A Lesson in How Alienating Art Can Be the Best Kind
If you have been keeping up with the career of Terrence Malick, you know that it has been by no means, a standard filmmaking career. In 1978, Days of Heaven was released to wide critical acclaim, after Malick had gained serious traction with some other films, including, Badlands (1973). Then, just as it looked like Malick’s career was really going to take off, he vanished. He didn’t release another film until The Thin Red Line, twenty years after Days of Heaven. Twenty years. There is a lot of films and a lot of money to be made, especially by a director with the career trajectory Malick looked to have.
Just to put it into perspective, Woody Allen made nineteen films in the years between 1973 and 1993, including some of his best work – Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Love and Death, and Hannah and Her Sisters. And yes, before you ask, I would compare Malick’s abilities to Allen’s. I might even say that there are times when Terrence Malick tells a better story than the legendary Woody. I won’t get caught up in comparison, however, because that distracts from what I believe is the true joy of watching a film – appreciating what you have in front of you for what it is.
Malick is known for his rather eccentric shooting style as his films often do not have scripts and he infamously cuts rather big name actors from the final cuts of his films. For example, Christian Bale, Haley Bennett, and Benecio Del Toro (sacrilege!) all had their parts cut from this film. Those are some pretty big names to cut, especially at a time when box office numbers are all anybody seems to care about. And, let’s face it, big names attract big box office numbers. Malick’s films have often been received negatively as a result of his apparent inability to follow the ‘rules’ of Hollywood. He has been written off by many critics and film lovers as one who alienates his audiences with high-brow, condescending films that are too full of themselves to be understood or appreciated. His persistent reliance on images to tell the story, having characters stare out windows at length and murmur their dialogue over apparently unrelated shots has been considered self-indulgent filmmaking. There are no car chases or explicative dialogue scenes that hand viewers the story in a hand basket, rather we are left to interpret much of the story for ourselves, which perhaps is considered far too much work when we are used to being spoon fed interpretation , or perhaps not being asked to interpret anything at all as in the mysteriously ever-popular Fast and Furious franchise. While action films have their merits (it’s nice to just watch guys flex casts off of their broken arms every now and then), there is a lot to be said for films that make us think for ourselves, and Malick is the contemporary master of such a film.
That brings us to Malick’s new film Song to Song. What we have in front of us is a film that initially began shooting in 2011, and was only released (at least here in Canada) last week. It is a compilation of intimate closeups, and contemplative voiceover, which, as already mentioned, is hardly unique to a Malick film (see To the Wonder), but still unique to the vast majority of films released in the current cinematic climate.
The film stars Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Michael Fassbender, and features in slightly smaller roles, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Holly Hunter. Val Kilmer shows up for a few minutes too. The love story between Gosling and Mara’s characters drives the narrative, and both are electric in their authenticity and intimacy. I have never seen Gosling as intriguing and engaging as he is in this film as he is asked to do much more than simply smile irresistibly at the camera. His portrayal has depth and emotion that the film needs, and Mara’s meticulous and emotional performance is perhaps even stronger as her portrayal of the emotionally-scarred and inhibited Faye is heartbreaking and beautiful. Fassbender’s haunting interpretation of Cook, a rather uninhibited and carefree music producer, is in stark contrast to the pace of the film and the other characters and acts as a perfectly unsettling disturbance. Portman is also asked to explore the vast range of her acting talents, doing so with intensity and skill. Like in many a Malick film, the performances seem quite genuine, even when a scene requires extremely erratic and unusual behaviour. If are a lover of cardboard cut-out characters, you should steer clear of this film.
As much as the performances work so beautifully in the film, what makes Song to Song the gem that it is, is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. I, and many others, have sung this man’s praises before as perhaps the best working cinematographer today. His work in this film is nothing short of spectacular. His preference to use wide angle lenses adds an element of distortion to the narrative which aligns perfectly with a cluster of characters who are lost, confused and without direction. Subtle camera movements and careful use of steadicam elevate the film from a story about selfish and clueless lovers into an exploratory essay on sexuality and love and our rather obvious inability to deal with both simultaneously. While Lubezki brings such depth to every film he does, in Song to Song his visual style is not just helpful, but essential to the viewing experience.
While I loved this film through and through, I do not expect every movie-goer to have the same reaction. I understand that sometimes alienating art can be, well, alienating. But there is much to be said for feeling alienated by a work of art, fighting through that alienation to understand – at least to one’s personal satisfaction – what that art means, and then appreciating the art for its insistence that one think critically. After all, beauty, and the message of any piece of art, is in the eye of the beholder. If you have the time, the patience, and the will to experience Song to Song as a film to be pondered and explored, rather than a sort of ‘in one ear out the other’ type of movie, I promise you will be rewarded.