April 9, 2013
To the Wonder, Upstream Color and Spring Breakers have been speaking to each other in my head. I would rather they go away so I could do my taxes, but here we are. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which opens in limited release this week, is a memory movie, swirling around a couple straining to recapture the ecstasy of love’s first blush. The couple in Upstream Color have nothing to recapture, their minds wiped by parasites, forced to forge new identities by pulling from the world and each other. Spring Breakers is also a kind of love story, one in which kids with dwindling Great Recession prospects escape into the sticky embrace of pop culture. All use a structure filled with repetitions and a slippery sense of time, with flash forwards and flash backs bending their linear timelines into circles.
To the Wonder opens with grainy cell phone video of Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck in the throes of dizzy silly passion on a European train ride. They are getting high off each other, each pawing advance eliciting unselfconscious laughter. In voice-over, Kurylenko whispers (in French): “Newborn”. It is an innocent state for which they will be unable to return, and Malick and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki trace their attraction-repulsion from the romantic heights of Mont St. Michel to their unadorned suburban home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The image of Mont St. Michel, a small tidal island off the coast of Normandy capped with a Romanesque church, acts as a talisman for their moment of bodily transcendence, when, as Kurylenko intones, “Two become one”.
It presents a natural progression of Malick’s late style, in which impressionistic fragments are edited together in symphonic arrangements, and where actors are broken down into their constituent parts: hands, necks, hair. There are mini-movements that swirl around the central romance, of doorways and windowpane shadows (which eventually Kurylenko’s daughter hopscotches through), but also of muddy water, rhymed across the continent from the coast of Normandy to a stream of runoff that Affleck tests in Oklahoma. His actors have essentially become silent performers, a tactic that balances them with the world around them – the fluorescent light at a Sonic is as privileged as his actors. Malick was trained as a Heidegger scholar, but allow me to dust off my prized Bachelor of philosophy degree and propose that this approach is more reminiscent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist who arose in Heidegger’s wake. I’ll cherry pick a quote from his Phenomenology of Perception: “I am, thus, not separate from being, but rather ‘a fold’ in being where being touches itself through me.” Malick’s actors slip into this fold, conduits that the world flows through, instead of its center.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color has been incessantly compared to Malick, and its editing patterns are similar with its looping repetitions. But while Malick came out of a Continental Philosophy background, Carruth is more concerned with the science of mind, how the brain might react if forced to construct a personality out of nothing but its own perceptions. The story concerns Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is implanted with a parasitical worm that erases her memory. The worm is part of an enigmatic organic cycle, as it emerges from the soil of orchids and finishes its life inside pigs, who maintain a psychic link to the parasite hosts. Kris tears down her old life and begins a new one, joining up with Jeff (Carruth), who has also been through the destructive process and is beginning life anew. They form a co-dependent bond in which memories flow back and forth, threatening their grip on individuality. Carruth is a builder of intricate systems who prefers to leave out the instruction manual, so connective tissue regarding the cycle is elided in favor of Kris and Jeff’s scramble back into humanity. Carruth is stilted and cold, his analytic personality unfit for a guy wiped by a worm. But Seimetz gives the movie its grounding, her transformation from consciousness to blank slate is a true metamorphosis, her bright energy dulled into cow-eyed sloth, her movements slowed as she were still mapping out the world in her head.
In Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, teenybopper darlings Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens are adrift in college, racking up debts for an American Dream that is no longer viable. Their days are spent ignoring lectures and watching Kimbo Slice street fights on YouTube. Desperate for escape and something joyful, they rob a fried chicken joint in order to fund a trip to spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. Korine, like Malick and Carruth, uses repetition to create a sense of circularity, characters caught in a loop. In Spring Breakers, though, it is a loop the characters have created for themselves, an ecstatic embrace of the vulgar as an escape from the mundane. If the film has a philosophy it would be directed by the Twitter feed @KimKierkegaard, which mashes up the Kardashian and the Danish existentialist. The girls have gone through the looking glass, except they’re not entering Wonderland but a Reddit thread. The film clicks from Girls Gone Wild debauchery to teen queen balladry to glamorized drug violence, an adventure into the unknown, but at least it gives the girls control. They meet the love of their lives in Alien (James Franco) a flamboyantly conspicuous consumer who has also decided to give up the life in the world for one self-made pop glamor. The most moving scene is a robbery montage set to Britney Spears’ heartbreak ballad “Everytime”, the girls done up in Pussy Riot gear – their self-willed self-destruction a private revolutionary act.