Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Notes on Song to Song by Terrence Malick, USA: 2017

The pure frank sentiments we hold in our hearts are the only truthful sources of art. “ (Caspar David Friedrich)

A few days after I have seen this film, I already begin to forget how perplexed I was on that day. It was the first time I felt confused after a film by Terrence Malick. During the days after the screening, several moments of the film came back to my mind unintentional like the film lives a life of its own. I read three reviews, the beautiful ones by Richard Brody and Patrick Tomassi and the more sceptical one by Matt Zoller Seitz. Paradoxically it was the sceptical review by Zoller-Seitz which inspired me to rethink the effect the film had on me. At the beginning I felt much closer to the conclusion of Zoller Seitz than to the other two rather enthusiastic reviews.
Compared with his two previous films,, the shameless underrated masterpiece To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, Song to Song has more recognizable elements of what we call narration. It is the third film Malick created without a proper screenplay. Strangely I felt in Song to Song the lack of this very special intensity of these two previous films, where the montage finally created in a magical way an own gravitation field which brings all the often improvised elements together. This recognizable triangle relationship between two musicians played by Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling and a rich and powerful music producer (Michael Fassbinder) are in contrast with a strange centrifugal force which makes every moment even more fleeting, even a bit more fragmented than in Malick´s previous films. On the first sight – there is everything what we know from recent films by him, especially since his collaboration with this wonderful Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Luebzki: the pending sliding movements which creates a choreography with the movements of the acteurs that appears to me almost like Max Ophüls with a hand held camera. There are also the famous over voices, an element which is present in all films by Malick but much more refined and cultivated since The Thin Red Line. This time it was often difficult to me to distinguish the different over voices/characters from each other. It was the Babel-effect or to talk with Jean Renoir the problem that “every one has his reasons” how it is verbalized in his La Regle du jeu. Literally I often had problems “to get hold” on those fleeting moments. In other films by Malick there were always several moments which immediately burnt into my memories.
But exactly in this moment of doubt I had in this film, the film comes back in little pieces to my memory like my brain was working like a ruminant. And with a delay of some days the old excitement, the strong emotions I usually feel for a film by Terrence Malick since The New World are back again.

Even though the film takes place in the music world of Austin / Texas, most of the excerpts of live-concerts or recorded songs are as fragmented than anything else in Malicks recent films. Sometimes the protagonists attend concerts not from the grandstand but from a place they look sidewards to the stage. As insiders they seem often less interested in the performances than the audience mass. There is actually a link to Malick´s previous film Knight Of Cups who takes place like Song to Song on the other side of the entertainment industry where the common audience has no access.
But even if Malick´s last two films are dealing with artists who have to deal with a business which buys and sells them - in their emotions, their memories their grieve and their losses the acteurs are as lost and lonely like the uprooted Pocahontas in The New World, the grieving mother in The Tree of Life or the lost soul Marina in To the Wonder – and finally very close to the rough, still non verbalized emotions and thoughts we have when we attend a film screening. Whenever I hear these over voice whispering, I almost can feel my own silent ones. In of of the big themes in Malick´s work, the lostness of most of his characters on their quest for identity, Malick seems to have gone with Song to Song even a step further. The collision between pain and grieve and the beauty of the world seems to be a bit more pointed. Often in Song to Song, the protagonists are indifferent to the beauty we see at the same moment on the screen.
Especially the characters who went through losses, grieve like the young soldiers in The Thin Red Line, especially Pocahontas in The New World, Mrs. O´ Brian in The Tree of Life or Marina in To the Wonder are still able to see the beauty of the world. In Song to Song we hear Rooney Mara´s voice telling: “I can´t bear to see the birds, because I saw them with you.” Obviously these words are leaded to her lover but it also implies, that she sees the world from a different perspective than us, the audience. The majestic view of a flying flock of birds we could often share in our imaginations with the protagonists in other films by Malick but not with Rooney Mara and other characters in Song to Song. They literally see a different film than we do. When we learn relatively quick the greed and aggressive possessive manner of the music producer (one of Malick´s most diabolic characters) Mara and Gosling seem to be helpless exposed to his manipulations.

There remains in me a feeling of discomfort with the film but it is very close to a film from another favorite director of mine which I admire but which also scares and distressed me in revealing a disconnected modern civilization, Yasujiro Ozu´s dark Tokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight).

Jean Renoir wrote in his autobiography once about his India-experiences that he was “deeply moved how the Indians tried to touch him”. Terrence Malick is like Jean Renoir a filmmaker who celebrates the tangible and visible matter of the world and us are made of. And the spiritual and religious aspects are no contradiction at all. They are an interpretation of the world we can share or not. They seem to belong together as two aspects of the world, the nature like it is and how people try with or without success to deal with it.
The kind Malick´s characters try to touch the loved ones but also the world around them is very close to that what must have moved Renoir so much during his India-experiences. In Song to Song they try it desperate and often without avail like in no other film by Malick. They literally try to get with their hands hold in this world and sometimes they fail. But at all, emotions, mental conditions in a film by Terrence Malick are always revealed through bodies, movements, glimpse, sounds and an intensive exploration of the facets of human faces - very close to the films by Ingmar Bergman, Ritwik Ghatak and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Malick´s cinema is a big veneration for the matter of the world and the matter, cinema is made of as well.

I said it often and I say it again: the accusation Malick´s films from up to The Tree of Life are esoteric or simple religious propaganda is not only unfair but even poor nonsense and it is finally a big embarrassment of quite a big part of film criticism.

Property, it´s all about property” (Sean Penn in The Thin Red Line)

And yes, even though a marginalia but always evident, Malicks films are not at all isolated from the social reality or social history of the world: Exploitation of human labour in Days of Heaven, war as the decline of human civilization in The Thin Red Line, the aggressive British imperialism to conquer new markets in The New World, the illusion in and the failure of the American way of Life in The Tree of Life, the evidence of hardship in Bartlesville/ Oklahoma in To the Wonder. In Knight of Cups and Song to Song there are signs of a certain cynicism of the rich and powerful, especially in how these films reveal the exploitation of the female body. Most evident in the nearly Stroheim-like character played by Michael Fassbinder whose manner finally leads to the suicide of his wife played by Nathalie Portmann, an unusual harsh explosion of tragedy in this film.
It is very fashionable, it is trendy, cool and catchpenny to ridicule the more recent films by Terrence Malick. That became recently a sport in mainstream criticism and even worse in blind and ideological motivated criticism. But it ignores or even defrauds the rich diversity Terrence Malick has given to recent world cinema.

And yes, I have forgotten that there was as well a moment which moved me very deeply and which is enough motivation to see this film again: it is the short but weighty presence of Rock-singer Patti Smith. It is a moment hardly a minute long but strong enough to be remembered until my very end and which is also a precise image for the poetry of Terrence Malick. Patti Smith talks with Rooney Mara and just this dialog between a real and a fictive person, the port between fiction and documentary alone is amazing. The elder singer tells about her late husbands, that she still will wear his ring because he was the love of her life. The younger woman tells her about her unhappy sex affair with this producer. And suddenly this little dialog turns into something like a confession from woman to woman and Patti Smith becomes an non denominational spiritual advisor which is often reserved for male priests. How the hands of these women touch each other, how Smith comforts the young disturbed woman and how she finally touches her cheeks, is a high concentration of Malick´s poetry and compassion. This moment comes always back to my mind, again and again - and there is nothing I can do about it. It reminds me in this strong and heartbreaking moment from The Tree of Life when this wonderful big black lady comforts the mourning Jessica Chastain with her huge hands. In these seconds the films reveal the whole beauty of the cinema of Terrence Malick itself. These two scenes tell me all what I love in the films by Terrence Malick, for what I have no words.

Rüdiger Tomczak

The mentioned reviews:
A Prayer for Ryan Gosling (Patrick Tomassi
Review by Matt Zoller Seitz at Rogerebert.com

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such an intelligent and wise commentary. Malick always creates high art.