SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.

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The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

For the past few years, I’ve been actively searching one particular film released in the span of September to December which is unmistakably created in the mold of your typical Oscar-contender. In 2012 it was David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, in 2013 it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, and this year it’s James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. From its beginning to its end, Marsh’s biographical film of famous physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s life and work is as formulaic as, well… physics.

The film’s narrative trajectory follows very similar plot points of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Hawking is in graduate school (PhD to be exact). He’s awkward, a tinge humorous, looked down upon as a boring intellectual by the more uppity women, but he does find one humble and cute girl named Jane who is attracted to his quirkiness and intellect. They fall in love. He has some mental/physical problems which temporarily hampers his belief that his love with still want to be with him. She does though. They get married. His career takes major leaps forward. His wife Jane starts having trouble caring for his disabled condition. Hawking’s career takes upswings and downswings, his condition becomes very critical, but in the end he is triumphant and is on stage for all the world see and give a standing ovation to. The End. Ignoring only the finer details, the major highlights of both Hawking and Nash’s lives play out in similar fashion in the movies. This isn’t because they lived similar lives, but rather because there is a basic construct, or methodology in which films about famous people battling disabilities plays out.

What Hawking and John Forbes Nash share is not as obvious outside the context of a Hollywood film. They are both brilliant men in their own right, but it is this connect-the-dots type of predictable telling of a great man’s life that really reduces his achievements and his thoughts into a timeline of ‘events’ which just so happen to be part of a ‘struggle’ for success and happiness. Of course the disability allows for a Russell Crowe and a Eddie Redmayne to throw themselves right into the Oscar-race with fantastic acting. They are great performances in their respective films, but again, that’s all their films really boil down to: “Hey, check out how great of an actor ________ is for playing a disabled genius so naturally.”

The Theory of Everything is a film which is routine in its composition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing special about it either. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, where the cinematic liberty of taking Nash’s schizophrenia into the visual medium rather than just the audial (which is what it was in reality) allowed Ron Howard to transcend the biographical narrative and turn the film into a psychological thriller as well, Marsh keeps his biopic tamed and by the numbers. There were many opportunities for Marsh to expand on Hawking’s theories by offering visual representations of pontifications of the universe and time and space and their roles in how Hawking perceived his love towards Jane. That at least, could have made this more than just retelling of a life. For the undemanding viewer of course, the film is perfect. It takes very little time to get through because even though it runs just above two hours, there is a large enough part of Hawking’s life that is exhibited here that everything moves and cuts rather quickly. Its an easy movie to digest and move on from. Perhaps I should excuse myself from the discussion for demanding a bit more from a film hinting at love’s interconnectivity with Hawking’s career (because why would Marsh make this a biopic laced with an incredibly sweet romantic angle if he was just going to leave the romance hanging dry?)… but shouldn’t we demand something more than a museum showcase of several points in Hawking’s life? Watching this film was more like walking through an exhibit of Hawking at the Smithsonian rather than a biographical narrative.

This is also a type of filmmaking that is an easy candidate for the Oscar races and other awards races. Some may scoff at the idea that a prestigious awards ceremony would be suckers for the particulars of a film (sarcasm), but we’re all human right? It has a lot of pop and pizazz to play someone who is manic depressive or has a debilitating disability. It’s a showcase of acting that is easy to spot because its very physical. A performance like Eddie Redmayne’s is one you can see clearly through the way he talks, the way he moves his hands and arms, the twitching and struggle of motion. Compare that to an intrinsically under-the-surface emotive performance like Michael Keaton’s in Birdman. There’s nothing physical or easy to spot about it, and Oscar-voters will see it more as a nice compliment to a larger template which is Innaritu’s incredible film, but Keaton is truly pot-boiler because he is on edge through the whole movie. You can sense it, but unlike Redmayne’s performance you don’t automatically see it. Both performances are equally grand, but only Redmayne’s will get the eyes because its easy to spot.

In terms to the direction, James Marsh is wholly unimpressive. Similar to a cook on a food-competition show who opts to make salad while everyone else slaves over duck foie gras and agnolotti from scratch, Marsh reaches for the lowest branch in depicting the Hawkings’ (plural) decay… from slow motion shots of others using their capable limbs while Hawking looks on helplessly, to solitude moments of Jane crying alone because she really can’t take it anymore… these are easy moments to get the audience to feel empathy, but they don’t challenge our notions of marriage or the struggle of being sick/caring for a sick person. Again, its not bad, its just forgettable. It will however get Oscar attention because every frame lights up with various colors and shades (most of them ill-advised and giving off a weird reminder of Soderbergh’s Traffic which has nothing to do with this film but utilizes color filters way better while Marsh seems to just do it for the ‘look’) which are a perfect example of surface dressing to catch voters eyes.

In the end, Marsh is content keeping The Theory of Everything as a timeline chart. One dictated by formula and calculation. It’s the type of theoretical proof one needs to conclude that if you ever decide you want to make a movie that will be a shoe-in for the Oscar race, look to James Marsh’s film on Stephen Hawking as a single unifying equation of how to get it done.