Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Their Agonies and The Ecstasy

“Song to Song”

It’s unlikely that I’ll see a better film in theatres this year than Terrence Malick’s newest feature, Song to Song. It’s equally unlikely that a South African reader who looks up a review of the film will find anything like a positive reaction to it. Fans of Malick’s features have become used to this – the last two films he’s made in this most fertile and most far-reaching period of his career that were shown here both achieved Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% – and a lack of critical support for their enthusiasms has done nothing to abate them. It is my own view that Terrence Malick is the most radical filmmaker working today, and one whose work reaches the highest strata of beauty in contemporary art.

The main contentions brought up in reviews in this country are that Malick’s film – in stark contrast to his earlier hits such as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands – contains little more than art-conscious pretension and self-indulgence, and, to the extent to which there is more to it, Malick’s ostentatiously rarefied filmmaking methods are too confusing to allow us to grasp it. Leon van Nierop, in his Silwerskerm column for the Rapport, wrote, “It borders on pretension and takes almost two hours to say very little. If you confuse this movie film with an art movie, you’ll have been deceived.” On his weekly slot on the radio station RSG, he said, “I don’t know what it was about, and I’m also not interested in figuring it out. … For almost two hours, you look only at people who flutter, are in love with pretty places, and walk around endlessly and chill.” In his Channel24 review, Ilan Preskovsky wrote that Malick is “inarguably pretentious” and has “nothing whatsoever of value to say”. On her blog, Gabi Zietsman described it as “a convoluted pretentious piece of work that will kill you with handheld camera work and zero story. … Maybe Malick was focusing too hard on everyone’s butts rather than creating believable people, and no number of ‘but it’s art!’ exclamations is going to make this film any more watchable.”

I can’t think of a less fair assessment of Malick’s work – here or elsewhere – than pretentious; what is it they find him to be pretending and not delivering on? No moviegoer is promised a film that will meet their expectations of how a movie should be made and presented, and I find that no moviegoer in this country will witness a more sincere, devoted, intensely heartfelt, and wondrously inventive form of filmmaking in the present day than in Malick’s films. He doesn’t pretend to have loftier, nobler notions of life nor of art than he has; he doesn’t pretend his work is of more value than anyone else’s; he doesn’t pretend to be making films that follow an esoteric and inaccessibly intellectual model of elitist contemporary (or classical, for that matter) art. It’s equally unfair – and so badly mistaken as to seem willful – to accuse Malick of adding nothing of substance to a distinctive photographic style, or of making a film out of little more than picturesque images that amounts to little more than that. To say that it has “zero story” or that nothing happens is to say that very little story was observed, which means that either the reviewers weren’t paying due attention to a film it was their professional duty to watch and consider and contemplate for the purpose of a critical report on it, or that they were unprepared for the singular conceptions of and approaches to storytelling that Malick bears out in his remarkably inventive films. The group of ordinary viewers that I attended a screening of the film with – none of whom is trained in film analysis, media studies, narrative decryption, or artistic demystification – grasped the contours of the film’s story easily enough, and additionally observed the vast wealth of life and wisdom that Malick adorns and fills in those contours with.

My estimation is that the differences between the reviewers I’ve quoted and myself can be reduced to a difference between what each of them wants from a movie and what I want from it. And – to be fair to their purposes in giving each of their reviews – their professional mandate is more or less to provide a consumer’s guide to the cinematic produce on offer in the marketplace, so that readers may feel adequately informed when they spend their money on some certain commercial enterprise or another. This mandate would probably cause a reviewer to take up the mindset of a broad consensus opinion of movies, of what they should offer, and of how those offerings should be presented to paying ticketholders. Indeed, Zietsman declares that her unsourced label of the film as “experimental” should give readers pause; “it’s a licence for a filmmaker to do whatever the hell he wants with little regard for the viewing audience, and to me that’s a terrible filmmaker.” And I suppose that this consensus would take the view that a movie is merely to entertain viewers, to provide an escape from the mundane and worrying details of ordinary life, and to tell a clear and well-crafted story in a recognisable and easily consumable form that will not bring undue demands of imagination or comprehension upon a viewer. This is a perfectly legitimate point of view, and probably the most common among moviegoers. But it isn’t the only point of view, and it’s regrettable that it is the only point of view on offer in any critical responses to movies in South African publications. It sustains today’s art-house verities (held up by well-heeled establishments and institutions such as Cinema Nouveau) which tell writers like van Nierop what does or does not constitute an art movie, and can be identified by what they reject: newly divergent modern styles and sensibilities. Even a reviewer like Preskovsky, who is generally frank about his tastes and personal in his judgements, sometimes setting himself against a critical consensus, disavows the sublimity and romantic idealism of Song to Song, setting it against the currently fashionable cynical darkness of television as found in David Lynch’s new episodes of Twin Peaks.

We each experience the world subjectively. To the extent to which an objective reality exists (and it’s uncertain that one does), each individual’s only point of access to it is through a prism of subjective observation. The artist’s work is to depict – through various artificial constructs such as artistic technique and narrative devices – her subjective observation of the world around her. The artwork is then observed by various spectators, such as listeners, viewers, or moviegoers, some of whom are moved to respond to it, which gives rise to criticism. A straightforward, nonfictional, literary report of the artwork and that response is the most commonly recognised criticism, and the film review is a subset of it. I may be unduly harsh, therefore, in giving stick to the reviewers I quoted above, in that their reviews may contain their honest and fullest responses to Malick’s artwork – subject to their constraints of audience and word limits – while my own perception is that those responses are grossly unfair. After all, one’s response comes about from a subjective experience of an artwork, which itself is a representation of a subjective experience of the world, which includes other artworks. A complex, fractal-like relationship between the viewer, the artist, the artist’s work, each one’s perceptions, and each one’s representations of those perceptions arises, and what may be presented as a consensus view would seem not only improbable but necessarily distorted. And yet, if one wishes to report on one’s response to others, distortions are inevitable, because the experience of moviegoing, like the artist’s experience of the world that she wishes to impart, belongs to the realm of the unutterable; but we have to use words and comprehensible expressions if we are to attempt to describe it. It’s why keeping up a blog such as this one is so thrilling, why writing about movies that bring pleasure is so great, and why it’s no fun at all to write about movies one doesn’t like.

It's also why it seems almost churlish to take such grave exception to others’ reviews. Glenn Gould, a monumental artist of whose work I’m newly enamoured, is ascribed the statement that “the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men. The purpose of art … is the construction of a state of wonder.” Each viewer and reviewer’s intimate response to and relationship with a work of art is what’s valuable, and not a consensus or a star rating. And my relationship with the work of Malick remains intact, and my responses have grown only more fiercely and incredulously ecstatic since I first stumbled into a screening of The Tree of Life, without having any idea of what it was about or how it was about it, and scandalously unaware of the changes about to be wrought on my own perceptions. I doubt that Malick himself cares about the quality of his films’ reviews; the beauty of his work has not subsided in the face of scorn and bafflement, and he has found a way of going on working without garnering any commercial success or financial returns on his work. The great teacher Oscar Wilde, himself a dazzling artist and phenomenal critic, declared in his landmark essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman.” When a reviewer invokes the values that make a good or bad filmmaker, and the virtues of meeting audience expectations, it’s often a sign that a daring artist is about to be chastised. There are many ways for a filmmaker to unfold a story, connect its elements, and reveal the deep substance that inheres it, and Malick has always found innovative ones; the story and the substance are there, and it’s the reviewer’s job and the moviegoer’s pleasure (which should more often be the same thing) to give over to the toils of the artist and find them. The huge disproportion of the amount of work that Malick puts into making his films and the amount of work a viewer puts into watching them can be made up by the thought and consideration a viewer puts into his or her appreciation of them.

Malick’s art in his recent surge has consistently been one of memory and of intimately subjective examinations of personal history. His stories stretch back into the stores of their protagonists’ lives and minds, and bring forth an overflow of remembered and relived events, feelings, ideas, revelations, visions, dreams, fascinations, and philosophies. It is rumoured that Malick’s younger brother committed suicide when he was 19; the death of the protagonist’s younger brother in both The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups is an obvious personal reference; the love triangle in To the Wonder seems to me a mapping of Malick’s own earlier conflicting romances in his earlier years; the shared milieux with characters in each of those films is also obvious, with Malick’s upbringing in suburban Texas in the 50s, his romantic sojourn to Paris, his later settling down in Oklahoma, his work as a screenwriter in Hollywood for quite some time, his Roman Catholic background and the gap between it and the mostly Protestant heartlands he grew up in, are each brought significantly to the fore in each of his films. His mode of personal excavation not only reveals the degree of personal connection to his films, however; it allows him to fully consider, expound upon, and realise the deeply personal and definitively individual ideas he carries. Malick can adopt a method of filming that brings him in touch with the purest and most distinctive strains of his philosophy and worldview, his vision of his work and his art as well as of the world in which it takes root. It also shows, as I pointed out in my post on his last feature, that the stuff of intimate and astonished wonder he fills his films with to abundance can be made of the life of any person living; Malick reaches heights of splendour and insight and profundity in regarding his own life not because of the extraordinariness and singularity of his life, but because of the thrust and singular potency of his art. And any individual who possessed similar powers of insight and representation and creation could deliver something similar of his or her own life.

In this particular excursion of his idealism-thru-reminiscence, Malick conjures a full sense of the world and life of people whose persuasions and life circumstances resemble his own, from a few decades ago. He presents a story of a group of young artists – musicians, in this case – who live and work in Austin, Texas, Malick’s home town. And the story is one of a transcendental romanticism, following the curves of something now familiar in Malick’s life history – love triangles, love shared and lost, and the pursuit of beauty through love. The film follows these young people emerging both into their fields of art and into the broader world governing their art and their lives. He catches life at its most volatile and unpredictable time for the artist, when possibilities abound and the future is most uncertain and unstable. They revel in the freeing effect this has on them, as it should on any such privileged young person, and grapple with the difficulties that similarly arise from it. And Malick’s free plotting (in his own screenplay) and free-form filming (through the camera wielded by his longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), together with his highly schematic and intricate editing (done by a team of editors, working with bounteous footage) reflects and imparts that vast, untold, unbounded, dynamic, and animated quality of life. Images tumble over one another and form a chain of free associations, because the thoughts and feelings and experiences in one’s mind don’t follow rational processes or reasoned allotments.

The story follows a budding musician, Faye (Rooney Mara), who works in the office of a record company executive (Michael Fassbender), through whose connection she hopes to break into the music business, and with whom she is also romantically involved. As she accompanies him to a party one day, she meets another young musician (Ryan Gosling), who is professionally involved with the executive, having signed a deal and started working his way towards a successful career. But, while on a trip to Mexico that the three have taken together, Faye realises that she has fallen in love with the musician, and, though she and the musician find great delight in their new romance and shared artistic aspirations, the executive is bitterly pained by it. He takes up with a waitress (Natalie Portman) he meets, a former teacher with poor fortunes, and they marry. Malick builds an increasingly wide and ardent web of relationships through his film, as we’re introduced to the waitress’s mother as well as the parents of Faye and the musician, and learn that Faye maintains a sexual relationship with the executive, while she’s with the musician and he is married to the waitress. Faye and the musician eventually break up, and he gets involved with an old girlfriend (Lykke Li) as well as an Austin socialite (Cate Blanchett), while she becomes involved with a Parisian artist (Bérénice Marlohe) she meets. The executive also continues to see prostitutes while he is married to the waitress, and even involves her in his trysts, driving her to despair. And, through the disorder, which includes professional and artistic activities for both of them, Faye and the musician find each other again. Malick weaves the world of music into his story by showing private moments of play by Faye and the musician, as well as live concerts given at a certain venue in Austin, and real-life filmed moments of various musical stars who were available for interaction in Austin, such as Iggy Pop, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and, most prominently, Patti Smith, who acts as a professional and romantic mentor to Faye, sharing anecdotes and hard-won wisdom from her life, acting as an emotional anchor among the onscreen figures.

Malick has always been the supreme cinematic philosopher to me, because all his original rhetoric, immense ideas, deeply piercing emotions, formal radicalism, and genuine wonder shine through the very images of his films, and do not depend on the literary authority of a script, nor the dull, conventional tying-together of blunt and obvious symbols on the screen. Plot and characters – the outlines of which constitute the mere database entry of a work of art – are the frame to which conventionally minded pundits cling in order to deliver a standard rubric of a reaction to a film. Like those of the best filmmakers, Malick’s films are not made to a rubric, but to be appreciated through the total surrender of the viewer to his forms and visions, and taken in deeply for a permanent relationship with the work. Malick takes ordinary and everyday situations and scenes – such as the living room of the executive, or the dilapidated kitchen of the waitress and her mother, or the windowed room of the Parisian artist, or trees in the Parisian artist’s garden, or any other location in the film – and restores it to an overflowing setting of wonder. He clearly possesses a lifetime’s wisdom on love and pain and the uncertainty of artistic success, and as he takes his story of love and art to the screen, he imputes to it serious ideas about love and the artistic life – and, most distinctively, he does it through his images and sounds, not through speeches and plot. He turns the very act of filming philosophical. His substance and ideas aren’t those of the derivative arthouse fare, which can be set out in an orderly exegesis, but are felt unequivocally and unutterably by the viewer.

Song to Song is perhaps the most densely erotic of Malick’s films that I’ve seen, though a reader would be set squarely against that assertion by reading anything about the movie’s romance, from most bloggers in any country in the world – another manifestation of a narrow culture of commentary that can only pick up what’s pointed out and handed over to it. Eroticism in cinema isn’t only found in the titillation of bare skin on lithe bodies, but can be evoked and kindled in elements as diverse and abstract as the colour of the film set or the timbre of a musical instrument. Malick brings it about through highly inventive visual compositions and close attention to the play and spontaneity of his performers, who are lit by the Texas sun at various times of the day like a benevolent erotogenic numen. The music and sex – including queer love – in Song to Song arise as if from the very atmosphere about the town of Austin, breathed in by the actors and released by them once more through their very vitality. It’s where the film gets closest to the final section of the Tanakh whose name it echoes: The Song of Songs. That the rummage of caught-by-chance moments of spontaneous eroticism are either missed or derided by so many other writers on the internet is an indication to me of their pitiably straitened and deficient notions of sex and sexual play. Others may merely not be receptive to Malick’s mode of erotic depiction. There is no blame or fault here, only loss on the part of those who miss it.

The moments of performance caught on camera seem so spontaneous because that’s precisely what they are and how they were captured. The actors cavort across the sets and locations Malick set them out upon, and his camera does so along with them; the scenes are linked both as narrative and as ideas by Malick’s audacious editing style. I don’t know quite what it’s like working with Malick on set, but it’s clear that the professional actors as well as the real-life rock stars give freely of themselves in long bouts of improvised play and human interaction, and Malick has developed a filming style that best seizes those moments of pure, unalloyed being for the benefit of his story. Fassbender is the most unclenched here he’s ever been, and Mara gives many surprising moments of revealing glances and gestures (though fantastic work is by no means unfamiliar from her, thanks to David Fincher). Gosling in particular offers revelations that aren’t available elsewhere in his career, with his innate diffident quirkiness bringing about moments of tender comedy. What the actors transmit by way of the camera are their allure and emotional force. Malick’s filming methods don’t allow them to give much of their actorly dramatic techniques or training, but this doesn’t diminish the beauty of their performances – it finely hones their immediacy and inheres each with an essence of truth.

It's a shame that just about anything a South African moviegoer may have read about the film is so dismissive. What’s disheartening is not that other writers weren’t enthusiastic about a film I loved, but that they discouraged enthusiasm in others, too, and offered no window of hope to those who are, as yet, unexposed to Terrence Malick’s idiosyncrasies and individuality. Hopefully there are some who went anyway (who were not among those dragged along by me) and who stumbled upon something as wondrous and consciousness-expanding as I did six years ago when I saw The Tree of Life, innocent of what I was opening myself to. Fortunately, reports announce that Malick’s next film is underway, and that opportunities for further ecstasy are on the horizon. Our enduring intimations of beauty are what keep the cinema, and our hope in it, burning brightly.

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