Saturday, April 13, 2013

Terrence Malick's To The Wonder

This past
Is now here: the painter's
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
-John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975

Update: I wrote a second piece on the film here.
         Terrence Malick has always made movies through himself—his view of the world, and how his eyes connect to the experiences he sees and grapples with. There have been countless attempts to describe his perspective: the connections between man and nature, life and death, the one and the many. “All things shining” to use that final, elliptical line in The Thin Red Line. It almost feels like there is no point in attempting to articulate Malick anymore: even the closest descriptions often still fail to capture the opulence of his filmmaking. But the one person who hasn’t questioned or described Malick’s filmmaking and philosophy is Malick himself.

            The often described as reclusive director—a statement that fails to see that his “non-statements” are just as telling as those whose blabber appears on talk shows and Twitter—has made a new film, coming to theaters under two years after his massive project, The Tree of Life. But To The Wonder, a title filled with both richness and hidden meanings, is not an extension of that 2011 tone poem of childhood nostalgia and cosmic grandeur, but instead almost its polar opposite.

            Malick has often placed himself at the centers of his narrative: the one who speaks for him: Holly, Linda, Witt, Jack, often speak for him. His films, thus, have been more or less about him enforcing his philosophical perspective onto the worlds of his characters. The tension released by this—often by imposing his style onto classic American genres like lovers on the run, WW2 combat picture, and childhood melodrama—has always released by Malick’s side “winning.” We give into his view than the one we’re used to.

            It is essential then, that Malick’s own figure in To The Wonder is passive, lumbering, somewhat adrift—a heavy figure nailed Neil, played by Ben Affleck. His muse, Marina, is the floating, beautiful, and always reaching for the sky Olga Kurylenko. She’s the main figure in the film—and certainly the Malickian figure. But she is not Malick. 

            Malick’s films have always been set in the past, a place where he could retrospectively comment on the action that had already been solidified in American mythology and speak to how what was fundamentally American becomes universal. Even Badlands feels like a picture made in the 1950s with Sheen as Dean and Hunter his reluctant sidekick. But To The Wonder, opening with the images of phone cameras amongst a completely foreign landscape and later giving us the alienating forces of laundromats and suburban ennui, suddenly breaks the director into the shape of reality.

This is not a director finding “Wonder” in the images of contemporary society, the “To” suggests that this wonder is beyond us, a force outside of his images. And To The Wonder thus becomes the director’s most self-conscious question of his own persona, his own imagination. This is a film of self-doubt, of a search for faith in a world that no longer supports the articulations of the past.

The opening set piece, a gorgeous cathedral on the coast of Normandy amongst a black sand beach, gears us into the old world, the familiarity of Malick. Even though that fast paced car and iPhones might suggest a future, they are all placed within a consciousness of the old. Marina’s first word, “Newborn,” however, prepares the film almost as a diary to the young, a story of how the old was replaced.

After the prelude in the old, the film jars us into the new, as Neil convinces Marina and her daughter, Tatiana Chiline, to come to the plains of Oklahoma. There is beauty to be found among the thistles of grass and the interaction between clouds and sun, but immediately we see the power lines and planes that watch over this space. They reach and dance toward the sky, but the freedom once held foreshadows a quelling of openness.

Allow some theoretical guess making, at this moment, in order to read into this film too much, but to come to a truth at the other side. I’ve been told by rumors and comments that To The Wonder is very much Malick’s most personal film, as in he notably had a romance with a French woman, brought her to America, and was ultimately left devastated by her. It’s hard to say when this took place, whether only a few years ago or a few decades, but it did take place, and if he has made a film about it, it certainly lingers in Malick’s mind.

This is why To The Wonder might be Malick’s boldest, most audacious, and certainly most self-conscious film. It is filmed through his eyes and perspective on the world, but not via a character who represents himself. Instead, the film looks at himself through the eyes of another. Affleck remains silent, barely able to speak, left to drift in the plains, as Malick takes apart his own persona. This is not some delicate self-portrait of an artist, but a scarring one filmed by the artist who is clearly in a crisis.

It is clear that something must have fundamentally changed Malick to make a film so quickly, while simultaneously now shooting another handful of features. The products of that change are massively evident in To The Wonder’s self-doubt. The modern world continues to alienate these characters more and more: there’s the occasional magic of lights of a carnival, the symmetries of a football marching band, or the dances of the supermarket, but those images become more and more jarring. The bigger houses become filled with more emptiness and distance, the suburbia an anxiety-ridden landscape without originality, and finally two moments that tear these characters apart: a sterile, soulless motel room, and of all things, a Sonic Drive Thru, a moment so intense with feeling, made so pale by the context of American consumerism. What was grand among the plains now loses all of its romantic gesture.

Malick’s film is not just a question of these characters, but also the relevance of his own style. What happens when his cameras can no longer capture the beauty of the past, but are forced to deal with modern questions? I believe Malick is searching for his own meaning to why he makes films, and tying it to someone he once loved but ultimately ended up tearing her apart. Affleck’s character builds homes amongst landscapes, containing and ultimately simplifying nature into something packaged. In a way, To The Wonder thus responds to those who fell for Malick for the images he shows instead of his perspective on them—this is a film in a battle with its own perspective.

A director could never say that—especially one as silent as him—so it instead manifests itself in a question of love. A self-doubting priest, played by Javier Bardem, tells us about two types of love, both flowing from the “Love that loves us.” Bardem’s love is of course the love of God, but his search in the beginning of the film brings him only to the poor and sickly that do everything to reject him. He is a priest who is tied to earthly matters, things he can only doubt his purpose if everything he reaches out to pushes back.

In the same way, Marina and Neil wrestle with their love, the ties that bind them together. At times their love seems over-flowing with trust, expressing itself in romantic gestures of movement across bodies, a haunting evocation that rarely requires dialogue. But while their bodies remained intertwined, their consciousnesses are polarized: he looks toward the future, while she searches for the past. He builds a new community and society, remaining ignorant of the issues at stake to those around him, while she searches for a feeling of harmony against the natural land, which is slowly disappearing. Even a return to the world of the old, to Paris, suddenly becomes an electric blue nightmare.

While Malcik has always suggested the bonds of nature will tie us all together in a harmonious, over-conscious state, the opposite is true here. There are no less then half a dozen languages in the film (including sign language), all spoken toward each other, communicated partially but never fully. There are at least three stories of mothers who lose their daughters, women who lose their connection to the future, forced to relish in a past they can never escape. A Skype call, left on a twist, never felt so pained by the accidents of new technology. And the constant battle between the modern and the natural, those creeping houses turning what was a gorgeous landscape into something toxic (a shot of a small blade of grass among a mountain of dirt, Malick’s last breath of fresh air).

Ultimately, the romances of both natural and human fail. Even Affleck’s tryst with Rachel McAdams is doomed from the start. A cattle owner on a dying farm, always chained by the boundaries her world has set up for her. She is to remain a figure of the past as well, and her only shot with Kurylenko—a blink and you’ll miss it moment that doubles down on the audaciousness of The Loneliest Planet—remains an anonymous connection amongst the suburban pavement. Calling To The Wonder in a way Malcik’s most cynical movie is certainly true at moments—its characters are destined to wander the empty 21st century. A white veil becomes black, Marina blocks the sun from her eyes, as if to reject the nature she put her faith amongst. The images here have a violence to them in a way Malick has truly never shown.

Yet there is the Love that loves. A priest slowly finds those who need faith, watched closely by a man lost by his own actions. A man who tried to strengthen the bonds, but in all the wrong places. Will he change? We see his new home, a serenely structured waterfall, centers his backyard, a meshing of natural and modern, finally balanced, like the way a mechanical device captures light on a strip. Perhaps a new faith? Perhaps not. One man finds solace; we must find out own.

And the woman? Off to the old. Back to the spiral, the wonder. But alone. An image of the past, now as future.

Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder is a masterpiece.


Anonymous said...

Great review!
What has changed in Malick's life is that the french woman he married in the eighties (and who inspired the character of Marina) died in 2008. I think that explains the crisis he seems to be going through in this film, and it makes it all even more powerful and sad...

Jason Bellamy said...

Peter: Let me begin by being upfront in saying I'm especially skeptical of almost all criticism that tries to tie a director's work to his (or her) personal life.

Doing so suggests that the narrative we know about the director's life is accurate (as if public figures unselfishly expose their true selves to us), that they don't have secrets, and that they're as two-dimensional as the narratives about them tend to be.

Often, it also assumes that what directors say in tiresome press junkets is indeed heartfelt and true and not motivated by commercialism or the desire to come off as a deep/profound individual.

With that established, obviously I'm even more skeptical about attempts to tie autobiographical motivations to the work of Malick, a director everyone agrees we know very little about. (Even assuming that Malick has "often placed himself at the centers of his narrative" seems overly presumptive to me.)

Thus, this review, while possibly accurate, has an uncomfortable number of "clearly" and "certainly" readings within it, as it relates to Malick's motivation. (Most notably: Aren't you going pretty far out on the limb to say that Malick is "clearly in a crisis"?)

On that note, it's worth asking: If TO THE WONDER isn't Malick "most self-conscious" film, then is it still his "boldest" and "most audacious"? Put another way, much of your analysis that this film is a masterpiece seems to hang on the belief that it's vividly revelatory about Malick. But what if it isn't?

A few other notes ...

* I don't think Affleck's character builds houses. Indeed, he's frequently seen at new construction sites. But he seems to always be taking soil/water samples, and not always where there's construction. So that might affect your analysis of his character as a stand-in for Malick.

* Following the previous note, it seems flimsy to suggest Niel is fixated on the future and Marina is tied to the past.

I respect that in all of the above you're trying to express what you felt watching the movie, which seems to be heavily influenced by some assumptions about Malick's life and artistic motivations.

I very much respect that sincerity, I don't mean to shit on it. It's just that here you seem to be basing quite a bit of your analysis on assumptions of off-screen realities, which is unusual for your reviews.