To the Wonder

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2012
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem

★★★★★

Released less than two years after The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder acts as a companion piece, retaining the visual cues, cinematic poetry and overriding themes of love and faith. While it does not have the grandiosity, the soaring ambition of the former film, it is equally uncompromising, and those who found The Tree of Life intolerable will probably find this equally, if not more, so. The characters communicate through whispered voiceovers, sparse fragments of dialogue; Malick through images of sky, running water, lens flares, juxtapositions of light. At times it does seem overly familiar but To the Wonder is less nostalgic, more pessimistic and, at heart, coming from a different place altogether.

To the Wonder Olga Kurylenko

It begins in Paris, rendered gorgeously in the opening sunlit sequence; we are shown a couple on holiday, filming themselves on the Métro, strolling in the Jardin du Luxembourg, fixing a padlock to the Pont des Arts. They drive to Mont Saint-Michel and walk on an idyllic beach of dark, springy sand, a scene reminiscent of The Tree of Life’s paradise. They climb the steps and revel in the isolated beauty of the setting and the glory of their love. Back in Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) asks Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to move to Oklahoma to live with him, an invitation they joyously accept, but, once there, the tensions in their relationship are stretched to breaking point.

Marina is oppressed by her new environment, an outsider shackled by the walls and fences of nondescript houses, the vague, flat landscape and the faithlessness of the modern world. She is passionate, sensual, free-spirited; to those around her, merely unhinged. She is unable to cope with the failure of her love. Neil is an atheist, a modern American brute, handsome and physically strong but without an outlet for his passion. He works on construction sites, investigating the damage caused to the natural environment. He is complicit in the violence that is done to the earth.

Malick is idealistic in the philosophical sense and, with every shot, To the Wonder seems to hint at what lies beyond the range of our perception. ‘Life’s a dream’, says Anna (Romina Mondello), a minor character who appears in just a single scene, but the only one who comes across as truly liberated. Through the purest images and experiences, we intuitively sense the divine presence in the world, the love that exists within us and around us. The cinematography is designed to bring it out. However, modernity has distorted the phenomenal world and made it virtually impossible to believe in the noumenal. The film’s central motif is the veil, whether it consists of a pane of plastic in a chapel window, a pixelated image from a cheap video camera or a translucent sheet of white material across the eyes.

To the Wonder Ben Affleck Rachel McAdams

The film is littered with shots of dug earth and deserted, impoverished houses; we are shown herds of buffalo and constrained horses, domestic violence and callous sex.  These images pollute the purity of the light that Malick makes his ultimate subject. Love, more often than not, is damaging, because it is impossible to truly believe in it; perhaps it would be better to say truly perceive it. Arguably, the most significant character is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest wracked with existential doubt and the pressures of an expanding parish in an increasingly deprived area. He knows he should perceive God all around him, but he has never been able to. ‘You shall love, whether you like it or not’, he commands. ‘Emotions, they come and go like clouds…Know each other in that love that never changes’. To do so takes a lifetime of struggle. Without faith, it is impossible and love can only destroy.

The film is put together like a series of memories, transient and impressionistic, concerned not so much with narrative as symbolic representation of significant events. Names are only revealed in the final credits and it is difficult to guess the order in which everything happens. It is flawed, certainly, occasionally frustrating, and promotes a worldview that will unfortunately put a lot of people off. But, like its predecessor, To the Wonder is bold, original and technically astonishing — idealism in cinematic form. Malick’s last two films have been fearless, groundbreaking works, attempts at pushing cinema beyond its limitations.

Rob Dickie

I, Anna

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Writer: Barnaby Southcombe, Elsa Lewin (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan

★★★★☆

Screening in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I, Anna is a neo-noir thriller with a psychological twist. Charlotte Rampling stars as the title character, a mature femme fatale who is suffering from amnesia and dissociation due to a traumatic experience that takes place at the end of a singles night.

The film is directed by Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, who presents the story from Anna’s perspective and places the emphasis on her precarious state of mind. Reading the novel by Elsa Lewin, a psychoanalyst based in New York, he immediately identified the title character with his mother, even though the ‘story was not her own’. It is evidently a personal film, and this becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative develops and we realise that behind the mystery there is something far more significant at stake.

I, Anna Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling

The adaptation moves the action from eighties New York to present day London, emphasising Southcombe’s varied European influences. The director makes excellent use of his surroundings as the capital is transformed into a brooding concrete menace, centred around the brutalist towers of the Barbican complex. The environment is oppressive and has a looming, crushing sterility, which seems to serve as a warning to those hoping to find anything genuine in the warm, bubbly atmosphere of the singles bars.

However, there is an unlikely romance at the core of I, Anna. It begins inauspiciously, as Rampling’s character meets DCI Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) at the scene of a murder and leaves with a discarded umbrella that clearly does not belong to her. With his own demons to battle, Bernie is no less unhinged than Anna and quickly develops an obsession with this elusive woman, who lives in a small one-bedroomed flat with her daughter and granddaughter. The camera is drawn to Rampling’s figure; it is often framed or shown in close-ups, sliding down her legs, demonstrating that older women too can be dangerously seductive.

The retro elements and heavily stylised look of the film work well, giving it an unreal quality that seems to reflect many of the characters’ states of mind. Anna is frequently found in phone boxes, no doubt a nod to the noir of the past, but it also serves to intensify the mystery and has a genuine narrative purpose. As an aesthetic device it is effective, particularly during the scene in which Anna and Bernie first meet, and, like all of I, Anna‘s initially improbable elements, it makes perfect sense by the end.

The soundtrack also pleasantly surprises, comprising a bleak, atmospheric score by French electronic duo K.I.D., interspersed with acoustic tracks by indie crooner Richard Hawley. Southcombe originally had something very different in mind, a lyrical piano score, but it did not work, and it is difficult to see how it could. The dark electronica seems to bleed from the dense concrete and Hawley’s voice is superbly aligned with those of the central characters.

There is a smart twist at the end which strips away the foundations of what has been constructed, but rather than complicating matters, it sheds light on much that had remained in doubt. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the narrative, taking attention away from the comparatively weak murder mystery, which has been designed to facilitate the intriguing character study rather than the other way around.

I, Anna Charlotte Rampling

The performances of the leads are key to the film and they are able to carry it through the early stages when the narrative seems convoluted and the cast a few characters too big. Rampling and Byrne have excellent chemistry and we really feel for their haunted characters, particularly as the film reaches its climax. They are perfectly cast and equally comfortable in such uncomfortable roles.

I, Anna is worth persevering with as it quickly develops into a coherent drama that gives renewed purpose to its underwhelming beginnings. There are plenty of tense moments and a couple of shocking scenes, but what stands out is the delicate handling of the relationship at the heart of the story and, particularly in the midst of such a harsh landscape, the almost unbearable fragility of the mind.

Rob Dickie

Review originally published at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

On the Road

Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, Jack Kerouac (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart

★★★★☆

Walter Salles’s On the Road is perhaps as good as could have been expected, a faithful and gorgeously cinematic adaptation that lacks the soul and energy of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel. Infused with jazz, sex, drugs, adventure, poetry and rolling prose, the film easily draws you into the world of the Beat Generation but, once the excitement has worn off, you will be left wondering what it was all for.

The necessarily episodic plot revolves around the character of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the quasi-mythical incarnation of the hedonistic Beat pin-up Neal Cassady. He attracts a string of followers as he journeys back and forth across America, including Kerouac’s alter-ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), who is really Allen Ginsberg, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his young lover abound with sexual energy. Kerouac originally envisioned Marlon Brando in the role, one of the few actors who would have had a genuine shot at fully recreating Cassady’s intoxicating personality, but Hedlund does an excellent job, ensuring his character has a powerful presence and that mad glint in his eyes.

On the Road Garrett Hedlund Kristen Stewart Sam Riley

Riley also gives a good turn, resisting the temptation to take centre stage and feeding off the vibrancy of the other characters. Sal comes across as an observer, swept along by Dean’s charisma, but always trying to hold back from being drawn into the flame. He scribbles away in his notebook like some mad anthropologist on the brink of going native, taking down the philosophy of the road that will form the raw material for his book.

The lifestyle is seductive and certainly looks like a great deal of fun, while the romance of the journey is beautifully rendered. As they did for The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier succeed in capturing America’s spectacular variety. We feel the icy winters, the heat of the endless desert roads, and sense the freedom that lies on the other side of the horizon.

Arguably, the film has a more coherent narrative structure than the novel, but it still feels patchy. Characters are picked up and discarded along the way, which means we are never able to really feel anything for them. The segment featuring Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) passes by too quickly and without genuine purpose. Camille (Kirsten Dunst), like most women in On the Road, is treated disgracefully, but her story only appears as a coda to Dean’s own self-inflicted downfall.

Kristen Stewart On the Road

To an extent, the novel also gives rise to this fleeting feeling, but it is able to get away with it more. The Beat Generation represented a rejection of the entire construct of American society – its very existence was an act of rebellion. The film gives us little of this context and it often appears as if the characters are just out to have a good time. Experimenting with drugs and free sex was central to their liberating ideal, and, while it is clear in the novel that they resoundly fail to live up to it, it gave them a raison d’être that is sorely lacking in the film. Sturridge’s deeply complex Carlo is the only character worthy of the epithet holy.

Kerouac wrote that the only people for him were the mad ones, the ones that ‘burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’. His characters burn brightly and then burn out, the flashes of madness become routine and the sense is lost in the indiscrete recklessness of it all. It is difficult for people of this current generation to fully understand the Beats, or even to empathise with them. On the Road is constrained by this significant limitation, but it is nevertheless an entertaining and superbly-made film that, unlike the novel, never once begins to drag.

Rob Dickie

Surviving Progress

Director: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks
Writer: Harold Crooks, Mathieu Roy
Year: 2011
Cast: Ronald Wright, David Suzuki, Vaclav Smil

★★★★☆

The most worrying thing about documentaries like Surviving Progress is that they are not only still relevant, but more relevant than ever. There is an overwhelming sense that we should know this stuff already. Yet, here we are, thirty years down the line from Koyaanisqatsi, and we appear to have learned very little, apart from the enduring effectiveness of time-lapse photography. We still consume too much, we are still driven by unquenchable material desires and we are still unable to grasp the bigger picture. Far from being addressed, these problems are escalating. Life is increasingly out of balance.

However, this documentary, co-directed by Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy, does not simply set out to cover old ground. Instead, it approaches the problem from a different angle, incorporating and centralising the most devastating implications of the 2008 financial crisis. The film’s essential thesis is that the global economy is constructed on unsustainable levels of debt, all of which is essentially owed to those at the very top of the financial ladder – the 1% to use contemporary terminology. Creditors must be paid, which means debtors are forced to exploit every resource at their disposal, until there are no resources left.

Surviving Progress Sao Paolo

One of the title frames terms this process “digging holes”, which is a succinct way of putting it. The clearest example comes from the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The narrative goes that during the 1970s, Brazil accumulates debt that it is unable to pay off using conventional methods. It is encouraged to turn to natural sources of wealth, particularly the untapped rainforest. The devastation will have no impact on foreign creditors – to them, it is just like any other asset on Brazil’s balance sheet. If and when it is exhausted, there are plenty of other holes to dig. However, it is not simply a matter of foreign exploitation, as local people are complicit in the destruction. But they too have debts to pay. It is hard not to sympathise with the loggers who are prepared to break conservation laws to stay in business. Deforestation is the local economy – without it, people will starve.

“Conventional economics,” proclaims environmentalist David Suzuki, “is a form of brain damage” and it is difficult in this context to argue with him. By externalising reality, the discipline becomes little more than a systematic fantasy. Humanity’s collective debt cannot be self-contained; it cannot flow harmlessly between individuals, corporations and nations. Inevitably, it must spill over into the natural world. And if our debt to the planet becomes irrevocable, no amount of Wall Street wizardry is going to prevent a catastrophe.

Surviving Progress makes this point effectively, drawing on the ideas of a range of interesting contributors, including Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ronald Wright, who wrote the book the film was based on.  Its scope is impressive, incorporating history, politics, science and economics, but, ultimately, it fails when it comes to putting forward solutions. The problem, as Wright acknowledges, is that nobody wants to talk about the realities of doing what needs to be done. Synthetic biology and space exploration are put forward as viable alternatives, but practically they only represent further holes. Vaclav Smil is the most impressive speaker in this regard, distinguished by his ability to get to the point, albeit after an amusing digression on $50,000 bathrooms. We must consume less. We have to balance the books before it is too late.

Koyaanisqatsi Moon

Image from Koyaanisqatsi

The terrifying problem lingering below the documentary’s surface is that progress has become self-perpetuating. There is no logical get out, which means we are no longer in charge of our own destiny. Globalisation has left us with a single socio-economic reality that we are unable to transform without devastating consequences. It is easy to say we must consume less, but who is doing it and how on earth could they?

I have not discussed the film in great detail because the ideas are more important. It is entertaining, well-directed and suitably but not overly derivative of Koyaanisqatsi. There are some beautiful shots, especially of Sao Paulo. And what is it about time-lapse that lends itself so well to this kind of film? It is able to show humanity in the macrocosm. It effortlessly renders us absurd.

Rob Dickie

Surviving Progress was screened as part of the 2012 Take One Action film festival in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The Turin Horse (A torinói ló)

Director: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
Writer: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Year: 2011
Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos

★★★★★

“Script?” commented the woman sitting next to me after the relevant credit flashed up on the screen. She could probably have said the same about many of the others. Even I raised an eyebrow at “Supporting Cast”. The fact is that The Turin Horse is a film in which almost nothing happens that will bore most audiences to tears. By “The Third Day”, the title frames seemed to have become a running joke. By “The Sixth Day”, everyone had stopped laughing. It reminded me of going to see Melancholia – half the audience had been long asleep by the time “Part Two” came around, and a good portion of those still awake let out audible groans.

You can’t please everyone though and, as with Lars Von Trier, you get the impression that Béla Tarr isn’t really trying. The Turin Horse is intended to be the culmination of his career but it will only ever appeal to a dedicated few. “So what kind of film is it?” asked my flatmate when I came in. “Action?” “No,” I replied, “the opposite of that. Inaction!” If you were to attempt to place it in a genre, that is accurate as you are going to get.

The Turin Horse

Shot in a bleak-looking black and white, the film is made up of only 30 takes and, visually, it is mesmerising. Watching it is like being taken around an exhibition featuring a hundred astonishing paintings by a great artist, all depicting approximately the same thing. It is relentlessly repetitive – the characters move with a rigid circularity – but the subtle changes that take place between each scene are all the more noticeable for it. So intimately are certain actions depicted that even the slightest modification can be startling. The attention to detail and dedication to every shot is remarkable, while the set is flawlessly constructed to facilitate Tarr’s cinematic vision.

The starting point, as we are told but not shown, is the apocryphal story of Nietzsche’s descent into madness. Seeing a cab driver brutally whipping his stubborn horse in Turin, Nietzsche goes up to him, throws his arms around the horse’s neck and sobs violently. He collapses, is taken home and never recovers from the incident. Tarr never quite leaves Nietzsche behind, but chooses to follow the driver and his horse back to their meagre rural existence, oblivious to the significance of what has taken place.

The driver lives only with his daughter and they come into contact with virtually nobody else. Their lives revolve around looking after the horse, keeping the fire going, fetching water from the well and eating boiled potatoes with their hands. At the mercy of the elements, the interminable gale, they struggle on, doing the same thing day in day out. Can this be called existence? A man arrives to buy pálinka and delivers a lengthy monologue on the degradation of the world. Gypsies appear from over the hill to steal water and deliver an obscure book. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. And you get the impression it’s been an eventful week. They live to toil on the land, to suffer in nature’s fearful symmetry. This is no pastoral – there is not a shred of romance – but the characters are not condemned either. Their torture is beyond their control, coming perhaps from God, perhaps from the outside world.

The Turin Horse Messenger

The narrative ultimately has devastating consequences, which are hinted at rather than acted out. The horse gradually deteriorates as the gale gets stronger, but it is only towards the end that we realise the significance of these events. It is a deceptively simple film with a fin de siècle narrative so original you might miss it altogether. Darkness descends on the house but in the end we are shown the light. The final scene is breathtaking.

The Turin Horse is a film of rare intensity and scarcely believable focus. Backed by Mihály Vig’s majestic score, which has a dramatic intensity akin to Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream, it rewards whatever attention you are willing to give it. If it does prove to be Tarr’s last film, it is certainly not a bad one to bow out on. Nobody would dare to question the director’s credit, however difficult they found it to sit through.

Rob Dickie

Fred Won’t Move Out

Director: Richard Ledes
Writer: Richard Ledes
Year: 2012
Cast: Elliott Gould, Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle

★★☆☆☆

Fred, the latest film by writer-director Richard Ledes, offers an unassuming snapshot of a multigenerational family coping with the effects of Alzheimer’s. It is a small film in every sense, never stretched remotely beyond its subject matter by a filmmaker who seems more comfortable producing an objective, sensitive drama than anything which would require greater scope.

Elliott Gould, who plays the eponymous character, is the film’s biggest draw, but, while Fred craves to be the centre of attention, he does not have as dominant a role as you might expect. He lives with his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), in their modest home in upstate New York, a long way from the big city and, significantly, from their family. Both are ill, but Susan’s condition is far worse; she suffers physically as well as mentally and requires around-the-clock assistance from a live-in nurse (Mfoniso Udofia). This creates tension and an element of resentment in Fred – he seems to dislike the attention his wife receives and does not believe such a high level of care is necessary.

Fred Elliott Gould

Gould is a fine comic actor, but it is difficult to gauge his tone here. With some interesting mannerisms and ready quips, Fred clearly wants to be the larger-than-life character Gould is known for, but he is no longer able to perform that role. He struggles to adapt to his wife’s deterioration and is increasingly unable to provide everything she needs. He brushes off increasingly frequent slippages of memory, maintaining an outwardly stubborn demeanor, but it is clear he is suffering inside.

The drama centres around a visit from Fred and Susan’s son and daughter, Bob (Fred Melamed) and Carol (Stephanie Roth Haberle),who are grappling with the decision as to whether or not to move them into a nursing home. The additional care is vital but the difficulty lies in getting Fred to accept that he and his wife need to move on from the house they have always lived in. As well as being a peaceful environment, it is a treasure trove of memory, full of trinkets and relics, the embodiment of a life that is gradually slipping out of their minds.

Events do occur in Fred, but all are low key. In one of the main sequences, Bob has a  minor run-in with a music therapist, showing his failure to understand the purpose behind remedies which do not cure the disease – the entire film is about the impossibility of understanding the disease itself. As the family sing together, Ledes questions who exactly the song is benefiting, Fred, Susan, their granddaughter Lila, the music therapist himself? Bob sees only the sadness and discomfort that results from the joy the music induces, and he is not entirely wrong to do so.

Fred only loosely engages with these issues, presenting the surface but little depth. It has a dreamy, inconclusive quality but Ledes is not ambitious enough to make anything remarkable out of an interesting scenario. He is dealing with an illness he knows intimately but it does not come across on the screen. He gives us the tension and frustration, but fails to engage with the pain and love at the heart of it all.

Rob Dickie

What is this film called Love?

Director: Mark Cousins
Writer: Mark Cousins
Year: 2012
Cast: Mark Cousins

★★★☆☆

What is this film called Love?

A question in the proper sense, open-ended, unanswerable, something to think about long after the credits have rolled. It is a very personal film, a sort of meditative documentary, shot by Mark Cousins on a £100 flip camera during a lonely three day trip to Mexico City. To use the director’s own terminology, it is an ad-lib, a stream-of-consciousness take on whatever he captures with his camera, a film without boundaries that develops, through personal memories and free association, into a rough philosophy of life.

Loosely, it begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein, a figure who evidently means a lot to Cousins. As he walks around the streets of Mexico City, which Eisenstein visited in the 1930s, he holds a photograph out in front of him and talks to an imaginary version of the Soviet director, which seems to have influenced his life and career as much as the real thing. While always slightly bizarre, this technique has the effect of turning a series of spontaneous observations into something resembling a purposeful piece of cinema.

What is this Film Called Love? Mark Cousins

Comparing his own filmmaking style to that of Eisenstein, Cousins uses illustrative shots to highlight different ways of seeing the world, demonstrating the effect that filmmaking has on your perception. Whether or not he consciously decided to come to that point is irrelevant – as a wandering director with camera in hand, it was inevitable. The most interesting scenes are those that explicitly deal with film, which is, after all, Cousins’s passion and area of expertise. What is this film called Love? is at its best when he opts to analyse the characters on a street corner as if they were in a Jacques Tati film, or captures a shot of a motorway bridge because its diagonal lines remind him of the geometry in Soviet cinema.

The Mexico City scenes are interspersed with holiday footage and dream sequences, which are used to elucidate some of Cousins’s observations and provide catharsis to the busy, unaesthetic metropolis. The use of montage is also excellent, and the choice of music, which includes some new PJ Harvey tracks and Tony Christie’s Avenues and Alleyways, is inspired.

Eventually, the film settles into a quasi-philosophical tone, structurally and thematically reminiscent of the bestselling novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Central to the novel is the Vedantic expression tat tvam asi, which means you are that, and Cousins’s real achievement is translating this principle into the medium of film. Using the camera, he develops a deep connection to the world around him, finding beauty and significance in everything. He makes it personal, into a part of himself. This is what he means by love.

It sounds extremely promising, but much of what you take from the film has little to do with its execution. The narration tends to be heavy handed, and the female narrator takes something away from the intimate tone, despite her misplaced protestations to the contrary in the concluding scenes. The film often comes across as self-indulgent, a little too private for public viewing. Cousins ultimately fails to make the experience as much ours as his. At one point he says that it is not a serious film, but we are forced to take it seriously in order to engage with it.

Like Pirsig’s novel, I have found it difficult to get out of my head without being particularly impressed by it at the time. The ideas are there, as a work in progress, but the limitations of the project are all too obvious. The rough approach may be liberating for the filmmaker but sacrifices must be made in the final product. Cousins does not succeed – he does not genuinely try to succeed – in making a film, but has nevertheless captured something tangible and true.

Rob Dickie