Saturday, April 13, 2013

We Walked Up the Steps

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder arrives -- arrived to me, anyhow -- with a built-in reputation as his most abstract and inaccessible film to date. It's quite possible that there is no arguing with this. His first four movies, Badlands and so on, may not be for everyone, but when you get right down to it, narratively they're not that wonky. Those who found themselves put off by Malick's work, and their numbers have grown with each subsequent film, tended to object to things like pacing, and his use of narration, and long stretches of the film in which these people would say nothing much happened. Malick's not trying to shake you off his tail at any point in those first four, though. It's worth noting, however, that narratively those films did start getting wonkier, especially if you view pacing as a narrative consideration (I don't myself, but never mind) -- if a traditionally tight focus on A to B to C storytelling is your thing, The Thin Red Line and The New World -- and don't even get me started on if you're one of those "narration in films is a crutch!" -- can seem like the quietest of assaults. All of which led to 2011's The Tree of Life, Malick's long-gestating meditation (a word I don't often like to use in this way, but in the case of The Tree of Life it's almost literally applicable) on childhood, the 1950s, Texas, moms, dads, death, God, Christianity, memory, acceptance, and the creation of the Universe and all life within it. As a piece about memory, Malick takes the way human memory works as his guiding cinematic style, and so The Tree of Life manages to somehow be both slow and fast, with quick scenes of, some would argue, Not Much Happening, but of course it's all cumulative, and also about forty minutes in the Earth is created. The Tree of Life was famously divisive, to the point that some theaters had to post signs saying they wouldn't grant refunds to patrons who'd bought their ticket with the expectation that this was a regular movie, not a fancy movie. Nevertheless, that film did appeal to a great many people, and there is an undeniable warmth to it all, even to the darker moments, due to Malick's grasp of the specifics of childhood, some fictional version of his childhood specifically, and the environment being so strong.

Pretty cleary, I should hope, none of the above is meant as a judgment of Malick's style, as I'm a fan, but he does have a unique gift for shedding supporters with each subsequent film. And To the Wonder is hacking away at those who remain like a madman. According to some, anyway. Me, I liked it. At under two hours, it's Malick's shortest film since Days of Heaven, but within that he's assembled a jumbled, intentionally so, and oblique, intentionally so, I guess romantic drama, would be the genre category you'd be looking for here, about Neil (Ben Affleck) who brings his French girlfriend Marina(Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter from a previous relationship (Tatiana Chiline) from France to Texas, but his inability to commit to marrying Marina, as well as his wandering eye, finally drive them away. Or not finally. The film drifts from Neil with Marina, to Neil with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a despairing, lonely farmer he'd known when they were children. Jane pretty evidently needs somebody, but with Neil she, like Marina before her, pretty clearly thought she was getting somebody else. Neil is one of those people who is basically a nice guy who's kind of an asshole, and one of the surprising things about To the Wonder is how unflinching -- without quite looking squarely at the thing, if you see my distinction -- it is about the damage one person acting upon their moods, who are guided by their selfish myopia, can wreak.

That all makes the film seem fairly straightforward, though, and it isn't. The warmth of The Tree of Life is not entirely absent from To the Wonder -- it's even occasionally heated -- but Malick achieves a chilly kind of warmth here. There's an occasional awkwardness, too. It's a film packed with perfectly observed scenes of idle playfulness and everyday existence, such as a brief moment of girls talking and skipping and bending outside of an elementary school, or a very young boy lying perfectly still on the ground as someone outlines him in chalk (sounds creepy, but it's charming), but it also has weird moments like Neil, Marina, and her daughter, in happier times, frolicking around with lampshades on their heads, shining bare light bulbs at each other, which seems like a thing that no one has ever done to entertain themselves. The idea we have of Malick, or have learned to have, is of a guy who shoots an immense amount of film with the plan of finding his movie in the editing room, at the expense of entire characters and subplots, and here even a Malick fan like myself must acknowledge that sometimes it seems like he should have kept looking. But this is a film that is more nakedly grasping at its own sense of these people and their situation than anything Malick has made. He may have been mystified by the killers in Badlands, but I believe in that case he understood that theirs was an existence you couldn't understand unless you were pulling the trigger, or tagging along for the ride. To the Wonder, like The Tree of Life before it, is Malick trying to be universal, but in doing so he has to acknowledge that universal, or at least not uncommon, experience can still carry with it a dose of inexplicability. The result of such grasping can include the occasional whiff, is my point, but the grasping is still the show.

And of course Malick goes about all this, and much more, in his own way. A question that is sometimes asked by screenwriter types, or students and enthusiasts of same, and here I should specify screenwriting of a very specific and traditional kind, is "Who is this about?" The character, they mean, the main character, our point of view, and so on. To the Wonder does not exactly seem to ask this question. For instance, for all the talk about Ben Affleck having very little to say in the film, he's in more scenes than he isn't, and it's his actions and inaction that fuels everything. When Neil is with Jane, Marina is gone. When Neil is with Marina, Jane is gone. At the same time, unlike Jane, Marina has much to do and think and suffer through when she's alone. And if Neil fuels the action, such as it is, it's Marina who fuels the style. Kurylenko is rather terrific in the film, and she'd better be, because if Malick's camera has to hitch itself to Neil on occasion, it would quite blatantly rather spend its every second with Marina. Malick regards her, and Kurylenko, to be as much a part of the natural beauty of the world as the birds and beaches turtles and leaves and sky and horizons and oceans that have over the years spread from the background of his films to the foreground. The camera quite literally follows Marina throughout the film -- never have I scene a film where a character is so relentlessly photographed from behind. I do not mean this in the lascivious way it might sound, but at the same time I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that a certain...Godly lasciviousness wasn't a part of it. Boy that doesn't sound right, but To the Wonder is the kind of film that connects a whole lot of things that most people would consider disparate, but which aren't, at least if you hold a certain philosophy. Anyhow, the camera follows her (Jane, always waiting to be shattered to bits once again, is seen head-on) -- she's always walking ahead of Neil, and us, spinning and playing at the best of times, looking back at Neil, and at us, and it's hard to think we're not, in some way, pursuing her. We are, but Neil may not be -- Neil's fickleness needn't be our own, and doesn't seem to be Malick's. This would seem to place Marina on an uncomfortably high pedestal, but she somehow still manages to register as a real human being. She is gorgeous and mysterious and life-affirming in her very presence, but if you follow her around with a camera long enough, you're going to see how profoundly frustrated she is, or has become, during almost every waking minute of her life.

To give you some idea of the way To the Wonder otherwise presents itself, when it's somewhat less concerned with Kurylenko, among the things I thought about while watching it are Werner Herzog's Stroszek (both films are strange, neither film approaches strangeness with the same philosophy, but both films do stand still and look at America all around them and are somewhat dumbstruck) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, due, admittedly, to one particular cut from one kind of naturally landscape to another, utterly different kind. But it's a film that invites a great tumble of connections that don't need to achieve a one-to-one comparison. For example, John Prine's "Unwed Fathers" ran through my head, even though Neil, the guy that would pertain to, isn't really the guy in that song. But he has a profound ability to make Marina unhappy, and even though his relationship with Jane is not presented as just some dude looking to change the old oil, there, even prior to her introduction Neil is shown to be a man who is weak in the face of his capacity to attract women. It's shown with a glance here and there, at a woman passing by, and through certain cryptic things Marina says, but it's unmistakably there. Add to that the fact that at the time of his affair Marina and Neil aren't married, and it becomes surprising that To the Wonder reveals itself to be, at its heart, about the sanctity of marriage. Very much marriage as a religious sacrament, I mean. If Malick's obsession with the natural world can be explained, as I believe it can, by the Tom Waits line "God's green hair is where I slept last," then it should surprise no one that his view of love, including sexual love, manifests as the pursuit of something holy (pursued as if by a cameraman, you might say). It's what Marina is pursuing, and not the in the Cathy "I need a man! Ack!" way, but in the "love is a celebration of God" way. This is evidently not Neil's stance on the whole issue, even though for his own peace of mind he appears to have chosen to deny everything about himself, or near enough, otherwise he'd live his life crushed by guilt, and who has time for that?

But God's everywhere in this film, and is at least as big an issue as in The Tree of Life. Javier Bardem is also in To the Wonder, playing a priest named Father Quintana, who goes through his life doing good for the needy and outcast, and delivering sermons at the church attended by Neil and Marina, but wondering where in the hell God is. His crisis of faith reaches a resolution of sorts, the word "everywhere" being the key there, and in a way Malick charts his progress -- his narrative arc, if you really insist on calling it that -- in the regular three-act way some people castigate Malick for abandoning. Not only that, but stylistically To the Wonder illustrates Quintana's story more directly than it does the Marina-Neil-Jane triangle. So God and Quintana form the buried engine of a film about the sanctity of marriage in which no marriage occurs until late in the film, and man, it doesn't seem very sacred really, by the time the credits roll. But it's the words that make it all make sense, Malick's much-derided narration that even many of his admirers say is something you have to just sort of deal with. And it's true, when you have Kurylenko (who does most of the narrating here) say in three different ways, one after the other in a row, that her love with Neil had made two people become one, it can become hard to take it seriously, and think it will be better for everybody to just focus on what works. But it's always been true, and here maybe more than ever, that Malick's narration provides the philosophical context that provide significance and weight to the images. They may be on the nose, even trite -- though by no means always, I'd argue -- they work almost as hypnotic, and spoken aloud, stage directions. It's part of the hum of Malick's films. If anyone agrees with me about the "stage directions" business, I can imagine them stating that they do NOT like it when movies tell them how to feel. But Malick isn't telling you how to feel. He's telling you how he feels. He made these movies, not us. That's their power.

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