Friday, March 08, 2013

The Major Arcana #14: TEMPERANCE - Terrence Malick

This is the fifteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.

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TEMPERANCE: Terrence Malick

Temperance is the third of the three virtues, preceded by Justice and Strength. Of the three, Temperance is the calming force, a uniter of opposites; where justice decides and strength enforces, temperance compromises and harmonizes. There is something gentle and spiritual about her, something protective; she is the healing virtue and the guiding, grounding spirit, following Death, smoothing the path into Hades.

Terrence Malick is an odd duck of a director. He comes from a literary and philosophical background, and his writing and directing rhythm is so gradual as to be glacial; he infamously spends years in post-production, and he took a 20-year break after directing Days of Heaven (still his masterpiece, IMHO), during which he wrote and published and contemplated the universe.

Days of Heaven exhibits some of Malick's quintessential tendencies. At its center is a human drama of love, manipulation, and irresponsibility, emotional betrayals that shatter the lives of their participants, but that seem inconsequential, played out on the cosmic stage that Malick establishes. This conflict -- the love triangle between a worker, his lover, and their wealthy but fragile employer -- is disjointed at times, following narrative logics of prophecy and contingency, rather than simple dramatic convention. It is enough to know that man is petty and selfish, but that he is also part of a larger, more selfless universe.

And this is the frame that defines Days of Heaven, and can also be found in Malick's other films: the context of the witness, the eye and the voice watching the conflicts and always taking their measure. At the lowest level, this witnessing is represented in the voiceovers: naive ruminations from a young itinerant teenager, or from a lost and frustrated soldier on the front lines of a war. And as these characters bear witness to man's folly, so the universe seems to bear witness as well, arranging these actors within a greater familial system. The wheat fields, the cicadas, the endless roads; the jungle, the desert, the sea; architecture, the seasons, and Earth's primordial history. Every short-sighted gesture and mistake is understood... and if necessary, forgiven... by the transcendent consciousness, the mind of an elusive God, to which Malick is always alluding.

It's telling that in the end of each of these stories... Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life... there's always a sense that peace and equilibrium prevail, even when it comes on the heels of war, tragedy, and disillusionment. The fabric of the cosmos is truly absorbent (har har), cushioning the blows that men aim at one another. This is the Temperance of the universe, and it's the tone that always manages to prevail in Malick, no matter where his films take us.