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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: To the Wonder

TO THE WONDER (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Terrence Malick, 2013

I. Days of Heaven.

To the Wonder is one of those pictures that either knocks you out or irritates you — or maybe does a little of both. At its best, it’s a cinematic poem, another film of wonders by Terrence Malick, the dazzling writer-director of those American masterpieces Badlands and Days of Heaven. At its worst, it’s, well, it’s a little full of itself, over-arty — and the kind of movie some critics like to knock to prove they‘re not snobs, not obsessed auteurists, not in Malick‘s or anybody else‘s pocket..

It’s a love story — about an Oklahoma-born writer named Neil, played by Ben Affleck and somewhat based on Malick, and it’s about the two women he loves (Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, and Jane, played by Rachel McAdams) both of whom are based on Malick’s wives, and about a melancholy priest named Father Quintana, played with sad, sad eyes by Javier Bardem,in his saint-rather-than-sinner mode — and probably borrowed from life as well.

All in all, it’s another strange, poetic, puzzling. stunningly visualized, and defiantly personal piece of spiritual autobiography on celluloid, an ambitious pictorially stunning creation by an artist who makes movies as it the art form had just been invented, and he was free to do anything, try anything, but also by a man who’s hip to cinema technology and aware of other arts and literature as well — and finally, by a man who sees the world (in his films) with something like the newly opened eyes of a child (as a gorgeous, enrapturing place) and comprehends it with a child’s relatively fresh, unspoiled heart and soul. All of these seemingly contradictory artists are Malick, who, like Walt Whitman (another naïve and sophisticated earthy giant of a poet) is large and contains multitudes and loves the way the sun pours down on leaves of grass .

That deliberately unabashed artistry (or, to detractors, artiness) is not all that unusual for Malick. Though he’s made only six feature films in his 40-year career — Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), and now To the Wonder (2012-3) — Malick‘s style and point of view, the kind of actors and performances he likes, even where he likes most to place and move the camera (staring from along the earth up at heaven) — are unique and almost unmistakable. The sets are dressed marvelously by Jack Fisk and the land lit glowingly by Emanuel Lubezki, and, under Malick’s guidance, it all has a look both intensely poetic and intensely human — as unique a visual style as Welles‘s, Murnau’s or John Ford‘s.

II. Badlands.

What is unusual though, especially coming only a year after Malick’s big critical hit and Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner Tree of Life (also semi-autobiographical) is the sometimes vehement and even contemptuous critical drubbing he’s received from some reviewers, mostly serious ones, for this new film: the scornful dismissal of the film’s ravishing visuals as “perfume ad pictorials,“ the charges of narrative sloppiness and incoherence, and the reiteration of that dreaded indictment “pretentious.“ Roger Ebert liked it, praising it highly (and correctly) in the last wonderful movie review he ever wrote, But it’s the kind of movie that alienates a certain kind of critic. Pauline Kael probably wouldn‘t have thought it was fun. (She gave a knuckle-rap to Badlands when that movie came out, though her editor, William Shawn, knew and loved Malick and tried to intercede for him.)

Never much of a popular favorite with the movie-going masses, Malick here still stubbornly doesn’t give them a lot of what they seem to want: laughs, linearity, thrills, triumph. (He does give them sex and violence and beautiful people.) But, because of his obvious lyricism and audacity, he’s usually been at least something of a critic’s darling ever since Badlands premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1973. With To the Wonder though, at least for some, he’s become something of a critical bete noire — a filmmaker to inspire fancy jokes. .He doesn’t deserve it. To the Wonder may well be his weakest film — though that still makes it his sixth best feature, the weakest brilliant painting in a brilliant gallery,

Maybe it’s too personal. Narrative artists sometimes stumble when dealing with themselves and their lives. The exception: when they portray themselves as children, as Malick did in most of Tree of Life — or when they view their own lives filtered through somebody else’s, like Kit and Holly in Badlands, But, flaws or not, I think Wonder is the sort of film critics should rally behind, and that more adventurous adult audiences should try to enjoy — unless they really want a theatre of Evil Deads and Fasts and Furious and glossy sex comedies, and slick carnage, endlessly repeated.

1t’s an unusual film, as much classical as experimental. In a way, it’s a simple movie love story, about two people who fall in love with Paris (where movie couples often fall in love), and then marry and move to Oklahoma (where Malick also once lived, and a rich location for a heartland artist) and where the marriage soon undergoes tumult and friction, and not the good kind (as movie romances often do).

The original couple — Affleck’s Neil and Kurylenko’s Marina — have their Days of Heaven, and then their Badlands, especially when Neil’s old flame, McAdams’ Jane shows up and Bardem’s Father Quintana starts brooding in his (mercifully) almost empty church. Marina, a Ukrainian expatriate with a ten year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline as Tatiana) has the same first name as Lee Harvey Oswald‘s Russian wife. But don‘t jump to conclusions; To the Wonder has socio-political content, but more of the Walt Whitman kind than Oliver Stone‘s:

The movie has a soundtrack made up, in Malick‘s usual aural style, of snatches of classics and semi-classics (Wagner, Berlioz, Haydn, Part) all merging into a music of mutual and un-mutual attractions. Marina — trapped in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, after being brought down from the cathedral heights of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France — is alienated and friendless. Quiet Neil is increasingly drawn to Jane, Jane to Neil and Father Quintana, sadly celibate, is drawn to Marina. And the camera is drawn to all of them — especially Marina, around whom it whirls like a drunken lover trying to encircle and capture forever his loved one’s special beauty.

III. Wonder.

To the Wonder, like other Malicks, has little dialogue and a lot of voice-over. Malick’s usual method, confirmed by Billy Weber, his long-time editor (though not here) — is to write and film the dialogue scenes, and then cut them down (like documentary footage) in his protracted, sometimes years-long editing schedules. Days of Heaven was once three or four hours long, and there are, it’s said by Richard Corliss, three different, complete versions (linear, impressionistic and the final cut) of The Thin Red Line.

Wonder, Corliss says, was so heavily cut that the film lost whole characters, including five played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Rachel Weisz and Barry Pepper. I second Corliss‘s suggestion that all five actors be restored for a supplement disc in the DVD release, preferably by Criterion, as Corliss also wants. If that sounds a pretty pretentious thing to desire — well, so be it. I’d like to have seen the four-hour version of Easy Rider too, Hopper’s favorite. Not to mention von Stroheim’s Greed. Or Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons. So what if Malick is his own Irving Thalberg or RKO? We don’t burn celluloid with a movie on it any more, at least not in plain sight.

What the critics who dislike Wonder seem to dislike most is that the movie’s characters are revealed less though dialogue and acting than through the flow of images — which are, as Roger Ebert noticed, like the flow in a silent film: by a Murnau, a Vidor, a Gance. Speaking as someone who often calls for more, and better, dialogue and acting in movies, I can sympathize. But Malick has his style — and his style, even when it’s not quite at its best, is something to see.

Ebert — in that last brilliant review of a brilliant (and, in the end, very brave) career — also said that the actors in Malick’s film show the deliberately limited expressivity of he actors in a Robert Bresson film — and indeed Bardem at times suggests Claude Laydu, the country priest of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Silence…Narration. Music.

One can love something, a movie, even if parts of it don’t work so well. That’s what I felt here. The sounds in To the Wonder — especially the voice-over and musical pieces that both Malick and Bresson use so well — are crucial to the film. But the story is powerfully told through the images as well: those visions of Hell, Earth and Heaven that convey a world of gorgeous nature and passionate people, caught by a steadi-cam that keeps moving and whirling around them, Tilt up: the sky. The wonder.

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5 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: To the Wonder”

  1. Sharon says:

    I loved this film and love your review. Most people in the audience (when I went) were adults but they didn’t like the film. Many I know did not like The Tree of Live either. It seems that most people want simple films with simple stories that they don’t have to figure out. This is too bad. But happily, there are still filmmakers like Malick who move to the beat of their own drum and make challenging films.

  2. Michael Mayo says:

    Malick is welcome to make films however he wants, but you have to wonder what he’s trying to do and what he’s trying to communicate. “Wonder” has no real characters, no real story, no real dialog, and zero emotional involvement with the characters. Why any actor would want to work with Malick is puzzling since they’re basically mannequins posed in a landscape-does it really make any difference who is in a Malick film anymore since they never get to act? If all he wants to do is pose people while they ask open-ended questions in voice-over, that’s fine; but generally audiences like some emotional involvement between them and the film, and Malick is increasingly asking cosmic questions to empty seats,which defeats the purpose to begin with. I also question whether he’s going to be able to continue to make movies like this since who on earth is going to continue to invest in movies which stand no chance of making a profit, and are likely to fade in memory as time goes by.

  3. Terry says:

    In my view, the chief influences on Malick are Tarkovsky and Bergman. The New Yorker critic who praised Malick’s work is Penelope Gilliatt, always more probative, cogent, and informed than Pauline Kael.

  4. Yancy says:

    One thing To The Wonder is NOT gonna do is fade in memory. It’s a keeper and will be the subject of passionate argument and defense for decades. It’s really a case of, “Sorry that its not for you, pal, I feel exceptionally lucky to be on Malick’s wavelength…”

  5. Michael Mayo says:

    I don’t think it’s actually a wavelength, but something different. We used to listen to radio, which is dialog and music and sound effects; and imagine the pictures that went with it. I think Malick is trying to make Radio for the Eyes: he gives you pictures and some oblique dialog, and you’re supposed to imagine the story that goes with it. If you can imagine a great story, you’re happy. If you’re just going “WTF?” then you’re not. Bergman, Tarkovsky, (and probably Ozu) may be influences on Malick – it’s just too bad he hasn’t learned their lessons.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon