An enigmatic and reclusive figure when he emerged with his auspicious 1973 debut Badlands, American filmmaker Terrence Malick’s recent burst of relative productivity has been met with mixed critical reaction.
In one camp, some feel that Malick’s formerly singular style has lapsed into cliché. Recent films, from The Tree of Life to this newest one, Song to Song, have been described as resembling “screensavers”: a fine joke, but a beggarly critical assessment. In the other, critics more sensitive to Malick, or just susceptible to that above-mentioned artistic imprimatur, lament that the haters aren’t even bothering to engage the films on their merits, preferring instead to giddily write them off as the ponderous and pretentious work of some dopey stoner working well past his prime.
Certainly, early mutterings in advance of the recent Toronto press screening – that included grumblings about run times, shots of grass, and the apparent lack of “story” in his recent films – betray a critical press that seems not only oblivious to art, but openly hostile toward it. Faced with such hordes of hacks rigging the Tomato-meters with their willful, even boastful, philistinism, how does Terrence Malick stand a chance?
The haughtily unenlightened can joke and snipe and snore all they want. As evinced by Song to Song, Malick is operating in top form. If only we’d be bothered to do the work of making sense of it.
Song to Song is, like many of Malick’s movies, a love story. The principals are a sparkly eyed musician called “BV” (Ryan Gosling), and an aspiring performer named Faye (Rooney Mara). Triangulating their dynamic is a glowering, terrific Michael Fassbender as Cook, a scheming music producer and playboy, exploiting both BV’s industry naivety and Faye’s aspirations. “It’s all for sale,” sneers Fassbender as he whirls through a backdrop of upper-class glass-and-marble that has served as a backdrop of Malick’s recent films, “All of it … None of this exists.”
Fassbender’s character is a familiar figure in Malick’s filmography. Like Sam Shepard’s farmer in 1978’s Days of Heaven, Christian Bale’s John Rolfe in 2005’s The New World, and half the characters in 2015’s Knight of Cups, Cook is a Mephistophelean archetype, holding out the promise of material satisfaction and worldly wealth, jamming up the desire of living “kiss to kiss, song to song” (as Mara’s character puts it). He is the snake spoiling the Garden of Eden. To drive the point home, Malick shows him buying drugs off a man inked up like a reptile, and slithering across the bedroom floor on his belly following a sexual bacchanal with two unnamed women.
It’s a theme that runs through Malick’s uniquely Christian, distinctly American cinema: the intruder disrupting the Edenic paradise (the South Pacific in The Thin Red Line, childhood in The Tree of Life, America itself in The New World) and luring man away from a simpler, more immanent mode of existence. To understand Malick is to consider his seemingly earnest expression of his Christianity, and his connection to the American transcendentalist philosophy of Emerson, Thoreau, etc.
From the Christian tradition, Malick takes the idea of human beings as wandering souls, divorced from divinity, ever-bent toward evil and straggling toward redemption. When Mara’s character offers, in soothing, typically Malickian voiceover, “I’m a beast. Still. Not unhappy about it,” it seems to deliberately evoke St. Augustine’s frank vindication of his own sinfulness: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error – not that for which I erred, but the error itself.” From the transcendentalists, Malick takes the idea of radical individualism, of marching to the beat of a different drummer (to paraphrase Thoreau) or finding “an original relation to the universe” (Emerson).
Malick’s religious-transcendental bent defines his characterizations – see: the thirsting spiritual pilgrims that populate his films, from Gosling and Mara’s characters here back through Bale’s shaken screenwriter in Knight of Cups, Colin Farrell’s John Smith in The New World, Jim Caviezel’s Pvt. Witt in The Thin Red Line, and even Sissy Spacek’s young naif in Badlands – as much as his cinematic style. The knowingly sumptuous cinematography, the elliptical editing rhythms, the hushed voiceovers may be highly mockable. It may scan like a screensaver or a margarine commercial. But there’s obviously much more going on in Malick’s metaphysics.
Malick’s movies (especially his recent ones) ask serious questions about the nature of cinematic storytelling. They challenge the idea that meaning is made by the scripting, the direction, or the acting. They find their purest expression in cinematography, editing, whispery additional dialogue recording, and even in nature, or the redemptive power of God. Malick’s mode is the cinematographic equivalent of Emerson’s transcendental eyeball: “I am nothing; I see all; The currents of the universal being circulate through me.” These are unfashionable, unhip, perhaps borderline lunatic concepts circa 2017. But isn’t such willful daring the province of art, or the whole point of it?
Where Song to Song most distinguishes itself among Malick’s uniquely rich filmography is its abiding despair. It is his most pessimistic film since Badlands. Gone are the rushes of emotive crescendo that marked The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. In their place is a driving flatline of alienation, human disconnection, and aimless yearning that has no true object. When Fassbender’s producer snarls, surveying the Austin music scene that is his dominion, “Here I reign! King!” there is a meaningful sense that humanity has passed beyond absolution. The promise of redemptive love – between man and God, or just between individuals unburdened by their pettiness and resentments – has grown fainter.
Not only has the snake slithered its way into Eden. We have, in our philistinism, pride and unapologetic stupidity, welcomed its entrance. Beyond featuring plenty in the way of Malick’s rhapsodic treatments of nature, love and eroticism, Song to Song is also a damning indictment of the seduction of the material world. Is it any wonder that so many would rush to dismiss it out of hand?Report Typo/Error
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