Originally posted at thedistantcloseup.com (Apr. 5th, 2017)
God help you if you’re a filmmaker working on your passion project and you go through a grueling post-production period as long as Song to Song’s. Song to Song is visionary auteur Terrence Malick’s ninth film, though maybe if things had gone a little more smoothly, it would have been his seventh, or maybe his eighth. Shooting for the film began in 2012, and here we are, just a mere five years later when it could finally be brought to limited screens, and appropriately premiering at South by Southwest given Austin is the primary location.
Starring an ensemble of actors, though primarily Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman, Song to Song is a weaving and winding experimental romantic drama about the entangled lives of four people set against Austin’s bustling music scene, with all four experiencing some level of love and betrayal. Malick is a divisive figure among many circles, and after The Tree of Life’s success, it’s become trendy to put down his subsequent works – To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and now Song to Song have all received polarizing reviews.
From what I can understand, however, this film, as bizarre as it may seem, falls neatly into the plethora of stylistic and tonal motifs he’s established over his career, and continues his current trend of more personal filmmaking – all of which may frustrate more seasoned Malick viewers.
First, if you happen to live in a city with one of the current 95+ theaters exhibiting the film, it is my suggestion that you take up one of the furthest spaces toward the back of the auditorium. Once again collaborating with acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s choices of camera placement, movement and focus display a disorienting subjectivity. Canted and aggressive dramatic angles – sometimes both one in the same shot – are frequently abundant here, but what’s most curious are the close-ups of characters that seem to create the illusion of the world around them appearing spherically – as if to conjure images of the world.
It’s a camera that is constantly aware of itself, and is just as detached as it is involved, just as they often seem to communicate a given character’s various levels of detachment from their personal reality. These shots bear the same effectiveness as a POV, and they are frequently aided – or hurt, depending on who you ask – by the voiceovers of characters ruminating on their existential crises, which often trump actual dialogue in a scene. Their voices float across scenes of jumbled memories, buoyed by atmosphere from ambient, cinematic post-rock just to make sure Malick has checked the ‘philosophical’ box off of his traditional directorial itinerary.
Speaking of jumbled memories, that’s exactly what the narrative is – a loosely structured assemblage of memories that bounce in and out of various timelines while putting together some semblance of a cohesive story. Some may find it incoherent and perhaps too pretentiously meditative, and admittedly, it isn’t easy to commit oneself to the sort of vision Malick lays out for us. It weaves back and forth between the four protagonist’s perspectives, and those perspectives can even switch to another within the same scene.
Based upon his aesthetic and narrative choices, it seems Malick isn’t asking us to think of Song to Song logically or as a logical film. Rather, he’s telling us that this film is almost strictly an emotional experience, wanting us to identify those feelings and bear them like his characters do. Anyone can identify with the fear of success and how the pursuit of it may change or interfere with our personal lives, which is what all four protagonists here share, but is Malick successful at creating this involvement?
Well, yes and no. Some scenes are more effective than others, and though the characters meditating on their personality flaws and the passage of their lives may not verge into full blown complaining, it can be a little more aggressively moody than the scene requires. And with such a reliance on voiceover work given any scene’s primary focus on trivial minutiae, the actual performances from the ensemble, as committed as they are, are often stunted. The film works best when the connections between each character are more fully realized and the focus for each one on their looking back is clearer, both which happen in and closer to the film’s final act – whenever in the narrative you can actually decipher that taking place.
With Song to Song, I find myself somewhere in the middle, which I almost thought impossible with any submission in Malick’s filmography given his reputation. I’m not a detractor, and though I’m not exactly a firm supporter, I do certainly admire how the narrative builds and the intent of its creation, especially given how long it took to finally make its way to the public.
All the same, the experience was enjoyable enough to seek out [insert any Explosions in the Sky album here] and temporarily give in to spiritual transcendence, so there’s another positive for you, I suppose.