08 May 2013

from the wonder of earnest, ethereal personalism

I made my way through Terrence Malick's To the Wonder.   What follows is exactly what you would expect me to say about a work put forth by an American group calling itself "Brothers K Productions."  So there is probably no need to read this.  

Previously I had said, based upon the trailer, that "I thought it was a 2 hour long commercial for Eddie Bauer clothes."

After having seen the movie, it seems like Affleck was wearing more LL Bean type clothing most of the time.

My initial gut take on the movie as having that lifestyle feel commercialesque aesthetic to it thus remained unchanged upon watching the film.  It is incredibly self-aware for a film that offers so little narrative.  I take it as the anti-narrative yet identity grasping self-awareness thematic evocation that is common in many more artsy commercials today.  The cinematographic method seems very much akin to that of a genre of contemporary commercials - not-quite-cheesy dramatic imagery, not-quite-cheesy dramatic modern "classical" music, and a few words obviously meant to be pregnant with meaning, all used to press for a sense of gravitas and identification.

There were times when the voice-over thoughts were so painfully/desperately wanna-be-but-obviously-not 1990s European "serious" cinema (there were moments when I thought Malick was mimicking 
Kieślowski) that I laughed out loud, again this veering into what is derivative of an esteemed art in the way that artsy commercials are so often derivative in that manner.  Then again, I was three sheets to the wind the first night I watched this movie (it took me 2 segments, half the movie each), so I was easily bechuckled.  

In what is now the very talked about lack of narrative in the film you have a quite good looking upper middle class American guy who doesn't know what he wants, hooking up with (and eventually? marrying) a very sensual hot European woman who doesn't know what she wants in light of the guy not knowing what he wants, and you have a good compassionate priest who is in the midst of that Mother Theresa-like experience of deus absconditus that has become almost a hallmark of contemporary Catholic spirituality.  Along the way there is also a wispy and somewhat whiny and modelish attractive WASP American chick who likes to pray and read the bible between sexual encounters with American guy (who also marries her at some "point" in the movie's scattered more or less lack of chronology).  And there is a lot of milieu of sex in the movie, not so much sex scenes (though there is some of that) as a near constant (aside from most scenes involving the priest, and never concerning the priest) sensual eroticity suggestive of sex and wanton abandon.  

My primary thought after the film was over was that I think every interpetation offering review I've read of the film is a plausible take on the work.  So my friend and old Loome cohort Dawn writes in FT that the film is really about fecundity vs. the contraceptive mentality in our age, and, sure, one can certainly take that theme from the snippets of narrative which Malick provides.  Dawn makes a fine case.  

But I think one could just as easily go in many other directions, even contradictory ones.  I think one could contrast the overt erotic sensuality of all the characters other than the priest with the virginal life of the priest, who is the only decent soul in the film, and take the film as a rebuke to typical Western sexualities across the board.  One could thus argue that the theme of the film is not fecundity, per se, but rather that in a pansexualist cultural context a chaste and virgin soul is the only sane route to go, that there is no firm life to be found via taking the social risks involved in the pursuit of fecundity. If I were to take this interpretive route, I would note that while the priest experiences a sense of having been abandoned by his lover (Christ) too, his chastity allows him to remain whole in a way not possible for the other characters.  But that line would strike me as just as arbitrary.  One could go in any number of different interpretive directions and remain within the ballpark of the plausible.  And by noting that one could plausibly interpret this film in multiple, even contradictory ways, I don't mean to suggest that the film is a mature and rich work of art.  

I think that To the Wonder is remarkably akin to the work of one of the composers whose music is a central part of the score - that of Henryk Górecki.  Górecki's music is clearly meant to evoke the vast and the weighty and the idealized and the existentially "serious" and the romantic flickering light of faith struggling against the vast sea of sterile modernity, but, Górecki's work also strikes me as simplistic, trite, and the sort of thing that would work well in a BMW commercial, maybe for one of those cheaper BMWs meant for educated middle class folks.  Górecki evokes this "look at me! I'm doing something deep!" quality that is so common among contemporary Christian artists across disciplines.  It is predictable, and not in an uplifting way, and aesthetically preachy.  It makes perfect sense to me that JPII was a fan of Górecki; if I had to pick one composer to do the soundtrack for Wojtyłianism it would be Górecki.  I came away from To the Wonder with the sense that Malick has put to film the negative attributes of Górecki's music.  I hope that Malick doesn't stay in this place.  The next film might be devoted to Theology of the Body.  Hell, even as I write that I worry that such might have been the point of To the Wonder, and I cringe again.

It's not that the film is a commercial, so much as it takes a very vague, ethereal approach to general human and Christian themes in a manner that is in the aesthetic form now associated with some sorts of what I am calling "artsy" commercials, and, hell, a lot of art today that is done in a commercial vein.  Those aesthetic forms did not originate in commercials, and thus one could make the argument that Malick is using forms that have simply been appropriated (unfortunately) by commercials but that he appropriated those forms from other sources.  Maybe.  I'm more inclined to believe that Malick's imagination is directly informed by the aesthetics of commercial "artistry."  In any event, Malick must have at least intuited that certain recurring images in the film (say the hot Euro chick frequently, and the WASP chick occasionally, running and dancing and bouncing, through a field, with her back to the camera, then turning and looking at the viewer with that very particular jewelry commercial demure/sensual/satisfy-me-now/back-and-forth-between-pout-and-bliss look) were going to be seen by American viewers who have been pre-conditioned to receive these particular images as a part of a commercial aesthetic.  Perhaps I'm wrong.  The trip to Sonic, the Target semi going by, in otherwise sparse product placement in the film, did strike me as alluding to some subtext that I missed.  Perhaps the film is a subtle critique on America and the West that is over my head.  But as things stand, having it fresh in my mind, I am inclined to think that even if that was Malick's intent, he can't go through with it without falling prey to some of the same aesthetic fallacies that he would in that case be attempting to critique.

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