(Terrence Malick, USA, 2013)
Don't anybody knock this era of cinema to me. Who could be so ungrateful as to proclaim that cinema is dead, or dying, or in grave trouble, when, in the course of two years, we've seen two new Terrence Malick movies (with at least two more on the way, and soon)? Love them or hate them, they are undeniably radical films. Malick is one of the truly great contemporary filmmakers, one whose canonical reputation can be observed as it is being written. What other American artist in big-budget film is as protean, as unyieldingly and hungrily evolving? Who else thinks so deeply into the formal foundations of the medium? Who else as relentlessly idiosyncratic? There are other ways to innovate, of course, and other radical works that don't announce themselves so insistently, than the seismic upheavals that Malick has now made his bailiwick. But currently there is no other American film artist as committed to reinvention, as passionate in his discovery of his own vision, and as sincere in his conveying that vision to audiences.
Cinema is our newest art form, and the one that's most reliant upon technology. We hear about this all the time. We also hear about cinema's baptism into the world of commerce, how it was born in the arcades, the perfect experience-as-commodity. But less commented upon, although it goes part in parcel with the other two descriptors, is how cinema was born in the age of democracy. Deep into that age, as a matter of fact; and it's flourishing and still-evolving understanding of film, with its potential as high art and universally accessible experience, illustrates that fact. Art civilizes - I choose to believe this. And the expansion of cinema into all realms, and cultures, as readily available and constantly changing, gives me all the evidence I need. Art doesn't only civilize, of course, and it isn't sufficient to civilize; but when it offers up a vision of the world that is complete and recklessly alive, sensitive to culture and personal experience both, it shows us that there is something worth preserving, something worth furthering, in human society.
So yes, I loved To the Wonder. While no less radical than Malick's previous opus, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a more intimate and a more cohesive work. Where the former film was, at times, teetering under its own sense of scale and majesty, this film finds Malick less conceptual and more intuitive. Part of the thrill of watching the movie is witnessing Malick discover a new language; like a great Impressionist painting, it serves as a record of both the events depicted and its own creation. Every cut is felt, every scene has the traces of a thing newly discovered. Much has been written about the quality of the light; the way that Malick (with indispensable assistance from Emmanuel Lubezki) seems uncannily sensitive to light and color, composing his film as if from notes in a musical score, or, of course, like painting. Here, the light works both within the universe of the characters and on the level of metaphor. Besides the contrasts between urban and rural light, and between northern France and Oklahoma, the light becomes a marker of perpetual and universal change, always fading and rising. It's always in some kind of motion. It isn't too much to say that the light not only suggests God, but is God - it's everywhere, illuminating everything, but invisible.
But there is also a palpable, sculptural quality to Malick's style, and it's nowhere more prevalent than in this latest film. With the camera, Malick shapes a world not only of glittering surfaces and refractions, but a space, a physical presence. I can think of no other films that manages to convey the distinct architecture of a room, be it a sparsely furnished kitchen or the nave of a cathedral. He even manages to give a sense of scale to the limitless: when the characters reach skyward, you can almost feel the distance. I'm not sure how Malick and Lubezki accomplish this, but it has something to do with the motion of the camera. Through his instinctual, graceful movement of the camera, Lubezki makes motion palpable, tilting and swooping with the objects, drawing the audience into their motion. The unconventionality of this approach is stunning, when it gets you: rather than a window into space, Lubezski's camera moves space itself. It doesn't just direct our gaze, it sweeps our gaze along with it.
Leaving the theater, I felt like I did after viewing Tree of Life for the first time, lighter somehow. Riding my bike back from the theater, I was in a Terrence Malick movie, extra-attuned to the sounds and sights, the color of the leaves, the song of birds. This feeling lingers and then fades, but it's a contemplative place that I seek out often enough in my own life, and to have it corroborated, aesthetically, always feels miraculous to me. And it's not a philosophical or religious sensation, exactly; it's much to elemental for that. Malick, for all of his great erudition moral seriousness, retains a sense of wonder that can only be called childlike. You can see how he's inspired by the playing of children, how the adults in his movies seem most free when they laugh and clown and gambol like little kids. Others have commented upon the dance-like quality of the physical action in To the Wonder, but it has to be noted that this is like the dancing of youngsters: loopy, joyful abandon.
As ever, there is little room for psychology in Malick's work. But I wonder if this assessment, which seems at times to be a truism, misses something that's being accomplished. It's true that Malick will often use his actors for their ability to portray a type. It's not symbolism, exactly, but it does consistently hint at something greater than the individual lives of the characters. And Malick is very earnestly committed to a visual language that relies upon what could be deemed symbols (as an example from this film, the shot of the roaring, tumultuous waters that precedes Marina's assignation with the carpenter.) But symbols and archetypes don't begin to encompass the effect of these images, and their contrapuntal relationship to each other. In To the Wonder, Malick has gone deeper into the lives of his characters than ever before, made all the more remarkable by his discarding most dialogue, or even what's thought of as conventional acting. People who criticize Affleck's performance do so because they're seeking a "performance;" something discrete from the overall composition of the film. There is no action in the film that isn't furthered, echoed, or elaborated by the other elements - the set design, the camerawork. This is true, to varying degrees, in any good film, of course, but nobody I'm aware of (at least in the realm of "feature" filmmaking) has taken it to such an extent as Malick. In Affleck's impressively subtle action, every glance, every movement, becomes loaded with emotion and potential meaning; he's the picture of an emotionally reticent person. What he seeks in the free-spirited Marina (and later, in Rachel McAdam's character) is that complimentary side of existence, that which is visibly, palpably unbound in emotion. While representative of very familiar modes of behavior, they are nonetheless very specific people. Affleck's sense of the world is grounded in abstract knowledge, in direct communication, as when he tells Marina's daughter, Tatiana, about the reflection of the Earth on the evening horizon. But he delegates his emotions, relying upon Olga Kurlyenko's character to experience the world, on an emotional level, for the both of them. At a certain point in the film, it really came home to me that these are unhappy people; for all of the exaltation of the imagery, which frequently border on the ecstatic, the main characters are often very sad. The question that keeps being asked, by the characters and by the movie, is: Why doesn't joy stick around?
But all of this still doesn't capture the way in which Malick manages to infuse the everyday with the cosmic. How he manages to approach things with a documentarian's eye and the heart of a poet. I'm trying to figure out a working description of Malick's style. It's blissful naturalism combines with a painterly approach to metaphor, if that makes any sense. It roots the grand gestures of the poet in the here and now of the political, historical, moment: This is what makes this film such a leap forward. I'm thinking of the many interior scenes in which Neil and Marina's Oklahoma house appears barely furnished. On the one hand, it locates the characters very specifically; they are un-rooted, always in a state of settling in, never fully unpacked, never really home. On the other hand, it touches upon the fickle nature of love and existence; everything is transient, everything is changing. How do we keep up?
And then there's all of the nonprofessionals featured. (I'm getting back to that previous tangent about democracy). Far be it from me to weigh down a film as airy as To the Wonder with something as crass as a political reading, but the images are there; they can't be ignored. It's hard to miss that contained within To the Wonder is a kind of call to arms. The world he depicts is deeply riven; crumbling, corrupt, poisonous. Community seems only to exist as a shadow. Were this just another metaphor, it would be an unbecoming, opportunistic one indeed. But the lines of Malick's vision run both ways; the poisoned groundwater is our despair of ever holding on to love, and our despair is the poisoned groundwater. I mean this literally, and I think Malick does as well. There are direct, physical connections between our current deficit of what used to be called "community spirit" and the deep crisis in our local (and global) environment. The resolution that the film offers, hints at (and it does this in no uncertain terms) is one of love, in a distinctly spiritual sense - which is to say, a love that both encompasses and transcends romantic love. There is no love between people that is not attached, in some fundamental way, to love for the world. Love is everywhere; it's like light. Use it for illumination, use it to build up your life. But you can't have it without also having everything else.