One difficult thing for a film critic to do can be captured in a two-part question: How do you review a film that, 1, is more of a mood piece than an example of narrative storytelling and, 2, resists your every effort to describe it without giving too much away? Faced with that challenge, I came up with the following for my review of Terrence Malick's “To the Wonder,” for Spokane Public Radio.
My review (which can run no longer than three minutes):
At its very essence, fine art isn’t for everyone. And that opinion applies especially to the work of those artists whom critics have labeled genius. You can find such work challenging, confounding, absurd, ridiculous, profound, enigmatic – or, at the best of times, some combination of all the above. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to like it.
Do a Google search for the 10 most important paintings in history and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Do you recognize the finer points of Jackson Pollock’s drip method, as exemplified in “No. 5, 1948”? What is the significance of Kashmir Malevich’s simple landscape “Black Square” – which captures exactly what the title describes? How about the geometric shapes in Vastly Kandinsky’s “Composition 8”? And let’s certainly not forget Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” Is there, you may very well ask, a point to all this?
If you were to respond with a resounding shrug, I couldn’t blame you. And yet, and yet … many of us have stood in front of one or the other of these paintings and wondered: What am I seeing here? What am I meant to see? What am I missing? Am I missing anything?
In some cases – Pollock, for example – I enjoy that interior dialogue. In others – Malevich in particular – less so. But, again, as to the actual question of enjoyment? The far more accurate word to use is … appreciation. For the work, and for the creator of the work, sure. But mostly for the process that pushes you to search for other, larger perspectives about the significance of art and, in the best cases, the literal meaning of life.
Enter Terrence Malick, the filmmaker whose unique vision, in such movies as “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line,” “The New World” and “The Tree of Life,” has reflected all of the best, and worst, of the demands that art makes on we who, for our individual reasons, seek it out.
Malick is the consummate anti-mainstream movie director. Instead of literal narrative, he favors the kind of free-form storytelling format that is fueled by stunning visuals and philosophical implications. Oscar-nominated, “The Tree of Life” stands as the essence of Malick’s ever-evolving style, posing BIG philosophical questions that to some viewers are weighty, to others are woefully pretentious.
“To the Wonder” unfolds in similar fashion. Malick follows four characters – a Parisian woman, the American man who brings the woman back to Oklahoma, the man’s former lover and a priest who is confronting a crisis of faith. Similar to “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” reveals itself like a two-hour meditation, augmenting a barely discernible storyline with set-piece images and voiceovers that merely hint at both plot development and character motivation.
“To the Wonder,” then, may cause you to marvel at Malick’s way of exploring life’s essential question regarding love, faith and the possibility of connection in a toxic world. Then again, it may cause you to shrug and – as those who saw “The Tree of Life” will understand – ask, “Where are the dinosaurs?” Either, or both, is an appropriate reaction.
As for me, “To the Wonder” is a double bonus: I appreciate it, AND I enjoy it. Then again, that’s understandable: I like Jackson Pollock, too.