Appraisal — April 22, 2013, 9:00 am

Terrence Malick’s Song of Songs

Does To the Wonder reveal a director lost in his own vision?

To the Wonder (still)To the Wonder, now opening across the country, is far and away Terrence Malick’s most sensual film, which might be his way of sidestepping common sense. We see bare chests, enough sexual intimacy to warrant an R rating, one moment after another of men cupping women’s faces as the light runs along a long naked neck. The reclusive director’s last two pictures were carried in large part by the faces of Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell; in The Thin Red Line, the epic that preceded them in 1998, more than twenty-five actors crowded an enormous canvas for 171 minutes, in what was essentially a woman-free exploration of the landscape of maleness.

Yet in his new film, the camera dwells lovingly on the luminous depths and Botticellian grace of the former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. Rachel McAdams and Romina Mondello flit in and out of the story; Mondello almost wakes the film up from its swoony daze with her shows of spirit, and the complexity and life in both their faces plays off Ben Affleck’s wooden, straight-jawed Americanism like light across a telephone pole. Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, two years ago, was clearly a family story, excavating pieces of the director’s own painful youth in Texas at the hands of a domineering father. His latest seems interested mostly in the twists of love and faithlessness, presented as though a scatter of photographs had been torn out from a wedding album, then cut up and rearranged haphazardly to recall a shattered marriage.

The Tree of Life was clearly Malick’s attempt to offer a majestic cinematic Book of Job; To the Wonder is more like his diaphanous, lyric Song of Songs. In both cases, though, one gets the sense of a director, now sixty-nine years old, trying to pull out fragments of his own story to lend a personal intensity and resonance to the Biblical frames and philosophical enquiries that have always come so naturally to him. Yet in both, the procedure is so elliptical and allegorical that one also gets the sense of a man of great depths muttering to himself, unable to make his private dramas fully intelligible to the world at large. For those of us who see in him one of the transformative artists of the time, the film ends up like an homage to all that he can’t communicate.

The action in Malick’s latest inaction movie can be summarized in a sentence: Marina (Kurylenko), a beautiful European woman, meets Neil, an all-American guy (embodied, almost silently, by Affleck), in Paris and follows him back to the wide-open spaces of Oklahoma, where she experiences the displacement of a Proustian in a Melvillean land, sees him exchange glances with a former flame (McAdams), and hears her doubts echoed on a larger canvas by a priest, Father Quintana (played by a ravaged Javier Bardem). Of all the many directors now claiming to be borrowing from Terrence Malick, none does so more raptly than Malick himself: here is a flow of scenes stalking Marina through golden fields at the magic hour, shot from the back; here is sunlight on a river and the sun above tall trees; here are the stained-glass windows, the Shaker-like modern spaces, the leafy suburban streets of Tree of Life (from which some of the footage is actually taken), mixed with the spritelike dances through the elements seen in The New World (2005). The movie’s love scenes play out the betrayals and reminders of impermanence of Days of Heaven (1978) within the gauzy romantic curtains of The Thin Red Line.

Yet this is also Malick’s first impenitently contemporary film. There are fast-food joints, grocery stores, even a Skype conversation for his magpie camera to dart around and light up. There are glassy airports and high-school marching bands and the scarred white walls of the Paris Metro. As in all his works, trains jut into unpeopled, virgin landscape while suburban homes sit lonely amidst annihilating spaces. For those who’ve entered into the unwavering theology laid out in the five films Malick has released across forty years, this means we’re fully in the divided City of Man, longing to find a way back to something resembling the City of God.

To the Wonder (still)

In the scenes where the camera roams around Kurylenko’s face and her dancing form, we might, at times, be panning across a Renaissance portrait, seeing in the same frame both a Madonna and the suggestion of something fallen, even demonic. Malick, who studied Wittgenstein under Gilbert Ryle at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and famously translated a book by Heidegger at the age of twenty-five, has always had a gift for communicating through faces, and for letting images carry the weight of his ideas. In his best moments (passages of light and shadow in Days of Heaven, parts of The New World and The Tree of Life), he articulates philosophy through lyrical poetry, as an Emerson might have tried to do, translating idealism into concrete scenes and sounds.

“He does not find her lovely; he makes her lovely,” intones Father Quintana in one of the movie’s many voice-overs. Malick might be giving us his entire aesthetic creed in that. The everyday stuff of life — children’s games, a trip to what looks like Kmart, a couple’s journey to Mont St. Michel (the “wonder,” shown early on, that presents the harmony the lovers long to return to) — can be sublime, a glimpse of that wholeness out of which we have fallen. The camera becomes the director’s transparent eyeball, picking out stray images, fleeting plays of light, snatches of the passing scene, as if chancing upon gifts of grace. Yet Malick also brings a tonic groundedness to his contemplative work, in part because he is such a collector of unconsidered trifles: he can never resist an almost deformed, barely human face along the margins (like something out of Flannery O’Connor), a flash of something ancient in the mess of the modern world, or random bits of mumbled dialogue (the equivalent of Annie Dillard publishing found poetry in her book Mornings Like This). By all accounts, in making films, he simply lets his camera roll to see what epiphanies it can pick up where nobody might think to find them.  

At the same time, To the Wonder makes one realize all that Malick has lost in surrendering narrative to gathered moments. Voice-overs in Days of Heaven were delivered in the salty New Yawk twang of Linda Manz, an untutored actor who improvised lines that evoked a homemade Book of Revelation, as earthy and immediate as a child’s nightmares. In that film, Malick matched a colloquial looseness out of Huck Finn with a story taken from the Bible in order to turn a young America into a setting for stories of fire and locusts and divine retribution. When the camera picked out a broken glass in a river, when it began with a small inferno in a factory, when it showed wolves running up slopes at night like Nature’s monitors (or God’s spies), there was a precision to the imagery that gave the moments of transport a frame and a symbolic charge.

To the Wonder, by comparison, lacks music — literally, in the sense that its score cannot catch the sweetness that Ennio Morricone conjured up for Days of Heaven, and metaphorically, in that the images lack compression and rhythm, and therefore meaning. Gone are the mad fiddle music of Doug Kershaw, the dirtied immigrant faces, the wide-awake, spooky narrative. (“We seen trees that the leaves are shaking, and it looks like shadows of guys coming at you and stuff.”) Instead, Marina, in love, says, “Open me. Enter me,” or “I in you. You in me.” In moments of anguish, Father Quintana murmurs, “Everywhere you’re present. And yet I can’t see you.” Javier Bardem’s ancient face is harrowed and full of torment, his voice so resonantly inhabited that he gives his doubts more substance than the words deserve. Yet it’s sobering that perhaps the most eloquent director in contemporary American film is offering us platitudes.

It’s apt that Bardem, who played something akin to the Devil in the film of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, takes on the role of a man of God here; Malick has always shared with his fellow Plains mystic an ability to find God and his shadow hiding out in the American grain, and an otherworldly lyricism that plays out a story of Old Testament justice and brutality through a few solitary drifters in the West. But like McCarthy, Malick seems to live so far from the world these days that many of what must sound to him like revelations are, in truth, commonplaces; he alternates scenes of overpowering grandeur with lines a sophomore might blush at. (Marina’s assessment of America: “A place so calm. Honest. Rich.”) It’s as if he’s so lost inside his own vision that he has no sense of how others speak and think. I noted with relish three names listed in the credits as “Humanity Unit Consultants.”

To the Wonder (still)

No one walked out of the To the Wonder showing I attended on the first day of its run in Los Angles. (I saw The Tree of Life in the same cinema, and perhaps half the audience headed for the exits, many during the early twenty-minute, IMAX-worthy sequence early showing the history of the world.) I could feel the audience loosening up when Marina said, in French, “Stop being so serious,” and again when a wild black man—one of the few men of color in Malick’s world—told Father Quintana in church, “Got to have a little more excitement!” And when Romina Mondello, in a glancing exchange, screamed out against the deadness, the blankness, the nowhereness of the Oklahama landscape, we might have been hearing not just Malick’s beloved theme of Old World fallenness circling round New World openness, and not just his cry against the world he grew up in (much of the film was shot in the same small town where his parents once lived, Bartlesville, Oklahoma), but one part of the director crying out against the other.

I will never forget the day thirty-four years ago when I walked into a Sunday afternoon showing of Days of Heaven in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just after it was released. I had never seen a work so transfixing, or met a film so intellectually rich and dense and eloquent that nonetheless pierced and uplifted me in some place beyond the reach of words. When his swelling music and found poetry come together, Malick can make us feel something above us and within us, moments of transformation (or days of heaven) that we seldom glimpse; he gives us much of the classical wisdom we recognize from Greek tragedy or philosophy textbooks, but also in, say, Kurylenko’s face, something of that transfiguring beauty we see in the person beside us when we’re in love. That rigorous commitment to emotional and even spiritual effects made me steal away from a dozen obligations so I could see the film again the following day, and then more than thirty times in the next few years.

But nowadays Malick seems to have reached a point where, in trying to be personal, he has squandered some of the impersonal power of his films; humans are really just pawns and props in his landscape — silhouettes — and when he tries to humanize them, he too often ends up with neither allegory nor realism. Perhaps, as he nears his seventies, he’s planning to give us looser, thrown-off sketches from his notebook, as Philip Roth and Don DeLillo have done, or as Leonard Cohen did in his 2004 record Dear Heather — though Cohen could offer Malick a lesson in how Romantics can grow up through the use of irony and self-questioning. Those of us who love Malick’s uncompromising daring and American originality can celebrate the fact that he has finally won acclaim and global exposure (notably the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Tree of Life) even as his films seem to have relinquished some of the tightness and narrative bite and brilliance of Days of Heaven and Badlands.

For now, though, we must content ourselves with rough drafts like To the Wonder, which seems at once rich and cursory, lavish in scenes of transcendent beauty that add up to a fraction of their parts. I would gladly watch it again and again, especially for the scenes with Kurylenko and Bardem, much as I’d listen to a piece by Bach for its moments of radiance; no one can turn film into a vehicle for illumination as Terrence Malick does. And had this been the first of his films that I’d seen, I’d acknowledge it as one of the most transporting and individual films of my lifetime. But I can’t say I’d recommend it to many people, and I wish someone would bring Malick out of his unworldly reveries and remind him of what happened to Wordsworth as he aged. His films continue to give us more beauty than we’ll see elsewhere in the Cineplex or most other places, but each one only hints at the greater stuff that this lonely explorer, fashioning exquisite pictures in the editing room, has yet to bring forth from his exalted solitude.

Share
Single Page
is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His most recent piece for Harper’s was “Nothing Serious: P.G. Wodehouse and the costs of innocence” (March 2013).

More from Pico Iyer:

Appreciation February 14, 2014, 12:29 pm

I Told You When I Came I Was a Stranger

Leonard Cohen’s first public musical performance

From the March 2013 issue

Nothing Serious

P. G. Wodehouse and the costs of innocence

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2020

The Old Normal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of Africa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Waiting for the End of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Harm’s Way

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Fifth Step

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A View to a Krill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Old Normal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

Article
Waiting for the End of the World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1.

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

I rose long before dawn, too thrilled to sleep, and set off to find my tribe. North from Greenville in the dark, past towns with names like Sans Souci and Travelers Rest, over the border into North Carolina, through land so choked by kudzu that the overgrown trees in the dark looked like great creatures petrified in mid-flight. The weirdness of this scene would, by the end of the weekend, show itself to be appropriate: my trip would be all about romanticism, and romanticism is a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, “neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” My rental car’s engine whined as it climbed the mountains. Day was just breaking when I nosed down a hill to Orchard Lake Campground, where tents were still being erected in the dimness.

Article
The Fifth Step·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Article
Out of Africa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

Article
In Harm’s Way·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today