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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Jurassic Park – *ehrm* World

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Jurassic World (Colin Trevverow, 2015)

There are several moments during the latest installment of the lauded Hollywood dinosaur franchise, Jurassic World, that are hilarious because they are done with a completely straight face, which is, needless to say expected from a film that tries to hard to feed off of Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece, but with none of the requisite talent. A few of these moments consist of the typical “forced dialogue” that we see in summer blockbuster films, mostly as a sorry excuse for eating time while the plot is building and so the film can fill up its designated two hour run. There are several things that director Colin Treverrow and the production team run through in order to give the characters something to blabber about before we got to all the chasing and carnage and shit. You know, just passive conversation like good looking girls, what rides to take in the park, their parents getting divorced…. Wait, what? Yes, and I shit you not, there is actually a two minute dialogue between the two boys about their parents’ marriage being on the rocks and the younger kid starts to cry. How does this play into the boys’ bond or help their situation later on in the movie? Well, it doesn’t… the topic is dismissed with a cut-away to the park and literally never mentioned again.

I get that these types of movies have no place for “emotional depth” or “character development” or any of those nerdy things that only people with a decent attention span could give a shit about, but shoving in an emotionally jarring conversation about parental divorce and its effects on children as if its some throw-away side conversation to make us “feel” something for these half-brained robot children who do nothing throughout the movie but stare around and yell is not only in poor taste, its insulting to the audience’s intelligence. If a film’s true value comes from its entertainment value, and its main purpose stems from nothing other than its blood-pumping thrills, then why keep forcing in sequences which add nothing to the films actual value? Another film which I watched earlier in the year, Furious 7 was essentially a “brainless” action film, but at least it dedicated itself to that limitation, keeping majority of its running time consisting of a fast-paced flurry of chase sequences and montages of women in bikinis with minimal one-liners that are meant to be cheeky or just push along the action. This is clearly the smartest path Jurassic World could have taken. Asking the creators of this film to add in the level of narrative weight of something like Mad Max: Fury Road was beyond their capabilities because they couldn’t even manage to write in decent side conversations. Not to mention that the themes of Jurassic World were no way near as well developed as George Miller’s Mad Max reboot.

So, we get to the crux of the issue with Treverrow’s script: It tried very hard, with no real success, to duplicate the brilliant combination of sentimentality, entertaining thrills, and acute artistic vision of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and in doing so, re-affirmed to us why Spielberg’s film was so great, and this one was so forgettable. Each moment of this new film is a direct modernized manifestation of what once was, a callback to a single film which defined a generation. There is no question that nostalgia plays a great role in the continuation of reboots of film franchises, and with something as influential and defining as Jurassic Park was for the millennial generation, there is going to be a lot of harkening and milking of that past sentimentality in the new film. The problem however is that the nostalgia is all there really is to latch onto. The sentimental dialogue, the thrills from the dinosaur fights, and what semblance there is of a plot all exist simply as a vehicle to transport us back to 1993, to keep reminding us of how great Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was and how stale and soulless this new shiny and emotionally hollow World is.

The creators of the film are not oblivious to this either. What is painfully ironic about this film, which of course had the biggest box-office opening weekend in history, is that it’s a manifestation of everything it tries to deem as “wrong” about the dinosaur amusement park at its center. Claire, the park’s stern and straight-laced supervisor, discusses economics and demographics of audience at length, defending the genetic mixing to build hybrid dinosaurs from strands of many different species by saying things like:

“focus groups show that every time we unveil a new exhibit, audience attendance has spiked”

&

“Corporate feels that the genetic mixing ups the “wow” factor”

For anyone who understands how Hollywood’s studio machines work, these dialogues are easily found bouncing off the walls of executive board-rooms trying to decide what to put in the next Marvel movie, or whatever old franchise is going to be reboot/re-installed next. It’s a corporate mechanism which keeps its focus solely on what will attract the biggest crowd on day one rather than what will maintain a proper legacy for the film. Film diaspora has lately been one of pick up, consume, and throw away. There aren’t any movies which make a lasting impression anymore, and they easily fizzle out from your mind once the next thing hits. Does anyone even care about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy with the new reboots hitting theaters? Remember the very first X-Men movie with Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry? What in God’s name was the first Transformers movie even about?

The special effects and visuals of the new Jurassic World may bring in swaths of movie-goers during the first weekend and thereafter to break box-office records and hold a place in the annuls of economic achievement, but what about film achievement? 10 years from now which movie will we be talking about, recommending to our friends, recalling the famous scenes from? Jurassic World… or Jurassic Park? The answer should be obvious. There wasn’t just a paycheck and red stamp of ticket-booth approval behind Spielberg’s masterpiece that released in 1993. There was a vision, a legacy, filled with a cast of characters who served a unique purpose to identifying social, scientific, and moral problems that resided in the grand experiment of John Hammond: bringing back to life the prehistoric era, defying the biological evolution of species. Dr. Ian Malcolm, probably the series’ most iconic personality, brilliantly cast and portrayed by an equally real-life iconic personality, Jeff Goldblum, remarks at this playing of God: “your scientists were so busy asking if they could, that they never stopped to ask if they should.” A single one-liner from Jurassic Park, filled with more to say and more to remember than an entire two and a half hour film reel that constitutes the hollow Jurassic World.