Song to Song

Song to Song ★★★★★

There are a small handful of filmmakers I would describe as Joycean. Terence Davies, despite never shooting in Ireland, captures the physical reality of Joyce's books: the creaking interiors, the spiritual weight of real and emotional death, the way that alcoholism and rage is both the manifestation and perpetuator of lower-class misery. David Lynch reflects the author's pathologized sexuality, the warped, half-glimpsed chimera of lust and repression that distorts perspectives into horrorshow abandon. (In more ways that one, Lost Highway resembles Finnegans Wake converted to film noir, replacing that book's transcendent motion with more base impulses of murder.) Add to that list Terrence Malick, who (since The New World, at least) has tackled the more probing, elemental, associative side of Joyce. His characters have increasingly become more autobiographical even as they have become less like recognizable humans than ever. From the moment that John Smith and Pocahontas emerged as an Adam and Eve for the virgin America, Malick's characters have regressed to catch-all archetypes who flit in and out of iconic and basic molds.

In Song to Song, his HCE and ALP figures are housed in Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara, and despite the staggering levels of A-list talent that Malick has easily scored over the years, this is the first time that his casting has felt of the moment. The two characters, musicians both, form less of a love triangle with Michael Fassbender's Dionysian label executive than some kind of cellular organism that is forever splitting, reproducing and re-combining in rapidly expanding permutations. With Mara's Faye something of the central character by default (she is, to my recollection, the only character actually named out loud the entire time), we roam jaggedly between her sexual relationship with Fassbender's Cook and her more romantic one with Gosling's BV.

But if Malick works with periodic elements of drama, he then complicates things, so that it's difficult to get a bead on how Faye approaches each relationship, as the lines between lust and love break down and mingle. It's sad that a Hollywood film should feel radical for suggesting that a person can house intense feelings toward more than one person across an entire life, much less at the same time, but there is something bracing and forward about Malick using his characters' constantly mutating sense of self and his abstract and abstruse form of philosophizing to dig at a simple material reality of feelings.

Each of them changes throughout, so that BV, initially seeming content with the kind of postmodern Lubitschian situation he shares with Cook and Faye, eventually rebels, while even Cook, whose wanton hedonism is the film's biggest nod toward Malick's supposed distaste for contemporary times, betrays moments of tenderness, or at least some self-awareness. Others pass through the screen, be they lovers or musicians, and all come in for the same Malick treatment, suggesting depths far beyond what he or Chivo can explore. Backstage, Iggy Pop nurses a nice glass of red wine as the camera scans his taut leather skin, his lean abs, and a network of scars that speaks to a hard life wholly at odds with the relaxed, amiable fellow chatting with Fassbender and Natalie Portman. Patti Smith is perhaps the film's most transfixing presence, offering a sad insight of wisdom into love when she discusses her relationship with the late Fred "Sonic" Smith. Her scattered appearances are jolting for how unvarnished they are, but also how her muted but lingering grief are just a part of her life, wrapped up into her poetry and her musicianship. When, toward the end of the film, she nods in BV's direction and tells Faye "fight for him," what would otherwise have been a clunker line of inspiration in a normal romantic drama absolutely surges with emotion coming from someone who is still fighting for her partner more than 20 years after his death.

Details like that are not the detritus of the film, they are the film, and it's understandable that this peripatetic style is increasingly alienating even the most adventurous viewers and critics. And it's true that when you sift away all the style of his recent work you're left with a simple narrative: a story of divorce, of Hollywood bacchanalia, or of the push-pull drama of romances. But I do wonder how much of the backlash owes to the way that we interpret films. We're trained to look at the finished product and break it back down to the component parts, to suss out themes and motivations and individual camera movements/placements and maybe even to notice recurring thematic or aesthetic tics of filmmakers. Malick in the 21st century has increasingly relied on an approach that starts from those broken down elements and then to spiral them out in strange new shapes. That doesn't make them fundamentally simplistic any more than than we're half-banana just because we share DNA with it. I mean, hell, Ulysses is just a story about two horny dudes walking around town.

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