Terrence Malick’s recent works have struggled to find audiences for their experimental tendencies, but though experimentalism implies lack of narrative, experimental cinema often retains narrative even as structure is manipulated to its limits. Song to Song’s lyrical, expressionistic structure relies upon fragmentation, built by editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin and Keith Fraase in rapid fire. Malick attempts to mirror the temporality of life: experienced one way in the moment, another way through emotion, another way within memory.
Manipulating time is never purely aesthetic, but cinema’s core. Malick’s world is in motion, rarely using locked off camera except to emphasise the stillness of nature and the city: trees, mountains and overbearing glass windows stand still, gliding through living rooms in Steadicam. In the music festival, we open on mass crowds, tackled to the mud with sheer fury of motion; later, we glimpse assembled crowds at a football stadium and a church conference.
Malick builds a cacophony of voices between primary characters interspersed throughout. Faye’s (Rooney Mara) voiceover reflects upon time past, but grounds no present, lacking indication of when she is speaking. Only a Day of the Dead festival gives any clear indication to time within the film itself, moving through what could be many months. We move through the mundane: people on Segways riding through the park, or driving in the car. Cinema’s tendency is to simplify narrative for convenience, turning complexity into something straightforward and tangible. But though act structures might seem natural, life is lived through moments and spaces in-between, just as film is fused by iconic images and dialogue. Where narrative is manipulated, beauty can be found. Malick refuses to conform to the tenets of romantic drama: there’s no beautiful, affirming first date, or break-up leading to reaffirmation of love. Sexuality becomes a dance between kisses and flirtations, glimpsing fidelity and infidelity in the before and after: cause and effect.
Sound transcends physical space: sound designer Will Patterson drowns out diegetic sound, overtaking dialogue and music itself, hearing passing cars, crickets, birds and wind at a visceral level. Malick overwhelms us with the enormity and smallness of life, moving small moments and lives through a wider canvas of the progression of time. Through memory, we imagine life as linear, moving from point A and B: partners, jobs, moods, locations, events. But in complexity, we forget how time passes: we move between fluctuating and conflicting emotions without clear rationale, unsure where the next moment will take us. Memory rarely follows the right order: a flash of one time prompts another time, itself triggering something that happened before or after. Malick attempted this best in The Tree of Life (2011), moving from rural life in the 1950s to the immensity of the universe, simultaneously discarding the creationist story of Eden whilst witnessing the beauty of intelligent design and the work of God’s hands.
Rather than linear narrative progression, Malick draws thematic and emotional parallels. We hang within space itself, gravity no longer a hindrance, holding upon the slow movement of clouds from a cockpit window, floating in a reduced gravity aircraft. We move between colours and clothes, BV (Ryan Gosling)’s hair dyed blonde in some scenes. Malick seems almost as radical as Eisenstein and Vertov: remembering film editing and time as open, beyond the confines of formulas, audience expectations and studio profitability.
As a medium, film is directly tied to time. All film is manipulation, combining fragments of scenes and performances and layers of screenplay and dialogue to attempt to form something cohesive, seeking to engage us within a screen present regardless of narrative framing. Shot in 2012, we feel immediate separation. Rooney Mara is closer to The Social Network (2010); Portman closer to Black Swan (2010); Gosling closer to Drive (2011); Fassbender closer to X-Men: First Class (2011). In one scene, gazing upon an extract from a silent film, we’re reminded of the temporal distance inherent within film. Film depends upon distance: ideas formed years (or decades) ago, screenplays written years ago, production often lasting years; rehearsals, filming and editing. When a film is released, or rediscovered, might be considered the most important aspect, but even this is far from essential. Malick has only made a handful of films, preferring to allow time for things to develop.
Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, Song to Song combines multiple visual aesthetics. Scenes carry a home movie quality as a representation of the normal and everyday, as though nothing cannot be filmed. We witness animals through the fish eye lens of a GoPro, but Malick combines the film with some of the most beautiful cinematography put on screen.
Set against the music scene in Austin, Texas, Austin is deeply personal to Malick, a portrait of a city he knows to his core. But Song to Song isn’t directly about the struggles of being a musician: instead, music acts as a unifying background. We intersect along fragments of songs and artist cameos, including instrumental, classical, faith-themed pieces, Lykke Li and Die Antwood, the most bizarre soundtrack in film history. Neon Indian writes on a whiteboard with Faye at a party. At the festival, Duane (Val Kilmer) saws an amplifier in half and throws a sex doll around before being dragged inside a car. Flea and Iggy Pop appear in cameos. Patti Smith acts as a mentor to Rhonda (Natalie Portman), waxing philosophical as she beautifully and sorrowfully reflects upon her life. Smith’s presence affords an aura of documentary, blurring lines of fact and fiction, our protagonists embodied as real people within a real music scene.
Gosling’s performance as singer/songwriter BV provides an interesting point of comparison to La La Land (2016). BV is never entirely likable or charming: he treats women with a sense of sexual ownership, drawing an X on Faye’s body in red marker pen, later hooking up with Amanda (Cate Blanchett) in Freudian conflict. He cares for his dad, confined to his bed in sickness, struggling to reconcile his mum’s feelings about his relationship with Faye. But BV also has innocence and vulnerability: record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) manipulates him, owning rights to his work and never standing by his side. In his black suit, Cook acts as the Devil incarnate, living a life of gluttony. Though he treats the vase of ashes by the pool with respect, Cook engages with visceral sexuality, staging a threesome with prostitutes and between Faye and Rhonda, naked women diving into the pool at the party.
Women become a sexual object: Faye’s naked body becomes a centrepiece to the party covered in food to eat off. Mara may be the film’s best part, purely for the power and strength Mara puts into every role ever given, one of the most underrated actresses of recent years. Performing on stage, Faye excels. Like Therese in Carol (2015), Faye has a queer edge: she feels initial hesitance to making out with Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), but rediscovers intense sexuality, masturbating her and moving with each others hands. Malick’s women aren’t faceless, but with goals and desires: Rhonda wants to be a teacher, working as a waitress in a bar in a pink uniform. Rhonda attempts to reject Cook’s advances, but is ensnared by his destructive lifestyle.
Malick’s approach to cinema relies upon intense spirituality. Even Song to Song’s approach to time feels spiritual, removed from the dimensions of linearity. Malick’s spirituality allows for a sense of the emotional beyond the grounded. Patti Smith holds onto her wedding ring, still feeling the presence of her late husband, Fred, within the physical object. Rhonda’s goal of becoming a teacher is paralleled by a prostitute Cook hooks up with, forced into a line of work she doesn’t want to be in, holding onto the memory of her husband tattooed onto her, as she prays this is all part of God’s plan and she will get out of this and find fulfilment. Each protagonist is spiritual in a certain way: in voiceover, Faye reflects on the moment she realised she has a soul, having found the word embarrassing, laying her hand upon a religious icon; Rhonda attends a conference and a blessing with her dog; BV performs hymns on his piano. In a scene of mourning, we feel the immensity of the world around and intensity of emotion, moving overhead from the car park with a sense of isolation. Malick’s spirituality is tied to nature, touching down upon the water, moving across mountains and gazing upon birds in the sky, mirrored by the intricate mobile in the bedroom.
Where George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg became household names of New Hollywood, Malick still exists on the outside as a singular voice, recruiting big names for experimental cinema that transcend limitations. Though Song to Song might polarise, it is never not interesting. Malick’s approach to cinema demands to be seen. Song to Song may be the most beautiful portraits of our experience with life in recent years, interested in far deeper questions than entertainment, but reaching into the core of our souls.