Malick responds to Bergman // Thomas Flight - Field Notes #6

Two of the greats of spiritual cinema discuss their role as artists through similar scenes filmed over sixty years apart.

Hi, Thomas Flight here- I make video essays about film and TV. This is where I write roughly twice a month about visual media, share additional background on my recent video essays, and recommend things I’ve been watching. If you’re interested in keeping up with my work and what I have to say about visual media, please consider subscribing.

The excellent video essayist, Tom of Like Stories of Old, recently wrote in his newsletter about a moment from Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life that has stuck with him:

It’s a scene that’s stuck with me as well. Tom proposes (and I agree) that Malick is using a conversation between Franz and the painter in the church to break the fourth wall and talk about his own role as a filmmaker. If you want a more thorough breakdown you can read it in Tom’s newsletter.

Not only is Malick questioning his role as a filmmaker- but I think he’s clearly laying out the film’s central theme. Franz, in the film, is a Christ figure of sorts, and the story takes on an almost allegorical quality.

I can’t help but connect this scene to one from Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal:

Here, in a strikingly similar fashion, Bergman uses a conversation between a character and a painter in a church, to directly address not just the themes of the film (in Bergman’s case death, as opposed to the life of Christ in Malick’s), but Bergman also seems to be directly addressing his role as the artist/storyteller in telling this story.

JONS: Why do you paint such nonsense?

PAINTER: To remind people of death.

JONS: Well, it's not going to make them feel any happier.

PAINTER: Why should one always make people happy? It might not be a bad idea to scare them a little once in a while.

JONS: Then they'll close their eyes and refuse to look at your painting.

PAINTER: Oh, they'll look. A skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman.

JONS: If you do scare them ...

PAINTER: They'll think.

JONS: And if they think ...

PAINTER: They'll become still more scared.

JONS: And then they'll run right into the arms of the priests.

PAINTER: That's not my business.

JONS: You're only painting your Dance of Death.

PAINTER: I'm only painting things as they are. Everyone else can do as he likes.

JONS: Just think how some people will curse you.

PAINTER: Maybe. But then I'll paint something amusing for them to look at. I have to make a living -- at least until the plague takes me.

Both filmmakers are preoccupied with the meaning and purpose of their work. Malick contemplates pointing the audience towards Christ, and questions his ability to do that when he isn’t living his own stories himself. Bergman seems comfortable leaving the soul saving to the priests, content himself to just depict reality as he sees it, leaving any spiritual responsibility to the audience and the priests they may run to.

It’s a striking dialogue spanning over 60 years. I love film.


Two Videos on Sound

I ended up with an impromptu little series on sound on my channel last month. First, I’ll highlight my collaboration with Alex Knickerbocker to talk about the brilliant sound design of Sound of Metal.

Sound of Metal was one of my favorite films from 2020, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to look at some of the artistry that goes into sound recording, mixing, and editing. Sound has been a bit of a blind spot on my channel, since my area of knowledge lies more with cinematography and editing, so I was happy to be able to get Alex involved. In addition to a lot of experience working on films and tv shows that you’ve probably seen, Alex has a phenomenal YouTube channel where he makes educational content about sound recording and post production. In my quest to learn more about film sound, I’ve often been disappointed by what’s freely available on YouTube. When I found Alex’s channel last year, I was impressed by the quality and value of the education he’s giving out for free.

People often ask me what sound equipment I use or how I do my voiceover. Please, for the love of everything don’t listen to me about sound, listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about.

I also made a video talking about the Christopher Nolan dialogue mixing controversy that recently renewed afresh with the release of Tenet.

It’s a complicated topic to make a video about, because unlike a lot of videos I make, I can’t really show examples of what I’m talking about. But that’s part of what makes it interesting. Film is experienced subjectively- not just in how an individual interprets or appreciates a film, but also the environment in which something is consumed is highly variable.

Recommendation

Available for free on YouTube, Life in a Day 2020 is the second rendition of a documentary project first done in 2010. Stitched together from footage shot by thousands of people on July 25th 2020, the documentary gives a glimpse into a single day around the world.

It’s beautiful. It illustrates both the universal and the specific of that day and this time. It’s perhaps a little redundant for those who have seen the first film, but I found it just as fascinating to see the way people film things and themselves has evolved in the last decade in comparison.

If you love broad, expansive docs about humanity like I do (i.e. Koyaanisqatsi, Samsara) this is worth checking out, and it’s free!

Announcement

I am probably going to experiment with sending out this newsletter twice a month. I’m doing this because I post videos twice a month, and I’m finding myself with more to say in these then I think comfortably fits into one newsletter. Apologies if this is more than you wanted. I’m not really planning to dramatically increase the amount I write here. Just dividing what would normally be one newsletter into two parts.

All the best,

TF