'To the Wonder': New World Redux

Because Terrence Malick's To the Wonder eschews chronology and, for the most part, dialogue, you can't know when such sublime or difficult moments occur, or how they have effects, exactly.

To the Wonder

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline
Rated: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-04-12 (General release)
UK date: 2013-02-22 (General release)

"He's asking if you want to come live in the United States." As her mother explains to Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) what Neil (Ben Affleck) means to say, the trio is walking in a park in Paris, the light soft grey and the grass exquisite green. Just 10 years old, Tatiana is excited and frightened, but she's also trusting, and so she runs to embrace the man whom her mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), has only just met. The camera swoops close, their faces flushed and their limbs entwined.

The scene comes early in To the Wonder, Terrence Malik's new meditation on the vagaries of love and loss. Tatiana will end up being something of a casualty here, within the plot, as the adults prove unable to sort out their differences, and also within the film as such, as she's sent off to live with an unseen father, such that her experience becomes an appendage to her mother's, who will end up feeling very alone and not a little resentful too. Marina's experience may be the most legible in the film, which works in the ways that Malick's films like to work, by allusive light and mobile framing and many shots of stunning young women twirling in skirts. Marina serves as the subject of this last on several occasions, as does the other object of Neil's affection, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Tatiana tends not to be in or see these scenes, which is just as well.

The plotty reason this is just as well is obvious, as Tatiana, photogenic like a model just like her mother, is yet too young to serve as a twirly object of this sort. But there's another reason too, which is that she is, after all, 10, and smart and observant too, with practical concerns, and so you might imagine her to be less patient with such poetic imagery. And if the on-screen portrayal of the move to Oklahoma remains cryptic for both Tatiana and Marina, the child's understanding of what must be an upheaval is especially slight. She walks a bit with Neil and her mom, they go to church, and she attends school, where a couple of kids show up in the frame with her. But how she adjusts to the change from an urban and likely French experience to the rural Midwest is pretty much left to your imagination.

In this, Tatiana's story is both like and unlike that of the adults, including her mom and Neil, and his other girlfriend, Jane (Rachel McAdams), and his priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Each is afforded a bit of pondering time, and Father Quintera takes particular advantage of it, thinking through the promise and consequence of faith, how he must "run the risk of failure," and also how to make sense of a world where faith is not apparently rewarded or even acknowledged. That he shares a moment of seeming joy with a black worker at the church, cleaning the stained glass windows, is at once distressing and predictable: the worker offers an authentic, earnest, and frankly stereotypical advice, to give himself over to a vitalizing spirit. Father Quintera smiles and, in the next scene, resumes cogitating.

You might imagine that Father Quintera's questions are of a piece with Neil's. Both men work with a community, namely, Bartlesville, a portion of whose population is facing evacuation because of already-starting tar-sands crude seepage. Neil takes soil readings and speaks with people who have no obvious place to go, Father Quintera goes door to door to counsel drug addicts and single moms, and also speaks with Marina, fretting that her life and relationship have not turned out as she hoped. Both men may be contemplating big questions, say, the meaning of love (spiritual and romantic, all-consuming and self-defining), though Neil is considerably less articulate.

The women, meanwhile, are left to twirl. As much as Marina, feeling displaced, reflects on Neil's increasing withdrawal, she can't know whether it's because his job is worrying him or he feels crowded by the two new people in his sparsely decorated home. And as he's distracted by Jane, with whom he rekindles a former romance, or maybe he just remembers it. As Marina agonizes on her own, she can't know that her blue featherweight Victoria's Secret tops only exacerbate her difference from Jane, who wears brighter, more primary colors, red and yellow skirts and boots too, as she works with horses, on a ranch, which means she twirls in muddy paddocks.

It's not always clear whether these differences are real, or Neil perceives them, or whether there is a difference between these ideas, in this film. And it's here that you might think Tatiana's perspective might be helpful. She sees the changing dynamic between her mother and Nail, she walks with them and doesn't quite believe his scientific explanation of the pinkish light in the sky, a sliver of his work life sliding into his personal one. She's not in the cold grey kitchen when Marina tells Neil that her visa has expired, or in the bedroom as Marina packs. She writes words onto Neil's forehead, practicing her English in silence, but Tatiana misses the decisions that shape her life, and you miss her reactions, save for once, when she informs Neil that she no longer likes him.

Because To the Wonder eschews chronology and, for the most part, dialogue, you can't know when such sublime or difficult moments occur, or how they have effects, exactly. And you want very much to appreciate the film's remarkable understanding of how movies can work as such, its investment in light and motion, in bodies and gestures and land and sky.

All of these details are brilliant here, providing the sorts of impressions a child like Tatiana might appreciate. Still, after that early thrill in Paris, it's hard to know what she wants, how she perceives, and how she affects the adults who seem mostly to ignore her. Tatiana doesn't hear the poetic and sometimes silly slashes of voiceover ("I open my eyes, I melt," "Love makes us one, two, one," "What is this love that loves us?" “A husband does not find his wife lovely. He makes her lovely”). She might observe what's in front of her, even un-enhanced by Emmanuel Lubezki's superb cinematography. And she might engage in the so meaningful on-screen movement, running and embracing. And she might not.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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