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Schism in the House of Malick

Broad Green Pictures

Listen closely and you’ll hear a storm of squabbling voices rolling in just over the horizon. They’re not debating politics, but rather Song to Song, the new movie by Terrence Malick now opening in theaters nationwide.

If the cinema is the moviegoer’s cathedral then Malick is its high priest. Ever since he emerged in the ’70s with Badlands, a ruminative frontier love story with shades of Bonnie and Clyde, Malick has been bewitching and infuriating audiences in equal measure with his signature blend of Biblically flavored storytelling and rapturous, naturally lit imagery. It’s always been the case that you either love his style or you decidedly don’t, but his turn toward more experimental modes of filmmaking in recent years has caused something of a schism in the House of Malick—and even brought some of his haters into the fold.

Song to Song picks up artistically where Malick left us off in his previous narrative feature, the 2015 release Knight of Cups. In both films, Malick has seemingly abandoned many of the hallmarks of his early cinema: expansive shots of natural vistas, linear narrative, the tiniest hint of anything so much as resembling a coherent plot. So while it’s not incorrect to describe Song to Song as a movie about Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician pursuing a romance with an adrift piano player (Ryan Gosling) while keeping from him a secret affair with her music producer (Michael Fassbender), and the existential questions that haunt her as she tentatively makes her way in the Austin music scene, that description wouldn’t be entirely accurate—in no small part because I can’t for the life of me recall a single moment in the movie when anyone actually addressed Mara’s character, or any other character, by name.

There’s too much going on in any given frame of this movie for the viewer to make sense of all of it in one sitting. One moment we’re watching partygoers on the fastidiously manicured front lawn of Fassbender’s modernist mansion eat sushi off a human serving platter; the next we’re watching Mara, through a fisheye camera lens, dolefully wandering the aisles of a Costco. One minute we spy Gosling slip into a church for a moment of prayer; the next we’re eight inches away from Val Kilmer’s face as he’s tearing an amp apart with a chainsaw. Malick mixes the sacred and the profane with such giddy abandon here that he renders entire movements of radical mid-20th-century art timid by comparison. Perhaps it’s the freedom that comes with being a 73-year-old veteran who has already won the eternal admiration of the film establishment for making a towering and transcendent epic, 2011’s The Tree of Life. Perhaps he’s just losing it.

And so the arguments over the merits, or lack thereof, in Malick’s recent cinematic output continue apace. The generous read of Malick’s experimentation is that he’s going through a phase of testing out a new cinematic language (if the specifics interest you, Eric Hynes has a formally rigorous take on it), but if anyone’s going to understand this new way that Malick has decided to speak to us, we’re going to need some translators.

Malick, who studied philosophy at Harvard and went on to become a Rhodes scholar before a brief stint as a lecturer at MIT disabused him of idea that he’d make a good teacher in a traditional classroom setting, has always aimed at higher things in his work than what most directors in Hollywood are interested in. Song to Song, for all its obfuscating editing, nauseating camerawork, occasionally transgressive imagery, and criminal misunderstanding of how pop music cues should work in a motion picture (true to Malickean form, the best-deployed tracks in the film are all classical-music needle-drops, foremost among them the use of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” over a montage of the courtship of a briefly present Natalie Portman by Fassbender), is trying to communicate messages that are familiar to fans of Malick’s œuvre.

What the film lacks in meaningful dialogue it makes up for in contemplative voiceover—the one reassuring (or exasperating; your mileage may vary) constant in all of Malick’s work. Led by Mara’s voice, but also skipping around to Gosling’s, Fassbender’s, and Portman’s, the narration guides us through the fractured thinking of young people in search of the good but lacking the language to identify it. In a way, Malick is using the cinema to distill the vocalized thoughts of his characters down to their absolute and most penetrating essence.

The kineticism of his camera and the bodies it catches in improvised motion tell us as much about these characters as other directors would say by means of more traditional filmmaking conventions (shot-reverse shot edits, three-act screenwriting). Whenever we hear an actor speak, it’s to say what only words can communicate. “I never knew I had a soul,” Mara narrates at one point. “The word embarrassed me.” She’s well on her way to reconciliation with Gosling’s character, after the two of them have frayed the bonds of their own relationship by keeping affairs hidden from one another. But the spaces these people move about in—the mosh pits and drug dens and penthouse apartments of the deracinated, irreligious, disposable pop musicians and pop-musician enablers of 21st-century Austin—leave them ill-equipped to define the malaise at the heart of their heartbreak and anomie.

Here, perhaps, is where we can make some sense out of the seeming nonsense that Malick is creating. For all the radical weirdness on display in Song to Song, the director guides the proceedings with a firm gentleness and a wisdom rooted in the philosophical and biblical traditions in which he is so well-read. (It’s surely no accident, as Alissa Wilkinson has pointed out, that this movie’s name bears a resemblance to the Old Testament book of love poetry Song of Songs.) Toward the end of the film, after some chronological looping that shows us the moment when Mara and Gosling first meet, as well as an even earlier moment when Gosling watched his father die, Mara inches asymptotically closer to a biblical revelation about her life. “‘Mercy’ was a word,” she catches herself admitting, “I never thought I needed Or not as much as other people do.”

There’s hardly anything transgressive about Malick’s messages about mercy, grace, forgiveness, and selflessness, and their necessity for the formation of well-ordered souls: they’re as old as storytelling itself, and we’ve been hearing variations of them in lineage of Judeo-Christian art and literature for thousands of years. The fact that Malick has thought to repurpose cinema itself to convey such seemingly simple and longstanding truths about human nature and relationships is the sign of a genius at work. When a culture stops understanding the wisdom of history and tradition, it is not a sign that this wisdom has become obsolete so much as it is an invitation to translate it into subtler languages the surrounding culture will comprehend. Though the haters would claim that Malick’s new language is too subtle to be understood, the ongoing pushback from critics moved by Malick’s pathbreaking new stories are proof to the contrary. We fellow-journeymen on the road of tradition and virtue that Malick is obliquely traveling might do well to seize upon the method to his madness—and maybe even a bit of the madness itself.

Tim Markatos is editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

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