To The Wonder, and Beyond

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"An old trick in a new dress is always a pleasant change." - Harry Houdini

Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” does not tell a revolutionarily original story. In fact, it revisits an age-old staple of story archetypes – of love’s genesis, of love’s lifespan, and of love’s demise. And yet, for exploring such an well known narrative arch, Malick somehow manages to make his iteration noteworthy. 

Neil and Marina (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) meet and fall in love in Paris. Neil asks Marina to move back to Oklahoma with him, and she agrees; her young daughter comes along. The environmental shift highlights the first crack of their relationship’s many fault lines: Marina feels out of place and empty, though only her daughter articulates this feeling. Eventually, Marina’s visa runs out, and she goes back to Paris with her daughter, and Neil observes without protest. 

Their separation physical and emotional separation is seemingly short-lived, but long enough that in the interim, Neil begins a relationship with an old acquaintance, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Back in Paris, Marina no longer has custody of her daughter and feels even more isolated in her home country. She looks to the US for a fresh start, and Neil agrees to marry her so she can get a green card. While the marriage is strictly legal, the arrangement contributes to Neil and Jane’s relationship ending. 

Neil and Marina’s emotions do not reignite initially, but over time the emotions creep through cracks in the walls that each builds against one another during the interim. Love gushes forth again, though both are more sensitive to the overarching realities stacked against their relationship’s sustainability. And like all things beautiful and fragile, their relationship eventually ends, and both go their separate paths in acts of necessity. 

Most movies rely heavily on dialogue to convey the passion and pain that comes with every relationship. Not Malick: here, dialogue is nearly devoid, serving as sparse anchors redirecting the current of emotions and storyline Malick’s desired endpoint. Details are quietly present, and long pauses encourage the viewer to infer pieces of information tying everything together. The subtleties and nuances of relationships are conveyed primarily through audiovisual techniques, the image compositions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and musical compositions of composer Hanan Townshend meshing into a cinematic union. Few narrative facts are spoken throughout the movie, yet the film manages to flow in a manner that feels both logical and effervescent. The result is what the greatest of silent films were able to accomplish decades prior: engrossing narratives by omission of dialogue and amplification of sight and sound. Eisenstein and Chaplin would be proud. 

Emails with Ebert

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It started ten years ago with a Google search. 

"Oh HELL no." 

Roger Ebert, acclaimed critic, cofounder of the famous thumbs up-down trademark, premiere pulitzer prize winning writer of countless columns, a championing and damning voice for thousands of films that graced the silver screen – had just done the unthinkable: he’d given not four, but three and a half stars to The Return of the King. 

"You sir, are WRONG." 

He had to be wrong. No one in their right mind would give Return of the King, the greatest of all great movies that was impervious to imperfection, a non-perfect score. How DARE he proclaim that this masterpiece of a fantasy narrative be a half star inferior to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

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Unforgivable. Absolutely, wholly, unbelievably, unfathomably, unforgivable. 

"You think you’re so cool huh? You think that some insomnia-curing film like Master and Commander is superior to Return of the King? Your credibility is DEAD to me, you hear me? DEAD. Like my interest in British naval ship stories which, for your information, is boring. Bravo-Oscar-Romeo-India-November-Golf – BORING." 

The insanity couldn’t be overlooked, and compulsion unhinged a inquisitive madness. 

"Well mister three thumbs and a half man, let’s see what OTHER films you’ve written about! Let’s see if you and I are on the same page about what makes a good or bad movie! Let’s see if you’re even qualified to BE critic!" 

The train had left the station, and it was unstoppable. Not that I knew that at the time, nor do I ever plan on getting off of it any time soon.

Reading Roger’s columns on a weekly basis started off with a inherent desire to feel validated for my likes and dislikes, or to shoot mental daggers in his general direction whenever I felt he was wrong, wrong, and Oh So Wrong. But no matter what he said, no matter how much I disagreed with his final say, no matter how many eye twitches some of his star ratings triggered, I kept reading. 

I read, and I grew. 

After two years of weekly column visits, it suddenly hit me that I no longer cared about his star ratings, nor were my disagreements with his opinion increasing my blood pressure; at what point this had occurred I’m not entirely sure, but the self-awareness was something of a life changing moment. I had been reading before, but now I was really reading. 

It wasn’t about likes or dislikes, stars or half stars, validation or the like: it was the content, his honesty, his conviction, and his conveyance of it all.

I was reading to understand, to learn, to push past the familiarity. And Roger was generous enough to offer such an avenue on such a regular basis. 

Roger Ebert: one of the wisest, kindest, and most generous human beings I ever had the chance to correspond with, and a man I never had the chance to meet in person to much regret. 

A rather lengthy essay dedicated to his memory is in the works. Stay tuned.

- Q