Different people respond to films in different ways. That’s something I’m always especially aware of when it comes to Terrence Malick’s late work, which seems to alienate and infuriate most audiences, but which compels me (in some ways) more than nearly any other director working at the moment. Of course, I can see where many of the criticisms come from, and I don’t really share much of Malick’s worldview, especially as it was articulated in The Tree of Life. Yet that worldview has been diluted and dispersed in Malick’s more recent films as well, which seem as interested in elaborating a particular relation between his camera and the world, as in outlining a worldview in any particularly programmatic way, although beyond a certain point the two are inextricable from one another. In some ways, Song to Song is both the culmination and exhaustion of that recent trend, presenting us with the worst story in any of Malick’s films, but also dissociating us from that story more rapidly than in any of Malick’s films as well. Supposedly, Song to Song is about a pair of love triangles, or two couples, depending on how you look at it, set amidst the Austin music scene, and against the canvas of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. All you really need to know, though, about these romantic figures, is that they’re played by Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, since their names, professions, backstories and proclivities are all quickly subsumed into the ambience and atmospherics of the film.
Barely tethered to story at all – and weakest when it is – Song to Song quickly expands beyond this quartet to a cast of characters who are nevertheless too sprawling and serendipitously glimpsed to ever quite qualify as an ensemble cast either, especially when they start to segue into the live performances taking place at the Festival. Not quite the subject of the film, and not quite the backdrop, this Festival is the perfect correlative to the distended, twilit world in which all of Malick’s late characters seem to wander, which is perhaps why Song to Song includes more wandering sequences than in his previous three films combined. In such a diffuse narrative and tonal space, Malick generates a rhythm through his periodic focus on the hands, with most of the communion in the film taking place through the fingers, as every figure tries to find their way to the edges of every space, whether that threshold be a door, a window, a guitar string, or the fingers of another person. Malick’s fingers are also more evident here than in any of his other late films, with Song to Song evincing such abstract, startling and tactile transitions between scenes that it often plays more like a sustained music video, or like Malick’s own version of music video.
To that end, Malick appears to have curated the most marginal spaces he can discern in his home town of Austin, as his camera seeks out every contiguity it can find, frequently jumping from one space to another, one from one part of a space to another, on the basis of the most tangential, speculative and mystical resonances. As might be expected, that lyricism gets better as the narrative disperses, making for a film that stands in relation to Austin much as Knight of Cups stood in relation to Los Angeles – a city symphony for a director whose increasingly metonymic style has always seemed to harken back to his upbringing in Texas, but who up until this point had never made a film set in his native city. In a sense, then, Song to Song is Malick’s most autobiographical film, yet this isn’t autobiography in the conventional sense either. Instead, Malick feels more collapsed into the process of filming than ever before – or, alternatively, the film itself seems more incidental to the process of filming it than ever before – begging the question of how much farther Malick could go down this route before the film itself became utterly redundant. Watching it, I could almost imagine that if Malick were to make another film along these lines it might be enough for him to shoot hundreds of hours of footage, and immerse himself in the interface between his camera and the world, without ever feeling the compulsion to shape, edit or release it, let alone to include such a prominent cast of actors.
Certainly, Song to Song continually strains to escape the screen, with Malick distorting his lenses more than ever before to present us with images that are perpetually on the cusp of being overwhelmed by their own fringes, and by the edges of the frame. This marginal space is the true subject of the film, partly because Malick’s lenses ensure that it appears more mobile, and registers motion more emphatically, than the ostensible centre and focus of the images it brackets, as if to suggest some great flux that precludes any one image settling into stability or singularity, sending Malick in search of spaces that accentuate this fluidity around the far reaches of the frame. For the most part, these spaces fall into two major categories, whose dialogue with each drives the peculiar dynamism that defines the film. First, we have exclusive private spaces, both modern spaces that thrive on tastefully curated absences, voids and displacements, and more classical spaces, in which even the most cluttered sightlines tend to be dwarfed by the architectural accoutrements within which they are framed. Second, we have denuded public spaces, especially squares, parks and plazas, in which the presence of an actual public is more a possibility than a reality, and a remote possibility at that, even or especially when there are people around. In these second kinds of spaces, large groups of people are only capable of existing and congealing at the edges of the screen, and even then only really exist in the fleeting moment between shots.
As Malick subsumes his images into this slipstream at the side of the screen, these two spaces – exclusive private and denuded public – collapse into a breathless longing for the proximity of other bodies, along with an intensified prescience that every part of the body can be a receptacle for other bodies, as the main characters twist from one zero-gravity posture to another, and Malick’s camera breathes in and out of the world rather than “depicting” it in any conventional manner. No doubt, these postures are the degree zero of privileged anomie, and are framed emphatically and almost aggressively in terms of whiteness. At times, they almost play like a devolution of Antonioni, who might be said to have conceived of a proto-digital body language in his characters’ utter disdain for the strictures of time and space binding those less fortunate than themselves. Yet that privilege – what many critics have referred to as the “perfume commercial” look of Malick’s late work – is partly disrupted here by a new, kinetic ugliness as well, starting with the opening GoPro footage, which jitters and glitches with a new awareness of the public, or at least a new feeling for the public’s absence, that offsets his more recognisable mysticism and lyricism.
In the process, Song to Song, like Knight of Cups, nails the atmosphere of a certain contemporary American Downtown in which exclusive residential space continually strives – and fails – to address a public sphere that it has utterly displaced. Time and again, this public sphere can’t or won’t return in Song to Song, to the point where the possibility of a public – and a public prepared to engage with his late work – is perhaps the real threshold that animates and generates so much of Malick’s breathless wonder. Of course, this displacement from the urban core is something that black and Hispanic communities experienced decades ago, while the urban vistas that fascinate Malick are quite emphatically not those of cities like Detroit that have fallen into utter decay. What we have, instead, is a vision of a new era of white displacement and even deracination, but this time organised more visibly around class lines, and less certain of the narratives it once mobilised to pity and mythologise itself. Within that milieu – which, to be fair, structures urban life for many people outside of its immediate purview as well – Malick’s lyricism utterly shines, as he evokes an urban structure that continually subsumes (white) public space into so many adjuncts to high end investment opportunities, rather than repositories of genuine civic life.
What makes these refurbished cityscapes so alluring in Malick’s late work – and what makes Malick’s refurbishment of them so alluring – is how emphatically they promise a public life as a sublime promise from precisely those factors that have worked so strenuously to preclude a public sphere in the first place. That produces a breathless awareness of other bodies that never quite congeals into a capacity to commune with other bodies, and a film that is never quite able or willing to conceptualise or constitute its own audience, let alone to fuse it with the audience of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. This, in the end, is Malick’s version of whiteness, and as he traverses one space after another, we could almost be watching an investment portfolio for Austin, were it not for the way in which his camera restlessly seeks out every line of flight, as if to celebrate everything about Austin worthy of investment while not leaving enough time or space to invest in any static version of it either. In particular, Malick has a real aptitude for taking prefabricated flagship spaces – I think of them as “festival” spaces – and reframing them as venues for a mystical, wandering communion between strangers that utterly exceeds their financial imperatives. Much of the film is set in these strange public zones that were constructed for a photo opportunity and then promptly discarded, as Malick brings all his pastoral proclivities to bear on what often feels like a meditation on the ruin, and the melancholy of the ruin, within a digital cityscape.
Insofar as Song to Song has “characters,” they exist largely as ways of contouring this space, with Malick often using Rooney Mara, in particular, to calibrate just where this shifting nexus between public and private life happens to lie in any one particular scene, as well as when and where he should cut between any one shot and the next. While Mara is initially defined by her position on the fringes of the Festival, she quickly comes to personify the cusp between diegetic and non-diegetic space that galvanises the film more generally, eventually subsuming her burgeoning musical career into the role of professional housesitter to Michael Fassbender’s top-floor apartment in downtown Austin. There, her favourite posture is to wrap herself in his curtains, shrouding herself with a tactile privacy that simultaneously provides her with the most panoramic vista of the city that we see in the entire film. You couldn’t find a better image for Song to Song’s yearning for tactile communion with a public space in which tactility itself has been co-opted to preclude public space, a paradox that seems to perpetually poise the action right at the twilight cusp before a city comes alive, or discloses its true self. To that end, Malick accelerates the diurnal rhythm of the film as it proceeds, and as evening comes ever more regularly his match cuts grow ever more experimental as well, as if to subsume his images into the momentum they generate at their fringes before these images have even had a chance to be fully realised.
With Mara as its figurehead, that crepuscular space between public and private life is persistently framed as feminine, with each new breathless romantic encounter promising – and always just failing – to disclose to Malick’s men where its precise parameters lie. Yet for all the timeliness of the cityscapes that process unfolds, there’s something quite old-fashioned about this vision of femininity, which exists largely to define the thresholds at which public life, and the life of men, begins. You could say that part of the premise of the film is that women are continually leading men towards a public sphere that by definition excludes women, offering themselves as a boundary-experience to be traversed before public discourse with other men can be properly constituted. While it might appear to take place in the contemporary world, Song to Song often plays like an abstraction and rarefication of The Tree of Life, with all Malick’s wandering souls amounting to so many beneficiaries of the 50s now searching for the same perceptual architecture in the present.
Yet to say that Song to Song generalises The Tree of Life’s vision of the 50s to a series of perceptual principles simplifies things a bit, since part of what made The Tree of Life so powerful was the way in which it suggested that this hallucinatory extension of the 50s already inhered within – and actually constituted – the 50s. Throughout The Tree of Life, the 50s longs for the 50s, and subsists on its own fantasy of itself, albeit without the luxury of historical distance that can make fantasy so potent, forcing Malick to recircuit the 50s through the entire history of the world – the entire history of the universe – in order to capture the feeling of living through a decade whose fantasy had overtaken it before the decade had even closed. What has ensued in To The Wonder, Knight of Cups and now Song to Song is a version of the present in which this fantasy of the 50s, and of white stability, is almost too present as fantasy to be ever quite available as an object of nostalgia. Instead, the fantastic yearnings of the 50s for itself – and of a certain version of America for itself – remain open, intensified and almost unbearable in Malick’s contemporary world, producing an inchoate longing for a present tense that exists precisely in and through that longing.
It’s no surprise, then, that critics have found Malick’s films increasingly insular, nor that Malick’s intended audience increasingly seems to be himself. Those tendencies are stronger than ever in Song to Song, and especially in its treatment of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which is displaced into its fringes before it quite has a chance to begin or end, leaving us in a strange and distended space in which the Festival appears to have just happened, or to be about to happen. You might say that the Festival is the nocturnal event that structures Malick’s pervasive crepuscularity, since while he reputedly shot hours of footage, the performances are all subsumed into the momentum that subsumes the film’s images into themselves in turn, in one of the best fusions of music and cinema I’ve ever seen. More than ever before for Malick’s, that process is the film, just as it’s clearer than ever before that he lived for months with these musicians and actors, shooting everything indiscriminately before going back to select the most serendipitous footage and moments of propinquity between his camera and the world within which it is so thoroughly immersed.
In other words, it’s clearer than ever before that Malick has used film as a form of revelation, setting his camera adrift in the world, and equating it with his own mobile gaze as much as possible, before turning over the footage to see what it discloses to him. The closest analogy I can think of is David Lynch’s decision to keep the full version of Twin Peaks: The Return from his cast and crew, imbuing the series with a sense of collective revelation that included the actors and audience in the same breathless address. In Song to Song, Malick goes one step further, effectively concealing the film from himself until he peruses the footage for what it might be able to tell him about his participation in it. By the end, the film feels more or less redundant, the mere byproduct to Malick’s efforts to use the camera as a form of perceptual augmentation in order to allow him to access “something else – something that wants us to find it.” While “finding” this “thing” by way of the camera has always been the subject of Malick’s films, it now appears to have exceeded any one film, and instead been condensed into the transcendent experience of recording footage in itself.
In its own way, then, Song to Song is a film made for a time in which the vast majority of recording devices aren’t designed for recording at all, or at least not for the purpose of “producing” a stable recording, but instead as part of a wider digital mediation of the self that simply happens to use a recording device as one of its main instruments. The best analogy I can think of for Song to Song would therefore be a film compiled of all the most fleeting, serendipitous and evocative images from someone’s SmartPhone reel – scintillating, to be sure, but somehow beside the point of what it is the SmartPhone reel is supposed to achieve. While the Festival may not be very present in terms of live music, then, it is abundantly present as a media event, as Malick outlines a denser and richer swathe of digital communicative devices than ever before in his career, and positions his camera as one such device, indiscriminately recording material that he later parses for its revelatory potential. While the nature of that revelation is perhaps subjective, one consequence for me was just how strangely and uncannily cinematic an experience this produces, since the more Malick’s footage approximates that of a SmartPhone, GoPro, drone or other mobile device, the more it feels as if he has discovered, in the digital, a kind of total cinema, and an exquisitely cinephilic sensitivity for light, water, wind and all the other fleeting phenomena that can feel so tied to an early and more analog form of image.
It’s that quality that makes late Malick so compelling to me, since if it is “about” anything, Song to Song is “about” the experience of being around, behind and embodied within a portable digital camera, and the rapturous immersion of a continuously and exponentially self-mediating environment that goes along with it. Even the most hackneyed “scenes” don’t dent the freshness with which Malick’s camera encapsulates this world, even or especially if this world ends up consuming his camera, overwhelming any real semblance of narrative coherence or cohesion in the process. This final dissociation of the film occurs about the same time that Mara’s “character” commits suicide by drowning herself in the most fluid and abstract space in the film, and yet with forty-five more minutes to go, this suicide feels quite notional and barely seems to have even occurred. By the end, Austin has dissolved into an entirely liquid city, a city of ponds, pools and rivers, as if the desert were never there, while what we have is not a film, but not emphatically not a film either. Instead, we’re offered a collection and curation of footage from a device that has already been entirely absorbed into the world that it depicts at the moment of filming, along with a 50s worldview that has been entirely absorbed into the world it seeks to control at the moment it is articulated. While I can therefore see how Song to Song might be understood to espouse a conservative worldview, my final impression was of an auteur immersing his worldview in the world and seeing what the world throws back. Far from crafting a film about values, Malick comes to a visionary reckoning with his own values that disperses the film as it proceeds, with his filmography, and auteurism, coming to an end halfway through. Once it does, it gives way to something more emergent, provisional and, yes, wondrous.