Song to Song (2017), dir. Terrence Malick

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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.

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La La Land (2016), dir. Damien Chazelle

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The 2017 Oscars have placed Hollywood in dilemma. Contenders like Manchester by the Sea, The Salesman and I Am Not Your Negro were produced or distributed by Amazon Studios. Suicide Squad won an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Debates shall be eternally waged over Moonlight vs. La La Land.

La La Land still won 6 Oscars.

Though Stone is powerful, Portman was more affecting in Jackie. Linus Sandgren won an Oscar for cinematography, yet the film only looks as good as it does because of choreography and costume design; Moonlight and Silence were more creative in their image composition. The most beautiful, heart-warming ode to life, 20th Century Women, didn’t even secure an Oscar for its incredibly crafted screenplay.

Was La La Land overhyped? As Dan Golding argues in his essay The Dreamers of La La Land, the film is “likely to suffer the fate of most other life-affirming Hollywood hits”, as “too light, too fluffy, too insubstantial, too reactionary, too nostalgic”. Yet there is power in positive narratives, beyond identity formation in Moonlight or confronting mortality in Manchester by the Sea. Some might question the Academy Awards’ favourability towards films about the acting industry or show business in general, like The Artist (2011) or Birdman (2014), yet they won Oscars because they’re good films.

Moonlight is a victory for independent cinema, yet La La Land still challenges the established Hollywood system. Lionsgate’s identity is disparate, with young adult series like Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games (2012-15) and horror films like American Psycho (2000) and the Vestron Video catalogue, yet the studio is gaining greater credibility within a changing media landscape. Focus Features, wanting a $1 million budget and Sebastian as a rock musician, dropped it under a regime change. Musicals had been driven by the studio system, with 20th Century Fox and MGM and outliers like RKO showcasing their leading men and women.

In test screenings, La La Land was deemed a failure. Musicals relied on innovation and subversion to survive, from rock operas like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) to jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001), becoming easy properties to adapt from the aged original cast in Rent (2005) to Les Misérables (2012). Disney used live action musicals like Beauty and the Beast (2017) to inspire new audiences. Musicals live on nostalgia; Grease (1978) looked back to the simpler time of the 1950s. La La Land succeeds existing as both throwback and innovator, adapting to the modern world without sacrificing core tenets.

Meeting in their college band, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz built the soundtrack as co-collaborators, reaching for a timeless sound; recording with a 90-piece orchestra in the same room as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with a sense of profound legacy. With dynamic painted sets from designers Sandy and David Wasco, the film developed an impressive visual aesthetic on its $30 million budget, rehearsing scenes on iPhones with choreographer Mandy Moore. In the stunning opening, Another Day of Sun, what David Bordwell describes as a “blowout”, we see the immensity of the 105-110 interchange as Mia (Emma Stone) drives to her audition and meets Seb (Ryan Gosling), theatrical as people dance on top of cars, shot over 48 hours on the hottest day of the year. Using the fluid motion of a crane, Chazelle emphasises individuality: sound becomes collage, cars honk and radios blare, multi-coloured crowds of different ethnicities drive different cars, or even skateboard.

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The opening musical sequence, Another Day of Sun, is filled with colour and diversity

La La Land frames anachronistic protagonists against an anachronistic world. As David Sims writes, they are “trapped in amber”. Seb is a hipster, listening to cassettes in his car and vinyl records at home. Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros backlot, walking past cowboys and gladiators shot on soundstages. Writing the script to her one-woman show, So Long Boulder City, she uses physical paper, heaven forbid she use a Macbook. At the party, the film frames immediate nostalgia, Seb performing I Ran and Take on Me in an 80s college band alongside Chazelle and Hurwitz’s college buddy D.A. Wallach; Mia even calls him George Michael.

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Mia works as a barista on the WB backlot

The film relies upon intertextuality, opening in Cinemascope and ending with a titlecard. Chazelle uses in-camera optical effects to depict movement in the party or being lost amid the city’s neon signs. Moving from Mia and Seb’s relationship, a model plane flies around the globe, a la 1930s adventure serials.

In her bedroom, Mia is watched down upon by actresses of Hollywood’s past, with posters of Ingrid Bergman, The Black Cat (1934), The Killers (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), alongside her colour-coordinated roommates, draped in headscarf and fur. Achieving her actress dream, she becomes an Audrey Hepburn clone, adorned with fashionable sunglasses.

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Mia’s bedroom is an anachronism

Chazelle found influences from sources as diverse as Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) for City of Stars, West Side Story (1961) for Someone in the Crowd and Singin’ in the Rain as Seb grabs hold of a lamppost. As Chazelle says in The Verge, he “combine[d] those things in new ways”, carrying a subtextual self-awareness of “characters knowing they’re in a musical”.

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Seb is singing, just not in the rain

JK Simmons’ restaurant owner is an “inside joke” to Whiplash (2014): according to the commentary, he “decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life”. Made on a smaller scale, paving the way for La La Land’s larger budget, the rapid editing of jazz sequences evoke the masterful rhythm of the drumbeat in Whiplash, alongside the jazz themes of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).

Los Angeles itself is throwback, beyond the dark city of Mulholland Drive (2001) but an explosion of colour, between the El Rey Theater, Lighthouse Café and Angel’s Flight railway; cinematographer Linus Sandgren sought to capture a feeling of “something magical”. Seb stares out, a painted mural for California oranges behind him. As he comments in a featurette, Chazelle didn’t want to pretend “L.A. was a city that it wasn’t”; location manager Robert Foulkes sought locations never represented before.

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This is definitely California

Inscribed within cinematic history, Mia points Seb to the window balcony from Casablanca (1942), an unacknowledged monument; she walks past murals of Chaplin and Monroe in nighttime streets. At the Rialto in Pasadena, Mia and Seb attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), film within a film. An anachronism: resurrecting the largely defunct Rialto, closing it once more amidst a wave of gentrification and redevelopment. At the dinner table, we overhear a conversation as a party bemoans the cinema experience.

Moving to the Griffith Observatory as a dream, we delve within, walking the path of James Dean. In his essay From Los Angeles to La La Land: Mapping Whiteness in the Wake of Cinema, Billy Stevenson argues “all the homosocial angst […] is smoothed away”, “canonising and sterilising” what made it “provocative and edgy”. Writing in Paste, Geoff Nelson argues the film speaks in a displaced “vocabulary of loss” as generational conflict between past and present, rather than disaffected youth and conservative parents in Rebel.

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The Griffith Observatory is one of the most beautiful locations for the City of Stars sequence, evoking Rebel Without a Cause

Chazelle feels the city has been “careless and negligent” about its cinematic history. Which brings us to what Golding describes as Sebastian’s “jazzsplaining. Seb’s makes Mia love jazz, refusing its death under his watch. Black musician Keith (John Legend), arguing that “jazz is about the future”, is sidelined. As Ira Madison III comments, the city’s diversity in the opening is “quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

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Keith is largely sidelined in the film

Golding argues La La Land embodies an “alternative universe”, ignoring its roots as a Hispanic and Latino Mexican city. Seb appropriates a cultural heritage of jazz, disallowing minority residents to “samba all over its history”. For Stevenson, it invokes an “older media ecology” where “cinema was never supplanted or supplemented” by “multifarious voices”. As Nelson writes, nostalgia returns us to “the era before federally mandated segregation, voting and civil rights”, forgetting racial history or housing discrimination.

Writing in 2010 as he arrived in Hollywood, as Chazelle tells The Verge, he was touching on “experiences that were very close to my own”, capturing the truth of a city of “unrealistic dreams, within the real world. Musicals are dreams: a perfect woman finding her perfect husband and life. La La Land tries to reconcile these dreams with our reality.

In Whiplash, we see the intensity of Andrew’s obsession to cartoonish level, his hands bleeding as he drums, in a car crash as he goes to his performance unscathed. Writing in Little White Lies, Tom Bond argues “it’s hard to argue that Chazelle fully endorses this message”, Andrew feeling “romantic love can only ever hinder artistic success”; in La La Land, Mia and Seb become “more in love with their partner’s mutual passion” than each other, becoming a means to achieving career ambitions. As Bordwell argues, the film rejects conventional musical narratives of love triangles and subplots in favour of emotion, shifting between changing seasons.

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Jazzsplaining isn’t romantic

Seb plays at weddings, going on tour for two years yet rejecting the notion of innovating through synth, idolising Louis Armstrong as he attempts to walk the same path. Working at a cocktail bar, Seb is caught between playing his own music and the Christmas music assigned to him. During a photoshoot, Seb is forced into a pose by the photographer, artificially in a place that doesn’t come from the heart. Music becomes a background distraction, beyond the live traditional jazz Seb favours.

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Seb decides to play his own music at Christmas

Leon Thomas argues in his Renegade Cut analysis that Seb becomes an egotist and “music martyr”, rejecting the notion of “paying bills and working for a boss”, interested in his own needs over others. As he retorts:

Oh no, Seb, you have to make sacrifices for money and work your way up in your chosen profession? How do you think life works?

Through Mia’s auditions, we see the realities of the acting industry, her opening audition met by the casting director on their cellphone, based on an audition Ryan Gosling had gone through. She spills coffee on her shirt, covering it up with her coat. In Someone in the Crowd, we see Mia’s isolation, rather than being popular and successful. Her Prius gets towed; no one turns up to her one-woman play. Yet if she likes it, what else matters? Forced to return home to Nevada after 6 years of auditions and perseverance, she must live her own dream; in The Fools Who Dream, we see the speed and pressure. Stone “whirl[s] through five feelings in one minute: delight, confidence, panic, pain, false bravado, filled with life.

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Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem

Seb is neither Mia’s first nor last love, questionably cheating on her boyfriend in favour of Seb, away from the fantasy of the woman who runs away with the first guy she falls in love with. As the film progresses, costume designer Mary Zophres de-saturated her wardrobe, maturing into adulthood. In the fantasy, we see the artifice of the alternative universe relationship of what could have been, a Parisian dream between Hollywood sets, shot in an anachronistic 8mm home movie aesthetic. Narratively fooling the viewer, we return to reality, as Mia remains with her husband in the present, 5 years later, successful in her celebrity lifestyle with a nanny looking after her daughter.

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Positioning Mia and Seb against a half-finished white painted backdrop, Chazelle questions the unreality of the musical

The film justifies its existence, questioning the fiction of the musical. Chazelle penetrates the artifice with iPhone notifications and ringtones, bleeding into the film’s soundscape. The print of Rebel Without a Cause becomes caught in the projector; as Golding acknowledges, “old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was” burns to flame.

Some superficial criticisms might question the film’s performers, yet Emma Stone came to the film straight from Cabaret; Ryan Gosling spent 3 months learning and rehearsing the piano. John Legend is an actual singer. From its direction to music to production design, La La Land remains a masterwork. It’s just not Moonlight.