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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2015 Capsule Reviews Part IV

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Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)

Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)

It’s hard to judge this movie on cinematic terms because the issue and topic it deals with is such a devastating one and has such dire sociological and theological implications that it engulfs any dialogue of artistic merit with dialogue on social consciousness, faith, and morality. It’s really the perfect kind of “Oscar” movie because its contribution is towards a social discussion and making a “statement” which people can gravitate towards. It means that the movie is able to skate to victory on its mere competency. As certain critics have pointed out, it’s “just good enough” for the Academy Awards Best Picture, and when the topic of choice is so timely and the story one of triumph against evil, whatever flaws it may display cinematically and by form or structure in making its argument will be set aside and excused for the importance of its ability to make something horrifying accessible. We don’t nitpick a spotlight story on ISIS for its grammatical errors and questions about its rhetoric, and we don’t care of Spotlight’s level of artistic merit so as long as it gets its all important message out clear and light enough to carry and hold with us.

 

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

The cliché “the higher they rise, the harder they fall” is a single sentence explanation which is supposed to be tacked on to every celebrity story like that of Amy Winehouse. We’ve heard it before and we will hear it forever. But Kapadia, with this documentary, attempts to examine the reason for the fall, what is the force of gravity which accelerated Winehouse from the tops of music stardom straight in a grave underneath the ground? Well, there isn’t a single reason, and like physics problems, Amy’s fall is acted on by a number of forces, those trying so desperately to hoist her up (her friends) and those accelerating her decline (media, critics). The “saddness” that we keep hearing about celebrity drug problems and their eventual deaths such as in Amy is not simply due to an addiction, but to the fact that it is never taken with the sort of grave seriousness that other diseases are. We see clips of comedian making fun of her, ripping her for her appearance, juxtaposed with images of her crumbling mentally and physically under the stress of her life. It’s not simply a mechanism of the media but of society as well. Our immediate reaction to celebrities expressing disatisfaction with their life is to ridicule them for feeling so because of their immense wealth, legitamizing the notion that money does by happiness of all accounts.

 

Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

The whole experience is very off-putting and that’s what makes Queen of Earth a fascinating drama. It’s entire duration evokes a sense of dread within you, and its horror is manifested in our own feelings of embarassment, frustration, betrayal, and lonliness. These are human emotions but they are what makes us afraid and what eventually, if we let them fester, can make us go insane. I would say that Queen of Earth is a psychological horror film in the same way that Charlie Kaufmann’s Synechdoche New York is one, where the central characters undergo an emotionally churning chapter of their lifes which makes them fear their own existence. The sequence where Catherine has a complete psychotic meltdown at the gathering of her friend’s house is similar to Caden being confronted with his stage cast and crew finally asking when the hell their production is actually going to be finished. It’s a realization of all out failure by Catherine, and having the last support beams of her sanity knocked to the ground. It’s horror without ghosts and demons… it’s the horror of realizing how vulnerable she is all of a sudden. A queen stripped of her throne.

 

Addicted to Fresno (Jamie Babbit, 2015)

Scripted incredibly amateurishly, with comedy which forces itself through sexual frustration and cursing. It’s the middle-schoolers brand of jokes with everything spelled out at the end and characters regurgitating information that in real life, they would simply already know and is useless information to us anyway. I’m not sure what Jamie Babbit is getting at with her film career, but even her so-called “cult” classic But I’m a Cheerleader was not shy on its heavy-handed symbolism, obvious in its construction and again, spelling it out every bit of commentary it chooses to make just to make sure we “get it”. Well, Jamie Babbit, if you had any semblance of an imagination, we would have gotten it simply through implication.

 

A Hard Day (Seong-hoon Kim, 2015)

Korean mainstream cinema is something I would recommend to a lot of my American friends because it is directly influenced by style and narrative structure of Hollywood’s mainstream cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which works on its own parallel plane only borrowing off the most rudimentary and simple of cinematic technique from Hollywood’s popcorn cinema, the Koreans go all out dedicated with a replica of which 99% of the DNA is the same. Seong-hoom Kim’s A Hard Day could easily be made into a decent Jason Statham January thriller and its cheesy but believable conundrum of a cop who accidentally commited a hit and run and now has to try and cover it up is ripe for directors to experiment with editing and tension building. Its this type of inspired, light-and-airy popcorn material, with ample cheese melted on top that delivers enough to pass the time while still being respectable. If you’re just lazing around on a weekend afternoon and need to kill some clock before heading out for the night, watch A Hard Day.