On occasion, you get something to which you can look forward. For me that is “To the Wonder,” the new Terrence Malick film that has been incredibly divisive as to its worth. The criticism is that the film is straight forward but pretends not to be and the plot is sacrificed for geography. This has not lessened my desire to see it, for Mallick is the master of geography and for me geography is nearly everything.
His early films used the wide open expanse of the Plains to show the effects of light during the times of secret signs and served to place an emphasis on his characters who stand alone, as couples, or in fractured groups in an empty landscape. This makes for characters with longing gazes and dialogues that do not have a wasted word.
His new movie returns to the formula after his love it or hate it, “Tree of Life.” The story involves a couple in France who move to Oklahoma where their love is challenged. The male lead becomes involved with an old flame and the female lead develops a friendship with a priest questioning his vocation. I hear it handles these things straight forward enough and critics have lamented that Malick cares more for his imagery than the plot, a charge I believed leveled only because they expect hidden meaning in his films. This also does not lessen my desire to see it, for in life plots happen unscripted without much attention paid to symbol and I think there is a place for this to be shown in film allowing the viewer to draw universal inference from particular situation and to discern symbol without the help of filmmakers or their critics.
I do not know if the new film has Malick asking us to do this, though I suspect it does. I have only seen two trailers and done a little reading on it. Those of us in America will not have the opportunity to see it until next month. The trailers are gorgeous though and if there is no deep meaning in the actions of the characters, I think it is only because Malick knows meaning occurs in our experience more than our thoughts or at least it is wrong to explain to a viewer how our thoughts should be redirected in imagery that tells a particular story.
Not knowing Malick’s intent, but having seen his stuff, knowing what little I know of “To the Wonder” and marrying these to my own thoughts I do offer these observations:
- “You shall love whether you like it or not:” These are words spoken by the priest in Mallick’s latest film. I do not know the context, but I do know love is commanded and a priest would know this. We are loved. That is the one divine reality of which we have no control. We are also compelled to love. This usually comes out in Mallick’s films in one form or another. We love in “many and various ways,” but we don’t get a pass on the matter.
- We can know awe: If there is anything I love about Mallick, it is how much he appreciates the earth. Time critic Richard Corliss called “To the Wonder” “a ramble through the ecstasies of the natural world as experienced or ignored by little people on a giant, gorgeous planet. “ Every time I see Malick’s work I think of something to this effect. This is where his lens on geography really makes a mark. The good earth speaks to us, it drives us from the confines of our four walls into the great wide open, where every step is measured with increasing beauty and every word spoken or heard in the presence of another is married to the sense of place. Heaven may or may not be another place where we live forever, but heaven is also here.
- We are in the presence of something larger than ourselves: This is where things can get tricky. Malick may be proving more prolific, but he is still pretty quiet about his spirituality. There is little doubt he wants us to think on the larger things, but he never seeks to define it. Look at any critique of “Tree of Life” if you want to see this. Everybody came away from that movie convinced Malick spoke for or utterly chastised their beliefs and those varying opinions were had by folks in the same camp. Regardless, whether we are speaking of God or the world, every film Malick does begs us to see beyond ourselves, even if the story telling is quite personal.
- “Maybe you’re the same as me:” Characters in Malick’s past movies are stripped bare of the layers of identity that surround them to come to a place where they have only one another and the presence of a larger reality (and I may add it is usually not an affirming one.) In doing this, Mallick breeds dependence where our common experiences and questions override our differences and the variety of answers we give ourselves.
So I wait with more than a little anticipation to see how Malick’s latest film deal with these. In the meantime I’m at home thinking on the last point and listening to “Live Forever.” I think Terrence would appreciate this, after all it is a geography song that makes me think I don’t want to think; I want only experience.
My thought turns to a small plot of land a five minute walk from here. Soon there will be spring flowers there and some vegetables. I do not think of the science of the thing. I am like those who are served by this corner of earth, whose cognitive disabilities do not permit them to think on such matters. Like them, I do not “want to know how the garden grows,” I only want to love the experience.
I know a little something about gardens though and this is enough. I know that on this plot of land of which I speak, I burned palm leaves and buried the ashes. I know further away, my father will soon plant his garden. And I know there was once a garden with two great trees. We always think of one of those for it is tree that begged us to think and took us from the presence of God. The other tree we do not think upon, but one day our sins would be nailed to its wood and we are promised that the day will come when every tear will be wiped dry and we will feast on its fruit.
Perhaps we will be called again to the tree in “To the Wonder.” After all, Malick did it in very obvious fashion in his last movie. If art is one way to live forever Malick gets it. He also gets that the way we get to do this is in our experiences of the vast great earth and one another. We may even have it again at the close of life in a literal way. That is the great question to which we all one day get the answer, the best proof of which is so often demonstrated by Terrence Malick in that though we do not know the place directly, it is always casting its reflection here in the hands we hold and the spaces we wander.
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