Conversion Experience: Terrence Malick’s "To The Wonder"
By Jon BaskinMay 12, 2013
ARISTOTLE SAID THAT PHILOSOPHY BEGINS in wonder; To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s new film, begins with an amateur video of a man and a woman playing children’s games on a train. Next, we see the couple on the streets of Paris, the woman prancing out in front of the man, and then, on a gray day, wandering quietly in the gardens atop the Mont Saint-Michel Cathedral, otherwise known as “The Wonder,” in Normandy. The opening sequence is accompanied by a female voiceover, in French: “Newborn, I open my eyes”; “I melt into the eternal night”; “Love makes us one. I in you. You in me.” But it is not all Eden. Already there are signs of trouble. The woman’s daughter asks her why she is unhappy (“I’m not,” the woman replies, but her eyes tell otherwise). Moments later, the woman tells the man, “If I left you because you didn’t want to marry me, it would mean I didn’t love you.” At the cathedral, she had said solemnly, “We climbed the steps to the wonder.” But they have only just begun to climb.
To the Wonder is Malick’s sixth film, and his fourth in the sequence of what might be called the “late Malick,” all released following the director’s 20-year hiatus from filmmaking. Like all of Malick’s late films, beginning with The Thin Red Line (1998), To the Wonder is slow, ponderous, and lyrical. There is hardly any dialogue in it, hardly any psychology, almost nothing of what could properly be called “scenes.” There are mostly the set up and the aftermath of scenes, footage that sometimes looks as if it had been shot on B-roll, a poetry of light, water and leaves, classical music, words trailing off into the distance, human bodies in various junctures of motion, faces bearing expressions of anguish, perplexity, or ecstasy, and the world shining as if scrubbed with holy water.
In the same way that The Thin Red Line was a “war” film (which means, just barely), To the Wonder is a romantic melodrama, ostensibly the story of a man and a woman struggling to commit to one another. Back in Oklahoma, where Neil (Ben Affleck) measures the chemicals in groundwater for an oil company, the couple frolics in the fenced-in yards, sulks, makes love, quarrels, and reconciles. We are never told exactly what they are fighting about, which is not to say that we don’t know. They are fighting about what men and women always fight about, once they descend from their Edenic beginnings and begin to be haunted by the irreconcilability of their desires. Characteristically, the European Marina (Olga Kurylenko) describes Neil as “incredibly loving” (the insight is not psychological but religious — it was Christ who told us that every human being could be incredibly loving), even as she grows frustrated at his emotional distance. Finally she announces, “My visa has expired. We have to face the facts.”
The facts are that Neil will not marry her. Why? A flashpoint of criticism of the film has been our lack of access to Neil’s inner thoughts and feelings. For Dana Stevens, Affleck’s “natural inexpressiveness — his constitutive just-sort-of-there-ness — doesn’t mesh with the demands of this nearly wordless role,” while David Edelstein wonders if Malick “must have had some reason for […] putting the camera behind Affleck’s broad back so that he becomes Everyhunk (or, more often, Everylug).” (It is characteristic of Edelstein’s review that he’d rather get in a lame joke than explore what that reason might be.) In fact inexpressiveness, passivity, is precisely Neil’s point. As usual, Malick has presented us less with characters than with types. The types reveal both the virtues and the limitations of particular perspectives or what Heidegger called “world-pictures.” Neil is, in the words of the local priest, “the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth.”
He is not unlike us — watching and waiting dumbly in the dark. Almost all of Malick’s films contain stand-ins for his likely viewers. Such figures are generally men, alternately skeptical or idealistic, capable of being moved by love but not of sacrificing their fantasies of social acclaim for it. But never has Malick created a figure so mute, so obscurely weighted down, as Neil. In conspicuous contrast to the never-ending movement of the female characters who orbit him, his most characteristic action is to stand and stare, as if watching the film of his own life (which may be one “reason” that Malick frequently positions his camera behind him). It is eerie, and sometimes frustrating, to observe him. Yet he represents, as Richard Brody has rightly noted, the American or Protestant spirit — what Max Weber described as the “spirit of capitalism” — pared down and stripped to its essentials. As he lumbers through Paris with Marina, we can see a muffled happiness in him, but it is a happiness never free from the worry of what such happiness may cost.
Metaphorically, Neil tends to stand in the position he assumes at the edge of the pool in the brief scene where Marina and her daughter, somersaulting in the water, attempt to capture his attention from below. Neil does not hear them because he is staring out across the pool, at a blonde in a black bikini on the other side. The stare is reminiscent of Jack’s (Sean Penn) prurient glances at his fellow office workers, at the architectural firm where he works as an adult in The Tree of Life (2011). Like Jack, Neil works in the techno-industrial complex; his job is emblematic of a modernity in thrall to what Weber called the “specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture.” Neither Neil nor Jack strike us as excessively appetitive individuals, yet in a glance or two they convey the mystery and the inexhaustibility of the Western male’s longing, divested of particularity and even of conscious motive: truly Weber’s “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.”
Marina flies home to Paris, then she returns to Oklahoma. In between, Neil blunders into a relationship with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a committed Christian who reads Romans at the foot of her bed. After some time (we have no idea how long), Jane begins to speak of marriage, with predictable result. “Do you know what you want?” she asks Neil, half hopefully, half forlornly. But Neil has never known what he wants, only that he wants. When he leaves her, she accuses him of debasing what they had together (“You made it into nothing … pleasure, lust”) — an accusation that can be judged as simultaneously insightful and narrow. Jane sees Neil, but she does not see all that he is capable of. “I had no faith,” we hear Neil say in the past tense, presumably to Marina in the present. “You knew.”
Probably so that Marina can return to America, Marina and Neil marry at a local courthouse, the marriage representing a merely formal solution to a set of problems that run deeper. The question of children now hovers over them (as it has, in fact, from the beginning) — and Marina complains that Neil “just goes off … like that. I don’t know where he goes.” In the movie’s only fully documented conversation, her friend exhorts her to leave while she’s still young, still beautiful. “You need to fly … you need to be free. Listen to your heart.” The advice would sound sensible in a different kind of movie; here it sounds dangerous, and indeed it can be said to inspire, or exacerbate, a kind of spiritual crisis in Marina. In a typical Malick device, a voiceover we expect to be addressed to Neil is addressed in fact to God, one of the many ways in which the filmmaker signals the cosmic significance of the couple’s fate: “My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me. One full of love for You. The other pulls me down toward the earth.” An image of rushing water, then Marina approaching a bony artisan on the sidewalk in town. They make love at an EconoLodge, then he leaves her to find her own way home.
We do not hear Marina confess her transgression to Neil, only the fallout of her confession: anger, guilt, recrimination. Neil visits with a divorce lawyer, who recites platitudes about the need to move on. Then he consults the local priest. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) has been an intermittent presence throughout the film, directly expressing the religious, or more specifically the Christian, point of view, which he presents, appropriately, as a body of wisdom concerning love. “Love is not only a feeling,” he tells his congregation, which occasionally includes a bored-looking Neil: “Love is a duty … You say ‘I can’t command my emotions. They come and go like clouds.’ To that Christ says, ‘You shall love whether you like it or not. You fear your love has died. It perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.’” He tells Neil: “You have to struggle with yourself. You have to struggle with your own … strength.”
To the Wonder is Malick’s most searching treatment of the problem of sex, or more broadly of desire, which is perhaps related to the fact that it is also his most religious film. Neil and Marina are both “pulled down toward the earth” by their passions, or by their fear of them — and the film advances one of the most persuasive indictments I know of romantic or secular love as the matching of desires. In his harshly negative review in The New Yorker, David Denby protested, “We don’t need to be chastised with the ideal of Christian love to understand that sex isn’t enough.” Denby does not misstate the film’s teaching so much as he transforms it into a banality, an easy enough thing to do. To actually feel the perishability of desire, its devilish incapacity to guide our action or sanction our conduct — this is harder. And it is this hard thing that Malick has set out to prevent us from forgetting.
But the priest is not merely a spokesman for the film’s Christian point of view; he is depicted as struggling with his faith, and with his relationship to Christ. “I have no experience of you, not as I once did,” he says in a voiceover, “How long will you hide yourself?” He might be speaking to an absent, or distant, lover, someone who has abandoned him. We see him officiating at weddings and shuffling hesitantly through his town, amongst dilapidated houses and human figures no less dilapidated — felons, poor people, people dying of cancer, grotesque and deformed people, people able to do little more than mumble about their suffering in half-coherent bursts. “Why do you turn your back?” he asks, looking up. “All I see is destruction. Failure. Ruin.”
Late in the film, Neil loiters in the shadows and corners of the houses as the priest makes his rounds. Why is he there? What is he thinking? We are never told. But we may suspect that there is a change working in him, or that he is readying himself for a change. “Why?” we hear him ask, the screen flickering to Marina. “I saw you. Again.” In the act of betrayal he couldn’t comprehend, he seems to have seen something he had forgotten during their years of familiarity: namely Marina’s mystery, her inscrutability. Critics often complain that they cannot get to know Malick’s characters, but Malick’s films are lessons not only in what is knowable about human beings, but also in what is unknowable — we might say, what is wondrous — about them.
Neil and Marina go to the airport, their marriage apparently at its end. What would be a drawn-out dialogue in almost any other movie is here reduced to a symphony of body language and barely-audible whispers. They part then wander among strangers, in the terminal and at the gate. She had wanted to keep his name, Neil remembers, but it is not enough for him to stop her from going. The film threatens to end, but it does not end, not quite yet.
I have attempted to describe To the Wonder as I saw and experienced it on my first two viewings. There are other ways to describe it, as even the most casual Google search will reveal. For instance, the film may be described as “substanceless” (Dana Stevens), “puzzling” (A.O. Scott), “unintentionally comical” (Stevens again), “generalized woo woo” (Edelstein), and a “self-parody” of the Malick films that are worth admiring (Steven Marche). Although not without its defenders (Matt Zoller Seitz said the film was “extraordinary” on Twitter, and Richard Brody called it a “cinematic miracle” in The New Yorker), the majority of critics have dismissed To the Wonder in tones that have been withering, sometimes bitter, sometimes condescending, often mocking. Denby, who described The Tree of Life as an “insufferable masterpiece,” seems to have found its successor to be merely insufferable, equating its visual style with the “trivial narcissism of Caribbean travel commercials.”
There is little need for me or anyone else to defend To the Wonder against such charges; to those of us who remain convinced by his art, Malick is working at a level so far beyond us that our aesthetic estimations can only seem petty in comparison to his vision. What is interesting is the extent to which the late films continue to divide their audiences into opposed, even warring camps. (Think I’m exaggerating? Look here and here.) In one camp are those who find them to be profound, deep, possibly life-altering; in the other those who insist that they are empty, pretentious, and self-important. One does not “sort of like” one of Malick’s late films; one either accepts or refuses it. Did you think a film needed dialogue, a plot, particularized conflicts, identifiable characters? Malick’s films will compel you either to enforce your criteria, or to abandon them. It is as if, as with so many modern artworks, what is being asked of the viewer is not only appreciation but conversion. And there will, of course, be those who refuse to be converted.
But conversion is related to Malick’s late cinema in another, perhaps more unusual, sense — a sense that describes what is, despite their formal ingenuity, so anti-modern about them. Namely, the films themselves are examples of religious art, sharing less in common with the most sophisticated work of his fellow contemporaries than with the religious literature of, say, the mature Tolstoy (the great novella “Family Happiness” hovers in the background of To the Wonder). This means that, even for those who have been converted in the first, artistic sense, there remains the question of how to respond to Malick’s deeply unfamiliar teaching — for his call for them to convert, not just to his art, but also to the way of life that is promoted by his art.
Two years ago, in a web post about his reaction to The Tree of Life, Denby reflected on the strange feeling of having “enormously admired” a film that he considered to express a point of view so fundamentally alien from his own:
Explicitly, Malick offers a Christian view, and a doctrinal view — the way of grace, as the mother whispers right at the beginning […] At the end, speaking to God of her dead son, the mother raises her arms and says, “I give him to you.” The moment is lovely, and, as an apotheosis of feeling and belief, it’s fully earned by the rest of the movie. But let me say categorically that no woman I’ve known could raise her arms and yield up her son to any God whatsoever.
Much more than his dismissive review of the latest film, here Denby begins to get at the real difficulty of confronting Malick’s late art. For there are many more such moments in To the Wonder, including, again, at the end. I am not sure whether it is right to say that Malick’s view is “doctrinal,” but there can be little doubt that, in his last two movies, the free-floating spiritualism of his earlier films has been supplanted (if not entirely displaced) by an intensely Christian ethic. And that this is ultimately what is hardest about these films for people like me, you, and David Denby.
The only religion of my youth was the religion of culture. That there was something of importance called “nature” I might have grudgingly granted, but the notion of a “way of grace” was utterly foreign to me. If I considered it at all, it would have been to dismiss it as silly and fanciful, a false comfort in the face of the facts as they stand. In the late films of Terrence Malick, though, the way of nature, and of culture (he often conjoins them), are the ways of the ignorant, the deluded, the blind. “I’ve seen another world, — sometimes I think it was just my imagination,” says Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) at the beginning of The Thin Red Line, in a dialogue with the ever-skeptical Top (Sean Penn) that sets the scene for Malick’s entire later cinema. Ever since, and with increasing confidence and insistence, Malick has attempted not only to gesture toward that “other world,” but also to demonstrate the utter poverty of a life limited to “the facts” in this one.
Malick’s first five films were all set in the American past: Guadalcanal during World War II (The Thin Red Line); 1950s suburbia (The Tree of Life and Badlands); the Depression-era South (Days of Heaven); the inaugural winter of the American colonies (The New World). Taken as a whole, they depict the nation’s history as a series of cascading traumas, the way of nature becoming ever more entrenched and totalizing. It would make sense, then, if Malick’s most contemporary film were also his most hopeless — and, for much of To the Wonder, it appears that this is the case. In the rest of Malick’s films there is a character, like Witt in The Thin Red Line, or the Indian princess in The New World (or the middle brother in The Tree of Life), who, although not necessarily opposed to the Western, rationalistic world picture, embodies and expresses an alternative point of view. It is this character who sees the “spark” in the others, and who inspires them with the virtues she or he can be said to share with Malick’s camera: patience, appreciation, awe.
To the Wonder contains no such character, only three figures in various stages of disintegration. The priest is as dejected at the end as he was at the beginning; Neil and Marina’s relationship seems an endless tug of war that both are destined to lose. Salvation, if there is any, resides in the kinds of commitments that the characters fail over and over to make — to one another, to God, to themselves.
Yet there is a reversal and a revelation in the film’s final moments. Unfathomably distant as it may look from where we stand, with Neil, the way of grace is never farther than we can leap. It is not a new point — Kierkegaard made it, over and over — but neither is it a common one today, and we are made here to feel its force. We may neglect to take the leap, for good reasons as well as bad. This would be at least to choose the world’s disenchantment, rather than to simply resign ourselves to it. But such a choice will also mean that, though it remains easy enough to begin our lives in wonder, we will have given up all hope of ending there.
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