Sunday, April 14, 2013

Some Thoughts To the Wonder

I've just spent three hours in my hometown, sitting in the dark in the prairie breeze, talking about urgent things going on in people's lives right here, right now. But somewhere in the back of my mind, informing the whole thing, was the movie I saw last night, Terrence Malick's To the Wonder.

See, it was shot here--principally here in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Paris, France. The notion of a movie shot between these two places, drawing parallels between these two places--as it does, particularly in the closing sequences--is seemingly absurd to a Bartian (that's how we call us natives), and, yet, that's fundamental to the beauty of the damn thing. As rapper Rakim once said, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at," and Malick's movie is all over that notion.

If you're familiar with Malick, who I first met at our local Penn Theater, under a marquee that read "Bartlesville's own Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven" (or something to that effect), then you know he's about as much of a literary naturalist as any filmmaker ever. By that I mean he subordinates his plot and characters to the environment that surrounds them. I went to that movie as a kid, expecting some "local movie" like Where the Red Fern Grows, and found myself plunged into this wondrous world of prairie imagery--flora, fauna and a great big fire. Almost in the background, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams schemed against Sam Shepard. I wasn't sure what to make of the movie, but it made me think about people as a part of their environment, which included the class differences that made Gere and Adams resent Shepard, made him seem doomed and out of touch with his Victorian trappings out in the great wide open. I never forgot it, particularly the dominant memoir-like narration by the brilliant child actor Linda Manz.

Last night, I saw Malick's new movie, To the Wonder, and it works in much the same fundamental way. But it's a very different movie, and in some ways more difficult. It's a more extreme form of cinema. The scripted intrigue of Days of Heaven has given way to an almost unmoored series of dream images. Visual refrains (perhaps unfortunately but also purposefully) call to mind perfume ads, a beautiful woman running backward through a field in a simple, flowing gown. A man, an iconic stoic male, looking off somewhere in the distance--with her but not able to show the same abandon as he luxuriates in the moment. In some ways, Malick has built a whole movie around these kinds of images of moments that happen all too rarely if they ever happen at all.

But he uses these images of contrasting abandon and controlled desire as the basic theme for a whole lot of conflict. The world around the lovers is filled with others engaged in their own struggles. Ben Affleck, the male lead, tests soil samples, finding out just how disastrously the petrochemicals that have made this land rich have poisoned the environment. A priest tries to save these same folk, who are only slightly more lost than he is (and many of them are not only very far gone spiritually but near death physically). One of the most pointed scenes is when he hides in his living room from an addict parishioner who has finally taken him up on his offers of help.

In the end, To the Wonder treats the same issues as Days of Heaven--romantic love at the mercy of intersecting systems (human and environmental) that make it all but impossible. This time, however, instead of spinning everything headlong into tragedy, Malick has taken a greater risk. He means for this movie to play like a love song. You understand the story because you give it your own, and of course it ends in a broken heart, but at least it doesn't leave you all alone. If you forget the people on each side of you in the theater, even that relentless prairie wind in your ear serves as proof.