Tag Archives: film

La Grande Bellezza

5 Sep

What is beauty? Is it mere aesthetics, captured simply by wealthy people drifting about and enjoying all their lifestyle has to offer? Does art alone draw people toward higher purpose? Or is beauty representative of something else, something beyond the mundane world we see around us that gives it all a higher purpose? These are the questions that underlie Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (La grande belezza), the winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The Great Beauty is visually stunning from start to finish, without a wasted frame. The film is a love affair with a city, a dreamlike vision that sets Rome on a pedestal. The real Rome, visitors can attest, is impressive but not nearly as impeccable and clean. And yet it all works, and the flood of color toys with nostalgia, and even the critiques are those of one who knows it dearly. At one point, the protagonist notes that only tourists can see Rome with fresh eyes, something all to resonant for a kid who went to Rome once, but only for a day; one beautifully jam-packed day under a radiant July sun in which I was led about by an exceptionally attractive tour guide.

The film follows Jep Gambardella, a writer who wrote one great book forty years prior and has been resting on his laurels ever since. He lives in Dionysian opulence, stumbling from party to party dancing with beautiful people and rocking one superb suit after another. He arches his eyebrows at all the absurdity around him, at times even blasts the emptiness of his friends in Roman high society, but he is beholden to his life of excess, and resumes the revelry every night. He’s made himself the king of Rome, but as he ages, his throne seems increasingly lonely.

The Great Beauty is absolutely vicious in its takedown of Jep’s fellow travelers. In the most enjoyable scene, Jep makes short work of a vacuous performance artist, an all too accurate skewering of clueless contemporary art.  He also unleashes a vicious takedown of the communist socialite whose “sacrifices” for her family are nothing more than self-serving lies: she is no better than any of these jaded souls partying the night away. At times these Roman elites are downright sad, as in the suicidal mania of Andrea and the young girl forced by her parents to smear paint about for the amusement of the crowd. And there’s the cardinal in line for the papacy, who prefers quoting his recipe book to scripture. Only the dwarf publisher, consigned to an absurd body, comes across as someone who has genuinely earned her high society stature.

By the end, though, a few figures start to poke out above the bitter takedowns. News of an old lover’s death starts to stir a few memories, and ever-dangerous nostalgia makes its move. Jep’s “friend” Romano, a hapless writer there mostly as an object of scorn, suddenly decides to leave Rome and head back to his anonymous hometown. For the first time, Jep’s reaction to an event goes beyond mild bemusement: suddenly, his world faces disruption. And then there is the matter of the Santa Maria, the Mother Teresa figure who comes to visit Rome at the end of the film. She, too, is a hyperbolic caricature, but her ascetic life is about the only one in the film that witnesses any greater beauty. At the end, she climbs a stair to an altar on her knees and looks up in pure wonder, and suddenly one starts to wonder if sleeping on cardboard and serving the Malian poor for 22 hours a day at age 104 is indeed the road to enlightenment.

Santa Maria stiffs Jep when he tries to interview her, instead settling for a night on his floor and some festivities with her flock of flamingoes before she asks the same damn question that everyone else asks him: why didn’t he write another book?  Because he couldn’t find the great beauty, he replies, and Santa Maria orders him to remember his roots. Jep flashes back to a night on the beach with the girl who got away. She flashes her breasts at him, but what lingers is the tantalizing, mysterious look on her face. The wonder returns, Jep finds his beauty, and he can begin to write again.

The epiphany of beauty leaves one question unresolved: is Jep’s nostalgia for a cute girl on the same level as the crawling Santa Maria, the mere fact of wonder enough to give life meaning? Are all these Roman partiers saved if they can simply recall some moment of past beauty that gives them pause? Or is there still a moral order beyond this relativist ability to marvel? My vote, to no one’s surprise, is with the latter: those fleeting moments of great beauty are windows unto eternity, but they are not themselves eternity. Instead, they fuel the mind, and from there, the author must write his own story, remembering his roots and placing his narrative within the thousands of others that float past it down the streets of Rome or along the Tiber.

Sorrentino doesn’t show us whether or not Jep understands this, but at least he has some chance. It’s no coincidence that the hauntingly magnificent closing theme is named “Beatitude,” as it brings together the faith that has sustained Rome and opens the door to transcendence. It lilts down the Tiber and lingers for days beyond, and encapsulates the human core of Rome: at times tortured, burdened with the history of Western civilization in all its contradictions, but capable of stunning beauty, both in the facades it puts up and in the details deeper inside. Both the city and the man are along the road to truth, and while they may not get there, they at least have some notion of how to find their way.

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A Very Cyclical Double Feature

2 Apr

This past week, courtesy an absent roommate’s Netflix, I enjoyed a rather absurd double feature involving sincere philosophy, adolescent sex, and excessive smoking: Hannah Arendt and Y Tu Mamá También. Neither one is new: I hadn’t yet seen the Arendt film, but I’ve read her work extensively and written about it here and here; I first saw Y Tu Mamá También last summer, and reviewed it here. As this blog reaches its two-year anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate than with a sprawling synthesis between two wildly different strains of thought?

The Arendt film (2012) is a dramatization of the defining moment in the career of a great thinker, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the worst Nazi war criminal to escape Germany after the war. The Israeli secret police tracked him down in Argentina, and he went on trial in the new Jewish state, locked in a glass box to prevent anyone from finishing the job too soon. Arendt, a German Jew living in America and the first great theorist of totalitarianism, seemed the perfect correspondent, but her ultimate verdict set off a firestorm. She declared that Eichmann was not the embodiment of some demonic form of evil; she called him banal and frighteningly normal, and also pointed out the role of many European Jewish leaders in enabling the Holocaust. She was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew; an arrogant and emotionless woman who used a tragedy to make an esoteric philosophical point.

Trying to make drama out of a philosopher’s work is a formidable task, but one director Margarethe von Trotta achieves ably with smoke-filled rooms and acid dialogue. There are a few moments where it comes off a bit fake, but the circle around Arendt is entirely believable, and Janet McTeer makes a superb Mary McCarthy. The flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful affair with Martin Heidegger, the brilliant existentialist who became an unrepentant Nazi, add another dimension; they run the risk of making her brilliance seem like an offshoot of an old flame gone bad, but they also reveal a greater commitment to an idea, a belief in the centrality of human reason that not even Heidegger could sustain other pressure. He caved to the Nazis, banally accepting his role as university rector under the totalitarian regime. Arendt did not, twice escaping their clutches only to suffer a final exile imposed by many of her old friends for publishing what she believed. But fifty years later, she is the one who achieved immortality, exactly the worldly end she thought public figures should aim for in The Human Condition. Her speech to before a hall of skeptical Princeton students at the film’s climax hearkens to some of the great moments of courtroom dramas, her oratory an impassioned defense and rallying cry for her belief.

The film verges on hagiography, though I’ll leave it to critics who don’t think Arendt was one of the Twentieth Century’s two or three greatest minds to say if it goes too far. It shows the value of her relentless quest, not just to identify the nature of evil but also the pursuit of truth; the recognition of good and evil and beauty and ugliness and other such terms that thoughtful contemporary discourse is often afraid to use for fear of being judgmental. The young Arendt tells Heidegger that the split between reason and passion is a mistake: she believes in impassioned reason, the search for something approaching reality. It’s not hard to see why her political theories tend to reach back to the Greeks. Arendt is on the same fundamental mission for truth, asking questions where others take things for granted, her loyalty only to that truth and those who join her in her search.

A film about spoiled, horny teenage Mexicans may seem as far as one can get from grand philosophical debate about why it is we’re here, but the message of Y tu Mamá También (2001), in the end, isn’t wildly different. In some ways it’s a necessary antidote: “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” one of the boys intones, and they settle for an adolescent manifesto that collapses before them. It taps into a psyche run down by the banality of it all; a narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification. (In one delicious moment, a mutual lover tells the two boys their exploits aren’t worth bragging about because they both come so quickly.) This is banality epitomized, even as it’s dressed up as adolescent swagger.

The story rises above the sex jokes in the character of Luisa, but even then, it’s smart enough not to let them fade into irrelevance. It’s all intermixed, a crucial recognition that those base drives don’t go away. Once again, impassioned reason: we need to understand this side of the human psyche as well, not to repress it but to understand it, and channel it in ways that fuel the fire. The boys are extremes, but they captivate because they hit a bit closer to home than many of us would like to believe. A full life takes these appetites, tames them, guides them, and makes sure there is a place for everything.

This is, of course, a wickedly difficult balance; even those who aspire to it find themselves caught in cycles of blind passion and limp detachment, stronger or weaker depending on their temperaments and personal histories. I have no idea what the end state will look like, if there even is such a thing. But the pursuit is on, and nothing else compares.

‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

31 Aug

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.

Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

8 Jun

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?

Wes Anderson’s Nostalgia

25 Apr

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” 

–Zero Moustafa on M. Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Last week I wrote about the nostalgia underlying the work of Gabriel García Márquez, which gives me a nice segue to talk a bit about Wes Anderson, who is the platonic ideal of a nostalgic artist. Whether they nod back to childhood (as in Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom) or noticeably heavier affairs (Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the basic theme is not hard to miss. Anderson carts his viewers into a past world; an absurd one, and sometimes a very depraved one, but always a funny one that develops a curious warmth to it.

That’s how nostalgia works. The time we look back on with such fondness wasn’t all love and roses. Childhood is often tumultuous and awkward, but in retrospect its struggles seem like novelties, so we forget those and remember only the supposed freedom and innocence. (For somewhat different reasons, I’m a pretty big high school nostalgic—I love high school sports and coming-of-age stories and am fiercely loyal to my alma mater for what it did for me—but a trip back into my high school journals is still pretty terrifying.) Historical nostalgia is often even worse; yes, grand old hotels and British country estates look pretty, but that prettiness is often only possible due to an absurd concentration of wealth, and forgets that most of humanity is toiling in the muck while a handful of lucky ones live in luxury.

Anderson knows all of this. His nostalgia certainly isn’t a shiny, happy one, and one gathers from his childhood-themed films—which do have autobiographical elements—that he had a rather bizarre childhood. The films wrestle with that, and with any number of struggles great and small. His coping mechanism, clearly, is humor: he takes reality and embellishes it with nutty flourishes and over-the-top satire. Indeed, his films’ greatest weakness may be their tendency to lapse into a theater of the absurd and lose everyone in the goofiness. It’s a way of laughing off past injury, and it’s wonderfully postmodern in its rejection of anything too earnest, but beyond that façade, one really has to look for anything concrete.

It is there, though. The escape from postmodern emptiness comes in a return to the past. In a return to roots, and to acceptance of reality not as it’s been idealized in theories, but as it has become through history. That means heading back to roots and acknowledging them, even if there is a fair bit of mockery involved, too. Rushmore Academy in Rushmore may be a strange and in many ways unappealing place, but it’s still a source of dignity and pride.

Likewise with the world created in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s easy to take civilization and refinement and decorum for granted, and forget how tenuous they often are. Yes, they may seem more than a little silly when you look at their core, but ritual need not make complete logical sense to be sincere. When framed against the invading fascists and bloodthirsty heirs, the Grand Budapest looks wholesome and innocent, and M. Gustave’s exploits are a sort of child’s play; the triumphant tinkering of a man who’s gamed the system and won. He may seem an absurd character, but he’s so alluring because he has something figured out about life; something that ropes in everyone around him and makes them believe in him.

This brings us back to the quote at the top of the piece, and it’s one that applies to Anderson as well as his protagonist. He’s not exactly trying to bring back the past, nor is he even trying to create a fantasy past that never really was. He knows it wasn’t. Instead, he creates an homage to the past through his work, and gives it a timeless life of its own. Wes Anderson characters become masters of their own little realms, and run them with honor and dignity. I don’t really buy the claim that these traits are rarer than they used to be, but they certainly don’t come around every day, and that is probably why they endure. Sure, it can often be a façade; all of Anderson’s heroes have their foibles, and one could certainly claim that this is enough to condemn them. But there is also a sense that class and presentation matter, and that this is the way to build a legacy.

Does that alone go far enough? No; not in my mind, which is why Anderson will likely remain a hipster curiosity, and not an enduring icon of cinema. But it is a start, and a thoroughly enjoyable one for those of us whose minds are prone to search history for guides to the present.

“Gravity” and “To the Wonder”: Sincerity and Cinematic Beauty

20 Nov

I’m no film critic, but I have seen two films over the past week that are worth some reflection: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. The unifying theme here is a Mexican man named Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, who frequently collaborates with both Cuarón and Malick.

To be clear, I’m not at all a cinematography connoisseur; I simply saw some scenes in Gravity that reminded me of Malick’s The Tree of Life, and was pleasantly surprised to learn the same guy was behind both of them. This gave me a good excuse to go watch Malick’s latest film. Warning: spoilers galore, though I’d add the caveat that if you’re fixated on the plot of either of these films, you’re probably missing the point.

Gravity, perhaps the most hyped film of 2013, tells the story of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie astronaut who must fight for her life after things go wrong in orbit, though she has some help from veteran space explorer Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Though it takes place in space, it’s hardly typical science fiction; aside from a few liberties with actual physics, it is entirely plausible, and could easily happen to a space explorer in 2013. Of course, more fantastical science fiction can offer compelling human drama, but by stripping away the alien races and souped-up technology and specialized terminology, the human drama comes to the forefront.

Still, Gravity is not a film one could accuse of having too much plot. There is only the slightest of backstory for both astronauts, and the action begins so early in the film that there’s not much time to get to know them. Kowalski in particular is hard to separate from Clooney, and while Clooney himself is a delightful enough personality to be reasonably compelling, he is not a deep character. That leaves us with Stone, and her story also runs the danger of being rather hackneyed: a broken woman, emotionally spent after the death of her child, is jarred back into life by a debonair man and a brush with death. Bullock does a good job of presenting the emotion of that journey. Her tears drifting off through space are real (if, sadly, not scientifically accurate), and the scene in which Kowalski “returns” and gives her reason to live, while threatening to head down the road toward mawkishness, is no doubt sincere. These moments resonate because we really do have moments like that in life, and just because something’s been done before (as most any plot has by now) doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful.

Symbolically, the film is a masterwork, and on this front, it does take the full film to unfold. Cuarón and Lubezki have created a film of stunning beauty that is far more than CGI flashiness. From the umbilical cord tethers to Stone drifting about in the space station in a fetal position to her exiting the womb and heading out into the vast nothing beyond, it is a story of rebirth, and the creation of life from nothing. The film has an element of terror to it, a terror perhaps worse than anything that can be brought on by a villain or some sort of earthly destruction: sheer, endless emptiness. If Stone lets go, she is doomed to die adrift, alone, desperately sucking for her rapidly-diminishing oxygen, her mind running wild with fright. While a bunch of chunks of debris may set events in motion, Stone is a sort of Robinson Crusoe in space, and her most bitter enemy is not time or broken satellites, but her own wavering will. After the death of her daughter, she is lost in space in every sense of the phrase, with only some vague radio chatter in the background to numb her into a monotonous routine. She is drawn back to earth by Kowalski’s charm, both in the lightness of his humor and the gravity of his exhortations: she must find a way. The final scene, back on Earth and resplendent in color, with Stone emerging from the sea and feeling the sand in her fingers and rising up to take her first few stumbling steps, is reminiscent of Malick at his best.

To the Wonder is not Malick at his best; in fact, the film was widely panned, and it is not hard to imagine how its airy beauty and whispered religious musings could turn off a lot of people. (Roger Ebert, on the other hand, gave it a boost in the last review he ever penned.) Like Gravity, it is an exhausting picture, with so much in each frame that one can easily forget to read the subtitles as one tries to drink in all the details and figure out all the symbols and keep up with whatever it is that Javier Bardem is muttering in the background. The film stars Ben Affleck as an American who meets Olga Kurylenko in Paris and lures her back to Oklahoma, where their relationship goes through an endless number of trials and tribulations. (I assume the characters have names, but they’re never mentioned in the film, so I’m just going with the actors’ names here.) Unlike the sustained intensity of Cuarón’s film, Malick’s is an endless cycle of ups and downs, brilliant light juxtaposed against somber greys, all beautiful and, in a certain sense, more draining than Ryan Stone’s space flight. The accelerating pace in Gravity is constant, eventually numbing the viewer somewhat, while the peaks and valleys in To the Wonder can take fully invested viewers and lift them up into that wondrous state before crashing back down to earth. As surreal as it seems, its emotional swings really do capture the daily flow of human life.

The dynamic between the two leads is fairly similar in both films. As with Bullock’s Stone, Kurylenko’s character is a bit damaged, and rather flighty; she is juxtaposed against the stolid Affleck, and although he does show some maturation and has flashes of anger and disappointment, the male lead is once again without a past and lacks the emotional range of his partner. Lost daughters are once again a theme: Kurylenko has a ten-year-old who at first comes with her to Oklahoma, but struggles to fit in and goes back to France to live with her father; Rachel McAdams, Affleck’s rebound after Kurylenko leaves him, lost her only child. The firm man and the emotional woman once again run the risk of cliché, but there can be truth in clichés, and viewers’ willingness to accept their sincerity will likely define their reactions.

The redeeming feature of To the Wonder is Bardem, who shows off his incredible range in playing the doubting priest in the Oklahoma parish. He gives the film a backbone, guiding us through the rises and falls in the love story, his own troubled relationship with God following a similar course. If the fear of loneliness motivates the terror of Gravity, the fear of commitment and the burdens of love drive To the Wonder; while Gravity ends with Stone rising up on to a beach and marveling at the beauty of creation, To the Wonder starts on one, a rather somber beach beneath the gothic church of Mont Saint-Michel, where Affleck and Kurylenko’s love is immune to the grey day around them. “Love is a duty,” Father Bardem reminds us, soldiering through parish politics and his visits to the poor and suffering, wondering where God is in all of this madness. To the Wonder struggles somewhat because it has taken such a massive theme—love—and tried to pack it into a two-hour feature, and while Malick and Lubezki fit an awful lot of stuff into those two hours, it’s hard to do it justice.

Despite the very conventional trappings of To the Wonder (love story in Paris, archetypal characters, life in suburbia with amber waves of grain), it is highbrow in a way that Gravity isn’t, and also has a radical edge. The reason for this is religious: Malick is, of course, an explicitly Christian filmmaker, and that makes him a bit of an odd duck in the modern film industry. He’s not here to proselytize or show off the wonders of faith, either; instead, much as in The Tree of Life—a meditation on the Book of Job—the emphasis is on the meaninglessness of it all, and on faith as consolation in the face of tragedy. It’s also intellectually robust, which explains why the film was lost on many people. And even some of the people who did understand what was going on might not have liked it if they were annoyed by the religious themes or frustrated with the vagueness of it all. Even so, Malick is the epitome of David Foster Wallace’s “new literary rebel” (see the last paragraph for the summary).

Gravity, as gripping as it can be, isn’t going to rock any planets. Its themes are far more universal (gah, so many puns): the rebirth-of-meaning arc is something you can find in just about any culture. This is great for happy liberal themes in which we all just get along, and also great for selling movies to as many people as possible. However, it also runs the risk of being glib, or being artsy for its own sake but not aspiring to much else. There is a trade-off here that many artists have to make: go deep and risk losing people (Malick), or stay away from those more troubling questions and let the prettiness stand alone (Cuarón). My own instincts, being somewhat on the snobbish side, tip toward Malick—even though I don’t entirely share his worldview.

This isn’t to condemn Gravity. It deserves all of the plaudits it’s received for its beauty, and it reminds us of how visual innovation in film is far from over. Demanding intellectual rigor out of all art can quickly grow tiresome, especially when that annoying life thing makes one do things other than be a critic. It may not really challenge anyone, but if one knows how to ask the right questions, middlebrow film is good enough to raise plenty of issues that demand further explanation. And given the confines of the two-hour feature film, there’s a good argument for relying on television instead of the silver screen for true depth. (Want a sincere, near-avant-garde look at modern American life, with much more profound characters and fewer religious trappings? Watch Friday Night Lights.) When it comes to visual power, though, the cinematography of a man like Lubezki offers so much that a film can stand on its own as a superb work of art. Whether that is enough for you, or if you want art to demand something more…well, that’s up to you, and there’s wisdom in both answers.