Wait: is it really almost 20 years since Terrence Malick stumbled out of the desert and into his comeback? Apparently yes – it was Christmas 1998 when the director released his grandly oblique war movie The Thin Red Line, his first film since 1978.
By pure good luck, I was in New York and saw it the weekend it opened, in a cinema humming with the sense of a moment. Back then, this was special. For two decades, no one had thought there would even be another Malick film. The Bigfoot of US cinema had made two unalloyed classics before the age of 35 in Badlands and Days of Heaven, announcing himself as the world’s hottest young auteur. Then he disappeared – or at least quit the movies. Remarkably, given the stakes, the new film was a triumph. Nearly everyone at the sold-out screening was rapt. Nearly. Midway through the three-hour film, a man in the front row got to his feet. “This is bullshit,” he shouted, and began walking out. “Bullshit!” he repeated, loudly.
On Friday, Malick’s latest film, Song to Song, premieres at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The location makes sense – Austin is the setting for the movie, in which a beautiful-people buffet of Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara play lovers and rivals against a backdrop of the city’s music scene. Yet the mood feels different, as it has for much of Malick’s recent career. Of course, there are diehards to whom he remains sacred. For a certain kind of movie star too, he is still the one director for whom they will risk the raw indignity of being dropped from the finished film. (Occasionally, a ticked-off actor will appear in the press like a defector from a secret state. “[He] just cuts to birds,” complained Christopher Plummer in 2011, having starred, more or less, in The New World, the account of Pochahontas and Captain John Smith with which Malick followed The Thin Red Line.)
But the irate New Yorker of 1998 would now find more takers for his take on Malick. Since then, the gaps between films have shortened and the catcalls increased, the graph of public opinion a ski-slope. Seven years separated The Thin Red Line and The New World, generally admired, occasionally adored; six went by before The Tree of Life, a dense collage of childhood memory and cosmic awe that brought the first squints of unease. Then the trouble really started. A year later, Malick released To the Wonder, a whispery portrait of a sombre Oklahoman falling in and out of love, played by Ben Affleck with his usual air of blank constipation. Last year, it was joined by Knight of Cups, with Christian Bale cast as a jaded Hollywood scriptwriter glancing over a conveyor belt of attractive young women. Critics reached for pitchforks.
Malick, it is safe to assume, loses little sleep over opinion. For that we should applaud him. Who knows, it may well be that he is now working so far ahead of the curve that we will only realise how great his later films were shortly before we all die. But for now, even among his natural fanbase, much of his recent output has felt irritating, his reputation further battered with each film. Which means Song to Song feels as critical a moment as was The Thin Red Line.
With the modern Malick, the problem most often griped about is the surface of it all, for ever wobbling on the brink of self-parody with the Hello-Sun-Hello-Sky camera-work and gnomic voiceovers on the nature of desire. The comparison to perfume advertising has become its own cliche, winked at last month when Malick unveiled an actual perfume ad for Guerlain starring billowing fabric and Angelia Jolie. (It looked like a Terrence Malick film.) But the issues go deeper.
Take Knight of Cups. If you tensed slightly at the thought of Malick sending Bale on a search for the perfect life partner, the reality was lumpier still: a film about bearded men brooding meaningfully while women frolicked nearby, occasionally barefoot. The sight of the film’s female cast, their characters not always given names, scampering ahead of the camera was glum – and odd for a director whose first two films drew much of their brilliance from the spiky deadpan of Sissy Spacek and Linda Manz.
For those grown weary of stoned profundity, meanwhile, a low was reached when a kohl-eyed starlet (Imogen Poots) wandered through a Los Angeles sunrise, approached a homeless figure asleep on a concrete bench and left a flower beside them. A flower.
Out-of-time and out of date are different things. One of the stranger aspects of Malick’s career is that having first made films exclusively set in the past, it was only when he moved into the present that they felt old-fashioned. Modern young(ish) people have become his muse. Now, Malick might cut to birds or a ketamine party (both will look lovely). But it feels persistently fuddy-duddy.
Partly it’s his frame of reference – not all films about young musicians would involve the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But in the political tinderbox of 2017, a director can say a lot simply through the people they choose to make films about – and it’s a choice to make them about emotionally stunted LA screenwriters and lovesick Austin rock stars. Of course, what really concerns Malick is the stuff that floats above the world. The problem is, sadly, most of us are still stuck down here.
Then again, there are no films he could make that would be good enough to compete with his own past. The truth is, while in the 90s his absence was frequently mourned, in fact most film lovers savoured it. Having sat out 20 tatty, hair-gelled years, there was no Dune or Color of Money to ding the mystique. Instead, they were flawless relics of the kind of 70s splendour the stupid film business didn’t make any more. Malick was gone, and his vanishing act was both a glorious pre-internet mystery and an implicit scold. He was too good for us.
So imagine the disappointment when he popped up again. It was as if JD Salinger had suddenly appeared on a late-night chatshow, discussing how he liked giving flowers to the homeless. I don’t know that Malick has ever quite been forgiven.
But here’s the thing. Around the same time Poots appears in Knight of Cups, there is a shot of a dog from underwater, manically trying to grab a ball in its jaws. Of course, the very motion that causes then keeps pushing the ball just an inch out of reach. It is perfect – a teasing philosophical idea, caught in a single, endlessly eloquent image. In the course of one of the more annoying films I’ve seen in recent years, it instantly became one of my favourite scenes in cinema. It probably crosses my mind every day. Which is a way of saying that, even now, when it comes to Song to Song, and every Malick film from now until doomsday, although I’ll understand if you want to walk out, I’m staying put. And don’t shout “bullshit” too loudly.
Does it matter whether it’s Rooney Mara’s Faye, Ryan Gosling’s BV, Michael Fassbender’s Cook, Natalie Portman’s Rhonda or Cate Blanchett’s Amanda who half-whispers these words under another careening, ultrawide-angled framing of all these beautiful people wondering what to do with themselves? And yet, just as Terrence Malick’s Song to Song threatens to settle into the abiding pace of a feature-length montage sequence, there’ll be a sudden and unexpectedly captivating swerve into an alternate texture—tube-era video or a clip from a silent classic. Or a relatively significant character turns up dead. The mystery lingers a minute or two, then evaporates.
For all the peripheral threads, some eventually tied up while others dangle still, the narrative backbone is discernible enough, even if the particulars are sketchy. Fassbender’s music producer, manager and concert promoter—he must invest well, as he’s ridiculously wealthy, considering the state of the business—and Gosling’s songwriter and performer (we get to see him tickle the ivories again) both fall for Mara’s singer, songwriter and guitarist (though her instrument seems to confuse her). It’s evidently quite easy to do; simply press your brow against her midriff. Done. The power of love in Song to Song, though, is strangely inarticulate. Over and again, one of the two pairings has been placed in a photogenic environment and, it seems, told to flirt. The business these fine actors come up with is oddly childish—little dances, making faces, poking a stalk of grass up Mara’s nostril and just generally goofing around, all the while avoiding eye contact and all but telegraphing a sense of helplessness, a lack of direction.
Patti Smith, emerging from the ambient aimlessness as herself, is a welcome relief for each and every one of her too few moments. She has stories to tell, acute observations to make, advice to give. She is, as opposed to the leads, a fully formed character. Which isn’t to say that distinctions aren’t drawn between Fassbender’s crooked hedonist and Gosling’s jealous man of simple means.
As the opening film of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, the premiere of Song to Song was a hot ticket, the draw being not only the director and the cast (alongside the headliners, there’s Holly Hunter, for example, glimpsed emoting but too seldom heard, Val Kilmer being an ass and cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop and John Lydon) but also Austin, playing itself and cast against type. The “Keep Austin Weird” side of the city that serves as a backdrop in, say, Andrew Bujalski‘s Beeswax (2009) has walk-ons in the form of a mural Mara and Gosling are momentarily placed in front of or the South Congress food truck lot Mara and her brief fling (Bérénice Marlohe) stroll through like tourists, but the state capital with money, and lots of it, that features in Bujalski’s Results (2015) is paraded in Song to Song somehow as both symptom and a point of civic pride.
‘Song to Song’ Review: Terrence Malick’s Take on the Austin Music Scene Is Very Malick, And Not Much More
Terrence Malick is the world’s preeminent Benjamin Button filmmaker, his career defined by a few early masterpieces and a string of late-period efforts that play like increasingly unfocused versions of the earlier achievements. Mileage varies on whether that’s a bad thing, but it isn’t conjecture. His newer work reduces the elegant, layered storytelling of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” to simpler variations, as if they’re comprised of the beautiful residuals from those grander accomplishments.
There are reasons to delight in the autonomy of Malick’s poetic approach, particularly the way he treasures the lyricism of the natural world over narrative coherence, but that vision can only go so far. His cosmic IMAX documentary “The Voyage of Time” had a logical reason for throwing plot to the wind, but other recent efforts “Knight of Cups” and “To the Wonder” reduce the magisterial approach of “Tree of Life” to undercooked fragments. The latest example is “Song to Song,” an occasionally marvelous but redundant collage of moments from Austin’s music scene. There’s plenty of intrigue to the dissonance of a hard-rock lifestyle and Malick’s gentle touch, but much of the movie’s potential is overshadowed by the impulses of a director unwilling to get there.
Malick’s late-period efforts may be best characterized as a series of sonnets riffing on the same themes, from existential yearning to Christian philosophies and a generous dose of transcendentalism, all delivered in an incessant stream gorgeous visuals and ponderous voiceovers about the mysteries of life.
In “Song to Song,” the chief vessel of that mission is Faye (Rooney Mara, frozen in distant expressions), whose narration dominates a cyclical chronicle of her experiences at the center of a love triangle. The wayward guitarist in an unspecified band, she falls for fellow songwriter BV (Ryan Gosling, blond and lavishly wardrobed for the flamboyant B-side to his “La La Land” performance). However, Faye also maintains an affair with hard-partying music manager Cook (Michael Fassbender), who develops a bumpy romance with a local waitress (Natalie Portman, experimenting with southern twang). And that’s about all the “story” that Malick offers, though it would be unfair to presume it has much relevance to the director’s aims.
See More‘Song to Song’: All the Fan-Captured Videos of Terrence Malick Shooting His Austin-Set Romance — Watch
Per usual, faces speak louder than words, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s dynamic camera roaming through bright rooms and sunny open fields with restless energy as the whispery soundtrack shifts from one perspective to the next. The hipster quotient is high with this cast, but even though Malick’s work exists outside their generation, he’s ideally suited to revel in their aimless universe and its unruly creativity. At times, the specificity of the setting seems an inside joke: When Mara wears a South by Southwest badge while hanging out at Austin music venue Mohawk, the notion of “Malick doing SXSW” plays like the start of a self-parody that only diehard fans would appreciate.
With time, however, “Song to Song” blossoms into a natural fit for the director’s inclinations, peering beyond the rough exterior of the music scene to explore the psychology of people addicted to its extremes. His camera lurks on the edges of chaotic stages and in the confines of hectic crowds, with snapshots of Iggy Pop and a twerking Big Freedia, but he rarely turns up the volume.
Heavy with introspection but short on details, “Song to Song” is a paragon of Malick’s malleable approach to assembling his footage. At some point, Cate Blanchett surfaces to sketch out one character’s romantic history, but she’s more fleeting prop than character in this wandering poem of half-formed ideas. Christian Bale, who reportedly shot numerous scenes, doesn’t show up at all; judging by Malick lore, this has become a thespian badge of honor. Patti Smith appears for a number of clipped monologues, presumably as herself, dispensing wise thoughts about romance to the ever-baffled and mostly silent Faye.
At their best, these snippets create an engrossing ode to an angst-riddled young adulthood, careening from ecstasy to wistfulness and melancholic with a single cut. At worst, they’re rushed ellipses that suffer from redundancy over 130 minutes. Mara’s voiceovers are a pileup of vague references to the same ideas: “I was desperate to feel something real,” she mutters early on, adding moments later, “Nothing felt real,” and then, “Any experience is better than no experience.” That may very well be Malick’s mantra, as all of his post-“Tree of Life” narratives refuse to settle down in an unending quest for purpose. It’s a fascinating approach, by turns tiring and mysterious, to the point where even when it doesn’t work it remains an admirable reflection of a director allergic to compromise.
Still, it’s unfortunate that Malick, whose 45-minute cut for “Voyage of Time” was proof that he can still deliver a focused concept, seems to prefer the rockier approach. At the same time, that may be his best hope at continuing relevance. His recent spate of doodles have allowed him to pick up the pace over the past decade, cranking out disposable narratives that keep his talent active while it searches for an appropriate vessel. In “Song to Song,” his wayward characters eventually arrive at a new beginning that holds promise even though it contains elements of the same old routine. That’s the Malick paradox in a nutshell.
« Last post by Tictacbk on March 11, 2017, 05:10:14 AM »
I wrote up a long and analysis-filled response, I swear...and then the power went off at my office. But the gist of it was:
-Glad to see someone else watching this show! -If you're considering watching this show, don't let JB's posts discourage you. Give it a shot. -But I do agree with some of JB's comments. This show definitely has a problem with delivering information in big clunky data dumps (especially in episodes 4 and 5 (so far)). -Despite that, what a highly rewatchable show. It's got a very fresh vibe that I appreciate. Even when it's not making sense it keeps you engaged. -The things that seemed cliche' may every well be on purpose. We're dealing with an unreliable narrator with unreliable memories. -Ultimately this is another fun mystery show... i think.
...Basically I like the style of the show and I'm holding out judgement til I see where it's going. And you should too!
okay, posting this without proofreading incase the power goes out.
« Last post by jenkins on March 11, 2017, 01:10:23 AM »
i mean seriously.
i'm going sunday afternoon. i already decided to go months ago, plus there's widespread agreement about their billboards being good ideas
i was at rotten tomatoes. "You see / What you want to see" is my current expression obsession. i like comparing these two critic quotes:
Scratches your monster-movie itch without ever once providing an injection of unpredictability or eccentricity. It lacks neither fun nor polish, but it has the square tidiness of a compartmentalized fast-food meal.
All the requisite elements are served up here in ideal proportion, and the time just flies by, which can rarely be said for films of this nature.
a reply to what's perhaps on your mind
The surprise is that Skull Island isn't just ten times as good as Jurassic World; it's a rousing and smartly crafted primordial-beastie spectacular.
« Last post by Lottery on March 10, 2017, 07:45:33 PM »
It makes sense that the James Cameron thread title is in caps.
The first hour or so of the extended cut of Avatar is great. I adore that new world exploration/science vibe. The second half isn't so great when it becomes a more typical action film.
I don't think anyone's undertaken anything like this before- but that's Cameron schtick. I hope he moves away from conventional action and drama and furthers the exploratory, science side of the franchise. So we have this masive, highly immersive 'world' experience. I know that won't ever happen but the later drama/action stuff did very little for me- and this is James Cameron we're talking about. But if he had the balls to step away from that and properly combine his Avatar world with his academic side, that would honestly be the greatest thing he's ever done. Aside from T2 that is.
« Last post by polkablues on March 10, 2017, 07:06:29 PM »
Generally, you're fine to use trademarked brands as long as you're not featuring them in a way that is disparaging or could be perceived as harmful to the brand. Basically, if your main character just likes to smoke, go ahead and use Marlboros or whatever. If he likes to smoke so much he gets supercancer and bursts into flames, probably use a made-up brand. If the characters refer to the brand in any way that could be considered libelous, definitely use a made-up brand.
The other consideration when showing logos or packaging is to not create the false impression that the company whose product you're showing is sponsoring or endorsing your film. The biggest thing here is to keep the appearance of the product incidental within the shot, not to do a big cutaway insert of the package with the logo bright and center.