Posts Tagged ‘To the Wonder’

‘It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.’

This quote from the writer Raymond Carver seems very apt when we approach the work of Terrence Malick. Malick has a way of drawing attention to somewhat ordinary things, fragments of everyday life, and making them seem wondrous. After watching his latest film, my path home through London took on a different feeling; the tiled skyscrapers appeared majestic and untouchable, the empty tube and escalators eerie and mysterious. Even with a lesser work as Knight of Cups, Malick has the ability to make the audience see the world in a different way.

Christian Bale plays Rick, the jaded Hollywood screenwriter at the heart of the film, a stoic, passive observer of the insanity around him. His world is full of lavish, hedonistic parties at picturebook mansions and an endless stream of wild beauties. People seem to flow in and out of his life like ocean waves; his tyrannical father (Brian Dennehy), his errant brother (Wes Bentley) and saintly ex-wife (Cate Blanchett). There is a portentous voiceover by Ben Kingsley, reciting The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, detailing a man’s descent into hell and ultimate salvation.

Continuing on from the improvisation of To the Wonder, Malick has appeared to strip away all forms of conventional storytelling, relying on sound and image to conjure a mood. Rick is near mute throughout the film, with snippets of breathless narration the only illumination of his character. It is somewhat sad how the last two films in Malick’s oeuvre have progressed. He was once noted for his ability to illicit strong, memorable performances from his actors, yet now he seems to use them as mere floating, emoting mannequins. The pompous narration does little to assuage this disconnect; it is difficult to feel anything for these characters.

What is frustrating about Knight of Cups is that it is a genuinely beautiful film. There are countless images that other film makers scrabble their whole lives for, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, of banality. The relentless beauty becomes dulling, and because there is no emotional connection with the characters or the story, they become shallow. I never thought I would use ‘shallow’ to describe a Malick film, but there we are. DOP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is again astounding, roaming and swooping, ducking and diving, swirling and twirling, but we may have come to a point when it might actually be a hindrance to Malick.

Lubezki’s collaboration with Malick has been the most notable change in his recent career, and it has been an exceedingly rich meeting of minds. However, Lubezki’s eye is beginning to overpower the story, or what little there is of it. The sprawling improvisation that Lubezki has allowed Malick seems to have dulled his senses- perhaps Malick needs to go back to basics for his next one. The still framing of Badlands and Days of Heaven, a more linear structure, more causal development of characters. In Knight of Cups, there is a feeling that Malick has indulged himself too much, much like the central protagonist Rick.

There are some redeeming points to the film. Hanan Townshend’s score is playful and nuanced, giving this contemporary story a classical, mythical grounding. Some images will linger in the mind, even if they are somewhat literal, such as the canine diving into the luminescent pool, yearning to gets its jaws around an elusive ball. It is an obvious metaphor for Rick’s own struggle to find meaning, always clutching out for something more. Sadly, we find Malick in a similar mode, reaching out for greatness and falling at the last moment.

 

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New Zealand-born composer Hanan Townshend was plucked from relative obscurity in a Texas university when an unnamed director got in touch to request his involvement in his new film. That director turned out to be the notoriously elusive Terrence Malick, and Townshend joined The Tree of Life project as an intern. He became the main composer for Malick’s next film To the Wonder and collaborated on his latest film, Knight of Cups. We spoke to him about his latest project and working with Malick.

You’ve recently finished working on Knight of Cups, how was it working with Terrence Malick this time around? Was it a different relationship?

It was and it wasn’t. I’m pretty familiar now with Terry’s process and we have our own way of working, collaborating together so a lot of it was an extension of what we’d already been doing with To the Wonder. Tree of Life was a little bit different because I was more of an intern and working in the capacity of an intern, I wasn’t the composer of course. I did write some music for it but I wasn’t the composer. But with this project I’m pretty sure that Knight of Cups was shot without a script. Obviously there was a vision for it and Terry would have the anchors, the pages of the script, but it wasn’t anything set in stone. So I feel like there was a bit more freedom in this project, in particular during the editing process, to just experiment and see the directions in which the film might take. So in many ways it was very similar and in other ways it was a little bit different. I wasn’t working in the office on To the Wonder. I was actually in an office building right next to the editing house so I was kinda creating things, sending it through every day, talking with Terry every day, or every second day. Whereas on this film I was working from my own studio and I was a little bit more separated from it, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

How did you communicate on this film?  Did he give you directives?

We were certainly speaking on the phone a lot and he would usually call every couple of days, usually during the times when the music was having a really important part to play in a certain section of the film.  I usually go into the office where they’re editing the film and we just talk about the vision of the music and Terry’s vision for the film musically speaking. Then I usually just go away to my studio and we just start experimenting with a whole handful of different ideas. Terry has a lot of ideas and there is never any lack of ideas there (laughs). He has things that he wants to experiment with, so a lot of it is creating some music and then he might call and we’ll refine it further. But obviously I’m not creating music to picture so it’s a bit of a different thing, just kind of creating, y’know. Terry talks about it being like he’s the carpenter and I’m providing him with the wood and the nails to be able to kind of build the structure. Other than me building it, I’m allowing myself to just create this music and Terry and the editors will work to fit it to the film.

What kind of language does he use when he’s talking about the music? I’ve heard he uses particular kinds of words, like ‘river’ or ‘dance’ for the type of music he wants…

He does. Pretty much. He uses a lot of metaphors when he’s talking about music. He can be very specific and at times he can be very vague. I don’t mean vague in a way that he seems like he doesn’t know (what he’s doing). He has a very clear idea of what he’s doing. Sometimes I think as a composer and a creator in general if someone tells you too much you end up doing exactly what they tell you to do. Terry is very aware of that and he’ll talk a lot in metaphors. He speaks a lot about water. Water is a really important symbol in a lot of his films and it represents the river of life, this eternal kind of thing that continues on and on.

There is other things, like he is very interested in the tritone (an interval often referred to as “the devil’s music”). He likes to use intervals, simple intervals to kind of represent something in his film. For Terry it could be something as simple as a melody that he likes which really distinguishes his films. In this film there is a Ralph Vaughn Williams piece called Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which is based on an Episcopal hymn. So we take that theme and kind of try to find ways to create a score that isn’t just original music but is also taking some of the big themes that Terry uses in the film, creating a sense of continuity between them. So it’s not just this big piece of music. We have a reappearance of it in the film.  He can often be quite vague in what he wants but at the same time he’s not vague, he’s allowing some freedom to experiment and I really enjoy it.

Is it intimidating to be put up against these revered composers or quite flattering? He uses a lot of different types of music in his films…

Yeah it can be, but the thing working with Terry is that it’s a constant, morphing changing thing. Often I’ll go off and watch a scene from the film and it’ll be completely different. I guess I don’t really think about it as much because I’m not constantly watching it through. You know, the pre-existing licensed music, I feel quite separated from that. But there is a little bit of everything in there, I do at times feel like, y’know seeing Ralph Vaughn Williams, Debussy…there’s a lot of heavy hitters. Being part of it is kinda cool, it’s exciting.

Were there any times when you were particularly surprised how your music was used?

I don’t tend to feel shocked in the sense ‘Oh my goodness this music has been used in a certan way and it shouldn’t’. I think that’s part of it really, when I put my name down to work on the film I’m agreeing to ‘OK, I’m going to be sending this music to these guys and you guys should feel free to find the right places’. If I’m being honest there are a couple of editors in particular who work with Terry who I think are real music spotters, who can really place (the music), because it can make a massive impact you know, how the music comes into and whether it ties two scenes together, whether it changes the whole meaning or the symbolism. So yeah,  I trust them and I never feel like ‘Oh they’ve used this in the wrong way’ or anything, I’m usually pleasantly surprised.

Do you have any favourite composers working today that you admire?

Yeah, yeah definitely. I like actually a lot of UK/British composers. I really like Clint Mansell, think he’s doing some really cool stuff. I always enjoy his scores. His score for The Fountain is probably the first score that ever got me really interested, and there’s something about that score that for me, the ways in which he uses the orchestra as just part of the ensemble and then he’s got guitars and voice. I realised film scoring can be more than just an orchestra. It can be anything you want.I also really like Jonny Greenwood. Just once again, as a guitarist he can do the orchestral or conventional stuff but he can also do this hybrid classical which is really cool. Probably one other name would be Max Richter. Really, really cool take on orchestral music. I love tons of composers, but those three in particular. I don’t know, there’s something in their sound that just resonates. Maybe something in their education sets them apart.

When you’re watching other films are there any bugbears you have in listening to the soundtracks?

Using samples too much. I remember Hans Zimmer saying this and don’t quote me exactly (laughs) but he said something along the lines of ‘the composer with the best sample wins’. When I say sample I mean sample libraries, orchestral synths. I’m just amazed, time and time again, I hear these scores it’s like not good synth, it’s fake synth. There are a lot of composers out there who do a pretty good job but I kind of learned early on if you want to get work and you want to do this job for real, you’ve got to know how to work a sample library and make it as realistic as you can. Because at the end of the day, if there’s no emotion in it, just strings going NEEE-NEEE-NEEE, no one’s going to get anything out of it.  Just bringing in a single player can really help, bringing in a violin and putting it on top. It doesn’t cost you, it’s economic, but having that one element of realism can take your mind away from all of the fakeness that you’re hearing in the samples. That’s probably my biggest bugbear because there’s no excuse for it.

When you’re working with the musicians do you always go in with a plan of what you want to hear or is there room for improvisation?

Well there are times where l’ll do both you know. There are times when I’ll be recording with an orchestra and there’s a very specific amount of time that we have to get through however much music. So I’ll work with an orchestrator and it’s completely planned out and there’s not going to be curveballs thrown in or anything. You get there, you record, you get the best takes you can get and then you mix it. But there are times where I’ll go into the studio and maybe there might be an extra 30 minutes left over with the players so I’ll use that chance in real time just to experiment. It all depends on the players, some players feel more comfortable. One piece in particular, Awareness, was used in To the Wonder and the Apple iPad ad, that was an improvisation with some woodwind players and it turned into this thing. So I love doing those sessions, you just don’t know what’s going to come out of it, you know?

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1) THE GREAT BEAUTY (DIR. PAULO SORRENTINO, ITALY)

rsz_18nejA Federico Fellini film for the Bunga Bunga generation, Sorrentino returns to form with perhaps his greatest film yet. Toni Servillo plays an ageing playboy journalist who begins to tire of the endless parties and excess in his beloved Rome. The film mixes high art and low trash to an exhilarating degree, swooping from sober existentialism to scandalous hedonism at the directors whim. While the parties are filmed with an inventive, restless vigour, it’s Servillo’s hangdog lead that lingers in the memory.

2) NEBRASKA (DIR. ALEXANDER PAYNE, USA)

rsz_nebraska3This austere, melancholic road movie follows Woody, an alcoholic pensioner and his put upon son as they travel across the American highways to cash in a bogus junk mail prize for 1 million dollars. It’s a superbly concise and effective set up to explore the American dream and the way it lures in its everyday victims with visions of wild riches. Shot in beautiful black and white, director Payne makes great use of both the endless plains and the weary faces. It would be a bleak watch if it didn’t contain a redeeming mix of wry and slapstick humour.

3) POST TENEBRAS LUX (DIR. CARLOS REYGADAS, MEXICO)

This is Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas going for broke here. Wildly adventurous, visually inventive and probably quite infuriating for large swathes of the audience, I loved every beguiling second of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I could tell you what it’s about. The story, of which there is little, follows a privileged Mexican family living on the outskirts of an impoverished and remote rural town. Oppressed by a tyrannical father, the film is possibly a semi-autobiographical account of Reygadas’ own life. Surreal highlights include a glowing animated devil figure and steamy sauna scenes.

4) FRANCES HA (DIR. NOAH BAUMBACH, USA)

A delightful and charming rites of passage comedy showcasing Greta Garwig’s inimitable charisma. She plays a naive and childlike New Yorker struggling to hold onto her dreams of being a dancer. Ditched by her best friend and unwilling to commit to a romantic relationship, Frances is forced to seek out on her own. As a privileged and somewhat spoilt protagonist, the film would fall apart if it wasn’t for Frances’ infectious goofiness and will to succeed. Baumbach again succeeds at making us care about characters who aren’t always perfect human beings.

5) HORS SATAN (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE)

Imagine a more mystical Michael Haneke and you might be halfway towards the films of Bruno Dumont. This strange, unsettling film follows ‘The Guy’, a mystical, messianic figure, and ‘The Girl’, a local gothic girl who together roam the windswept coastline of Northern France. ‘The Guy’ has the power to kill and the power to heal, with a strange ability to save people by having sex with them. An absurd idea on paper, but Dumont makes it work. A beguiling mix of realism and surrealism, Dumont orchestrates both the visual and aural brutality of the desolate landscape to startling effect.

6) LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (DIR. HIROKAZU KOREEDA, JAPAN)

Carrying on from his previous film I Wish, director Koreeda concocts another incisive and moving portrait of modern Japanese families. Ryota is a workaholic in the city who has little time for his son Keita, and when Ryota learns that Keita might be the result of a mix up at birth, he has to decide whether blood ties or love ties matter the most to him. The story contrasts Ryota’s uptight, glossy family with their biological son Ryusei’s scatty family living in the country to great effect. A moving and humane exploration of what it means to be a parent.

7) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)

A film which divided critics and audiences alike, Cianfrance’s ‘difficult second album’ is an ambitious, sprawling crime drama that motors through three generations. Ryan Gosling’s turn as a speedy heist merchant steals the show in the opening act, yet it’s Bradley Cooper’s angsty performance that lends weight to the whole film. The final section is a little weak but overall the film is a joy to watch. Cianfrance combines stylish retro thrills with an inventive structure and meaty drama.

8) TO THE WONDER (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK, USA)

As a self confessed Malick-nerd this arrives at a surprisingly lowly position, and I would suggest it is his weakest film in his ouevre so far. The film is a frustrating, challenging piece of work with some enigmatic, introspective performances…and yet there is something niggling away, burrowing beneath your skin as you watch it. A muted Ben Affleck plays a desolate man torn between Olga Kurylenko, a vivacious Parisian, and Rachel McAdams, a sweet local. The themes and drama are less pronounced that in his previous films and that is often infuriating, yet if I was to pick one of these films to have staying power then it might just be this one.

9) BULLHEAD (DIR. MICHAEL R. ROSKAM, BELGIUM)

This was a criminally under-seen thriller that came out earlier in the year. Matthias Schoenaerts, a hulking presence, plays a simmering Cattle farmer in rural Belgium who helps illegally inject steroids into the animals. When a new business venture with foreign investors goes suitably awry, Schoenaerts has to fight to save the business and his own life. Coming on the heels of moody, character driven French thrillers like A Prophet and A Beat That My Heart Skipped, newcomer Roskam delivers a punchy crime drama like Scorsese used to make in his heyday.

10) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)

Harmony Korine now seems like the Peter Pan of the US underground cinema, constantly ferreting away trying to find the latest movements in youth culture. With Spring Breakers he has hit upon the Girls Gone Wild franchise and turned it into something surreal and often beautiful. In a master stroke of casting he nabbed a couple of Disney starlets for the leads, giving the film both considerable marketable clout and blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The lean story is essentially a bunch of bollocks; four teenagers go on a Cancun-style orgy of excess and violence. It is Korine’s own warped, poetic take on proceedings that make it something special.

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Is life just a series of events? Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, redundancies. Are these the barometers for life, the way in which we measure our existence on earth? Is this all it comes down to? Or are we forgetting something important? Experience. Feeling. Over the past few years I have been more and more drawn to films which celebrate the sensory experience of life rather than boil a story down to a series of happenings. Events can only tell you half the story; the emotions between the lines will linger longer in the memory than the basic details. Which brings me to Terrence Malick, to my mind the most evocative creator of moments working in cinema today.

His latest film, To the Wonder, is arguably his most adventurous proponent of this vision yet. While his earlier films, particularly Badlands, stuck to a fairly linear, conventional Hollywood structure, his films have gradually emerged in a looser, more improvisatory fashion, culminating in To the Wonder. Malick is notorious for changing things on set, rewriting dialogue as the inspiration comes to him and chopping and changing scenes and actors in the edit room. With To the Wonder, there was no solid script, just a set of sketches and notes to work with. The result is a free wheeling, unpredictable melodrama that no one else could have possibly made.

The story is deeply personal to Malick; Neil (Ben Affleck) embarks on a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip to Paris. The stoic Neil is drawn to Marina’s wildfire ways and seeks to bring her and her daughter back to live in his native Oklahoma. Once there the relationship begins to fizzle out, and Neil is drawn back to Jane (Rachel McAdams) his childhood flame. It is difficult to predict how far art imitates life in this case, but Malick spent sometime in Paris, eventually travelling back to settle in Texas. Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, was also highly personal, and it would not be outrageous to assume that the reclusive auteur is beginning to reveal a part of himself little seen to the public. With age he seems to be parting the curtains a little.

To the Wonder is unlike any film you will see this year, both in mainstream Hollywood or even the art house circles. It opens with camera phone shots of the newly born couple swirling around Paris in a daze, a blur of neon lights and stolen glances. Marina dances along trains, bridges, city streets, high on the energy of romance, while a rapt Neil follows in her wake. This is perhaps where Malick is at his best, demonstrating the vitality and good in life through sound and image. Regular DOP Emmanuel Lubezki has become an integral cog in Malick’s vision; his fluid, wandering camera capturing the two lovers in a dreamlike manner. Music also plays a huge part in conjuring feeling, and Hanan Townshend’s stirring strings elevate the images to a higher place.

Life details, issues, obstacles come in small snatches; how does Marina’s daughter feel about the move? What will Marina do when she gets there? Will they cope with the change? It is almost as if these are petty details in the whirlwind of love ensnaring the two characters. Once in Oklahoma, things start to change. Malick tells the story almost entirely through body language and landscape. Marina loses her lust for life, her wildness dimmed by the alien surroundings. Malick has often used his native Texan landscape to signal both rapture and despair. The empty suburban streets and golden wheat fields exuding a wistful poignancy; an opportunity for hope and a mournful foreboding.

One element that Malick has taken to new heights is the idea of movement. In The New World, and to some extent The Tree of Life, the main characters moved as if they were in a ballet, their ebbing emotions mirroring the direction of their feet.  Another talented American director, Hal Hartley, also demonstrated this technique in his films, getting his actors to circle each other like a choreographed performance. It brings a physicality and poetry to proceedings that To the Wonder uses to great effect.

There is no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful work that utilises cinema to its real nature, its real calling. There are certain moments where all the sensory elements collide to heartbreaking effect, and your whole body tenses in answer. Yet, Malick’s sixth film has its flaws. Although the film is fascinating and keeps on asking questions of the audience, it feels slight compared to some of his other works. The lack of a solid story hinders To the Wonder in a way that it didn’t in his previous films. By the time Neil and Marina’s relationship begins to fizzle, the tension that drove The New World or Days of Heaven ceases to exist. To the Wonder might actually be too personal a project.

Kurylenko captures Marina’s unpredictable nature brilliantly while showing an emotional depth; Affleck however suffers greatly. Never the most expressive of actors, his chisel jawed silence seems jarring compared to the film’s emotive, almost melodramatic style. Malick often manages to extract special performances from lesser acclaimed actors, but here Affleck could be considered perhaps the weakest lead in the director’s oeuvre. It doesn’t help that Neil’s motivation seems unclear. He seems to float along, unwilling to commit to anything and even the work subplot involving the contamination of soil falls by the wayside. Javier Bardem, playing the local priest, lends gravitas to a small but important role. His lonely, doubtful existence about his career path echoing Marina’s own struggle.

Thematically To the Wonder seems to follow the same strains as Malick’s previous films; rationality, intellectualism and pragmatism vs. spontaneity, feeling and real desire. The head vs. the heart. Like Jessica Chastain’s mother character in The Tree of Life, Marina’s character appears to symbolise a part of nature, while Neil represents the masculine opposite. The film also seems to be preoccupied by the notion of love, the conflict between personal love and a greater love for mankind. Malick shows love as a temperamental, fleeting force in our personal lives, but hints towards a higher universal form that Bardem’s priest is so desperately trying to locate.

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