Terrence Malick is the common man’s filmmaker. His films posit the universe as a shared space, a place trodden by memory. He takes the psychic, metaphysical quandaries embedded in the human experience and crafts films around them. As an artist of the phenomenal, Malick plays moments not in their time in space (as to force a coherent narrative) but like memories unfolding unto memories. His operative cinematic inquiry seems to be: how would the earth herself retell human history? Queue Mother Earth’s home movies.
Song to Song is no exception to his meditations on the collective. This newest film is a chronicle of romance, its main players, musicians. It patterns a matrix of experience through its four primary characters, with the central relationship being Rooney Mara’s Faye and Ryan Gosling’s BV. Their specific memory is that around which the others orbit. Faye plays the film’s primary mover, a guitarist wandering on fleeting whims. Though, she can’t quit BV, a more ambiguous musician who yearns to be free, as Faye says. Michael Fassbender is Cook, a beguiling figure of fame and excess, pulling into himself both BV and Faye. Most of the first half of the film focuses on this love triangle. Faye falls for BV while still in a tenuous relationship with Cook, all the while BV becomes distracted by Cook’s fantasies of fame.
Unlike its predecessor, Knight of Cups, perspective shifts amongst the characters and does so often. The central romance seems to reflect Malick’s own vision of the world, yet the film yields grace and room to observe peripheral relationships — an authorial acknowledgement that everyone we’ve experienced along the way makes us the lovers we wind up being. Natalie Portman’s Rhonda plays a waitress to challenge Cook’s falsehoods, and Cate Blanchett, Lykke Li and Bérénice Marlohe all show up as Faye and BV’s lovers in-between.
Recounting their relationship in voiceover, Faye says, “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.” Set in Austin, at a musical festival envisioned as the place where the earth’s very foundation was pummeled out, Song to Song is Malick’s musical. And like a musical, the film’s structure moves fluidly through these myriad of relationships where memories yield to one another like musical numbers in an MGM classic.
Parsing Malick can feel like a grammatical exercise, like trying to diagram a sentence. Yet his rhythms yield with patience. In Song to Song, romance is the film’s subject, and the characters are the objects which constitute or deconstruct the image-idea at any given moment. Because his films can begin at any point and comprise any character and setting, his work is truly about everything. It’s not a sufficient inquiry into Song to Song to wonder why these characters are musicians — they just are. It’s a truth of this world. Naturally, an audience begins with what they know best, the people. Malick assumes that, and because he’s not interested in specific stories nor associative empathy, he uncouples his people from the real world. This disruption steals his characters’ ability to perceive the world as its spectators, frustrating both audience and his players. He others them from the world, and they become bound to an unfamiliar place; his films tell the experiences of these displaced vessels as they work to reconstruct meaning for themselves.
The mode in which he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture image is almost paralyzing. Song to Song is another in Malick’s creation of cinematic pretexts. Yes, his characters are archetypal and hardly more than avatars. But to create the nu-myths, he’s recycling the images of yore. Often his work gets tied to a biblical antecedent, which isn’t incorrect, but maybe just getting half the point. He assumes those prior myths in his work but there is no true or pure correlative; his work is the ur-text of a new cinema. Every shot, every edit implies an Image preexisting his own. Living is motion and action — and, to capture it all, the camera cannot be still. It’s literally spiritual filmmaking: the camera mimicking a primordial, cosmic, metaphysical Presence that moves in and around everything. Therefore, everything must be recorded, i.e. seen.
In Song to Song, spirituality is bound to physicality. Faye’s voiceover sets the film in motion when she confesses from the start that there was a time when sex had to be violent. It’s a bracing first principle, especially as it’s heard over a montage of bodies and moments like an orgasmic flood of memory. But the language of the flesh is sacred to Malick. He doesn’t craft character and story with the specifics of identity, rather he sees the body as a vessel of memory, persons as imprints of experience. We all contain the universe within, and the ways in which it leaks out make us who we are. Song to Song is purely about romance — about it all. The film envelopes you in a specific mode of experience where, instead of identifying with characters, you identify with their experiential reality. We are a sharing species. Our memory is a collective one. In Malick’s eye, life’s conflict is in aligning our assigned vessels with those of others in order to be a part of each other. And that’s Faye and BV’s conflict, the conflict of human romance.
As we hear Faye mutter about how she admires that she is a hypocrite, or watch BV weep over his father’s physical degradation, or get caught in the transitory luxury in which Cook lives, we find experiences we know. They are specters of our own living. Because Song to Song is so sprawling, there are moments that arrest some and not others, but it’d be almost impossible to walk away from the film without any memories resurfacing.
Malick, in keeping with his more recent work, finds Song to Song’s commonness in a peculiar, almost profane fashion. Aesthetically, he constantly undercuts the common notions of transcendence ascribed him. His cinema isn’t unlike that of an extreme sports vlogger. GoPro, fish eye lenses, slo-mo and Steadicam are always used without hierarchy. The editing is a flash of dissociative imaging; it’s almost impossible to perform analysis on a single scene. That commonness is reflected in the settings he values as well. Gas stations and food truck lots are glorified landmarks, juxtaposed against lifeless, bourgeois domestic territories. His cinema is fluctuation, and the memories of these characters and their romances are reflected in that.
Song to Song finds itself in its vast mercies. It balances tragedies and heartbreaks with life’s many graces. It’s as cosmic as The Tree of Life but finds a rootedness that makes this maybe Malick’s most purely human film. At one point, Faye says that she never knew she had a soul, that the word embarrassed her. Yet it was romance that either taught or reminded her that she wasn’t merely a body, but a being. What’s a song without its soul.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.