These days one of the only things more repetitive than a Terrence Malick film is the narrative surrounding him. Darling of the new Hollywood movement takes a twenty year break from filmmaking, returns with The Thin Red Line and begins to average an every five year output. Then something changed. With the release of his most recent Song To Song, he has now made more films this decade than he did the first 35 years of his career.
This is, of course a blessing and a curse. Reviews of his post The Tree Of Life work have been mixed. I personally had never seen a film of his I would rank below four out of five stars- until now. It’s hard to say, but Song To Song, a story of multiple love triangles set against the backdrop of the music scene of Austin, TX, feels like a triple album of music you only kind of like.
While set in a town where creativity is the main industry, the creative process only plays a small part in the story. Malick uses it superfluously in order to get to his real areas of interest, the focus of his last several films. Those being; man’s self made misery, selfish lack of love, and long hard journey towards a spiritual cleansing. His characters move around the world isolated, tortured, empty. He is far more interested in what we feel than what we say. The heavy use of voiceover in place of humans talking makes his films feel like a conversation we’re having with ourselves. For those of us who spend a lot of time in our own heads, it connects, which is why I have loved every one of his films I have seen (the only one I haven’t is last year’s Voyage Of Time). The crippling sense of loneliness in the face of the beauty of nature and beyond is the essential duality he is obsessed with- perhaps his sole movie making theme of the last decade.
And yet, a music scene like the one depicted in Song To Song is by nature an economy of vibrant people. Of living souls, connecting to one another and in harmony with each other. Then why does a serious lack of energy, a lifelessness, pervade this film?
For example, BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara) are supposedly songwriters- but we hardly see them writing songs. We certainly never hear them complete one, instead opting for a few snippets of messy singing before moving on to the next scene. They maintain a steady miserable anxiety under the thumb of Cook (Michael Fassbender), a rich music producer who holds the strings to get them where they want to go. The triangulation of sex, romance, creativity and friendship between these three kickstart the film, and for a while, it holds your interest story-wise. Yet ultimately, his narratives fall apart because the characters simply don’t act like real people do. Malick’s characters relate to each other more like dogs circling each other than real people. They approach each other, stroke each other, twirl around and examine each other. Here and there towards the beginning, sure, that’s fine. After two hours of it, it surpasses the mark of self parody time. I wouldn’t mind any of this, of course, if there was a strong enough backbone to the movie; but when there isn’t, I tend to fixate on those peculiarities a little more.
Now, his last film, Knight Of Cups, showed a similar disinterest in the world in which it was set (the movie world of Hollywood), as well as a willingness to barely construct and easily dispose of A list actors. Yet that cold distance connected thematically with popular perceptions of Hollywood as a spiritually empty place. Having been to Austin several times, I can attest that it is a place teeming with life. It’s home to the weirdos, the rejects, the freaks, as well as the hipsters, college kids and good ole’ Texas boys alike. All of them come together to party and rage along Guadalupe Ave, or on 6th Street downtown. Yet for some reason, Malick chooses to set most of the film in swanky upscale apartments and houses, with beautiful people wearing impeccable, expensive clothing. Most of the downtown shots are on the dry, modernist block of the convention center. This is a very detached person’s idea of a music world, reflected in his choice to shoot the music scenes entirely at big festivals (such as Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun Fest), where a decent portion of the attendees are out-of-towners anyway. He almost totally foregoes the smaller clubs, bars, Honky Tonks and record store matinees that are the usual bread and butter of Austin. This is a music scene that a person who only reads about them in glossy magazines can dream up- nearly in no way reminiscent of a real one.
Yet every time you feel like quitting, like Cook teasing his girlfriends with riches and charm, Malick pulls you back in. Whether it’s a scene of Val Kilmer taking a chainsaw to an amp, Patti Smith bestowing her life wisdom on Faye , or the lazy Colorado river flowing slowly through town, there is a lot of candy for the eyes, heart and mind. It’s just that they never coalesce into something truly delicious. However, if you are going to see this movie, I really do suggest seeing it on the big screen. A dark theater where using your cell phone is extremely rude may be the only way Song To Song is going to hold your attention.
Since before 2011’s The Tree Of Life, these last four films (Song To Song, To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups, Voyage Of Time) have been in the works. Now that extremely fertile period of filmmaking seems to be over, I can’t help but wonder what’s next. According to Little White Lies, he has already completed his next film, a WWII drama called Raegund, which he says relies appropriately on a tight script (his lack of which has been the blessing and curse of his recent work, going back at least as far as 2005’s The New World). Perhaps this period was the result of a long incubation period- a pure burst of relatively unfiltered creativity. I am glad he got to do this, with (mostly) good results. Here’s to a return to structure, and all of the beauty that can offer.