I'm in exactly the same theatre I was in when Tree of Life had its first public screening in the US, the basement of a Landmark. I remember the anticipation then, of everyone, including the ushers, being nervous about what we were all about to see. This was an event and the sold out theatre proved it. A man came out ten minutes before the film started and reminded us we could buy concessions upstairs. No one had ever and no one has yet to do that again before a movie screening. Ned Hinkle used to remind Brattle patrons that they could buy beer, but that was because they'd only just had the bar put in. This was different, the man in front of me was shaking almost imperceptibly, as if his job were on the line and this movie's performance was what was going to make the difference. Two years later To The Wonder is about to start and the theatre is all but empty.
It's a little earlier in the day this time, and there are more screenings planned later today (shorter runtime, more daily showings) and finally I see a man walk down the aisles. He isn't nervous. There having trouble with the DCP and would we go upstairs to wait for the next screening. Sure. I have a half hour to kill now and I'm running through all the pressnotes I've read in my head. I'm remembering Dan Kasman and Fernando Croce's correspondences about it, their measured praise. And then I remember Darren Hughes; "Where's all the shit?" The film was too clean, too pretty, too itself for Darren, who still didn't hate it. But then, even if you go in with the wrong mind for it, as Stephanie Zacharek did, and find it obnoxiously self-indulgent and embarrassing, you can't hate all of it, right? It then occurs to me, Zacharek is changing publications. So is Scott Tobias. Will this be the last film they review before the move? Like all Malick, it's a road film, so this would be a fitting departure for them, but I won't know that til later. The movie starts and I can't give this another thought.
It begins with digital. Digital images, no mistaking them. Has he embraced this? A small camera wielded by a character, man-made creation, as opposed to universal creation. But they rarely resurface. The first real shot is perfect: a woman crossing a train's tray table to be literally on the lap of and in the face of the man she has a crush on. Shot in that improbable, incredibly defined, wide angle that Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki mastered for The Tree of Life. These are people. They're in love. They effortlessly reign over the frame, divine to their director. The france stuff is new for Malick. His previous films start with undeniable force and assertion. This is about a boy who changed my life, a man who murders his boss, an American on an island he clearly doesn't belong on, a ship discovering america, a cosmic whisper and the death of a boy. Here, just people, if the most well dressed people in his canon. Clearly just people: their footprints vanish in the mud in Normandy. They soon leave France for America. A mistake.
Affleck is Gary Cooper. Maybe his best performance. He isn't speaking, and Malick knows if he talks too much then he's Ben Affleck, moviestar, and not a man with problems. His posture is different, haunched, tense and masculine, but it's a perfectly forced masculinity. It's not his, it's borrowed. Affleck gets so much right. He's a real person. He reminds me of someone I know, right down to his trouble with women. First Brad Pitt, now Ben Affleck. In remaking movie stars in the image of people he knew, Malick's finding people I know, too. People, not characters. It's Malick who makes them human, and then Lubezki makes them gods. In Tree of Life, the two men were god, looking at creation and its most insignificant organisms. There, they observed. Here they worship. The people are titans. Affleck as Cooper is a monument. He can't say anything to Kurylenko's face; he's spent years not being able or feeling welcome to articulate feeling like this. Kurylenko is a marvel. She, like Affleck, has never been better and she's a fine addittion to Malick's voiceover artists. Maybe my favourite. I think about Matt Zoller Seitz' essays on Malick, and his talking with Peter Labuza about voiceover. Did he use the word contrapuntal? Or am I imagining that? Does this count? I suppose not as they do compliment each other, the voice and the images. Except... except for the subtitles. When Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck join the unconscious fray, their words float as well as anything, but Javier Bardem's beautifully lisping Spanish and Kurylenko's otherworldly French have to show up on screen for us to see. Does this interrupt the images. Do they pull you away from the rhythm? I wonder what Matt makes of it?
Then the film breaks. It's digital, so it doesn't really, but the technology is so new that we don't even have words for when it breaks down. That's a troubling thought and I fear for the future of film, fleetingly. We see Affleck pick Kurylenko up and swing her once, twice, then the all the colors turn a different shade of red and he keeps on swinging. Then the screen goes black. I go to get someone but another patron beats me to the projectionist whose down in the lobby. I think about Mark Kermode and the way he talks about projection. An artform. No, a performance, that's what he calls it. I think about his friend Dave Norris, the last projectionist standing. He surely wouldn't have let this happen. The audience is awfully quiet. This is clearly not the event that Tree of Life was if the audience is ok with the projector shutting off twenty minutes into the film. Or maybe...maybe the film has calmed them. I know it's done as much to me. How could I be mad? I'm watching To The Wonder. It occurs to me that this has everything to do with the voiceover and Bardem's sermons. Choice. Avoiding choice is a sin, he says. I like to think this makes our auteur pro-Abortion, but that's just me bringing that to the film. It'd be easy to make the case but who knows? No, what's clear is the answer to Hughes question. Where's all the shit? Why does no one do anything ugly in Malick films? Because we're ugly, foul things, people, we kill, we conquer and rape and steal and and piss and shit and drink and do hard drugs and hurt the people we love. But he doesn't have to show those things because those urge don't come with a lot of choice. Everyone has to relieve themselves, no different than a horse, the horses that made a mess of Hughes' property. Nothing dynamic in it. No chance of being a better person for it. No discovery. If someone decides to drink themselves to death or be violent, it's the easy choice, like peeing against a tree if you can't find a bathroom or don't feel like walking to one. It's easy to be cruel to whomever, it comes naturally in many cases. I think Morrissey said something similar.
Malick was raised by parents who split the difference between our worst urges. His dad, or what we gather of him through Pitt in Tree of Life, was a man dangerously consumed with anger. David Cairns hypothesizes that our anger comes from our having had the American Dream to fall short of. We're supposed to succeed and we don't. Because we believe in the Dream, same as we believe in a god whose looking out for us, we get real mad when our great loves look elsewhere. Here's Bardem and Affleck going into slums and seeing the lives of the unfortunate, proof that God isn't looking out for us. We have to do that. God's whatever makes you leave the comfort and security of doubt and gets you out into the world helping those to whom you can make a difference. 'God' is why Affleck remains mute for most of the film. He goes to church, same as Kurylenko, but neither of them seems to get what Bardem discovers. Going to church doesn't mean shit if you don't let it help you be the version of yourself you keep locked up: "an avalanche of tenderness." Movement. Evolution. We have to choose to evolve. Biological, behavioral theology. Finally something contrapuntal.
Kurylenko says that Malick's one consistent direction on set was that everyone had to keep moving. If you stop, he urges you on. Because the one thing he hates is when people stop, when they refuse to think for themselves, to make choices, to examine our lives and make them better.
Affleck makes for a compelling addendum to the male in Malick. A 21st century update of Badlands' Kit or Days of Heaven's Bill, with a fresh sense of willful blindness. Kit and Bill were outlaws, so had no real room to consider the feelings of their women, what they want, let alone need, but they did show them a certain level of tenderness and understanding. The Farmer in Days of Heaven came at the problem from a different angle: his heart was full of love and cared only about Abby. So when things go south he reacts violently. Affleck's too full of hang ups to quite be The Farmer, he won't give himself fully to love. What would the neighbors think? But he's a far cry from the soldiers of The Thin Red Line and The New World, always considering their place in the world, aware that they're insignificant. So there's precedent, but he's an old-fashioned male given a new coat of paint, fully in keeping with how men behave today. More evolution.
And then leaving it strikes me that the last thing Roger Ebert ever wrote was a review of this film. Which means that there's a chance it was the last movie he ever saw. I have no proof, but I'm comforted by the thought. Here are people making boundless use of their bodies, the landscape, their homes, their minds. Their thoughts and desires are laid bare for us. Roger couldn't speak any longer, but his thoughts were just as available to us, just as rich, and full of love; accepting and appreciative of life's rich details. Bardem's prayer, his interpretation of God seems perfectly in keeping with Roger's attitude toward the end of life. I thought about Roger Ebert hearing the prayer that closes the film. And it becomes more than art. It's an experience, a continuation of a man's life, and maybe the comfort another found at the end of his. It's proof of the power of film, at least to me. Proof that film criticism is part of my religion, the son of film. Or maybe if film is a religious event, then criticism is my bible, recording and interpreting the events that change our lives, like Malick does when he puts biographical info in his dreamy narratives. And just as we hear the voices of his characters in his movies, I hear film critics wherever I go. He's clearly got something there. Watching this film my brain swelled with the different takes I'd encountered, of the words of critics, of possibilities introduced by people who do little else but consider what film means, making it richer. Even if I disagree with a review it make the film richer because it stands in opposition to one reading. We can't and won't all agree, but our disagreements make us better, they help us understand what we prize about works of art. That's why Terence Malick is so important to me and his films so close to my heart. He lays everything on the table so we can do the same in response. He knows we're not perfect, but he loves us anyway and no one makes even our worst impulses beautiful like he does. Maybe we're not God, but we're the closest thing we've got.