Andante

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I was curiously unenthused about seeing TO THE WONDER — my fear was that the bad reviews sounded, for once, fairly reasonable, and tied in with the least interesting aspects of TREE OF LIFE — the Sean Penn stuff, in other words. Reviewers complained that the characters and situations in TTW lacked specificity, and specificity is the very thing we are always telling our students at film school that they ought to go for. You only achieve the universal through the specific. Chaplin became the great everyman of his age by playing an eccentric tramp with specific costume, walk, mannerisms.

Yet Sean Penn never convinced as an architect because there was no detail about the job to suggest Terrence Malick had done any research or cared anything about architecture. Clearly he was just a stand-in for the filmmaker, only Malick didn’t want to make a film about a filmmaker but he wasn’t interested in anything else.

Seeing TO THE WONDER seemed like it might be unrewarding as an experience and writing about it probably wouldn’t be much fun either, if I found myself parroting other reviewers. Probably I should have gone anyway: I loved the boyhood stuff in TOL (and the dinosaurs — dinosaurs are always good) , and it’s always easier to surrender to a movie on the big screen.

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On DVD, TO THE WONDER is resistible for all the reasons critics suggested — fading out the dialogue, Malick robs his scenes of what they’re about. The mannerism of women wading through cornfields touching the crops in a wistful way has hardened into cliché, although at least Rachel McAdams has the good grace to look awkward doing it.

When Malick fragmented his stories into glittering mosaics, I was still onboard, because he still HAD stories. I’m not certain TREE OF LIFE has a story but it has some strong scenes and juggles disparate elements in an original way and the emotion behind those evocations of childhood feels really strong and genuine to me. I guess TO THE WONDER should be evoking pangs of past relationships, but instead it felt like a bunch of beautiful shots — and we know Malick can produce beautiful shots, it feels like that’s easy to him, and it was a relief whenever he (rarely) offered up something that wasn’t stunning. It isn’t magic hour all the time, dude. That’s why they call it magic hour.

Malick has made enough great work to be allowed a failure. To other eyes, it may be a success. But I hope he gets back into narrative, and allowing scenes to play — a very useful weapon in one’s armoury.

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The only fresh insight I flashed on was in a pre-coital moment with Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko scored to the Second (Andante) Movement from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, a favourite piece of mine. And as the dying notes sounded I flashed on how the Third (Allegro) Movement begins in a sort of dainty stampede which would be appropriate backing to a Keystone Kops chase. It was immediately clear than this film could not contain a speeded-up sex romp cut to this music, and Malick duly switched scene and score and didn’t Go There. A pity. A sense of the ridiculous is precisely what the film lacks.

It’s not absolutely necessary to me that everything be funny. But TO THE WONDER is clearly missing something, for all it’s sincerity and gorgeous photography and elegant music/sound design. It’s really lacking humanity and a feeling of reality. Plus leave the bloody curtains alone:

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15 Responses to “Andante”

  1. I have previously been a big Malick fan but I hated To The Wonder. I later read the Peter Biskind piece on him in Gods and Monsters and it would appear Affleck’s relationship with the French lady mirrors one of Malick’s past relationships pretty closely. Strange then that it remains so blank and, as you say, unspecific.

  2. I can kind of figure that out. The childhood stuff in Tree of Life is absolutely personal to Malick, but distant enough that he can explore it without revealing anything about who he is today. But both the Sean Penn stuff — which is clearly about Malick too — and the Affleck stuff that unfortunately comprises To The Wonder are about adult Malick, and he’s too private an individual to allow himself to give anything away.

    He would be better off making films about kids, or about characters in a drama who have jobs to do (the stuff of Javier Bardem meeting his parishioners came the closest to being alive, but none of it was allowed time to develop a grip) as in Thin Red Line or The New World. Unless he can have a breakthrough that allows him a measure of self-exposure.

  3. Picking up on your line, David: I’ve always been suspicious of people who have no sense of humor, and while I love Malick (including Tree of Life), I suspect he may fall into that category. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any laughs in his films, even of the brief, incidental variety. Am I forgetting any?

  4. I think Linda Manz gets some laughs just with behaving, being a weird kid. The first two seem to have moments that correspond to dry wit. Or places where the audience can insert its own humourous reflection. I’m not absolutely sure that any of it came from Malick, but he at least found room for it.

  5. HERE’S you speeded-up sex romp!

  6. Kubrick did say he was working against the kind of spurious dignity movies tended to impart to sex — lap dissolves and slomo and gracious music. An anti-Malickian impulse avant la lettre.

  7. Malick isn’t “private.” He’s like Salinger and all the others who cultivate a “great artist” image through extreme remove. I liked “Badlands” and love “Days of Heaven” but his subsequent films have merely been pretty pictures strung together in the “White Elephant Art” style that Manny Farber decried.

    If I want pure montage I prefer Warren Sonbert.

  8. Yes, but he’s private in an additional way — he doesn’t let the audience in on his opinion on anything too concrete. To get political he needs to go into the past (old hippy syndrome). Everything with a contemporary setting disappears into vague philosophising, which he probably *thinks* is revelatory.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    The concept of “wonder” passes as philosophical profundity in a culture as infantile and faux-naif and anti-intellectual as America’s. Personally, I blame Spielberg the most for its ineradicable persistence in American cinema.

  10. As an infantile American, I worship in the Church of Wonder (which is why I love science fiction), but Malick didn’t get there with this film. I thought he was much more successful at it in The New World, which is the only other film of his I’ve seen. Did like the use of Rautavaara’s music, however.

  11. I’m all for wonder — but prefer the Kubrick to the Spielberg strain (thought I do admire CE3K). But it’s true that it doesn’t automatically = profundity, especially in the hands of a James Cameron.

    The film-makers who add a dash of the mysterious to their awe get a free pass from me, since I think an important part of wonderment is actually WONDERING.

  12. Sturgeon’s Law applies to expressions of sense of wonder as much as anything else, and I’d agree that Spielberg’s are crap. But surely he’s not to blame for the persistence of naive sense of wonder in American cinema. It goes at least as far back as Mary Pickford, doesn’t it? Or maybe I have her on the mind because as I was watching TO THE WONDER I kept thinking of Scott Eyman’s comment on the DVD of Pickford’s POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL: “Too much dancing here.”

  13. I don’t find Malick to be intellectual at all. Neither do I find Speilberg to be anti-intellectual. He’s not a “deep thinker” by any means but his best films (A.I., 1941) aren’t mindless “entertainments.”

  14. Malick is apparently a philosopher in his regular life, but what makes it into his films is fairly shallow, or at least under-explored from the viewpoint of proving his depth. Not that he should necessarily be interested in proving anything. I like him best when he’s just shooting good scenes, as in all the Nolte-Koteas stuff in Thin Red Line.

    I don’t associate Pickford with wonder, so much as a celebration of childlike innocence, which is also questionable but slightly different. I’m also only just discovering her work, and admiring it, and I’m unsure how much of it really is pushing childlike innocence and how hard.

  15. Here’s my favorite philosopher

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