A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to see To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s latest. After the movie, we were less than enthused. For me, the movie posed aesthetic questions….is beauty enough to save an otherwise plotless movie? For beautiful is the only thing the movie undeniably is…the scenes are beautiful. The actresses are beautiful and everything is staged, it seems, to be beautiful. It was at least enjoyable to look at if not meaningful- we were in New York at the time and amidst the people and deliciously chaotic fervor, 2 hours of carefully curated images was something if not desired, at least appreciated.
But as time elapses between the viewing of the movie and now, the images have begun to unravel in my mind.
It was a struggle throughout the movie not to give up on it. Since American Beauty, the American Dream’s suburban sickness and sprawl has been done, and never in my opinion, as well. In fact, not only did I find the story of Wonder cliche, but even the images were sometimes so representative of the Ideal in Love, America, Etc. they didn’t seem beautiful or new. Even so, there were many other images which were beautiful and evoked feelings I will remember a long time so it is a credit to Malick (for me) that this movie is largely wordless. Only without a traditional narrative can he take us into the reality of a more stream of consciousness love story. If anything, I have come to think of this movie as a kind of anti-love story. Or maybe one of the only true love stories I’ve seen on film. I can’t decide because this movie made me question the whole genre of love story movies.
Like the movie, there isn’t always connective tissue or reasoning in all relationships…there aren’t exchanges of words and dialogues the way most books and movies tell us there are because they are only there for an audience to follow. A real love story won’t make sense to someone watching in the same ways it won’t make sense when you’re living it. Like the movie, you won’t necessarily know all the time what they’re thinking or what you’re thinking. But we follow these progressions we see onscreen and let them dictate how we behave in real life…you know…first we meet cute and talk and follow a natural (so we think) advance of speech and actions expected by either of us from what we know relationships to be from movies and books and relationships of other people we know (who may possibly also be doing things based on movies and books and other art forms.) Of course there are exceptions and of course there is incredible and singular variety in these love stories. But I admired the bravery of Malick in taking the risks he did which would only seem like risks in the most platitudinal world he could create. In this way, I felt called upon to participate in a real relationship instead of watching one happen. There was a twist, however, but no spoilers of uh…”plot?” here.
Instead of connective tissue or natural progressions what Malick does so beautifully is capture and transition madly between the tiny moments of love’s reassurance and its unsettling isolation. In fact, he is a master of showing us how alone we are. Alone in nature, alone in the suburbs, alone in marriage. But he captures the most important parts of vulnerability and madness and our desperate need for others resulting in a constant dissatisfaction with bleak aloneness even in togetherness. And many parts of the movie are just as frustrating as relationships. Moods are fickle and they don’t understand you and you don’t understand you and what is coming out of my mouth right now and why aren’t we getting along all of a sudden? We have no idea why things are amiss in the movie sometimes which happens so often in real life relationships and communication. Malick captures illogical incompatibility and the mental illnesses encapsulated in every partnership so well. It was an Anna Karenina with deterioration of the mind. He gives us the greatest and the worst in relationships and in our being made privy, we feel terribly alone….the same kind of alone his characters feel. But knowing that others go through the same, knowing these horrifying rifts occur to others and that we are all alone in many ways makes us