SXSW 2017: Song to Song
Terrence Malick’s late stage period of work has been characterized by his increasing reliance on texture over plot – for better and for worse. While this is often alienating in a cinematic atmosphere that privileges characters and story over visual expression, Malick’s steadfast gumming to the opposite school of thought – one which sees visual expression as the primary goal of cinema – has led to a greater degree of experimentation. The Tree of Life was a reminder of the insignificance of the intimate familial struggle in the face of the cosmic struggle, Knight of Cups was a tale of hedonism as viewed through the fractal lens of horoscopy, and Voyage of Time was a guided tour of the universe and its evolution through the eyes of the Divine. What Malick has created in Song to Song is essentially a gradually dissipating love story that weaves threads in and out of each other, letting the atmosphere of Austin slowly take the fore.
What I appreciate most about Malick’s latest is the editing. Like Knight of Cups, Song to Song skips forward to points of interest, slipping in and out of attention like a half-remembered conversation conjured in a daydream. It can be frustrating, especially in the beginning when we try to get our bearings, but ultimately, it becomes the lens through which all of the film’s emotions are refracted. It lets tragedy become melancholy, it lets elation become joy, it lets passion become infatuation. As I walked out of the screening, much of the audience – including myself – seemed unsure of exactly how each of the characters were related. And, that’s okay, even if it’s frustrating. It’s part of the lovesick daydream aesthetic.
Malick’s use of non-actors here is also spectacular. As, parts of the film are set in SXSW itself, he will weave in conversations stars Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman have with concertgoers and musicians. These seemingly unscripted segments inject an element of not only unconventionality but also unpredictability to the proceedings. Often, the most serendipitous moments arise from these scenes – a touching interaction, a beautifully articulated piece of advice, or a genuinely funny beat.
And, that, more than anything else in Song to Song, is probably the film’s greatest asset. It’s funny. This is mostly thanks to Gosling’s impeccable comedic timing. But, Malick allows the self-seriousness of the story to melt away at points and just lets his performers have fun. Whether it’s punctuating a particularly stifling party or just roaming around the streets of Austin, Malick peppers the film with these moments. And, it feels genuinely refreshing for the now seventy-three year old filmmaker’s style and for the picture as a whole.
However, for every beat that works and for every serendipitous interaction Lubezki captures, there is another painfully contrived moment of self-doubt. Malick consistently allows his worst, most clichéd tendencies to creep into the picture when so much of the movie seems so desperately oppositional to this pretension. It’s frustrating every time the principal characters are on-screen just together without a non-actor to spice up the proceedings with improvisation, because the dialogue these (very talented) performers are given is so woefully inept at communicating anything other than one or two very tired character traits. This film, like Knight of Cups, seems to be intent on hammering home that hedonism is bad and love is good. We get it. This isn’t exactly novel territory for art. And, I would be willing to stomach it if there was some smarter twist to it all, but – alas – Malick provides none. The film never quite preaches its message so much as it constantly shows how hollow-emotion seeking leads to pain and a search for genuine connection leads to satisfaction. After two hours of it, though, the showing instead of telling becomes, essentially, as blunt as telling.
Make no mistake, Song to Song is more late era-Malick. If that makes you interested, this is absolutely worth a watch. If it doesn’t, though, I’m not entirely sure if Malick’s refreshing focus on fun will convert the non-believer. Still, it’s always welcome to see a filmmaker – especially a post-war filmmaker as distinguished as Malick – continue to take risks and probe outside the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking and the overarching themes of their oeuvre. At the beginning of the screening at SXSW Fassbender noted that Malick is one of the few working filmmakers today that can be identified by just his visual style alone. What Malick has essentially done with this newest feature is to take his familiar visual style and refract it through a new emotion. And, that is an impressive feat for any filmmaker.