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To the Wonder (2012)


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FWIW, I also understand what Ryan's saying. I had this "dissonance" issue a couple of times during TO THE WONDER (and noted it in my review). I still like TO THE WONDER, but I doubt it'd be in my favorite five films of the year thus far and I've missed quite a few releases.

THE TREE OF LIFE, otoh, is an all time personal favorite. But who knows what I'll think of it 5, 10, 15, or 20 years from now. For me, it works in a way that TTW doesn't. And how it works makes a lot of sense to me.

"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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I think everyone has at least one director whose work they really struggle to appreciate while their friends and colleagues all seem to greatly admire his work  (I've occasionally thought that might make a good confessions thread)

 

As someone who admires Malick quite a bit, but not as much as others here, it doesn't bother me at all that someone dislikes or struggles with Malick.  His style is certainly not to everyone's taste.  Now if someone disliked Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Kieslowski...(I'm joking)

 

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.

That is a good analogy; I think it can often be helpful to compare "difficult" artists from various art forms as a way of discussing what one admires and appreciates (or doesn't) about different works of art.  Many of my friends know that I adore the music of Olivier Messiaen (a very avant-garde 20th C. composer), and several of them have told me that they have no clue how I enjoy and admire his music as much as I do.  My only response is that his harmonies, rhythms, and timbres work perfectly for me, but I can understand why someone else wouldn't appreciate his music.  With directors like Malick, I think it's the same thing.  Either his imagery and loose narrative structure works for you, or you struggle with it.

Edited by Evan C

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I found myself rewriting Arcade Fire's new song "Relfektor" tonight in view of this discussion:

 

"CT said Malick would lead us to the Ressurector / Turns out he was just a direktor..."

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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I'm not sure Rod Dreher is saying anything new about TO THE WONDER, but I love *how* he's saying it:

 

The final scene is absolutely arresting. I won’t give it away, but it’s an image of Marina running heedless into a new world scene, toward the light. And then, a blinding light strikes her from behind. The iconography Malick uses here tells us that the true light comes from the mysterious past, where Wonder has been captured in permanence. Upon that rock — Mont-Saint-Michel, and its confession of faith — is eternity and transcendence built. Only by fencing oneself in by commitment based in love and faith can we maintain our connection to the Wonder. In total freedom and newness is instability, and the death of love. It’s the unbearable lightness of being.

 

That final sequence of images has been on my mind a lot over the last couple of weeks. I wish the full Koehler piece was online, because this notion that Malick is somehow regressing is really mystifying. I had my first viewing of BADLANDS recently and was struck by both its success as such a fully formed early work and yet a shadow of Malick's later works. That final image of Marina in the fields is like a compression of Malick's oeuvre into one exquisite moment, highlighted by the astonishing, highly theatrical addition of the flashing light touching her. Between that and the highly stylized gloom of Jane's heartbreak in her creepy, doll-populated house, Malick seems to be pushing his aesthetic in almost opposite directions at the same time - naturalistic, steadicam-recorded vignettes punctuated by increasingly expressionist flashes of emotion. It's a tension that I'm finding more and more exciting, though where it leads I have no idea.

 

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.

 

I'm glad you mentioned this. If anything, I find TO THE WONDER to be one of Malick's most cohesive expression of ideas, almost to the point of overdoing it. It's not enough to describe the film as just a meditation on love and vocation, but also (as Dreher, quoting Damon Linker, mentions) as a meditation on openness to fertility, to children, to full Trinitarian love mirrored within family life. The way Marina recoils from the ultrasound of her IUD, the way that she bares herself to Neil without him doing likewise, resistant to true, life-giving intimacy (a scene I initially wrote off as misogynist - of course the actress is expected to get naked, but not the man), the way that she creates new life with the "ugly Southerner," as Darren put it - an immoral act that the film refuses to simplify, neither excusing Marina nor denying the good that comes from it. The way that this sequence of events climaxes with the mirror image of Bardem's montage, expressing the fecundity of his priesthood as it brings life to others... All of these elements cohere beautifully, in a way that could become pat, but doesn't.

 

This is a cohesion that THE TREE OF LIFE lacks - beyond the basic "story of universe/one man/us!" it's cul-de-sacs (and as much as I love the spectacle, I can't help but see the creation sequence as a cul-de-sac) don't function in complete harmony with the whole, especially rhythmically. TO THE WONDER doesn't reach the ecstatic formal highs of TREE, but then it also escapes the troughs.

Ryan, I share your privileging of more obviously precise directors (Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, and Rohmer being my top 3), but I could never consider Malick undisciplined in comparison to them. His senses for tone and pacing are too precise. I find the comparisons with UPSTREAM COLOR intriguing, as that was a film that I could not get into at all, despite sensing that Carruth seemed to do what he was wanting to do (bottom line is that by the end, I felt like I should have read WALDEN beforehand, which I resented). I have not seen PRIMER, and so did not go into the screening already predisposed to his skills, and I wonder sometimes if it's only that element of building trust in a director's taste that was the hinge for me. After THE NEW WORLD, I will give Malick the benefit of the doubt for anything he does. After UPSTREAM, I'm going have a hard time psyching myself up for the next Carruth effort.

Edited by Nathan Douglas
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I'm not sure Rod Dreher is saying anything new about TO THE WONDER, but I love *how* he's saying it:

 

The final scene is absolutely arresting. I won’t give it away, but it’s an image of Marina running heedless into a new world scene, toward the light. And then, a blinding light strikes her from behind. The iconography Malick uses here tells us that the true light comes from the mysterious past, where Wonder has been captured in permanence. Upon that rock — Mont-Saint-Michel, and its confession of faith — is eternity and transcendence built. Only by fencing oneself in by commitment based in love and faith can we maintain our connection to the Wonder. In total freedom and newness is instability, and the death of love. It’s the unbearable lightness of being.

 

That final sequence of images has been on my mind a lot over the last couple of weeks. I wish the full Koehler piece was online, because this notion that Malick is somehow regressing is really mystifying. I had my first viewing of BADLANDS recently and was struck by both its success as such a fully formed early work and yet a shadow of Malick's later works. That final image of Marina in the fields is like a compression of Malick's oeuvre into one exquisite moment, highlighted by the astonishing, highly theatrical addition of the flashing light touching her. Between that and the highly stylized gloom of Jane's heartbreak in her creepy, doll-populated house, Malick seems to be pushing his aesthetic in almost opposite directions at the same time - naturalistic, steadicam-recorded vignettes punctuated by increasingly expressionist flashes of emotion. It's a tension that I'm finding more and more exciting, though where it leads I have no idea.

I found this the hardest Malick to watch - partly because of the void that was Affleck - but I agree that those final moments were heart-stopping. That's what Malick does perhaps better than anyone - give you a purely visual consummation, a glimpse of the holy. 

As per your comparison with BADLANDS, I would say that that's a more satisfying experience, but the best of TO THE WONDER strikes 'further up and further in', as Lewis put it.

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Ryan, I share your privileging of more obviously precise directors (Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, and Rohmer being my top 3), but I could never consider Malick undisciplined in comparison to them. His senses for tone and pacing are too precise.

I wouldn't deny Malick's generally consistent sense of tone (even if I don't always *like* the tone of Malick's films), but I think Malick has an exceedingly poor grasp of pacing, at least in his post-hiatus films. Not that pacing is an all-important aspect of film for me, mind you.

I find the comparisons with UPSTREAM COLOR intriguing, as that was a film that I could not get into at all, despite sensing that Carruth seemed to do what he was wanting to do (bottom line is that by the end, I felt like I should have read WALDEN beforehand, which I resented). I have not seen PRIMER, and so did not go into the screening already predisposed to his skills, and I wonder sometimes if it's only that element of building trust in a director's taste that was the hinge for me. After THE NEW WORLD, I will give Malick the benefit of the doubt for anything he does. After UPSTREAM, I'm going have a hard time psyching myself up for the next Carruth effort.

FWIW, I have seen PRIMER (and liked it), have read WALDEN, and I still came away disliking UPSTREAM COLOR.
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... I think Malick has an exceedingly poor grasp of pacing, at least in his post-hiatus films.

Even the finale of THE NEW WORLD?
Are we talking about the pacing of individual sequences or the pacing of the entire film considered as a whole? I assumed the latter.

I assumed this includes both elements, but I was privileging the former when I wrote "his sense for pacing is too precise." But, I also would argue the distinction matters less and less, the further Malick gets from THE THIN RED LINE.

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Are we talking about the pacing of individual sequences or the pacing of the entire film considered as a whole? I assumed the latter.

I assumed this includes both elements, but I was privileging the former when I wrote "his sense for pacing is too precise." But, I also would argue the distinction matters less and less, the further Malick gets from THE THIN RED LINE.

A fine point. I'd say that Malick's grasp of pacing--in both of the senses we're mentioning here--has deteriorated with THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER.

But as to your previous question, no, I would not subject the finale of THE NEW WORLD (or even the entirety of THE NEW WORLD) to this line of critique.

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I watched this last night  for the first time since I saw it in the theatre (Guild 45th - Seattle) earlier this year.

Malick's style has been called "visual poetry," but I think TTW should be thought of as a visual symphony - with its recurring images likened to theme and variations in a symphony or concerto. Apparently, the story of TTW is quite autobiographical and that the briefly seen images and events are Malick's impressions of that time of his life - not as a strict narrative, but as an expression of the "shimmers" he experienced. And my initial reaction remains true - that the theme of this film is how ecstatic feelings (whether they be romantic or religious) don't last long ("emotions are fleeting") and we're faced with dealing with love and faith more commonly on mundane levels throughout life.

 

 

I still don't feel the emotional involvment I think I should have though (not even a fleeting feeling of ecstasy that a film like this usually elicits in me).  The scenes with Neil and Jane, for example, do get to me - but how much of that is the Rautavaara, and not the interaction between the two characters?  Or should I admire Malick for bringing together all of these talents - the music, Lubezki's lighting, Rachel McAdams' expressions of melancholy etc - into a scene that stays with me, if on a more intellectual level?

 

Malick's next film is supposedly about musicians in Austin, Texas.  This doesn't seem like the kind of subject matter that will work with the The Tree of Life/To the Wonder style.  Or will it?  Will this be a less personal story and a 180 turn in rhythm and narrative?  Or will Malick push his "shimmering," non-linear style even further?  I can't wait to find out!

 

 

Edited by Mark R.Y.
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There seem to me to be 2 things going on with Malick and this movie, the putting together of which is not easy:

 

1.  As I'm sure many here have noted, the trademark Malick flourishes (hands waving over grass, characters spinning in ecstasy) here seem perfunctory, almost like a great band who's so exhausted that it performs its greatest hits without the usual spark.

 

2.  On the other hand, the darker thread of corruption in relationships and persistent romantic failure rings repeatedly true throughout the movie.  I am surprised to say that the darkness in To the Wonder is actually the best thing about it, as it here has that ring of truth that I appreciated being faced so unflinchingly.  This dark element seems somewhat of a departure from the ecstasies that conclude The New World and Tree of Life, yet the longing for a higher spiritual love that transcends these corruptions is of a piece with those other Malick films.

 

By the way, I lived for 3 years in a suburban Oklahoma home much like some of the homes we see in the Oklahoma scenes.  My familiarity with this setting makes the movie seem oddly more personal than it has any right to be, even enough to make me considering buying a copy of a film that I would consider a lesser Malick. :) 

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  • 4 months later...

I take the final shot to mean something very different than "failure."

 

I believe we're to understand that she's running out in the sand — the famously dangerous and saturated sands between the sea and Mont Saint-Michel. If Mont Saint-Michel serves in the film as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, the center of the widening gyre, the place where we can climb up into the embrace of glory and grace through fidelity and love, then the last shot is of her running, lost, and failing, but a beacon of light turns her around, draws her attention. And in that I experience a searing flare of hope... much like Julie in Blue when she responds to the call of that bright blue light and that bold Zbigniew Preisner motif.

 

Of course, I've only seen the film three times... which is, in my experience, only the first stage of a relationship with a Malick film.

Edited by Overstreet

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

 

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I take the final shot to mean something very different than "failure."

 

I believe we're to understand that she's running out in the sand — the famously dangerous and saturated sands between the sea and Mont Saint-Michel. If Mont Saint-Michel serves in the film as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, the center of the widening gyre, the place where we can climb up into the embrace of glory and grace through fidelity and love, then the last shot is of her running, lost, and failing, but a beacon of light turns her around, draws her attention. And in that I experience a searing flare of hope... much like Julie in Blue when she responds to the call of that bright blue light and that bold Zbigniew Preisner motif.

 

Of course, I've only seen the film three times... which is, in my experience, only the first stage of a relationship with a Malick film.

 

Nods head in agreement.

"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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As no film in recent memory has inspired more exploration of religious themes in film writing (whole books have been written on the subject), yes, I think that label makes some sense for this film — if that label must exist. But I don't like the label. It suggests that the film is concerned with specific religions. Christianity is portrayed directly and boldly in the film in scripture quotations, scriptural references, scenes set in church, and symbolism. But the questions that drive the film are not exclusive to Christianity. 

Edited by Overstreet

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

 

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Would anyone here label Malick's last two films, To The Wonder & The Tree Of Life, as religious themed?

As no film in recent memory has inspired more exploration of religious themes in film writing (whole books have been written on the subject), yes, I think that label makes some sense for this film — if that label must exist. But I don't like the label. It suggests that the film is concerned with specific religions. Christianity is portrayed directly and boldly in the film in scripture quotations, scriptural references, scenes set in church, and symbolism. But the questions that drive the film are not exclusive to Christianity.

I'm curious why you feel, Jeff, that calling a film "religious themed" suggests religious exclusiveness. If I say a film is politically themed, does that mean it's driven by one political perspective? Why can't a film be concerned with religious questions without being uniquely tied to a particular religious tradition? Or what's the difficulty around recognizing that?

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Would anyone here label Malick's last two films, To The Wonder & The Tree Of Life, as religious themed?

As no film in recent memory has inspired more exploration of religious themes in film writing (whole books have been written on the subject), yes, I think that label makes some sense for this film — if that label must exist. But I don't like the label. It suggests that the film is concerned with specific religions. Christianity is portrayed directly and boldly in the film in scripture quotations, scriptural references, scenes set in church, and symbolism. But the questions that drive the film are not exclusive to Christianity.

I'm curious why you feel, Jeff, that calling a film "religious themed" suggests religious exclusiveness. If I say a film is politically themed, does that mean it's driven by one political perspective? Why can't a film be concerned with religious questions without being uniquely tied to a particular religious tradition? Or what's the difficulty around recognizing that?

 

 

Oh I didn't mean to say that "religious themed" (I'd prefer "religion-themed" or "religiously themed") suggests the film is exclusive to one religion. It just suggests that the film's theme is primarily about religion. I don't think either of the films in question is primarily about religion — one religion, or more than one — although its central questions are certainly questions that religions address. 

 

Would "theology themed" make more sense? I'm inclined to think so.

 

Since Christianity is the only religion directly referenced in the two films in question, if I recall correctly, I just meant to point out that the the questions raised in those films are not framed in an exclusively Christian way. Buddhists could find plenty that applies to them in these films. I suspect that adherents to other religions could too. So what I mean is that the questions at the heart of the films are too primal and essential to be seen as falling exclusively under the banners of one particular religion.

 

Similarly, I don't think of Amistad as a "religious themed film," although Christianity plays an important part in bringing a vocabulary to the questions at the heart of the matter.

 

The Passion of the Christ, though... or even Of Gods and Men... seem specifically "religious themed," and in the best way. Left Behind would be "religious themed" in the worst way. They are about the gospel, the perspective specific to Christianity. (Even there, I think the term feels awkward.) 

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 "theology themed" works, then can Tree & Wonder be grouped under "theology themed" along with Babette’s Feast or Andrei Rublev? Yes or No?

 

Agree to Eastern belief systems being possibly at ease with Malick's last two films since Eastern systems absorb doctrine as they choose.

 

It seems like Malick has converted from Bonnie & Clyde years i.e. Badlands (which I have not seen) and got religion.

I can't imagine anybody denying that theology is a major theme in those two films. Almost everything I've read on his work acknowledges that. 

 

And it's pretty well known that Malick comes from a religious family and has been deeply interested in theology and philosophy all along the way. The Tree of Life is reportedly grounded in Malick's own childhood experiences, just as the relationships in To the Wonder are supposedly loosely based on his own personal history. I don't think he "got religion" since the '70s so much as he's turned to more blatantly engaging theological questions in his work. I even happen to know he's been a visitor to Laity Lodge, the Christian retreat center in Texas where the Chrysotom Society meets and where pastors, teachers, and families enjoy Christian conferences and retreats and seminars all year round.

 

Whatever the case, I'd argue that Badlands and Days of Heaven have the same Spirit-haunted qualities as his other films. The characters just don't talk about it as much. 

 

We've talked about a lot of these things on this board over the years.

Edited by Overstreet

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

 

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If "theology themed" works, then can Tree & Wonder be grouped under "theology themed" along with Babette’s Feast or Andrei Rublev? Yes or No?

 

Agree to Eastern belief systems being possibly at ease with Malick's last two films since Eastern systems absorb doctrine as they choose.

 

It seems like Malick has converted from Bonnie & Clyde years i.e. Badlands (which I have not seen) and got religion.

Whatever the case, I'd argue that Badlands and Days of Heaven have the same Spirit-haunted qualities as his other films. The characters just don't talk about it as much. 

 

We've talked about a lot of these things on this board over the years.

 

 

I think it would be a grave error not to read Badlands within a theological/philosophical frame of reference.

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I think it would be a grave error not to read Badlands within a theological/philosophical frame of reference.

Absolutely.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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  • 6 months later...

I take the final shot to mean something very different than "failure."

 

I believe we're to understand that she's running out in the sand — the famously dangerous and saturated sands between the sea and Mont Saint-Michel. If Mont Saint-Michel serves in the film as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, the center of the widening gyre, the place where we can climb up into the embrace of glory and grace through fidelity and love, then the last shot is of her running, lost, and failing, but a beacon of light turns her around, draws her attention. And in that I experience a searing flare of hope... much like Julie in Blue when she responds to the call of that bright blue light and that bold Zbigniew Preisner motif.

 

Of course, I've only seen the film three times... which is, in my experience, only the first stage of a relationship with a Malick film.

Fascinating analysis. 

 

2 more questions about the final shots :

 

-If the final beacon of light turns her around and draws her attention, then what are we to make of the fact that she was walking toward another kind of light (a blinking radio tower) just before the stronger beacon of light turned her around?

-I noticed that the water near Mont St Michel in the final shot is much fuller (at full tide, perhaps?) than it was in the opening St Michel sequence.  In the earlier scenes, the couple is walking on the sand while the water is at very low tide.  As they walk, one of them points to the incoming tide and says something like, “Here it comes.”  What does the change in the tide signify, especially in light of the Kurylenko scenes right before the final full-tide St Michel shot?

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  • 2 months later...
  • 2 years later...
On 12/15/2010 at 10:31 AM, Overstreet said:

Malick's films don't make good movie trailers. Pretty pictures & perfume-commercial poetry. I'll probably love the film. I kind of hate the trailer.

 

On 4/11/2013 at 1:10 PM, M. Leary said:

1. It looks like a perfume commercial


And now Malick has made an actual perfume commercial, using the music that he used in the trailer for To the Wonder:

 

"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
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 years later...

Thy Kingdom Come, a short made entirely from outtakes of To the Wonder, following Bardem's priest as he takes confessions that are actually true confessions, is now streaming on Kanopy and rentable elsewhere.

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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