Monday, February 10, 2014

Malick and Wealth

I didn't realise it until a couple of weeks ago, but there is a thread running through the films of Terrence Malick that I have completed missed. Malick is often considered by his fans and detractors to be a film maker concerned with the Edenic resplendence of creation. Look! A glorious tree basking in sunlight! Blades of grass blowing in the wind! For critics, this is not necessarily a good thing. In Donald Clarke's words, "Everything is crushed by demands of the suffocatingly handsome Malick aesthetic."

But is Malick's vision of the world so idyllic, so hopelessly perfect?

From Badlands to To the Wonder there is another theme at work that gets lost amidst the splendour: the theme of money, or wealth. To give a quick run through (possible spoilers):

Badlands: A film which centres around a man who collects garbage for a living, and gets laid off from his job.

Days of Heaven: The story is about a poor couple with a rags-to-riches scheme.

The Thin Red Line: As Sean Penn's character says, this war is "all about property". It is a fight for ownership, a fight fought by men who increasingly own nothing but each other.

The New World: The film begins in a largely uncultivated woodland and ends in an English city. Smith's voiceovers often sound like the words of a good capitalist, and we see the sacrifice and struggle it takes to establish a wealthy colony. Indeed Smith himself sacrifices love for the sake of colonisation. Is it worth it? we are left to ask.

The Tree of Life: Brad Pitt's character takes this theme forward, as he gives ruthless advice to his sons about getting ahead in life, and as he strives to make it big, envying and praising the wealth of others. Like Penn in The Thin Red Line, he speaks about "ownership" - "ownership of ideas".

To the Wonder: Father Quintana works among the impoverished of society, while big business threatens the surrounding environment. Nature (in the Tree of Life sense of the word) seems to war against Nature (in the New World sense of the word).

What is Malick's perspective on wealth? It is hard to say. But what is clear is that we get much more than a suffocatingly handsome aesthetic in his work. The beauty of creation might be the context in which the drama plays out - though even here creation is often as dreadful as it is glorious (the plague of locusts, for example) -  but within creation there are complex stories to be told concerning class relations: stories about haves and have nots, about haves falling in love with have nots, about doing pastoral work among have nots, about fighting and dying so that we can have, and about the precarious nature of all our having.

Clarke may lament Malick's sermons. I think they answer some of Clarke's misgivings. Here is one from The Tree of Life, and present us with an alternative vision of what counts as wealth:

Job imagined he might build his nest on high – that the integrity of his behavior would protect him against misfortune. And his friends thought, mistakenly, that the Lord could only have punished him because secretly he’d done something wrong.
But, no, misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are. 
We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass, and like a tree are rooted up.
Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away? 
We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forth. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that. 
Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health? 
Do you trust in God? Job, too, was close to the Lord. Are your friends and children your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No on knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did. 
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. 
Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?

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