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.


20 comments:

  1. I love this take on the film's construction. It elucidates a feeling I had while watching it, and really the reason why I wasn't so quick to dismiss the film like many others had. I do still think the film suffers from its narrative composition, primarily in how it attempts to juxtapose the love story with the religious-love story. I see where Malick is going with it, but I don't feel he balances his ideas properly, resulting in a dance that, while beautifully rendered on a superficial level, fails to resonate as coherently as it should.

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  2. I went back to my initial twitter reaction from TIFF and I've called it "possibly unrewatchable but endlessly teasing and provoking." But having read your thoughts now I think I should rewatch it.

    In many ways, I found it a stronger film than The Tree of Life, and I think that's partly because the material is better suited to this type of "symphonic" storytelling. I think time will be kinder to the film that last year's festival reactions suggest.

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  3. Reading this made me remember why I love so dearly Claire Denis' "Beau Travail", one of my favorite film. When you realize that the body are just dancing the narrative it becomes clear the the cinematic experience can still be departing itself of the "limitations" or the habit of relying on the dialogues. Malick is a master of that art.

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  4. Very, VERY good point about BEAU TRAVAIL. I think TO THE WONDER is doing something very similar.

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  5. And when we dance we're in between earth and heaven. Ballet pointe shoes are a symbol of this because dancing on pointe gives the feeling the dancer float above the ground...

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  6. I haven't seen To the Wonder yet (eagerly awaiting its theatrical release), but when I first watched The New World, I knew my expectations that I wouldn't like the film were totally wrong all in one moment - when I realized that the Native Americans watching the English ships arrive were dancing. Like you say here, not formally dancing, but moving in such a way that it came across within the film as dance. From that moment I knew to look at the film as a symphonic poem, and I loved every second of it. I'm even more excited to see To the Wonder now.

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  7. just think it is a example, i think everyone should have their own opinion.Guild wars 2 KEY

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  8. Then he should have found someone other than Ben Affleck, who dances like a tree

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  9. I went back to my initial twitter reaction from TIFF and I've called it "possibly unrewatchable but endlessly teasing and provoking." But having read your thoughts now I think I should rewatch it. ffxi gil kaufen

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  11. Wow - the ballet thing makes total sense! And I agree with you about the "in between" space his films' occupy - Malick’s minimalist melodrama transmitted through a fluid camera is truly transcendent.

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  12. A wonderful review. Is there any way you could send it to the Austin Chronicle, in care of Marjorie Baumgarten? She reviewed it but almost as a lost footnote to films with featured reviews, like "The Place Beyond the Pines." I was surprised, hurt really, that the Chron didn't give the movie more press. I would think home town boy Malick would be worthy of a feature by now, even if he refused to be interviewed for it! At any rate, please get your review to them, or I will. It would be great if they'd print something from an out-of-towner, a Yankee no less. I double-dog dare them. Many thanks for your writing and insight.

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  13. I like the review as well. It really changes one's perspective. But I think that Malick should have taken a different approach to the film as well if he attempted to create this symphony, particularly in casting. Ben Affleck brings the idea of the common film-acting performance with an emphasis on the facial expression, and attracts the attention in this way. Without the well-known actors, one could more easily concentrate on the bodies and movement like during the dance performance. Affleck's part could have been played by anyone, why not a dancer?

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