The world anew: To the Wonder and Cloud Atlas

23 February 2013

'To the Wonder' and 'Cloud Atlas', both in cinemas now, set out to look at the world we know in new and invigorating ways. The results are decidedly mixed.

cras amet qui numquam amavit quique amavit cras amet
- The Vigil of Venus
To the Wonder either confirms fears, first nagged by 2011's The Tree of Life, that Terrence Malick has indeed drifted up his own arse, or it presents the possibility that we are nowhere near understanding this new phase of filmmaking from American cinema's chief Heideggerian. These two potentialities, of course, are not necessarily mutually exclusive: as Malick's worldview apparently has it, the world's trump card is its multifacetedness, its innately connective power. Love, its driving force, "makes us one". And love is life's driving force, here: it is the pivot around which narratives orbit, across which lives intersect; it is the lofty ideal to which Woman aspires, and about which Man indecisively skirts. Love is not merely in the air, it is the air.

But if love is a nebulous abstraction, a carefree free-for-all for which no image can be conceived, to which no avatar can lend justice, real life threatens to puncture it at any moment. Though, granted, our loving relationship with the world around us is in desperate need of renewal, the spiritual to-do in which Malick's wonderment is cloaked remains a deeply unhelpful assessment of world events... which is precisely why the apparent self-questioning present in his latest film appears to be the bold stroke of an evidently and perhaps openly confused artist driven by his own confusion. Soul-baring is either inspirational or banal depending on preference, and To the Wonder seems to be a more mood-dependent moodpiece than average.

In other words, I'm torn. There are suggestions that Malick himself is open to correction, or to some kind of evidence that might contradict the ideas contained herein (whatever they might be, which is a debate in itself). To the Wonder evinces a kind of attention deficit, registering a range of conflicting (or perhaps they're to be embaced as complementary) emotions with an explicit agitato that borders on the absurd. With its associative logic and utopian images, in fact, the film evokes that aesthetic, itself indebted to Malick, as seen in those TV spots and pre-film trailers for the Visit Scotland campaign and other tourist board commissions the world over.

The early montage(s), of the impossibly beautiful Olga Kurylenko and bland blank-canvas boyfriend Ben Affleck playing tourists-in-love in Paris and Mont Saint-Michel, certainly play out in this way. (As Neil, Affleck replaced original choice Christian Bale, and is comically and perhaps deliberately minimised to only a few lines of dialogue.) In another's hands, such geographical hot-spots might appear clichéd, but Malick asks us to share his interest in creating the world anew. As Javier Bardem's self-searching Father Quintana says in voice-over, "He does not find his wife lovely, he makes her lovely." Indeed, with regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick brings new energies to something as ordinary as a police car rolling down an Oklahoma suburb at dusk. The enrapturing beauty of this, Malick's first fully contemporary film, doubles as a corrective to The Tree of Life's chilly, modern-day scenes in Houston, Texas.

To the Wonder is gestural and facilitative. Its fleeting gestures reach their peak when Kurylenko's perpetually forlorn Marina reciprocates the brief attentions of a stranger (who, but for a reappearance later in the film, I had down as a blink-and-miss cameo from Jim Caviezel, the lead in Malick's 1999 war poem, The Thin Red Line). Drifting from one non-scene to the next, meanwhile, the film's poetic narration and on-screen ciphers create a kind of participatory framework that is less to do with engaging with the material at hand than it is with sparking certain thoughts, feelings, memories or desires that will exist irrespective of the film; a wandering mindset, in short, by which the film's own perpetually curious, endlessly drifting nature may force one to tears in the same moment that it offends. I, for one, found something resembling truth in Neil's ongoing non-commitment, and in Marina's subsequent and pathetic request for him to tell her "how to love" him. (But why must "love" be so performative, so publically embarrassing, so obnoxious?)

Schmaltz can indeed be sincere; but amidst all the Hegelian filth, there are large passages here that have all the emotional thrust of a Dulux chart. Abstract ideals may be beautiful on their day, but what of them? Malick, who turns 70 this year, is responsible for genuine masterpieces, to my mind - films in which the gestures were part of the film's framework and not the sole constituent of its content. Note that suggestive moment during the conclusive wrap-up of The New World (2005), for instance, in which a Native American leaps from a throne-like chair and flees through a doorway into the English courtyard beyond; otherwise incongruous, this weird, somehow violent gesture, juxtaposed against the overall cues toward figurative or actual freedoms, as well as toward cultural syntheses, results in a rich and powerful language that is at once dramatically anchored and, if you like, poetic. On the evidence of To the Wonder, however, it's possible that Malick has dragged a once-rewarding symbolism into a merely irritating form of cinematic literalism. And anyone who runs down the aisles of a supermarket flinging mops in the air is in the final analysis supremely annoying - in love or otherwise.


Also making a virtue of just a few (if better defined) motifs, Cloud Atlas asks in its opening moments for patience and, as it unfolds, comes to demand it. Adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski from David Mitchell's 2004 novel, this tone poem defies all odds in its development from off-puttingly whimsical premise to history-hopping, theme-courting epic.

Cloud Atlas involves six otherwise disparate stories that are, à la Intolerance (1916), linked thematically and told in parallel. These include the three-way relationship between a notary, a doctor and a stowaway slave aboard a ship in the Pacific Islands in 1849; the life of a homosexual musician, who flees scandal in Cambridge in 1936, to assist an ageing composer in Belgium; in 1973 San Francisco, meanwhile, a principled journalist uncovers radioactive intrigue behind the murder of a scientist she meets in an elevator; in London 2012, a publisher crosses a violent author and retreats to a nursing home, where he is wrongfully held prisoner; in 2144 Neo Seoul, a cloned fast food waitress recounts how she developed consciousness and rebelliousness; and, 106 winters after "the Fall" (i.e., the apocalypse), a last commune standing is reached by a technologically sophisticated member of the human race eager to extend survival.

Inconsequential in themselves, these strands boast inter- and intra-textual bonds, sharing casting choices that transcend gender and racial boundaries, as well as a relay-race pattern, by which each episode is connected to that which chronologically precedes it, through a passed-on wisdom: the diary of an eventual abolitionist, the vinyl recording of a musical composition, love letters kept by their recipient, and so on... Furthermore, in multiple roles that vary in recognisability, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy and, with less frequency, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, anchor this lofty and ambitious project with a self-referencing familiarity.

Themes emerge in the form of binary opposites: love and oppression, subjugation and rebellion, imprisonment and escape. That these are broadly dealt with is a given: apparently, we're to take their cyclical recurrences here as a revelation of some sort. To err is human. In fact, to be or do anything is human: I think/love/rebel/conform, therefore I am. Gone, then, are the dialectical realities of history - its staggered progressions, its anomalous leaps, its inconsistencies and contradictions. In their place are preconceived avatars and ideas, imposed onto the narrative to suit wider ideals.

Consequently, the film's thesis statement - that to which it returns whenever each episode threatens to run away with itself - is that "our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and with each cry, each kindness, we birth the future." This predetermined outlook is not without its moments of individual interest; the Wachowskis' segments - 1846, 2144, 106 winters beyond - are by far the most compelling, and perhaps it's no coincidence that they are also the most historically removed from our own present timeframe. On the whole, however, a dramatic thread that is reducible to the "singular truth" of individual rebellion is as benign as it is ultimately dull. Pretty images alone, then, do not a film make. That the film is nearly three hours merely suggests an essentially over-expensive way of labouring one's point.