Wednesday, September 12, 2012

To The Wonder, To The Wall

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces)

I think it was the great director Sidney Lumet who recounted the story of how Marlon Brando tested the directors for whom he worked. On the first day, Brando would give two separate takes that were, on the surface, practically identical. But in one of those takes, Brando would act from within, giving his internal “all”  to the performance. If the director printed this take, Brando gave his soul to the role. If the director chose the other take, Brando would cease giving a shit and do whatever he wanted. Brando’s rationale was “why bare my soul if you can’t recognize me showing it?”

As I watched To the Wonder, I thought of this story. Coming so quickly after Terrence Malick’s last film, To The Wonder aroused my suspicions. Malick is a director who takes his sweet time between features. Between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Malick’s sweet time lasted 20 years. To The Wonder is being released almost a year and a half after his last film, The Tree of Life. It even uses some footage from that film, as well as a few ideas. As I watched the 7 millionth shot of a woman spinning around and around, or the fifty-thousandth shot of Ben Affleck looking as if his ‘roids were acting up, I asked myself “Is Terrence Malick testing us? Is this his Brando moment? After listening to the Malick maniacs rant and rave of his flawless genius, has Malick decided to toss something sub-par (by his standards) together to see if it evokes the same rapturous response of his greater works?”

Of course, the reclusive Malick doesn’t care what audiences think of his movies. But I imagined my conspiracy because To The Wonder plays like a parody of Malick, much like The Departed plays as a parody of Scorsese. For every moment of sheer, Malickean joy (and there are many), there’s another that feels haphazard. Eventually the haphazards win out. I’m amused by the reviews I’ve read that jump through hoops to turn a **1/2 ruling into a **** review simply because it’s Malick. I won’t do that here: This is a **1/2 movie. Like the booing Venice audience, I am not fooled by Malick’s Brando take. Let the Malick maniacs who have been screaming bloody murder over the boos (and haven’t seen the movie—go figure!) call me names all they want. One critic, whom I won’t put on blast here, threatened on Twitter to beat up anyone who didn’t like this film. It takes true devotion to risk getting fucked up for a director who wouldn’t piss on your critical opinion if it were on fire. Fanboys are fanboys, no matter what the director’s pedigree is. This is some sad shit right here, and I’m way too old for it.

But I digress. Like all Malick, To The Wonder refuses to spell out the director’s true intentions. It exists as a series of images, edits, rhythm and narration. In fact, To the Wonder is mostly narration, some of it simple declarations of the onscreen obvious. (One subtitle “We fight.”) The declarative statements are  new for Malick, whose narration I’ve run hot and cold on; I think Days of Heaven’s is a thing of exquisite beauty and brilliance, but The Thin Red Line is ruined by its offscreen chatter. To the Wonder is narrated primarily by two people, a French woman in a failed relationship and a priest struggling with his loss of faith. The imagery is appropriate for each thread, but together they just don’t mesh. Even at his most abstract, Malick has managed to knit together dissonant visual ideas into a cohesive whole. These two strands clash sloppily, and while a non-linear take on one man’s interaction with something bigger than him is prime Malick territory, the same method is less successful in depicting relationships.

The New World tells a love story, but that love story is both more developed and also placed inside a much bigger wave of ideas both related and unrelated. To The Wonder is on a much smaller scope and even more abstract. It prompted me to ask what universal truths were I to glean from To The Wonder’s relationships, which are merely countless scenes of Ben Affleck looking uncomfortable and inexplicably fighting with a woman? This woman, whom he convinces to move from Paris with her daughter, is the main character of To the Wonder. She bears most of the narration, and I assume we are supposed to be viewing Affleck and the notion of romance through her eyes. Her arc may play better for romantics and people who are attracted to ciphers of men; I tried vainly to remain involved through my frustration. Standing alone outside of the bigger themes Malick usually tackles, one feels nothing for these romantic dissolutions. The French hottie (who is actually a Russian hottie) also spins around enough to turn into Lynda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman 700 times. I keep bringing this up because it really does descend into ZAZ-level parody. “That bitch must be really dizzy,” the evil side of my brain remarked.

Rachel McAdams shows up to say “Hi.” As another woman Affleck falls for, her role registers like a fly on a windshield. Javier Bardem inspired the opposite reaction, as I was most interested in his character. Even when his narration threatened to become The Tree of Life-lite, I was drawn to his sad face and his pleadings with a God in which he is struggling to believe. My good  buddy, Mark Pfeiffer (who loved the film) described To the Wonder as Malick’s take on Hell, which is a very good analogy for this section. My favorite scene in the film is Bardem’s interaction with a Frederick Douglass-looking elderly Black man in front of a stained glass window. It’s a rare piece of straight dialogue in the film, but I loved the emotion and the words the old man uses. They were crazy, philosophical, and stayed in my head for days. Just like most of Malick’s films.

To the Wonder is certainly not boo-worthy, and there are moments of true beauty and delight. To the Wonder isn’t a bad film, but it’s a sloppy one. It feels lazy. Even when I’ve given a negative review to a Malick film (and for the record, until this film, the tally of negative reviews from me was ONE), it has left me with much to contemplate. Here I just didn’t care because I don’t think I was given enough to truly contemplate. They printed the bad take, and I felt like Marlon Brando.

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