There is nothing so likely to demand a divisive response in the world of cinema than a new film by Terrence Malick. Frankly, divisive is something of an understatement: in the years following The Thin Red Line (1998), his much-acclaimed vision of the United States’ campaign in Guadalcanal in World War 2, the director has produced a series of films which have, at the very least, deeply complicated the near-universal adoration reserved for his earliest work, 1973’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, released five years later. For some, they induce nothing short of rapture, and the man himself is a visionary, cinema’s true philosopher-king; for the majority, they are the epitome of substance sacrificed for style, whose metaphysical ponderings are as pretentious as their images are meaningless.
Song to Song, which premiered last week at the very festival where much of the film is set, SXSW, is unlikely to change anything. The film, which tracks the shifting loves and lives of a group of young artists and musicians battling both for success, and against themselves, against the backdrop of the music scene of Austin, Texas, clearly possesses the same pulling power, in terms of its actors, if not its audiences, that typifies Malick’s more recent work. Here, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling (completing the other half of his Oscar nominated turn as a would-be musician in La La Land) make up the central trio, whilst Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and a host of rock stars, including Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Florence Welch and Lykke Li, complete an ensemble cast to rival any in recent film. Almost unthinkably, Christian Bale, the ostensible star of Malick’s previous work, 2015’s Knight of Cups, who shot scenes for this film, here had his role consigned to the cutting room floor, placing him in somewhat esteemed company: Christopher Plummer suffered a similar fate in the editing of The New World (2005), whilst Adrien Brody’s originally central part in The Thin Red Line was reduced to a mere two lines, and about five minutes of screen time, in post-production.
The contemporary frame that the movie’s setting provides links it to Malick’s last two, and possibly most heavily criticised films, To the Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups. For many, the ‘vapid prettification’, ‘risible dialogue’, and ‘endless meandering’, especially of the former, were the last straw, symptomatic of a film-maker who had lost control of his own vision. Anyone who sees Song to Song expecting an escape from these tropes will be disappointed; they may have to wait until Radegund, a depiction of the life of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter slated for release next year, for a return to the narrow narrative focus that defined Malick’s eariest work. In Song to Song, however, this ‘meandering’ remains central, as does the director’s idiosyncratic cinematography. His camera is never still: at times, it is a bird, swooping, plunging and hovering above his actors, or a kite, buffeted by an endless gale of human interaction; at others, it is a child, peering up at the world from below, ignorant, inquisitive, always searching.
This unique style, the work of regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked on every film that the director has made since 2005’s The New World, places Song to Song in the same metaphysical framework as that of The Tree of Life (2011). Indeed, the two films have more than just this in common, for at its heart, the latter film is an intensely personal family drama partially couched in Malick’s own childhood; behind the philosophical questions, behind the ground-breaking segment that envisions the birth of the universe itself, run two parallel, and interconnected stories, one of coming-of-age, the other of coming to terms with grief. It is here, in the fascination with people, and how they relate to one another, that the true profundity, and true majesty, of Malick’s films lie, and the wider visions of time and existence within which these stories are set exist not to posit the essential insignificance and transience of mankind, but to place him at the very centre of all things.
A brief survey of the director’s work confirms that this is what he does: tell simple stories about individuals who are exceptional in their ordinariness. In Badlands, Kit and Holly are very much the children of their times: He idolises James Dean, and she makes a fantasy out of their lives straight from the pages of the teenage magazines that she reads. Days of Heaven makes the Great Depression the backdrop for a story of love and survival amongst the desperate and the disenfranchised. The Thin Red Line give intensely visual form to the experience of the young soldiers who fought and died in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, and questions the effect that such a war has on both them and all mankind. In The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, he turns the camera inwards as he ponders questions of love and faith through a series of semi-autobiographical stories. His latest, for all its celebrity cameos, continues this tradition, as his protagonists search for meaning and success in each other and themselves; indeed, one might argue that the very ordinariness of its central characters is shown up precisely by the intrusion of these many extraordinary figures into the narrative.
In his early work, this ordinariness is couched in its own terms, and the films make no claim to be anything but tightly focused narratives concerned solely with these individuals. In his later work, starting with The Thin Red Line, it is out of such stories, these ordinary situations, that the philosophical questioning that some find so off-putting begins to emerge. Even in The Tree of Life, arguably the film which makes the metaphysical most central to its themes, the fundamental question, of the conflict between the essentially divine alternatives of grace and nature, is grounded in explicitly familial terms; the former is symbolised by Jessica Chastain’s Mrs O’Brien, the latter by her husband, played by Brad Pitt, whilst the choice between which of the two paths to follow is focalised through their eldest son Jack, whose boyhood the film traces.
But what exactly does it all mean, people ask; what are we supposed to make of this apparent aimlessness, the open-ended nature of these beautiful visions? Does Malick himself even know? This, it seems, is where style and substance collide, and what many people consider the affected stylings of Malick’s method become utterly central. The childlike nature of his camera, the almost Impressionist composition of fleeting images, becomes our viewpoint; it is constantly fascinated by, and attracted to, instances of sensory experience that neither we or it can fully understand in our infantile ignorance. It has taken on the role that Linda Manz plays in Days of Heaven, where, as the pre-teen sister of Richard Gere’s Bill, she offers a voice-over that veers from the banal to the profound, sometimes naive, sometimes staggeringly perceptive. Just as we view the events of that film through her, then, so too we perceive the worlds of Malick’s later films through the eyes of a child, searching, inquisitive, never still. This, is anything, is what lies at the heart of his films, the search, that we are all, him included, engaged in.
There are undeniably things to take issue with in his films. They are about as far from topical as it is possible to be (though no more so than a film like La La Land). Their treatment of female characters is occasionally limited (though for every underdeveloped sketch of a woman we encounter in the essentially symbolic Knight of Cups, there is a figure like Mrs O’Brien in The Tree of Life). He’s even been criticised for producing a vision of SXSW that ignores the ugliness and the dirt which in reality define all music festivals. These can all be valid criticisms in their own right: how seriously they are to be taken depends on for what reason we go to the cinema, or engage with any piece of art. If we watch films to be entertained, Malick’s work, especially in its current form, will likely disappoint; if we watch them to engage with issues of deep social, political or historical significance, our reaction will probably be similar. But we should be thankful that there is still room for films that push the limits that we impose on them, that test our patience and our understanding, that generate more questions than they can answer: that exist, when all is said and done, for their own sake.
In a sense, the very divisiveness that typifies the response to Malick’s films is the foremost testament to their continued importance, and continued power. They are hard to watch without provoking some kind of reaction; they expect investment, engagement, the suspension of our disbelief, and they do not provide any assurances that they will leave us satisfied. Some may go away profoundly moved, even changed, by the experience, and others will certainly be baffled and, in some cases, angry. His films are not prescriptive; rather, they provide a space, an openness, within a vision crafted with an almost infinitesimal attention to detail (Song to Song was shot in 2012, and the original version of the film was almost five hours long), that privileges our individual response to them. In one of very few interviews the famously private Malick ever gave, in 1979, he bemoans the state of America, mourning the loss of ‘the open spaces, where one could emigrate and go even further… where everything seems possible. Cinema, he goes on to say, can still preserve the ‘justice’ of this possibility, a justice that raises the individual above all other, encourages them to live better and to love better. And, he concludes, ‘What else is there to ask for?’.