To the Wonder: Ballet mécanique?

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]
“I am myself a machine” (The General Line)
To the Wonder films mechanisms with notorious insistence. The generator, amusement parks’ diversions, the pumpjack, playground equipments, the train. From time to time it can be felt something like a big machine at work, a machine whose mechanism these elements integrate, the machine condensing the thousand allusions gathered by its creator (see post on allusions). This complex machine produces energy, joy, vertigo. It is an erotic machine. The idea goes back to Days of Heaven... well, as a “time machine”, it seems to begin in Badlands, as we have seen.
 Raccord between the lovers movement and the amusement ride. And if Marina jumping in her bed was an allusion to the ballet of Entr'acte? “Cinema as a roller-coaster ride”?


It is a theme close to another metaphor which goes back to Days of Heaven too: the factory. It should be clear by now that this slightly overheated factory (of dreams) is in fact the very film, that long six part still growing vertiginous project. To go deep into this subject I would have to study Days of Heaven, a film I might have been underestimating. This post is nothing more than a first look at it.

It takes time to fully taste Malick’s perverse humor. All the little jokes, the second and third degree allusions he buried along his vast filmic kingdom. Like the quotation of Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique in the The Thin Red Line. It is amazing that this ostensibly provocative allusion was ignored (although detected). After all, in a film musing about Nature and one big souls, would not be a little strange quoting a masterpiece of the fascination of the avant-garde for the mechanized modernity?

For those less acquainted with these subjects, the machine was one of the favorite topics of the avant-garde. One of the particularities of the machine in face of Art (classically understood) is its utility. It has a function and it accomplishes it with precision. “Everything is directed toward utility with the utmost possible rigor.” (Léger) These films are art for the artist’s sake, for his vertigo and sacrifice. Their only measure of value is efficacy towards this. A film is a machine for burning, would say our architect.

“Cinema, it is the age of the machine, Theatre, it is the age of the horse.” (Léger) Cinema is itself a machine. The transformative power of this machine, this mechanical art, was invested with all kind of revolutionary aspirations by the avant-garde. But, as our friend said, Kit is more like an “Eisenhower conservative”, so I would keep the revolution far from this. Or just give it a psychopathic twist: “people of the cinema, unite…against the world!”
Back to Léger. He reveals a synthesis of the symbiotic relationship between man and machine that Ballet mécanique creates, associating at a precise rhythm fragmentary and dynamic visions of machineric movement with the movement of human bodies: cinema’s greatest myth, Charlie Chaplin. The cubist tramp as a living machine. “Each inanimate object becomes a living thing for him, each human person a dummy whose starting-handle must be found.” (Aragon, 1918)
Has this something to do with this? Too extravagant, even for Malick?
Léger’s film transpires the eroticization of the machine too, it is a way of singing its vitality, its “life”. It has the force of a sexual movement. And we might say that Malick working with Holly is like a mechanic working harmoniously with his machine, nurturing it and maintaining it, fusing with his love object in an erotic dance.

I could be shredded to death by an engine
And feel a woman’s sweet surrender when possessed.
Toss me into the furnaces!
Throw me under passing trains!
Thrash me aboard ships!
Masochism through machines!
Some modern sort of sadism, and I, and the hubbub!

(Pessoa, Triumphal Ode, 1914)

Ballet mécanique. Below, the camera filming itself in a swinging pendulum (convex mirror, see Home Sweet Home on this). The cinematic eye caught in the mechanics of its own lusty agitation.

But, of course, we have to strip this machine of any emancipatory pretension, of any positive value. It is true: the machine has a sinister side. Torturing, destructive, obsessive, absurd. The rational can quickly fall into the irrational, to the breaking point of madness. And it is also a mechanism of control. It can build the most perfect prisons. All this is unsurpassably explored in Chaplin’s Modern Times. If you need help to get Malick’s play with the metaphor of the machine, imagine he was a Chaplin swallowed by the great machine of cinema, some Moloch demanding to sacrifice all reason, law and sense.

The woman-machine, the great prostitute inflating with lust the eyes of Metropolis.  

“How’d you get along so long without a woman?” (Days of Heaven, script)

An analogy between Malick’s project and Duchamp’s most famous work, La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), seems promising.
The Bride with her halo is on top. The Bachelors (“La Machine Célibataire”, The Bachelor Machine) are the nine “malic molds” bellow. Without contact with the Bride, the Bachelors have to grind the chocolate themselves (masturbate). The “oculist witnesses” (extreme lower right) personify the viewer. Search for the differences: “I did not really love the machine. It was better to do it to machines than to people, or doing it to me.” (Marcel Duchamp)
Opening Janis Mink’s divulgation book on Marcel Duchamp (Taschen) you will find simply explained a possibility to understand the “même” ending the title of the Large Glass. It might be more illuminating of Malick than Duchamp... I can’t resist bringing it to this discussion.
Duchamp loved phonetic games (Rrose Sélavy, etc.) and so we might be encouraged to take it as “m'aime”, (the bride) “loves me”. Always translated as the adverb “even”, says Mink, understood as an adjective:

“[…] it could mean "the same", such as "C’est la même chose" (that’s the same thing), "C’est moi-même" (it’s me), or “quand plusieurs verbes ont un méme sujet” (when several verbs have the same subject). In any case, it does seem possible that Duchamp hints the bride and the bachelors could be diverging facets of the single person who invented them.”

 “Moi en toi. Toi en moi.” (“Me in you. You in me.”) The adventures of Terrence Malick with Holly (five fingers).

Whatever Duchamp was trying to hint or to confuse is of no importance here. As the intentions of the filmmakers alluded in Malick’s films are, at great extent, irrelevant to understand his work. Just imagine The Bride was done by Malick and Mink is describing it: “The Large Glass has been called a love machine, but it is actually a machine of suffering. […] The bachelors remain below, left only with the possibility of churning, agonized masturbation.” Despite of all, I think this agonizing aspect of Malick’s work is indeed more palpable in To the Wonder. The whole thing sounds forced, something like a painful insistence on playing a game that will never be the same thing again.

Is Tatiana insisting so much on the cleanness of the supermarket because of Stepford Wives (1975). This film is a rather funny exploration of the themes of the double and the doll.

To be continued.