Sunday, May 19, 2013

Digital Static: Returning To The Wonder

          To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s sixth feature film, is both a reflective look back and a daring leap forward for the director. It very much extends the qualities that have come to define Malick’s work—a didactic editing style based around natural elements, an emphasis on movement and gestures to convey emotions, and a solemn, poetic voiceover. However, while some have seen the film as a minor b-side to The Tree of Life, it is very much a break, a reorganization of principles more than anything else. While his Texan set childhood nostalgia piece searched and celebrated a forgotten Promised Land of Americana, To The Wonder is emotionally bare and claustrophobic film, at times a psychological horror flick. The gestures of Malick’s previous films are repeated but they are closed in, made meaningless as the modern and suburban ennui overtake his protagonist, Marina. I find it to be an devastating work.

            I have already written at length on the film, but I returned to it again, and have even more to say about what I believe will be seen as a transitional piece in Malick’s filmography. I first want to address comments made by my friend Jason Bellamy on my original piece. Jason writes:

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…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.…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"?)…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?
As always, I appreciate Jason’s comments, and if you haven’t, you should read his own piece on the film. Having Jason’s comments in mind, I did try and separate myself from the “Authorial Intent Fallacy” while viewing the film a second time. But what I cannot separate myself from is certainly Malick’s other films, and how much this work stands in contrast to his other work. Many critics who have come out negatively against the film have stated that the gestures and twirls feel vague and without emotion—I would say its more the opposite. They no longer carry the magic once felt before, and that’s the central dichotomy at play. In Jason’s review, he writes, “I suspect that many of us who have Malick's movies printed on our heart will find it difficult to watch Kurylenko's Marina raising her hands to salute a storm without thinking about Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas doing the same in The New World…What once felt specific, organic and true now feels random and offhand, which threatens to retroactively suffocate the charms of To the Wonder's predecessors.” I would instead argue is that Malick is searching for meaning to that gesture in this (very) new world, but unable to find the same resonance, and then must deal with the emotional consequences of it.

         The film  is classically structured: a prologue in France, the first sequence in Oklahoma, the interlude with Jane (Rachel McAdams), the return of Marina and falling out with Neil, and the final 15 minute coda. From its opening image, a digital camera phone close-up on Marina’s face, To The Wonder suggests a new way of seeing.  It’s Parisian sequences might be set in the modern day world, but what I noticed, knowing what was to come, how Malick seems to see the city as harmonious with nature. His emphasis is on sculptures, classical architecture, and the way it integrates itself with nature. Even with its cars, trains, and lights, this first Paris interlude feels like a city that is connected with the natural spirit Marina feels at peace with.

            But what happens when one can no longer communicate with nature? It is very clear that Marina and Tatiana feel out of place in Oklahoma; the close-ups on her face as she talks to a neighbor suggest a distance from what usually leads her to spin with grace, embracing all that is around her. Malick begins to emphasize the fences, wires, and concrete that encroach nature. Tatiana’s friends talk about hair dying, something she feels completely out of place with. This is no longer the magic of Paris—this is a land contained, not open to expression. Even Marina’s return to Paris is filtered through an electric blue—the land she once knew no longer exists. I don’t see any “beauty” in those carnival rides; they move with a forceful extremity that is the very opposite of the qualities Malick reveres in his other films.

Neil’s position as an environmental tester, which I misidentified in my first review, confirms this trend—the work that the construction company is doing is literally poisoning the land, turning that suburban Americana from The Tree of Life into a hostile and inhospitable land (some of Malick’s shots when Neil confronts the residents of this area have a documentary-like feel to him, as). That shot of Neil entering the dusty construction zone, gravel poisoning the air, and a single plant rising above these ashes, truly feels like a dystopic land is approaching. Later, we literally see the black goo rising out of the Earth, a consequence of Neil’s actions.

            Marina’s response is then to turn inward—to Neil and to the body. She tells him, “If you love me, that is all I need.” But these people are defined by their environment, and cannot escape it. Michael Loren Seigel, an erudite lecturer at Brown and online friend, has pointed Antonioni as a reference point for the film:
Not that Malick necessarily watched films like Red Desert and L’Eclisse in preparation, but it certainly shares the same DNA. Marina and Neil certainly want to love each other, but the film suggests that the love of these fleeting bodies is doomed to fail in an environment so poisoned—their love is a sacred time along a spire, much like Pocahontas and John Smith’s hidden valley in The New World or the tree house in Badlands. When they are married, the witnesses are prisoners. The Antonoioni-influenced can be seen in the oscillations in their love; it is not just one that goes from good to bad, but swings more and more violently as the film goes on, the love sucking itself dry. Marina and Neil return to the supermarket, and what looks like her joyful plays now has a sexual violence to them that I found more disturbing than wondrous; even when she’s trying to display her love in a joyful fashion, it feels reckless.

I recently rewatched parts of The Tree of Life, and all this nature and grace talk started to feel more rooted in bigger battles between Christian theology and the Heideggerian spiritualism.1 Pitt’s father character is very much identified with the church, in a good ol’ 1950s type of American faith with all that Old Testament punishment that comes with it. Jessica Chastain’s mother is of course the (literally) floating embodiment of living with nature, the figure that has become so prominent in films like Jim Cavizel in The Thin Red Line and Q’Orianka Kilcher in The New World.

There’s a split here in To The Wonder as well, but its much more subtle until the last 30 minutes of the film. If The Tree of Life was about Jack having to go between the two worlds and the figures that embody them, this film gives us to figures (Marina and Quintana) who are put through tests of faith by the environments they populate. Everything of modern day society, especially the impoverished characters Quintana interacts with, suggests that neither of these forms of love can work amongst this new land. Quintana too uses windows and the drawing of blinds (a recurring motif for Neil as well) to hide himself from the world, to turn inward as he watches everything he seems set forth to do backfire on him. The empty and negative spaces of both Quintana’s and Marina’s homes are essential to Malick—the air itself is drying up. While Quintana eventually finds redemption by trusting in Christ, Marina turns away from her love and toward the body (the second, lesser form of love as opposed to “the love that loves us”). She tells Neil, “If you love me, that’s all I need.” But that love is doomed to fail.

To The Wonder culminates in Marina’s decision to spend an afternoon with the carpenter. It is the ultimate betrayal to Neil, a character who has taken her into this hostile land. But even that is a soulless act—the room itself is as sterile as anything in the film, a cold, hard edged, empty space. And then something happened that I could not understand out the first time, but as noted in my second viewing is perhaps one of Malick’s most audacious cinematic gestures. As Marina moves her hand over the Carpenter’s body, he gives us a soft sound of digital static, as if her transgression will finally wipe away any of her old world body.2 Secondly, when the tryst is done, Marina takes her hand to the sun and blocks it—she is no longer embracing the world of nature. When Marina finally admits this to Neil, it is again blocked via this new modern world, interrupted by a fast food server. Consumerism replaces love.

I must admit, however, this second time around, the film’s coda left me perplexed. Here’s what I can tell: Neil embraces Quintana as a mentor, hoping that embracing Christian faith will redeem his soul. Quintana, who tells Neil “You have to struggle with yourself,” somehow embraces his duties, though any reason for this turn is left unmotivated besides Neil’s appearance. Neil embraces this new spiritualism enough to at least reach some sort of forgiveness with Marina, though it is only seen through the fact of him observing Quintana. There are visions of children, both by Marina playing with a daughter, and Neil at him new home in one of the penultimate scene appears to have a pair of kids. The very final moments, perhaps Neil’s last memories of Marina, are certainly glorious: she runs through the field with an electric, flashing tower in the background, which is matched with the cut to the French spire that closes the film.

But what to make of this final sequence? It’s one that I embraced emotionally again, especially Neil and Marina’s goodbye at the airport, but I found myself confused on how exactly the Christian themes played on Marina’s own exit, whether this was the dichotomy of The Tree of Life finally breaking apart instead of coming together. It is one that left me somewhat frustrated, especially because I find everything up to that point so daring and original for the director.

However, before that moment, I am convinced that To The Wonder is very much a reflection of what it means to act with a certain embracing of nature in the modern world. It’s in many ways similar to the second half of The New World, as Pocahontas must become part of colonial society, stripped of her cultural identity. But here it is more cynical, more questioning, and more haunting.3 It almost feels impossible to know what the next Malick film will now look like. To The Wonder speaks so boldly through his perspective about modern love that I find it hard to even know what else his exploration of Americana can offer. However, I look excitedly toward it, as well as revisiting this film again and again.
1I will not claim to be an expert on Heidegger, and again want to avoid subscribing things from one part of Malick’s life to another, so just take this phrase in the most basic of ways.
2If anyone can confirm this, especially in a 35mm print, please do. I noted it both times in my DCP screenings.
3Though The New World is probably the greater work; it is my second favorite Malick after the eternally great Days of Heaven.

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