My favorite read of the last year has been Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and my favorite film has been Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” One shows us how to get right.
I thoroughly enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead and the Terrence Malick film “To the Wonder,” yet one produced characters that were easy to love and the other those who were easy to disdain.
If we are in a place where we acknowledge we are “to love one another,” then those who believe this should be the first to get it right, especially if the matter concerns human love. What Robinson does is show us a field guide for those who do manage to get it, whereas Malick offers us those who don’t.
Both of these works are set on the prairie and both show us that love is quickly offered up to us. Both also assert love is a choice.
Critics have been quick to dislike Malick’s movie. Much of that comes from a storyline that is simply about things falling apart without much in the way of explanation. That, however, is the point. Things fall apart and the explanation is not always readily there. There are certainly enough stories that attest to this to warrant a movie. And though I liked “To the Wonder” I do share the frustration that many a critic had with Malick’s characters. They were supposed to get it, after all. They had all the tools to attain love and yet squandered it.
Neil and Marina, the names assigned to Malick’s couple, had it easy. They are given metropolis (Paris) and a mountain (Mont. Ste. Michel) where they may be good to one another. When they have attained this, they are called to the prairie to be husband and wife and to do all those average things married people do yet they cannot manage it. They have consumed creation and experience. They have those stories people feign for and yet they are too weak to love. Fortunately Malick does give us two people who get it right, a priest and a woman who has lost a child, but that is hidden by Neil and Marina’s cowardly and selfish actions.
The counterbalance to this is found in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The Reverend John Ames and his wife Lila are given no mountain, nor do they have metropolis. They are a prairie couple only. Rev. Ames church is far from being Neil and Marina’s Mont. Ste. Michel, the place that Europeans call the wonder and there is no indication they have seen the likes of a city as grand as Paris, yet Rev. Ames speaks of a beauty of creation that creates words that match Malick’s stellar film making in showing the vast good earth.
Unlike Neil and Marina, everything strikes against Lila and the Rev. Ames. They are separated by age and initially by belief. Unlike Neil and Marina they do not act bold, but unlike them, they are. They have neither the vastness of the Atlantic nor the cloister atop a high place. They have only the Missouri flood plain and a simple wooden church, yet they see a wonder Malick’s couple cannot for in simple places with simple people, they know great and joyous things.
Malick’s film may end on a positive note. I believe it does. I will leave that to the discretion of those who bother to see it. Even if it does not, it deserves our attention and if it is something that leaves us cold, we can take up Robinson’s book which offers up nothing other than the warmth that comes from human companionship. There is after all a world filled with wonder and a balm in Gilead.
Image: Sunset over Iowa Prairie, CC license by Phil Roeder