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It begins at the Wonder, La Merveille, Mont-Saint-Michel in France to be exact, with Neil and Marina at an early edge of love, leap or let go is the question. She cavorts along the coast as the tide swells and he, as implacable as the sea, follows; whether entranced or temporarily entrapped in her orbit we hardly know. They leave the Wonder, and Marina, with her daughter from a former husband, travels to America, to the heartland to see if their love grows.
The culture has failed Terrence Malick. All of his films, but particularly Tree of Life and To the Wonder, are cut from the cloth of Christendom, both its scripture and traditions. There’s a liturgy to his films; cinematography as psalm, narration as prayer, and critics can sense the richness, but rarely can they taste it unless those same rhythms are their own. The trouble is that where Tree of Life strained the secular imagination, To the Wonder tramples and twirls upon its grave.
Apart from the vocabulary and iconography of Christianity, To the Wonder can only be pretentious, vapid and a portentous self-parody. To an outsider the connection between a husband and wife and a priest and his parish might seem tenuous and arbitrary, but to the believer it is Christ and his body, the second Adam and his Eve.
Equally important -and more so in the lexicon of Malick- is the meaning of water: baptismal, cleansing, spiritual and faith. In The Tree of Life, an account of a crisis of faith in the vein of Job, there is a complete cessation of water throughout the film to imitate the wasteland of apostasy; from the creational waters that covered the face of the earth, to the river and yardplay, to the inner desert realm at the end and its thin ebb of sea. A lack of water, for Malick, is a lack of faith.
In To the Wonder there is Marina, whose name means of the sea, who walks on water and twirls on tide, who accompanies Neil to Oklahoma. Neil follows Marina throughout the movie, trailing behind as if studying her. He seems to be some water and soil expert, an earthly Adam to her watery Eve. His name evokes the central call of the film, kneel, but he is the idealized modern American man, scientific, noncommittal, sexually boundless and charming.
The opening lines, spoken by Marina in the hushed tone favored by Malick, are a riff on Job (his opening speech and Eliphaz’s “born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward”comment): “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness.” And then Genesis is stirred in: “We are one. Two, one.”
The dissolution of their love is paired with the struggle of Father Quintana, who has lost sight of God, blinded by the wealth of his church and the poverty of the slums he surrounds himself with. He preaches love to a sparse congregation and tries to show it to the poor, who are as deaf and disregarding as his congregants. Malick implicates American Christianity in a number of place; one is a well dressed man’s talk about expanding the facilities for weddings and social events, but Quintana walks the mission field alone. Jesus tells the righteous that they fed him and clothed him and cared for him in sickness when they did those things to the least of his people, but Quintana feds no one, clothes no one, and therefore struggles.
The film climaxes with his recitation of St. Patrick’s Lorica, which for him is a prayer and for the viewer becomes a sort of benediction: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in the heart. . . . Thirsting. . . . We thirst. . . . Flood our souls with your spirit and life . . . so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you.” This is another thread that ties the two stories together since Marina tells Neil that she plans on keeping his name after their divorce, binding herself to his name they way Quintana prays to be bound to the name of the holy Trinity.
Neil is depicted -in a deft bit of framing- as the prodigal son. Marina is by the window, cutting pictures from an artbook; in her hand is Rembrandt’s “A Woman Bathing in the Stream” and Neil falls to his knees, laying his head on her lap. This is a sly reference to Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son and a tip of the hat to Malick’s cinematic father, Andrei Tarkovsky, who did the same thing in Solyaris.
Neil’s prodigality is in his wasting of marriage. Marina, already abandoned by one husband, loses her daughter too, who goes to live with her father (we see her watching an old video call, something you don’t do if you’re in constant contact). Marina surrounds herself with children, but we find out that Neil doesn’t want children when she ends up at the hospital over complications with her IUD (an x-ray showing the device like a crucifix in her uterus). Her relief over not having to have a hysterectomy and the shallow glances between them tell the story of their eventual division.
Incidentally, while most reviewers assert that the tale is straight forward there is some dischronology. It is when they go to the hospital that Neil reconnects with his old friend Jane. The way the movie is constructed, it looks as though Marina and her daughter move to Oklahoma, they have a fight, she returns to Paris, Neil takes up with Jane, Neil and Jane break up, her daughter stays behind when Marina returns, they get married, there’s the complication over birthcontrol and they divorce with Marina saying, “I want to keep your name.” But the actual timeline is she follows Neil to America, at some point Marina takes her daughter back to Paris, returns and marries Neil (first in a legal marriage to get her citizenship, and then in Father Quintana’s church). At this point there is the health issue (when Neil meets Jane), Marina divorces Neil, who then takes up with Jane in another dead-end relationship. This is confirmed by Malick’s own biography, on which the story is based.
By structuring it the way, Malick is highlighting Neil’s inactivity, his lack of direction. Father Quintana states the theme in a sermon: “We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself, and to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those.” Father Quintana is contrasted with Neil. Neil does not see and therefore does not believe. Father Quintana does not see and labors onward. But by inserting the Jane episode and bookending it with Marina, who is so closely connected to the Wonder, perhaps too Malick is hinting at future peace and reunion. The movie concludes with shots of Marina, as though she is being pursued, and finally by the staples of Malick: stairs climbing into the sky, a concrete urn in supplication, the sun shining through an open gate. This is about as clear as he can get in saying the story goes forward, calling the viewer to continue the chase.
In To the Wonder, Terrence Malick has left behind even the tenuous grasp of the standard narrative of cinema that he held in his previous films, abandoning the accepted character requirements of motive and splayed out desires, and instead has opted for the themes of Scripture sketched out over the issues facing the American church.
It is important to note that the characters are unnamed in the movie; they are icons of man and woman and comparing the two is perhaps Malick’s most biting commentary. Neil, described by Ben Affleck as the film’s “silent center”, is a cypher for the callow modern man. And though the critics take the twirling of Marina to task and are bewildered over the awe and lack of story arc, it is foremost the failure of the culture. To the Wonder isn’t perfect, not even Malick can resist the supple flesh of his actresses; the leap from Sonic, the fast food restaurant, to the Divine musings cannot help but be bathetic in a way that no other director alive could manage; and it really cannot be overstated how much twirling there is in the film, but regardless of the missteps and how great they are it is always the case that those who hear not the music, think the dancers mad.
“There is love that is like a stream that goes dry . . . but there is love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love, and has its source above. The husband is to love the wife as Christ loved the church, and gives his life for her.” -Father Quintana
“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master,then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.”
Freddie Quell is a wanderer, going to and fro across the face of the earth; he’s a “dirty animal”, a “scoundrel” and a “silly boy”, as his would-be master, Lancaster Dodd, labels him. Drinking, brawling, full of lies and lasciviousness is Freddie Quell searching for his way back into the world after the war. He finds someone who seems to have what he wants, a wife and family and, most importantly, a Cause.
Paul Thomas Anderson, director of 2007′s There Will Be Blood, continues his run of films on the development of America in microcosm. There Will Be Blood recapitulated the American origin through the oil revolution taking her up to the second world war. The Master picks up just after the war and continues up to the cusp of the sixties. His next project, Inherent Vice, will bridge the gap between his earlier films Boogie Nights (80s), Magnolia (90s) and Punchdrunk Love (00s). The Master takes up America’s troubled history with cults, but only to tell a far more interesting story on faith, the future and love.
Lancaster Dodd sees his former self in Freddie. Dodd’s cool demeanor cracks throughout the film: angry outbursts, threats, a penchant for boozing; and just as he has “mastered” himself so too he seeks to master Freddie. But more than that he sees something he isn’t in Freddie Quell. He see’s someone free, beholden to none. Contrary to his title, Lancaster Dodd is not the master. His cause is supported by a number of prominent women, who are systematically lost, and who (like his ex-wives) become virulent critics thereafter. Moreso is Dodd mastered by his wife Peggy. She leads the movement’s strategy, drives her husband to write, and manipulates him (in the etymological sense, even).
In Freddie he sees unpredictability and a “new way”. In their first scene together, Freddie disrupts his “processing” by loudly breaking wind and collapses into giggles. Lancaster begrudgingly allows himself a chuckle, adding “Yes, it is good to laugh.” Yet as he spends time with Freddie this approach to life masters him and he later reveals “a new way” that is laughter. As Peggy sees her husband pulled under the influence of Freddie she begins demarcating her territory, first trying to put Freddie beneath her thumb, then, failing that, driving him away. In the penultimate scene, she is the one who closes the door to Freddie rejoining the movement.
The other thing that Freddie has that Dodd doesn’t is sleep. There is no rest for Dodd, he is pulled from one side of the country to the other and back. He is never shown sleeping, neither is he shown lying down, whereas Freddie is constantly sleeping, dissolute and drunken though it is. But even though Freddie sleeps he gets no rest. Cinematically this is echoed in the exercise of Freddie crossing the room, from wall to window, but more subtly in the backwards/ forwards of the opening act and the there and back of not only the geography, but also Freddie’s return to Doris’ home. When Freddie finally breaks away from Dodd it is on a motorcycle. Rather than returning back to the beginning, as Dodd had, Freddie keep driving, finally moving on, moving forward.
In the final scene Freddie is coupled with Winn Manchester (whose name is significant) finally finding rest. Some have taken the final scene as Freddie trying to become a cult leader himself, mimicking the process with Winn, but with the return to the beach, to the sand lady, the tenderness of Freddie signals that he has finally found rest. His anguish had finally been quelled.
Jisas, yu holem hand blong mi
Tekem long blong mi antrane quaia for yu
Hitlas huayebe gusa ki
long lis hala waala conyi kaiai for yu – hee eeh
Jisas, yu canda yira huu-huu-huu
hinte querri hissa huu-huu-huu
Fracissas ni canda hirla huu-huu-huu
hinte querri hissa
Bolwa yu candai quero yu
for sethe santayu for ya-for sis for mi
Wosre yu rere hi for her
rara efisuah en gus rasor
Jisas, yu canda yira huu-huu-huu
hinte querri hissa huu-huu-huu
fracissas ni canda hirla huu-huu-huu
hinte querri hissa
Jesus is watching over me;
Wherever I may go he is right beside me;
Jesus is watching over me;
No matter what I do his love will never cease;
My saviour and my keeper beside me;
All the blessings he has provided me;
He is there to comfort and guide me;
And his love will never cease.
Every frame in a movie, compressed and placed side by side gets you Movie Barcodes.
Trois Colours: Bleu
Tree of Life
- Any movie viewed in the year 2010 that I haven’t seen before qualifies for the list.
- I balance artistic merit with a swinging good time.
- In order of importance I rank artistic brilliance, “re-view-ability”, and then “a swinging good time”.
- I do twelve top movies. Consider it cinema calendrics.
- I never agree with my rankings three months down the road, but this list is at least a first impression ranking.
1. The Master (2012) Paul Thomas Anderson
The Master is in a class all by itself. Rich, rewarding, complex, and a delight to watch. PT Anderson is our most talented director. The story follows Freddie, an aimless ex-soldier, who latches onto a cult leader and tries to learn how to re-enter society.
2. ”The Separation of Nader from Simin” aka A Separation (2011) Asghar Farhadi
At first this film seems very small and focused, but as the tale continues it grows, expanding on its theme, reaching a number of issues as it spirals out of control for the principle characters. Heartbreaking.
3. “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962) Andrei Tarkovsky
It’s difficult to do a war movie that can give a full view of life, while also robbing war of its glory. Tarkovsky is able to do that and more.
4. “Knife in the Water” (1962) Roman Polanski
Knife in the Water is wound about as tight as possible. It is the ultimate bottle episode with three characters on a boat: a husband, a wife, and a hitchhiker with a knife.
5. “I Wish” (2011) Hirokazu Koreeda
Hirokazu Koreeda has rapidly become one of my favorite filmmakers filling the hole left by the death of Edward Yang. “I Wish” is a sort of parent-trap except in the place of saccharine tripe he provide transcendent glory.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Tomas Alfredson
I admit that my appreciation of TTSS is foremost technical. Rigorously put together and subtle. I appreciate a genre movie that subverts its tropes; in this case a Spy movie which is in desperate need of reinvention. Gary Oldman should’ve won all of the Oscars for his work. The reward for paying attention to the slightest of elements will be rewarded.
7. Broadcast News (1987) James L. Brooks
My crush on Holly Hunter was totally justified (again) in this parody come true movie on the “news”. Loads of fun. I wrote more about BN here.
8. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Wes Anderson
While I’m not the biggest Wes Anderson fan I enjoyed his juvy take on Pierrot le Fou. His unique aesthetics, penchant for wonky characters and his relentless cinematic symmetry makes for an enjoyable romp.
9. Take Shelter (2011) Jeff Nichols
Psychological horror is an under utilized, but powerful arm of films that doesn’t seem to be used much today. Take Shelter is a terrifying entry of a man who may or may not be losing his mind.
10. Certified Copy (2010) Abbas Kiarostami
This movie isn’t going to set the world on fire, but I was impressed at how it pulled its viewers in and made an intellectual conversation on love and identity so personal.
11. Meek’s Cutoff (2010) Kelly Reichardt
Meek’s Cutoff is a terse drama about a trek across the Oregon Tail gone sideways. True Grit by way of Days of Heaven.
12. The Grey (2011) Joe Carnahan
I prefer my nihilism in a bleak Alaskan wasteland. A No Country For Old Men with wolves.
Career Girls, Naked, Another Year : Mike Leigh is good for your soul. Lawrence of Arabia is in my top 3 of films prominently featuring sand; second only to Woman in the Dunes (above Casa de Areia. House of Sand and Fog didn’t feature enough sand). Fanny & Alexander, the five hour version was resplendent and wonderful and is bound to ascend in my estimation upon further review. Margin Call was really smart and compelling. Robert Zemeckis is a guilty pleasure of mine and his films Contact and Flight were flawed but well worth your eyes. Of the cartoons I watched this year Drive and Attack the Block were easy fun. Hot Rod and Damsels in Distress were silly and worthwhile. And for the nerds John Carter and The Avengers were sugary exciting sweetness.