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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Terrence Malick's Song of Himself I - Badlands: Eternal Objects

I'm tired. Hungry. My foot is tapping right now. I am typing. Ethnic music on the cafe radio. A mother and daughter talking about things I cannot hear. When my hand rubs across the slight stubble on my chin, why? My fingers moving on the keyboard, hemming and hawing, words flowing and then sometimes stumbling out. How? I am in the world, I am being in the world, I am aware of my body, I feel what my body feels, I close my eyes and remember faces. I open my eyes, I still remember faces. The time right now is 8:20 p.m. on a Monday night in May of 2011. My eyes rove around, though, seeing fragments of incidents in 1983. Or 1981, looking at my father's long legs compared to my short ones. I imagine what it would be like to walk with long legs like that and I am immediately fearful of the height. I see the steps going upstairs, each one an obstacle. Crickets chirp like soldiers march when I am alone in the dark at night. I wake up and stare at the wallpaper. Cut to the future, but not the present future, I understand the pictures are the story of Rumpilstilskin. I go back, remembering my crib with hallucinations at daybreak. Ponytails move toward me like spiders and crawling worms.
This is a very odd way to begin any blog, and may seem to be an even odder way to begin a collection of thoughts regarding Terrence Malick, the enigmatic and controversial filmmaker whose The Tree of Life opens in Minneapolis June 3rd. It is only Malick's fifth film over a nearly 40-year career, preceded by Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005). Recently winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the press was recently griping with the exhausted Malick talking points: Why didn't he attend the press conference or premiere? Why didn't he accept the award a week later? He's an eccentric and mad recluse, a pretentious and ponderous bore, a man afraid of having his picture taken. He spends years editing a movie, he doesn't know how to tell stories, he's addicted to photographing birds and grass. He's a genius, he's self-indulgent, he's a screenwriting teacher's worst nightmare. He's an audacious wacko, a Christian, a New Ager, a Darwinian, a Rousseauian, a Transcendentalist. He took 20 years between movies, living in Paris and washing dishes, cutting hair, and walking dogs. The J.D. Salinger of filmmaking. Like Kubrick but better, like Kubrick but worse. Undisciplined, a threat to the system, a photographic genius but yet he relies on banal clichés in incessant voice-overs. He misuses actors, cutting them completely out of movies: just ask Adrien Brody, Mickey Rourke, Lukas Haas, Gary Oldman, and Bill Pullman – most of whom were axed from The Thin Red Line. Sure, Brody's in the movie, but barely – and his character was originally one of the two leads.
I will have plenty of time to get into the mystery of Malick, and I'm not sure that we'll even get there considering that has been so expansively been written about elsewhere. There's an argument that if he was not so reclusive, his fans would not feel such adulation. Compared to Kubrick because of his lifestyle, Kubrick at least would be photographed on his sets and even tape a thank-you speech for the Director's Guild after receiving the D.W. Griffith award in the late 1990s. He granted interviews only consistently to the French critic Michel Ciment, but also talked to Gene Siskel and Rolling Stone magazine during the Full Metal Jacket press junket, apparently intending to finally do more publicity for Eyes Wide Shut in 1999 before his death. The only interview we can find for Malick dates back to 1975 with a Sight and Sound article by Beverly Taylor, in which he discusses Badlands. Assuming one looked hard enough, maybe one could find the Life or New Yorker articles he wrote in the late 1960s, or his translation of Heidegger, or remembrances of students listening in on his MIT lectures regarding Wittgenstein.
The best we have are the rumors and stories of his collaborators, many of whom have been uniquely loyal. There's also the deriding and negative commentary, such as found in Peter Biskind's Vanity Fair piece from 1998, where Malick comes across as a far more troubled genius than philosophical sage that his work might suggest. Yet the work suggests much, implying that the author is a capacious being. There is much sorrow and remorse along with the lush joy, longing, and grace. This is a complicated man and these are complicated films, though because they use brush strokes of extreme binaries, he is unfortunately trivialized. I should counter so many claims that Malick is the Rousseau of movies. But we may feel that way often, seeing how he is contrasting civilization to nature in his pictures.
The cinema of Malick is a body of work aiming to express the mystery of consciousness, of being, of being in the world, of memory, whether of a single individual or of a whole race or species or universe. That being his modus operandi, it is no wonder his detractors call him the dreaded "p" word, Pretentious. This mystery is central to The Tree of Life, a motion picture that either has no specific tree to speak of, or hundreds. A complaint arrayed against it is that Malick cannot bridge the microcosmic – and autobiographical – story of a suburban family in 1950s Waco, Texas to macro canvas of the birth and death of the universe. But then, isn't he just doing as James Joyce did, making June 16, 1904, the day when the author had his first date with Nora Barnacle, an 18-hour portrait of Dublin's sprawl suggesting mythic figures from Homer – and elsewhere? Or Finnegans Wake, where Joyce makes the terrain of his Dublin the center of the universe, the River Liffey being the River of Life, the stages of a dream corresponding to Vico's four stages of history? The Tree of Life is a story with a frame suggested by its title: The whole work is a meditative thought in one present-day afternoon of an architect (Sean Penn) who, it is implied, said some harsh words to his father regarding a long-dead brother; the remembered grief for the brother is the seed, while the origin of the cosmos are the roots and trunk, and the family story of the 1950s, where the architect remembers his coming of age and relationships to his father, brother, and mother, the branches and leaves, reaching out and falling back down to the ground. If this film is a thought, a reasoning, a reflection, a sculpted memory, the suggestion is how simultaneously insignificant and yet rich our ability to think, or contemplate beingness, is. The frustration is left to the angry viewers who are resistant to Malick's exhortations (which are, of course, "pretentious") or the film's awestruck admirers, who are damned, as I am, in trying to put the experience into words.I began with my own exercise in indulgence describing a moment of being, intending to translate how ephemeral, non linear, and fragmentary our consciousness is. A memory does not have a frame. Thoughts rarely have punctuation. I will return to The Tree of Life eventually, but I want to dig into the past and look at Malick's previous work, which has affected me so immensely over the last 13 years. Not intending to pile on the Kubrick comparisons too heavily, I recall a documentary about Kubrick in which Scorsese talks about first viewing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, and saying something like, "That's when we knew Kubrick was the one." A film viewer may have that experience a lot, but there's nothing quite like it during a first viewing on a big screen. For me, that experience was January 16, 1999 in Des Moines, Iowa, when I first saw The Thin Red Line on a damp and cloudy Saturday afternoon with my friend Susan. Enamored with Whitman at the time, it was the movie my soul had been making in my head. Just as with Emerson to Whitman, directors like Kubrick, Scorsese, Mann, Herzog, and Lynch had me simmering, and then Malick brought me to a boil. It was the transparent soul of the picture, its omni-quality. Scorsese called it his second favorite film of the decade, praising its handling of narrative form – indeed, its very question of "What is narrative?" It doesn't seem to begin or end, and one can come back to it at any point in the picture, diving into its questions and images. There are fragments of selves in the story, constructing one big Self, or at least the implication of a whole Self. This is not a World War II movie like Saving Private Ryan, released the same year and capturing much more unanimous love and money: Saving Private Ryan was Earthbound. For me, The Thin Red Line was scaling the heights.
The Thin Red Line was my first experience of Malick, so I was not among the other film fans that had been waiting literally decades for him to return after his mysterious disappearance. There was much disagreement about The Thin Red Line in the critical community, some feeling that it was a beautiful disappointment when set alongside Badlands and Days of Heaven. Movie fans that had been mesmerized and mystified by his two first features complained of the differences between the older Malick and the younger, seemingly more pessimistic and even cynical one. But just as The Thin Red Line is different from the earlier films, any casual observer would note how different Days of Heaven is from Badlands, just as The New World is different from The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life distinct from The New World. It can aggravate one's enthusiasm to incessantly hear comparisons of an artist's early work to the late work, which is kind of like comparing your wife or husband to when you first met and fell in love with them to how you feel about them years later. We fell in love with The Godfather before we saw Rumble Fish, and Raging Bull before The Departed. Such comparisons are often with merit, but other times they point out our own limitations as viewers versus the limitations of the aging artist.
In this series of blogs, I want to avoid using the word "Masterpiece," as again with Kubrick the word seems to be thrown around so much – though for good reason – that its meaning is canceled out. It can certainly apply to all five Malick works, but it points to a ranking system that is inappropriate when discussing them. Maybe in surveying the five Malick pictures with their images, wonder, and exhortations, this is more of a journey than criticism, where Malick is himself a mystery to us and then reveals where he came from. A remarkable element of The Tree of Life is how nakedly autobiographical it is for an author so notoriously shy. At Cannes, Brad Pitt said that Malick wants the work "to speak for itself." This sounds like a cliche, but in Malick it is meaningful. He in fact is saying much, much more than any filmmaker could in an interview, comparable to the confessions of Truffaut and Fellini (and more ultimately, Proust and Joyce). The Tree of Life is a culmination of disclosure, of which we see fragments in the earlier work. In going back to Badlands and Days of Heaven, we can detect what fascinates Malick, what he dreams, and how he observes the world.
There's a philosophy and pointed sensibility. More than anything, there is an enthrallment with other beings, and how beings reflect and wonder about those other beings. Individuals are trapped in themselves, just as they are sometimes asking about the unknown and unknowable "You." In The Tree of Life, we see the Jack (Hunter McCracken), alter ego for the child Malick become a voyeur, gazing and dreaming while he gazes, sometimes at people and sometimes at objects used by people. With The Tree of Life, the viewer is watching the origin of life just as he is watching the origin of one of the most remarkable aesthetics in cinema.

The climax of Badlands has killer-on-the-run Kit (Martin Sheen) excitedly preparing for the final flight from the law, as if he was conscious of how the incident was scripting itself out. He tells his lover Holly (Sissy Spacek) to hurry up and come with him. "Let's make a run for the car!" But then she rather placidly says, "I don't want to." He's nonplussed, demanding to know why. "I just don't want to go." In maddened frustration he screams, "What is the matter with you!?" The moment requires a last second rewrite before the chase commences, so he quickly gives her a location and a time (12:00 noon, 1964) for them to meet again, then hurries away. Evading the police temporarily, he stops at a gas station and burns all of Holly's things, except for what appears to be a diary. And why not the diary? Because the pages are obviously filled with documented moments of their fugitive adventure. Withholding the book from the flames has nothing to do with sentimental attachment to her, I believe, but rather is tied in with his desire to make a monument to himself. To affirm that he, Kit Carruthers, was. To be a self, remembered. Even if he's gunned down or fried in the electric chair, Kit's existential being is secondary to how he will be remembered. His is a condition of despairing loneliness.
One cannot help but wonder what imagination gave birth to such a magnificent character. A handsomely beautiful young man in the 1950s who seems to remind those around him of James Dean, he's not a rebel without a cause. Malick has said that he's actually more of an Eisenhowerian emblem of the time's conformity than a rebel: "Consider the minority opinion," he speaks into a Dictaphone, "but try to conform to the majority." Kit's socially conscious while being almost totally groundless. He's a megalomaniac and yet he alters his last name and changes his signature, so that no one else can forge it for "important documents." He's a cold blooded sociopath, particularly to members of his own class, while he's quite amiable and polite to a rich man whose house and car he "borrows" for a time.
Badlands is Malick's most linear and plot-driven film. For more old-fashioned viewers, it is still ranked as his best, while it is easily my least favorite (which speaks very well of Malick's body of work, considering I think it's close to being a perfect movie). Joyce and Picasso too made academically perfect works before fulfilling their more idiosyncratic and demanding visions. But the important motifs, rhythms, and themes of Malick are still present. In Badlands, both of these characters, active but shallow Kit and passive but thoughtful Holly, are extraordinary. In observing them, I think the philosophy graduate Malick has imbued an incredible sense of the question regarding "Being" in the "World," reacting, acting, listening, watching, reflecting, feeling, wondering, etc. It's this aspect that haunts us about Badlands, much more than the terrific fact-based story of lovers on the run, though its influence has been great on like-minded subsequent films, such as Wild at Heart, Natural Born Killers, and True Romance, where Hans Zimmer's music vividly alludes to Carl Orff's Musica Poetica, the memorable theme from Badlands. Quentin Tarantino wrote both Natural Born Killers and True Romance, and we can see how Malick's own nods to the images of popular culture could influence a more post-modern generation (and why some savvy viewers in love with the early Malick might have an icky taste in their mouth with the "cosmic woo-woo" of the older Malick). But whereas post-modern irony seems to be focused on its own groundlessness, everything being a cheap façade fed to people by the dominating culture, Malick is, much like Lynch (also mistaken for simply being a post-modernist), focused on the puzzling "ground concepts" of Being.
The Ground Concepts provoke us to ask who we are, what we feel, why we feel it, and why we act in a particular way. The struggle is to articulate the truth of our emotions, actions, and motivations. And where do our words, interior or exterior, come from? Why does Holly in Badlands not want to join Kit in his movie-star climax? "I just don't feel like it." That's kind of a leitmotif laced into Badlands and its highly dramatic action, and interesting when compared to the larger than life realizations in latter Malick. "Why did you quit your job?" "Just felt like it." "Why don't you like to be called 'Red'?" "I don't know. I just don't." There's a disconnect of beingness between the characters in Badlands and what they do or what we expect them to do or feel. After Kit kills his fourth or fifth victim, and the weight of his predicament begins to creep up on him, Holly narrates, "At this moment I didn't feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you're just sitting there and the water's all run out of the bathtub." Near the end of their journey, Holly complains, "I feel kind of like an animal living out here." There's a lot of dead animal imagery in Badlands: a dead dog laid out by garbage cans near the beginning as Kit works collecting trash ("I'll give you a dollar to eat this Collie," he tells his co-worker, a line of dialogue that must make us ask, "Where the hell did those words or even that thought come from?"); Holly throwing her dying fish in a garden; Kit kicking and standing on what is either a dead or dying cow; a fish similar to Holly's - its gills gasping out of the water – at Kit's bedside as he stares into space; Holly's father (Warren Oates) shooting her dog and throwing it into a river. Elsewhere there are images and references to caged animals, like pet birds (bird cages appear in all five Malicks), chickens in Kit and Holly's forest hideout, and Kit's "friend" and coworker (shot by Kit), who has a pet spider in a jar.
These are not throwaway objects. Their presence in Badlands relates to the being-ness of Holly and Kit, in addition to asking us about our own being-ness. Life may appear cheap in this film, and it is. The animals are, if not docile, dead bodies, and they do not have the tool of language to articulate consciousness. Why do we miss them? After Holly throws her fish into the garden, she is troubled by her feelings. Malick cuts to Holly trying to voice her frustration to Kit, who says, "Well, these things just happen," and then cutting to Kit standing on the dying/dead cow. The animals – such a central piece to Malick's aesthetic - are like a bridge between inanimate objects and the human beings in Badlands, which are all lumped together by Malick with the question of space, time, and beingness. We have language and can revel in the mystery, but what about animals and how we anthropomorphize them? What is their being? This prefigures future Malick meditations on the relationship of man and his subjectivity relating to Nature. He will even use the prop image of Rudyard Kiping's The Jungle Books - the same book copy - twice, in Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life.
The way we look at and transform Nature through our relationship to it is felt in Holly's active imagination and deep reflections. In the forest with Kit (who chuckles while reading National Geographic magazines), she falls in love with Nature while also feels a deep sense of loneliness. Nature becomes alive and communicative to her, the wind blowing through the leaves being like "whispering spirits." The It of Nature so becomes a Thou. There is being-ness to it. But that Being-ness is only completed by Holly's receptivity to it. Badlands reveals the almost musical structure that Malick visually employs, where the human theme of Holly and Kit is then met by counternote compositions of Nature, as if Nature were reacting to or commenting on what the human beings were doing. And yet that reaction and commentary is impersonal, however in the most lush and consoling of ways that directs to a deeper truth of reality than the covering skin of human problems.
How do beings relate to other objects, or other beings? Kit sees a can and he kicks it. He sees a bag and says, "Somebody dropped a bag on the sidewalk." He says 'hi' to a random stranger. Holly complains about having a headache or her stomach growling. She also responds to Nature as if by impulse. "What a nice place." "Yeah, the tree makes it nice," Kit says. "And the flowers." She pauses. "Let's not pick them." Why would they pick them to begin with? Where do the thoughts come from? The words? How do human beings shape their world? We really don't have a body, but like the animals, we are a body. The link between the dead animals and human beings is further reinforced by seeing Holly's father lie dead after Kit has shot him, and then being enveloped by smoke when Kit sets the house on fire.
As the house goes up in flames we also notice the objects burning. The artifacts. What meanings do they denote? What stories do they tell? When Badlands began, there's a very puzzling introduction by Holly, on a bed with her dog: "My mother died of pneumonia when I was a kid. My father kept the wedding cake in the freezer for 10 whole years." The cake was never eaten, but was an object that referenced relationships between two beings, a futile attempt to keep the past alive, and maybe even another human being that has died. One person's phenomenology or experience of consciousness and the world around them is different from another's. Holly's father can callously kill her dog without regarding the animal's sentience, while at the same time carry his own mystery regarding the special relationship between himself and his dead wife – and then eventually disposing that relic, as if arbitrarily.

Flowers, trees, paper bags, diaries, weddings cakes, photographs, dead dogs, empty cages, and most vividly perhaps photographs. Conscious beings seek out objects to make living references to moments, to stop Time. After Kit and Holly first make love ("Is that all there is to it?" she asks him. "Yeah." "I don't see what all the fuss was about."), he takes a rock and says, "We should crush our hands with this stone. To remember." She's not receptive to the proposition. "Okay, but I'm going to keep it as a souvenir." He lugs it about a few steps, then says, "I'm going to take a smaller one." Kit puts the memorabilia from their relationship into a balloon and sends it out into the distant world, to be discovered and marveled at by strangers. At another point, Kit buries a lot of their belongings in a wide open area, saying that in years they will come back and dig them up. "When we come back, they'll be the same, but we will be different." And if they don't dig them up, somebody else might "1000 years from now. And wouldn't they wonder?" Just as Kit is about to be captured by the police at the picture's climax, he sets up a small pile of stones to mark the spot, even pointing it out to his arresting officers.
In handcuffs and awaiting the plane that will take him off to death row, he hands out a lighter and comb which are enthusiastically taken by policemen as mementos. This is why the rich man's house is such a luxury for Kit and Holly. It's not the signification of wealth that the house presents, but rather the richness and references held by the objects. Holly notes, "What a fine place it was, full of things that people could look into and enjoy," something that anticipates what Malick will do in a gloriously elongated fashion in Days of Heaven.
Objects provoke reflection or action. Maybe the most memorable sequence in Badlands occurs when Holly looks at old photographs of strangers and thinks about her own life, Orff's Musica Poetica decorating the moment: "I was a girl born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had so many years to live." She's asking very serious questions of being: "Where would I be this very moment if things were different?" And then, ironically given how she is trapped with her boyfriend Kit, "What's the man I marry going to look like? Is he thinking of me now, by some veiled coincidence, even though he doesn't know me?" In its huge landscape backdrops and close-ups of ornaments and mementos, the heart of Badlands is in the mystery of being, of reflection (Holly) set against action (Kit). The personal mementos, with their own unique aura, function to ground people in a specific identities, and through Holly's reflection even connect her to strangers from a bygone era. Groundlessness is found in the habits and distractions of daily life, such as the celebrity gossip magazines that Holly reads to Kit in the car, or the simple banality of work. There are social words, printed words, spoken words, but too often they denote absolutely nothing. We also may remember the image of Cato, bleeding to death in his house filled with mysterious trinkets and newspaper trinkets, who chooses to look at a framed photograph in his final moments. He does not bother asking Kit why he shot him, or cry in despair about his draining life. He wants to look and reflect on an object that has a connection to his own mystery. Is it his mother? A lover? We don't know.
Badlands does not then explicitly propose the "big questions" like The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life, but it begins the journey into the mystery of consciousness, the ontological adventure through phenomenology, where we are invited to think about our own little private mysteries and habits, such as Holly's writing of complete sentences with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. Life is chaos, murderous, strange, ugly, and beautiful. We have words to try and make sense out of it. We have pictures (which Wittegenstein wrestles with in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) as mere representations of the world, signs, movies, and of course James Dean (whom Kit reminds people of). In the loneliness of empty reflection, terrible things occur: Kit has had much too much solitary time. Indeed, when he finally gets attention as an incarcerated murderer, he seems quite affable. But we still don't know. "You like people?" he's asked. "They're okay," he answers. "Then why'd you do it?"
"I don't know," he answers. "It takes all kinds." The words we speak often have little to do with what we are thinking are how we are acting, and yet our thought is governed by the prison house of language. The interior monologues of Malick, in each subsequent film a new experiment just as they are born of the same method, juxtapose against the images the same way that music often does. They are not as didactic as we may superficially think (see Stephanie Zacharek's criticism of The Tree of Life's voice-overs, where she completely misses Malick's linguistic-philosophical method). "When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés," Malick says in his Sight and Sound interview. These clichés are in some of Holly's observations, and will certainly be found in The Thin Red Line (particularly with Private Bell's adoration of his wife), John Smith and Pocahontas in The New World, and the fundamental questions of The Tree of Life. We exist, we think words while reflecting, and those words are often unsophisticated and simple, child-like and embarrassing in a social light, bereft of excuses or the cleverness with which we perfume and decorate social interactions. But if we are being in the world, as "Beings" in the "World" while words seek to represent that "Being" beyond our individual and splintered "beingness," we return to this marked, naked simplicity.
As Badlands ends, Holly wrapping things up and Malick's camera looking out over the shapeless clouds of the wide world, we have no answers for existence. But the strange magic that Malick has weaved leaves us exiting the world of the film feeling that life is slightly – or profoundly – heavier, inescapable, alive, and unknowable. It is Joyce's "ineluctable modality of the visible, at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am to read, seaspawn and seawreck, the nearing tide, the rusty boot." We take the experience of all things a little less for granted after Malick, who I think would say that this is what cinema, music, photography, painting, whatever, should do to us. Badlands recalls Virginia Woolf, who asked, "Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?" The representation of life opens us up to the "You" that is in fact ourselves.

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