Portrait of the Director as Clown

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

Something about the clown. The post explores questions common to What is grace but a bubble and nature?

The clown appears at a fun fair. Jack is apparently having a nightmare in the sequence of father’s fury attack. The soundtrack is grim. We see behind the clown a banner with the word “creation”. He invites Jack to jump through a target-like structure. When Jack approaches to smell his sunflower, the clown makes it squirt on his face. Then he plunges into a tank of water and cries out under the surface. (The sequence continues with the attic and the giant.)
Even through Grace, at least four major associations might be established with the rest of the film:

1) The announcement in the banner with the creation sequence, leading us to the idea of the sinister clown being a mask of the creator or of Life (God or a non-religious concept).
2) The target’s hole rhymes with the many passages in the film, from the mouth of Bomarzo to Mother’s vagina. In particular, it rhymes with the gate we are invited to pass. 
3) The sunflower evokes the ethereal beginning of the film, kind of “Paradise before the Fall” situation. Later, the flowers image is rehabilitated with its association with Mother’s gift.
4) The water tank trick revives the drowning (the confrontation of death’s absurdity and the spooky/macabre scene in the cemetery). The two scenes cast a shadow through the overall positive associations of water.


One conducting thread through this work is the history of self-portraits and alter-egos. The author knows the Western patrimony in this respect, combining it often with his “allusionistic spiral.”
The creator – or artist – as clown is a popular problem, at least since Starobinski’s Portrait de l’artiste en saltimbanque, published more than 40 years ago. It is a widely discussed aspect of modern art in the broadest sense (chronologically and including literature), having deserved a vast exposition in 2004 under the name of The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown.


“He is perhaps the one who had been expelled the beginning.” (« Il est peut-être celui qui avait été expulsé au commencement », Jean Starobinski)

The interest of the modern artist in clowns derives greatly from his feeling of outcast from society, of marginality, irrelevance in the order of things, artistic and political. His clown is a conscious marginal with his own truth, his fight against the world, against norm.
Clowns are “their own creators and their own creations.” (E. Welsford on Italian buffons, The Fool His Social and Literary World) They live in a fictional world of their own, an illusion, a poetic reality where they can dwell and are free to follow their follies. But their descent from reason to folly is paradoxically a way to surpass, to find unknown – divine – expressive and physical possibilities.
It is not far from the traps of Romantic imagination – as some artist understood themselves – the somehow primitivist image of many of the clownish figures of modern art: strange to the utilitarian and mercantile, delivering themselves to nonsense, gratuity and pure play, tramps with no home, free to live their tragic condition, always on the road, performing a popular ephemeral spectacle of rhythm and color strange to academic rules in the outskirts of the cities or in poor neighborhoods. A kind of sacred, magical figure that became an expressive metaphor and mask to some myths of modern art.
The self-portraits and allegories born from the attraction of artists, poets and writers for clowns were diverse, of course. Most of them have not even small resemblance with this one. Ironic, grimacing, melancholic, sweet, sinister, self-indulgent, derisory, abjectionist, tragic. If not Christic, like in Rouault. Or Henry Miller: “A clown is a poet in action. He is the story which he enacts. It is the same story over and over — adoration, devotion, crucifixion. "A Rosy Crucifixion," bien entendu.”

Rouault. A clown painted in the manner of an Ecce Homo. Good to keep in mind considering Malick's parodic sacrifice.  

A problem that we will not explore in deep here is the one of the circus (there was a flying circus in Days of Heaven) and its dangers. The risky numbers of acrobats, defying gravity (law) and all sort of courtship rituals with death found in the spectacle (the circle; do not forget 81\2’s importance to understand the shore of eternity in The Tree of Life) were greatly responsible for this attraction, having been thought as analogous to the poetic act itself.

We could call this the eroticism of the circus. And in this respect we should speak of the clown as laughter in the face of death. What to some might be the sinister laughter of Death.


Il Mondo Nuovo (1791). Everybody turns his backs on the painter. Tiepolo paints the crowd absorbed in the charlatan’s wonder, a pre-cinema show: The New World was the name…

In the artifacts of its early years, when it was still something like a fair attraction, cinema’s relation with the most common stage of the clown, the circus, is striking to us all. A popular spectacle frightening, cheering, marveling, shocking the audience with a variety of tricks. Think of Méliès. Overall, this intimate brotherhood weakened with time. But the exceptions are numerous.

The Circus is the name of a film of the most famous artist of the cinema, Charles Chaplin. The greatest clown of the century (second best on the rear, Limelight).
The circus is one with the aesthetics of Fellini, assuming frequent metacinemaic value. His films are rightly said circus-like spectacles, carnivalesque and clownesque. The Clowns are one of the most important motives of his work. See the poster with the giant woman in the dream: a reference to Fellini?

From the first time, immediately manifested itself in me a traumatizing, total alliance to that uproar, those deafening music, those disturbing apparitions, those death threats.” (“Fin dalla prima volta, si è manifestata subito in me una traumatizzante, totale adesione a quel frastuono, a quelle musiche assordanti, a quelle apparizioni inquietanti, a quelle minacce di morte.”, Fare un film, 1980)


“I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.”

The ancestor of this kind o clown is Joseph Grimaldi. It is suggested that the widely known contrast between the hilarity of the stage performances of famous artists like Grimaldi and their tragic self-destructive lives – popularized by Charles Dickens – is somehow responsible for the dark shadow pending over the clown till this day. The duality between an apparent happiness and a hidden (potential) evil made the clown’s a disturbing presence. The performances of clowns could be perceived has a grotesque, hysterical show, a terrifying symptom of an individual or social malaise:

“... the recent arrival of the English clown brings [to the circus] something mortuary funambulist, the macabre look of a celebration of agile undertakers.” (... la toute récente livrée du clown anglais apporte quelque chose de mortuairement funambulesque, un semblant macabre de la goguette d’agiles croque-morts.”, Edmond de Goncourt, Frères Zemganno)

The Tree’s is one of these sinister clowns. But if the dark side of the clown was evident since the 19th century we have to go back far more in order to investigate it in deep.

Godard painting his suicidal clown and Sternberg painting his masochist one: take it as you want it. About Pierrot le fou you should remember that the commedia dell'arte had already been used in metacinematic narratives, like Anger's Rabbit's Moon. (Just a crazy thought: and if Karina's scissors where from The Woman in the Window?) Later, Godard, Woody Allen and Monteiro played again with the centuries old figure of the fool (King Lear, etc).


The Fool and the Dance Macabre

The humor of clowns was always related to a more or less menacing, frightening excess/voracity. Folly. In the Middle Ages we would not talk about clowns but about fools. Even today folly is one of the clown’s most defining elements.
This folly, this mocking folly of clowns, was appropriated by Death, particularly in the phenomenon of the danse macabre.
Besides mockery, the dead (or Death) assume two essential aspects of court fools in these images (occasionally, the skeletons can even present outfits and attributes of fools). Both are indifferent to social boundaries: all are their victims, no one is at safe. Both function as a mirror of truth and an appeal to wisdom: the dancing skeletons confront the living with their future image; the fool’s art exposes the vanitas, vices and excesses of men, their folly.

Death’s fool-like appearance in these images is not easy to explain. The often animalistic, beast-like behavior of the fool, exhibiting to everyone the low, scary and amusing materiality of the human body, reminded men of their inevitable degradation and mortality. Furthermore, this orientation towards the body and sin made the fool an example of alienation from God, of spiritual death.

"The fool said in his heart, there is no God." (Psalm 51, David and his fool, manuscript) Folly was always ambivalent. Here the portrait is negative, alienation from wisdom. But it was often presented as a mirror of truth. He is unarticulated, regressive, oriented towards the lowest, both innocent like a child and demonic.

The intentions of those who promoted this intense culture of the macabre were one thing, the results... To some, the memento mori could turn into a memento vivere:

Since life is so short, let us hasten to enjoy it. Since the dead body will be so repulsive, let us hurry to gain all possible pleasure from it while it is still in good health. Here it is important to recall what took place during outbreaks of the plague. Some people rushed off the churches while other greedily indulged in the worst debaucheries. These estemonies prove that the macabre could be understood as ans invitation to eroticism” (“Puisque la vie est si brève, hâtons-nous d’en jouir ; puisque le corps mort sera si repoussant, dépêchons-nous d’en tirer tout le plaisir possible, tant qu'il est en bonne santé. Rappelons-nous ce qui se passait durant les pestes: les uns se passait durant les pestes : les uns se précipiteaient vers les églises ; les autres s’asonnaient goulûment aux pires débauches. Ces témoignages prouvent que le macabre pouvait être reçu comme une invitation à l’érotisme.”, Jean Delumeau, La Peur en Occident)

In both Death in Venice and The Blue Angel (adapted from the Mann brothers) the protagonists confront a disturbing image of their future (clown in the cabaret; man in the boat) in the eris quod sum tradition. Their masks (although different) are masks of love and masks of death. As a mask of death ends to be the disguise of the criminal mastermind of Spies.

In what was supposed to conduce to wisdom, the appeal of folly, of nothingness, could be heard. Of animal lust. Of erotic violence. Of a truly macabre dance with Death.

The Disney macabre. Childhood dreams and death.  

This historical detour is not secondary. Death is this clown laughing at Jack in The Tree. The skull-like white of the skin contrasting with the lurid colors in terrible grimaces.

Hamlet: Yorick, the dead fool, as a representation of Death. The gesture is reminiscent of the conversations hold between the fool and his marotte, his alter ego.


They kept him in solitary, so he didn’t have a chance to get acquainted with the other inmates, though he was sure they’d like him, especially the murderers.” (Badlands)

It is well outside “high culture” that we will find the self-portraits as clown more close to Malick’s. By the time this director was debuting, John Wayne Gacy ended with all clowns’ aspirations to regain our innocent look. With the “killer clown” we entered the age of the terrifying specimens so abundantly produced by all medias to this day. In Pogo the clown reveals itself as a disguise and a tool to the darkest and most sinister and a real incarnation of Death.

We can skip the last part in the present case. What is no reason to ignore a striking artistic brotherhood. And knowing the Starkweather antecedent, we can ask ourselves: was it conscious?

Guess I will make a vacation from the blog.