Song to Song (2017)

Viewed March 25th

Young people drift in and out of the Austin music scene and each other's lives.  

As much as director Terrence Malick draws the viewer into the worlds of his recent films via one of the most absorbing audiovisual styles in contemporary film, he pushes them away just as hard with a disconcerting clumsiness. And it's a shame because this clumsiness comes through the strongest in the aspect of his films that was once one of his great triumphs: the poetic voiceover narration...I loved Knight of Cups, I saw it four or five times, and became increasingly convinced that it was by far and away the most interesting thing happening in film at the time, but I couldn't ever quite talk myself into justifying some of the straight-up bad/pretentious sentiments being expressed in what should feel like the deepest and most poetic parts of these characters' inner lives. This is a shame. In Days of Heaven, the voiceover remains a revelation; there still may not be a film that surpasses the hauntingly philosophical mood Linda Manz conjures with her reading of it. In the years since, the visual style and blocking of actors developed in Days of Heaven have been perfected into a totally unique creative position, one of the most continually engaging in all of visual art. Meanwhile, though, the hauntingly philosophical depth of Days of Heaven has grown oddly shallow.

I could definitely see how this could be intentional...There's something about letting things be very general that works well in the telling of a myth, in which the audience is reading the characters not as recognizable social types but as symbols of ideas about the world. Malick, the philosophy student and translator of Heidegger, is using cinematic tools instead of written prose to express his philosophy. However, there is still a difference between impactful, uncanny myths and tedious ones.

The other rationale is that, in the case of Song to Song, the film's structure and tone is inspired by its subject: rock music. And so when the characters reflect in pseudo-deep banalities, that's because that's the type of things people sing about in songs; the movie is simply an album's worth of songs. And, indeed, songs can be filled with cliches as long as the music is good. When that happens, the cliches are reinterpreted and made fresh again. "I love you" is powerful for this reason: it's the most obvious phrase, but in the right performance of its utterance, it becomes the most special. In Malick's film, the "music" is good--the visual style that he's worked out with his collaborators is gorgeous (and by now becoming somewhat mannered). But it might not be the right type of gorgeous for this type pop music subject matter. Baz Luhrmann or someone more clearly poppy would probably have made a better film. Malick's style projects more depth--the way his camera catches eyes, turns in expression, the relationship between the character and the environment, the relationship between the character and the supernatural...this is music that requires more from its lyrics.