Before I saw Song To Song, I saw it described in the comments section of its trailer on Youtube as “La La Land 2.0”. How fucking tone deaf can someone get?
Having now seen it, I can confirm that Terrence Malick, love him or hate him, is still making films in a different cinematic language to La La Land. Song To Song may have been photography-directed by Emmanuel Lubezki (he of Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant consecutive Oscar wins, and thus frequent collaborator of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Malick himself), but to compare it to the Oscar winner, just because it stars Ryan Gosling and is a love story that is (tangentially) centred around music? Please. It couldn’t even be called La La Land—it’s very prominently set in Austin, TX.
In Song To Song, Lubezki and Malick are in the mood for some incredibly fragmented editing, editing to put off your average La La Land viewer, with jump cuts and Dutch angles and voiceovers and stock footage randomly inserted and other delights galore. Dialogue is similarly rogue: I didn’t realize these characters had names until the credits rolled. Watching the film is a beautiful experience, though—a word thrown around a bit too lightly sometimes—in part because of this and in part because of the very beautiful people in it. It’s the cinematic equivalent of looking at a Cubist painting, only one where the fragments are fleeting shots of the ridiculously attractive on-off cinematic couple Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling rather than dark grey and brown patches of factories or mountains; flashes of infinity pools, Mexican churches and open-top cars on the freeway, rather than the edge of a wooden chair or a bottle of wine.
Facetiousness aside, it’s moving. It is a little pretentious at times, and you have to watch it on Malick’s own terms, I feel. But it’s also very realistic. I’d like to echo what I said when I wrote about Lost In Translation: just because people’s problems seem stupid, or vapid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t real. If you didn’t like Song To Song because of the melodramatic voiceovers each character is indulged, take a moment and then tell me you’ve never thought something like that to yourself. Things can be messy, and complicated, and that’s the point of the film. People do horrible things to those they love—in life as in cinema.
The bottom line is, it’s realistic. It’s realistic visually because we see the world in fragments (as the Cubists also believed, loathe as I am to admit it). It’s realistic emotionally; we remember things in fragments and fill in the gaps with our imagination. And obviously, it’s realistic because Malick managed to get Patti Smith and Anthony Kiedis and Flea (though they spelled Kiedis’ name incorrectly in the credits…) and Iggy Pop and John Lydon (no longer Johnny Rotten since he did that butter advert) to appear throughout, offering the young characters advice on music and love. Surely circa 1978 these guys (minus the Chili Peppers) thought they would never get a chance to work with him, and now he, like they, has got a second wind.
Song To Song is not perfect. In fact, it’s far from perfect. The camera occasionally lingers a little long on Mara’s lips or exposed stomach, or Natalie Portman’s legs, as to leave anyone completely comfortable, and a criticism, as mentioned before, can be levelled at the film that it’s just about the relationship problems of rich white people. In fact, to go a little further, Song To Song does relatively little to dispel the reputation Malick has (as indeed the cinema around me proved) for making obscure, difficult films that only appeal to young, over-educated white men who can explain them to girls at parties.
And yet. I’ve gone much easier on other films because I hold them to a lower standard than the man who made The Tree of Life and Days of Heaven. Another guy who made art for intellectually arrogant young students was David Foster Wallace, but he summed up the reason why I liked Song To Song so well in 1990 with his essay Television and US Fiction (and he has just saved me, and you, from struggling through 300-400 words where I try unsuccessfully to articulate this), so I’m going to quote him:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
Now, Malick was already an established artist in 1990 when Wallace was working. But the sentiment—that emotional sentiment itself is okay, and desirable, and even fresh in a postmodern culture riddled with deeper cultural insecurity—still stands. Song To Song is melodramatic, it is sentimental, it is indulgent. Its characters aren’t, for the most part, very likeable. But it is entirely genuine, and felt. It’s right there for critics to laugh at or hate, but also for viewers to leave (as they did this evening) in total silence, and sit on the Tube home and keep thinking about it. One comes out of it and sees the world in a slightly more, well, beautiful light.
Robbie Collin proved Wallace’s point perfectly in a great review for the Telegraph, in which he called the film “yet another petal-hued, vetiver-spritzed Miltonian whisperscape, with attractive actors dancing the usual metaphysical love-ballet in shifting sunlight”. It’s not a criticism without legs. But the love-ballet is danced in earnest, and in my opinion, that makes Song To Song worth your time.