Song to Song

Studio: Broad Green Pictures
Directed by Terrence Malick

Apr 11, 2017 Web Exclusive
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In a recent podcast, the Executive Editor at The Ringer, Chris Ryan, made an observation about the similar creative trajectories of the formerly invincible TV show creator David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider). Its reference is appropriate because it so fittingly applies to one of cinema’s most daring auteurs, director Terrence Malick. Ryan pointed out that the post-prime work of both had become increasingly more “diffuse”, where the idea of what you think you want to watch is right there, but the approach to telling it keeps going “farther and farther off menu.” He still conceded that he would go to a Michael Mann film just for the visuals.

Ryan might as well be talking about Malick. Like Milch and Mann, the iconic director boasts a resounding and influential prime of visual storytelling, which as of late has arguably thinned out in execution, if not vision. Perhaps this has never been more apparent than in Song to Song, his ninth feature that is very loosely about relationships, business and personal, of the music scene in and around Austin, Texas.

The issue with Song to Song is not how it looks. Malick’s films have always been beautiful and camerawork has become choreography since Emmanuel Lubezki has been his cinematographer, beginning with 2005’s New World. With the city of Austin providing the panorama, the balletic fluidity of wide frames find a rarified magnificence of space. Those wide angle lenses also come in for close dances about his subjects, momentarily invading their spaces to show how full or empty of feeling they are. With an impressive assembly including Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, there are numerous priceless expressions to be found.

The failure of Song to Song lies in the chasm that continues to widen between Malick’s directing style and the scope of the narrative he wishes to take on. Increasingly since 2010’s Tree of Life, itself masterly, that style seems to hinge on elusive moments of inspired instinct rather than a formed vision. The focus of this story vaguely centers on the intersecting relationships between aimless songwriters Faye and BV played by Mara and Gosling and their mutual involvement with music mogul Cook, played by Fassbender. Rhonda (Portman) and Amanda (Blanchette) enter to both enhance and complicate things, but to present this film as revealing of the lives of musicians and those that hover about them would be misleading. The action of its characters, whom we are meant to believe inhabit that world, is tangential to the degree that you have to be reminded that they are involved in music at all. These reminders come in concert shots from SXSW and cameos from the likes of Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten, but overall, the connection of the central players to the music world, save Fassbender, is unconvincing. Though BV is supposed to be a musician, you would never know it, and Faye’s presence in such context is uncomfortably awkward, as if Mara had been asked to pick up a guitar and pretend against her will.

With Malick’s laissez faire direction, the instinct of the actor is what steers the vessel, so a lot of power is being placed in the abilities of the players to deliver in his vacuum of ambiguity. Beings are turned inside out, so that which stirs behind action is on display in the formlessness of the sub-conscious and repressed emotion. With glimpses of interaction and brief glances stolen in such filmmaking, performance must convey much in sudden bursts of conviction. This works to varying degrees in Song to Song. Portman and Fassbender nail this, while Gosling and particularly Mara seem too self aware that they are actors in a Terrence Malick universe.

Those unaccustomed to the oblique impressionism of Malick’s recent films might find their attention drifting in the same manner of his cinematic direction. Inspired starts at establishing a narrative are left dangling in the quiet. Scenes are like unfinished thoughts or sentences that trail off and on more than one occasion, one becomes self conscious of observing the loose ends flowing from one scene to the next without discernable purpose. Generally, being aware of yourself watching in a puzzled state is the direct opposite of the intended response to fictional cinema.

Malick really is a visionary in his own class, spanning generations. If you know the ambition of his work, you tolerate almost any flight of his. But his value might be better gauged in his cinematic style extending parameters, than in the content he places within the added space. We need figures like him to test the depth of filmic waters, even if his navigation appears rudderless. As his directorial career has progressed into its twilight (Malick is now 73) his interest in narrative delineation has seemed to wane. He sets the table for great cinema with rich humanistic themes and strong casts, but meanders on follow through. On a macro level, Song to Song is about empty love, and stifled dreams and desires, and the constraints of time, but Malick leaves you to draw the connections on your own, with not a lot to go on. After a while, you don’t care to.

Author rating: 5/10

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