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Terrence Malick’s ‘Song to Song’

Terrence Malick is more intelligent and more profound than his critics — by far. With the exception of Richard Brody and the late Roger Ebert, Malick’s unofficial trilogy of recent films — To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and now Song to Song — have been not only woefully, but maliciously misunderstood by mainstream critics. Hack critics/bloggers/clickbaiters with absolutely nothing to say like to line up to insult Malick’s late work because they find it confusing or bloated or pretentious or similar nonsense. Disdaining to the notice the remarkable technical and formal innovation Malick’s work has undergone since Tree of Life, critics point to what has remained roughly the same — Chivo’s wide-angle lens, voice-over, natural beauty — as if having some continuance of style is equivalent to artistic stagnation. The general argument against Malick’s late work — on the level of logic — is lazy and contradictory: it posits on one hand that Malick’s work is too dense to entertain and on the other, that it is too obvious to warrant close viewing. The most pernicious examples might be Peter Debruge’s review in Variety or Peter Travers’s in Rolling Stone — but you can take your pick: the internet is a big place with a lot of anti-artistic, anti-intellectual cultural commentators. Malick knows significantly more — by a few orders of magnitude — about not only the history of cinema, but philosophy, art, music, literature than his critics — the structure of his recent work makes more sense if you actually read books or even just explored the Criterion Collection a little; his style is neither pretentious nor indecipherable — it just takes engagement and a little education. The formal structure of late Malick borrows from music — specifically, I suspect, symphonic structure — modernist literature, European cinema. Malick’s project reminds me of Godard’s — especially Godard of the 80's — but Malick has as much in common with Wagner or Mahler or Joyce or Renoir or Heidegger as he does Godard or Tarkovsky or Antonioni. For whatever reason, American film criticism assumes the tautological argument that a good film means a film that performs a mastery of certain Hollywood tropes; that is acted, directed, shot, edited in terms of the Hollywood tradition. Malick’s influences — whether musical, philosophical, religious, modernist; variously European — simply reject that premise. Malick doesn’t give a fuck — because he’s actually an artist — but the cultural discourse fails to recognize this as a virtue and falls back on the usual complaint of pretension. And of course, it’s the critics who are actually doing all the pretending — blaming the films rather than their own undercooked criteria of evaluation.

Oof. I came to praise this film, not (just) bury its trolls. Because what matters isn’t really philistine criticism — that shit fades — but the conversation that surrounds authentic works of art. Song to Song is not a perfect film, but it’s a film, as Richard Brody suggests, that is far more alive and humanizing than so much flash-in-the-pan Sundance dross; an old man’s film that says more about my generation than the work being done by artists of my generation. I won’t go in for ‘plot summary’ — because I can’t be bothered — but I will attempt to say something about Song to Song’s philosophical and aesthetic essence: it is a film, quite literally, not about what the soul is, but how it is — how it remembers, dies, is reborn. Song to Song is a work of theological phenomenology — a cinematic form that captures our experience as individuals who can win and lose themselves in the scheme of Nature or God. It is not so much a critique of modernity as it is a re-experiencing of modernity — it is the art of the inner-life made visible; a rendering of our distractedness, our hunger, our torment, our alienation. Song to Song is— as To the Wonder was and as Knight of Cups was — not a love story, but a love-lost-and-regained story. Each of Malick’s last three films end with a vision of the sun on the horizon, a vision of profane love finally transformed into sacred love. The supposed is lack of coherence in these works is purposefully withheld, because existential coherence emerges from fragmentation and despair only at the end of a long journey from “darkness to light”— and Song to Song is no exception. Why use traditional exposition to talk about people who don’t know who they are? Malick’s array of images, sounds, words represents the chaos inside the skull and the heart; the phenomenological soup of past, present, and future that we call Life. It is an exploration of moods, in the Heideggarian sense. “Emotions, they come and go like clouds,” says the Priest in To the Wonder — Malick’s camera is like an observation plane, swooping through the emotional weather. Song to Song is ostensibly about young musicians trying to fuck each other and become famous, but what it’s really about is us — you, me. It’s subject is the subject; the soul. This is why I think, it, like other recent Malick films, has aroused such ire — because it is a subjective film that demands a subjective viewer. It is not an object, a product — which produces consistent stimulus. It is a sometimes a bad film, sometimes a good film — depending on how it is viewed. “Can human beings change?” Stanley Cavell, Malick’s college mentor and film-philosopher wrote, “The humor, and the sadness, of remarriage comedies can be said to result from the fact that we have no good answer to that question.” Malick’s recent project — of which I believe Song to Song is the apotheosis — might be said to be an attempt to give a “good answer” to “that question.” The sun, the light, which is the note upon which Song to Song resolves, gives us the hint — it tells us that if we are awake, sensitive, alive to Life, then yes, change will come.

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