Friday, June 12, 2015

The Soul is under the Skin – On To The Wonder by Terrence Malick, USA: 2012


(For the German version published in shomingeki Nr. 25 please click here)

For A.B and T.G.

What is this love that loves us?
That comes from Nowhere
From all around.
The sky
You Cloud, You love me too. (Monologue from Marina)

There is a jazz ballad called Body And Soul which was interpreted by so much great musicians. This comes to my mind when I think about the last films by Terrence Malick. Sure,  last but not least all these films include philosophical, spiritual and even religious ideas. The fact the films are blamed by many so-called critics as esoteric and even as kitsch either amuses me or makes me very angry. At least in the Western Cinema of the last decades, I can´t remember any other films which are as much in love with the physical perceptible world. The only “close relative” to Terrence Malick from the film countries of the West seems to me the French master Jean Renoir and especially his films Une Partie de Campagne and The River.
One of the three films from the French Series Les Cinéastes de Notre Temps which are dedicated to Jean Renoir and made by Jacques Rivette is a recording of a conversation between Renoir and the French actor Michel Simon. I do not remember exactly if Renoir has cited or has expressed his own thoughts when he said: “The soul is not in the heart and not in the head but directly under the skin.” I can´t imagine any better sentence to describe my fascination for the films by Terrence Malick.

The film begins with two lovers, the American Neil and the Ukrainian-French Marina. They travel by train through Europe and they are visiting different places in Europe. Even more than in The New World the distinctive fluid camera movements by Emmanuel Lubezki seem like an endless dance which will be mostly answered by Marina. That has the same eloquence like we know from the films by Max Ophüls and Kenji Mizoguchi but on the other hand it is impossible to reduce it just on its artistry. It seems to be filmed like it was once felt.

At the beginning the bodies of the lovers appear weightless. As the film proceeds the gravitation will reconquer the bodies of the lovers. An excursion to the Mont St. Michel in the Normandie and later a walk at the beach during low tide and close to the high tide. The first moments of the film appear like memories, moments already taken out of time. The couple moves pending and gliding through this space and this scene has almost a dreamlike quality, a dream which will clear away as the film proceeds. They will remember this experience and they will try to hold this dream which is already a lost dream.

Just a few moments later, there is a scene which belongs to the most eloquent and at the same time to the most moving scenes in a film by Terrence Malick. In a Park in Paris, Neil asks Marina if she and her 10 years old daughter will come with him to America. This moment is literally very moving, the handheld camera dances to the whole scene and especially Olga Kurylenko is dancing like a female dervish. In this park we see something like a mini version of the Statue Of Liberty. In this scene the euphory of love, the promise of fortune in the far away America in its formal playfulness an enchanting cinematic moment. With a shot of the sea, the film leads over to the house in America where Neil lives. This a moment of dreamlike beauty which justifies already after a few minutes the “wonder” in the title of the film.

Especially this promise will be disappointed later. We see enchanting American landscapes filmed in a light which I have never seen in cinema before and since To The Wonder. But we see also abased landscapes. The estate of Neils house is surrounded by a high fence. Neil the geologists takes samples from the soil in this neighbourhood and declares this soil as contaminated with poisonous stuff which endangers the life of people and animals.
While gradually the happiness of the couple breaks through betrayal and ignorance the film offers more and more insights to the shady sides of America. Traces of poverty, loneliness and despair are interwoven in the film which tells at the same time about a love relationship which is becoming more and more difficult. We see drug addicted and dangerous criminals in a jail. A Spanish priest who is obviously in a crisis of faith offers the prisoners the sacrament. Behind the walls of this maximum security prison, there is no entrance for the wonderful light. These ugly sides of the civilization sometimes collide with moments of the probably most beautiful light I can remember.

Malick´s cinema is a cinema of intensities and these intensities can vary from euphoria to an absolute despair. Some of these intensities we can already see in Olga Kurylenko´s face. To talk about the human faces in Malick´s films (which remind me always in the films of the Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak) there are these moments when the formal artistry is suspended and disappears behind truly and naked emotions. This makes the whole film as vulnerable like the emotions and characters it reveals.

Terrence Malick´s films have always originated awesome female characters, the characters performed by Sissy Spacek, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, Q´Orianka Kilcher and probably the most impressive character performed by Olga Kurylenko.

In comparison to the time-consuming work on The Tree of Life, To The Wonder seems to be originated from a relaxed promenade. It is the more astounding that this “smaller” film by Malick continues seamless the series of masterpieces since 1998. This period began with three epic films, two of them on American history. Where The Tree of Life for example connects the birth and death of the universe with a very intimate family story and where Malick brings together the world of the matter with the spiritual world, To The Wonder connects the earthly and physical love between people with the spiritual love together. These two kinds of love are never opposed, they supplement each other. The Spanish priest is after Neil and Marina the third main character of this film. The religiousness in the films by Terrence Malick is especially one of the bodies of the living beings and the landscapes. Much more more than in the mystery of the creation Malick seems to be fascinated by its results.

When we see the priest performing uninspired sermon in a nearly deserted church, he seems to be isolated in his despair. As a contrast we see him later working in the prison. One can sense now a special tenderness towards the failed individuals of this world. Or later his commitment when he helps old people to walk, offers a dying old person the last sacrament or when he gives his jacket away for an aging drug addicted woman. As soon as the priest commits himself to the worldly reality (especially at the end of the film) it brings him -  not closer to God  -than at least it offers him the closest contact to the result of the creation. Exactly in these moments a film by Terrence Malick becomes a visual prayer. Near the end is another wonderful moment, a prayer-like monologue of the priest talking to Jesus Christ.
Christ be with me
Christ before me.
Christ behind me.
Christ in me.
Christ beneath me.
Christ above me.
Christ on my right.
Christ on my left
Christ in my heart.

During this monologue we see again one of these memory-like sequences when Marina watches a child which is feeding goose. The most striking aspect in this monologue is that it is based on very concrete physical orientation like with in, behind, neath, on my left etc.That reminds as well in the first tries of children to express a very physical-spatial orientation in words. Whenever we have to talk about religious aspects in films by Terrence Malick, dogmatic preaching or ideological predetermination we will never find.

To The Wonder is like I said before a long and ecstatic dance and finally Malick is the Dervish who combines the movements of the camera and the actors to one coherent movement.

One can always talk about the light in this film which is typical for the last films by Terrence Malick. It is well known that Malick always uses (as far as the technique allows) natural light sources. But light is much more as a technical aspect of film making.Last but not least it is one of the key elements of cinema, film making as well like film projection. And it is at the same time the key element of the world, the formation and the visualisation. Light comes in a concrete way from the sun as the source of life. Like in The Tree of Life, light is always both, a measurably physical process but as well a symbol which goes through all human civilizations and religions. In another impressing scene we see the priest together with a black church servant who cleans the coloured windows of the church. The servant describes the light that “hit´s you” which enters in different colours through the glass. Once again there is a combination of the meaning of the light as a physical phenomenon but as well as a spiritual symbol. When the priest holds his hand on the window one can almost feel the warmth of the filtered sun rays. In other moments we see landscapes in a red and golden light lightening the faces of the protagonists. The light of this film will hunt me forever.

In many ways it makes sense to me that some critics consider The Tree of Life and To The Wonder as the beginning of Terrence Malick´s autobiographical period. (His newest film Knight Of Cups confirms that again) Maybe slightly more encrypted than in The Tree of Life (see remarks and links at the end of this text), To The Wonder includes again a life confession, in this film a failed love relationship.The intensity in which this relationship is filmed makes it impossible for me to imagine that Malick has filmed that without having experienced that before. In my text on The Tree Of Life I defined my own term, the “Malick paradox" And I refer to the authenticity of emotions and moods which appear despite all logistic and technical aspects of film making nearly unfiltered and f for this reason so affecting.

The last films by Terrence Malick are unique in their almost provoking vulnerability. I am literally touched by his films, because they often deal with touches. One should take attention how the lovers touch each other and how  (except outbursts of violence) caresses are dying when their relationship is in its decline.

At the end Marina will leave the country. The love has failed, the divorce is legally executed. The farewell at the airport and the unbearable sad long walk of Marine through the gangway to her aircraft evokes the certainty that this farewell is final.

The final of the film consists mostly of memory like fragments. We see again some breathtaking beautiful landscapes. Marina appears again after the farewell like Pocahontas in The New World after a letter has pronounced her death as a being of a subjective memory. And again fragments of happiness appear but now as moments passed by long ago. It almost seems that Marina has passed away. In these sequences there is the dance of Marina in a super market, a moment mostly ridiculed in negative reviews of this film. For me it is a moment which is so crazy, incredible beautiful and affecting at the same time that I  always have to take a deep breath. Oh if I could stop the film at this wonderful moment!

Like so often we see Olga Kurylenko moves rather dancing than walking through the landscape. In one moment the light of the sinking sunpenetrates her beautiful face like X-rays. This moment is as dramatic as the image of the dying sun burning our planet in The Tree Of Life. And like at the end of The Thin Red Line the film ends with a glimpse of the lost paradise in this case their voyagage to the  Mt. Saint Michel, the final image of the film.

The film goes always under my skin and I mean that literally because according to Renoir the soul is directly under the skin.

Rüdiger Tomczak

I can´t recommend often enough the wonderful text by Adrian Martin on The Tree Of Life, Great Events andOrdinary People which is a laudatio for this film but as much an excellent observation of Malick´s work and how it is embedded in the history of cinema.

A treasure for biographical details of Terrence Malick is the book One Big Soul by Paul Meher jr, 2012.

Two other texts are very interesting biographical details, The Runaway Genius by Peter Biskind (which I recommend not without reservations)

and an inspiring essay by Bob Turner on To The Wonder

Friday, June 5, 2015

Notes on Parama by Aparna Sen, India: 1985

A look into the films by Aparna Sen which I learnt to love in the last 10 years offers for me two options: The first one is the joy and inspiration I got from my favorite films, especially Mr. And Mrs. Iyer and The Japanese Wife. The second one is to learn more about her work as a whole which is more a kind of  historic view to find traces of her evolution as a film director.
Parama is her second long feature film and among my Bengali friends there are quite a few who consider Parama as one of her finest works.

Beside being a great story teller, there are several currents in her work. I think one of her big themes is often the different perceptions of reality by her protagonists often filtered through their subjective vision of the world. Aparna Sen once called Parama as her “most feministic film”. But she never used film just for delivering an ideological predetermined messages. She is probably one of the few contemporary Indian filmmaker whose realism should be seen in a more complex way like for example the ideas of André Bazin. As well Anjan Dutt´s definition of a “magic realism” in his text on Goynar Baksho is a good hint to her work.

Parama is a woman around forty who has married into a big and wealthy middle class family. She lives with her husband, her children and her in laws together in a big house. At the beginning when the whole family is assembled, it takes some time until we recognize the main protagonist and as well until we finally can distinguish her from the female servants. Even though the film was already 20 years old during my first voyage to Kolkata, this moment of recognizing the woman of the house evoked a Déjà-vu remembering some invitations to Bengali families I followed.
One family member introduces the photo journalist Rahul to the family. He wants to make a series of pictures of “an authentic Bengali house wife”. And finally he gets the permission to shoot pictures of Parama. A love affair between Rahul and Parama develops We do not know if he is in love with an image of Parama but we can guess Parama discovers different images about herself beyond being a mother, a wife, a daughter in law or a sister in law.

Like in Virginia Wolf´s A Room For One´s Own, Aparna Sen´s women are always struggling for a place in the world which is their own, the old Anglo-Indian lady in 36 Chowinghee Lane included. While the women in Sen´s earlier films are rather defending the small space they have for their own than conquering new one the heroines of her last 5 or 6 films and especially through some characters characters performed by Konkona Sen Sharma are sometimes conquering new ground for themselves, most evident in Goynar Baksho. Even Sen Sharmas orthodox Hindu woman Meenakshi in Mr. And Mrs. Iyer who is like most of Aparna Sen´s women a lonely and oppressed middle class woman demonstrate through her active glances a real resistance again being part of an image someone makes for himself of her. She is not anymore captured through a male´s view but herself looking to the world around her. There is probably an interesting development between the nearly sad souls of Sen´s early women characters and the departure of Sen Sharma´s character in Goynar Baksho.

Parama seems mostly to be captured in internal rooms of the house. Only some excursions with her lover Rahul and some meetings with her artist friend interrupt her isolation.
On one excursion Rahul and Parama climb on a building. It is high and seems to be ruinous. While the photographer moves as skilled like a cat, Parama feels only dizzy and is scared to fall. He has no sense for gravitation, she senses the gravitation extremely strong. Through this moment of physical actions we also get an image about this love relationship.

The soundtrack often uses melodies of American folk songs evident as Paramas dream to go with Rahul to America on tour and playing her sitar. The music emphasizes this longing and at the same time it refers to the forlornness of this dream.

There is a remarkable scene which is a good example for the art of Aparna Sen:
Paramas husband is on a business trip in Bombay. Parama who feels lonely and scared phones him. We see her almost huddled in her room like a prisoner in her own home while he looks out of the hotel window to the open sea and a beach boulevard (probably the famous St. Marine Drive). He talks to her like to a scared child and not with a grown up woman. After the phone calls he dictates a letter to his young and beautiful secretary. But than he says that it is late and they shall stop working for today. As he tries to invite the young woman for a drink we see the secretary (who sits on a sofa) stretching herself for collecting all the files which are scattered all over the sofa. Actually a very banal moment but during this movement when the young woman seems almost lying on this sofa, this moment now from the business man´s subjective perspective becomes already part of his erotic fantasy. It is a very short moment but this very banal action of the secretary is suddenly captured in a predetermined male view and in these few seconds the young woman is totally captured in the image the middle aged man has from his secretary. The moment is also a brilliant example for Aparna Sen´s sensitivity for the different perceptions of of the world by her protagonists.
In the last quarter of the film Parama´s husband will finally discover her affair with Rahul through a photo magazine with pictures from Parama and a handwritten personal dedication of Rahul. He reacts very harsh, calls her a whore. What Parama does not know is that her husband already made in his fantasy in his imagination for the moment (I described above) a whore out of his secretary. When he discovers literally different images of his wife which happened out of his control and out of his sense for possession, his gentle petty bourgeois facade fails.
The film turns now to be very bleak and develops to a suicide attempt of Parama and a deep mental crisis.
And again at the end there is another variation of Aparna Sen´s attention for the different perceptions of reality of her characters. For her family, Parama is now a mentally diseased and very fragile woman. They forgive her out of pity. But she has one of the clearest moment in the whole film when she finally applies for a small job as a shop seller for Sarees. This is a clear decision a step into a more self determination. Parama is still captured, isolated and lonely. But in one of her last scenes she looks out of her window. And like so often in Aparna Sen´s films one of her characters look at something like an invisble  big screen.
Aparna Sen´s films are not only dealing with the art of cinema (this beautiful definition of cinema in Wim Wenders´ Kings Of The Road), they are in fact an excellent school of seeing.

Rüdiger Tomczak.