To the Wonder: vade retro

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

Any attempt to consider Malick’s experiments will deal with ennui. All comes from there. No big deal. Ennui is the omnipresent demon of modernity.
Quintana is a curious presence in Malick’s city. What is precisely the nature of his malaise? It is a mix of sadness, loss (“no tengo ninguna experiencia de ti, no como una vez la tuve”; “I have no experience of you. Not as I once did.”), anguish, something more. One of the parishioners tells him “I’m going to pray for you, so you receive the gift of joy.”
Considering the context, acedia might be important to have in mind. Aquinas saw it as the refusal of the joy (gaudium) which has its source in divine love. In the end, the priest seems to find what he has lost with his parish, the body of Christ. The answer is to search in charitas that love that loves us.
The name of the priest’s character, Susana’s, told us that he came from Buñuel. Quintana is a priest because of Nazarín, a film alluded by The Tree of Life’s Ecce Homo stained glass: in me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left. If Nazarín was trying to help humanity, Quintana assists and consoles Malick’s parish. The film is alluded both by Marina’s exercises (above) and her attempt to playfully bite Neil in the mouth.

Marina like a tempting devilish Buñuel-girl.
One person visited by the priest is particularly important. It is the aged woman with the toad tattooed in her arm. She is very provocative towards Quintana, throwing his book to the ground and later going to his house. The allusion is evident: Simon of the Desert tempted by the devil.

The city continues to be the inner community of the director. Everything is nature: not a character or presence in this film escapes the allusionistic spiral. This includes all the roles played by amateurs, even when they seem to be playing just who they are. Sometimes the director might search for something and sometimes he might just find something which he can use.

What is this bizarre film, Simon of the Desert? The answers are infinite. Consider it as a work about boredom. From this perspective, that sudden transition from the column to the skyscrapers (an abstract city, like in the contemporary scenes of The Tree of Life) is much less absurd or arbitrary than some might think.

It is a terrible cliché to reduce the Italian master to such a label, but as we talk about ennui it should be remembered that allusions to Antonioni started in Badlands. I suspect of a partial allusion to Beyond the Clouds in these shots. 

Invert the film. If it would begin with contemporary boredom, why would we go back to the desert of the ascetics? Because, historically, that was the place of the crime. The oldest ancestor of what we can name boredom or ennui (as a concept) is usually identified in the sin of acedia, the “demon of noontide” (Psalm 91), first defined by Desert Fathers (who started to list the deadly sins). Acedia (from ἀκηδία, “non-caring state”) covered a realm of psychological states and behaviors developed by ascetics: listlessness, laziness, apathy, ceaseless wandering, physical and spiritual. This flight from the world led to incapability to perform one’s duties, extreme sorrow and, ultimately, suicidal despair.

The flesh breaking the realm of the spirit: the entrance of the Devil in the film happens in a moment of evasion and phantasy about a woman. Simon wonders, dreams about his mother, imagines himself playing with her and resting in her lap.

Maybe it would not be too wrong to say that in Simon – one of the most extraordinary films – we travel the scenario of acedia to ennui. From the beginning to the “final ball”. The end of history: the secular, capitalist, democratic, sexually liberated world synthesized by the frenzy claustrophobic atmosphere of the 60s disco. A world where apparently there is nothing else to do except to join the final dance or to die of boredom. Vade retro, says Simon. But someone took his place, and there is no coming back, answers the Devil. We can’t go home again.

Painting left us an extraordinary heritage of diabolical temptations through depictions of the life of Saint Anthony. It is their volcanic reality that feeds this director’s inner life.

The mythical world of Simon was the world of inner experience, of full deliverance to God. A world from where the Other is excluded is left with the same, with meaningless, endless, infernal repetition. For those unable to retain or regain a parcel of Simon’s faith, what is left? For Malick it is the parodic (pseudo-Bataillian) go back to the column where he hopes to find not God but the Devil – or Evil.

Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997): Marcello Mastroianni as an alter-ego of the director and Leonor Silveira (his muse) dressed to evoke the devil of Simon.

To some extent we could say the same of Buñuel himself. I wonder if he was not Simon’s substitute in that column… The apparition of his Devil, tan inocente, always reminds me of that Jennie portrayed in one of his favorite films. The Devil as the muse? “Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.” Change sex for eroticism, take it as the realm of art and... voilà!


“I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.” (Citizen Kane)

“Proud of my freedom. Or of my enslavement, Mother.” (“Orgulloso de mi libertad… O de mi esclavitud, Madre.”, Simon of the Desert)

“Recognizing two of her own, the Statue of Liberty gave us a friendly wave” (« Reconnaissant deux des siens, la Statue de la Liberté nous adressa un salut fraternel », Pierrot le fou).

From Badlands, Malick’s relation with American mythology is much the same he establishes with religion: something between parody and deliverance, executioner and victim. That is the play. With rare intuition he depicted himself as the crucified James Dean. An unifying image of these two realms: America (its myth factory, Hollywood) and the Cross/religion/sacrifice. Hollywood as the Holy Wood – or The Tree of Life. As for me, in this last film, it is easier to see a grotesque exaltation of the world of the disco than any little openness to whatever “sacred.” Malick: if you get to the conclusion that, despite of all, you are as bored as ever, I can’t tell you more than the Devil: “Ni "vade", ni "retro", ni nada.”

To be continued?


To the Wonder: tanz für mich

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

To follow the stream of the river is unnecessary to identify all the allusions buried in these films. Most of the time our intuition is enough. We do not need to make the connection with Fritz Lang’s Spies to understand who are The Tree of Life’s clown and his spectator. The same for that man playing tricks with his hands to Jack. It took one year and a half to arrive to Cocteau, but was that indispensable to feel the director’s metacinematic play? No. It certainly made everything clearer, but that was all.

Marina in erotic suffocation. A you in me, me in you situation. Marina already did the same with Neil.
This small introduction to speak about gauze and textiles with some degree of transparency (like tulle, lace). There is gauze in BadlandsDays of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. It must be important. Although all the final allusions made with gauze are not yet clear in absolute to me, some useful notes follow.

Fellini: the veil of fantasy.
Tati, the veil of nostalgia.

Gauze is metacinematic par excelence. Few things are so deeply associated with the screen. As you know, a gauzy veil was commonly placed in front of the lens to achieve certain effects, namely to lent the image a misty, watery, dreamy look. Gauze puts you in a mood for dreaming.
Directors consciously used gauze metacinematically. An undisputable example is found in Olivier’s Henry V: through the curtain we enter the play. More are possible. Like that shot of Pasolini, alluded in Days of Heaven, where gauze is associated with voyeurism.
The River of Life is not exclusive of cinema. And so the allusions to Bataille. The River is the sacred, in the sense defined by the French writer. Cinema, through this experiment, functions as a door to it. That is its value.
The Messenger’s kiss becomes simple from this perspective. The goddess
of the 7th art envelops the River of Life in her magical veil and offers his call to the director. It is particularly remarkable how the kiss is felt by the Architect as he is crossing the “bridge.”
The tapestry dedicated to Touch with its dreamy erotic aura in To the Wonder.
How is it to feel the caress of an image? The haptic function of the eye is long been theorized in the context of cinema. This art form appeals to our sense of touch in sometimes disturbing ways. When we feel its kiss, the Doubting Thomas inside us also feels the whole notion of “seeing’s believing, but feeling’s the truth” shaken. For a second he found illusion adorned with the attributes of truth. Present material truth, what lacks the moving images the most.


Gauze was essential to the glamour of Hollywood. Americans used gauze to make scenarios and dresses in such a way the classic period is inconceivable without it. Well, gauze was used lavishly or discreetly by almost all great artists of the cinema.

Hitchcock and Cocteau. Gauze is the most phantomatic of textiles. It is “almost nothing”. Like it was trying to negate itself. It is perfect for the apparel of ghosts or to appear in ghostly scenes. And so to the cinema, ghostly par excellence.

Bergman, a great gauze lover: Persona, The Silence, Smiles of a Summer Night.


L'eclisse, apparently one of Malick's favorite films.

Singin' in the Rain. The apotheosis of gauze.
The Tales of Hoffmann.

Visconti: fetishism, entrapment, suffocation.

Copolla, Apocalypse Now Redux. It fades into the midst of the river.

Gauze’s most important property is that it filters light and so, especially in black and white, it allows all kinds of graduations, suggestions, subtleties, poetic touches. Impossible not to mention Dreyer, who took the “art of gauze” – just crafted this horrible term – to the limit in Ordet (the curtains in the coffin’s room). And Bergman, in the house of Persona.

Gauze, as a textile, bears the memory of painting, of the canvas. First, Dieterle, Portrait of Jeannie. Second, Dreyer, Dies Irae, the lovers through the Primavera. Third, Leone, nebulous opium dreams.

Gauze is also a kind of fetishistic material and a material perfect for fetichization. It floats, almost magically, asking to be played with. It engages desire. It excites the imagination. It enchants. If you want to lose yourself in miles of gauzy curtains and dresses there is nothing like Sternberg. He was the absolute king of lace, gauze, nets, veils. He had worked with lace when he was young and certainly got the taste for it. In his films gauze reveals, divides, traps, obsesses. Serves erotic plays and stages plays of death. It is so present it can be taken as a symbol of his cinema as a whole.
Gauze is a veil. The veil allows viewing one way and frustrate it the other. The veil is mystical. It is a material associated with passage, secret and revelation. To lift the veil, we say.

The veil of Mabuse.
It is a material associated with the sacred. As you know, there was a veil in front of the passage of the inner sanctum in the Temple. It marked the limit of the divinity, of the taboo. It is a “door” in the sense we have been talking about.
Malick’s experiment oscillates between fetishism and profanation. Between losing oneself in the infinite veil of cinema and torn it down to find the real.

It is curious how we again come to the avant-garde. Not many viewers of Battleship Potemkin know Eisenstein’s comment to its final shot. He compared the movement of his ship crossing the screen to the dagger of Plancher-Valcour. According to the legend, this French actor and director of the Délassement Comiques (a Parisian theater of the late XVIII century) torn down the transparent curtain separating the actors from the public when the Bastille was taken: « Vive la liberté ! » The veil had been one of the impositions obtained by the envious Comédie Française.

Cleopatra. To torn the veil as rape. Do not forget the allusion to Cape Fear made in Badlands. Gauze, as the material of veils, is both bridal (not far from the hymen) and mortuary. Buñuel made an excellent perverse synthesis of these two values in Belle du Jour, Viridiana and Wuthering Heights, for example. Have also a look in The Fall of the House of Usher, co-written by the Spanish with Epstein. The veil is one of the most important motives of the film.

Like Baudelaire’s child, the director (former spectator) would not rest until he saw his toy’s soul. His experiment has the presumption to be the last film. Even if in Badlands he wishes Holly a happy and long life, he envisages one forever under his shadow. Not only her past, also the future. This is truly the paradise lost in question: cinema’s.

To torn the curtain was a revolutionary gesture, bringing together the people and art(ists). Politics and the screen. Reality and image. Something like the shout of someone who had just profaned an entire palace of taboos: art for art’s sake is dead, hurrah!
The veil – through the Veronica – and the shroud – through the Holy Shroud – as part of impression techniques non manu factus integrate photography’s “pre-history” (something to have in mind, especially when considering RL’s shot). But only with photography image and index would fuse, that which is illusory and the vestige left by contact, the proof of a gone presence. What potentialities and what risks arouse from this absent presence? Of this ripping off the old veil?



“What does one need to pay to see everything?”(God’s Wedding) The complete disclosure of Holly cannot be accomplished without the price of the director’s head. When the last veil touches the ground it will roll: the torn veil will become his flesh. Holly is his victim but also his executioner. She will be naked before him, rapped of every secret, but she will have his head on a plate. To kiss “his cold, dead lips.” (Sunset Boulevard)

“I want the head of John of God the Baptist” (The Last Dive) Monteiro’s Salome asking for his own head. To be understood in the tradition of self-portraits in the form of decapitated men (Caravaggio, etc.).

The dance danced in To the Wonder is the dance of death began 40 years ago. In the supermarket (the metaphor of “supplies” to build the film goes back to Badlands) Marina plays with a package of toilet paper (a reference to the subject matter exposed in the last post) and with a mop, like Kit did just before he met Holly. This is his dance, his death ballet. In more than one way, this is true. And this allusion to Psycho is one of the keys to that “He is killing me!” But, let us hope, you understood that Anna told Marina nothing more than to vivre sa vie. Something was already written on that film around here.

Guido’s bride.

To be continued.
[As you may have seen, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick was abundantly reformulated. Aspects emphasized in past versions are now absent or lost their centrality, waiting for the precise identification of the allusions they contain. The understanding of some other points changed. Minor modifications in other posts happened and might still follow. HNY.]