To The Wonder: Terrence Malick

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Wow. Terrence Malick’s new film, To The Wonder is screening at The Venice Film Festival. Two of my favorite directors in one weekend with new films. I wish I could hop a plane to Europe!

There are two films that were very important to me in my life, and remain at the top of my list: Days of Heaven and The Deer Hunter. I saw them both in 1978, my senior year in high school. Films have been imprinted on my brain ever since.

I’d never seen a narrative film told visually, with hardly any dialogue up until then, and I realized what cinema was supposed to achieve. The cinematography by Nestor Almendros (and finished by Vilmos Zsigmond) is captivating in its use of natural light. Never before had I seen nature, or a house, or even a locust used as another character.

The fire and storm of love between the three adult characters is matched by the prairie fire towards the end of the film. What little dialogue there is falls to the haunting voice of Linda Manz, a young girl who bears witness and tries to make sense of all that has happened in her short time on earth. Her voice-overs are illumined by a deeper understanding of life lived, even for one so young as she.

Days of Heaven was sadly the last film for twenty years for Terrence Malick and his legion of film geeks and followers. I’m included in the former. I saw The Thin Red Line with a USC Film Professor, who on our way out of the theatre said, “That’s the film Steven Spielberg wishes he could make,” given that Saving Private Ryan had been released in the same time period. I agreed, simply for the fact of the prologue among the villagers that set up the thesis for the entire film.

The Tree of Life (apparently there is a six-hour (!) cut, which I’d happily sit through) seemed truncated to me. There were brilliant passages, gorgeous cinematography (again), but something was missing, and that was Sean Penn’s connection to the flashbacks. I wanted to see his story, and how he’d navigated his life following his family’s life, and the loss of his brother. I wanted to see how nature versus grace manifested in his life.

I’m looking forward to Terrence Malick’s sudden burst of film-making. Knight of Cups is next on the horizon and another one, apparently. But I’m looking forward to To The Wonder, and to see how he defines and discovers love.

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