Song to Song (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Song to Song (2017)

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Artists struggle to connect with each other as they wander in and out of the orbit of a predatory music executive.  Terrence Malick directs and wrote the screenplay for Song to Song, and stars Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, and Natalie Portman.

Watching Song to Song is like learning to fall in love all over again.  I wasn't a big fan of Tree of Life (which Danny reviewed years ago) and loathed To the Wonder, but I grew deep affection for Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups - a Wings of Desire for the alienated Los Angeles set.  Song to Song is the first Malick since The Thin Red Line that felt like it was speaking to me in a language of loneliness and confusion that still leaves room for hope and desire.

Some of the traditional Malick tropes are in full effect as a love quadrangle forms at the center of Song to Song.  Lovers whisper dialogue that's equal parts reassurance and lie.  Malick's camera drifts from scene to scene with little to ground my perception outside an object or color that bleeds from one shot to the next.  Yet, amid the whispers and floating, I noticed Malick's imagery is growing more complicated by each film.  It was easy to place visual signifiers into "earthen" or "heavenly" in the early stages of his post-millennium career and, while I don't view criticism to "solve" or catalogue visual impulses, I just didn't connect with his first steps back.

The love triangle at the center of Song to Song is summed up beautifully in this shot, though later additions make it more hexagonal.

Song to Song hooked me deeply with an image that seems antithetical to Malick's process at first, but the more I thought about it the more I grew to love it.  Malick shoots into a concert mosh pit, ground-level in long-shot so we can see the mass of bodies hurling against each other, while he deploys a fisheye lens to capture the moshers in a bubble of their physical actions.  The mosh pit is a great place to get out aggression, but it's also a place for people to connect in a sea of humanity.  My first time was at an Incubus concert (when they used to put out bangers), at the start of "New Skin" I heard the bongos, saw the movement gathering in a circle, gave my glasses to my then girlfriend, and felt compelled to join the mass in a communal exchange of aggression and love.

It may be odd to think of the mosh pit as a place for spiritual growth, but damn if Malick didn't craft a perfect representation of what it's like to collide with other humans in a way that shows love instead of hate.  The rest of Song to Song follows this basic template of love as the participants of the love quadrangle smash into themselves time and again in the hopes of forming that lasting connection.  They're all looking for that pure feeling of the mosh pit, unaware or unwilling to accept that those intense connections are nearly impossible to sustain in the long run.  Still, they try, and as Malick maroons them in sometimes abstract realms of glow sticks and light they get dragged back down to fighting for the objects of their affection.

Michael Fassbender, who plays music executive Cook, may be the nightmare ideal for Malick's world.  Fassbender understands the ethereal nature of Malick's films acutely, tuning his performance into a world of quiet menace that sees Fassbender occupy spaces he knows he's not supposed to be.  His limbs sprawl out like tendrils, grabbing women unfortunate enough to be lured into his orbit.  In one moment of dark perfection he lurks toward Faye (Rooney Mara) like a zombie before springing to life to nibble at her neck like a vampire.  His performance isn't "realistic" in the tradition of method acting we've come to expect from performers of his caliber, instead maintaining an alchemy of emotional truth that comes out as a monster in nice clothing.  Ryan Gosling, playing a man simply known as BV, acts as the serene yin to Fassbender's quietly menacing yang, putting just amount of drift between words when he says, "We broke up. I tried to be kind. It only made me colder."

Malick returns to the fisheye lens as Cook drifts through different parties setting good people on a collision course with one another.  They're all so desperate for connection, none so desperate as Rhonda (Natalie Portman), who occupies the edges of those wide shots for maximum distortion of her features.  Rhonda is one of the most tragic figures in Malick's filmography, her resemblance to Faye serving as an inciting point for Cook's affection, as Portman works Rhonda's wounds in short bursts of pain.  Portman's face and upper body are isolated for long stretches of Song to Song, leaving Portman the heavy job of conveying failed intimacy directly into the camera.  Her fate recalls Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" without the cathartic release of a love she can't have.

Natalie Portman carries the tragedy of Song to Song alone on her shoulders, and Malick leaves her plenty of room to deliver a magnificent performance.

Other parts of Song to Song's love quadrangle threaten to spiral it out into a non-Euclidian hexangular melodrama.  One has Faye stumble into a homosexual romance with Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe) which, on paper, reads a bit exploitative and might have been if Malick's approach wasn't so weird.  Faye manifests like an apparition whose primary means of sustaining herself seem to be dogwalking and affairs, and Malick focuses so intently on the comfort Zoey and Faye find in each other's body that any erotic charge is displaced with serenity.  The same applies to Amanda (Cate Blanchett), the rooted "fall back" for BV who anchors his perception long enough to realize he shouldn't be in this world anymore.

All of Song to Song's characters are obsessed with love in the abstract when direct physical connection is what they long for.  It was shown so plainly with strangers smiling and hurling their bodies into one another, and seems so far away in the many parties forcing insincere connection while Malick's camera distorts the chemicals they use to keep themselves going.  No matter how alien Song to Song looked, it felt like an archive of what I used to be, going from relationship to concert to relationship to heartache when all I wanted was to be touched.  It makes Song to Song Malick's best movie in decades, and one that will grow with me as I live in the comfort of love his characters can only dream of.

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Song to Song (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, and Natalie Portman.

Posted by Andrew

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