Like many, Terrence Malick had me at Days of Heaven, the innovative 1978 film that introduced us to his exceptional visual art. I make a point of seeing most of his movies shortly after they are released. My review of To the Wonder is here: http://rationaldecline.blogspot.com/2013/04/to-wonder-fine-expression-of-terrence.html. I was excited to see his latest offering, Song to Song, at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis.
One normally associates moralizing with the spoken, not the visual. But Song to Song, a work of many images and few words, is sneakily moralistic. As with most Malick films, the narrative thread is sparse and the meaning of the movie therefore remains wholly obscured until the end. Startling eye candy, at times overlaid with transporting music, initially led me to believe I was simply viewing a large-screen version of Architectural Digest.
As promised, the movie is an exploration of the Austin, Texas music scene and presents cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith. The ensemble cast includes Ryan Gosling (BV), Rooney Mara (Faye), Michael Fassbender (Cook), Natalie Portman (Rhonda), Cate Blanchett (Amanda), Holly Hunter (Miranda), and Val Kilmer (Duane)—and other Hollywood stars were left on the cutting room floor. (While the characters' names are perhaps discernible from the script and film, they were hard for me to catch and I’ll just reference the characters by using the actors’ names.)
Given Malick’s proclivities, it was not a surprise that shots within sequences often lasted only seconds and were no doubt shuffled, at times perhaps randomized, before being sewn together. The stunning beauty of nature and man’s ordered world—at one point Fassbender’s character says “it is staged,” or words to that effect—suffuses the film and lulls us into thinking that the movie is headed nowhere. At times I assumed it was just a boring cinematographic tour de force. But evil and misfortune are stealthy and the penalties of sin are not paid at its inception. What are these people doing? They are doing what rock stars, those that leach off of them, and those that hang around them usually do: living haughty lives of sex, drugs, and money, claiming immunity to the gravity of humanness and life.
Natalie Portman’s character, who enters as a svelte waitress, gives in to lust and easy money by taking up with the devilish Fassbender, a musical agent. In getting something for nothing, she in a way embraces her own death. Rooney Mara’s character, who buffets about the same world, meets a different fate. Why? Chance? Perhaps. Or it could be that this work really does have a moralistic engine and the fact that she first earned her way to her station as a receptionist for the Fassbender character, plays a role in the tale. She was not plopped in the mix deus ex machina as Portman’s character was. Or it may simply be that the Mara's character is made of sterner stuff, as her various misadventures seem to show.
The mothers, fathers, wives, and Patti Smith point the moral way. Rooney Mara’s father questions his daughter’s choices in the subtlest and most skillful of manners—skillful because it’s the type of gentle inquiry and guidance that gains purchase only with time. The tenderness she feels for her father is conveyed by one shot where she runs her fingers along a door or window while in her father’s presence. We're being told that the goodness of parental love lies within her and it is perhaps this that prepares her to receive more direct guidance from another source, Patti Smith, who, playing herself, serves as the crucial moral anchor by telling Rooney Mara to fight for what she loves: Gosling. Gosling’s mother sees the dangers of the moneyed world and protects her son. Gosling’s father is not known to the audience before his death, but it is hinted that his pre-mortem guidance plays a role in Gosling’s salvation. Unfortunately, Natalie Portman’s mother questions her daughter’s choices with less success.
Like lightning at a picnic, the tragedy comes as a surprise while everyone is debauching in their usual manner. Honied mushrooms are the leading suspect.
Malick’s usual style, one which uses pictures, not words, improbably accommodates highly moralistic messages about the catalog of human sin:
- Don’t hang with evil
- Beauty without spirituality is hollow
- The rewards of life must be earned
- Punishment does not always vest at the time of sin
- Beauty is cunning, baffling, and powerful
- If something’s so nasty that you have to coat it with honey to make it palatable, it’s bad for you
- Follow love. Don’t let it go, even if the path is hard.