Reviewed: To the Wonder and Cloud Atlas

We are the world.

To the Wonder (12A); Cloud Atlas (15)
dir: Terrence Malick; dir: Tom Tykwer
Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

While watching To the Wonder, it’s important to determine whether the film is artistically and intellectually derelict or if its director, Terrence Malick, responsible for a handful of modern masterpieces, simply has further to fall than most. In the spirit of this wishy-washy movie, I’d say it’s a bit of both. The Malick ingredients are all here: soaring choral music with invocations of divinity, the emphasis on nature and light, lots of elliptical editing and fragmented narration. But when one discontented character observes wanly: “There’s something missing,” it’s as though the movie is giving itself a three-word review.

While the viewer grapples with a loss of faith in the director’s methods, the film touches on other kinds of crises. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) has left Paris to live in Oklahoma with her lover, Neil (Ben Affleck). Not that she has forsaken her inner Amélie; all the adults here are like children, gazing at the sky or engrossed in play – spinning one another around in the street, crawling through leaves, listening to each other’s heartbeats. No one expects characters in a Malick film to be shown unblocking the toilet but this insistence on the whimsical infantilises them.

Eventually Marina realises she has fallen out of love with love and seeks the counsel of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is himself experiencing a crisis of faith. “How has hate come to take the place of love?” Marina sighs in one of the breathy voiceovers that replace dialogue so fully that no one ever exchanges more than an occasional word. In this context, we feel grateful for anything tangible, such as when Neil and Marina’s blissful courtship gives way to tantrums, or when Neil angrily smashes his jeep’s wing mirror. (It’s restored to its original state a second later – presumably divine intervention rather than a boring old continuity error.)

Malick’s storytelling style has often resembled a slideshow of snapshots held together by a cumulative emotional potency. But characterisation and meaning are so opaque in To the Wonder that the film never feels any deeper than a photo-strip love story, albeit one published in American Cinematographer magazine rather than Jackie or My Guy. It was to be expected that Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, would conjure up rhapsodic imagery: the sun flashing stroboscopically through the spoke-like legs of a cartwheeling child; a prisoner’s thick, tattooed forearms draped on the sill of his cell like dozing boa constrictors. Even here, though, Malick is not immune to the banal. The fingertips-trailing-through-wheatfields shot was already a cliché when Ridley Scott used it in Gladiator. The swooping Steadicam that felt fresh in Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, has hardened into mannerism.

Something has happened to this director’s work since he lost interest in the friction between sound and image from his first three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), where the dislocated narration went against the grain of the lyrical photography. With it has gone the tautness of his vision. A film doesn’t necessarily need solidity but in the absence of momentum it does require philosophical weight, and To the Wonder is as ephemeral as dandelion spores.

What a rum state of affairs it is when a new Malick picture can be eclipsed in the audacity stakes by a movie from the siblings responsible for the Matrix trilogy. Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski have divvied up the directing duties with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) on their adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel Cloud Atlas. It’s far from perfect but then a certain amount of unevenness is to be expected from a three-hour film that intercuts six stories whose settings include the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, 1970s San Francisco and a savage island civilisation 106 winters after the Fall, possibly on a Thursday. Cloud Atlas spans genres, too, incorporating science fiction, espionage, farce and several love stories; the casting is no less elastic. Tom Hanks takes on six parts, including a nuclear-power whistleblower, an Irish thug-turned-novelist who hurls a critic off a rooftop and an actor starring as a fictionalised version of a professor played earlier in the movie by Jim Broadbent. (Do keep up at the back.) Hugh Grant’s roles include a curlyhaired, runny-eyed Cockney gangster and a futuristic warlord; Ben Whishaw and Hugo Weaving get to hop back and forth across the gender divide. The whole shebang is like fancy-dress day at Rada.

It isn’t clear that this mix-and-match casting adds up to anything more than a guessing game for the audience à la The List of Adrian Messenger (where Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum appeared in disguise). Certainly the intended message that these are the same souls at different phases of evolution gets obscured. The rapid movement between the different plot lines emphasises parallels between characters divided by oceans and millennia even as it risks turning Cloud Atlas into a restless trailer for itself. But the sweep of the film, its naive charm and compassion, is intoxicating. I wasn’t bored.

A still from "Cloud Atlas".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
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Peter Adey's wonderfully digressive book explores the science and history of levitation

From flying carpets to rocket men, we have always dreamed of defying gravity

In the winding rooms of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans, among Dürer’s eldritch owls and Man Ray’s one-eyed metronome, is an extraordinary oil painting by the Haarlem artist Frans Post. Dated to 1648, it is notable not just for the fact that it depicts a Brazilian landscape, complete with cacti, armadillos and iguanas, but because, rising from the jungle, over those exotic flora and fauna, is a white-robed angel. The hermaphrodite being hangs there, quite matter-of-factly caught in mid-air, like a three-dimensional wisp of smoke, or a Renaissance scene reimagined by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The image is made even more enigmatic by the way that the gallery caption declines to mention the angel at all.

Who hasn’t dreamt of levitation? When I was a boy, at school Masses I prayed hard that my pious thoughts would lift me into the air in our suburban Catholic church. I would lean forward on the balls of my feet, ready to launch myself upwards, to the astonishment and admiration of my fellow pupils. Perhaps it was something about the vaulted roof and its yawning space that tempted me, or maybe the bursting filtered light of stained-glass windows hypnotised me. Perhaps I just got high on the incense. But I must have also heard of Padre Pio, the Italian mystic who, as Peter Adey observes in his brilliant book, could fly so high that during the Second World War he rose like a barrage balloon to deter Allied bombers from blowing up a munitions depot in his home city of San Giovanni Rotondo.

These days we are blithely accustomed to being in the air. I have written part of this review 24,000 feet above the English Channel, flying without any effort, holy or otherwise, of my own. We send drones into the sky and astronauts into zero gravity; the air is a crackling conduit of communication and knowledge; the work we do on our blue screens ends up in a cloud. But in the medieval world – where images were rarer and more precious – Christian myth presented levitation as the “unburdening of human flesh and the lightness of divinity”, in Adey’s lovely phrase. Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven, after His resurrection, was depicted in illuminations in which only the Saviour’s feet were seen as his disciples looked up, theatrically, as though they might pull Him back down. Yet that scene is repeated at every Mass, as the priest holds up the Eucharist, Christ’s body incarnate.

Rising from the ground implies rising from the dead, a leaving of both gravity and mortality. The building of Gothic churches and cathedrals, whose flying buttresses allowed light to flood into holy interiors, seemed to set the scene for such miracles. In their architectural context – buildings that are already miraculous, containing the sky – levitation is both an ordinary and an extraordinary act.

There were so many levitating medieval saints that they could have earned air miles. St Teresa of Avila was positively embarrassed by her propensity to levitate without notice; not only did her fellow nuns struggle to keep her body down, but the poor woman also suffered from vertigo. And while angels were powered by God’s grace, witches, their dark opposites, rode heretically on broomsticks, and sometimes went commando. In one aside in Adey’s delightfully digressive book, a decidedly overweight witch is shot out of the sky and lands with a thud, naked and drunk on the earth.

Arguably the modern age began not with Newton – whose visions of celestial beings defied his discovery of gravity – but with the technology that enabled humans to float. During Vincenzo Lunardi’s balloon ascent from London’s Bunhill Fields in 1784, the Italian aeronaut ate cold chicken and drank wine as he surveyed, with the synoptic eye of God, the amazed populace over whom he passed. His flight was commemorated in Oxford Street’s Pantheon, under whose dome Lunardi’s balloon was suspended so that visitors could look at the painted panorama around them as if they, too, had risen to the skies. William Blake, who never shrank from the mystical, wrote his own tribute, “An Island in the Moon”, as if his poem were an in-flight magazine, while Percy Shelley sent imaginary balloons floating over Africa to survey “that unhappy country” and “annihilate slavery for ever”. These Enlightenment rides – literally “a lightening”, a leaving of the old world – “combined scientific measurement and rationality with exclamations of delight, rapture and an imagination overwhelmed by experience”, Adey writes. Their sublimity would not be matched until 200 years later, when Apollo astronauts saw Earthrise
from the Moon.

Colonialism imported another kind of levity – that of the Indian fakir. Sheshal, the “Brahmin of the Air”, was celebrated in the 1830s for touring rich houses in Madras, assuming his position behind a cloth screen that, when pulled back, revealed him sitting cross-legged in mid-air, one arm resting on a perpendicular brass bar fixed into a wooden stool. Investigators believed that Sheshal’s weight was borne by a metal frame concealed by his clothing, but so convincing was his feat that it was replicated by magicians back in London.

Notorious among them was Alfred Sylvester, the self-styled “Fakir of Oolu”, a sometime stereoscopic photographer of the 1850s who, in the exotic Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly (which housed other sensational exhibits such as a supposed mermaid and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins), floated his female assistant horizontally in the air, as if lying on a couch. Observers thought that such audiences had been tricked using mesmerism into believing they were witnessing miracles, another Victorian parlour fad.

Equally exotic, and popularised by Richard Burton’s 1885 translation of The Arabian Nights, was the notion of the flying carpet – supposedly devised to allow medieval scholars at the library of Alexandria access to manuscripts on upper shelves. Preferring to read while hovering in the air, the scholars sat on rugs powered by a special dye with “anti-magnetic properties”. The notion made its way into Victorian and Edwardian fantasy writing: E Nesbit’s children’s story The Phoenix and the Carpet and Mary Poppins, the levitating nanny who presides over Uncle Albert’s aerial tea party in the Disney adaptation of P L Travers’s book.

For the Pre-Raphaelites, levitation transcended the darkness of the Industrial Revolution. In his eerie 1870 painting Night, Edward Burne-Jones depicts a wreathed figure hovering over a nocturnal landscape, level with the clouds, her hands held parallel as if in a seance. It was no coincidence that this was the age of mediums with their flying furniture.

Most notorious of all these was Daniel Dunglas Home, who convinced Ruskin, Conan Doyle, Napoleon III and Carl Jung – among others – with his ability to levitate flowerpots, three-legged tables and himself. At one seance in imperial St Petersburg, “Mr Home presently declared that he felt himself being raised. He took, as he was lifted, a horizontal position, with his arms crossed on his breast; and in this reclining attitude was transported by invisible means into the middle of the apartment.” At another gathering in Westminster in 1868, Home was seen to fly out of one window and back in through another, like Scrooge in the hands of the spirit of Christmas Past – or like Santa Claus, another serial ascender.

It was tempting, among those dark Dickensian streets, to place faith in such transformations – although new urban myths invented the demonic, leaping Spring-heeled Jack, a kind of anti-Ariel who inhabited them. The looming industrialised wars of the 20th century would deal death from above – hence the vision of the Angels of Mons over the trenches of the Western Front, an antidote to aerial ordnance and clouds of poison gas. In his field notes, Carl Jung recorded one soldier “seeming to rise in the air in the same position he was in at the moment he was wounded… All feeling of weight is lost.” Sometimes, Jung noted: “The wounded think they are making swimming movements with their arms.”

Art echoed these shell-shocked reverberations to magical-realist effect. Marc Chagall’s paintings of the 1910s and 1920s feature the mythical Jewish figure of the luftmensch – “the man of flight… messenger of the gods” – flying over European rooftops as an airy allegory of apartness and rootlessness at a time of pogrom and Holocaust.

In the Second World War, Philippe Halsman – an American photographer with eastern European Jewish origins – would reinvent the luftmensch. Imprisoned by the Nazis before the war, Halsman had written to his girlfriend: “Tell me, do you ever dream of flying?” From 1941, he collaborated with Salvador Dalí on complex images such as Dalí Atomicus (1948), which re-created the artist’s fantasies of flying using illusions not dissimilar to those of Indian fakirs. Dalí’s dreams painted “a Renaissance portrait as familiar as a Christian Assumption,” writes Adey. “I would not at that moment have changed places with a god,” said the surrealist of his visions. In his later portraits of the 1950s, Halsman persuaded celebrities from Edward and Wallis Windsor to Marilyn Monroe and Robert Oppenheimer to leap for his camera. “When you ask a person to jump,” Halsman said, “his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”

Once again the ordinary was turned into the extraordinary. Twentieth-century science fiction relied on levitation: men flew in rocket suits, flying saucers hovered over a Cold War world, and Stanley Kubrick’s astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey bounced about to a classical soundtrack in what Adey calls “an allegory-rich set of images and sounds”. From there, the author segues to David Bowie’s Major Tom floating far above the Earth, and on to the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield singing “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station in 2013. Meanwhile, 1960s anti-war protesters had tried to levitate the Pentagon, and exponents of Transcendental Meditation (and their political wing, the Natural Law Party), as followed by the Beatles, Clint Eastwood and David Lynch, were promised that yogic flying could solve all the world’s ills.

Perhaps we need a little such levity today. With only the occasional bit of excess weight – “blurring the Parmenidean dichotomies of heavy and light” – Adey’s prose rises above academic discourse to create a phantasmagorical cultural history. He concludes that although levitation “supplies us with a record of… exploitation, inequality and even violence”, it is also an expression of “freedom, emancipation and empowerment”. As sly and strange as its subject, Adey’s book is an ambiguous, allusive and fascinating manual of unassisted flight, and I only wish I’d had it to hand when I was a ten-year-old would-be levitator.

Levitation: The Science,
Myth and Magic of Suspension
Peter Adey

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear