Song to Song
Terrence Malick, director & script
Starring: Ryan Gosling (BV), Michael Fassbender (Cook), Rooney Mara (Faye), Natalie Portman (Rhonda), Cate Blanchett (Amanda) w/Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Val Kilmer, Holly Hunter
Back in 1932, John Grierson offered a stunning rebuke of Joseph von Sternberg’s hit melodrama Shanghai Express, “When a director dies, he becomes a photographer.” For Grierson, the man who invented the term “documentary,” style without meaning was merely a frivolous exercise. While this reviewer is rarely as categorical as Grierson, the release of Song to Song is clearly the time to ask the once-great director Terrence Malick, “Do you have anything more to say?”
Like the vast majority of critics, I hailed Malick’s eerily transcendent World War Two film The Thin Red Line in 1998 as a brilliant comeback 20 years after his early masterpiece Days of Heaven had been released to great acclaim. Both films are free wheeling with gorgeous camerawork and elusive narratives held together by soft-spoken thoughts voiced-over by the key character.
As time went by, Malick’s films became more abstract: many characters started voicing stream-of-consciousness thoughts and the narratives became harder to follow. The last of Malick’s films that held together emotionally and structurally to a fairly wide audience and a majority of critics was his autobiographical The Tree of Life in 2011.
After the relative failures of To the Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups (2015), Song to Song was supposed to be Malick’s return to form. While the story is slightly easier to follow, the film drifts seemingly endlessly through romantic encounters and random rock music interludes. Set in Austin, Texas, where Malick lived off-and-on for years, it is apparently inspired by the shenanigans that take place in the city’s notorious Indie rock scene.
Ryan Gosling’s BV is a relatively simple guy—a fine musician and a romantic. When he meets Rooney Mara’s Faye, he’s instantly hooked: it’s boy meets girl. Of course, things are more complicated than that. Malick’s films often pit good against evil and here the stakes are pretty obvious. Cook, a producer and rock impresario played by Michael Fassbender wants Gosling to be his friend and prime musical meal ticket. At the same time, he’s carrying on an affair with Faye, who desperately wants to be a rock star. Adding more complications to the story, Fassbender seduces a naïve waitress played by Natalie Portman only to make her life miserable while Gosling hooks up briefly with Cate Blanchett’s Amanda after he and Faye break up.
That sounds like a lot of plot. But it’s all played in a very loose, rarely dramatic style. Most of the time, as always with this auteur, couples cavort and play with each other while the camera pirouettes and whirls around them. Malick’s notion of romantic love hasn’t changed much since high school, one suspects, as increasingly older actors are made to spray water on each other, jump on each other’s backs (fully clothed) and giggle interminably.
Getting back to Grierson, what does it all mean? Since Malick was a Rhodes scholar and taught philosophy at MIT—50 years ago—his meditations about innocence and evil are supposed to have great weight. But they all feel trivial at this point. Malick is still a great stylist but to what effect?
It looks like he has run out of things to say.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.