Terrence Malick's Song to Song
SXSW 2017 opens with the world premiere.
"You get used to drifting. Waiting."
Does it matter whether it's Rooney Mara's Faye, Ryan Gosling's BV, Michael Fassbender's Cook, Natalie Portman's Rhonda or Cate Blanchett's Amanda who half-whispers these words under another careening, ultrawide-angled framing of all these beautiful people wondering what to do with themselves? And yet, just as Terrence Malick's Song to Song threatens to settle into the abiding pace of a feature-length montage sequence, there'll be a sudden and unexpectedly captivating swerve into an alternate texture—tube-era video or a clip from a silent classic. Or a relatively significant character turns up dead. The mystery lingers a minute or two, then evaporates.
For all the peripheral threads, some eventually tied up while others dangle still, the narrative backbone is discernible enough, even if the particulars are sketchy. Fassbender's music producer, manager and concert promoter—he must invest well, as he's ridiculously wealthy, considering the state of the business—and Gosling's songwriter and performer (we get to see him tickle the ivories again) both fall for Mara's singer, songwriter and guitarist (though her instrument seems to confuse her). It's evidently quite easy to do; simply press your brow against her midriff. Done. The power of love in Song to Song, though, is strangely inarticulate. Over and again, one of the two pairings has been placed in a photogenic environment and, it seems, told to flirt. The business these fine actors come up with is oddly childish—little dances, making faces, poking a stalk of grass up Mara's nostril and just generally goofing around, all the while avoiding eye contact and all but telegraphing a sense of helplessness, a lack of direction.
Patti Smith, emerging from the ambient aimlessness as herself, is a welcome relief for each and every one of her too few moments. She has stories to tell, acute observations to make, advice to give. She is, as opposed to the leads, a fully formed character. Which isn't to say that distinctions aren't drawn between Fassbender's crooked hedonist and Gosling's jealous man of simple means.
As the opening film of this year's SXSW Film Festival, the premiere of Song to Song was a hot ticket, the draw being not only the director and the cast (alongside the headliners, there's Holly Hunter, for example, glimpsed emoting but too seldom heard, Val Kilmer being an ass and cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop and John Lydon) but also Austin, playing itself and cast against type. The "Keep Austin Weird" side of the city that serves as a backdrop in, say, Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax (2009) has walk-ons in the form of a mural Mara and Gosling are momentarily placed in front of or the South Congress food truck lot Mara and her brief fling (Bérénice Marlohe) stroll through like tourists, but the state capital with money, and lots of it, that features in Bujalski's Results (2015) is paraded in Song to Song somehow as both symptom and a point of civic pride.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
"It pains me to say it, but Malick might want to consider another lengthy hiatus," suggests Variety's Peter Debruge. "Rushed into production mere months after his nearly-self-parodic, Hollywood-set Knight of Cups, Song to Song finds the maestro in broken-record mode, rehashing more or less the same themes against the backdrop of the Austin music scene—merely the latest borderline-awful Malick movie that risks to undermine the genius and mystery of his best work."
For Anya Crittenton at the Tracking Board, Song to Song "drags on its own self-indulgence, dabbling vaguely in experimentalism, and going on and on."
Updates, 3/11: Song to Song "reduces the elegant, layered storytelling of Badlands and Days of Heaven to simpler variations, as if they’re comprised of the beautiful residuals from those grander accomplishments," writes IndieWire's Eric Kohn. Malick's "recent spate of doodles have allowed him to pick up the pace over the past decade, cranking out disposable narratives that keep his talent active while it searches for an appropriate vessel."
"Song to Song is not designed to win back onetime admirers who felt Malick's To the Wonder and Knight of Cups drowned in their own navels," adds John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. "Near the end, a handful of fog-draped, static exterior shots are strung together in a brief montage. Nobody's talking, on screen or off, and there's no hint of the money that wafts through the rest of the film. The sequence contributes nothing to the story. It's heavenly."
"There are worse things in the world than watching Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling enter a Malickian fugue of tickling, kissing and giggling," writes Bryan Adams at WhereToWatch. "Slippery, metaphysical, at times achingly beautifully and ultimately elusive—a little like love itself."
For Jordan Hoffman, writing for the Guardian, "Song to Song is, once you root around for a story, the best of a recent trilogy. To the Wonder and especially Knight of Cups feel like warm-ups to this one."
Song to Song "is disheartening and may leave you even resentful, with the knowledge that a true poet is painting with the same splendorous canvas, and yet still offering diminishing returns," writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. "Certainly in a eye-wide-open, woke culture, Malick’s movies are sure to provoke the socially conscious tired of seeing white privilege on screen and Song to Song features much of it. Nearly every scene is shot in some palatial Austin mansion (nearly all of them with gigantic floor to ceiling windows). No one seems to work, the privileged protagonists seem to wander about, and yet someone is ostensibly paying for what are many of the movie’s ostentatious parties of excess."
For Nick Newman at the Film Stage, this is "one of his most emotionally dense films, and perhaps the most outright restless." And he asks, "what are you seeking in Malick circa 2017? Song to Song continually refuses to settle into one place, be pinned down by a single idea, or, more critically, a way of approaching the idea. Perhaps this distills why no contemporary film artist has come to more fully embody the alternately beautiful and frustrating fact that, no, those who disagree really have not seen the same film. Those who continue finding the rewards will pity, even find frustration with those who don’t; those who don’t might think we’re still deluding ourselves."
Updates, 3/12: Little White Lies' David Jenkins suggests that "the film is a deconstructed musical that’s loaded with all the rhapsodic highs and lows associated with the genre. The actors work hard to make their characters inscrutable but empathetic, especially the sad-eyed Mara and stone-faced Gosling. Malick is looking to answer the big questions by focusing on the smallest of nuances. He gets at things and makes breakthroughs without ever really pushing. It’s a majestic and profound film in which human beings waltz with one another and occasionally swap partners."
"Sex and Malick have never been an easy fit, but Song to Song plumbs new boreholes of cringe in that department, and its various bedroom encounters, shot in the usual extreme wide-angle by the director’s regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are gauzy and bloodless," writes the Telegraph's Robbie Collin. "The film is to sex as a lepidopterist is to a butterfly cabinet—it gets right in there with the magnifying glass, but perish the thought that anything might flap."
Updates, 3/14: "Each new film that Terrence Malick, the once notoriously unhurried director, has made in the rash of projects since The Tree of Life (2011) evinces a further regression, an increasingly witless sacralizing of male-female coupledom," writes Melissa Anderson. "The auteurist affectations and tics that have come to define the various labile dyads—always rupturing and reconciling beneath crepuscular skies—in Song to Song and its immediate predecessors, To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015), have produced in this viewer a condition that I can only diagnose as heterophobia."
Also in the Voice, Bilge Ebiri: "For all the worldly experimentalism of Malick's style, when his characters actually do 'experiment' (and the word regularly comes up from movie to movie)—when they break boundaries, try new things, toss out old rules—it leads to disaster. And so we're left with works of formal abandon and moral resolve. But that's also part of what makes them so fascinating and, yes, beautiful. The overall effect is that of an artist trying to understand his times, to indulge in the newness of a world he doesn't always grasp — to find the beauty and wonder in it, even as it terrifies him."
For Screen's Tim Grierson, "this hit-or-miss romantic tale frustrates as much as it puts one under a spell. Best appreciated as a sensory experience whose deeper meanings aren’t nearly as profound as the filmmaker and cast believe, Song to Song demonstrates that Malick remains a singular artist—albeit one in a palpable rut."
Updates, 3/16: "All this loveliness has its pleasures, but Mr. Malick’s visual choices also give the film a commercial luster that can rob that beauty of its power," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "That’s partly because the advertising world and mainstream cinema have long pilfered his aesthetic, turning it into a sales pitch. Mr. Malick is enraptured with beauty as an expression of God and as a path to God. But in Song to Song both the familiarity of his aesthetic and the inability of some of his actors to summon an inner light create immaculately photographed surfaces rather than immanence. You see the poses, not the divine."
"Malick is a romantic idealist," argues the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "His films revel in the unity of the virtues, of beauty, truth, and justice fused in an ultimate realm that leaves its glimmers on Earth and finds its ordinary place amid humanity in the form of love. Even more than his flowing, fragmentary, allusive methods, it’s his transcendental world view that renders him grandly untimely, that makes critics who are smitten with television’s cynical 'darkness' repudiate the cathedral-like sublimity of his vision."
"In the end, Song to Song has next to nothing of consequence to say about the music scene in 2017, just as Knight of Cups' gloss on Hollywood deal-making and networking was nothing if not incidental," writes Carson Lund for Slant. The "music industry… provides the textural backdrop for another long-form, free-associative investigation into the highs and low of romantic love, and one that arguably constitutes the most rewarding of Malick's recent output."
"As novel as it is to see Malick and Lubezki dip into an acrobatic mosh pit to shoot footage with a fish-eye lens, it’s easy to overstate Song to Song’s differences from its direct predecessors," suggests Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club. "Anyone whose patience was tried by halfway through Wonder will probably not rush back to the fold for this one. Yet there are moments here that land with more emotional resonance than anything he’s done since Tree."
Flavorwire's Jason Bailey argues that "the modus operandi of Malick 2.0 is to shoot his actors “being a couple,” which apparently involves quite a lot of frolicking and giggling and dancing, and then overlaying it with internal monologues about their feelings…. Not to broken-record it, but what do these two say to each other? What is their relationship like, beyond making coy googly-eyes at each other? How do they communicate? I guess I’ll never stop wondering this about the characters in these late Malick movies, and it seems he’ll never start."
For Ioncinema's Nicholas Bell, Song to Song is "another chapter (and perhaps the last in a thematic quartet) of beautiful people trapped by their own definitions of existence, unable to
'mind the gap' of the life they want with the life they lead, no matter how much validation (whether it be sex, love, or success) they receive. It is a formidably bleak testament of the disillusionment we all recognize but often stridently reject when presented so coercively in such expressive cinematic terms."
Updates, 3/20: "No other American filmmaker has gone further to collapse the boundaries between his character’s inner and outer lives or made this level of spiritual inquiry so boldly and movingly central to his art," writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. "To watch To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, in that order, is to finally appreciate the full arc of that inquiry—a fall from grace, a journey through despair and finally a restoration of innocence and hope. It hasn’t been an easy journey, or one immune to the traps of simplification and cliché, but even those pitfalls finally speak to Malick’s deeply moving sense of abandon, his willingness to risk all in the pursuit of a vision of transcendence."
"I'm in the tank for Terrence Malick," admits Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. "I love that after 44 years of feature filmmaking, his style is still an issue…. The actor and filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson, who had a small role in Malick's epic 1998 war poem The Thin Red Line, said the difference between Malick and most other filmmakers is 'the difference between [Georges] Seurat painting with dots and [Paul] Cezanne, who's a more painterly painter.' Nevertheless, here we are, at long last: Song to Song… is the first Malick film I’ve watched where the dots never came together to form a legible image."
Sam Adams for Slate: "Where The Tree of Life and The New World were rooted in Christian theology, the movies since feel like an attempt to seek the divine elsewhere: in nature, in the stars, in love or sex or art. Song to Song keeps on looking, but it’s also run through with the fear that the search may prove a fruitless one."
In Brooklyn Magazine, Michael Joshua Rowin suggests that "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."
"Song to Song fits comfortably within the tradition of Malick’s late output, but it also stands out as the movie that best justifies his recent experimentation," finds K. Austin Collins.
"It’s the movie in which his ends best justify his means, in which his late style and his story seem to make the most sense together."
Also at the Ringer, Lindsay Zoladz on Val Kilmer: "He is on screen for a total of maybe 90 seconds, and they are the most entertaining 90 seconds of the movie."
Update, 3/21: "Malick favors a gliding river of pure cinema, sometimes gorgeous beyond measure, and that's the thing," writes the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. "He's a responsive artist who'll canoe straight into the weeds without a narrative paddle. He gets caught in the weeds, and then he films the weeds, while an actress or an actor poses rhetorical questions on the soundtrack about love or guilt or the humbling glory of God's green and increasingly ruined earth." Still: "Even in the emptiest of his emptiest (my vote goes to Knight of Cups, in which Christian Bale wandered through a gentle rain of beautiful, available female flesh) you'll get a moment, or a rhyming composition created in the editing process, and it goes ping in your brain and the visual echo stays with you for a minute or 10 or maybe the entire picture."
Updates, 3/25: "Malick’s associative progressions elude easy interpretation, playing more like a jazz soloist’s embellishments than an ascending scale," writes Eric Hynes for Film Comment. "And motifs do arise, most evidently trees, windows, caressed bellies, and in Will Patterson’s virtuosic sound design, invasions of crickets and birds and wind overtaking dialogue. Actors emote in front of nature, while nature keeps spilling into private interior spaces. The camera swings and tilts and travels, yet keeps preferring a plane beneath the eyeline that incorporates the sky, or the oscillating ceiling fan, and emphasizes the vulnerability of the neck, and of whitened eyes uncertain of where to look or what to think. The film is always in motion, and yet there’s an implied stillness in those eyes, a terror that once everything stops moving we’ll be left alone with the smallness and futility of it all."
For Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, Song to Song is "ass-numbing drivel. It’s an Adam and Eve story that, aside from some scenes filmed at Austin music festivals, has the mise en scène of porn. This is a statement of fact: Much of the movie is set in hotel suites and realtor-ready mid-sized mansions that look like the crew rented them about two hours before filming, with the actors tossing around bed linens and touching each other’s faces in an endless clothed dance that approximates sex. And then there’s the famous Malick backward walk, which has been repeated to the point of self-parody—tentative, swaying, with one foot drawn behind the other. Like the joke goes, 'You know what else has a lot of weird cuts and improvised dialogue?'"
At Reverse Shot, Jeff Reichert suggests that Malick is "inviting us in as he remakes himself as a filmmaker, even making an unthinkable public appearance at SXSW to unpack his art. There was a time, not terribly long ago, when the idea of a new Malick movie seemed unlikely at best, and each new one felt like it could have been the last we’d ever get. How then, do we best adjust to the reality of Terrence Malick, working artist? We watch. We listen."
"This is the first Malick film I can think of, including his four other collaborations with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, that didn’t buckle my knees from so much beauty," writes the Austin Chronicle's Kimberley Jones. "The film was shot starting in 2011 in part with GoPro and other digital cameras, and some of it looks, well, kinda cruddy. Still, the grainy, even sloppy effect feels thematically true to a movie about people chasing sensation to the point of self-danger."
For Vulture, Kevin Lincoln talks with Fassbender "about drawing inspiration from Satan and Bob Fosse, mingling with rock-and-roll legends, and working with a very energetic Val Kilmer—but not what happened in Mexico."
Updates, 4/2: "Whether the film succeeds as a whole is less important than the seriousness of its intent—it's worth experiencing and grappling with," argues Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. "In his restless shifting from one character's perspective to another, Malick conveys that [the forces of family and belonging] are accessible to anyone. That's a deeply benevolent message, perhaps the most optimistic we're going to find in American movies this year. It comes from a sincere spiritualism and a love for assembling movies that carries over to a love for anyone watching them."
"In some ways, the casting of so many trendy A-list stars doubles down on Malick’s self-indulgence, as their glamorous images only highlight the film’s lack of substance," finds Colleen Glenn, writing for Bright Lights. "Their talent goes unused in this script, which reduces these capable actors to stereotypes of self-absorbed millennials. Crowd surfing at music festivals, clowning around at opulent parties, behaving obnoxiously while on vacation in Mexico—the plot reads like a Wikipedia entry for wealthy, white youth culture."
"For better or worse, a lot of Malick’s movies feel like they were made up as they went along during the shoot," writes Sean Burns. "This one feels like it’s still being made up as you’re sitting in the theater watching it."
"Malick’s friends describe him as a generous and humble man with a capacious intellect and a child’s insatiable curiosity," writes Eric Benson in the Texas Monthly. "He likes going deep on birding, cosmological events, and the interconnectedness of the natural world." And: "'If you work at Vulcan Video, if you went to high school with him, then he’s Terry, he’s not this reclusive guy,' director Richard Linklater, who first met Malick almost 25 years ago, told me. Still, Linklater said, 'there’s always a bit of mystery with Terry. He’s kind of everywhere and nowhere.'"
"One of the stranger aspects of Malick’s career is that having first made films exclusively set in the past, it was only when he moved into the present that they felt old-fashioned," writes Danny Leigh in the Guardian.
See, too, Jacob T. Swinney's piece here in Keyframe, "The Trouble with Terrence."
Updates, 3/11: Malick has made a surprise appearance at Saturday morning's discussion of Song to Song between Linklater and Fassbender, reports Chris O'Falt for IndieWire. "Ultimately, the focus of day's discussion was about how Malick’s process was about searching and exploring in the act of shooting. Malick revealed that his famed Mexican cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki has given him the nickname of 'apuntador,' the job title of person on Mexican soap operas who tells the cast what happens next in the scene. 'I have trouble working off things that are too preconceived, like storyboards,' said Malick. 'When things become too prepared the life comes out of it. I think you work this way Rick.' (Linklater replied, 'Not this hardcore. That’s why I’m so intrigued.')"
Update, 3/20: IndieWire's David Ehrlich has "asked our panel of critics if they’ve lost patience with the legendary filmmaker, and also where they’re hoping to see him go from here."