Sunday, May 19, 2013

Climbing To God (well no wonder)

I saw the crowd getting out from the previous showing.  The first group was a young couple.  "That was pretty good," the guy said to his girlfriend.

The next couple that walked by me was maybe 45 to 50.  The husband turned to his wife and just shrugged his shoulders.  It was a nonverbal;  "I don't know?  What did you think?"

The next and last group that came out were in their late 60s, I would guess.  3 couples.

"Wow.  That was the worst movie."

"That has to be one of the worst films ever or I just didn't get it."

"There is no way we could have known how bad that would be."

Such is the nature of a Terrence Malick film.  My favorite filmmaker.

I laughed to myself and walked in with high anticipation to see his latest; "To The Wonder."

There has probably never been an audience for a Malick film (at least in his "later" period) that came out and all agreed how great the film was.   But, there is probably often that one person who is also quite captivated.  I am that one person when I go see his movies.

I was actually the only person in the theater at my 9:45pm showing.  And what I saw, while not quite to the lofty heights of some previous Malick films, was still for me a great and enjoyable movie going experience.  One that is also fairly easy to understand in my opinion.  While still being the type of work that can generate meaningful discussion

Love him or hate him Malick is a legendary director.  One that audiences do not flock to but many critics get excited about.  With "To The Wonder," the critics have not been kind.  And to some extent, I don't understand it.  I know Malick isn't for everyone.  I know even as he won the Palme d 'Or for his last film, "The Tree of Life," people also booed it at Cannes after its screening.  He is divisive.  Very.

But I think there is something more to the derision by critics this time around.  And it is something he has been hitting on in every film since his first.  It is God.

But this time God is loud and clear and its hard to argue its a Christian God and no other.  And I think for critics that was finally too much.

This is a film, overtly Christian enough, I feel church groups could get parishioners together to go see it.  The reason that hasn't or will not ever happen is because:

A:  Its an "art film,"   (see the comments of the last couples above)
B:  Its got sex it in.

The sex part is possibly interesting, being church congregations went in mass to see the extreme violence of "The Passion of The Christ."  But I understand. 

I don't remember sex scenes in any other Malick film.  They give it its R rating, which unlike the well deserved R for "The Passion Of The Christ," here feels a bit silly.  I can't think of a tamer R rated film.

Those scenes are not remotely gratuitous   They help tell a story of a relationship.  And the most loving sex we see in the film, is after the couple has gotten married.  Not before.  I am not the only one who noticed this.

Film critic for The New Yorker, David Denby: "We don’t need to be chastised with the ideal of Christian love to understand that sex isn’t enough.”


Critics have called the film shallow; which feels to me like the very last thing it is.  It's only a thin film if you don't like the message.  Which most of them interestingly enough don't mention.  This is like reviewing "Friday The 13th," and not mentioning its intended to be scary.

Is an overt Christian message by definition, a thin one?  This is what they seem to be saying.

As far as the film itself.  I loved it.   I continue to have both an understanding of why people don't like Malick films, as well as an "How do they not like this guy's work?" kind of attitude.

I was worried when I heard Ben Affleck was cast (Christian Bale was the original choice).  But he is fine for what and who he is meant to be and represent in my opinion.  The true accolades for the actors must go to the non American members of the cast.  Olga Kurylenko as Marina; you can not take your eyes off her.  And my favorite performance is by Javier Bardem as a priest who feels far away from God.

As far as settings go, Mont St. Michael is a wonderful choice.

This is the "Wonder" of the title.  Or at least one of them.  The early scenes there between Marina and Neil seem to set the stage for everything that comes after.

Once back in America, Neil works as a type of geologist/environmental advocate, taking soil samples of the contaminated neighborhood near his own home.  The worried locals, in one scene start following him down the street as if he were literally their savior.  Contrast this to Neil and Marina jumping lightly on the mud surrounding Mont St. Michael.  It seems a bit perilous and indeed that area is in fact dangerous.  But they never fall through.  Back in the States, Neil struggles to climb a high mound of dirt, which signifies all of his ongoing struggles at the time, as well as contrasting their earlier "climbing the steps to the wonder."  

In fact steps and stairs are a recurring theme.

You might be reminded of Jacob's steps.  His stairway or ladder to Heaven.

Later, we see Neil looking up the stairs of the home he shares with Marina.  Looking for her as she looks down from above.  Neither really wanting to be seen by the other.

Marina being above Neil is not happenstance.  Marina seems on a higher spiritual plane; maybe than anyone in the film.  Though I argue Bardem's preist, is a sympathetic  portrayal.   Something actually rare in movies.

Amongst all the classical music and hushed tones is the fact that most of the time these actors are constantly moving.

Something I felt was intentional became reinforced to me by Bilge Ibiri.  His theory being "To The Wonder," is really a ballet.

"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."  (1)

Even when people are not moving fast like Marina, the movements do feel intentional and even akin to dance.  As in the scene where Neil and Jane (Rachel McAdams) are out amongst the Bison.  Neil and Jane have deliberate head movements.  Jane looks everywhere she can but at Neil.  Once she finally does look at Neil she quickly averts her gaze, as if she just looked at the sun.  It is just one example of literal physical movement telling the story.

The beach as afterlife in "The Tree of Life," might help us better look at this film as well.

This is in many ways the smallest Malick film in scope.  And yet there is a lot here to ruminate on and enjoy if one goes into it with the right state of mind.

I believe the reputation of this film (like "The New World" and "The Thin Red Line") will improve over time.

If Malick or this specific film, isn't your thing, I'm ok with that.

But if its something more.  If a film concerning God isn't your thing, then let us be honest about that.  It does not seem so obvious until you never mention the themes in the first place.


(2)  I almost did not write anything on this film, because I see there are more than a few very strong pieces written on it already.  For a very strong piece on the film, read Jugu Abraham's review, linked below.

Though I might suggest you read only after you have seen the film.

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