Roundtable: American Psyche: To the Wonder and The Master

Note: Some mild-spoilers for The Master and To the Wonder

Anders: What is the state of contemporary American cinema and what do we mean by that term? Recently, The New Republic published two pieces, “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” by David Denby and “American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying” by David Thomson, which lamented the state of American cinema, taking Hollywood’s business model and changing modes of film consumption to task for creating a system where art only has a chance of being made on the margins of the American film industry.

If we believe that film is art, and I think all three of us agree that it is, then I think it’s appropriate to sit down and spend some time working through two recent films by contemporary American filmmakers, both of whom I would argue are working in that ambiguous filmic mode, the art cinema.

All three of us caught Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Malick for the first time has had films debut in consecutive years, apparently because he has now found (non-studio) financial backers to bankroll his films. What a treat for me as someone who deeply admires Malick’s work to have the opportunity to see it at its North American premiere.

It was a memorable film-going experience, but I’m not particularly surprised that To the Wonder only just recently was picked up for distribution in the US by Magnolia, more than three weeks after the festival (it is slated for a general theatrical release in 2013). It pushes the confessional voice-overs and unguarded emotional elements – which some found sentimental – from The Tree of Life to the forefront, while bringing its visual style – meandering camerawork, jump-cuts within scenes, and golden hours lighting – to a contemporary setting. While it lacks The Tree of Life’s grand cosmic scale, it is nonetheless a companion film in many ways.

The other film we want to talk about is The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, and one of the movie events of the year for many of us. I ranked his previous film, There Will Be Blood, among the very best films of the last decade and looked forward to this one with massive anticipation. To add to the film’s event status, if that is even possible in the art cinema, Anderson has shot this one on 65 mm film for projection in 70 mm.

We were all fortunate enough to catch it on its recent release in that format in Toronto, and I have to say that Anderson does some interesting things with the film both visually and with the narrative. I found myself the following days haunted by the film, replaying certain scenes in my head and puzzling about what it all means. Some critics feel that this means that the film lacks any kind of narrative thrust, that the film isn’t enough “about” something. I have my own feelings as to how this might relate to the quality of the film, as I feel that a film that haunts is a special kind of creation versus a film that tries to be very important. Briefly returning to the two articles I mentioned at the start of this piece, perhaps it isn’t just Hollywood that is killing the movies, but much of mainstream criticism too! But what do you think it’s about?

Anton: Some critics have noted that The Master can be read allegorically as a study of the postwar American psyche, Freddie being the Id and Dodd being the Superego. Freddie and Dodd’s contrasting roles can be clearly seen when the two are placed in opposite holding cells; Dodd stands composed while Freddie wildly destroys everything in his reach.

Aren: Even Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting styles seem different here. Hoffman is very controlled and commands scenes vocally — even lyrically, in song. Phoenix, on the other hand, is pure physicality. From the way he stands with his peculiar hunch, his shoulder blades jutting out and his arms placed awkwardly on his hips, we realize this is a damaged individual. His body represents his mind — an old character trick, but still a useful one.

Anders: I think that the film does have something to say about the damage wrought on individuals returning from World War II. I don’t think it’s an accident that the film begins the way it does, with Freddie at war. But we don’t see any of the battles, we see Freddie on his own navigating the war machine, the ships, his comrades. In one striking shot, made all the more spectacular by the detail captured by the 65 mm, we see a close-up of Freddie in his helmet staring off into space.

I think that a key sequence is the one at the veteran’s hospital where we hear the men being told that they have seen things that those who didn’t go to war haven’t, and they will inevitably be seen as strange and out of place in peace time. Of course, the question that the film raises goes beyond the question of war trauma. When was Freddie damaged? Before the war? How is he going to cope? After drifting from the department store to the migrant farm, finally he meets Dodd. I think the film does more than suggest that the “Greatest Generation” had their own challenges in returning from a war where their cause seemed clear, but also suggests that sex and religious yearning are central to the psyche of Americans, in a time when both traditional sexual mores and religious beliefs seemed to be undergoing massive changes.

Dodd’s “Cause” offers Freddie a focus for his destructive energies, which, as you noted, contrast the two, as Freddie literally attacks anyone who would challenge Dodd.

Anton: Freddie’s behaviour really unsettled, even annoyed me. In a similar way, I could sense that Marina in To the Wonder really bothered or annoyed people in the audience around me. Marina is almost a personification of manic depression. I don’t mean to use the term “manic depression” in an exact clinical sense; I’m not trying to diagnose her. Like many of us, though, Marina sees things as either great or terrible. She’s either loving life or almost lifeless.

Anders: I think it’s important to just interject and mention that Olga Kurylenko’s Marina is the ostensible protagonist of Malick’s new film. Affleck’s Neil may be a kind of centre point for the constellation of other characters, but we never get into his head the way we do Marina’s.

Anton: Marina’s erratic behaviour reflects the extremes of being in love. Early in the film, Marina and Neil visit the medieval fortification and abbey at Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. The romantic visit, with its images of tapestries and spires, draws attention to Marina and Neil’s relationship within the conventions of romantic love which really emerged in the Middle Ages. Marina’s behaviour (wallowing for days or frolicking through fields) may seem excessive, but we can make sense of her if we think of a lover in a medieval romance, or countless moments from contemporary rom-coms. She wouldn’t appear so abnormal if she was taken out of the context of a “serious” film and placed in a romantic comedy or a tale of courtly love.

In a cloister at Mont Saint-Michel we also hear Marina say the words, “to the wonder,” in voice-over. The phrase suggests that love, a romantic relationship, is like a journey to a different place, into a different state of experience–a realm of adventure, a state of wonder, but a wonder that encapsulates both joy and sorrow. The film shows how love can be a sublime experience, one that evokes both attraction and fear, or awe.

Anders: Does the connection to the medieval traditions in the To the Wonder make it a film that is hard for viewers today to connect to?

Anton: I think you have to consciously let go to really appreciate, and fully experience, this movie.

Aren: I made a silly joke on Facebook in early August that To the Wonder would turn out to be a meandering romantic comedy, and that Terrence Malick had secretly nursed a desire to make fluffy rom-coms all these years. While To the Wonder is certainly not a rom-com, I think my description of it as a meandering romance is pretty apt. I don’t mean this as a complaint against the film. I actually think it’s pretty marvelous, but it certainly is meandering.

The interplay between Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is classical, almost medieval, as you guys have said. Marina, the woman, is all emotion, all unpredictable passion and energy. She is manic. Neil, the man, is emotionless, stoic. He is uncaring and his anger always simmers beneath the surface. Malick is drawing on classical notions of men and women. Marina and Neil aren’t really characters. They’re concepts through which Malick is able to explore his ideas.

To the Wonder is personal filmmaking, but Marina and Neil are not deeply personal characters in the same way that Jack is in The Tree of Life. I don’t believe Malick superimposes himself into these characters, despite people’s attempts to link the film to Malick’s own past marriages. In fact, if there’s one character in the film who seems to be Malick’s avatar, it’s Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, but more on that when we start discussing religion.

Anton: Shot (mostly) on 65 mm and projected in 70 mm, The Master is very impressive to look at and study. It’s more important that you see this movie in a good theatre, and not on video, than most big action extravaganzas. Anders has already mentioned the detail of shots, such as the opening image of Freddie’s face. Despite being technically ambitious and meticulous, I am not convinced, though, that all of the parts of the story add up to a greater whole. I question the unity of the work. I thought a lot of the scenes that bookend the central portion focusing on the Cause dragged.

I also wonder if Anderson set himself up for some opposition by selling the film as a throwback to postwar American cinema, but then following a more European arthouse mode of storytelling and eschewing the clear narrative of classical Hollywood cinema. I’m not saying the film needs more story (though perhaps a more defined one), but Anderson may have set up that expectation with the format. 70 mm evokes Lawrence of Arabia and South Pacific, not Wild Strawberries.

I think it’s good, it’s very interesting, but it’s not a masterpiece. To the Wonder is not as good as Tree of Life, but I found it more emotionally engaging and satisfying than The Master.

On a side note, I’d also like to say something about our expectations as a moviegoer. Expectation is such a difficult thing. On the one hand, I’d like to say that a director should make a movie however she or he wants, or, to us audience members, that we should prevent our expectations. After all, these expectations are really prejudices–you’re forming a view about something without complete evidence or actual experience of it. On the other hand, I can’t ignore how so many people describe their moviegoing experiences in terms of their expectations. The famous phrase, “It wasn’t what I expected.” So, us moviegoers, we have to work to avoid that pre-judgement in an age super-saturated with advertising, but a filmmaker also shouldn’t ignore the context that is being generated for his film. Someone like Kubrick (and I realize not every director gets the power and freedom of Kubrick) extensively controlled the marketing of his movies.

That said, I think moviegoers on the whole would benefit from approaching films more with the humility of entering a stranger’s house, and less with the presumption and entitlement of opening a paper bag of fast food they just purchased. My wife will say, though, that I’m often the worst for not giving certain kinds of movies a chance. And other times I just want a Big Mac. But on those days, I shouldn’t watch Malick or Anderson.

Did I give The Master a chance? I think so. I hope so. I still like it.

Anders: I think it is worth talking about this film as having “event status,” at least among those of us who really follow the movies. It seems strange to think of a film like this, which is essentially an art film in terms of the way it plays to ambiguity and authorship, as an event. But art cinema isn’t exempt from hype. Expectations do play a role in what we expect from a film visually, but also with regards to narrative. I think many people were expecting The Master to be “the Scientology movie,” but anyone familiar with Anderson’s work shouldn’t be terribly surprised that the notion of a scientology-like religious movement is mostly used as a jumping-off point, just as There Will Be Blood is only very loosely an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!

Still, rather than becoming frustrated with The Master’s ambiguous connection to its impetus I can’t wait to see it again, to tease out the connections between Freddie’s and Dodd’s desires. I just want to see it again. Also, it’s visually a fantastic film. I clearly liked it a lot more than you did and I don’t think it’s as disjointed as you say it is.

Aren: I’m not quite in the territory of calling The Master a masterpiece. It’s not as obviously magnificent asThere Will Be Blood. But I do think it’s great and more identifiably a personal piece by Anderson, than, say,Boogie Nights, which is probably a better film. I can’t think of another director who could make The Master. It’s not possible.

The same goes for To the Wonder, a film that lacks the impact of The Tree of Life, but is still powerful and beautiful. I guess you could say it’s lesser Malick, but what does that mean? That it’s merely as good asBadlands and not quite as good as The New World or Days of Heaven? Big deal. It’s still great. Both The Masterand To the Wonder are antithetical to the idea that there’s nothing interesting going on in American cinema nowadays. They both may owe enormously to the European art film tradition, but they are definitively American. Europeans could never make these movies or explore these subjects in this particular way.

Anders: Yes. These films are somewhat strange because both Malick and Anderson are tracing similar trajectories in the way they have moved from the dominant storytelling modes of the New Hollywood cinema (Malick was always a part of that generation of filmmakers, and Anderson self-consciously set himself up as paying homage to Scorsese and Altman) to a more European art cinema mode. But you’re right in saying that they are about a very American engagement with modernity.

Both of these films seem to be more like a film like L’avventura or Breathless, where they just kind of unfold rather than having a clear trajectory or teleological design. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that they don’t have anything to say or that they aren’t about anything any more than it would be to level that charge against Antonioni or Godard. The Master doesn’t just run out of air, it ends with a very specific climax, no pun intended.

Anton: Your pun was intended.

Aren: After seeing The Master, many people commented that all of Freddie’s problems could be solved if he only got laid, which happens at the end of the film with Winn Manchester in the English Pub. I think this is reducing things a little too much, but it is apt commentary on one of Freddie’s problems: his inability to understand and deal with women.

Freddie is practically an adolescent boy in how he is overcome with insatiable lust for women but doesn’t understand how to channel that lust. Take the opening of the film where his fellow sailors make a sand sculpture of a woman, and Freddie proceeds to hump it long past the point where the act is funny. The sailors first take Freddie’s actions as a joke, but as he continues to act out sex with the sand mannequin, the onlookers grow steadily anxious. The sailors are a representation of the audience. They react to Freddie much in the same way we react throughout the film during his various sexually inappropriate actions. And there are plenty of inappropriate actions to choose from. From the moment Freddie undergoes a Rorschach test and describes every ink blot as “pussy,” we know we’re dealing with a warped individual.

Freddie’s inappropriate advances on the sales girl Martha; Freddie’s confession of having sex with his aunt; Freddie’s flirtations with Dodd’s married daughter, Elizabeth; and, most of all, Freddie’s (I can only assume) imagining all the women at a Cause party to be naked. This last one is the strangest and most interesting of the film. While having a party at a follower’s house, Lancaster Dodd starts to sing and dance in the living room. While Dodd whirls around the room with a female follower, all under the watchful eye of his wife, Freddie sits off to the side, staring at the crowd. Particularly, staring at the women, and as Freddie’s gaze becomes more intense, the film starts to display what Freddie is imagining: all the women are suddenly naked.

There’s nothing sexual about this scene, and yet Anderson lets us know that that doesn’t matter for Freddie. Whenever he looks at women, this is what he’s seeing. This scene demonstrates just how channeled through Freddie’s mind this entire film is, and how inescapable Freddie’s sexual compulsions are. Even in the most unassuming of environments — a living room full of people having “wholesome” fun — Freddie sexualizes the situation. He just can’t get sex off his mind.

All of Freddie’s sexual problems lead into a Freudian reading of the film, which could possibly be quite useful in unpacking some of Freddie’s neuroses. I think it is sufficient to know that Freddie’s inability to connect to women plays a large part in defining his character. In many senses, he is an impotent man. It may also help to explain his belief that the 16 year old Doris is his one true love. If he is so overwhelmed by lust, so consumed by wanting to have sex with every woman he meets, then it makes sense that his ideal woman, the woman he would want to marry, would be the virginal, young Doris. It may be too simplistic to define Freddie as suffering from a Madonna-whore complex, but it’s valid to consider nonetheless.

To the Wonder is not as overt in its exploration of sexuality as The Master, but it is worth mentioning the topic as it does come into play in the film. Interestingly, To the Wonder is the first Malick film to have sex scenes, and Neil’s (Ben Affleck) relationships with the two women in the film, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Jane (Rachel McAdams), are boiled down to physical attraction on his part. It is Marina and Jane who are always pushing for something more in their relationships, some emotional and spiritual connection beyond the physical, but Neil is a cold soul. He shirks passion and connection. With him, intimacy always leads to sex.

During the intimate moments with Marina, it is almost always Neil who instigates the sex. He is always prodding and fondling. The early scenes in Paris between Marina and Neil may have tenderness, but Neil’s inability to keep his hands off Marina, even when in public, speaks to how he is always overcome by his desire for her. He never lets his desire be enough. He always pushes it further.

Neil is nothing like Freddie Quell from The Master, but he does share Freddie’s inability to really connect with women. It’s interesting how even though Neil is the emotionless stoic and Freddie is the unpredictable delinquent, both Malick and Anderson see their leading men as incapable of spiritual intimacy and connection with women. Are both Anderson and Malick saying that American men are intrinsically disconnected from women? Better minds than mine can determine. What I do know is that sex is one of the central preoccupations of both films, and that to attempt a reading of the films without taking sex into account would leave a substantial part of both films undiscussed.

Anders: That’s a great analysis. Your point about Neil’s desire is especially well taken and something that I’ve seen few people note about the film. Perhaps I wouldn’t say he is “nothing” like Freddie. I think one of the disturbing things about Freddie to some audiences might be that he is all too familiar.

One of the other things that both To the Wonder and The Master deal with is the experience of modernity in various ways. Malick’s film contrasts the ecstatic experience of love with the banality of the modern world. Its prairie setting bathes the suburbs in light, but it can’t diminish the lack of wonder that Marina feels in America, and the alienation from her home in France. It adds to the feeling that this is in some ways the darkest film Malick has yet made.

Anton: Much of American cinema seems to be uncomfortable with approaching religion on a serious yet ordinary level. Priests still officiate weddings in rom-coms. Jewish characters make yarmulke jokes. A drama may portray a cult or someone’s loss of faith. And, in a way, people accept the evangelical or religious conversion film as a separate genre (e.g. Fireproof or some of Tyler Perry’s films), but for a filmmaker to present religion as ordinary and part of the real, regular experience of life is very uncommon. To the Wonderdoes not fit nicely into the category of “religious film,” although religion is an important subject in it.

Evangelical art (think of the Christian music section in a music store) usually alienates non-Christians, because it often tries so hard to convert the audience. Malick’s intention is not to preach to you or to convert you, but rather to show characters who experience religion as an integral aspect of their lives. And he presents religion as a reasonable way to view the world around us. You may disagree with the theme of grace in Tree of Life or not relate to Father Quintana’s dark night of the soul, but Malick is not prodding you to accept or agree. His impressionistic films play like records of experience, but the processing of that experience is left to the viewer.

Anders: We’ve barely scratched the surface of the depths of these films, so I think it’s safe to say that American cinema still has the potential to create works of art that demand something from their viewers. Still, both Malick and Anderson are working on the margins of Hollywood, finding funding where they can. Both of them have gained the freedom to make the films they want, exploring threads that interest them, even if, as in the case with the 5 year wait between films for Anderson, it means making fewer films.

Still, with the other Anderson (Wes) putting out Moonrise Kingdom this summer, and directors like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan managing to put out accomplished and popular films that aspire to art while working within the Hollywood system, I think that for all the problems it faces, the American cinema can still create art.

Anton’s Ratings: To the Wonder 8/10, The Master 7/10

Aren’s Ratings: To the Wonder 9/10, The Master 9/10

Anders’ Ratings: To the Wonder 8/10, The Master 9/10