Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” on Notebook | MUBI

Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” on Notebook | MUBI.

I don’t generally repost articles, but I found this to be especially compelling.


The New World

The-New-World-001That Terrence Malick is an enigma need not be overstated.  Much has been made and speculated over regarding the director’s almost J.D. Saliger-like reclusiveness and the notoriously mysterious twenty year gap between his second and third films–a gap which, thankfully, appears to be quickly dropping between successive films.  Currently, with only six completed films to his credit in a forty year career, he has consistently been pointed to as the kind of filmmaker who seems to embody the adage of quality over quantity.  For the critic, however, if nothing else, the gaps between films allows for them to be categorized neatly into groups of two: there is the photographic brilliance, and the innocent, blue collar poetry of his first two films (Badlands and Days of Heaven); there is the mature, transcendent revisionism of his middle two historic epics (The Thin Red Line and The New World); and finally the cosmic-as-personal Christianity of his most recent films (Tree of Life and To the Wonder).  Above all, however, Terrence Malick is a poet working in a medium whose audience often tends to shun unfamiliar forms of expression.  And it is his poetic instincts which are simultaneously his greatest strength (and legacy to the artform) as well as potentially the very characteristics which can get him into trouble.

Pauline Kael once described Days of Heaven as an “epic pastiche” with too many ideas that don’t grow out of anything organic, and described it as “an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphor’s on it.”  While I’m not convinced she was right about the film (Days of Heaven remains a personal favorite of mine), Kael was always a challenger of prevailing notions.  I do, however, understand her inclination, which has been periodically leveled against several of his films.  Poetry, and in particular visual poetry, without discipline can far too easily become mindless ambiguity: form without substance.

Though not necessarily my very favorite of his films, in some ways, The New World represents the apotheosis of Malick’s art–both grounded to narrative just enough so as not to distance a more casual audience, while still maintaining the lyrical grandeur one has come to expect from his films, achieving the kind of organic representation that Kael felt was lacking in his earlier work.  I write here about the primary, theatrical version of film rather than 2 1/2 hour Academy cut which was released briefly in late 2005 (sadly, I didn’t get to see this version), or the nearly 3 hour director’s cut released on DVD and BluRay (which I also own, but find to be unnecessarily indulgent).  The New World might best be viewed as a creation myth.  But unlike the creation story at the center of his Tree of Lifethis creation story is less concerned with the origins of the universe than the origins of man–or, if you prefer, the origins of a nation.  Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell in perhaps his best role to date) and Pocahontas (first-timer Q’orianka Kilcher in a revelatory, under-recognized performance) are the new Adam and the new Eve of the Edenic American continent circa 1607.  And like the biblical Eden, it is sin which brings about the fall of this new Paradise.

The opening scenes of English ships arriving at the shores of Virginia set to the introduction of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold opera, are are among the most captivating scenes from any film in the last decade and immediately set the tone for things to come.  In a film filled with contrasts and juxtapositions, perhaps the most startling early on is that of the English in their bulky, metal armor and the Natives in their buckskin.  The cautious, early interactions between the two cultures breeds suspicion and unease on both sides.

At times, the film somewhat over-idealizes the way of life of the Natives–Smith’s narration suggests that they have no concept of greed, deceit, or even forgiveness, a notion contradicted by Pocahontas’ pleading with her kingly father for forgiveness, as well as the tribe’s proficiency with weapons and military strength–but thankfully, it never quite reaches the simplistic level of Indians=good, Europeans=bad.  Instead, Malick’s humanism reaches far deeper than that, uncovering the complexities of colonial contact.  As one critic pointed out, “He (Malick) creates uncanny, expressive imagery, such as a pair of hands, turned outward from a praying position so that they are cupped, to scoop a clam out of the fecund sea. It is an image of promise, yet both the pearl and the plundering are implicit.”  Indeed, for that is the double-sided story of The New World and of America herself–a land in many ways destroyed in order to make way for the promise of hope, opportunity, and new beginnings.

Nevertheless, like a story by Emerson or Thoreau, the film finds tragedy in man’s estrangement from his environment, and peculiarity in his desire to reshape nature as represented in a scene where an Indian stares perplexed at a meticulously manicured English garden late in the film.  The beauty of nature vs. the encroachment of civilization is a common theme throughout Malick’s work.  As with the clam in the sea, the sets of hands, so often seen outstretched to heaven throughout the film, suggest it might be a kind of prayer: a prayer of thanks for the beauty that surrounds us, and a prayer of repentance for the destruction we have wrought.

Simultaneously more optimistic than The Thin Red Line and more focused and disciplined than Tree of Life (the films which immediately preceded and followed this one), The New World ultimately succeeds through the character of Pocahontas whose strong will and open heart finds peace through sacrifice.  And fittingly, it is images of resurrection which dominate the film’s rapturous finalé, confirming that only through destruction can there be rejuvenation, and only through death can one find life everlasting. It is here that the ambiguous mysticism of her elliptical narration becomes solid and takes form, how the word is made flesh.  Though her chiefly father may have been just in distrusting the Europeans, it is her compassion which transcends justice and finds grace.

Scarface (1983)

ScarfaceTHE WORLD IS YOURS… proclaims a marquee atop the Goodyear Blimp.  The phrase clearly strikes a chord with Tony Montana since he has it inscribed on a giant, Atlas-like globe and sets it as the centerpiece of the foyer in his Miami mansion.  The world is all he wants, and for a time, all he gets, as later in the movie it reads less as a proud mission statement and more as an ironic epitaph.  Actually, both uses are a sly homage to Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster classic, of which this is ostensibly a “remake”.  While the structure of the Hawks film is vaguely evident, director Brian De Palma and writer Oliver Stone craft their own cinematic world and brand it with their own unique personalities.  And, of course, the third person in that trinitarian alliance is Al Pacino, who as Tony Montana creates perhaps the most scenery-chewing performance of his career, which probably puts it on the short list for most scenery-chewing performance in film history.  This is not a criticism.

De Palma is no stranger to controversy, particularly when it comes to the ratings board, but in the case of Scarface, not only did he engage a ratings battle (it got an “X” rating three times, before he had a narcotics officer testify to the authenticity of the film in order to reduce it to an “R”), but also ongoing accusations that the film actually glorifies drug use, the narcotics industry, and glamorizes violence.  Nothing could be more absurd.  Part of the controversy, no doubt, stems from its misunderstood reputation within the hip hop community, the appeal being Montana’s ambition, flamboyance, and braggadocio (“All I got in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody!”)  Subtlety has never been De Palma’s strong suit, and with Tony Montana, he finds a character which he can fully exploit with operatic grandeur.  The story is not simply one of sex, drugs, and violence, but the tragedy of a bad man and the corruption of the American Dream.

Few filmmakers can claim to understand the mechanics and pleasures of the cinema as well as Brian De Palma, who in his own way, is one of the most “pure” filmmakers this country has ever produced.  In Scarface, like many of his other films, this is made evident in his manipulation of artifice, whether it be the painted billboard of a serene Miami sunset which fills the frame at the beginning of the film, or Robert Loggia’s office walls painted like the phony paradise of a tourism brochure.  To De Palma, cinema is not reality, but the illusion of reality, and he is constantly playing with that illusion.  But this works on more than simply a visual level, because the entire empire Montana builds–all of the money, the fame, the VIP treatment, even his trophy wife–all of this too is an artifice.  He has balls, but no courage; money, but no charity; a beautiful wife, but no love; an army, but no friends.  It is in the latter scenes where Montana begins to recognize this fact that a genuine pathos is developed, both transforming the film from merely an exercise in personality to an exploration of character as well as answering those who would reduce the film to a monument of excess.  I doubt he is ruminating on the words of Matthew 16:26 while staring besottedly at the molehill of cocaine piled atop his desk, but he might as well be.

Much has been made of the film’s extreme violence, as much was made in 1932 when Howard Hawks was equally castigated for appearing to endorse gangsterism and reckless violence.  Though the violence of Hawks’ film may seem tame by today’s standards, De Palma’s still has the capacity to shock.  Yet for all of their stylistic differences, few filmmakers can boast a superior handling of violence than either of the two directors.  Tarantino tries to, but quickly devolves into cartoonishness.  The climax of Scarface owes as much to Shakespeare as to M-16’s.  That Pacino’s howl “Say hello to my little friend!” has become something of a pop culture mantra, clearly misses the fact that the exclamation is less a declaration of fortitude and resilience than it is a genital euphemism.  And the climactic outpouring of bullets and blood adequately represents what one critic referred to as a “cinegasm”, something that De Palma might well have invented with the finalé to his 1976 film, Carrie, or perhaps even more overtly in his 1978 film, The Fury.  It is catharsis in its purist form, but whatever term you wish to use, one thing is undeniable: it is cinematic.

Grace and Modernism in “Journey to Italy” (“Viaggio in Italia”)

Journey-to-Italy-5587_1Take it for what it’s worth, but speaking as a bachelor, if there is a greater movie about marriage than Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) floating around out there in filmdom, then I haven’t seen it.  (If you know of a superior example, feel free to mention it in the comments section.)  Ever since having seen Martin Scorsese’s documentary My Voyage in Italy in which the famed director takes the viewer on a personal journey through his own experience of Italian film and how it has influenced his work, I have wanted to track down many of the films of Roberto Rossellini, particularly his several 1950’s collaborations with his wife at the time, Ingrid Bergman.  At the time of seeing Scorsese’s doc, I believe I had only seen Rossellini’s groundbreaking neorealist masterpiece, Rome, Open City.  Unfortunately for me, many of his other films remained unavailable on DVD and even VHS (for those of you who can remember back that far).  Gradually, however, I managed to catch several of his films, thanks to a few Criterion collection DVD releases and a couple of retrospective screenings in Los Angeles, but Journey to Italy continued to illude me.  Fortunately, TCM recently programmed a month long tribute to the director and much to my delight Journey to Italy was included.

By 1954, Rossellini had progressed beyond the neorealist stylings of his early films and was pioneering a new, richer kind of cinema.  In his review for the Cahier du cinéma, François Truffaut called it the first “modern film”, by which he meant the principles of modernism, which for decades had already influenced the world of literature, poetry, and painting, was finally beginning to seep into the world of film.  Novelists like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and William Faulkner; poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; and painters like Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso had revolutionized their particular art forms (in some ways for better and in others for worse) by making the subjective, individual experience the focus of the work rather than the objective, external event.  As a result, devices such as first-person narration, stream-of-consciousness, and Impressionism had become dominant forms of artistic representation since the late 19th century in every form of media except the cinema.  That is, until Rossellini.

Truffaut was right to describe the film as modernist, but he was not complete in saying so because it seems to me that there are elements at work in the film which transcend modernism, and those elements are what I like to call “grace”.  The film tells the story of a middle aged British couple played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders whose marriage is quickly collapsing in on itself due to bitterness, petty jealousy, and wounded ego’s.  They seemed destined for divorce, and as a viewer, one might be forgiven for thinking that after the way they treat each other, it might well be for the best.  Nevertheless, due to a recently deceased relative, the two are forced together for a furlough to Naples in order to sell a piece of inherited property.  While there, they flirt with the idea of divorce, while each in their own way toys with the idea of an extramarital affair prefiguring the self-imposed temptations presented to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (another excellent film about marriage).

Bergman’s and Sander’s personalities seem to be as different as the landscapes in which they wander; her romanticism vs. his condescending irony is as stark a contrast as the vitality of Naples (streets teeming with pregnant women) is with the desolation of Pompeii, which the couple visits accompanied by an archaeologist friend who is excavating the ruins of the destroyed island.  Rossellini’s isolated characters, as well as his mastery of empty space within the frame of his images can almost be seen as a turning point in the history of cinema.  Fellow countryman, Michelangelo Antonioni would later turn similar forms of alienation into an artform unto itself.  Jean-Luc Godard would take Rossellini’s existential inquest and deconstruct them to revolutionary effect.  And the European artfilm movements of the 1950’s and 60’s are born.  But Rossellini doesn’t stop there.

While viewing the excavations on Pompeii, they witness the plaster casting of a buried human form, killed long ago by the eruption of Vesuvius, now found buried under layers of volcanic debris, frozen in a position of everyday life–a snapshot in time caught at the unexpected moment of death.  It’s a powerful moment both as a viewer and for the Bergman character who is brought to tears forced to suddenly confront the fragility of life.  The moment is not only a profound recognition of human temporality, but also a metaphor for the relationship between Bergman and Sanders.  Even he, the anti-sentimentalist, appears to be moved by the sight.

Rossellini would later go on to boast about his atheism, but for those who have seen his films, it’s sometimes difficult to take the claim seriously.  He was fascinated with finding the miraculous within everyday life, and like Flannery O’Connor, with exploring the seemingly arbitrary workings of grace.  In films such as Rome, Open City or The Flowers of St. Francis, grace flows as naturally from the story as a prayer from the lips of a saint, but in later films such as StromboliEuropa ’51, and Journey to Italy, grace works much more mysteriously and more shockingly, because it’s almost unexpected.  In the films finale, after having returned to the mainland from Pompeii and with marital dissolution seemingly inevitable, the couple accidentally drive into the middle of a religious parade in which shouts of a miracle having happened ring out among the turbulent crowd.  The two are inadvertently swept up into the surging masses and separated.  As one critic put it, their reunion amidst the “…noisy crowd becomes an intimate epiphany, and [at once] a rigorously understated film becomes an overwhelming vision.”  It is here in which Rossellini’s film transcends the stylistic trappings of modernism and shows a deeper understanding of human nature than any artistic movement can on its own provide.  It is here in which alienation makes way for genuine connection, and in which existential angst and despair finds hope in the love of another.

Wise Blood, or, the strange marriage of John Huston and Flannery O’Connor

wisebloodPeriodically at my church St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, I host an evening in which I show a film and then lead a discussion afterwards focusing on the finer points of film artistry and how, through the vehicle of art, we as viewers might come to know God more deeply and have a fuller understanding of our own place as human beings.  This past Sunday, I showed John Huston’s Wise Blood and in the following post will attempt to distill 45 minutes worth of discussion into a brief essay on this unique and sadly underseen film.

Paradoxically, the film of Wise Blood succeeds because it is an atheists rendering of a profoundly Catholic novel.  It is this same paradox which perhaps explains why Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew remains arguably the most moving depiction of Christ yet put to film.  Director John Huston’s adaption of the Flannery O’Connor novel is almost startlingly direct, and this is its strength.  Whereas a Catholic or even Protestant filmmaker might have been too taken by O’Connor’s near allegory, Huston is uninterested, and instead presents the story with the textural details of the physical world of small town Georgia, emphasizing character, story, and location, rather than theme.  Huston’s film succeeds because consciously or not, he recognized that O’Connor’s work exists within the physical world, and her themes exist to serve her story rather than the other way around.

Wise Blood is an unusual film by just about any standards and is perhaps destined to always be a cult favorite rather than a mainstream success.  It tells the story of an ambitious young man named Hazel Motes who returns home after being discharged from the Army and promptly begins to preach the Church of Christ Without Christ in which “the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay that way.”  Finding himself surrounded by false prophets, charlatans, conmen, and charismatic revivalists (including flashbacks of his fiery preaching grandfather played by Huston himself), Motes’ gospel is one where there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no need to be redeemed, because to Motes, “No one with a good car needs to be justified.”  Brad Dourif plays Motes with all of the zeal of O’Connor’s prose, as does the equally compelling supporting casting, including, Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, Amy Wright, and Dan Shor as a troubled young man who becomes Motes’ only disciple.

Hazel Motes fits squarely within the O’Connor tradition of “Christ-haunted” characters.  To her, the South was hardly “Christ-centered” but “is most certainly Christ-haunted” and Hazel Motes might well be the prophet of that vision.  The book describes his obsession by saying, “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.”  The imagery is simultaneously Biblical (referencing St. Peter’s brief walk on the water) and ghostly, the spirit of which is wonderfully captured in Dourif’s performance.  It is from such descriptions that I feel the figure of Christ portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ seems more at home in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor than the work of the Gospel writers, and why that film is so successful as a film and questionable as theology.

But the Christ-haunting of Hazel Motes is not simply for dramatic value, and certainly not to promote any kind of religious hysteria, but because the story is about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.  “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”  Motes must be broken down in order to be rebuilt, and he must lose all that he has been clinging to so that the only hand left to hold onto to save him from those drowning waters is the hand of Christ.  Far from being hopeless and brutal as some readers/viewers have claimed over the years, both O’Connor’s novel and Huston’s film affirm that amidst a world of charlatans and competing religious hoopla, there is a genuine faith to be found; a faith that is seldom easy and often painful (anyone who advocates an easy, pain free faith is probably trying to sell you something), but very real and life-changing.  O’Connor recognized this, and while Huston may not have, he was smart enough to know a good story when he saw one.

The Lady Eve

lady eveBetween 1940 and 1944, Preston Sturges made perhaps the most remarkable string of comedies to ever flow from a single mind in the history of Hollywood.  That the seven films he made during those years are all literate, zany, witty, madcap, intelligent, and even a bit risqué makes the achievement all the more remarkable.  In the middle sits The Lady Eve, perhaps the best of the lot and one of the high points of the romantic comedy genre.  Sturges’ comedy consists not only verbal sparring (which he excels at), but wordplay, innuendo, farce, pratfalls, sight gags, and the kind of plotting that is so intricately funny it comes across as spontaneous.  In other words, he was not only one of the great comic screenwriters (a reputation which has never been in doubt), but also one of the great comic directors, a fact which has been perhaps overlooked due to the wit of his scenarios.

In The Lady Eve, cardsharp and con-woman Barbara Stanwyck sticks out her leg and Henry Fonda who plays a scientist that knows more about snakes than women (loosely veiled Freudianism?) keeps tripping over it.  He’s heir to a brewing fortune (“The ale that won for Yale”), but has spent the last year in the Amazon studying snakes and now finds himself on a ship with Stanwyck and her charmingly crooked father pretending to be an oil baron in order to fleece the naive Fonda in a few well calculated card games.  But, as often happens in such comedies, she falls for him.

Often lost amongst Sturges’ undeniable comic genius is the little reported upon moral dimension which holds the film together.  In this case, when Fonda discovers the truth about Stanwyck’s less-than-reputable occupation, he reacts with a kind of moralism common to the insulated rich and calls off their engagement.  She is enraged by his lack of understanding and forgiveness and spends the entire second half of the movie in an elaborate scheme to teach him a lesson.  Here’s where it gets tricky: in less sturdy hands, this material could easily turn bitter and spiteful, yet Sturges never allows that kind of motivation to direct her actions.  Hers is a mission of moral refinement (for him), and not one of vengeance; so the inevitable conclusion becomes immensely satisfying both dramatically and comically.