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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

What Is Malick Saying?

Farther down this page and back in time I relate a story told by legendary film producer and Paramount head of production, Robert Evans, about the reaction to an early draft of Robert Towne's CHINATOWN, a script he would ultimately produce to great acclaim, as well as a certain amount of head-scratching. He'd sent the script home with a sampling of industry colleagues for a "weekend read," and on Monday morning, he polled the responses. According to Evans, half the readers thought it was brilliant and half thought it was awful, but none could give reasons for their opinion because not one of them had understood what Towne was trying to say. Those who came back positive were pretending understanding in order to seem smarter, and those who came in negative were pretending disdain in order to cover their feelings of stupidity. All of them were confounded.

People generally don't like to be confounded. To be confounded means a loss of moorings. Helplessness. Confusion spiked too strongly with mystery. Something is lost on us, and to disguise our disorientation we lash out with derision. A lot of critical derision is being directed right now at Terrence Malick's purposefully oblique new film, TO THE WONDER. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 42%. I think that matches the ratings for the stupendously awful BATTLESHIP and maybe even Ben Affleck's near career-ending disaster, GIGLI, from which director Martin Brest never recovered. There's spite in many of the reviews. I think I have an idea why. I also have an inkling as to why you should ignore the spite and let this extraordinary movie get under your skin. Follow me as I think out loud.

I won't pretend to be objective. I'm in the pro-Malick camp and despite never having met him or worked with him, I've loved him like a brother ever since I first saw Sissy Spacek looking out through a screen door at summer's dusk at on green South Dakota lawn. His images don't simply imprint themselves on memory, they imprint themselves on consciousness. It's as if he says to his crew, "Capture everything about this place, this day, these people, including the things we can't see. Including the angels in the pine boughs." But of course, he chooses the place, the day, and the people, so what is being captured is the world he sees. That's as close to the definition of an artist as I can come.

Like the late Robert Altman, another 70's cinema icon with whom he has a certain kinship, Malick's manipulation of sound drives some people nuts. Non-directional, pre-lapped and out of context dialogue, rambling voiceovers, crickets and rustling wheat competing with people for bandwidth, and all those cosmic whispers emerging from some unseen míse en scene. This is the way we hear things in a hypnagogic state or when undergoing anesthetic. Why are we hearing this in the movie theater? "Life's a dream," says a character named Anna in TTW--a character who appears out of nowhere on the streets of Bartlesville, Oklahoma more than halfway through the film--speaking Italian, no less--claims center stage for five minutes, and then disappears, never to be seen again. "In a dream you can't make mistakes. In a dream you can do whatever you want." And Malick does.

The same "oneiric" explanation can be given for the breathtakingly luminous quality of Malick's (and DP Emmanuel Lubezki's) imagery, the constantly prowling, pursuing camera, the shot fragments, jump cuts and strange lapses in continuity. Are dreams soft focus and, well...dreamy? Absolutely not. Nor are memories. They are sharp and hyperreal, as HD as images come, and have almost infinite depth of field. And they don't play out in classically blocked and measured scenes. They are fragmentary, ephemeral, and riddling. Who is that? That's my mother. Then why does she have the face of the lady at the pharmacy or my neighbor's ten year-old daughter? How do I know it's my mother? The dream tells me so.

Terrence Malick has three strikes against him going in. First, his films--even those that play out on an epic scale like "The New Land"--are personal, in the way that Bergman or Bresson films are personal and very few American films are. His last two, the Palme d'Or winner THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, are so personal that they sometimes feel like the world's most expensive home movies. How dare he presume that we're interested in the quality of light on peeling paint on the windowsill of his boyhood bedroom? Secondly, he suffers brickbats because what was once the boldly independent style of 1970's cinema (an aesthetic he helped to shape) has now been enshrined as orthodoxy and Malick is a heretic. Impact, edginess, and a perfectly measured amount of grit, all wrapped up in a flawless three-act structure, are the order of the day. If Malick made BADLANDS today, it would be praised as widely as it was misunderstood in 1974, but Malick has moved on to something else. Finally, there's the religion thing. It's become (to some) alarmingly apparent, beginning with his return to Hollywood in THE THIN RED LINE, but unmistakably in THE TREE OF LIFE, that Malick is a man in dialogue with God. That might get a pass if he were talking to an ecumenical, non-sectarian, 37 flavors God like the one invoked in THE LIFE OF PI, but there is a sneaking suspicion that Malick's God, although immanent in nature and in the human heart--more the God of Meister Eckart than Saint Augustine--bears resemblance to the Judeo-Christian--and specifically Christian--God. That is simply too much for the professional agnostics of the media to handle. But this is the God that Terrence Malick knows. It's the one he--and his characters--were brought up with.

So let me ask the obvious questions: what is the "wonder" in TO THE WONDER? Why such an earnest, wide-eyed title? What is all the whispering about? And all the prancing and frolicking and whirling and tripping the light fantastic? And why is the woundingly beautiful Olga Kurylenko (as Marina)--in grassy meadows, wheat fields, and on suburban sidewalks-- forever running ahead, forever luring, siren-like, her unseen follower (the camera, of course, as Malick, as Ben Affleck, as us), beckoning, teasing, daring him/us to pursue? Where is it she wants to take us? The answer, of course, is in the very first question. She is taking us to the wonder. Jessica Chastain's character in TREE OF LIFE reminds her son (and us) "not to miss the wonder" and then levitates into a tree to prove her point. Olga Kurylenko's Marina gives us a glimpse of it with the adoration in her eyes and the glow beyond the horizon. So did Pocahontas in THE NEW LAND. And here's a counter to the thrust of those who might dismiss Malick as an old-fashioned heartland Christian dressed up in artsy coastal couture: Terry Malick's God is distinctly feminine (or, at least, the shepherdess who leads us to God is). Malick's men are like Old Testament prophets and kings: Solomon, David, Abraham, Moses, Elijah. Stoical, plain-spoken men who listen for the call. But the still, small voice they hear--the I AM speaking from the burning bush--doesn't sound like James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. I'm thinking it's more like the airy voice that twice breathes the words, "I'm here" in TTW. And that is no man.

TO THE WONDER is a movie about love. A movie about the nature of love, as opposed to a "love story." To be sure, there is a love story contained within it (two of them, in fact), and it's a doozy, but it is there to keep us engaged with the characters while Malick casts a wider spell. Quite a few reviewers have pointed out the autobiographical imprint of the film. Yes. And you don't cast someone like Olga Kurylenko as your love interest unless at some pivotal point in your life have loved and lost someone marvelous, and it still hurts. The town in which the film's principal action takes place (Bartlesville, Oklahoma) is the town of Malick's youth, and the Paris in which Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Marina (Kurylenko) is the Paris in which he came of age. He loved her, and he lost her, but in order to keep her in his life for that brief time ("Just to go a little of our way together," she says, early on), he may also have lost someone else (Jane, the Rachel McAdams character). The film is suffused with an almost overwhelming sense of loss. Loss of love and loss of grace. Loss of heaven. We all know this loss, both personally and archetypically, and on a purely emotional level, this is where the film connects. But somewhere along his way, maybe as a young man, or perhaps much later, after Terrence Malick had had time to reflect on this loss, he realized something that can only be described by reference to religious experience. Human love, sexual love, love on the plane of earth, of field and forest and city street, is a kind of basic training. A dress rehearsal for something much, much bigger. ("You think your love has died," says Javier Bardem as the parish priest, Father Quintana. "Maybe it is waiting to be transformed into something greater.") A relationship blossoms and we are seized up in an almost mystical rapture. A relationship grows cold and we draw back into our shells, sealing out the light. We think it's over. But someone is waiting, off screen, to take us through the fields of whispering wheat to our true home. This lover never departs (though sometimes it seems so). This lover never betrays, or boards a plane back to Paris. "Love that loves us...thank you," says Marina, at the bleakest moment in the story. She has glimpsed the open arms. She has understood that earthly love may be just a practice run for the love of God. Life is a schoolroom, and we are being taught how to be lovers of God.

How often do you get that message from a movie?

I'm tempted here to digress into a Wikipedia-style summary of mysticism. I won't, except to say that in mystical practice, the love of the heart and the love of the spirit are not mutually exclusive. Nor are sexual love and divine love at odds, as they seem to be in the more strident forms of Protestantism. The Sufis (see Rumi or ibn Arabi) and the Tantrists say that full surrender (and yes, submission) to the love of a woman or a man can open a portal to the divine. The alchemists, seeking their own satori in the meta-transmutation of base metal into gold, had at their side a "soror mystica" (a mystical sister) to act as oracle, helpmeet, and one suspects, sacred courtesan, since the alembic in which the alchemist creates the holy fire is a replica of the womb. It's impossible to read the ecstatic testament of a Hildegarde von Bingen or Theresa of Avila (or, for that matter, The Song of Songs) without feeling the dizzy eroticism in these accounts of a soul being possessed, penetrated, ravished by God. And then, to bring us closer to our own time, we have Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and even rebel Catholic theologian Matthew Fox urging us to fuck for God's sake. So although Malick is treading new ground as a filmmaker, it is ground hallowed and irrigated by the underground stream of esoteric spirituality that's been with us for millennia.

"A man does not find a woman lovely," says Bardem's Father Quintana. "He makes her lovely." And again: "Find the divine love that lies in the heart of every man, every woman."

The trouble is (as Father Quintana painfully concedes and this film depicts as poetically as it has ever been depicted) that this knowledge of the twin nature of earthly and celestial love is as slippery as an eel and as hard to hold onto as the memory of a dream. It comes to us when we are "in love," and anoints every kiss with holiness, but then we "come back to earth" and forget. "Why don't I hold on to what I've found?" asks Bardem. "My heart is grown cold." "Where are we when we're 'up there'?" asks Marina. "Why not always?" And later, when things are falling apart and lessons have been lost, "There are two women inside me. One, full of love for you. The other pulls me down to the earth." She is speaking ostensibly of her feelings for Neil (Affleck), but she could just as easily be a bride of the Church, speaking of the difficulty of being a faithful lover to God. Stricken and alone, she then does what the human heart always seems to lead us to do: she betrays her love in hopes of getting it back. In the tawdriest of surroundings, a rent 'em by the hour room at the Econolodge, she goes to bed with a local carpenter (a carpenter!) even though she knows it will end her marriage. This is why love dies, Malick seems to be saying. We forget. We forget what it's for, and we lose sight of the fact that we are intended to use it to get to a higher place. We don't know how to take it there. Where? To the wonder. "We were made to see you," Father Quintana says to his maker. "How long will you hide yourself?"

The films of Terrence Malick--BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, THE NEW LAND, THE TREE OF LIFE, and TO THE WONDER--would not have the quality of mystical revery they are known for, nor would he have achieved the reputation for cinematic sorcery that sustained a legend during a thirty year hiatus, if not for his exquisitely idiosyncratic use of music as a way of illuminating subtext. From the first soft mallet-struck tones of Carl Orff's Gassenhauer (Street Song) in BADLANDS to the last chord of the first movement of Gorecki's Symphony 3 in the wrenching "break-up" section of TO THE WONDER, music is used to hold us spellbound, almost afraid to breathe for fear the spell will be broken. In TO THE WONDER, the layout of the music--both pre-existing pieces and those composed directly for the film, can serve almost as a "key" to the story's meanings and to Malick's creative intent. Just as top actors line up for even the smallest part in a Terrence Malick film, composers will all but sell their souls for an opportunity to have most of their work land on the cutting room floor, for a Malick film is like no other and Malick is as selective about music as Stanley Kubrick was, usually with far better effect. Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, and Alexandre Desplat--an A-List for sure--have all had their turn with the baton, and of them, only Morricone's score for DAYS OF HEAVEN survived more or less intact (mainly because the old maestro was canny enough to use the director's choice (Saint-Saens "Aquarium" from "Carnival of the Animals") as its musical foundation. For TO THE WONDER, Malick turned to some of his repetory company of favorites (Wagner, Berlioz, and Francesco Lupica's Cosmic Beam), as well as to Gorecki and Arvo Pärt, but he also turned to Hanan Townshend, a young New Zealander doing post-graduate work at the University of Texas in Austin, Malick's current stomping ground. In Townshend, Malick finally seems to have found his musical doppelgänger. Just about all of Townshend's roughly fifty minute score seems to have made the final cut, but three standout cues, titled "Awareness," "Marina's Theme-The Call," and "Marina's Theme-The Wildflowers," along with Gorecki's 3rd and Pärt's "Fratres," form a gridwork that can be traced to locate the movie's nodes of meaning.

In Paris, Neil (Affleck) meets Marina (Kurylenko), a divorced woman raising a daughter on her own who "never hoped to love again." They fall deeply and gorgeously for each other, the emblematic section being a road trip to Mont Saint-Michel, where together they "climb the steps to the wonder," the only direct reference to the film's title. By nature a cautious and taciturn Oklahoman, Neil takes a while to rise to the occasion, but he finally asks Marina and her daughter to return with him to Bartlesville, where he works as an environmental scientist, inspecting toxic waste dumps for seepage into groundwater (the despoilment of nature--which Malick views as nothing less than God-rape because Malick's nature embodies Malick's God--is a major sub-theme in a number of his films, but discussion of it would take us on a major detour). There are rumblings of trouble almost from the start of Neil and Marina's new life. It is, after all, Oklahoma, a desolate place almost guaranteed to kill the spirit of a sensual, free-spirited Frenchwoman. Neil's world seems to consist mainly of stark, empty rooms that may never be fully furnished in suburban tracts with square, fenced in backyards. The two characters inhabit these empty rooms, make love in them, and tear each other apart in them, almost as if on a bare stage. Their house will never be a home. At the end of the "first act," Marina's visa expires and she returns to France without a commitment of marriage or even continuation from Neil, and the fall from heaven begins in earnest. But something beyond immigration problems sets up this act break.

At about 2o minutes in, Marina's daughter Tatiana, feeling increasingly isolated from the world she knows, whispers, "We have to leave. Something's missing." Marina then stands alone in the back yard, and for the first time, we hear the music cue titled "Marina's Theme--The Call" on the soundtrack album. It's a simple but very evocative little theme that suggests both longing and a realization of "unbelongingness," if that can be made a word. And it's named "The Call" for a reason. She's being called home, only she'll discover soon enough that home isn't where she thought it was. As Neil watches her drive out of his life, we hear Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances," and it's the most classically "sad" moment in the film. Neil, whose weakness is the weakness of a man who can't commit, doesn't stay alone for long, however. An old flame, Jane, played with almost unearthly honesty by Rachel McAdams, happens back into his life, and they begin a love affair that might almost have been his happy ending. Like him, she's a creature of the high plains and the big sky, but she has shadows of her own. In a wordless scene widely excerpted, they drive out to the pastures and park in the midst of an enormous herd of buffalo. This is where we hear one of the film's other main musical themes, the cue titled "Awareness" which also opens the film. It's the spotting (placement) of the cue that makes it so interesting. It enters not as Neil and Jane shyly eye one another, perhaps thinking "this thing could work," but as the buffalo--wise, alert, animate, almost sentient--draw closer to get a look at these two humans. It is the beasts who are "aware." In a Terrence Malick film, it's not unthinkable for wild creatures to know more than we do. This brief romantic interlude comes to an end, however, when Marina calls from a gray, icy Europe, saying that "Paris is dreadful" and she wants to come back to the States. Neil should say no. He should commit to one of his own kind, but he doesn't. What follows is the first of two wrenching break-ups and the first use of Arvo Pärt's "Fratres." "We had nothing," Jane says in voiceover. "You made it into nothing." She is never seen again. And in quick succession, Marina and Neil have a civil marriage ceremony, buy a new house, and then seal the deal with a church wedding performed by Father Quintana. A chance to recapture heaven seems to be offered, but it's not to be. Neil is "uneasy with strong feelings," and Marina--a true force of nature--is all about strong feelings. He pulls slowly away, she's left alone, and in the film's most overtly metaphysical scene, we hear the third of the key musical motifs, "Marina's Theme--The Wildflowers," as she wanders through field and forest asking, "Why do we come down (from 'up there')?" She is asking her God why it's so hard for people to keep heaven.

It's far from certain that Terrence Malick thinks we can keep it, except maybe in those fragmentary moments of joy, as when the meeting of lips in a kiss forms the center of a new universe. We have, after all, "fallen." We carry, as Bruce Springsteen once sang, "debts no honest man can pay." Or perhaps, looked at from the other direction, we have not yet "risen." To that place "up there," the dream where mistakes can't be made. We are exiles.

"My God, what a cruel war," says Marina.
"Please take me there," says Father Quintana to the God he fears he has lost.
"I want to be free," says the prison inmate offering his confession to the priest.

Malick's "awareness" is the bittersweetly beautiful awareness of the poet who knows that the wonder is there, but most often just out of reach...maybe because we've not yet earned it. Maybe because we haven't learned how to love. "We cannot love God...we cannot love each other," concludes Quintana. And merely mortal love will never suffice to keep us "up there" forever. But if we could learn... If we could love..If we could surrender....

The movie's ending is its most confounding note. Some may find it unendurably depressing. In the coda, we are given a glimpse of Neil's future life. He appears to be successful. A nice house in the woods with picture windows a deck and, it seems, a daughter of his own. But something is missing. We can feel it. "I saw you again," he says in voiceover, and we are in France, in the countryside near Versailles, and Marina, unkempt and a little feral, presses her palms into the soft, wet earth, then turns to the ever-following camera--to the genii of TO THE WONDER, to show him her muddy hands. As if to say, "Here I am."

The end credit roll concludes with a reprise of the "Awareness" music and, fittingly, the sound of an old locomotive train passing away in the night.


Over the next two years, we will see no less than three new Terrence Malick films, an astounding rebound for a guy who virtually fled from Hollywood more than thirty years ago and was off the grid entirely until his comeback with THE THIN RED LINE in 1998. Taken together, these three films feature just about every major young American actor out there today, and many who are not so American and not so young. One film alone, still untitled but set against the Austin, TX music scene, has Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer, Benicio Del Toro, and Holly Hunter. Perhaps only Robert Altman and Woody Allen could claim to have had so much talent so eager to work with them under almost any circumstances. Malick likes working with movie stars, and he has also created more than a few of them. But he doesn't give them star turns. In general, they are dwarfed by his landscapes and by the scope of his vision, as the stars of the European cinema used to be in Antonioni films.

Terrence Malick is America's Antonioni, and given his cinematic quest to furnish cinematic proof of the existence of God, he may also be America's Aquinas.

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