“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Love. Where to even begin? Where does it come from? When do we realize it? How do we feel it, sense it, or grasp it? Why is it there, and sometimes not? Who can even possibly define love when it exists in its own unique way for each and every one of us? A friend once told me they did not believe that love could possibly exist. They said, “Human beings are designed to hurt each other.” There’s true pain and knowledge that comes with that statement, but does the recognition of pain negate the presence of love? Is not our ability to cause each other pain possibly correlated with our potential to show each other love? Does not the absence of love cause pain, and the presence of pain abated by that of love? And can’t love bring with it exceptional joy? When I look back on 2013, there is no doubt in my mind what event brought me the most joy. This past June, two of my greatest friends were married, and in the presence of friends, family, teachers, mentors, and all those individuals who have witnessed and shared in their love for each other (I swear to God, I didn’t take that from actual words said at the ceremony). As I looked over everyone in attendance that day, tears glistened on their cheeks, and smiles beamed on every face (looking back on photos from the actual ceremony, i’m appropriately plastered with a doofus grin). There was, I think, a universal recognition for us all that that moment was truly something special, and not just because the rain clouds had somehow magically vacated their gloomy inhabitance of the sky just in time for the ceremony to commence. We were in the presence of love, and in the presence of joy. Weddings, it seems, are notoriously a bitch to pull off, but, I believe, in the end, it all pales in comparison to that moment when you all celebrate the beginning of a new part of two individuals’ life long journey. That’s not to say I haven’t additionally felt myself in the presence of pain and sorrow amongst other friends this past year, those who have felt the loss at the end of a relationship, or hurt at unreciprocated feelings, or even worse, indifference so as to prevent themselves from further emotional damage. Love, or deeply felt attraction has that ability to cause anguish. How do we approach love, then? How do we believe in it? With such potential for joy and sadness, what do we do?
Terrence Malick is, hands-down, one of favorite filmmakers of all time. The Tree of Life is my favorite film of at least the last 10 years, if not more, and one of my favorite films of all time. In his forty years of filmmaking, he boasts a current total of 6 films. Yet, for such a small amount, Malick has established himself as an auteur to be watched, celebrated, and eagerly anticipated. It is remarkably appropriate that the last review of the late, great Roger Ebert was of Malick’s To The Wonder. Why? The great Orson Welles once said, “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” I can think of no one who fits the description of visual poet better than Terrence Malick. In his work, there’s a true embrace of the beautiful and the tragic, both in nature and in human beings. There’s a wonder in capturing the natural and the ethereal. Thus, he conjures stunningly beautiful images, astounding us with the elegance, grace, vastness, complexity, but also simplicity of the world surrounding us. Malick is truly a master of the visual medium, and he challenges us to take it all in, and learn from observation. There is no need for spoon-feeding dialogue, or even, I would say, a conventional plot. It’s really all there, you just have to watch.
I often feel that Malick’s recent efforts have a feeling of pieced together memories, enough to recall a fleeting time, feeling, or moment before it’s gone. How appropriate should it be then, that it has a connection to Malick’s own personal life? Following the deceptively simple story of two people who meet in Paris, fall in love, and eventually move to Oklahoma, it bears comparison to Malick’s marriage to his second wife, whom he met in Paris and lived with in Oklahoma until their eventual separation. It is a story of love gained, and love lost; a story about coping with the absence of joy in the face of loss, not just between the two lead characters, but everyone surrounding them. Lives collide with each other, some softly, some harshly, and some a little bit of both. Bonds of love, friendship, faith, and devotion are tried and tested. However, most importantly, it is a reflection; an examination of a beautiful and painful moment in time that brings with it a regretful sadness, but also a wise acceptance and a genuine hope.
Though easily identifiable as a master of imagery, Malick is also a master of performance. His obsession with the natural elicits deeply personal and intimate moments from the actors he works with. One need look no further than the list of fantastic actors who have graced the screen in his films, and the discovery of such wonders like Hunter McCracken and Tye Sheridan (star of this year’s Mud) from The Tree of Life. I believe it is unfair to criticize Malick’s knack for trimming performances, sometimes cutting characters completely, as a blatant disregard and disinterest in performers. I believe he finds the performers and performances that speak to us most, that fit his poem, and can be vessels of recognition for the audience. Olga Kurylenko is perhaps best known for her work in the unfortunate Bond franchise addition Quantum of Solace. Here, however, as Marina, she has created a truly compelling portrait of an enchanting woman. She’s fascinating to watch; magnetic in her wildness, passionate in her attraction, ferocious in her anger, childish in her insecurity, and almost helpless in her desperation and loneliness. Malick has a tendency for little to no screenplay, and so much of Kurylenko’s work is through her non-verbal communication, primarily her eyes. Marina’s eyes become an open window to her innermost self, and yet, they almost betray a subtle sense of mental instability that fleshes out the character beyond your initial impression, a choice for which Kurylenko deserves much praise. Ben Affleck’s brilliant work as a director has also brought about a great resurgence in his performances as of late, and his work with Malick is another to add to the list. It’s arguably more simple in its execution than his co-lead, but feels equally real. It’s as if Malick has the ability to strip away the celebrity and make you see the human being beneath. There is a constant conflict for Affleck’s Neil; torn in his feelings toward Marina, torn in his work, and in his faith. His inability to easily express his frustration creates confusion and tension in his relationships. Marina and Neil are an intriguing couple, and Affleck and Kurylenko an unlikely screen pairing in such a film. A brush on the cheek or a touch on the elbow are just as important as to whether they reject or accept the act. A reaction to a burnt dinner and smoke alarm speaks as much to their relationship as their reaction to the realization of infidelity. The realism of their romance is only slightly overshadowed by how realistically it falls apart.
Though Marina and Neil are the center of the story, two supporting characters are equally important in their significance. Rachel McAdams finds a surprising vulnerability and insecurity as Jane, a former childhood friend of Neil’s. She is a deeply wounded individual who is unsure how to cope with the losses she has been burdened with. Her admittance of her love and trust for Neil comes at a startlingly moment, even for Jane, and to see how that moment plays out is a touch heartbreaking. Examining love from another avenue is Javier Bardem as Father Quintana, a local priest who attempts to aid both Marina and Neil through their troubles, though he is plagued by his own doubt. It’s a complicated role, one in which he must seem the voice of reason to others, but also the troubled soul to himself. Again, the eyes do wonders. In addition, his sermons, interspersed throughout the film, have much to say about his, and others’, frustrations in faith and hopes for true guidance.
Though equal praise should be given to everyone from Hanan Townshend for his performances of classical music that are used in the film, to the entire editing team, to everyone behind the scenes, the true highlights are the visuals. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has collaborated with Malick on his last three films, and it’s safe to say he gets his fascination with the world like no other. There are so many breathtaking shots, it’s hard not to just be in awe for much of the running time. Never have the fields of Oklahoma looked more gorgeous. With Lubezki’s work here and in Gravity, he’s certainly the run-away cinematographer of 2013. There’s always something else at work in the visuals, too. There is darkness associated with conflict and confusion, and light that conveys possibly the presence of the divine, or at least hope. Wide open spaces communicate a sense of freedom and joy, while the internal spaces box the characters in, trapped in with their doubts, worries, and fears. A rumpled bed sheet on an unmade bed says a thousand words. The boxes that litter the empty spaces of Marina and Neil’s home instill the idea of impermanence in their relationship, though they themselves are slow to realize it. A horse that gallops along with the heard although it is caged in speaks volumes about the characters and their self-isolation and desire to be free. The camera is constantly looking in or looking out as characters are trapped inside of and outside of walls, barriers they keep up themselves. The list goes on and on.
And, ultimately, it’s a love story. Not just a story of romantic love, but the greater love, the love for all mankind, and the spiritual love. Marina and Neil’s love is beautiful, realized, and brings joy to begin with, and yet, does it have the strength to endure? Does love continue when unfamiliarity sets in and eventually drives you miles apart? Does love weather new passions and infatuations? Does it heal wounds that aren’t easily mended? And in the face of the loss of or separation from a child or a husband, can love continue to grow and blossom and persist? Father Quintana is faced with a different challenge of love, because he cannot feel the spiritual love he once had grasped. He feels lost. After seeing pain, hardship, and sadness, he is shaken in his faith. How can he be loved, how they all be loved by a divine presence if such anguish and pain exists? Where is the guidance of love? How can we pick up the pieces and move forward without it? How can we possibly feel joy again?
The presence of love in our lives is an important one. It helps us grow and nurtures us. It makes us who we are, and informs who we share our love with. Love is friendship. Love is family. Love is your relationships. Love is your first love. Love is your lost love. Love is joy and pain. Love is sadness and elation. Love is compassion and regret. Love is always there; an ever present force that drives all human beings at one time or another. Love is an ever-fixed mark, because humans will always have the ability to love. Love, regrettably, may not help all relationships endure, but it certainly endures all relationships. The love of someone can be lost, true, but the ability to love someone is never lost. It is never out of our reach. Marina and Neil’s love for each other does not last, but Malick’s hopeful outlook suggest that their futures are each defined by love, as is Father Quintana’s in his search for guidance. Love is not easy, it is a challenge. Relationships are defined by love, and thus we have to work at them. Yes, we can hurt those we love, and feel hurt in love. We can be a source of pain to those we love, and feel pain from those we love. The choice is to love in return. By choosing to love in response to anguish and pain, I believe we can grow and strengthen in love, and bring about even greater joy. The year 2013 was a hard one for me, filled with frustrations, sadness, regret, and loss, and yet, to this day, the memory that matters most, and will always matter most, is that of my two friends, declaring their love for each other, embarking on a challenging journey, and the joy we all shared that summer’s day. It’s a memory, a reminder, of love.