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To the Wonder (2012)


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An essay over at mubi's Notebook on THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER that gets a lot of what I like about these films, from a theological angle. The author's comparisons between TREE OF LIFE and Book X of Augustine's CONFESSIONS was a comparison I made in my paper on Malick at SCMS 2012, so I'm happy to see others picking up on it.

 

 

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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I'm with you, Anders.

In a similar way, I was pleased by the way he framed his discussion of TO THE WONDER as a "love song" via Song of Solomon. Though I went the Psalms route, I commented that TM seemed to be striving now more than ever for a "musical cinema" (there's probably a more precise phrase for what I meant by that).

 

My only surprise here is that Kierkegaard wasn't even mentioned, particularly given how much of a cross-section he represents between theology/philosophy. But it also goes to show just how much theological reference there is in TM's filmography.

 

By the way, I think I like his Song of Solomon frame better than the "psalmic wonder" frame I went with.

Edited by Nick Olson

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm surprised how little I liked To the Wonder, since I *love* Upstream Color and they're kind of the same movie.

 

Huh, I guess in so far as I agree with Darren's contention that UPSTREAM COLOR just might be the "s**t covered" Malick film he'd been waiting for, I can see some stylistic and even a few thematic (questions of knowledge and identity) similarities. But I think they're far from the same movie. Can you flesh this out some more, or was this meant as an off the cuff, half-joke? If so, please ignore my over-thinking of this.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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In UC, Kris and Jeff are a couple who don't really know one another and have difficulty communicating and understanding why they're drawn together; in Wonder, Neil and Martina have trouble communicating (because of language/culture barriers) and don't seem to know why they stay together (or come back together).

 

In UC, the Sampler wants to understand emotions and relationships, but doesn't seem to experience them directly, so he compensates for that lack by engineering connections that he can observe and live through vicariously; in Wonder, Father Quintana feels disconnected and lonely (especially from God), so he tries to compensate for that by investing in the lives of his parishioners and entering, as much as he can, into their feelings and struggles.

 

Beyond that, the way both movies are shot and edited--not a lot of establishing shots, a lot of shots from characters' points of view, many of the big dramatic moments elided and only understood after the fact, restless, sweeping cameras--felt similar, as well.

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In UC, Kris and Jeff are a couple who don't really know one another and have difficulty communicating and understanding why they're drawn together; in Wonder, Neil and Martina have trouble communicating (because of language/culture barriers) and don't seem to know why they stay together (or come back together).

 

In UC, the Sampler wants to understand emotions and relationships, but doesn't seem to experience them directly, so he compensates for that lack by engineering connections that he can observe and live through vicariously; in Wonder, Father Quintana feels disconnected and lonely (especially from God), so he tries to compensate for that by investing in the lives of his parishioners and entering, as much as he can, into their feelings and struggles.

 

Beyond that, the way both movies are shot and edited--not a lot of establishing shots, a lot of shots from characters' points of view, many of the big dramatic moments elided and only understood after the fact, restless, sweeping cameras--felt similar, as well.

 

Thanks. I guess I never really thought of Neil and Marina's relationship in quite that way, but it's almost been a year since I've seen the film. Interesting connection you made between Father Quintana and the Sampler though. I'll have to think about it some more, but I like it.

 

As for shooting and editing style, I would definitely agree that they share a lot of similarities. I think this style informs the content, in that both Malick and Carruth are interested in subjectivity and the way that we feel connected to something beyond ourselves without being transcendent ourselves.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Cineaste is currently offering only the first four paragraphs of Robert Koehler's article 'What the Hell Happened with Terrence Malick?' for free, but if you're a subscriber, you can read the rest. In the meantime, here's how it begins:

The decline of Terrence Malick, one of the stranger spectacles in recent cinema, is directly attached to a condition that runs through every art form. Lovers of the cinema, dance, painting, architecture, music, sculpture, performance art, theater, and literature all have their heroes, giants, and legends representing a utopian ideal of the art form. Whether this utopianism is stronger and more fanatically held in cinema than other arts is debatable, but it could be that as cinephiles who cling to their ideal of a film-as-film experience (or, cinema-in-the-cinema) watch it being eroded by corporate and technological forces beyond their control, their particular utopianism is held to more fiercely. Their cinema heroes define the terms of their Utopia (take Tarantino calling filmmakers like Sam Fuller or William Whitley “my cinema guys,” or Andrew Sarris’s highest pantheon), and every cinephile has a Utopia to embrace, exalt, measure all else against. This Utopia isn’t an impossibility, or a “Nowhere” spelled backward; it’s the standard, often exemplified in living, breathing human beings.

Malick is—at latest report—living and breathing, but after the consecutive artistic disasters of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, it’s fair to ponder what standard he’s expressing. . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
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  • 3 weeks later...

Jeffrey, Nathan, and I talked a bit about this film on Letterboxd, which has me thinking again about Malick, me, and TO THE WONDER.

I wasn't a fan of TO THE WONDER, but it seems that all of latter-day Malick is something of an uphill climb for me. I watch his films because, at least in this circle, they're something of an event. But he's probably the most frustrating director I know, in no small part because he's just too good to write off.

I can pinpoint the exact moment where I was thrown out of the emotional experience of TO THE WONDER. It was just about thirteen minutes in, when Olga Kurylenko is looking distressed and distracted in that very Malicky way while halfheartedly conversing with a neighbor, and the neighbor is behaving very naturally and normally, and the dissonance between the two performances in that moment just tossed me out of the world of the film and I never got back in.

Which is not to say that dissonance is a quality I dislike in a film, but in this case, it seemed so haphazard. There's no clear set-up or context for that stylistic gesture (if the dissonance is indeed intentional). Moments just follow other moments. That essential haphazard quality, that fundamental fuzziness of structure and montage and narrative, is what keeps me away form Malick. It's why THE TREE OF LIFE drove me bonkers. And it's not just Malick: Anderson's THE MASTER bugged me in the same way, too.

 

I'm surprised how little I liked To the Wonder, since I *love* Upstream Color and they're kind of the same movie.

I disliked both of them (and for very different reasons), but between the two of them, I'd take TO THE WONDER in a heartbeat. Edited by Ryan H.
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On a related note.  There's an article in Cineaste Magazine about "what to hell happened with Terrence Malick."

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The Koehler piece is strongly argued, although I can only agree with some of it. He weighs the newer films (from The New World on) against the "unflappable and uncanny calm" of the earlier ones, citing the transition to handheld camera and digital editing tools as a root issue. Some choice clips:
 

The Steadicam and handheld camera strategy that Malick has been using with his preferred cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have brought out all of his worst instincts. Tools with few physical limitations, handheld cameras can be tilted, swung, or rotated in any possible direction and axis. Lubezki and Malick's work appears unmoored, lacking a governing idea for their uses of the camera, either in its movement or in its way of interpreting light; the former comes off as impulsive, the latter as merely pictorial.

 

 

Sequences, or anything resembling them, are jettisoned in the two latest films.

 

 

In To the Wonder…anything like drama is eliminated in favor of the gestures, glances, and bodily motion that happen before and after the pivotal moment of conflict. Or something more perverse: he often jumps entirely over the basis of characters' conflicts (how and why Neil and Marina grow distant from each other) and into the fights that erupt out of them, as if images of the fighting were enough.

 

 

Malick is now operating by reduction and avoidance, with whatever is left of "scenes" in his final cut barely suggesting traces of the fuller and more complete scenes that once were.

 

 

Since Malick doesn't discuss his ideas in public, we're left to conclude from the evidence of the two recent films that he's undergone some kind of religious experience that's moved him to a more overt Christian/New Age position. The problem is that he hasn't found a way to give it meaning on screen.
Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Some good points, but I think these comments are more valuable as 'descriptive' rather than 'prescriptive' (or prohibitive) notes.

And the idea that "sequences, or anything resembling them, are jettisoned in the two latest films" is BS.

The Tree of Life doesn't have SEQUENCES? (I can name, quickly and without really pausing to think: the Creation sequence, the sequence where the children walk by criminals and cripples on the street, the funeral sequence, the sequence where the group of boys vandalizes the neighborhood, the sequence where the brothers ride their bikes to the forest, etc. etc. etc.)

Dear God. Based on the way he talks about it, you'd think Malick's work is nothing but a random collage of images.

Edited by Timothy Zila

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"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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This is the first time I've found myself in pretty much entire disagreement with Koehler. I really just think that he, like a lot of reviewers I respect, doesn't get the method in Malick's madness. 

 

Similarly, much as I tend to agree with Ryan H. about films, I can't get on board with any description of Malick's style as haphazard or imprecise.

 

I have plenty of sympathy for those are tired of Malick's style, his aesthetic preoccupations, and the signature moves that are increasingly seeming like "habits," I find a great deal of deliberate decision-making in his juxtapositions, his camera moves, and his ... yes ... sequences.

 

If your camera is tracing a representation of the way the spirit of grace moves in and through and around us, the "dance" of his choreography makes all kinds of poetic sense to me. It's not just perfume commercial maneuvering; it's a perpetual affirmation of, an participation in, the way all things are connected, and the way that forces within and beyond our senses are at play in every scenario. The Holy Spirit is an active character in his last few films, and what is more, ballsy at it is, Malick wants to play at making the Holy Spirit a POV.

 

Similarly, he moves his camera the way a needle winds a thread to sew together moments by way of poetic association. A simplistic version of this would be the way Steve McQueen cuts back and forth between a character's dying hours and birds storming out into the air. Malick wants us to see parallels and resonance between objects and people and gestures and incidents, and the progress of the camera pulls the thread.

 

All the things that bugged me about To the Wonder still bug me, but I'm still on board with Malick's M.O. With him, the style is the substance.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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If your camera is tracing a representation of the way the spirit of grace moves in and through and around us, the "dance" of his choreography makes all kinds of poetic sense to me. It's not just perfume commercial maneuvering; it's a perpetual affirmation of, an participation in, the way all things are connected, and the way that forces within and beyond our senses are at play in every scenario. The Holy Spirit is an active character in his last few films, and what is more, ballsy at it is, Malick wants to play at making the Holy Spirit a POV.

 

Very much support this description.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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If your camera is tracing a representation of the way the spirit of grace moves in and through and around us, the "dance" of his choreography makes all kinds of poetic sense to me. It's not just perfume commercial maneuvering; it's a perpetual affirmation of, an participation in, the way all things are connected, and the way that forces within and beyond our senses are at play in every scenario. The Holy Spirit is an active character in his last few films, and what is more, ballsy at it is, Malick wants to play at making the Holy Spirit a POV.

 

Very much support this description.

 

 

 

I've yet to see "To the Wonder."  But yes, I like this in regards to "Tree of Life."  I hadn't thought of it that way at the time, but it makes good sense, and if true it would make that film and what he was trying to achieve that much more groundbreaking.

 

Oh, and.  Of course there were sequences in "Tree of Life'.  For me it had a nice blend of a storyline I could follow and mystery.

Edited by Attica
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Similarly, much as I tend to agree with Ryan H. about films, I can't get on board with any description of Malick's style as haphazard or imprecise.

Look at it this way: compared to the tight, precise construction of my favorite filmmakers (De Palma, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Leone, Resnais, Welles, even Ruiz), Malick's films--particularly the last two--*do* seem comparatively haphazard. Which may be a "It's me, not Malick" sort of thing, as I'll freely admit, but grappling with a filmmaker is also honestly confronting one's own aesthetic tastes.

But I'll add, as I've noted a few times, that I do greatly respect BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN. I'm ambivalent toward THE NEW WORLD, and like enough moments in THE TREE OF LIFE that I can't write it off. And, while it didn't work for me, I don't have any hard feelings toward TO THE WONDER, other than to say that it didn't work for me. The only Malick film I actively dislike is THE THIN RED LINE.

Malick wants us to see parallels and resonance between objects and people and gestures and incidents, and the progress of the camera pulls the thread.

Sure, but as far as this goes in his two latest features, I don't think he does anywhere near as well as, say, Nicolas Roeg does with his emphasis of parallels via cross-cutting, in part because Roeg is very clear and purposeful in its direction of viewer attention. Malick's juxtapositions in THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER are often pretty hazy.
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Does the lack of narrative have any bearing on your problem? It seems to me that Malick has been slowly moving away from narrative since Days of Heaven with each film becoming looser and loser in terms of storytelling. I still think there's some tight, precice film-making at work, it's just not built as an overarching narrative.

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Does the lack of narrative have any bearing on your problem?

No, I don't think so. The problem with the trajectory of Malick's career is not that he has moved away from narrative toward something more abstract, but that as he has moved toward abstraction he has become increasingly poor at organizing his thoughts and ideas. Edited by Ryan H.
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Amen, Jeffrey. Amen.

Would it be fair to say that Malick's style is moving towards a somewhat stream of consciousness style of filmmakking. I don't mean that entirely literally, but as I think about it seems that the way Malick directs his thoughts is pretty familiar to say, the way Virginia Woolf constructs sentences in Mrs. Dalloway.

To say Malick "has become increasingly poor at organizing his thoughts and ideas" is, I think, to miss the point entirely.

If you don't like it, fine, that's understandable, but it's not because of a failure on Malick's part to achieve his goal. I'm with Jeffrey: what we see in Malick isn't disorganized chaos. It's deliberate and purposeful, whether you can get with it or not (I sometimes can't).

Edited by Timothy Zila

@Timzila

"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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I just want to chime in quickly to say that, and I say this as a huge Malick fan, I get what Ryan is getting at in contrasting Malick's style with the precision of the other directors he is speaking of. Malick does have a loose and improvisational style compared with those other directors he mentioned. My knowledge of his editing and shooting style confirms this. Those other directors probably all storyboard the hell out of their films. Malick shoots and shoots and shoots, and then finds his story in the editing. It doesn't mean that Malick is failing, and I don't think Ryan was even implying that, but there is an interesting contrast to be made. In the same way, I don't think it is a slight of a musician to point out that their improvisational jazz solo lacks the rigorous construction of a modernist classical piece.

 

Just wanted to say that Ryan's comments weren't unappreciated, even if I disagree on the ultimate aesthetic and thematic value of Malick's work.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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I'm in total agreement with you, Anders.

I do, however, think there's a difference between saying Malick has a loose and improvisational style and saying "he has become increasingly poor at organizing his thoughts and ideas." I'm in total agreement with the former statement; I respectfully disagree with the second.

On something of this note, it strikes me as somewhat unhelpful to say that Malick has moved away from traditional narrative. That's true, of course, but it also doesn't seem particularly helpful.

It seems, to me, that Malick stages scenes and sequences much more like, say, Pina staged dances while she was alive. Through a combination of improvisation and extensive editing, Malick makes his scenes dances - the actors (and the camera) circle round and round, rather than hitting their marks and saying their lines. It's more like jazz, to use Ander's comparison.

But none of that, to me, indicates disorganization. What we see in Malick is as purposeful, deliberate, and choreographed as Pina's dance. It's just a different style and approach.

Edited by Timothy Zila

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"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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Would it be fair to say that Malick's style is moving towards a somewhat stream of consciousness style of filmmakking. I don't mean that entirely literally, but as I think about it seems that the way Malick directs his thoughts is pretty familiar to say, the way Virginia Woolf constructs sentences in Mrs. Dalloway.

To say Malick "has become increasingly poor at organizing his thoughts and ideas" is, I think, to miss the point entirely.

I don't think it is, at least if you understand what I mean by "organizing his thoughts and ideas." A stream-of-consciousness novel still organizes thoughts and ideas, it just does so through creating the illusion of a stream of thought.

I just want to chime in quickly to say that, and I say this as a huge Malick fan, I get what Ryan is getting at in contrasting Malick's style with the precision of the other directors he is speaking of. Malick does have a loose and improvisational style compared with those other directors he mentioned. My knowledge of his editing and shooting style confirms this. Those other directors probably all storyboard the hell out of their films. Malick shoots and shoots and shoots, and then finds his story in the editing. It doesn't mean that Malick is failing, and I don't think Ryan was even implying that, but there is an interesting contrast to be made. In the same way, I don't think it is a slight of a musician to point out that their improvisational jazz solo lacks the rigorous construction of a modernist classical piece.

Just wanted to say that Ryan's comments weren't unappreciated, even if I disagree on the ultimate aesthetic and thematic value of Malick's work.

Thanks, Anders.

I get the sense some feathers are being ruffled here (I get that sense whenever Malick comes under fire here at A&F, though perhaps that's just me). Malick is very beloved (both on A&F and elsewhere). For the record, my intention is not to somehow tear him off of his pedestal or chastise anyone for loving TO THE WONDER. I'm trying to examine Malick and myself.

In THE TREE OF LIFE thread it was noted (and I can't remember by who) that Malick is not really an "authoritative" filmmaker in the sense that he doesn't pursue some kind of mastery of his material. As Anders notes above, Malick doesn't always know precisely what he's looking for when sets out to make a film, often discovering the true shape of the film in question in the editing room. I find nothing intrinsically bad about this approach: it leads to some spectacular, spontaneous moments (I think the suburbia section of THE TREE OF LIFE simmers with a life and vitality that is rarely found in motion pictures). But this approach also has weaknesses (ala TREE OF LIFE's clumsy and undercooked framing device with Sean Penn).

Wong Kar-Wai relies on a similar approach, and certain critiques of THE GRANDMASTER could just as easily be applied to some of Malick's films, which has me wondering why I respond so warmly to Wong and struggle with Malick. Is it just a preference for one set of stylistic tics over another? Or is it that Wong's films still maintain some "authoritative" quality that Malick's films don't?

Edited by Ryan H.
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No feathers ruffled here.

 

I like the musical correlation made earlier: Malick is as distinct in his passions, methods, and style as... oh... Philip Glass. A lot of folks don't speak his language, and some who do speak it don't like it. Doesn't bother me.

 

I only get aggravated when critics take their personal response to Malick and amplify it to become a Pronouncement. Nobody has a right to declare that Malick is in decline as if that's some kind of fact — he's more popular than ever, there's more scholarship written on his work than ever, his new work is impressing some of the most accomplished and insightful critics I know (and prompting great writing from them) and whether or not you like To the Wonder, it is another step in a direction rather than merely repeating himself. 

 

And besides, Pronouncements are useless and boring. Those who give them would do better to explore and describe their personal relationship with the work, and make arguments without being dismissive, without pretending that there are large and thoughtful populations who think differently.

 

I'm actually quite interested in the frustrated critics of Malick. Sometimes, I find myself agreeing. Sometimes I don't. But I learn a lot from reading those guys, and I learn more about my own thoughts and feelings by the ways in which I react and respond. Also, I'm more interested in reviews that find both strengths and weaknesses, because most of Malick's fans seem to end up saying the same things when describing his work. I began to doubt my own enthusiasm when I found that my own writing about Malick just sounded like what all of the rest of his admirers were saying; I began to suspect that I wasn't really thinking about him anymore. Because actual thinking in film criticism tends to sound like it's coming from the voice of a particular human being. 

 

(I've lost count of how many times I've heard people say, "Just let Malick's movies wash over you." I suspect I've said that too, and I believe Malick himself was quoted that way. I don't even know what that means. Sounds like a dangerous way to watch a movie.)

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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