Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Song to Song

Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara on the set

Director Terrence Malick and Rooney Mara on the set

Director Terrence Malick and Natalie Portman on the set

Director Terrence Malick and Ryan Gosling on the set

Director Terrence Malick

SONG TO SONG            C              
USA  (129 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Terrence Malick                Official site

The woods had vanished; the earth was a waste of shadow.  No sound broke the silence of the wintry landscape.  No cock crowed; no smoke rose; no train moved.  A man without a self, I said.  A heavy body leaning on a gate.  A dead man.  With dispassionate despair, with entire disillusionment, I surveyed the dust dance; my life, my friends’ lives, and those fabulous presences, men with brooms, women writing, the willow tree by the river—clouds and phantoms made of dust too, of dust that changed, as clouds lose and gain and take gold or red and lose their summits and billow this way and that, mutable, vain.  I, carrying a notebook, making phrases, had recorded mere changes; a shadow.  I had been sedulous to take note of shadows.  How can I proceed now, I said, without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?                       

The Waves, by Virginia Woolf, 1931,  THE WAVES - Project Gutenberg Australia

Filmed back to back with Knight of Cups (2015), essentially the same film in a different context, arguably the least successful film over the course of his career, where, above all others, it has an air of pretension about it, showing no artistic growth, as it’s covering the exact same territory as his previous film, where too much of the same thing has dulled the senses in Malick films, continuing in a similar abstract, non-narrative stylization, where this is the only Malick film that actually felt painful to watch, as actors are constantly forced to spontaneously perform in front of the camera, to improvise and supposedly be interesting, yet it becomes excruciatingly painful to watch, as shooting without a script, it seems more like screen test shots, loose reflections of differing personalities captured before a camera, where they are playing out moods instead of developing characters.  Over the course of two hours, the professional limits of these actors are exposed, as their attempts at spontaneity become repetitive, where instead of a liberating experience, they feel more and more boxed in by their own human limitations, falling instead of flying, where it actually becomes uncomfortable to watch after a while, as they feebly resort to many of the same gestures and acting techniques over and over again.  While Malick continually resorts to a mosaic of impressionistic moments, finding beauty in the moment, where throughout the duration he is constantly changing the focus of attention, adding a stream-of-conscious narrative that is driven by fleeting images accompanied by haunting interior monologues that do form a more recognizable storyline, the truth is that our distanced unfamiliarity with the same characters and cinematic techniques do not grow or evolve over time, where this feels more like an exercise in futility, with viewers continually forced to beat their heads against a wall in protest.  Shot in Austin during the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival, there is a thread of indie music that plays throughout, along with cameos from rock icons Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, where the normally reclusive director conducted a Q & A interview along with actor Michael Fassbender hosted by resident director Richard Linklater following a screening just a few weeks ago at the SXSW Film Festival, Michael Fassbender & Terrence Malick talk about "Song To Song" at the SXSW (Austin, Texas) (31:38), and while nothing earthshaking is revealed, it is one of the few public interviews Malick has ever granted.   

This would have to be considered the Malick “Museum period,” as the director, through ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in their fifth consecutive collaboration since The New World (2005), continually shoots extravagant, museum-like dwellings with glass floor-to-ceiling windows, looking completely immaculate, like super luxury accommodations featured in Architectural Digest magazine, set in beautiful locations with elaborate outdoor fountains or in this case, elegant infinity pools overlooking Lake Travis or the Colorado River, which both converge in Austin, where nothing is ever out of place, resembling an intoxicating, dreamlike image of unlimited wealth, where this is as far from a working class environment as one could find, inhabited by the so-called beautiful people who control the industry.  But instead of a scathing satire on Los Angeles and the Hollywood movie industry, consumed in artifice and superficiality, this is described as an experimental romantic drama filled with music, originally entitled Weightless from the Virginia Woolf passage, yet despite the title and the outdoor rock music setting, the film is not really about the music festival, though as Malick put it, “You can’t live in Austin and escape the music,” serving only as a backdrop for a larger story about the fleeting connectivity of our lives, shown through a series of random moments, as one character (Rooney Mara) puts it, “living moment to moment, song to song, kiss to kiss,” which may explain why so many different songs and locations are used in the film, where what’s shown onscreen are only brief fragments of a much larger picture that remains unseen, that each viewer must imagine for themselves, where perhaps a common theme heard throughout is the Delta blues song, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” Elmore James - Rollin' and Tumblin' - YouTube (2:27). 

Well, I rolled and I tumbled, cried the whole night long
Well, I woke up this mornin’, didn’t know right from wrong

Featuring a cavalcade of stars, including Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, and a strange appearance from Val Kilmer, where three women are Academy Award winners, the film doesn’t really have a story, and isn’t meant to, as there was never any guarantee any of the scenes would be used, with Malick filming them continuously, even when they weren’t acting, in keeping with his theme of spontaneity, with many not making the final cut, including Christian Bale, Benicio del Toro, Trevante Rhodes, Haley Bennett and others, including music groups Arcade Fire and Iron & Wine.  The film basically follows people on the periphery of the industry, Faye (Rooney Mara), herself a budding songwriter, seen early on having a JULES AND JIM (1962) style flirtatious relationship with two men, BV (Ryan Gosling), an up and coming songwriter and musician that she meets at a party, and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a wealthy record producer that is trying to sign him.  In Malick’s experimental phase, one never needs to buy into the religion or philosophy being discussed onscreen, as that’s all part of the transitional process “on becoming,” where artistically one delves under the surface to explore as much as they can to better understand the changing world around us, and who better than this director to help guide us through an inquisitive existential journey?  But that feeling of Malick euphoria or exhilaration is never achieved in this film, feeling more like masochistic indulgence, as one never believes in the actual romance, and any dialogue that does exist is simplistically awkward and trivial, as what’s missing are the essential ingredients of a healthy relationship.  While Faye is seduced by them both, a relative novice in the music industry, “I tell myself any experience is better than no experience.  I wanted to live. Sing my song,” this romantic interplay quickly moves from a free-wheeling innocence to one of more serious consequences, yet there’s no underlying credibility that it’s ever about love, as the emotional currency is money and power, as personified by Cook, who is something of a snake of a human being, who’s personal mantra becomes, “The world wants to be deceived,” where there’s not a shred of commitment or even relationship connectivity, as there’s never an extended conversation, the kind of thing relationships actually need to sustain themselves, instead it’s shown as a flurry of brief moments, like walking in on the tail end of a conversation, where much of the film is reduced to recognizable sound bites.  This simply can’t replace the real thing, so what we see is a cheap imitation, where the vacuous emotional distance between characters is more evident than ever, where the personal discomfort associated with watching the film actually feeds into this perception.     

Near the end of the film, like something you might find in a Jarmusch film, Faye reads aloud a passage from William Blake’s poem The Divine Image from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1789:

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

It must be said that Malick as a director doesn’t do romance well.  While DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) is in a class by itself, with a scintillatingly radiant Brooke Adams and a ruggedly handsome, young Richard Gere providing the thrust of the love story, BADLANDS (1973), The New World (2005), and To the Wonder (2012) may be his next best romantic efforts and in each instance love quickly collapses, as it simply has no foundation.  The same might be said for Kubrick, by the way, as both men are simply too ponderous, where their expertise is in exploring the stratosphere of thought and personal perception, where they are much better in visualizing the transcendence of the universe and the emotional chasms between people.  As she did in Knight of Cups (2015), the introduction of Natalie Portman as Rhonda sends the film into a downward trajectory.  A working class kindergarten teacher earning extra money waitressing, Cook decides to plant his hooks into her, dazzling her with the opulence of his home, making her his pet project, devoting all his time and energy in a larger-than-life courtship, finally convincing her to marry him, where we see glimpses of Holly Hunter as her more grounded but financially struggling mother, seemingly less impressed with Cook’s dazzling showmanship, even after he buys her a new home, where it’s all an act, a charade, as he soon makes a mockery of the marriage.  Consumed by three-way sexual trysts, stringing his wife along for the ride, even including prostitutes, becoming a sleazy portrait of Sodom and Gomorrah, he shows no regard whatsoever for the demoralizing effect this has on his wife, thinking only of himself, while she feels humiliated and ashamed.  Cook pulls the same con act on BV, making behind-the-back maneuvers that undermine his legitimacy, as he’s a conniving liar who will openly deceive you to your face, never showing an ounce of remorse.  While there’s an interesting connection to struggling parents, Faye’s father (Brady Coleman), ostracized from his own family, basically encourages her not to make the same mistakes that he made, while BV’s mother (Linda Emond) speaks out of turn, causing irreparable damage to an existing affair he’s having with Amanda (Cate Blanchett).  In fact, everyone sleeps around, with Faye having a girl-on-girl fling with the French-accented Zoey, Bérénice Marlohe, a James Bond girl in SKYFALL (2012), while BV has unfinished business with a former girlfriend Lykke (Swedish singer and fashion model Lykke Li), where personal betrayal becomes routine.  While there are side trips to Mexico, with a few days shot in the Yucatán, mulling around outdoor street scenes including food vendors, revealing a stark poverty in the daily lives of locals, each seems so willing to throw away their youth in the prime of their lives, finding it gone in the blink of an eye.  A montage of small moments, there’s really no compelling character in the bunch, so when they run astray, like Icarus flying too closely to the sun, there’s no real sense of tragedy or a feeling like something important has been lost, as there was not much of a connection to begin with.   One has to say it — this is downright average, on par with the rest of the bad movies.      

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