The Most Beautiful Fraud: To the Wonder

I sat down to write a review of Terrence Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, with the goal of speaking only of the work itself, an approach I have often found valuable in music writing:  by trimming off the fat, by burying the excess, by considering only the art under contemplation and not the thick laters of cultural accretion and public opinion around a record, I am often able to get at the heart of what I love or hate about the music it contains.  But this seems impossible with the medium of film, particularly in the internet age; here, there is no opinion formed in a vacuum, and even if there were — in, say, the cold vacuum of space, to which I would dearly love to see many of my fellow cinematic bloviators condemned — someone would complain about how Ridley Scott did it better.

The analogy of film and music is carefully chosen here; normally two extremely diametric art forms, their distinction becomes muddy when Terrence Malick is involved.  He is the most lyrical, if not the most musical, of directors, and few other filmmakers are as concerned as he with the immense and implacable beauty of nature, the frustrating contradictions of man, and the need for people to escape the confines that society places on them.  His films are, like the best music, extraordinarily emotional, and I often wonder if this is part of the reason that many modern critics have such a difficult time coping with him, for they are used to thinking of film not, like music, as an emotional art form, but as something more akin to literature or drama, a thing to be described in the intellectual terms of motion, meaning and signifier.  But Malick (who certainly wears his heart on his sleeve, but then so did Turgenev, so did van Gogh, so did Thoreau) resists such interpretation, making films that are almost never satisfying from a narrative standpoint, but not quite daring enough to be considered experimental.

Some of the attacks on Malick in general, and on To the Wonder in particular, are so misguided as to be barely worth addressing, and yet they have permeated the culture’s reaction to his films at a time when we desperately need filmmakers who are willing to do something other than the fantastic, the spectacular, the oppressively narrative.  Why anyone would, for example, criticize Malick for his purported lack of humor or his inability to craft action or comedy films is absolutely bewildering, especially as one searches in vain for complaints that the Farrelly Brothers haven’t got a Citizen Kane in them or that the clock is ticking on Michael Bay’s attempts to make an Umberto D.  The charge that he is drunk on his own aesthetic carries a bit more weight, but so too are a dozen lesser filmmakers, and their particular vintage is a lot more vinegar than what Malick produces every time he gets behind a camera.

This notion, that Malick cares only about imagery and nothing of narrative, strikes me as not baseless, but certainly misguided.  It would hold a lot more water if Hollywood was fat with directors who did the same sort of thing, but it decidedly is not.  Who else works the way he does?  It’s not as if the financing Malick receives for a movie like To the Wonder means the difference between some young film-school stud’s debut masterpiece getting made or not; it more likely means the difference between some unwatchable dreck starring Shia LaBeouf instead of Robert Pattinson. If Malick throws together slapdash narratives merely to provide a walking frame for his love of pretty pictures, what of it?  Film is a visual medium irreducibly and a narrative one only contingently.  There are more stunning visuals in the first five minutes of To the Wonder than in a hundred lesser films, moving images that will almost certainly be the definitive filmed records of the objects they depict.  If we forget the movie’s slip of a plot five seconds after walking out of the theater into the unforgiving sun, we will carry his images of the tides at Mont Saint-Michel to our graves.

And as to that slip of a plot:  it is, to be sure, barely there.  It is a love story, and love stories, as we all know, have become delivery vectors for soundtracks and ways to get your girlfriend to sleep with you; how dare Malick attempt to reduce it to something more raw, more emotion, something so nebulous it can scarcely be explained but so recognizable that the only people who do not wince are the ones who have never been in love and seen it go sour?  Characters come and go without warning, as they do in life, and it has a nothing of an ending, just as if its director was largely unconcerned with wrapping up the pain of life into a neat bow.  Ben Affleck is too much the movie star; simply showing him on camera, let alone allowing him to speak, takes us too much out of the delicate web that Malick is attempting weave.  (Malick can surely be given no credit, then, for not allowing Affleck to say more than a word or two, or for filming him from odd angles and rear exposures, as if to conceal his famousness in a blockade of shadows.)  It seems likely that the wispy narratives behind The New WorldThe Tree of Life and To the Wonder are the sacrifices that he must make to get his films produced, but plot is what we want, so we ignore the madly generous flood of gorgeous visuals he unleashes in every one of his movies and scold him for the fact that we don’t know what Affleck’s character does for a living.

In the hands of any other director, the sight of a Sonic drive-in just after dusk would be nothing but a crass bit of product promotion, and a chance for some clunky exposition over a close-up of a chili dog.  Malick, the master of golden time, turns it into a frozen tableau of the appeal of mass commerce.  Who but Malick can show us beauty in an slog of industrial ruin, can arrest our vision with the sight of a cell phone tower, can make shattered rustics so immediate and real with not a trace of Harmony Korine’s scuzzy exploitation?  Where is the director who can bring us nearly to tears with painfully beautiful footage of Parisian glory, then show us a young girl from that very city gushing at the clean institutional beauty of of a well-stocked grocery store in the flattest, ugliest planned community in middle America — and make us instantly see things her way with no aid from the script, but only deft use of the camera?  Show him to me, tell me where he can be found, bring me the footage and I will join the chorus of detractors.

Until then, I cannot see what Malick has done to so upset the critics, who have so reviled To the Wonder that its aggregate rating places it in the company of some of the worst films I have seen this decade.  It cannot be only that his latest film doesn’t stand up to Badlands; it is a completely different work in tone and in sensibility, united only by the mind that composed it, an Eine Kleine Nachtmusik set against a Requiem.  Is it that Malick has betrayed our sense of reclusive wonderment by becoming prolific?  Did the 20-year hiatus Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line so spoil us that we cannot see the pure and glowing line that connects them?  I can’t say.  All I know is that when I left the theater yesterday, dropped in a cruel five seconds from an enveloping darkness of great beauty into the hard light of the urban afternoon, I knew I had seen another work of extraordinary artfulness from a director unlike any other of similar resource and reputation — and that I found myself depressingly lonely in the company of others who saw the same film.

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