Voyage of Time: Life's Journey ★★★★★

Me: So my frustration with Malick is that he filters his beautifully photographed meditations on the nature of the universe through plot and character and it never really gels for me.

Malick: Oh hi Doug I made a movie without any plot or character literally at all does that help?



(Edited to add some thoughts since I'm apparently just about the only person in New Zealand who doesn't think this is a crock of shit.)

The term "documentary" is rarely as irrelevant to understanding a non-fiction film as it is for VOYAGE OF TIME: LIFE'S JOURNEY. The expectation is that a documentary provides information, a thesis, an argument. Certainly, some films play with that expectation and undercut it, but VOYAGE OF TIME is uninterested in argumentation on any logical level, or even providing the most basic of grounding information to the viewer - whether the images are microcellular or intergalactic, whether they are captured in nature or generated by machine, whether they represent the beginning or end of our universe, things that could be considered really incredibly basic when it comes to evaluating an image in a conventional way.

Applying the tools of documentary critique to VOYAGE OF TIME is rather like going after a balloon with a knife and fork. In short order anyone can expose what appears to be its inner emptiness and prove that it is by no means a filling meal. That it might also suggest it's not, in this egregiously mixed metaphor, intended to be food at all seems to have escaped those who have had their knives out for it, and who may have not noticed that despite its apparent emptiness somehow there is more to it than their dissection reveals.

VOYAGE OF TIME is, quite simply, a song of devotion, the purest expression of Terrence Malick's worldview, one that sees life in all things, a notion floating somewhere between Taoism and the Emersonian overmind. It's a notion he doesn't argue for so much as work from as a starting points, showing its echoes across time and space, using voice-over to ask questions that sound simplistic to the point of banality if one is unwilling to analyze how difficult those questions are to answer from other worldviews.

How do you critique a song of devotion? It is not an argument, but an assertion born of faith, free from even the faintest trappings of theosophy. To critique it is impossible: to reject it, as is the flavour, is simple.

I seem to have argued myself into a corner of saying that VOYAGE OF TIME is free of critique, but in fact analyzing its technique is, I believe, productive to understanding it further. Kubrick presented the entire history of mankind in a single cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Malick makes no single cut that can be as iconic, but its cognitive leap is one that echoes throughout Malick's work. If Kubrick's cut says "this, too, is a manifestation of mankind as a tool-making primate", then Malick's cuts says "this, too, is life" as he pingpongs between time-frames, obscure devotional chimes fading over majestic landscapes, parking lots leading us to the eventual heat-death of the universe.

You could argue that other films have done the same in presenting us the diversity of the world. What differentiates Malick's film from the BARAKAs and KOOYANISQATSIs of the world points to what makes it special. In those films, the insistence that the viewer sublimate one's self to the aesthetic experience never relents. Here, Malick aggressively includes actively ugly images in segments shot around the world, apparently using a 2007-era phone-camera, full of macroblocks, blown-out images, and even auto-exposure. Why? It's easy to find the beauty in even the hellish conditions documented in, say, POWAQQATSI. It's much less easy to find it in the aggressive anti-beauty of pixelated homeless people fighting and fossicking through rubbish bins.

But it's all life, and it's all manifestations of the same thing. I know this notion is anathema to many, regardless of what, for instance, studies of mirror neurons do to destabilize our entrenched notion of individuals as independent rational beings. A documentary trying to argue a point about the intrinsic connectedness of life could include a discussion on this topic, and should, if it wants to convince rationally.

Malick, instead, wishes to sing. Many will be immune to his music. I was in awe and reverence for 90 minutes, jaw agape in front of a giant screen, knowing full well as I did so that many would find it risible, indistinguishable from a 90-minute supercut of NatGeo documentaries. And if that's what you see in this hymn, that's what you see, and I can't convince otherwise.

But to dismiss this film by saying you can put together a screensaver that will produce the same reaction in me as the summary devotional hymn of a man who's been working for 40 years towards this achievement? It's like assuming you can replace John Coltrane's "Ascension" with pre-schoolers wailing on their instruments. Your ears may not allow you to hear the difference, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

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