is to be baulked of the sight of essence”. Why the differences? Because Malick wants to make you much more miserable than Emerson’s man, as he wants to give you the sight of something that never was there in the first place.) It is funny how Malick permits us at times to share the position of some of his “sons”. After all, Jack is part of them:

“This great evil. Where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? ls this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?” (Train)

There is one John Ford film where the “glory” is indeed central. A paradise lost film, a film whose title could begin or end Witt’s words: How Green Was My Valley. It is the film of the Father, who in the end, liberated by death, tells his wife “of the glory he had seen.” This glory is – if this is with or without some abuse I leave it to you – also the glory of Hugh’s visions, memories, constituting the entire film: Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are still a glory in my ears? A film that is a peak of Ford’s pantheism (like The Grapes of Wrath of pantheism in cinema or pantheism tout court), a film in which everything is indeed sacred. It is to this Ford, to this father, that Malick says:

“Well, then you’ve seen things I never will.”

Witt would “never be a real soldier, not in God’s [i.e., Malick’s] world”. The Fort is the only world that Malick knows. There, only RL, his sick sun, enters. A very different glory, the rotten glory of a rotten sun.

First the candle, then the river and then “rosey fingered dawn”. The sun was going to rise.  

The boys playing in those paradisical waters are an image of Malick’s heterotopia, of his tree, the vision of glory of a world consecrated to “play – play as opposed to work, play whose essence is above all to obey seduction, to respond to passion.” (Bataille) But even the most beautiful images are hauted by Malick’s dark side, as I know that in those waters lives the lust of Welles’ sharks. In this vision Witt is incorporated, but only when he dies. “Where’s your spark now?” Ironically, burning in Malick’s fire. 
“On this large bed we discover the ocean”. (Foucault) It is not to much to say that this image is a mise en abyme of the film: “Sometimes when you see them playing they always fight!”

“Only around people.”

Witt: You ever get lonely?
Welsh: Only around people.
“It’s well before adolescence, it’s childhood, cinema. It’s not adolescence. (…) It’s a much more intense, much more care-free feeling, and much more serious, of not being part of the world. Or to only just be tolerated by the world as it is. (…) It means you know from the first time you go into the courtyard, on the first year of primary school, that there are people with whom you won’t be friends, and that there’ll be a group of three or four in a corner, the introverts, maybe later, as for me, the homosexuals. In any case the cinephiles, obviously, won’t share their treasures. They know they belong to another version of the world. Or of the human specie.” (Serge Daney)
“Stated motive: "general revenge upon the world and its human race"” (Starkweather trial)
How is the world to Malick? It is Daney’s courtyard without those “three or four in a corner.” And it is more than not being part of the world. It is to hate it with all your strength. So much that you would spend your entire life building your declaration of hate to everybody living in it through the only family and the only home you knew – that of cinema. What Malick buried in The Thin Red Line was all that this film was and is said to exalt, Witt. He incarnates that you mentioned by Welsh in the end: “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.” (echoing Matthew 8:8: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur puer meus) This you is the light, the grace of life . The possibility from escaping the Fort – or the love of Madeleine.

There is not a single Malick film without allusions to Hitchcock. Remember his small parrots, the so called lovebirds? I think I can hear Malick saying: “Can I bring the lovebirds? They haven’t harmed anyone.” Try to see Malick less as a birwatcher and more like a The Birds’ “watcher”.
Who are you?
Lisa: How’s your leg?
Jeff: Hurts a little.
Lisa: Your stomach?
Jeff: Empty as a football.
Lisa: And your love life?
Jeff: Not too active.
Lisa: Anything else bothering you?
Jeff: Yes, who are you?
(Rear Window)

“I’m many things. (…) The morning dew, dripping from the leaves of the tree. White clouds sailing where no one knows. (…) I’m the moon. I’m the sky.” (Gertrud)

In The Thin Red Line Malick begins something totally new. Tons of extravagant – but assumedly so – musings directed to his absolute love, cinema:

“Who are you to live in all these many forms? Your death that captures all. You, too, are the source of all that’s gonna be born. Your glory. Mercy. Peace. Truth. You give calm a spirit, understanding, courage. The contented heart.” (Train)

Bell is there so he could portrait himself as Holly’s husband and add a chapter to his love story with her. The whole things oscillates between the serious, vertiginously passionate “Why should I be afraid to die? I belong to you” and the comic, self-parodic “I haven’t touched another woman since I was called up. Or talked to one. I don’t wanna... I don’t wanna feel the desire.”
Well, I don’t want to unnecessarily enter their intimate life, but I doubt that Malick maintained that publicized abstinence. The point is, of course, that in The Thin Red Line HOLLY OMNIA (this is given in the confusion between voices, faces, bodies, bodies and nature) and that this kind of sex is very particular. It is fire. If you look to the three first films, you notice: after fire, the river, immediately or almost.

The river as a sexual/orgasmic metaphor is absolutely not unique to Malick. I think I won’t be lying to you if I said that the first time I saw The New World its final sequence brought Picnic on the Grass to my mind. As Rebecca dies we see her fusing with nature in great (glorious) joy. She caresses the tree, admiring it, as she finally understands that she is everything, that she lives in everything. Wagner. Crescendo. The bird flies, the boat leaves towards the sun. And then the river rushing through the rocks and the sun through the leafs. Finally, the tree.


This kind of erotic fusion of the characters in nature – although in Malick nature is fiction – sends us back to Renoir’s 1959 film. In its most remarkable sequence Alexis and the girl disappear into the vegetation under the flute’s spell. The love act is substituted by a poem made of reed touched by the wind, aquatic plants gently dancing, water touching the rocks, the river calmly flowing, an insect collecting pollen. All very calm and impressionist. Nonetheless, I believe it was an important source of inspiration to Malick. Both the exuberance of devastation and the exuberance of the natural motives in his films are to be seen as an erotic image of that evil agitating the “Vertigo’s project” spiral.

“Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine?” Yes, it does. Malick’s luminous epiphanie, one of his much praised glories. The newly born sun lights the hill like a wind, announcing the battle. Is there a more powerfully erotic image in this film?
The river – as you know, the title of one of Renoir’s masterpieces – has particular importance in Picnic on the Grass’ erotic poem. As Malick said to his crew that The Thin Red Line was like flowing down a river – as it is, even if he had not said it – let’s remember Renoir’s famous words:

“A thing that has unquestionably influenced my development as a creator of films is water. I cannot conceive of cinema without water. There is an unscapable quality in the movement of a film which relates it to the ripple of streams and the flow of rivers... The truth is that the affinity between the film and the river is the more strong and subtle because it cannot be explained.”

It is not hard to agree with Renoir. A river is really a good image for a film. But there are some pretty different types of rivers. Lilith’s river, for example, is much more dangerous than Renoir’s. In Rossen’s movie the lovers images melt themselves and melt with the river.

Lilith’s is truly Malick’s river. The river (of cinema) as madness, where he unites himself with his love:

“We. We together. One being. Flow together like water, till I can’t tell you from me. I drink you. Now. Now.” (Bell)
Through grace, S. Peebles (The Other World of War: Terrence Malick's Adaptation of The Thin Red Line) said that:
“The body is overwhelmingly present in the novel and somewhat of a focus in the first adaptation [Marton’s film]. Malick, however, effectively subtracts the body from this war story (…)”

Peebles contrasted Jones’ soldiers body centered, sexual experience of war with Malick’s suposedly soul centered, spiritual experience of it. The question is that we are talking about very diferent wars. And not only this. Malick’s film is not just about some war or war itself. It is one.
Malick could write as an epitaph to his oeuvre: “Experience, sole authority, sole value” (Bataille). If we want to decide ourselves about things like the place of sexuality (eroticism would be a better word) in his work, we cannot just search in the bodies of the soldiers and their words to decide ourselves.

“Malick’s Guadalcanal would be a Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison, as Terry used to call it, of war.” (Geisler) The idea of rape goes back to Badlands, as Cape Fear is alluded in that film in a way Malick is identified with Max Cady (and, just for the record, green is the color of Madeleine). “Video [I see] from visu [sight], that is, from vis [force], since it is the strongest of the five senses. While no other sense is able to perceive something a thousand feet away, the force of the eyes’ perception reaches even to the stars. (…) [In the verse of Accius about Actaeon and Diana:] "He who saw [invidit] what should not be seen [invidendum] violated  that with his eyes [violavit]." From which they even say he "violated the virgin" [violavit] instead of "he ruined her" [vitiavit](…).” (De Lingua Latina)
We must have in acount what suposedely goes on in Malick’s own body and mind. What he suggests, certainly for his own amusement, is that the experience (of combat) is indeed a very phisical one. One of erotic ecstasy. A Sternbergian bell. So those images of the erotic games between the Bells come and go during the battle, in what is itself an erotic movement.
Lilith’s river, Malick’s river, is the vertiginous fall through the long corridor of madness.
Gloria: no wonder RL was not hurt in that lamp socket: he is energy itself.

“I always contradict myself.”
Malick brings together two excluding realms. The outmost solipsistic, egocentric, narcissist, fetishist (the fascination for artificiality itself), self-encloused, cynical – in one word, psycopathic; the hysteric, the self-delivery to the Other, sacrifice – the sacred. But the first is a fact and the second a wishful thinking. Those images of his internal convulsions are too reiterated not to suggest some kind of frustation (and Welsh says: Maybe I was just frozen up already).
This contradiction existes, at a diferent degree (i.e., non-psycopathic), in Bataille himself, doomed – and conscient of being so – to the fascination for the extremes exclusive of the religious experience and/but incapable of living them. In the end, like G. Didi-Huberman remarked, all he might get was a little acceleration of his heart beat. No matter what, his life still developed in the realm of the unessential. What it is to say that he went, that to see against all consolation took him, to the door’s limit, but not farther:

“But Bataille, refusing – understandably – any Proper Name of that by whom to suffer or empathize, Bataille, in the limit, could never open himself to the end to the image, to bleed interiorly, to access the stigmata. In a sense, then, the image would have remained closed up, intact, to him.” (“Mais Bataille, refusant – on le comprend – tout Nom propre de celui pour qui pâtir ou compatir, Bataille, en dernière limite n’aura pu, jamais, s’ouvrir jusqu’au bout à l’image, saigner intérioreument, acceder au stigmate. En un sens, dons, l’image lui sera restée close, intacte.”, G. Didi-Huberman, "L’image ouverte", in L’image ouverte, 2007 [article published in 1986])

“From the phenomenological point of view, the model of the Albertian window is insufficient, comfortable: a window can at the same time be closed (physically) and open (optically) in a way that to see beyond – the very economy of the gaze, its desire for the work – does not put our body in motion: you can just sit at the window to see what is happening outside. A door is much more dramatic: without even going into the paradoxes dear to Kafka, we can say it opposes a more violent enclosing to which can only oppose itself the sharp nature of the gesture which will open it up, in order that our body, moved through this opening, crosses the threshold. It is not a coincidence if Georges Bataille felt the image in relation to the idea of a shattered door” [: “Thus I repress an image of torture and, by means of this repression, I close myself; this image’s repression is one of the doors by which my particularity remains closed. If I once again place the image before me, it opens the door, or rather tears it out.”] (“Du point de vue phénoménologique, le modèle de la fenêtre albertienne est un modèle insuffisant, confortable : une fenêtre peut être à la fois fermée (physiquement) et ouverte (optiquement), en sorte que voir au-delà - l'enjeu même du regard, son désir à l’œuvre – ne met pas notre corps en mouvement : on peut se contenter de rester assis à sa fenêtre pour voir ce qui se passe au-dehors. Une porte est bien plus dramatique : sans même aller jusqu’aux paradoxes chers à Kafka, elle nous oppose une clôture bien plus violente à quoi ne peut s’opposer que le caractère tranchant du geste qui l’ouvrira, afin que notre corps, mû par cette ouverture, en franchisse le seuil. Ce n’est pas un hasard si Georges Bataille éprouvait l’image en relation avec l’idée d'une porte qui vole en éclats [: “Ainsi je refoule une image de supplice et, par le refoulement, je me ferme ; le refoulement de cette image est l’une des portes à l’aide desquelles ma particularité est close. Si je replace l’image devant moi elle ouvre la porte, ou plutôt elle l’arrache.” ( Le coupable, from a working manuscripte, refrased in the final version)]” (G. Didi-Huberman, "Introduction", in L’image ouverte, 2007)

Experience – history – shows that there is no open image without Name of the Father.” Just the sinthomatic routine. There is no to the end in the image for someone like Malick who, more than anyone, murdered all possible father.
But, really... a wishful thinking? Maybe not even that. “I can’t deny we’ve had fun, though. I mean, uhm, that’s more than I can say for some. Should Malick really be taken seriously? Would not that be an error from us? That vision of glory in which RL is ofered to him joins Bataille and Riefenstahl, the worlds of the closed form and the formless. Obviously, the whole world is a joke to him. After all, he is a saboteur ab initio. And a fucking Wagnerian jerker.
But this experiment is not over yet. It will when that plane where Dirty Harry, “Mr. law and order” of the cinema, is excourting Kit back to our world finally lands. Whatever happens next, it will be tragic and, to those who know Terrence Frederick Malick, frightning to the point of total and absolute terror, for what some sentiment of guilt is not strange to these lines. Malick will be face to face with people and with no protection left for the first time in his life; and those people will see in him for the first time too. Then the Real will finally make its advent in the life of a psycopath desperatly trying to feel something. Will it be absorved in the circus of media, fame and stardom of the rebels without a cause’s industrie or will it end in the death by the hundred pieces? No one knows, not even Malick. 

“Only one thing a man can do.”

To see, but really see, the films of Terrence Malick only one thing we can do: to try to see his island from his subjective point of view. This might involve violence upon our contemporary notion of work of art, but this one – and I include in this word our subjective point of views about it – was done exclusively for its creator: “Nature only wants to please itself”. Furthermore, this task is, of course, impossible and Malick himself remembers us of that: “Subjective point – you know the diference? Subjective means it comes from your mind, it can’t be proven by other people.” But it is this impossible task that opens our consciousness to the badlands of human nature, to Malick’s nature. The question is: are we willing to see or are we afraid to?
Here I stop me. It would be easy to continue writing this post until it became enormous, decoding the great allusionistic net of The Thin Red Line, identifying Malick’s sons. But that is not necessary to explain the heart of nature, to feel it. And if I had chosen to do so the result would probably be a great mess, like my first post… There is no hurry. We have got all the time in the world.
Probably, All Things Burning, All things Shining will sound too concise about some matters for those less acquainted with the work of Georges Bataille. I might develop some of its ideas in the future. Meanwhile, I just send you back to the mentioned works, especially to The Tears of Eros. Didi-Huberman’s beautiful book, on which I leaned more than once, seems to me an excellent idea too to understand what Malick is – and is not – in face of the image, a complement to my earlier suggestion, Freedberg’s The Power of Images (the translations above are mine and certainly not brillant; if you can, you are advised to read everything in French).
I think I will not post anything here until I have seen To the Wonder. The synopsis leaves me kind of curious. Anyone can tell me if his Father Quintana is somehow related to Rosita Quintana?
“Terrence Malick... un regista? È reduttivo dire che è un regista perché è un poeta, è un filosofo, è un uomo che ama profondamente la vita, un uomo attento al valore stesso della vita. È un uomo sempre in continua ricerca, per cercare di migliorare se stesso per gli altri.” (Romina Mondello to RAI)
I bet.

And they leave in the boat, and up the river they go. “He disappeared into the jungle with his people. He feels confortable with his people. He forgets himself with his people. He forgets himself.” (Apocalypse Now)