What is grace but a bubble? And nature?

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

Malick plays often with traditional images. That is the case of his lovely homo bulla: baby Jack chasing soap bubbles.

The Roman saying “man is a bubble” had a great iconographic fortune in the West from the 16th century on. Erasmus tells us:
“The lesson of this proverb is that there is nothing so fragile, so fleeting and so empty as the life of man. A bubble is that round swollen empty thing which we watch in water as it grows and vanishes in a moment of time.”
In the Adagia we find the admonitory tone of the Vanitas, more or less morbid reminders of the ephemeral nature of human life. Its pleasures, joys, hopes, passions, wealth, youth, beauty, innocence. The allegorical meaning of the bubbles is potentiated, dramatized, by the association with children, young, vulnerable, innocent beings, unaware of suffering and death. Our friend placed the bubbles before the epileptic whose vision Mother denies Jack, establishing them as an image of a paradise condemned to be lost.
Nature Blowing Bubbles for her Children (Tate). The oldest chasing bubbles scene dates 1565 (Hadrianus Junius, Emblemata, XVI). The number of the bubbles in the film is indeed meaningfull: this is an orgy of allusions and illusions that wants to make us run in every direction.

The most common are the “bubble-blowing scenes”. Sometimes, children are just admiring the bubbles in delight. In The Tree of Life we have a rarer “bubble-chasing scene”. Here the child seems not to have produced the bubbles. Jack is searching for them, runs after the objects of his desire, wants to possess them – to know them, in a sense.
Cinderella(s). Bubbles (including underwater bubbles) are a trademark of Disney’s films. The brilliant dream sequence of Dumbo deserves to be highlighted.

This is, of course, our position towards Malick’s films. Get too close, start to question, investigate, follow the clues, from woman’s feet (the classic symbol of fetishism) to the nightgown – dare to touch; why this panic? - and our childhood in Malick’s garden will abruptly and permanently be wiped out:
“'Twas knowledge he sought.
But a bubble he caught.”
(R. Dagley, The Sage and the Fool)

In Bulles de savon vivantes (1906), Méliès shows up as a magician who produces living soap bubbles for our delight. In the final trick, a giant bubble gradually envelops him and rises into the air, generating alarm between the assistants. Laughing, Méliès returns to the stage walking. The director as the omnipotent magician, joking with cinema’s magic bubble. Below, the smoke bubble of Cocteau (The Testament of Orpheus; I inverted the order), which, along with Hitchcock's Saboteur, is alluded in Malick's genesis.

What is made of nothing, nothing will become. Vanitas comes from vanus: empty, void (unsubstantial, deceptive, etc.). Only fools chase things “full of nothing”. Like bubbles, like Malick’s empty hands. That is the obvious joke with Godard-Bresson in the last film. Its title should be understood primarily as: a praise, a gift, a tribute, a pray to the wonder, the wonder of Nature being able to give what it doesn’t possess – Grace. Malick’s usual mix of solipsism and sacrifice.

"Elle a de super belles mains." (Tatiana on her mother, To the Wonder). Godard took a lot from Bresson, including his famous hands (several examples were possible, but this is the one that permits to identify the allusion). “What wonder, that one can give what one doesn’t possess! Oh, miracle of our empty hands!” (“Ô merveille, qu’on puisse faire présent de ce qu'on ne possède pas soi-même, ô miracle de nos mains vides!”, Nouvelle Vague, Diary of a Country Priest)

The magnificence of soap bubbles was praised by many, like W. Benjamin, who was fascinated by their swirling colors. It is a happy coincidence that in English the bubble’s matter is called a “film” (of soapy water). The perspective of the producer of the bubbles should also be considered. How are the bubbles a metaphor of Malick’s experiments (to himself)?

In Voyage autour d’une étoile (1906), the scientist wanted to meet a charming star. In a moment of inspiration, he decided to transport himself in a great soap bubble. (But the adventure ended badly.)

“The child stands enraptured in the balcony, holding its new present and watching the soap bubbles float into the sky as it blows them out of the little loop in front of his mouth. Now a swarm of bubbles erupts upwards, as chaotically vivacious as a throw of shimmering blue marbles. Then, at a subsequent attempt, a large oval balloon, filled with timid life, quivers off the loop and floats down the street, carried along by the breeze. It is followed by the hopes of the delighted child, floating out into the space in its own magic bubble as if, for a few seconds, its fate depended on that of the nervous entity. When the bubble finally bursts after a trembling, drawn-out flight, the soap bubble artist on the balcony emits a sound that is at once a sigh and a cheer. For the duration of the bubble’s life the blower was outside himself, as if the little orb’s survival depended on remaining encased in an attention that floated out with it.” (Bubbles)

Good witch Glinda arriving in her magic bubble (The Wizard of Oz).
Sloterdijk’s book (in which we find one or two interesting things to think this artist) deals with the problem of space and that is indeed a central issue in Malick. His films are his way out of himself, his amniotic sac to rebirth and… his own private bubble. It should be stressed that like baby Jack’s they won’t last. Death has the final word. Some works of art establish an explicit association between the bubbles (or glass balls) theme and representation itself (in general and in particular): everything is vanity, including images. In this regard, remember the soap bubble has, in the context of the vanitas, a meaning akin to the mirror, of which we have already talked about. Furthermore, consider the central problem of idolatry: the worship of the image, the thing “full of nothing”, the nightgown without body.

First thought, it could be said that the creator is also building an image of the emptiness of his own life, of the futility of his stupid experiments. The equalitarian character of death is indeed a commonplace of the vanitas. But at this point of the discussion enters that key concept to Malick’s door: eroticism. It is exactly from the confrontation with death that his Venus arises from the foam, that foam from which all bubbles are born. You will never understand this man without getting to the bone his final message: “I can’t deny we’ve had fun, though. I mean, uhm, that’s more than I can say for some.” (Badlands)

If you want my opinion about Jack’s bubbles, I suspect someone drank too much champagne (Wings). They are an image of the Dionysian ivresse of the director.

Free in the immensity of the sky.

Humana fragilitas finds other classic metaphors in The Tree of Life. Like the candle. Like the leaf, that dead leaf seen when the baby arrives his home. The leaf blown by the wind, a theme that goes back to Homer. Malick cuts the exact moment the leaf starts moving, creating a relation with the life starting its way. But this apparently innocent and unimaginative detail is one of those in which the “psychopathic touch” shines bright, much more than with the bubbles. Guess: if we are the leaf, who is the samurai?

[The best thing I could find on the web (and on which I partially based myself) is in Spanish. P.S.: Instead of a long review I might publish 3 or 4 shorter posts about this last film, but not for now. Something like: 1) An Overview; 2) Histoire(s) de la peinture; 3) Ballet mécanique? The third is written but has not images yet. This moment the first and the second are drafts.]