A Letter to Mom: Reflections on Water and Terrence Malick
By Nich L. Perez
The Pacific Ocean is in front me as I put these words together. And the sound of the waves is like a mantra that brings me a bit of that serenity and nostalgia that I have always been accustomed to. I’m still thinking about that night, Mom, after your second day of Chemo. The morphine wasn’t really working. To escape the nagging pain, we decided to screen Terence Malick’s 1998, Thin Red Line. But you were insistent that the 1978, Days of Heaven, was always going to be your favorite Malick film, since his later ones (at least the ones you have seen) have become too intellectually bourgeois for your taste. However, you always enjoyed the convergence of complexities, brilliance and simplicity in the representation of Malick’s characters and relationships, and that was what fascinated you about the film, considering your immigrant and educational backgrounds. Other than that, you always claimed that Dad looked like the young Richard Gere when he was younger, and to which I sadly and violently complained, “Too bad, I didn’t get that part of his genes.” You laughed, and we had a good sleepless night together.
Mom, ten months after you passed, Mr. Malick released another film entitled, The Tree of Life. This was six years after The New World; you know, the one about Pocahontas and John Smith. A shocker, right? And he’s made four more films after that, and another one is coming next year about a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II. We thought that this reclusive Rhodes Scholar and filmmaker would keep his mysterious philosophical persona and would wait for another ten years to pen and direct another film. Perhaps the Palme d'Or in 2011 woke him up. Though I have to say that The Tree of Life is an avant-garde cinematic prayer with the usual Malick meditative narrative structure, which is deeply philosophical and poetic. The film took me to the creation of the universe, to the exploration of a mother’s love and the core of a family; grace and meaning all strategically edited together like a dance. I’m sure you would love it. The constant search for meaning in the non-diegetic whispers of these characters as they battle through the complicated nature of existence and of being human were quite apparent in the dialectic of Malick’s frames, scenes and sequences. And this is the only Malick film so far that has dinosaurs! Yes, mom, dinosaurs, but not the Jurassic Park kind.
A year ago, I encountered this academic and filmmaker, kogonada, and he has made some brilliant video essays on our favorite films and filmmakers. His first feature-length film called, Columbus was a profoundly beautiful but subtle meditation on relationships and life’s priorities brought in by the combination of delicate performances, intelligent dialogue and the homage to avant-garde architecture. A visual poetry as I usually say. And the man was writing his dissertation on the films of Yasujirō Ozu, so the stars aligned for me when I saw his work. I remember our tatami meditations on Ozo’s work and the notion that I would be too busy like Kōichi in Tokyo Story, to spend time with my parents when I get older. But here I am, still writing to you.
kogonada made a short video essay five years ago, Malick // Fire & Water. And he writes:
“Of all the recurring signatures of Malick, his use of fire and water might be the most telling, in part because there’s a significant shift between early Malick (Badlands & Days of Heaven) and later Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life & To the Wonder). Early Malick favors fire. Later Malick favors water. In To the Wonder, Malick forgoes fire altogether for the first time in his career. Water reigns.”
I figured you’d love this analysis. The contrast between fire and water. What is interesting is that as Malick gets older (he celebrates his 75th this November), he lets the water take reign, as if the fire has been extinguished. As you know, I always found refuge in the water; Dad used to say that but now I am saying it as I get older. After your funeral, wherever I traveled, I always made sure I visited the sea, the lake, the river, or any body of water in these places that I went to, so that I could quietly sit, write, or just be. You taught me that. There is something about its fluidity and beauty, and how it hits the light when the sun is rising or setting. And it could be scary when it gets dark, or when the tumultuous winds transform its waves into a storm. But as a surfer, there is that certain excitement when the surf is high. After patiently waiting for that certain wave, it comes to me and I revel into its magnificence with my board. Such a divine experience, as if the moment on that water brings me closer to what I was meant to do on this earth. Just like Malick’s later films, the use of water is a paradigm shift for the characters as part of a visual poetry that creates and seeks a liquid profundity. There are quite a few scenes in his films that deliberately use water to visualize concepts like grace, faith and meaning, from his Episcopalian background perhaps. John Izod and Joanna Dovalis describe a scene by the beach in The Tree of Life, when the O’Brien family are gathered after sequences of loss and despair.
“I give him to you. I give you my son.”
Mrs. O’Brien, powerfully portrayed by Jessica Chastain, lost her son, and the heaven-like setting near the water becomes a place of reunion, a place of hope –
“A beautiful mask (emblematic of the discarded persona) sink through the water, a dying to the old self' (195).
Apologies for the nerdy quote, but I’m just trying to prove something, Mom. It seems as if these characters have found their ultimate identity as they wash themselves out of their old selves, cleansed by the water that is so ubiquitous and deep. The reunion of these characters by the water releases them as the moment and space wash away that grief that became the cosmic enmity that was pushed by death. Mrs. O’Brien persisted; she carried the burden of grief undyingly as a mother, not letting go of her son. In the end, she lets the water reign. I remember you in this character, recalling the lines of Jack, played by Sean Penn, the grown up son who reflects on the brother he lost and the mother who taught him how to love:
“You spoke to me through her. You spoke to me through the sky. The trees. Before I knew I loved you. Believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
Jack addresses God as Malick explores the relationship with the divine, as expressed in a maternal archetype and in the nature of his narrative space. A divine line that clashes with his humanity, which is somewhat a consistent inner monologue of his characters in the later Malick films. Malick doesn’t really give answers to these perennial questions, but he lets the water become not just a symbol but a baptism of acceptance and transformation, from birth to death. I don’t want to get too theosophical on you, Mom, but this is my take on Malick. I would probably take on the same path if we talk about Ozu or Kieślowski, but the water makes so much sense when it comes to Malick.
The beach. I’m thinking about that beach in the Philippines where we used to visit when I was younger. I used to sit with my cup of coffee on the banks of white sand in the early hours of the morning, allowing ideas to coagulate and sift through the complexities of life. I proposed to Irene near those waters, remember? And I remember throwing my engagement ring to the same waters when she and I broke up; I stopped going there after that. So, there is something sacred and devastating about these waters, just like Malick’s way of molding the beginning and end of life through the indexicality of water.
I know you haven’t seen his recent films but as koganoda reminds us that Malick
“forgoes fire altogether for the first time of his career.”
Water. It is in To the Wonder that he explores love in faith in the story of a couple as they struggle with their marriage, fused with the story of a priest who struggles with his own faith. And these characters find some sort of redemption, not like the Andy Dufrense liberation from Shawshank Prison, but a liberation from themselves as they become more self-aware and at peace with who they are in relation to the world. With the final sequence, of course, culminating near the waters of Mont Saint-Michel, where you and Dad had a romantic evening, the water once again is ubiquitous, cleansing and empowering. Malick’s characters are always in this perennial search and constant rumination, and they either find that sense of clarity, of transformation or of unity in their dance or refraction of water in a pool, in the sea, or in a watering hole on top of a hill. This is quite evident in his next films after that, Knights of Cups in 2015 and Song to Song in 2017. And as always, each of the character of these films are constantly evoking the poetry for love, of loss, for healing, of meaning . . . for life. And as always, when they find a sliver of what they long for or what they have lost, the water and light visually connect them to it. (I’ll write you another letter about light soon.) I watched his last film again, Song to Song, the other day on my flight back to LA. Faye, the character played by Rooney Mara, receives this epiphany about the love she has experienced with BV, Ryan Gosling’s character, after dealing with complications of their love affairs and betrayal.
Faye’s final words were etched in my memory with the beautiful cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki:
“You want to go back to a simple life. I want the same. Let nothing come between us. Ever. This. Only this.”
She whispers like an epistolary as the characters wash each other in water and light, bathing themselves in forgiveness and love despite the blemishes of their humanity.
In 2010, after your battle with cancer, I went back to this place in the Philippines because it was there that you wanted to be buried. On the day of your funeral, I went back to the shore. A cup of black coffee on my hand and my surfboard on the other. 5:17 am. I waited for the sunrise. I remembered that around this time, the surf was always high and I thought I could catch a few waves to drown my grief. But there were zero waves, Mom. I sat on the sand, chugging the last few drops of coffee, crying inconsolably. I realized that this place has changed; I have changed. And as the sun was about to rise, the sadder I became.
I complained to God, “Why?” like Mrs. O’Brien after her son died in The Tree of Life:
“Was I false to you? Lord? Why? Where were you?”
I waited, sitting on my board, my tears disappearing into the calm waters. Not even a gust of wind, agitated, I decided to head back and finish writing your eulogy.
All of sudden, three dolphins jumped several times in front of me, as if dancing with the first few rays of the sun. That moment was enough to fill the emptiness, Mom, like the waters in Malick’s films. I smiled and swam back to the shore.
As Ian Bradley puts it in his book, Water: A Spiritual History:
“Covering roughly almost 70% of the earth’s surface and making up a similar proportion of the human body, it is essential to life in all its forms and is at both the start and heart of the evolutionary chain.” All religions use water not just as a mere ritual but as a constant reminder and even as a tool for the journey of what is next to come. Perhaps the Hindus are right, that we were once part of the Ultimate Reality, the Brahman; we were meant to go back to the divine once were done fulfilling our purpose. We return to the water. Perhaps water is also a path to this spiritual evolution as expressed in Malick’s cinema. And perhaps I will see you again, by the water.
I look forward to our next movie, Mom. You are always missed.
(c) 2019 Nich L. Perez, CSC