Home Sweet Home

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

This post was to be published after my review of To the Wonder. So, why this hurry? I am not going to write something about this last film under impulse. To start entering a film by Malick you have at least to watch it several times; describe everything on paper; let some time pass; watch his whole work again; while doing this, watch many films and read a lot, so you can explore several possibilities of interpretation and avoid erroneous impressions. Note I only did this with Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, and I am still far from having identified all the allusions in them. I know where to search in order to continue solving their puzzle, though. If I had some free time (I have not) I could advance a lot in Badlands, especially. It has a strong generational mark that makes things a lot easier.
This said, why to publish something that touches To the Wonder right now? Well, it deals with a single detail, the presence of Mont Saint-Michel, from which, apparently, the film takes its title. But for the review will wait an appreciation of the motif of the steps (“on montait les marches, à la Merveille”), the plays in the quicksand and other details. La Merveille/The Wonder is a XIII century structure that includes the cloister of Mont Sant-Michel. The name is also applied to the whole thing.
I want to give you a clue to make a sense of it from your first viewing. The review will take a long time, this is only an appetizer. About the love story, in what concerns Marina, without suggesting it all resumes to them, I will only say that it seems to be a (really) good idea to watch the films of Jean-Luc Godard. As for Jane, what do you say? I have not worked on the problem yet. I think I will start by watching The Misfits again. Maybe it is not that but we have to start somewhere, right? 

This was in the last post, but I brought it to this one. Sounds like an exotic love story, no? (Below, Je vous salue, Marie)

By the way, something obvious: you can never say you have really seen a film if you haven’t seen it in a movie theater. You understand this when you have the opportunity of watching in a theater a film you have seen in your home 30 times or so. Television (not to speak of pcs) is fine to study a work or when there is nothing else available. But the experience of the movie theater is what we talk about when we talk about cinema around here. Note that Terrence Malick is worried about the quality of this experience, as he wrote a letter with precise instructions to the projectionists screening his The Tree of Life. He would not have fell in love with Madeleine if he had watched Vertigo on youtub…
Chose a big place. This is a Wagnerian artist. Badlands plays well in a more intimate room, but for the rest, 1000 seats or more (I know, maybe it is asking too much).
Paula: You mean, you have the feeling that you’ve known me before?
Charles Rainier: I had, for a moment.”
(Random Harvest)

“Now you collected me, havent you?” (The Collector)
Man accumulates things somehow important to him (naturalia, artificialia) since prehistoric periods. It is one of the most pervasive and important human activities. To some forms of accumulation we call collecting. Malick is definitely a collector.

The fetishist as a collector. (Diary of a Chambermaid)
And the solitary collector of families (Conversation Piece) 

The collector of romantic architectural dreams (Ludwig). Terry reminds me of him.
Why the Tree was an oak? To Kill a Mockingbird.

There is clearly an idea of collection at work in Badlands. It is explicit. Kit and Holly gather “little tokens and things”, their collection of happy memories in the realm of celluloid, of those films where they were happy, loved and dyed together. Malick’s work is the house he built to store these memories. His home is also that, a special art of memory.
A fine example, because it is intended as such. A transparent mise en abyme. Mother floating, then some seaweed. Next, the architect touching herbs in the garden of the building where he works. It is an as clear as possible representation of Malick’s “art of memory”. Reverse it. Imagine someone longing for his love. In Malick’s case, his love is the land of the cinema. During his lunch time, the touch of some ordinary herbs reminds him of the loved object, Solaris. That’s why he “collects” the seaweed. He keeps something that can activate the memory of Tarkovsky and places it next to his floating mother.

So, you have to imagine someone who, for example, is admiring Mont Saint-Michel, and starts asking himself: You know what this merveille looks like? You know, don’t you? I’ll kiss your ass if this merveille doesn’t look like ******!

But what he created to house that collection is not a museum where he can solemnly admire the cinema he loves. The architect is also longing for his film, his “Vertigo project”. This is more like a playroom, as he uses his treasures to play, to make the films themselves. And it is a spiral. Vertigo’s spiral. In that spiral the past is past no more and really becomes the film of his life.

The fascinating scene where Bill enters the house of the Farmer. The question is always: where (in his mind) is he? Where is Terry playing in his imagination? What is the relation between this house we see and the house of his dreams? Bachelard quotes this elucidating bit of Pierre Loti: “…when I was a small child I had here some little nooks which represented Brazil to me, where I truly succeeded in giving myself the impressions and fears of the virgin forest...” (“... quand j'étais tout enfant, j’avais ici des petits recoins qui me représentaient le Brésil, et où j’arrivais vraiment à avoir des impressions et des frayeurs de forêt vierge …”, Fleurs d’ennui, apud Earth and Reveries of Repose) The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. [...] If we give their function of shelter for dreams to all of these places of retreat, we may say [...] there is for each of us an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory, that is lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past” (“La maison natale est plus qu’un corps de logis, elle est un corps de songes. Chacun de ses réduits fut un gîte de rêverie. [...] Si l’on donne à toutes ces retraites leur fonction qui fut d’abriter des songes, on peut dire, [...], qu’il existe pour chacun de nous une maison onirique, une maison du souvenir-songe, perdue dans l’ombre d’un au-delà du passé vrai.”, The Poetics of Space) “We lose ourselves in this dimension; it has an infinity. We dream of it as of a desire, an image that we find sometimes in books. Instead of dreaming of what has been, we dream of what should have been, of what would have stabilized forever our inner reveries” (“Nous nous y perdons. Elle a un infini. Nous y rêvons aussi comme à un désir, comme à une image que nous trouvons parfois dans les livres. Au lieu de rêver à ce qui a été, nous rêvons à ce qui aurait dû être, à ce qui aurait à jamais stabilisé nos rêveries intimes.”, Earth and Reveries of Repose)

I often learn a lot with what is written about Malick. Don’t think I don’t, or that my position towards it is arrogant. I always profit from the reflections of the sharpest eyes in the business of movie criticism. I am grateful to Steven Rybin’s Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film  because it took me to George E. Toles’ A House Made of Light: Essays on the Art of Film… which took me back to a film I hadn’t seen in many many many years, Random Harvest, one of the sources of Vertigo. And how I loved to watch it again!
(Between you and I: I would never had patience to write this much about Malick if it wasn’t a pretext to go back to some films and directors.)

Father shows the tree to baby Jack and we see it again (below) before leaving Waco. Because it was pink, I advanced the possibility of an allusion to Snow White in my review. But it might be something else, another symbol of home. Below, Smithy, arriving home (Random Harvest). Something to think about.

I shared this impression about The Tree of Life with other people well before I had read Rybin and Toles: during my viewings, an immense number of things “seemed to remind me of something that I didn’t have time to get a grip on.” (Random Harvest) Sometimes, it was not even clear what kind of memories they where. They might even have been from events of my past life (not of books, films, etc.). This “sort of wisp of memory that can’t be caught before it fades away” (Random Harvest) was indeed more frequent than usual. The narrative, dramatic tension, quick succession of images, didn’t let me insist with my memory and so rarely I was able to remember. When I did, many films came to my mind. Films by Malick, films by others. Of course I could only remember some of them after I understood who mother was. That was the case of the Scarlet Empress’s swing. Speeches about grace and nature just don’t rhyme with Sternberg’s film. These things are stored in places of our minds that don’t communicate. In the normal order of things, sophisticated sexual freakiness and Thomas a Kempis don’t go along.

From some time now, the combination of allusions to different films in one shot or scene by this director has become obvious. It is almost a need, something indispensable to his game. Malick searches motifs common to the films he wants to allude and then leaves clues to each one so we can understand them as a combination, “condensed” allusionism, to remember his analogy with Eisenstein’s butter machine. He makes this, for example, with feet and levitation/flying. In Badlands, he does it with drowning too: “at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown, so I could watch.” It is not only Lilith, but also its combination with The Time Machine (the identification casts a new light over that “Take a break, Red. Life of Riley, huh?”), an allusion to be understood in more than one way. This is both about to travel to the future – the future after the arrival of the telegram, immortality, the “shore of eternity” – as to the past – all those moments he was happy with Holly during the films of his life. In The New World, The Time Machine was also a way of alluding to RL’s travel in time, to The Tree of Life (see here). Below: 1) it seems the architect was preparing himself to travel in time; 2) was that strange animal that Holly saw through her binoculars a Morlock?

Arriving to the way of nature is to say a thousand times in a single moment: of course, it was you! This person with whom we lived – mother, Smith’s secretary –, we already lived with her years and years in the dark of the movie theaters of our life, in the home made of our personal memories somewhere over the rainbow. But, unlike Charles Rainier/John Smith (funny, this last name reminds me of something, what is it?), to finally find the way to our memory’s door is not to find peace… much less home.



“[Commenting the landscape, while showing his home:] The work of the Supreme Architect. I’m afraid we can’t compete with that.” (Monsieur Verdoux) I suppose Malick doesn’t agree with Verdoux. He has made an entire alternative universe for him.

Mont Saint-Michel is a synthesis of several things. It is an island. It is an architectural wonder. Formerly an abbey, it was a place apart from the rest, closed upon itself, a self-sufficient home for its community, praying to the end of time between the sea and the sky. It is a fort, a defensive structure (it is under the protection of the leader of the celestial armies). It is an acropolis, a temple. It is a fake, a medievalist reverie (I am referring to the neo-gothic additions), that include its bell tower. And it is also a major touristic attraction.

It seems to me that Mont Saint-Michel has just landed in Malick’s shore of eternity.

Having in mind the theme of the imaginary family and observing this choice from the perspective of cultural history, it is worth adding that the great development of the Marian cult in the west was (first) oppered in the monastic context. Monks left their families, most of the time at a very early age, to join a new family and a new life. It is in the world of medieval monastic devotion that some detect a new emphasis in the maternal figure of the Virgin Mary, more close and protective, materialized in many ways, including images. The process developed spectacularly during the gothic period, crossing the limits of the cloister. The Virgin of Mercy, with her uterine mantle, was one of the popular expressions of this phenomenon. Sometimes, its architectonic resonance is clear (even explicit). As a matter of fact, the (building of the) church, in particular the cathedral, established itself as a Marian image (many where actually dedicated to the Virgin), protecting entire communities in her womb. A late and interesting testimony is Georges Bataille’s early text on Notre-Dame de Rheim.
Because of all this, Mont Saint-Michel is an excellent image of what Malick’s films are to himself, his home. But, like with the mouth of hell, there is more.

What nice roses in the snow we see in the garden of the cloister! As you might know, Mont Saint-Michel is one of the probable visual sources of the cinema’s most famous mansion: Xanadu. From my first steps in the way of nature Kane’s mausoleum comes to my mind when I think in Malick’s home.

“Here, on the deserts of the Gulf coast, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xanadu’s mountain. Contents of Xanadu’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace - a collection of everything so big it can never be cataloged or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world. Xanadu’s livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each; the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the Pharaohs, Xanadu’s landlord leaves many stones to mark his grave. Since the Pyramids, Xanadu is the costliest monument a man has built to himself.”

Quoting my review: “"He was disappointed in the world. So he built one of his own - An absolute monarchy". He collected all the Venuses that he wanted and built Holly’s new home with pieces from the entire history of the cinema.” Yes, Malick’s memory palace, his stately pleasure-dome made with the loot of cinema, finds a parodic and self-parodic metaphor in Xanadu (and Kane: (“Few private lives were more public”).

A bud is an undeveloped flower. But Malick’s roses are at the climax of their beauty. It’s alleged that “Rosebud” was a malicious joke. Even if it was not, it is a maternal symbol with sexual connotations (below, Abrahams Valley). I can’t forget to mention the red rose of An American in Paris , the conducting element of Gene Kelly’s vertiginous dream. Malick’s game as something of its frenetic onirism, jumping from film to film, director to director, never stabilizing in solid ground. In few seconds he can go from Hitchcock to Ray, from Ray from Antonioni, from Antonioni to Stevens… and keep like this the entire film.
It is born of the same frustration with the world, the same desire of possession, the same eclectic chaos. But if Kane’s was empty of all emotional value, this one is not, much for the contrary. This Xanadu is Malick’s burning rose. Remember the definition given us by Malick: “I think of a home as being a thing that two people have between them in which each can . . . well, nest — rest — live in, emotionally speaking.” (The Night of the Iguana)

Now you collected me, havent you? (The Collector) I have a feeling this film is alluded in Badlands, but it is still something to confirm: He said that I was grand though, that he didn't want me for sex... and that, coming from him, this was a compliment. I shall have all the proper respect. (The Collector)

What Malick calls home is what he only finds with Holly. Emotions, or the feeling of being alive. The River of Life’s stream, if you want to call it that way. The world is boredom, emotional vacuum and garbage. His allusions to L’eclisse (and how irresistible is the one in Badlands) tell us nothing else. “I’d wake up and there’d be nothing.” (Apocalypse Now) His allusions to Copolla’s film tell the same thing. “Saigon... shit”, says Willard when he wakes up in the unforgettable beginning of the movie. With Malick, you just have to change “Saigon” for “Planet earth”.

Look for the mirror in To The Wonder.

There is an intriguing shot in Rebecca’s death, the one of the convex mirror reflecting the couple. As you know, the mirror has an overwhelmingly rich symbolic history. This is most true in the field of artistic practice. A convex mirror is, for example, a famous element of the Arnolfini Portrait and this painting was central in the first lines that defined the art of the mise en abyme (André Gide, in his diary, 1893).

A mirror produces our own image and was historically essential in the art of self-portrait: it can be an instrument and a symbol of narcissism. Simply put, the mirror produces images and, as we talk about cinema, a film is like a mirror with memory. We can extend the analogy a bit. Projected on the screen, the moving images also efface their support.
A convex mirror has particular fascinations. First, it shares the shape of the human eye. Let me go back to that director who, as improbable as it may seem, reminds me so much of Malick: J. C.Monteiro. To his very last shot.

Monteiro interpreted his last film, Come and Go, suffering from a cancer. He didn’t survive to attend the premiere. There is, for example, a last appearance as Nosferatu, from among the dead at his lover’s funeral to resurrect her (Vuvu’s black and white dream while staying at the hospital). But the film is not morbid. The way life, death and art marry in the last image is indeed beautiful.

The eye of Hal, the new eye of God.

There is a shot of him sit in the garden. Then it fades into the tree of life. Josquin des Prez, paradise. And then the camera is filming Monteiros’s blue eye like a convex mirror catching reflections from the garden of paradise. We seem to distinguish two silhouettes. We might see it as an inversion of the Arnolfini scheme. Adam and Eve reflected in the eye of God? Who knows. After a few seconds, the image becomes still (death). It stays on the screen for some minutes, until the music ends.

Well, he have already talked about this one...

I am not sure if the director would accept the idea that this shot was a synthesis of anything. He didn’t appreciate that kind of talk. But a true cinephile would have difficulty to deny the presence of the memory of a famous image in this eye, the eye from Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929).

But let’s not stop here. What’s the idea in The New World? It is a family portrait, like the Arnolfini’s; it is a self-portrait, in a way; more important, I believe, it is an image of Malick’s home. It took as much as two years to understand the extent of Tarkovsky’s importance in Malick’s last films (several references at least from The New World to To the Wonder). The convex mirror, which reappears in To the Wonder, is indeed an allusion to the space station of Solaris (the mirrors in the corridor).

Malick’s home is orbiting that dangerous oceanic planet moving ever faster (the movement of the wave in The Tree of Life). Mother in her many forms is, like Hari, created from our father’s memories of his dead wife. Allusions to Solaris in The Tree of Life include baby Jack’s plastic ball (see the arrival at the space station).

The famous fish-eye shot of Citizen Kane (there is also a shot of a window in Rebecca's death). I first thought this was an allusion to Citizen Kane: Malick and his dead wife were encapsulated forever in cinema’s glass ball. This glass ball is spinning in To the Wonder, we will talk about that latter.


“What makes a man leave bed and board / And turn his back on home?”

But, hélas, here the home is not the usually comforting image. This director has a perverse taste for choosing metaphors charged with overall conservative connotations. With Malick it is all about transformation and inversion. His home functions as much as a shelter as a device of exposure to condemnation and destruction. That is its erotic power, as we have seen. When he left or lost his former home, Malick was not searching for the same thing. He knows we can’t go home again. His Mother, Mother Night, is giving him the endless vertigo of Narcissus, but the end of the journey is the real. Yes, like Nietzsche wrote, “Mitternacht ist auch Mittag.” (apud Bataille, Inner Experience)

The dollhouse is traditionally an image of the ideal home, displaying everything in its proper place and everyone in its proper role, like an idealized family portrait.

Interior of the sarcophagus of Simpelveld. Final resting place, final home.

A house in a book, a book as a house (Your House).

This is as much about to preserve as to destroy oneself in the joy of fire. Gather, but gather to burn. It was smart from him to make Badlands first. Like that he knew where he was going, what he was searching for. He had to deserve that “always wanted to be a criminal, I guess.” And if you want to put your house on fire with you inside, the best is to drop a lot of gasoline near the doorway. Like that, the moment everything turns into hell, even if you change your mind, it is too late. “My girl Holly and I have decided to kill ourselves”.