[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]
“Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” (Vertigo)
Not in the proper mood for long, complicated posts. But why not a short walk in the lingerie section?
You see, a short film brought Rebecca’s nightgown to my mind. It is not “brillant”, although better than just a youtub joke. My Adventures in Ladies Undergarments, 4th Fl is the title.What’s it about? A boy’s 5 minute adventure in the feminine underwear department of a big and lonely store.
We see him wandering around the place, looking at and touching that feminine paraphernalia. After walking through the vestiaries corridor, admiring the gostly shadows of the clients and being shuted the door by one of them, the child goes back to the middle of satins and underbraws.
Then, through a forest of underwear, he sees her. “Fatale beauté.” Our hero’s face does not lie. Love at the first sight. The cupid’s arrow trespassed his young heart.
Who is our knight’s charming princess?, you ask. A beautiful saleswomen? Some client? Maybe the daughter of one? No. “Love is strange.” She is a stunning blonde mannequin wearing a dark sophisticated nightgown. Disapointed? Not your kind of girl? Doesn’t matter, it is he who is in love.
With awe, the boy gets close. His eyes are so fascinated that he stumbles before the goddess. He dares. He actually touches her dress. Lifts it up a little. Strange: as she said something? Again, a little more. Well, fortunatly, when things were getting hot, his mother’s arm separates him from the object of his desire.
And precisely at that moment the plastic statue seems to move. As Venus felt mercy of this poor Pygmalion struck by his ready-made Galatea? The camera shows us his last passionate look. He goes, but he goes with his dream.
A reorchertration of Les 400 coups’s theme gives the rithym to the film. The music brings cinephilia to the middle of the ligerie. Doinel’s cinephilia, Truffaut’s. His irredimably sad and solitaire world. Truffaut, the director who asked the exact year Badlands was released: “Is cinema more important than life?”
Why this music? Better, why this music in a short film about the wakening of sexuality and the power of images? Doinel’s disenchantment with women? And why the insistence in the shadows, like in The Tree of Life? What adventure of Les 400 coups’s comes to your mind? In Truffaut’s film the relation between cinema and juvenile erotic phantasies is, of course, alluded in the famous steal of Monika’s photo. Bergman’s film, so important for the Nouvelle Vague, also has, I suspect, a rather special place in Terry’s heart. Malick and Doinel share some tastes... (Summer with Monika would inspire the famous final shot. Note that this sort of allusionism is costumary in Malick.)
Take Malick’s “naturalism”. How could he be a fetishist in the precise sugested sense(s)? He, who films that way trees, birds, the sky, the sea, people. You could say: This is not a papier-mâché world. This guy wants to capture life, breath, sensation. Wake up for the glory!!!
There are certain things we all forget sonner or latter. Sonner than latter. Death, for example:
“Vasari, ﬁnally, tried to forget that these indexical techniques of ‘trait-for-trait’ resemblance had been preeminently mortuary techniques.” (G. Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images)
Like I have told you, like I will probably repeat many times, through certain allusions Malick establishes an analogy between the love of images and necrophilia. This, again, is not new. Cinema – “une expression vitale absolument adéquate à la vie elle-même” (Poe transl. by Baudelaire, Vivre sa vie; “an absolute life-likeliness of expression” in the original) – is (or was) the visual art which took farther the imitation of life, of living things. It moves, it speaks, or so it seems: “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” (Danvers on Rebecca’s nightgown) But the most influential book ever written about cinema (Bazin’s) cultivates paralels between photography/cinema and the mortuary right from the beggining. Its shaddow hangs over every image, still or moving. That is also why the (bird) stuffer is a metaphor of the filmmaker in Malick and why to a certain point you can say his naturalism is the “stuffer’s mark” (in this respect, Badlands is maybe to be considered slightly diferent, more close to a traditional “artificial” aesthetics, so to speak; already Guattari remarked its at times “agonizing” colors).
But more than this, like I did in my previous post discussing the image of the bed, I want to stress that here “death is the symbol of all sensuality” (Bataille), mother of all erotic violence. This idea is the key to understand why Malick’s river is the River of Life, a rather strange designation otherwise: “Of eroticism it is possible to say that it is assenting to life up to the point of death” (“De l’erotisme, il est possible de dire qu’il est l’approbation de la vie jusque dans la mort”, L’erotisme). More. Life only starts the moment you embrace death, total violence and sacrifice. Certainly you remember Kit looking at himself at the car’s mirror while the police was after him, making sure his James Dean style was ok, preparing his look to confront the authorities. It might be a bit more than that. Because what he is seeing in that mirror is “The face of a man who’s driving towards a cliff at 100 km/h.” (Pierrot le fou)
Who is Rebecca? Malick’s girl, I mean. Hitchcock shows you that in a famous scene. Max (Olivier) is telling his wife how Rebecca died, his final conversation with her at the cottage. The camera follows her past path through the room, while we hear their dialogue by Max. The camera films nothing, yet that is Rebecca’s most admirable portrait. Because she is everything, she is in everything in that film. Making everyone mad with love, hate, both, until the flames consume it all. There is nothing that Joan Fontain (or the spectator) does or does not, no place she goes or keeps from going, that doesn’t end in Rebecca. Because, in a sense, Rebecca is the very film. And in that scene Hitchcock filmed just that, the cinema itself, that unpresent presence.
Jack looks again at a mirror in the Kimballs. One of Mother’s portraits. The format also sugests a kind of door, doesn’t it? “Mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes.” (Cocteau’s Orpheus) Yes, the architect followed her to the end of time. The mirror as the door: to the kingdom of the dead/death, to the kingdom of fiction. The character of Death (Maria Casares) is probably alluded by those feminine creatures dressed like spirits. The sudden way the dead bride arises from the bed is also reminescent of Orpheus. (And note that a powerful wind blows in the otherworld of Cocteau)
Jack opening the drawer, Jack opening mother...to see her soul? “The overriding desire of most little brats, on the other hand, is to get at and see the soul of their toys, either at the end of a certain period of use, or on occasion straightaway. On the more or less swift invasion of this desire depends the lifetime of the toy. I cannot find it in me to blame this infantile mania: it is the first metaphysical stirring. When this desire has planted itself in the child’s cerebral marrow, it fills his fingers and nails with an extraordinary agility and strength. He twists and turns the toy, scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against the wall, hurls it on the ground. From time to time he forces it to continue its mechanical motions, sometimes in the opposite direction. Its marvellous life comes to a stop. The child, like the populace besieging the Tuileries, makes a last supreme efort; finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul?” (Charles Baudelaire, Morale du joujou)
This statue/mannequin grants a promise to the boy but the nightgown – admirable manifestation of death – anguished Jack. They live very diferent situations. Jack pressented that she was nothing more than mother, the dream he was dreaming eyes wide open. But the boy is at the beggining of something. The first question I asked myself was: if it had lasted a few seconds more, would this boy’s love afair end like Jack at the Kimballs (panic, run)?
But there was another interesting question. Would he try to find this first love in the future women of his life? Would he buy them black nightgowns and made them paint their hair blonde and that sort of thing?...
Now, serious. I think Malick had to put himself very practical questions. How could he love Holly? He is certainly not of the platonic kind. He wanted her. But how close he could get? His drama was even worst than Pygmalion’s. There was not even marble to embrace, to caress. That’s the tragic and ridiculous in the scene from Les carabiniers we have previously discussed. The answer was:
– to become an image himself, to disapear under the image, to cross the distance between the imagination and the image, to pull dow the mask until there was no more true face;
– Holly was one and many the same time, a nympha malickiana apearing and disapearing in film, and so her re-creation to the game of love would not look like any of her particular forms; she would be, like her lover, a kit made of many things; he was too Scottie following Madeleine, not through San Francisco but through the entire history of cinema; that was one of Vertigo’s revelations.
Do you know the famous letter written by A. Jolles to Warburg?
“Behind them, close to the open door, there runs – no, that is not the word, there flies, or rather there hovers – the object of my dreams, which slowly assumes the proportions of a charming nightmare. A fantastic figure – shall I call her a servant girl, or rather a classical nymph? – enters the room... [...] This lively, light-footed and rapid gait, this irresistible energy, this striding step, which contrasts with the aloof distance of all the other figures, what is the meaning of it all?... It sometimes looks to me as if the servant girl rushed with winged foot through the clear ether instead of running on the real ground... Enough, I lost my heart to her and in the days of preoccupation which followed I saw her everywhere… In many of the woks of art I have always liked, I discovered something of my Nymph. My condition varied between a bad dream and a fairy tale. […]
… I lost my reason. It was as she was brought life and mouvement into an otherwise calm scene. Indeed, she appeared to be the embodiment of movement… but it is very unpleasant to be her lover… Who is she? Where does she come from? Have I encountered her before? I mean one and a half millennia earlier? Does she come from a noble Greek lineage, and did her great-grandmother have an affair with people from Asia Minor, Egypt, or Mesoptamia?”
(André Jolles to Aby Warburg, 1900)
I thought it was nice to leave you a sugestion. Probably some of you will know Victor Stoichita’s The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock. It is a work by a solid scholar on a very vast and complex problem, one capital to the present discussion. I have been reluctant to mention precise studies about the films alluded and used by Malick because what here really matters are his uses of them, and those are understandable through some (cinephilic) common-places about its authors or cinema in general (critical common-places are essential to allusionism, see N. Carrol on this). To bring many names to this discussion would probably obscure more than reveal. (Even so, I confess some curiosity about what Malick reads and most of all read when he was young about cinema, the history of art and generally about images.) So, I am not interested to discuss interpretations of Hitchcock, Murnau, Godard, etc., in abstract. I am making an exception for Stoichita because he touches a very particular theme in Vertigo and places it historicaly among practices which are indeed illuminating of this “experiment”. If you have time and curiosity, you can watch his 1 hour conference on Vertigo and the production of simulacra here (a resume of that chapter of the book). His English is not extrodinary and he might not be a great speaker, but what matters is what he says on the Pygmalion effect. (If you want to read the book, I recommend you this review)
Three notes about the video.
It is particularly curious the connection Stoichita establishes between the film and the Barbie dool. He distinguishes the two however, namely because the doll is for the purpose of play. Through Linda, we have seen how the idea of the dool is important to Malick and, very obviouly, how this distinction does not work in his case.
Stoichita works extensivly the problem of the frame (and that of the shadow), one of his expertises. Notice how Malick reduced the door of the desert to a pure frame.
The conference ends with the afirmation that at the other side of Vertigo is virtual reality. Malick’s project has indeed similarities with it. It is about to enter in the space of the image by means of one (or several), to interact in this imaginary space through this(these) mask(s). There are diferences (there is no real time experience, for example) but the analogy is very striking.
Do not tell me this kind of love afair is strange (with statues, algamatophilia, with cinema...). It even sells perfumes... So let us say this is La Passione di Malick.
Past posts talked about Venus and her foam. Holly’s bare feet brought to my attention that particular theme again. I am talking about the shot where she is walking by the river like a Greek goddess.
She is playing the artist’s muse by the river – she is what inspires and makes that river possible – and so I don’t think the idea of Death in Venice is far from here (see The whole world is a joke to me). But Malick could have another thing in mind, a “real” Venus, at least somewhere over the rainbow. No actress was so lavishly wrapped in a metacinematic mixture of classical beauty, fatalism, necrophilia and the love of images than Ava Gardner, the classic goddess of classic cinema, the statue that becomes alive – One Touch of Venus (a joke, but a fine joke at times, even so) – and the woman who becomes a statue – The Barefoot Contessa (more complex than that, because it is from the statue that we, the spectators, know the woman in Mankiewicz’s film). In the middle there was Albert Lewin’s masterpiece, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
As it was remarked, Mankiewicz’s film incorporated the previous in a trilogy (see, for example, S. Felleman, Art in the Cinematic Imagination), to create one of the most complex images of Hollywood’s cinema and its system. The process is not enterelly strange, even if far more radical, to what B. Wilder did in Sunset Boulevard. The way Mankiewicz uses Gardner clearly has a parallel in Wilder’s use of Swanson, Stroheim and De Mille (and Gardner use of herself, etc.). It is an exercise of that must not have been strange to the genesis of Malick’s cinematic project.
This could inspire lot of talk, but for now I just want to recomend you a scene that depicts Malick’s love story very well. Robert Walker is trying to explain his boss how the Greek statue became alive when he kissed her lips. And so he plays the two roles: on the pedestal Venus, on the ground her beloved. Know better image for Terry’s narcissism (and our position face to it)?Artists have always produced works with double meanings, understood. Two very old examples are the Sleeping Hermaphroditos (see this, this and read the inscriptions on this) and Fräu Welt (Lady World) and the Fürst die Welt (Prince of the World). In both cases, the double meaning, or the other meaning, is accessed by a phisical operation: you get close, pass by, look around. And in both cases the ends are perfectly aceptable. The efect on us may vary between the erotic provocation and the moralizing. They give us a lesson, anyway. There are oceans of diferences, but to a certain extent it is like in Welles’ F for Fake: the artist (or the comissioner, in the ancient examples) plays with you, with your innocence, for a “good” motive. Like to show us our vulnerability to Art, how it might be used to trick us, manipulate us. And, in the case of the film, why not to say it?, because it is entertaning and we search that too in a movie theater.
Just admire this image: the reflection contained in the shadow!!! In Cocteau, in Malick, the mirror is both a door (to the otherworld), Narcissus’s pool/river and a/the screen. Yes, I believe this is a personal and powerful recreation of Cocteau’s “narcissistic Orpheus” (dream scene of Orpheus). This director is indeed one of The Tree of Life’s essential references. I should have understood before. The orphic trilogy had everything to please Malick: reflexivity, narcissistic vertigo, reality vs illusion/dreams/fiction, game/play, suicide, voyeurism, algamatophilia, descent to hell as descent into himself, death and resurrection of the artist, etc.*
(In Welles’ film you just have to wait to the end to understand that he played with you in the final section. It is not exactly a film with two “ways”. It is one that examplifies with his own spectators the things they were told about art during it.)
There is a rather funny (?) example of a “two ways” situation with a director I have been writting about, one to whom we might have to go back in Malick’s next film (just a possibility; try to change the first letter of “Marina”; or just for Marina Vlady; again, just a possibility). I am not talking of a film but of a 1968 phone conversation between Godard and producer Pierre Braunberger during which, suposedly, the director called him “sale juif” (dirty Jew). You take it simply like this, and the director certainly does not get very well out of it. But a theory developed. For some, it was all a misunderstanding. Those aparently horrible words were nothing but an cinephilic allusion. Sale juif was an expression used with affection (ironized) by Gabin to Marcel Dalio in the French classic La grande illusion. So, it was like what I have been saying of Malick, but the oposite way: it seemed horrible, but the awareness of an allusionistical dimension transformed it into frendly.
We are talking of one of the most praised, near worshiped artists and so you might just say, like some did, that there are people who will elaborate the most absurd explanations to absolve him from pure antisemitism. During the years, Godard piled up a pretty good amount of tasteless comments and jokes about jews, so I am not exactly sure the La grande illusion thesis is correct. But let us suppose it is. Better, let us suppose that you would listen someone saying this to another person on the cell phone, walking in the street. It is curious how a simple “cinephilic twist” can change so dramaticaly our idea of someone, no?
I have once read in a sign seen in a famous film, in the wall of a shop run by a blind woman: “if you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself.” My readers, Malick is mean enough to steal from as many blinds there are and are going to be, so watch out. Just showing you things to consider, trying to base them in the concrete material of the films as much as possible so you have all you need to have an opinion about it. Pounder this strange lines. He is not just taking some nickels from you. I hope I was clear on this. If you are reading blogs like mine, I assume that you know Persona. Remember its famous image of the artist/actress as vampire, right? At least you cannot tell you have not been warned. Think that I am the crazy one? Considering the content of this place, it is comprehensible, but in that case, like Kit: “I want you to write me out a slip though, proving I came down here.”
What I have been trying to explain here, maybe not always the best way but as directly as possible (too directly?), is that Malick’s work, as it must, is extremely integrated with the trends of our time/his generation. Its peculiarity are not the themes, the aesthetic preferences, most of the processes, the poetic and theoretical references explicit or implicit. About that, he is just one more.
Damn, his favourite film, that one without which you cannot get a second of his work, has reached the top of the Sight & Sound list. (Any comment, Terry?) Nowadays, everybody seems to be, in a sense, mad about Madeleine. You never had more people writting on Hitchcock, filming (and not only filming) influenced by Hitchcock, blinking the eye at his films. And take that writer who gave Malick so many jokes since The Thin Red Line. You have more people writing about Bataille than ever. Even a Malick critic is translating his entire work, or some deal of the sort...
So, to a certain degree, what I have been writing is is not weird at all. It is business as usual.
The problem starts with the use Terry does of the lesson of that fatal film. And that can only be described as psycophatic. To write something else would be pure hypocrisy. Here, I suppose, starts the eventual problem because of that centuries old idea that Art is (always) generous, some kind of gift to us. Even, for example, when we classify an work or author as “nihilistic” or something of the sort we take “positive” meanings of it, one way or the other: renewal, etc. Certainly we might accept that objects with aesthetic value can reinforce opressive realities. But it is much more dificult to accept that someone would produce a work of art – something recognized by us as such – just in order to hurt other people, as some kind of existential revenge, absolutely strange to any material or political interest. Or just to be famous, to join the maniac’s pantheon. You know, Herostratic fame. If Malick joins these two things and more, I can understand how difficult it is to see what is at the door’s other side.
What a messy post!
I have not time for the blog, this was all I could arrange to signal the date.
What have I been studying about Malick? Almost nothing.
Unexpectedly, I was able to read a 2002 draft script (the fourth) of The English Speaker. One thing I can tell you, Malick must have worked hard on this project. It has all the distinctive ingredients, if you know what I mean...
My impression is that without the right actress (must be German speaking…) and director any film of this sort will end in unbearable corniness. But I don’t believe Malick would have written this version if he was not thinking to assume the direction.
If it wasn’t made until now, it probably never will. It won’t be easy to sell a film spoken most of the time in German, especially if Malick’s next “wonders” are unsuccessful. Maybe he will sell the script to someone else.
No more from me for the next months. Next year, the priority goes To the Wonder and a post called Home Sweet Home. I was amazed with The Tree of Life reviewers’s blindness to this last problem, even because it had been noticed in the director’s previous films, but a recent book, Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film, recognized its centrality in this last feature, even if through the eyes of grace. For latter, I am also thinking in a Terrence Malick Essential Glossary. It would be nice, no? Something that would give anyone in a few pages the most important themes and concepts to admire his work from the way of nature.