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Voyage of Mine – Notes from the Venice Film Festival

Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2016)


Terrence Malick has proven himself time and again as a director just as easy to hate as to love. For every individual who recounts being spiritually moved by his work there is a dissenter. His films are of a manner which might be dubbed ‘spiritual-minded,’ (if one accepts such a paradox) and therefore open themselves to a certain sincerity which some consider ‘weak’. Malick seems brimming with paradox; a Midwestern boy who went to Harvard and Oxford and a famous name who shies away from the limelight. His films are spectacles of subtlety and broad-strokes alike. Riddled with grandiose statements on the nature of man, images of the cosmos, meditative musings on the passage of time and the hollowness of certain cross-sections of modern life, his films always pointed to the Voyage of Time to come. It has arrived and it is to be experienced. The tendency to critique a film such as this (or indeed any Malick picture) strikes me as odd coming from the same voices which hail other cinematic works which could have been made just as – if not more – successfully in another medium. No film is objectively better than another (creative competency is another issue), but Malick’s could only be realized as they are through cinema. Try to imagine Knight of Cups as a play. Or as a book. How about as a TV show? Perpetually though, the reliance on safety propels forward tired re-works of the same basic pieces while criticizing works like Malick’s which to some small extent at least appear to expand the visual grammar.

On our final evening in Venice, and 26 hours after we’d witnessed Voyage of Time, an older Italian gentleman approached us on the water taxi back from Lido – wondrous island of perpetual summer and cinema. He asked us about our thoughts on Voyage and Malick in general. He went on to elaborate on his view that it was an opera on the rise and fall of mankind, not unlike The Thin Red Line. The man seemed overwhelmed by how deeply the film had affected him and asked which other Malick films I might be a fan of. I came to realize I’ve now seen the filmmaker’s oeuvre front to back; a mere 8 films spanning 43 years. Remarkably, half of these films were released after 2010, and 2 more are already slated for release by the end of 2018. I went on to try and elaborate some thoughts on Voyage in broken Italian. As if this weren’t bad enough, he asked to record these testimonies on a camcorder. His exuberance was contagious and I went for it. Most of what I said was fairly unintelligible, but beyond foreign-language barriers I realized I wasn’t even entirely sure how I would express what I wanted to say in any language. Because Malick’s thoughts and images belong to the cinema first and foremost, they are difficult to elaborate upon and easy to call out. They are sincere and greatly affected by the state of the world; a sincerity which two-steps-ironically-removed viewers seem to enjoy calling out for being stupidly sensitive.

Traveling home from the festival I decided to see what the Twitter-sphere had to say about Voyage of Time. The top tweet then was from a prominent film journalist effectively pre-judging the film (that’s right, without having seen it) to be tiresome and predictable Malick. I found this disappointing to say the least. Let’s take a moment to consider this; if a film is one step removed from reality, and a review of a film is two steps removed, is a tweet reacting to a review about a film unseen then triply disconnected? Despite cries of the cinema’s death for almost as long as it’s been around, it is the state of viewership which I find far more troublesome far more often. Why should a filmmaker bother putting his or her all into a work which is considered ‘risky’ across 40 years only to be shot down in 140 characters or less?

Another film in Venice pushing forward the cinematic language with a big name behind it was Wim Wender’s Les Beaux Jours D’Aranjuez (The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez). Following a sparse deep-focus montage of a half-handful of Paris streets set to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as overture, a man and a woman have a roughly 90-minute conversation in real time unfolding parallel to brief interludes of their conversation being written on a typewriter. The difference between Les Beaux Jours and Linklater’s Before trilogy lies primarily in either work’s truthfulness. The Before films fixate on a conversational style considered realistic, while Les Beaux Jours realizes its own fiction and uses it to its own advantage. There is no presumption of reality, rather a presumption of fiction, supported by its use of 3D. The pair ramble past one another in concurrent monologues on life and love. The exchanges are mostly rather difficult to follow, and as such demand a certain humility on the part of the audience. Some viewers take such a request as a personal insult and damn the film for being stupid for lack of their own understanding. Veterans that they are, I find it hard to believe screenwriter Peter Handke and director Wim Wenders are somehow less intelligent than I because I was unable to follow every moment of their work. In fact, I am positive that they understand the system within the film a great deal more than I. Yes, they made it. No, I don’t understand it all. Does this make the film a failure? For some, the answer is apparently yes. Yet how could one truly hate the humbling experience of listening in on a pair’s conversation for less than two hours in a film which is simultaneously so attuned to the beauty in the detail of swaying leaves on a perfect breezy summer afternoon? I suspect the answer is the same type of person who would never care to live it themselves. Less an argument for anti-stimulation, Les Beaux Jours and Voyage ask only that we appreciate the natural stimulations available to us in the real world, despite an ‘anti-realism’ approach. In many ways, this is the reality we live in now. Derrida’s hyper-real. These films are the metamodern stuff of understanding the unreality of our time without giving up on sincerity. Twitter is its own fictional landscape, as is photogénie. Still, I recognize where I am and feel comfortable calling it home for an hour at a time.