Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
By Roderick Heath
Terrence Malick’s unexpectedly prolific burst of work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, The Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2013), and Knight of Cups (2016), forms a loosely autobiographical, delicately interwoven trilogy exploring the sum and meaning of Malick’s life experience. His latest feature film, Song To Song, quietly reframes that series as well as extending it, resituating the three most recent works as a triptych describing the present day, but can also be seen as coda, revision, or even a return to point of departure. Here we are back in the heat-glare and sultry airs of Texas, the houses on sun-dappled streets charged with quiet yearning that have predicated Malick’s reminiscences since Badlands (1974), and returning to the theme of the eternal triangle that compelled Days of Heaven (1978), if in a radically different style. That film’s painterly poise in contemplating the tension between human unruliness and natural composure has given way to Malick’s recent, vertiginously mobile camerawork and his newly restless, hungry efforts to both experience and contemplate all at the same time, an option open to the filmmaker as it is no artist in any other art form. With his recent output, Malick has steadily abandoned the unique status he once had as American cinema’s most elusive and rarefied creator, a teller of grand tales of national genesis and mythical parable, at least to the extent that now he’s been releasing films regularly and engaging with the state of today rather than the epic pivots of epochs past. And yet Malick’s concerns here are generally exactly the same ones that have always dogged him: love, creation, destruction.
Song To Song is a movie centring, of all times and places, on the contemporary music scene of Austin, Texas, a nexus for messy conception and peculiar faith. The story involves a daisy chain of romances and seductions, some of them sexual, others artistic and fiscal. Malick’s mixture of pride and bemusement that a corner of his home state has become a crossroads for modern pop culture is written into this work’s texture, as he repeatedly and amusedly returns to the juxtaposition of modern Austin’s new high-rise architecture looming cheek-by-jowl with neighbourhoods still composed of fibre cement and wood-frame houses, an outpost of super-modernity grafted onto a parochial patch of earth. Hell, this could well even be Malick’s metaphor for his own imagination. The choice of the music scene as a frame for this tale essentially transposes Malick’s meditation on his early Hollywood days, already explored in Knight of Cups, onto another social landscape, albeit one with a transient vitality that contradicts the ponderous machinery and alienation of the movie industry’s outer precincts. The previous film’s portraits of the hilarious vulgarity of wealth and the corrupting effects of obtaining success at someone else’s whim and in betrayal of one’s muse are here re-engaged more directly, and so are questions about what drives an artist to create or not create depending on the moment, questions Malick, who spent twenty years out of the directing game, has obviously asked himself often. Michael Fassbender incarnates Cook, a music producer and recording magnate around whom the other characters are locked in orbit, as the person who can make or break dreams but who is himself beset by contradictory forces he seems unwilling or unable to identify. Rooney Mara is Faye, a would-be performing star who is, at the outset, Cook’s aide and also his sometime lover. Ryan Gosling is BV, another musical talent who impresses Cook sufficiently to be anointed as his next big thing.
In its initial story proposition, Song To Song calls to mind Kris Kristofferson’s “The Taker,” one of the many visceral yet sarcastic post-mortems that musician wrote about what it’s like to be a failure in a culture-industry town – in that case, the Nashville Kristofferson haunted in the 1960s, musing on watching a girl you like being romanced by a successful man. Malick’s narrative runs contrary to this in deed if not spirit as the artist wins over the mogul in chasing the heart of the lady fair, but then finds things are never quite so simple. The boiling masses of tattooed fans who surge around the Austin City Limits Festival stages and other venues might seem like expressions of riotous pagan impulse at odds with Malick’s Augustinian sensibility, but he readily subsumes them into his world-view, rejoicing in the bristling energy and explosions of primal life-force on hand. Cook uses their performances in part as a prop in his own life, an end to his labours and also a means for charming both lovers and artists. The bruising yet rapturous spectacles of communal joy and conjuring are counterpointed with the intimate and protean world of bohemian becoming that is the rest of the movie, and the camera (wielded by Malick’s invaluable recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) locates the lead actors here with a general aura of solitude even when in the midst of vast crowds: to be the artist is to suffer an eternal frustration of severance from the freedom the crowd has to simply experience the artwork, and indeed life itself. Faye inhabits a limbo as a talent who, through connections rather than actual, proper committed work, lives in comfort and prosperity, in a sky-riding apartment in one of the downtown buildings, which Cook probably bought for her.
Faye’s wont to turn the world into a smorgasbord of experiential possibility and Cook’s ability to offer it up that way is visualised with genius economy when, at one of Cook’s parties, Faye finds herself looking over a woman used as human food platter, her naked body bedecked with hors d’oeuvres (and the woman herself looks unnervingly like Faye), whilst Cook tries to interest BV in the bevy of beauties flocking around his swimming pool. But BV quickly zeroes in on Faye because of her self-declaration as someone detached from the scene, as she strides amongst the partiers listening to her iPod: when BV catches her eye, instead of stepping out of her bubble, she invites him into it by handing him one of her ear-buds, and they gently bop to the sounds she’s listening to. Cook’s methods of seduction ironically echo the great business of romance as it blooms between Faye and BV, and other Malick couples. The film’s first quarter is replete with images of the mogul and his two pals having a good time in distinct couplets, getting drunk in the streets of old Mexico or spinning weightlessly in a plunging jet, matching the way the first flush of the thrill in being freed from the rules of gravity through the alchemy of creation and the lubrication of money. But this loose, semi-clandestine menage comes to an end as Cook takes both Faye and BV south of the border, and recognises quickly Faye has fallen properly for the performer, diagrammed in terms of proximity with excruciating clarity amidst the geometrics of the Mexican architecture.
Cook quickly expiates this humiliation by flirting with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a former teacher who’s now making ends meet working as a waitress. Cook breezes into her life and storms her barricades with all the swagger of his success and his practiced charm, and in short order marries her. Her mother (Holly Hunter) cautions her to be careful, as her finances aren’t in the best shape and she’ll have no power to fight her husband if she needs to break from him: “The law’s no help for those who are ruined,” her mother states. Cook even buys her mother a house. But true to mama’s rueful warnings, Cook uses his grip on Rhonda to draw her into his lifestyle, including at one point getting her into a threesome with Faye, who maintains an occasional sexual relationship with her boss even as she and BV move in together and share a seemingly bucolic existence. A rupture comes in this state of affairs when BV confronts Cook during a fraught drinking session over his copyrighting BV’s songs under his own name. BV spits at Cook’s feet and severs their business ties as well as their friendship. Soon Cook makes an offer of a recording contract to Faye, perhaps as a device to cleave the couple apart. BV advises her to take the chance even though he despises Cook, but soon BV also learns the real nature of Faye’s past with Cook, which soon learns to their breaking up. Both quickly drift into new amours. BV, trying to re-establish himself with declining enthusiasm for the music scene in general, encounters divorced millionaire Amanda (Cate Blanchett) and they have a good time together in spite of the discomfort some take in their age difference. Meanwhile Faye has a bring fling with a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), a steamy little affair that nonetheless quickly cools down as it has no emotional content.
Song To Song is tantalising, infuriating, utterly distinctive but also sometimes wearyingly repetitious, at once richly composed and yet often curiously lackadaisical. It feels more loosely assembled than any of Malick’s other recent films, but also flaunts this quality. Part of this seems dictated by setting and production and other parts by the matter at hand. Most of Malick’s movies have all been love stories to some extent, they’ve also been stories about the difficulties of humans evolving into their proper selves, even if it means leaving behind states of contentment. To The Wonder concluded with its errant exiled heroine giving herself up to a type of pantheistic world-love rather than merely human; Knight of Cups concluded with a vision of its hero finding happiness but leaving it vague as to just how. Song To Song commits itself to speaking of the damage lovers can do to each-other but also patiently traces the paths that can lead them back together. It tells of young emotions with a youthful zest of technique but with a notably aged note of languorous yearning and fumbling to articulate wisdom hard-won. Malick’s trademark use of voiceover is less prevalent here, the musings less abstract and more like attempts to boil specific understandings down to worldly sutras. It’s also the first of his labours to be told mostly from the perspective of an adult woman, Faye. The urgency that has propelled his recent output, the frantic, daring attempts to paint entire life cycles into two hours of cinema evinced in The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, gives way here to a more modest study of desire in both its momentary and perpetual manifestations. Malick lets us see his performers footloose in the moment, adjusting themselves to his directions or provoking each-other in actor-exercise improvisations. The method suggests Malick’s attempt to reproduce the rough-hewn aesthetics and improvisatory lifestyles of the denizens of the music world, offering the technique he’s steadily mastered on his previous handful of films with the work showing this time.
Of course, one might be justified in regarding this as a sign Malick’s rigour and craft are abandoning him in his old age and following a string of such stylistically similar films where he’s worked them good and proper, especially as some of his obsessive motifs come on with almost self-satirising regularity – flocking birds, waving grass, infinity pools, dance-like choreography of everyday human activity, and sexuality that seems to do everything but the nasty – and Song To Song starts to feel like a by-product. Certainly some of his themes here also threaten to edge into a zone of triteness he’s generally been able to avoid before, particularly in portraying Cook as serpent in the Edenic zone, the sponging corporate type who uses and abuses the folk about him. And yet Malick’s empathy is strong enough even to wrestle this cliché to a draw, hinting constantly at Cook’s sources of torment. He’s glimpsed pouring booze into an urn containing what seems to be a family member’s ashes towards the start, and he seems dogged by the absence of actual creative capacity itself. He can only frame it or augment it, and his habits of reducing the artists he encounters to prostitutes in relationship to him in part mimics his own actual reliance on other people to provide meaning to his actions. “I can’t take this world straight,” he confesses to Rhonda as he eddies in the flop-sweat-sodden, dull-eyed exhaustion after one of his orgiastic good times. “I was once like you – didn’t know what I know now,” he is heard uttering at one point. This voice of frantic, nihilistic need is projected over a fragment of an experimental film replete with images of lonely planets and axe murders, in an aside that curiously resembles Malick both engaging and satirising a generational fellow and temperamental opposite: David Lynch’s similarly stark and evocative tendencies towards surreal yet visceral pessimism.
Whilst it’s not a star turn in the traditional sense, Fassbender gives nonetheless a performance close to career-best as he exposes Cook’s flashes of smarmy brutality and supernal charm, but also the desperation in his glass-under-rain eyes. His habit of reducing his relationships to adjuncts of his appetites is ultimately enormously destructive but also rhymes with Faye’s own seeker status, as she has dedicated herself to obtaining experience at any cost. Sexuality, a matter Malick notably avoided depicting in his early work, is very much a topic Song To Song tackles with curiosity as well as a certain censorial instinct, in a way that constantly evokes erotic fervour but also grazes the edges of moralism. Certainly Malick examines the problems of people reducing each-other to bodies whilst neglecting other forms of connection, a problem that foils Faye’s efforts to grow: “I took sex – a gift – I played with it – I played with the flame of life,” her narration sums it up at one point. Yet Malick doesn’t disdain the vitality seen even in Cook’s carnal escapades, his boyish delight commingling with screaming need for escape in being squeezed between two prostitutes, flesh boiling in protoplasmic forms, manifestation of a desire to slip the bonds of being, that most inarguable and desolately inescapable of states. Romance for Malick is as ever a state close to returning to childhood, driving the poised and cynical beings he portrays into paroxysmic motion, making them run, dance, skip, leap, screw, and cling to each-other in tactile need, always teasing the surfaces of their lovers, even penetrating, but never quite gaining proper union with until a strange state Malick feels is close to divine intervenes.
The solitary, wanderer-in-the-world lot of Malick’s protagonists is bound in with their sexual identities here, their search for completing piece of their being. But it’s also tethered to their own status as familial creatures, the products themselves of people coming together. Cook’s possibly grieving rootlessness is contrasted with BV and Rhonda’s connections to family. The fact that both these characters live in a place at once cosmopolitan and parochial allows Malick to study them in the context of family allegiances and alternative value systems, whereas the protagonists of many of Malick’s earlier films were constantly cut off from native soil and their own pasts either by fate or design. BV is drawn back in by his family as his father has fallen into vegetative senescence, a reminder of imminent mortality and the bonds of identity that lend a subtle drag to his efforts to recover from the damage Cook did him. Faye has a solicitous father (Brady Cameron) who readily operates as her sounding board and confessor, as Rhonda’s mother serves for her. If some of Malick’s ways of masticating his material here feels a bit shop-worn in terms of his signature approach, one more original aspect of Song To Song lies in how it furthers the documentary element to his filmmaking that The Tree of Life mooted and Knight of Cups embraced. Lubezki’s camera floats freely through landscapes noting life in its asides and grand stages, evinced during the many vignettes set during musical performances, where the actors are knitted in with music stars. Crowds of young moshers and rockers are glimpsed at the outset engaged in gymnastic cavorting. Music stars careen by the camera, some fleetingly glimpsed like Florence Welch, Alan “Neon Indian” Palomo, and Tegan and Sara, whilst elder gods like John Leydon, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith are lassoed in to fulfil a more intriguing function: they offer snatches of personal wisdom, Greek Chorus-like commentaries on the problems besetting Malick’s characters gleaned from their own struggles and triumphs.
Nor is this just glorified star-fucking, for Malick has time for less spectacular confessionals, as he wrings from two of the prostitutes Cook hires, recounting their self-perceptions and experiences in hauntingly exposed terms, one young and fresh, the other older and feeling the stir of life’s colder winds. Malick’s familiar approach to utilising his actors, mining their most ephemeral, essential, and transient gestures and knitting them into the greater pattern of his editing, catches his actors both extremely wary, as Mara’s wide, alien glare absorbs her surrounds in suspicion and stoic remove, and also at their most unguarded, as when she launches into a dance in a bedroom, suddenly alight with the remembered pleasure of romantic moments. Gosling’s comedic gifts are allowed some leeway, as when he tosses away a terrible meal at some social shindig he’s been invited to. Val Kilmer appears in a bizarre cameo, part recreation of and lampoon on his famous role as Jim Morrison, as an aging rock star Faye is drafted into backing, who fires up the crowds with calculated barbarisms like using a chainsaw to cut a speaker in half, and scissoring off his own hair – pure incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll’s Loki-like, trickster god glee in all things antithetical and cathartically ruinous. Lykke Li has a substantial part as BV’s former girlfriend who’s become a jet-setting superstar, who visits him after he’s broken up with Faye and gives the siren call of joining her and drifting off into wild blue yonders. But BV, feeling the nagging tug of identity and responsibility as well as dissatisfaction with his life, instead retreats into his affair with Amanda, one that demands nothing but persistence in the moment. Faye seeks the same easeful time with Zoey, but her demanding, sensual, yearning face with its vulpine brows and teeth anxious for the red meat of love proves too potent for such a casual arrangement and an interloping straight lover, and the relationship quickly sunders. Meanwhile Cook’s indulgence of his many habits drives Rhonda to despair, and finally death, probably by suicide.
The Pre-Raphaelite image of Rhonda’s dead body splayed in water identifies her as a sacrificial victim for the cult of art, but the images of her mother wailing in banshee-like despair in a carpark identifies banal consumption of the soul as another trade of modernity. As Rhonda’s body is scooped up by a shocked and terrified Cook, Malick confronts an image of cold, cheerless death he has avoided in its last few films – even the crucial death at the heart of The Tree of Life, of the hero’s brother, was suggested rather than seen. It’s a logical end for an undercurrent of interpersonal violence witnessed continually but never evinced in blows or wounds. BV’s split from Cook is in itself as a fleeting yet gruelling vignette that precisely measures the meaning behind such acts as stealing someone else’s credit and smashing a bottle for cataclysmic underlining, whilst Rhonda’s squirming through the sessions of sexual adventuring her husband draws her into constantly prods with the spectacle of her reduction to concubine. Malick is also merciless in his understanding of a Buddhist philosophical truism, that what appear to be actions are in fact only ever consequences. BV’s understandable rejection of Cook nonetheless creates the circumstances that lead to Rhonda’s death because Cook is left untethered to any amity. BV and Faye’s journey by contrast eventually sees them reconnect and finally settle down, albeit it in quite different terms. BV abandons his music career for a simpler existence as an oil driller, swapping a frustratingly ethereal accomplishment for engagement with the physical world in a manner tied to his reclamation of his family identity, whilst Faye finally regains her musical fire even whilst settling into a more lucid and composed existence as a mother.
Song To Song is a striking and enriching collage on so many levels, and littered with gorgeous fragments that still bespeak of Malick’s capacity to find an arresting image in any setting and scatter intricate rhymes and patterns throughout. Like in a moment, close to the film’s start, when BV caresses Faye with Christmas lights, the accord of their nervous systems given a beautiful visual simile, rhymed to a shot much later of Faye lying sprawled alone on a coiled length of fluorescent lights, drifting in the ether of her own melancholic dreaminess, BV’s touch a memory. Or the sequence of BV and Cook’s first Mexico venture, a rollicking interlude of boozed-up good cheer that sees the two men following the old Beat trail, in the Indian summer of their mutual reliance and excitement at finding a second musketeer, giving way to the sorry sight of Cook trailing after BV and Faye as they spin off into their ecstatic union. And yet the film as a whole fails ultimately to cohere on several levels in a manner none of his other works quite fail, except perhaps his hippy-dippy war movie The Thin Red Line (1998). The reason why seems bound up with the absence of that aesthetic and expressive urgency that drove along Malick’s other recent works, the need to get at some vital fact of existence that had to be articulated no matter what damage was done or discomforting memory was parsed. Part of this failure is linked to the careless approach Malick takes to his characters’ actual business as artists. That facet could be neglected in Knight of Cups because its screenwriter was patently detached from his hack line of work, whereas here the business of making music is supposed preoccupy and define everyone. Malick’s polyphonic cinema on the other hand can’t sit still long enough to engage with creation and performance in any kind of meditative feeling.
Another problem is that none of these characters quite dominate the screen, and so they remain relatively remote as identification figures. The urges of Malick’s dramatis personae towards their destinations in the other films of this unique quartet gain momentum through and because of the pressure-cooker intensity of the filmmaking, mimicking their own impossible urges to move in every direction at once, to feel and know and be and conquer themselves and become unbound. Olga Kurylenko’s Marina and her desperate urge to chase ultimate liberty in To The Wonder had this persuasive, tidal intensity; in Knight of Cups, although the dramatic landscape was even busier than the one here, Christian Bale’s Rick remained key to all we saw, and understood his perpetually Sisyphean existence, so his flight into the wilds at the end also retained cathartic impact. Rhonda’s plight has the stuff of high tragedy but she’s only a minor character in the film when all is said and done, whilst BV and Faye remain comparatively muted figures, avatars for what Malick is trying to say but not quite gaining the stature of archetypes Malick pushes them to attain. But it also must be said that Song To Song also wears its imperfection on its sleeve, its (relatively) ragged, offhand feel as a war banner. Malick’s late oeuvre has stood as a general rebuke to the small-mindedness and watery technique of too much serious contemporary cinema, particularly that coming out of an independent film scene taken as natural heir to the American New Wave, an era Malick stands as one of the last standing warriors from. Song To Song is less rebuke than an act of leadership, signalled through the synergy Malick is chasing between his medium of film and the subculture he studies; just as the elders of the music scene like Smith offer their own counsel to the young artists on hand, this is Malick’s. Song To Song is about its own making and its message is that making, as Malick presents to independent filmmakers a template for creativity that makes virtues out of seeming limitations.