TIFF 2019: Terrence Malick sets my mind on fire

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      How long have I been here?

      Time grows ever more elastic as the festival stretches on, days flip over to night without notice, and the movies, both good and bad, overload the durational receptors.

      The program notes for Endless Night assure me that the film is, in fact, a snappy 92 mins, but I’d swear that at some point (probably during the fifteenth or sixteenth shot of the Galician countryside bathed in pale moonlight), the film punched a hole in the space-time continuum. Upon leaving the theater, I was sure that I would find myself suddenly entering my twilight years, aged and decrepit, confronting the ultimate cinephile horror: I wasted it all on the movies. 

      Time slips away more productively in Martin Eden, thankfully, which provided a much needed jolt of vigor and brash, go-getting propulsion.

      Director Pietro Marcello transposes the action of Jack London’s 1909 novel—in which the quickening locomotions of a sailor’s mind, and a chance encounter with Baudelaire, send the man racing down the writer’s path—from the 19th century’s long hangover to a hazy version of the mid 20th. The film’s poor characters don pauper’s rags more suited to a pre-industrial age, but they dance to electronic music. Carriages and trains are the primary modes of transportation, until an early '70s Lancia rolls into view.

      It’s remarkable the extent to which Marcello retains an essential 19th century character, despite the anachronisms. Martin Eden is, in a certain sense, the most conservative thing I’ve seen at TIFF, and for that very reason, among the most radical. 

      “The world belongs to the true individuals,” Martin Eden shouts to a skeptical crowd at a left-wing rally, and the film, for a time, takes him at his word. Martin Eden demonstrates a commitment to individualized action that stands in contrast to the anonymizing tendency sweeping through most of contemporary political cinema, which, as I griped about in my first dispatch, insists on collectivizing The Struggle and denaturing stories that might introduce some unwelcome human mess into the picture. Filmmakers live in fear that by embracing a classical narrative structure—and its attendant aesthetic pleasures—they also embrace a corresponding set of reactionary political values.

      Aesthetics and politics aren’t easily separable, it’s true, but ambitious artists know that they aren’t categorically interfused, either. 

      Marcello is an intrepid filmmaker, and so sets himself the task of constructing a complicated formal specimen, which is traditionalist and iconoclastic in equal measure, which takes the source material seriously but mutates it to strange ends. Martin Eden betrays Marcello’s background as a cinematic essayist: he breaks up the straightforward narrative action with carefully selected archival footage, often dropping in this material at the most counterintuitive moments.

      These are not the standard-issue documentary inserts, which usually broadcast contextual information that the filmmaker couldn’t be bothered to suture in more elegantly, or worse, lazily stamp the film with the imprimatur of realist legitimacy. No, Marcello calls forth these scratchy images of seamen and peasants in order to make tactile the world that Eden is leaving behind as he charges ever deeper into the abstract dominion of the written word.

      It’s telling that the documentary footage disappears, for the most part, precisely when the film makes its strangest chronological leap.

      A ship—seen once or twice before—collapses silently into a scratchy, blue tinted sea. Shortly thereafter, Eden appears abruptly corroded by wealth and success: he’s moved from the poorhouse to a mansion, but white streaks have shot through his hair and black rot eats away at his once sparkling teeth.

      This climactic section throws the film's Künstlerroman momentum off course and complicates the film’s politics. Does individualism slip, inevitably, into decadence?

      Is the notion of authorship antithetical to proletarianism?

      Can the mind of the writer grind out thousands of words and somehow not sand down the grain of life? 

      The film’s exhilarating compression and indeterminacy means that such questions simply float out there, buoyed but unanswered.

      A brief coda, which mysteriously returns Eden to a more, well, edenic state, does suggest, however, that this long slide into decay might be an extended hallucination, a vision dreamed up by Eden before he awakens from a bender, pulls himself up off a sandy beach, and embraces—like that capsized boat—the primordial churn of the ocean’s waves.

      If the prodigal sailor knows not why he’s borne back, always, to the wordless sea, he might dry himself off and consult that old copy of Les fleurs du mal

      Free man, you will always cherish the sea!
      The sea is your mirror; you contemplate your soul
      In the infinite unrolling of its billows;
      Your mind is an abyss that is no less bitter.

      It’s a real thrill to watch Marcello think through his film as it unspools, as if he’s sitting right next to you constructing it on the fly. That more or less describes the Olivier Assayas method. Whenever I encounter a new Assayas movie, unsure of where it will take me, I think back on an anecdote that actor Edgar Ramierz shared when he was touring around with Carlos, Assayas’s massive five-hour miniseries. Right before shooting commenced on this huge project, the director leaned over to his leading man and admitted, “I don’t know how I’m going to make this film.” 

      Assayas, for the first time in many years, is defeated by his extempore approach, enervated instead of energized.

      Wasp Network begins with a few lamely informative title cards, an unusually cheap device for a man who so often exudes confidence in his audience and in himself. We get a few contextualizing bits of Cuban history—factoids that are surely well-known to anyone who was sentient at some point during the last three decades—and that most useless of implied warranties: this film is based on a true story. (A cursed phrase for Assayas: Based on a True Story is the only other bonafide disaster in the Assayas oeuvre, a fabulously inept thriller that he wrote for none other than Roman Polanski).

      The 125 minutes that follow do little to reclaim Assayas’s characterisic swagger, which might be less depressing if Assayas hadn’t already proved himself a sprawling spy movie adept. Carlos ranks among the signal works of the century.

      Carlos understands power as self-conscious image projection: vainglorious preening comes naturally to the rockstar, the politician, and the modern terrorist alike. Cinematic figures, each of them.

      Wasp Network follows a band of glorified bureaucrats—not known for their riotous peacocking—and this new film treats power as something negotiated, exchanged, and instantiated over half-eaten meals at mediocre family restaurants. That may be truer to life, but cinema ought to provide us better fictions. If delivered with sufficient verve and confidence, they will ring truer than the truth.

      Wasp Network’s flat buffet board conversations belong on television, not on the movie screen. If you read more generous critics on Wasp Network, you’ll likely encounter an argument—already coalescing into conventional wisdom—that says that Assayas simply picked the wrong medium, that he should have produced another episodic TV series instead of this two hour film.

      I, on the other hand, remain skeptical that structural changes can salvage this project.

      Assayas could move around a few scenes (there’s apparently a re-edit on the way, so I guess he’s giving it a shot), but a splice here or there won’t alter the fact that the images possess the wit and intelligence of the second-unit work on a weekly crime procedural. Shouldn’t we demand more from our greatest filmmakers? Surely they have better things to do than to revive the pallid, key-lit corpse of mid-'90s TV. Assayas, usually the model contemporarian, is running backwards.

      Terrence Malick is a more natural historian, and after spending the better part of the last decade in the present, he’s finally winding his way back to the past.

      Like Pietro Marcello, Malick writes a highly individualized history: A Hidden Life traces, in broad symphonic movements, the life of Franz Jägerstätter, Austrian farmer, father, and devout Catholic, the kind of man who was destined for anonymity, had Nazi draft orders not put his convictions on trial. 

      Belief challenged is a challenging subject for a movie. All that happens, happens internally. Malick’s solution to this problem is a novel use of voiceover: his characters whisper questions and apothegms that seem almost pre-conscious, poetic and half-formed in a way that suggests that they bypass the logos function of the brain and arise directly from the soul.

      The strategy, when it works, is sublime. The strange thing about A Hidden Life, though, is that it mostly withholds Franz’s voice. We hear it in snatches early on, but during the film’s long middle section, in which Franz beats his head against walls both literal and figurative, we find ourselves abandoned. 

      A sign adorns the prison courtyard: Sprechen Verboten—Speaking is Forbidden.

      Even a soft Malickian whisper is a dangerous thing when the world is tipping over into fascism. But Franz’s silence also reinforces the sense that the film’s action is fundamentally pre-lingual, enunciated not in words but in images of cliffs and sunlight and grass.

      A Hidden Life was originally titled “Radegund”, after Franz’s hometown, and while the final minutes prove that the current title cannot be bettered, the original title directs our attention away from Franz’s interiority and towards the film’s external environment. Filtered through Malick’s camera eye, the organic splendor that surrounds Franz’s little village seems almost to speak for him. The mountain light—this is Malick’s most limpid, most crystalline film—proclaims Franz’s ethical clarity, even when he cannot.

      In the early sections, verdant pastures dominate the palette. A voice tells us “the fresh green of the grass is good for a person.” It seems only natural that a man nurtured in so much bloom should find his moral spirit similarly fecund. Perhaps, like Radegund’s sheer alpen peaks, one need not speak to remain upright. Perhaps, in order to do so, one cannot speak at all. Nazis shout; that which is eternal is silent. 

      After A Hidden Life ended, as I was rushing to another screening, I told a friend that I thought it was among Malick’s weakest films, that Franz’s struggle was remote and inchoate, that its sublimities were few and far between. I sat down for the next film, the lights dimmed, and then, suddenly, they came back up. How long had I been here? Sometimes, at a festival, a movie gets sacrificed on the pyre when the film that precedes it sparks something in the soul. Turns out I spent two hours replaying A Hidden Life in my head—everything else passed by in a blur.

      Sorry Beanpole, Terrence Malick set my mind on fire. Nothing else I’ve seen at TIFF so urgently demands a revisit as does A Hidden Life. 

      I want to give this film, about a man who gives everything, the one thing I seem to be running out of: time.