Archive for Terrence Malick

An Odyssey in Bits: To Infinity and Beyond

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2019 by dcairns

NOW READ ON!

The intertitles in THE SHINING start out factual and dependable, and they maintain that APPEARANCE, but as the film goes on they actually go insane, so you get WEDNESDAY, for instance, and you think, OK, Wednesday, a normal enough thing to be told about, but then you think WHICH Wednesday, and then WHY Wednesday? We’re on random.

So with 2001, where the baldly factual THE DAWN OF MAN superimposed over an actual literal sunrise starts us off thinking this is going to be a doddle, this space odyssey business. It’s always going to tell me where and when I am. But no.

JUPITER, AND BEYOND THE INFINITE comes up just after the little recorded message from Heywood Floyd, which had seemed to settle the narrative into a comfortable place where things made sense. We could tie it all together, couldn’t we? But now astronaut Dave Bowman, in the form of hand-painted ice-sculpture Keir Dullea, is leaving the Discovery in his pod and we have no idea why. We need HAL to tell us. But HAL is deactivated (not dead, according to the sequel, which redeems him and is lovely, but not Kubrick and so not canonical). We’re on our own, with Dave, and Dave’s not talking.If there’s a narrative progression to the next bit, it eludes me. People talk about the tunnels of light and the white room / human zoo as being perplexing, but if you don’t get too analytical they might be said to be quite straight-forward, in an abstract way. What I’m talking about is the business with the Discovery floating around Jupiter’s moons, the Monolith showing up, and Dave eventually taking the pod out for a spin. As I’ve described it, that all sounds plain sailing, but as presented, with the Ligeti drones on top, it’s deeply mysterious. Motivational stuff like Dave SEEING the monolith and getting in his pod — that’s all omitted. And there are A LOT of shots of those moons, with the camera drifting from side to side or up and down, the Discovery or the monolith drifting into view, and they’re not presented so as to create a build-up of information amounting to a dramatic situation. We get to feel a bit unmoored by the lack of obvious progress towards anything concrete, perhaps a necessary stage in our journey beyond the infinite and beyond the (comparative) narrative certainties we’ve been allowed thus far.And hey, as with all UFO stories, what the aliens are up to makes no sense, which is why they’re so fascinating. They plant a monolith on earth which gives apes an intellectual boost, fine. They put the next block on the Moon, so we’ll only find it when we’re sufficiently advanced in our use of bone-based implements that we can build spacecraft. This monolith does not provide any evolutionary boost though, it just sends out a radio signal that causes painful feedback. Is this a test? We now have to follow the signal to Jupiter — we have to be interplanetary-smart, not just moonhopping smart. Why?

Oh well, grumble grumble, I suppose they know what they’re doing (puts on space suit, gets into pod).

When the BBC showed this the first time, they showed it in widescreen, an unheard of thing (this was either the late seventies or early eighties). But they were evidently nervous of leaving some of the screen black, so they put in starscapes, the worst idea anyone has ever had. They screwed up ALL the space shots, with star patterns doing different, contradictory things. (Kubrick and effects wiz Trumbull have stars drifting by behind the Discovery, which is already quite wrong, but I guess they felt they couldn’t get away with having it look completely stationary relative to its surroundings.)

Anyway, during this TV screening my sister leapt to the conclusion that the monolith found drifting out by Jupiter was ENORMOUS, because it looks bigger than the Discovery. Far away/small and close-up/big are hard to work out in space.It’s not too confusing, or shouldn’t be: there’s an unexplained monolith out there and Dave has gone to have a look at it. Reasonable enough. But nothing is spelled out and we may already be a bit edgy here.

Then we get the last of the movie’s suggestive astrological alignments, though it’s not a sunrise, this time.

And then this happens. So, we have to assume Dave is passing through some kind of PORTAL, right? Long before such things were popular or fashionable. But assigning a genre-appropriate meaning to this imagery won’t really help us with what follows…

Ironic that a few of the miniature shots in the film do have, now, a regrettable 2D quality, smacking of still photographs being zoomed about on a rostrum, but the part of the film that is almost 100% rostrum photography of still photos and artwork (apart from the cutaways of Dave, and even he’s freeze-framed) are maybe the most deep-perspective, propulsive, vanishing-point-seeking stuff in the movie. Then we get the paint-in-water nebulae and galaxies, recently recreated by Terrence Malick, with Doug Trumbull again supervising. These might seem a bit more naturalistic, more like what you’d expect from outer space, but if those are big starscapes, they’re moving much too fast. They must surely be millennia-spanning time-lapses. If so, are they real, or are they just projections Dave is being shown? Perhaps this is a history lesson from the aliens, only we, and Dave, are too primitive to grasp the significance?  A couple of the more colourful images have a distinctly placental quality. This seems in no way inappropriate. It’s only recently that I’ve read of people finding the tunnels of light business a bit dated, in particular the alien landscapes produced by mucking about with Technicolor dyes (it’s not solarisation, I think, though that’s what it feels like). I never minded. It seems odd that 2001 passed through the eighties, when anything smacking of psychedelia was considered unbearably passé, without me hearing any grumbles about this stuff.The thing is, the slitscan images are certainly more intriguing because, even if you know how they’re done, they’re still wondrous and you still don’t REALLY know how they’re done, whereas the weirdly hued helicopter shots are just that. BUT I still love them. I want to go to those places. I want to paddle about in these metallic shallows. Maybe I ought to wear my wellies, and maybe they will accrue strange glistening sediments, until they are Emerald Wellies.This is the only one I don’t like, because there’s no way to read it except as a special effect, a double exposure. I don’t believe Dave’s THERE.

Plus, the diamond thingies appear to be alien artifacts (their origin and purpose a complete mystery) and I don’t think we need them.Arguably Monument Valley is too recognizable also, but I love what they’ve done with the place. Shadows inflame into hellish lava-lakes. John Wayne is down there somewhere, but his feet are green and his hands are blue. And Scar isn’t a Red Indian anymore, he’s a lovely shade of lavender.

I wonder why they didn’t turn some of the shots upside down? Maybe Kubrick thought that wouldn’t make sense, that this is supposed to be a planetary surface, and therefore DOWN. But I don’t see it as a planetary surface, to me it’s something more abstract (which makes it silly that I object to the double exposure, but I can’t help how I feel, damnit. I’m a doctor, not a geologist). This sequence also contains Kubrick’s only Scottish footage that I know of (Harris, in the Western Isles). So I *could* go there without too much difficulty. But I have a strange feeling that it wouldn’t be the same. It feels like they must have gone to a dozen different countries. Apparently not. They just used different colours.

Oh, and the quick cuts of Keir Dullea, all reflected lights and staring eye, freeze-frames to contrast most jarringly with the onrushing planetscapes and lightscapes, those are magnificent. Let’s have more of that kind of thing please.

And it’s great the way his eye blinks its way through a variety of lurid dyes and back to normal. I kept trying to do that while watching Baz Luhrman’s MOULIN ROUGE.

We’re into the home stretch now! TO BE CONCLUDED.

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Andante

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on July 15, 2014 by dcairns

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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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The Monday Intertitle: Comin’ Thru the Rye

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on October 21, 2013 by dcairns

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From Pordenone Festival of Silent Film — RAGENS RIKE, or THE LAND OF RYE. This late-silent Swedish rural drama of love thwarted/fulfilled, begins with a figure standing, centre-frame, waist deep in a field of the titular food crop. A dissolve repositions him further in the distance, and another diminishes him to little more than a smudge.

And I am astonished to find this sequence of shots in 1929, since it will be repeated exactly in Kon Ichikawa’s AN ACTOR’S REVENGE (1963) and again in Terrence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD (2005). And yet it seems not that likely that Ichikawa saw Ivar Johanssen’s film, or that Malick saw either, though of course it is possible. Maybe wheatfields naturally evoke diminishing jump-dissolves in a film-maker’s mind, the way the centre aisle in a church always makes them want to do tracking shots?

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The film is beautiful. Two student competition winners provided the live piano score, without benefit of having seen the film first, and they did a fine, sensitive job. The movie contains a great drinking contest scene, with blurry impressionistic effects to simulate drunkenness, lots of romantic outdoorsy stuff that the Swedes seemingly loved, and a great intertitle, very late in the story, which I can’t show here as I don’t have a copy of the film. The village is in turmoil due to the results of a single romantic problem. “The prophet” — a kind of heretical preacher admired by the lower village, is asked for help. He cuts to the quick: “You’re so stupid! Let the boy marry the girl and everything will be fine!”

Of course, being a Swedish movie, it takes another twenty minutes or so for this to get sorted out.