Wednesday, April 10, 2013


“Our Lord Jesus Christ went up into a little castle and was received by a virgin who was a wife.”
“Now, then, play close attention to this word: it was necessary that it be a virgin by whom Jesus was received. “Virgin” designates a human being who is devoid of all foreign images, and who is as void as he was when he was not yet…
…If a human were to remain a virgin forever, he would never bear fruit. If he is to become fruitful, he must necessarily be a wife. “Wife,” here, is the noblest name that can be given to the mind, and it is indeed more noble than “virgin.” That man should receive God in himself is good, and by this reception he is a virgin. But that God should become fruitful in him is better; for the fruitfulness of a gift is the only gratitude for the gift. The spirit is wife when in gratitude it gives birth and bears Jesus back into God’s fatherly heart.”
Meister Eckhart, Sermon Jesus Entered. Transl. by Reiner Schurmann from Wandering Joy

I wanted to begin this review with those words because of a conversation I had days before watching Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER. I was with a friend, whom you know as roomasick, browsing information about the film when we stumbled upon an interview with Ben Affleck where he speaks about working with Malick and about his style of directing. In it, Affleck jokes that since he was aware Malick has a Doctorate in Philosophy and translated works by Heidegger, a good way to get into his mind was to read those translations. Obviously that did not work for him and did not even give him inkling into what the film was about or how he was to react to Malick’s direction. While the remarks from the interview about the preparation verge on some sort of self-serving absurdity (should we even ask, when directed to perform, for the director to give us a map of his thought process, a diary of his inhibitions and beliefs? To draw for us a belief system? In other words,should we ask from the creator of a situation to justify all aspects of it?), said remarks stayed with me. My thoughts went into tangents when confronted with other Malick films such as THE NEW WORLD or THE TREE OF LIFE. Granted, if a director has thought, read and translated thinkers who devoted their mind’s life to ask ultimate philosophical questions (questions about the nature and origin of being, not of the why of things, but of the how is it that things are), then wouldn’t the same person work through those questions in another medium of his choosing? Yes, as obnoxious as this could sound, Malick’s films are not only of grand themes (be it WWII, the destined clash of two cultures, or even a ‘cultural’ history of the cosmos) but also about the workings of phenomena, really they are about the origin of all being, in different disguises.

And so it is with TO THE WONDER that when I saw it, the film seemed to me a radical departure from his previous work and a clear attempt by the director to flesh out a philosophy of what it means to lead a good life. TO THE WONDER was, to me, an actual attempt at delivering a system of thought through images and emotive evocations. It is his most engaging film, in the sense that it engages our very present and the very systematic undercurrents in our civilization to ask political and religious questions.

Reiner Schurmann, in his book Broken Hegemonies, defines what I believe Malick is using film for, to think: “ To think is to linger on the conditions of what one is living: to linger on the site we inhabit.” And indeed, in TO THE WONDER there is nothing more but the depiction of the site the characters inhabit, and of their reflecting, their lingering on the conditions of what has happened, or what does not happen, to them.

And a lot of it has to do with the film’s daring style and composition. But before going into specific about the film’s style, we can visit for a bit the quoted words opening this review and see why I link them to this film. First, superficially one can point out that there are three motifs from Eckhart’s sermon that are present in TO THE WONDER. The film is about different couples, or rather, about coupling, about love and beloved. There are paralleled pairings in the film from human to human and human to a place. First we meet Neil and Marina (played by Ben Afleck and Olga Kurylenko) who have fallen in love in Paris and spend their time traveling around the city and beyond, sightseeing. They visit a specific site to which the film will return, Mont St. Michael, which is also known as “the wonder”. The specificity of the site (being a famous tourist and spiritual destination) and at the same time its being wrenched out of specificity (not being acknowledged as such in the film at all-as if it only existed for the two characters) sets the mood for how places/landscapes and the characters’ movements within those landscapes will be depicted. In the film’s review by Michael Koresky from Reverse Shot he uses the word ‘sightseeing’ to fittingly describe what characters seem to do with the world surrounding them when they are in love. At the moment of courtship and pleasure, Niel and Marina are in a sort of vacation, where all there is to do is sightseeing. The review treats this aspect of the film as one of its strengths, while other reviewers will treat it as a sign of emptiness. This ‘sightseeing’, this lingering on the image, the face of the moment, can indeed draw us to think the moment is empty of meaning, but I suspect that is only a sort of cleaving to dramatic arcs (whether conventional or not so much) that would make us think and feel so. In other words, sightseeing seems to render dramatic progress null. Under such a view of the film, all landscapes and the actions presented in them seem to become repetitive, and the images forming a story seem to become stock images.

TO THE WONDER does thread in those dangerous waters between the specificity of action/reaction and a more esoteric, whispered telling of a narrative that is nevertheless the emotional center of the film. The relationship we, as viewers, have with the images in front of us, seem to encourage this strange sense of detachment from the why of the images and also encourage a deep sympathy towards what is depicted.

Going back to the motifs, the main dramatic conflict within the film is about characters who have loved someone and then face that love’s vanishing. Not only do they face an absence of love, but more than anything they face the memory of having loved. They mourn the loss of a certain connection. The narration in the film is devoted to that remembering, speaking about the events in front of us as if they were in the past, as if each consciousness narrating the film was reviewing his/her own memories and trying to find how is it that love came to be from nothing and then returned to nothing. Does it leave a trace? Was it ever there? Can it be regained? How can it be ultimate and yet not always present? In this sense, there is a deep fissure between the events presented to us in the screen and the slant narration that accompanies them. It is very telling that I’ve heard people describe this film as a flow of consciousness, as if the voices whispering or asking different questions at a moment are really the voices inside the characters’ minds at the moment of experience, while the voices really were speaking from another place, inhabiting a terrain which has already experienced the loss of that love depicted. They are voices of longing for a memory, for a past, and therefore shape the film as a series of temporal fissures between image and voice. Is that, then, what we perceive the relationship between consciousness and experience to be? A relationship based on longing, mourning, and wondering about the immediate past?

This event, that of the abandonment of love, is present when Marina asks of the church to make her a wife again, and when Neil faces an existential choice, that of core commitment to someone else, or when Father Quintana visits the people populating the town where he preaches and also searches within for that love for Christ and that faith on the world he doesn’t feel but fakes to his congregation. Whatever their situation, these characters have faced the moment when deep affection has visited them, fell upon them, and then died without bearing fruit. And while they do not try to recreate that moment they do revisit it in order to think more clearly about the site they inhabit, and in order to see how is it that they can find such a place again, how they can give birth to such a love.

To be detached from images, as one was when one was not. To bear fruit out of that detachment, and to leave all attributes behind when entering the castle as Jesus does in the Gospel parable, these aspects from Eckhart’s sermon I feel are not just tangential to TO THE WONDER or an appropriation of whatever other meaning the film could present. They are, after all, extremely original and influential philosophical thoughts that would be very familiar and would engage a philosopher who has translated Heidegger. After all, it was Heidegger himself who championed Meister Eckhart and in a sense brought his teachings back into currency with the modern era. And yet, the presence of a couple of motifs or even pivotal images conjuring up an idea should not be enough to say that a film fleshes out a philosophy. Like all philosophy, the message given depends also on the language used and on the awareness of the speaker on how that language influences the message, the idea.  Therefore, it is not only the images or motifs that matter, but also the way in which they are put together in montage.

How can what a 14th century monk posits relate to the way a filmmaker uses montage to tell a love story?  Meister Eckhart in many ways represents the crest of Western medieval religious thought, and it’s worth pointing out that theology in the Middle Ages was the philosophical basis from which all legislature would arise. To posit a system explaining the cause of all causes one also had to describe the best, the ideal arrangement of society according to that system. In other words, to investigate the origin of Being is also to contemplate the way beings should behave in order to be their best, highest version in harmony with their origin. Whatever answer one had for the nature of Being, it would be a starting point from which the arrangement and hierarchy of nature and society of man would be formed; otherwise our worldly existence would be ungodly and out of synch. This is the very positing of a telic continuity, the Judeo-Christian tradition of the law, and Meister Eckhart’s teachings are not only a heightening of that tradition and continuity (ruled by the Latin tongue) but also its undoing.

And before one asks himself what this has to do with Malick and TO THE WONDER one should ask what any of this has to do with the way we live our life today. Truly, we are beings living in the modern age, and after the age of Enlightenment we should be out of reach from medieval thought, shouldn't we? One needs only to reflect on the current debate on women’s rights and sexual/civil rights to understand that the undercurrent debate is about the very essence, the very nature of society as ordained by a Primary Cause (erroneously posited as either a spiritual or rational entity). It is a question of what is ‘natural’, and to question what is ‘natural’ is to question the very origin and telic continuity of Being in the world. And TO THE WONDER, indeed is a film which engages directly that telic continuity, not only as a dramatic and emotional exercise but also as a civil one. This is not only an artistic and spiritual achievement, this is a political and religious engagement.

And there is something in the nature of film that lends itself to this type of engagement. Film, an art at which very center there is the entanglement of temporal continuity and fracture, the juxtaposition of the real and the ghostly, and the constant tug of war between image/symbol, the seen and the unseen, light and darkness, gives way in its movement to a treatment, a working through, a positing and even an undoing of telic continuities, of phenomenologies. To illustrate this point we can quickly look at the first bifurcating of the path taken, a division led by Griffith and Eisenstein on each side. Griffith posited film as a medium which naturally created dramatic, psychological and personal continuity with its montage. The mounting of shot after shot served the purpose to move the flow of action/drama/consciousness uninterrupted to a specific climax. Each individual remained an individual or became one in all aspects despite the temporal/spatial fractures present in film. Eisenstein, and later Soviet montage by extension, on the other hand disregarded that type of telic continuity in order to establish one based on society as a whole. The flow considered natural was not towards an individual, but rather towards a synthesis and communion with society at large.  Film, hence, projects philosophies kinetically, as a telic sequence that either holds up or brakes under its own weight. It turns out both philosophies fall magnificently under their own rigor.

Film montage, in reflecting a telic system, can therefore give the viewer an idea, an experience of how it is to engage that system in the world. It is a working through of ideas. In TO THE WONDER, Malick is perfectly aware of the different ways to tell a story and to engage systems through montage. This film, being about love, posits a system where private love engages the world and what it suffers. This is a political as well as a deeply religious film, where activism is defined in Christian terms.

Let’s look at a pivotal scene from the film, which though does not expose any plot points nevertheless compresses the film’s style and essence.

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This montage sequence used a narrative blanket which is basically the description of a spiritual hierarchy. This ‘hierarchy’, however dissipates under its own setting. Christ is everywhere, and all images are equated. Images are not mounted on top of one another anymore, and yet they form a visual tapestry. This tapestry is not formed through matching frames, architectural or kinetic motifs within the frame, gestures linking image to image, but rather through a voice describing the invisible, that which is not of the image and could not be found there. The divine, beyond cause of all causes, calls out to us, loves us and makes us love that which we engage, the world with all its pain and the weight of its suffering (disease, poverty, addiction, the raping of the environment, the loss of faith and the fear of commitment and of instability); it is there somehow present in that gorgeous nothingness* that we give one another when we bear the right fruit and open ourselves to wonder.

 * I hope it is clear here I meant that phrase “gorgeous nothingness” opposing the way David Denby uses this term in his review of the film for The New Yorker.

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