Malick’s Tree of Clich

Of all the musical instruments, the organ is the most prone to clich?: in fiction and popular culture its players are most often represented as inherently anti-social, even pathological, the music they conjure unsettling or even dangerous, from Captain Nemo to the Phantom of the Opera.

In the course of the 19th-century the ability of a single musician to control a vast edifice often from a hidden console became a symbol not of pious devotion and skill to operate a complex technology as it had been at least since early modern times, but of limitless musical power that could seduce the organist to the dark side. Doubtless secularization had much to do with the organ’s descent from the holy to the demonic: with its religious foundations badly weakened, the organ turned to the devil.

The piece that has been anointed to further this image is the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor attributed to J. S. Bach. Already by Disney’s 1940 animated classic Fantasia (where the piece is rendered in a orchestral transcription meant to draw on the now-sinister aura of the organ and is conducted with all-due shadowy solemnity by Leopold Stokowski) this image was firmly in place, to be followed up by Disney in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where James Mason’s Nemo pilots the piece and his submarine through the watery abyss. This Nemo departs from the Toccata’s score as the Nautilus descends into the depths, but the Captain’s musical fantasies become too much for the crew in the movie’s opening scene, as one of its members slams a hatch disgustedly shut as the organistic fulminations sound the depths of excess.

Like a pair of giant anchors, this Toccata and Fugue pull the organ ever deeper into the murk of pop culture. To cite just a couple more of many instances of its exploitation, Keith Olbermann has long used the piece as a the backdrop for his Worst Person in the World segment and, more recently, Lady Gaga played up her lucrative weirdness by grabbing the notes from the opening of the Toccata in an interlude in her song “Born This Way” that she performed earlier this year at the Grammy Awards.

Never mind the act that the majority view in Bach scholarship claims the piece is not by Bach at all, nor even originally for the organ: the Toccata and Fugue has become the ubiquitous symptom of the madness that has infected the king of instruments, and Bach has been branded (in every sense) by a piece he didn’t even write.

Now even that rarest of entities?a blockbuster American art film, being even rarer than a perfectly sane cinematic organist?has produced just the latest incarnation of this tiresome clich?.

In Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Brad Pitt is an austere 1950s father and amateur organist. The organ scene comes near the middle of the movie, when the devoutly Catholic paterfamilias, plant manager, and would-be inventor, sits at the console of a fairly large organ with his troubled, early-adolescent eldest son standing nearby, available to pull stops but generally there to be awed by his father’s command of the complexity of the music and instrument he commands.

Pitt’s character is stern, strict, controlling, angry, and prone to violence?in a short, full of the prevailing traits of an off-the-shelf wide-screen organist. The father’s love is an Old Testament love which, with the help of a roving intergalactic, multicultural and asynchronous cinematic consciousness, is transformed into New Testament forgiveness and reconciliation over the long course of the more than two-hour movie.

But the organ scene is not about warmth and unconditional intergenerational affection, but rather the harsh piety, thwarted musical ambitions, and the threatening instability that seethed below the surface of Eisenhower-era conformity. Reclusive director Malick clearly knows a fair amount about music, and the soundtrack is full of welcome oddities, as in the film’s most persistent refrain ? Francois Couperin’s Les Barricades myst?rieuses, a piece whose own refrain uses the same chord progression as Pachelbel’s canon, yet another clich?. Pitt’s character plays it repeatedly on the piano and once with his guitar-playing middle son, whose death (which comes chronologically later, but is revealed early in the film and then haunts the retrospective account of a 1950s childhood). Couperin’s placid domestic music works in opposition to the organ’s capacity to evoke angst and terror.

Buoyed by reports that in The Tree of Life the organ would,
perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema, be played by a mega, A-list star, I was eager to see the film. But it is disheartening to witness how easily Malick falls victim to the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor fallacy?apparently believing like so many of his cinematic predecessors, or worse, tacitly endorsing the notion that it is the only piece ever written for the organ, even though that instrument has by the largest and longest repertoire.

The notorious opening of the Toccata is not heard in the film but instead only the fugue, a rambling thing that might be taken to suggest Pitt’s character: controlled, as all fugues to some extent should be, but also inclined to self-indulgent digression, and tending towards preachiness of a somber cast. Malick fades out the before the bombast of the Toccata’s opening returns to disrupt the fugue. He doesn’t allow overt organ madness to intrude into the church.

One can forgive the historical errors in the purportedly meticulous production design that shows Pitt at a neo-Baroque organ of at least 1960s, perhaps 1970s provenance, rather than one from the 1950s. For organists this is a glaring error, though the film is full of others, the most obvious of which is the squeezable dish soap bottle on top of the immaculate formica in the carefully recreated 1950s kitchen.  I’m sure vintage car enthusiasts would be able to point out many similarly missteps with respect to the spotless automobiles parked on the tree-lined, gravel and dirt avenues of early Texan suburbia: the gray-brown Chevy wagon color seems custom and ahistorical even to my untrained eye. One neither wants to descend to pedantry nor to explain away these anachronisms as purposeful dissonances orchestrated by the genius auteur, Malick, and meant to convey the unreliability of memory. Pitt at an organ at least a decade younger than the scene is itself reveals that the director is using the organ not only symbolically but also lazily, to reflect the fantasies of paternal power.

Organists should take little comfort that the film as a whole is also a catalog of clich?s, or perhaps more charitably, archetypal moments: boyhood beebee gun hijinx; orgies of vandalism; cruelty to animals: defiance of paternal authority; motherly tickling; infatuation with the girl at the next school desk.  It is easy to explain away Lady Gaga’s organ gag or Olbermann’s own Toccata-laced fulminations. But when “great artists” go for the equivalent of organ stock footage you know you’re in trouble. Nemo’s D minor was fun and campy, a persona that fits the dubious piece nicely. In Malick’s confrontation with the king of instrument, however, he falls victim to the errant notion that the organ and its most nefarious piece are enough to make his Art profound.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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