David G. Hughes & Theodosia Dobriyanova on Terrence Malick’s ‘Song to Song’ (2017)
AFTER REWATCHING TERRENCE MALICK’S Days of Heaven (1978) in 1997, the great critic Roger Ebert wrote: “This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt.” Flash-forward twenty-years and little to no paraphrasing is required – these words can be applied to Malick’s latest chef-d’œuvre, Song To Song.
That the film is a masterpiece, many will concur. Just as many will oppose it. This ability to divide opinion is a recurring phenomenon in the work of the auteur. One either loves or hates a Malick film, often so much that you can expect a walkout or two during his films (a tendency that prevailed even in the smallest of cinema saloons at Curzon Bloomsbury, London) But isn’t this division a sign, if anything, of an instant classic? In modern society, the term “aesthetics” is most often ascribed to art and its qualitative association with beauty. However, going back to the Ancient Greek origins of the word, “aisthesis” means “feeling” — aesthetics is the ability to evoke not beauty but emotions. As with all great artists, Malick’s films have been loved and hated, but there is rarely somebody who has left the screening room indifferent. And isn’t this what a true auteur should do, after all — evoke feelings through his/her own authentic sense of beauty.
Song to Song is a beautiful study of aesthetics, in both the modern and the ancient sense of the word. The film opens with Faye (Rooney Mara), a young aspiring musician on a quest for sensation. She introduces herself to us through what seems to be her life philosophy: “any experience was better than no experience.” We find out that she is involved in an affair with prosperous music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), hoping that if she does him ‘favours’ he will get her into the industry. Soon, however, Faye meets BV (Ryan Gosling), a fellow musician produced by Cook, and the two fall in love. From then on the film follows the course of the love triangle, examining the lives of anyone affected by it, thus moving from one love song to another.
When it comes to cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki’s unconventional camera movements mark a signature that cannot be mistaken. With his wide-lens and diaphanous steadicam motions, we become intimate whilst never feeling intrusive. Although Faye’s character remains somewhat central throughout, the disorienting camera, which rarely sits still, functions as an immaterial entity that floats between the thoughts and feelings of each and every character, revealing their inner worlds in a most profound and sincere way. So much that the audience can empathise with all, walking almost physically in their shoes. This is a rejection of protagonist-centric cinema, whereby the logic dictates audiences require a singular “relatable” perspective. Rather, Malick’s natural ability to empathise directs his concern towards a cosmic truth regarding connection between people and the world around them. The spacing of characters within each vignette (scenes don’t really exist in Malick’s cinema), and the camera movement, reflects the transient sensations and moods of the characters. Malick is all about mood over plot, forgoing narrative in favour of the purest form of expression; he is forever searching for answers, painting the same picture with each film until he can comprehend. The accusation that all his films are the same is both wholly true and completely wrong in their pejorative intent.
When it comes to stardom, Song to Song might as well be the name of a constellation. Along with the aforementioned stars, the film casts Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett as fictional characters cohorting with musicians such as Patti Smith, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Iggy Pop, and Lykke Li among others. Malick’s distinctive aesthetic sees a merger of fiction with documentary, whilst communicating in an abstract manner; the film is interested in nothing less than finding absolute truth through a direct engagement with life. Punk-poet Patti Smith, in particular, has a prominent role, the film’s softly spoken voice-overs evoking her poetic autobiographical prose in Just Kids (2010), a fellow tale of love and life in an art scene. Gosling brilliantly inhabits the skin of a young idealistic artist (something we’ve seen him do before), while Fassbender, who is perfectly cast, has a consuming gaze that makes Cook seem like the actor’s devilish alter ego. Natalie Portman, on the other side, has shown us once again that she can effortlessly make any skin fit like her own.
Another crucial character throughout Malick’s oeuvre film is nature. More than any other character in Song to Song, nature is present in each scene. In that regard, even during indoor moments, the use of transparent modernist architecture – long balconies, glass surfaces, and the persistent presence of water – compliments the author’s preoccupation with the omnipresent exterior world, and the way it accompanies and influences the human life and yet remains indifferent to the former’s endeavours. No matter how many homes and transitions the characters go through—love, life, tragedy and death—nature is the only character that remains the same. And ultimately, the only one that will remain at all.
This transition from skin to skin is a prominent theme within the film. This and the human ability to live multiple lives within a single one. A manifestation of the complexity of human life, Song to Song is life enfolding before us like a memory we recognise as our own, like a photo album of a life lived, like the recollection of a dream we had just stopped dreaming but aren’t quite awake yet. Life is not so much a straight narrative trajectory, it is rather a series of moments that we have felt, although we may not fully understand or contextualise, moments that we should dive into like the characters plunge into their pools. People run their hands across surfaces, fiddle with textures and objects, and caress each others bodies; Malick’s haptic filmmaking is asking us to make contact and connect with the world around us. Love does not manifest during dates or other social constructs, love is evident when adults are behaving like children, almost ape-like in their antic curiosity about each other, rollicking across their rooms and wrestling in bed.
Song to Song is a film that not only gets you excited about what cinema can achieve as an expression and an art, it gets you enamoured about existence itself. Not only are Malick’s films a miracle, it’s a miracle they even exist in this cynical world of ours, an illuminating light burning bright against sardonic critics who mock a man for having the gall to convey his truth sincerely. This is, as Ebert wrote, a film by a man who knew how love felt. Then it’s a film by a man who knew how quiet afternoons felt, who knew what it felt like to observe the sun setting down the horizon, what it feels like to watch the slight movement of a curtain reacting to the breeze outside, what it feels like to run your fingertips across surfaces. But isn’t this, in the end, all love, and what is love, but an aisthesis?
Teodosia Dobriyanova is a writer, programmer and filmmaker based in London. She graduated from King’s College London and University College London.