Have just had my mind blown by watching ‘To The Wonder’ – the latest movie by Terrence Malick – one of the great filmmakers working in cinema today. You can read up on him on IMDB and Wikipedia. Also: a lengthy essay ‘Waiting for Terence Malick’ by Michael Nordine on the Salon site.
I was wondering how to explain what makes this film so special when I cam across this wonderful quote which nails it:
‘Those rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light; the striking use of music – here is a filmmaker with a clear sensibility and aesthetic who makes narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion, and idea through image and sound.’
This quote comes from a great essay by Chris Wisniewski on www.reverseshot.com which discusses ‘Days of Heaven’ and ‘The New World’.
Malick directed ‘Days of Heaven’ in 1978 - five years after his debut film ‘Badlands’ - after which he didn’t direct a film for 20 years – though he did produce and write scripts. ‘The Thin Red LIne’ came out in 1998 and then there was a seven-year gap before ‘The New World’. ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘To The Wonder’ came out in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
He apparently shot two new films back-to-back in 2012: Lawless starring Ryan Gosling, with a supporting cast including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Haley Bennett and Knight of Cups which will star Bale, alongside Blanchett and Isabel Lucas.
Chris’ essay says arguably that its the editing that distinguishes Malick’s work on these two films (and others) but the contrast is the first was edited using analog technology, the second used digital.
This most interesting. Sometime back THE GENERALIST flagged up the existence of the documentary ‘Side by Side’ – produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves which skilfully examines all aspects of the film-making process and contrasts the analog and digital production methods. Its an absolute must see for anyone interested in the future of cinema. Saw a cinema screening a month or so back and now await my DVD copy from Lovefilm. Will chew on this bone further in a separate post.
Back to Malick and ‘To The Wonder’. It principally follows a love story – shot in Paris, Mont St Michel and Oklahoma – but has another level featuring Javier Bardem as a priest.
The camera is always on the move and, in this film, the main female character dances her way through it creating another level of movement. A third is movement in nature – rippling leaves and branches, grasslands, undersea swirls, lakes & waterfalls. Everything flows.
The framing is partial. People half in and half out of the frame. Dialogue is scattered as if blown by the wind which seems to be another character throughout. Ben Affleck is humanised in the process.
The relativity of when you watch a film has an effect on your perception of it. The screen I was watching it on sits in front of a window behind which is an elder tree in flower and other trees behind. They were being whipped by the wind at the same time as I was watching the wind on screen. Had to stop the film so as take a walk before the light disappeared. Slipped over on wet grass and bashed my head. Finished watching the film.
This film touches you in many places and on many levels. For some reason it kept reminding me of Godfrey Reggio’s films which form the second half of this post.
There’s a lot in Mallick’s films that suggests he is a man of belief – if not a Christian per se then perhaps someone who is absorbed by spiritual and philosophical questions.
I’d always thought that Reggio was a Jesuit priest but, according to Wikipedia, ‘Reggio spent fourteen years in fasting, silence and prayer, training to be a monk within the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic pontifical order, before abandoning that path and making the films.’
The titles come from the Hopi language. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ means ‘Life Out of Balance’ ‘Powaqqatsi’ means "life in transformation," and Naqoyqatsi means "life as war." They are poetic/ symphonic documentaries which, in a powerful way, brings home the extent to which we are damaging the earth and alienating ourselves from the natural environment.
A hallmark of these films is some extraordinary cinematography - mainly shot using slow motion and time lapse. Ron Fricke, the cinematographer who shot these films subsequently made two films of his own - ‘Baraka’ and ‘Samsara’ both of which I watched recently.For these he built his own 65mm equipment. Back in the day I had lunch with Fricke (and my young son) after a morning press screening of ‘Baraka’ in London.
The trilogy have soundtracks by Philip Glass which makes a major contribution to their success. My son and I saw Glass and his mini-orchestra play live as the films were screened at the Festival Hall in London.
Its exciting to discover that Reggio and Glass have been working on a new film ‘Visitors’ which will premiere at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.
Steven Soderbergh, who is one of Reggio’s great supporters says:
Reggio’s “pure cinema” works are hard to sum up in a sentence, and the new film is no different. “It’s connected to the other Qatsi films in the sense it’s Godfrey’s wordless take on a certain subject, but he’s changed his game here,” Soderbergh said. “There’s more directing in it, more things he’s specifically staging for the camera than he’s done before, and there are performers in the film. He’s taken what he does and pushed it into a new area, which was really exciting for me to watch. It’s thirty years ago this year when Koyaanisqatsi came out. I watched it again, and there just isn’t a single, visual idea in that movie that hasn’t been ripped off, assimilated, regurgitated, built upon. Actually I watched all three films again, and it made me laugh how other directors just took his language and just ran with it. Here, he’s moved the goal post as if to challenge others and say, ‘Alright, let’s see what you can do with this.’ It’s so striking, but not necessarily immediately applicable to what everybody else does. They’ll have to work to steal this one.”
See: http://www.koyaanisqatsi.com/ [not updated since 2005]
"...The crisis that we are approaching today is of yet another order. For it entails the transition, not from one form of society and power to another, but to a new environment...The present crisis...is a total crisis triggered by transition to a new and previously unknown environment, the technological environment....The present change of environment is much more fundamental than anything that the race has experienced for the last five thousand years."
- Jacques Ellul