‘Song to Song’ Is Cinematic Wisdom Literature

With Austin (and Solomon) as his muse, Terrence Malick applies ancient truth to the 21st-century world.
‘Song to Song’ Is Cinematic Wisdom Literature
Image: Courtesy Broad Green Pictures

Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, which comes to theaters tomorrow, might be compared to La La Land. Both films star Ryan Gosling as a musician trying to make it big. Both are about balancing love and career ambition, and the corrupting temptations of fame and fortune. Both are colorful, beautiful, and full of music.

But Malick’s film is not a crowd-pleaser. It provides not escapism, but a critique of the escapist fantasies that populate our mediated lives. It’s a jolting jeremiad masquerading as poetry.

If an abundance of beauty is pleasing in La La Land, in Song to Song it unsettles and provokes. Last year I described the experience of watching Malick’s Knight of Cups (which forms a sort of cinematic diptych with Song to Song) as “a glut of beauty that is also a deprivation… Fragments of pleasure, blips of meaning, a stream of consumables not unlike the disconnected feeds and curated media experiences of our iPhone lives.” The same could be said for Song—though here the image of the iPhone (or perhaps iTunes) is more literally invoked, with its title underscoring the point.

“I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” says Rooney Mara in the line which gives the film its title. Mara plays Faye, a restless hipster trying to make it in the Austin music scene. Like many in her generation, she is “desperate to feel,” open to anything (“I told myself any experience is better than no experience.”), and prefers brokenness to boredom (“I loved the pain. It felt like life.”). She experiences the pangs of transcendence in a secular age, desiring “to escape from every tie, every hold… to go up higher.” Her search for bird-like freedom (no surprise for Malick fans: birds are a major presence in the film) leads her to a meandering existence—not unlike an eclectic Spotify playlist—with nothing but mood and whim to guide her choices.

Faye falls for a kindred spirit in Ryan Gosling’s BV, a fellow wanderer and aspiring Austin artist who shares her freewheeling joie de vivre—and who, like her, fetishizes self-sabotage for the sake of art. As is the case in many of Malick’s films, however, their idyllic romance is disrupted when temptation enters the garden and innocence is lost. In this case, the tempter is a music manager named “Cook” (Michael Fassbender), who promises the world to both Faye and BV.

Fassbender’s character is essentially the devil (Malick told Fassbender to channel Satan from Paradise Lost). He’s a charismatic figure who says things like “I am king,” “Bow down,” “The world wants to be deceived,” and “People aren’t proud enough.” Indeed, Song is in part about the cycles of sin and the struggle of faithfulness in a world of temptation, which is a recurring theme in Malick’s oeuvre: “How do we get back to those other shores?” (The Thin Red Line); how can I “exchange this false life for a true one?” (The New World); why do “I do what I hate”? (The Tree of Life, channeling Romans 7).

For Faye and BV in Song, as well as another woman (Natalie Portman) who falls into Fassbender’s corrupting web of fantasy promises, the struggle with sin is real. The desire for change is frustrating: “I don’t know how to change,” says BV in the film. “I want to. How do you?” Faye, meanwhile, expresses her struggle in voiceover throughout the film: “I want to live a good life.” “I’m a beast.” “I never knew I had a soul. The word embarrassed me.” “Come, save me from my bad heart.” “I rebelled against goodness.” Her journey is the central arc of the film, though Gosling and Portman are on similar tracks too.

How these pilgrims’ paths intersect—and ultimately where they lead—composes the “plot,” such as it is. But Song to Song is less a straightforward story as it is a work of cinematic stained glass: seemingly fragmentary pieces that together cultivate contemplation, conveying something divine.

‘The world builds a fence around you.’

Like many visual artists, Malick’s career trajectory has moved from representational to increasingly abstract, though many of his thematic explorations (paradise lost and found) and aesthetic motifs (nature, animals, classical music) have been consistent. His two films in the 1970s (Badlands and Days of Heaven) were more conventionally narrative, though still radical for their day. His mid-career films in 1998 and 2005 (The Thin Red Line and The New World) were big budget historical epics that pushed the boundaries of conventional filmmaking in ways that Hollywood (including some actors starring in the films) struggled to categorize.

If he wasn’t already a towering figure in the pantheon of cinematic auteurs, his status was cemented with 2011’s The Tree of Life, a film that launched Malick’s current phrase of prodigious output and autobiographical concerns. Prior to Life—which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is considered one of the best films of all time—Malick had averaged one film per decade. In the last six years, he has released six, with another, the World War II epic Radegund, potentially coming to theaters later in 2017.

Like many artists whose late periods are their most prolific, 73-year-old Malick is likely fueled by the alchemy of freedom and urgency, with much still to say but little to prove. Indeed, his last five films—To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016), Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (2016), and now Song to Song—have been increasingly experimental and challenging to even the most open-minded audiences.

With Knight and Song, Malick’s style has become a sort of cinematic Impressionism. When viewed up close or with traditional modes of processing filmic meaning, they appear as random colors, gestures, sounds, and underdeveloped ideas. But with enough distance to get past the imperfections and confusing choices in various corners of the canvas, an overall impression is conveyed. For Malick, “plot” and “characters” don’t work like they do in other films. Instead, they’re on the same level as an image of a caterpillar, a burst of a Mahler symphony, or dialogue inspired by Dostoevsky: all brushstrokes and pointalistic dots that work together to poetically express something both recognizable and ineffable.

That Malick regularly gives more screen time to cows than his troupe of A-list actors can be frustrating to them, but it is an essential aspect of the director’s philosophy of seeing. His gaze is resolutely averse to an idolatrous mode of seeing. He wants us to experience the beauty of images and sounds not as ends-to-themselves idols, but icons pointing beyond themselves. His movies are a catechesis for rehabilitating senses that have been dulled by consumerism. He pushes us to go beneath the surface, to not be so easily pleased, to have patience and awareness—and, above all, gratitude.

Do we recognize the good that we’ve been given? Do we love “every leaf, every ray of light?” (The Tree of Life, quoting Dostoevsky). Malick rightly perceives that we don’t, that the modern world has blurred our vision and boxed us in within the immanent frame of disenchantment.

“The world builds a fence around you. How do you get through?” one character ponders in Song. But she goes on: “There is something else, something that wants us to find it.”

‘Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.’

Song to Song exists within and pays homage to a city near and dear to Malick’s heart: Austin, Texas. In addition to being his current home base, Austin is also the place of Malick’s intellectual and creative awakening, a city of intense artistic energy brushing up against and intermingling with Bible Belt Christianity and natural beauty—all present in Song.

The quirky city’s music scene provides a colorful backdrop for an artist like Malick, whose filmmaking process favors “you can’t write this” moments of serendipitous beauty and human oddity. Here, Malick captures an unpredictable array of real-life indie musicians who intersect with his fictitious characters: Patti Smith as a sort of mentor to Faye; Lykke Li as an ex-girlfriend of BV; Flea wrestling in the dirt with Michael Fassbender; Val Kilmer cutting an amp in half with a chainsaw; Iggy Pop sipping red wine.

Like Los Angeles (the setting and subject of Knight of Cups), Austin is both a muse and a maze, a metropolis that both inspires and profits from beauty. The commoditization and subsequent neutering of beauty (think Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) is for Malick a central source of our spiritual malaise. In a world where we have instant access to millions of beautiful photos, songs, poems, and books that we can acquire with a few clicks and curate to our consumer liking, everything blurs together, and we are easily bored (or overwhelmed). We crave and collect as consumers, but rarely have the patience for true transformation. A line from Knight captures this restlessness well: “You don’t want love, you want a love experience.”

We often think of beauty as the things that money can buy—and there is a lot of this on display in Song. Designer clothes. Private jets. Box seats at the University of Texas football game. An abundance of opulent mansions. Notably, however, the garish residences in the film are both spiritually and literally empty—largely unfurnished, half-constructed castles forgotten in the onward march of consumerism.

Malick upends the notion that decadence is beauty. His is a decidedly Christian vision of beauty, grounded in the humble and centered on the Cross. In Song, the most beautiful things are not the most obviously beautiful: an elderly beggar on the street, a son giving a glass of water to a bedridden father, a run-down house with an overgrown yard, highway underpasses intersecting rivers, Patti Smith talking about her late husband. Mortality, too, is ever-present in the film. Characters die or are dying. There are parties celebrating Día de los Muertos. Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” is played. The letters RIP find their way into a home’s decor. Images of deserts and dead trees pervade.

A Christian way of seeing recognizes beauty and hope in death, accepting its necessity as the antecedent of renewal. As the last line of the Prayer of Saint Francis (quoted in the film) says, “It is in dying that we are raised to eternal life.” Christianity exalts the humble and sees beauty in the simple, choosing the hope of glory over the gold-plated powers and pleasures of this world.

Black gospel music (which shows up quite often in Song) captures this spirit well. Take the old song “Leave It There” (played in the film): “If the world from you withhold of its silver and its gold, and you have to get along with meager fare, just remember in his Word how he feeds the little bird. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

‘I played with the flame of life.’

Much of Song feels akin to Old Testament wisdom literature. The centrality of music (much of it sacred or gospel music) brings to mind the Psalms. The film’s moral lessons feel at times like Proverbs. Its characters are “chasing after the wind” like Ecclesiastes. (This is not out of the norm for Malick. The Tree of Life was heavy on biblical allusions—Genesis, Job, and Revelation especially—as is most of his other work.)

Song feels like Malick juxtaposing the goodness of God’s gifts with the folly of man’s substitutes. Throughout the film, for instance, Malick suggests comparisons between Christian worship/sacraments and their perversions. In one scene, we see a joyous worship service inside a Texas megachurch; in the next, we see an anarchic mosh pit at a music festival. Ash Wednesday is twisted and perverted at a hedonistic party thrown in honor of a dead man whose cremated ashes are spread on a scantily clad woman’s forehead by Fassbender’s devilish character. The Eucharist is similarly perverted in a scene in which Fassbender takes a psychedelic mushroom, dips it a cup of honey (“dipped in God,” he says), and feeds it to the woman (Portman) he is currently corrupting. Baptism is invoked when Fassbender frolics in pools and showers with models and prostitutes.

Indeed, one perversion of a sacred “good” that is everywhere in Song is the way characters flippantly consume sex. Here, the film’s title (Song TO Song) might be construed as a perversion of the purity and satisfaction of sex as presented in Solomon’s Song OF Songs. Christian moviegoers will rightfully cringe at the prevalence of sex and nudity in Song, though it is always fleeting and suggested more than depicted.

Still, it’s hard to watch—and Malick wants it this way. He wants the effect to be sadness rather than titillation. The characters in Song “play with sex,” one character admits. “They make it cheap.” Sexual confusion and pain are everywhere, including threesomes and lesbian flings. It’s all very sad—such a pure gift being corrupted. Malick’s view is epitomized in Faye’s confession near the end of the film: “I took sex, a gift, I played with it. I played with the flame of life.” Late in the film, we see a prostitute share that she “sells an illusion,” lamenting the brokenness of a trade she wishes she could avoid. “Maybe [God] will hear my prayers and I’ll be able to do something he would be proud of.”

‘Mercy, pity, peace, and love’

This curious moment captures another theme of Song: the pain of disappointing God and, as proxies of God, our parents. The fifth commandment (“honor your father and your mother”) haunts this film, which takes special note of the presence—or absence—of family, particularly parents. Gosling, Mara, and Portman play prodigals whose loving parents are prominent in the film, expressing concern and beckoning them to come home. The spectre of parents haunts most of Malick’s films. In The New World, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) prays to “mother” throughout and is, at her lowest point, tragically cut off from her kin. In Song, Fassbender asks one of his sexual conquests what really scares her. “I don’t know my family,” she responds.

For Malick, family is a foil to the “song to song” aimlessness and misguided rebellion we so often pursue. Family (including the church family) is something we take for granted, a source of stability and unconditional love that we tragically fail to appreciate. Why do we so often forsake the good people in our lives in favor of the bad? Why do we choose forbidden fruit over the fruit that we know gives life?

If there is an overarching theme to Malick’s work—and certainly one that is central to Song—it’s that what we really need is right in front of us, if only we have eyes to see. But like Adam and Eve, we want more. We are ungrateful, unsatisfied, unable to recognize the good of what we’ve been given. The flashy pleasures and forbidden horizons lure our gaze away, but they always disappoint. “It’s a big candy store out there,” says Portman’s character in Song. But the candy only leads to rot.

God’s grace is closer than the candy, closer than the castles and frontiers that tempt us. But we have to be able to see it. We have to be able to recognize and name it.

Near the end of Song, Faye reads a passage from William Blake’s “The Divine Image,” a poem about four virtues—“Mercy, pity, peace, and love”—that all men pray to “in their distress.” The poem suggests that these are key attributes of God that we can also glimpse in the humans who bear his image: For Mercy has a human heart / Pity, a human face: / And Love, the human form divine, / And Peace, the human dress.

In our encounters with mercy, pity, peace, and love, are we recognizing the image of God? In our brushes with beauty, goodness, and truth, are we recognizing and glorifying their source?

Malick suggests that we should. If we don’t, then our searches will be endlessly cyclical and never satisfying. Our attempts to change will falter. Our lives will just be one random song after another—a playlist of disconnected pleasures, but never a symphony.

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‘Song to Song’ Is Cinematic Wisdom Literature