Song to Song
Directed by Terence Malick
Opens March 17
Watching Terrence Malick’s most recent films, I was reminded of what Dinosaur Jr. guitar god J. Mascis told The Quietus about classic double albums Exile on Main St. and Physical Graffiti:
[On Exile]: It’s good because there are so many songs on it, but it’s easy to listen to a lot because they’re not too great, in a way—just the whole sound of it is cool, somehow. . . . It’s not all hits and stuff; it’s bad enough that you can listen to it a lot.
[On Graffiti]: It’s kind of like Exile On Main Street [sic] again, in that there’s so many songs and it’s easy to listen to a lot, because you don’t always remember them. They’re not so great or poppy that you get sick of them, and there’s a lot of stuff to get through.
Of the few remaining American movie directors who garner mainstream recognition as well as art film cred, Malick is by far the most “musical,” and if you’ve gone into his last several efforts expecting conventionally engrossing stories rather than visual and narrative lyricism then you’ve probably been sorely disappointed. For many, Malick’s work after The Thin Red Line (1998), and especially ever since The Tree of Life (2011), has offered both too much and too little: too much fugue-like sensuality and too little plot. Within To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and now Song to Song “there are so many songs” that are “not all hits and stuff” and that “you don’t always remember”—fleeting, fragmentary encounters with the natural and man-made world, ruminations on faith and purpose, improvisations around playful lovemaking and everyday living, all comprising “a whole sound” at the expense of traditional character development and narrative propulsion.
Fitting, then, that Song to Song should be set amidst the Austin music industry and concert scene, with delirious in-the-trenches shots of music festival revelers and backstage preparations, soundtrack selections from Die Antwoord and Bob Dylan, and cameos by Iggy Pop, John Lydon, and most of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. (Patti Smith’s role is fairly substantial, as well as emotional—at one point she speaks of continuing to wear her wedding ring after the death of husband and MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, and damn if I didn’t nearly tear up.) The central characters not only work in this milieu but attempt to live—as one voiceover puts it—“from song to song,” shaping their lives according to the blissful, transient feeling of popular music.
Like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups—I have yet to see last year’s cosmological documentary Voyage of Time—Song to Song contains an easily summarized story and a near-ineffable style. The protagonists are songwriters BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara), lovers who meet at a party hosted by mutual friend and industry bigwig Cook (Michael Fassbender). Unctuous, pompous Cook is the closest Malick has come to portraying Mephistopheles—he not only screws BV out of a copyright deal, but he also purchases the love of struggling waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and then leads her to debauched ruin via drugs and infidelity, all the while claiming that “the world wants to be deceived.” BV and Faye break up due to the latter’s affair with Cook; they fall briefly in love with other people and then reunite.
With Song to Song, Malick appears to have concluded a loose trilogy—call it the ‘Weightless Trilogy,’ after Song to Song‘s working title. To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song all revolve around characters searching for spiritual fulfillment through love, and each takes place in a distinctly alienated contemporary world, a place Malick first visited in the bookends of The Tree of Life (all his other films are set in the past), and which he repeatedly represents via opulent post-modern architectural structures and surfaces. While featuring Malick’s trademark excursions into beautiful landscapes and toward crepuscular horizon lines, the films of the trilogy also increasingly incorporate computer and phone camera footage; Knight of Cups and Song to Song feature psychedelically-rendered multi-colored light displays within nightclubs and on dance floors as characters literally and figuratively lose themselves in rapid-fire stimuli. Sex is a central concern in the trilogy as either the physical manifestation of Edenic bliss or else the technological age’s paramount form of escapism. In short, Malick has fashioned his own version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Eros is sick” trilogy of L’avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962). But whereas Antonioni bracketed his trilogy with the disappearance of his characters—disappearances that in the end seemed to portend nothing less than global apocalypse—Malick’s trilogy ultimately reaffirms human presence, and agency, through the grace of forgiveness.
If that sounds hokey—or at least naively optimistic—then keep in mind that Malick’s trilogy challenges on virtually every level of style and structure. To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song exist at the extreme margins of mainstream narrative cinema, with Malick providing impressionistic glimpses of character and story through a dense network of audio-visual fragments that work more often according to poetic and graphical association than linear progression. It’s not all impossibly lofty stuff you have to intellectually “get.” Consider Song to Song’s funniest moment, in which Val Kilmer takes a chainsaw to a guitar amplifier on a music festival stage. This act is completely cut off from its larger context—a context I refuse to ever know—and placed in a new one that provides a humorous counterpoint to BV and Faye’s separation. Meanwhile, transitions among shots frequently and radically disrupt spatial and temporal unity, with off-kilter compositions and gliding camera movements providing further disorientation/exhilaration. Having debuted as a feature-length filmmaker with Badlands (1973), a relatively conventional (though no less wondrous) lament for sociopathic malaise, Malick has used the most recent phase of his career to push the formalist envelope for the sake of emotional and perhaps even religious uplift.
Song to Song tempers certain qualities of this latest phase while sustaining the extremity of others. I might need further viewings to confirm this observation, but it appears that for the first time since The Tree of Life Malick intermittently halts the torrential sound and image montage to allow conversations between characters to “fully” unfold, as when BV’s mother (Linda Edmond) tells her son and his older girlfriend (Cate Blanchett) in isolated confrontations over the course of the same awkward lunch that they aren’t right for one another. At a few moments there are even significant swaths of silence that in the past few films would have been paved over by Malick’s patented character voiceover narration. For many viewers this will create breathing room as well as occasional, albeit brief, groundings in accessible storytelling. Personally I prefer the total sensory immersion of Knight of Cups, but I also appreciate the relative fleshing out of characters and the rediscovered emphasis on performances. One of the major problems with the trilogy is Malick’s over-reliance on images of couples making cute or else gazing at each other longingly, a visual motif that yields decreasing emotional dividends the longer we go without learning details of their interactions. Again, Malick is painting impressions, rather than naturalistic representations, of romance, lust, grief, etc. But sometimes impressions become generalities. In the case of Song to Song, we see little of the characters actually making music or engaging in the sadomasochism that numbs Faye to intimacy. The flattening out in both cadence and language of Malick’s philosophical voiceovers—at least as compared with the perfect folksy dialogue of his early films—can amplify the vagueness: for every sweetly simple turn of phrase like “I didn’t have the right heart in me” there are many, many platitudes.
But, again, Malick is “not all hits and stuff,” and within the “whole sound” of Song to Song lie the best kind of artistic ambiguities and mysteries that make you want to “listen . . . a lot.” One scene, for instance, depicts BV and Faye eyeing one another warily in a bedroom, with BV intoning in voiceover that “things changed . . . became suspicious.” Yet into the domestic turbulence Malick inserts a brief shot of a music festival crowd. Why? Is the crowd an associational link to master-of-the-music-industry-universe Cook, with whom Faye has signed on to advance her career, in addition to sleeping with? But the crowd appears happy, even rapturous—is it then a reminder of the joyous times BV and Faye once had in romantic and musical harmony?
I don’t possess answers to these questions, but I’m glad Malick provoked them. And the fact that 73-year-old Malick continues to provoke even with a comparatively “minor” set of films (after the grand historical and cosmological ambitions of The New World  and The Tree of Life) speaks to just how ahead of his time he remains. The greatest artistic provocation of all is that of surprising, strange, and innovative art that dares the ridiculous in the pursuit of beauty. One day we’ll look back on this period of Malick’s career and rue that we didn’t realize that.