Monday, January 28, 2013
To the Wonder: “I write on water the things I dare not speak”
Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder premiered at Toronto and Venice last Fall to some fairly disappointed reviews, and, as much as I love the film, I guess I’m not surprised. Devoid of the monumental nature of his prior work – it’s not set against the history of Creation, or the founding of America, or World War II – it feels, at first glance, fairly slight. It’s a tale set in the contemporary world that could be outlined with a simple and predictable sentence: Boy meets girl, then meets other girl. And it pushes Malick’s style of weaving together movements and gestures and muffled words and intimate bursts of whispered narration to pretty much the breaking point. If you walked away from The Thin Red Line, The New World, or The Tree of Life wishing there had been fewer shots of people speaking in voiceover as they roamed around a beach, you’re probably screwed. But I’m here to tell you that To the Wonder is magnificent. I'm also here to tell you something about the film that might help at least some viewers understand it a bit better.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed some of Malick’s collaborators on the long-abandoned Q project, which would effectively become The Tree of Life. At the time, cinematographer Paul Ryan, who had shot much of Days of Heaven and had been a member of Malick’s small, close-knit team on Q, told me that Malick had become obsessed with the symphonic form. In other words, he wanted his films to break free of typical narrative methods and to adopt a more musical style of discourse. Malick seemed to achieve that with the movement-based structure of The Tree of Life. There, what we were seeing and hearing on screen seemed more often to correlate to the meter of a symphonic movement than to the typical narrative “acts” of a film.
When I first saw To the Wonder, it seemed clear that Malick had gone further in this direction. The movie unfolded more like a piece of music than anything else, rhythmic and fluid and concerned more with the emotional valence of a given scene rather than its narrative value. The second time I saw the film, however, I was floored. Yes, Malick had furthered his approach, but I hadn’t realized to what extent. And I think that herein lies the key to the film.
The fact is, the performers in To the Wonder are not acting; they’re dancing.
I don’t mean that metaphorically, either. They are almost literally dancing. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a ballet.
The characters are constantly in motion, but it’s more than that: Their movements are expressive, and always in relation to each other – breaking apart, moving closer, circling, often while still looking at one another. Malick’s shooting and cutting emphasizes this, too – he often skips the dialogue, cutting around it and focusing instead on the collision and separation of bodies. Even when a character is alone, they’re in constant motion, and often literally dancing. (I wish I had some clips to show here.) A number of my friends have joked about Olga Kurylenko’s constant pirouettes in the movie. But they make perfect sense if you understand what the movie is actually doing. Heck, a pair of ballet shoes is even a recurring motif in the film.
So, then, one might ask: Why doesn’t Malick just make a filmed ballet? Why not just give us Cirque du Soleil’s To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick? I think he’s going for something different here – he’s trying to find dance-like movement among ordinary people. Clearly, he feels that this reveals something about us -- that we have the potential to move with this kind of grace, no matter who we are.
Furthermore, dance can encompass both the broadest and most intimate of gestures in a way that more typically realistic works often can't. Consider, for example, the sight of one person falling to their knees in another’s presence (an almost absurdly broad gesture, which happens a couple of times in To the Wonder, but never quite feels out of place) and the simple image of one person warily walking away from another (which happens pretty much every two minutes in To the Wonder). Malick seeks to capture those kinds of gestures in the every day. He wants to create a world that’s still ostensibly naturalistic, but one where individual moments transcend reality.
In a way, this has been his project all along: Despite the fact that I’ve revisited all his films many, many times, I still can’t tell if we can call his work melodramatic, or minimalist: It's a cinema that occupies an in-between space where florid bursts of emotion live alongside the slightest, quietest gestures. And I think that he’s been moving towards this all along. To the Wonder might not be Malick’s greatest film, but I’m beginning to think it might be his most perfect.