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.

The Place Beyond the Pines

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The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

In Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is given the title of “ambitious” because it juggles more than a single mains character, and moreso because it shifts our attention from one to the next. It gives us a chain reaction in relation to 3 separate characters. Ryan Gosling’s character Luke is a motorcycle stuntman who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend after he finds out she has a baby. Luke’s frequent run-ins with the law (he robs banks) due to his attempts to make money for himself and his “family” get him confronted by a police officer named Avery (Bradley Cooper). The interaction is at first thought of as an instance of two characters meeting and becoming entangled in the same storyline, but it is soon revealed, as Avery and Luke fire off their guns and Luke falls from the second story window, that Cianfrance’s narrative leaves Luke and focuses on the after-effects of the confrontation wholly on Avery. In making this decision, Cianfrance’s intention is clear. His story is one of cause and effect. How the life of one person can so powerfully affect another. Moreso, how the life of a criminal can leave an impression on the cop. The story further accelerates into a game of corrupt politics with Avery coming out on top and the thread (with a title card of “15 Years Later”) passing over to the sons of Luke and Avery, who themselves experience the dark effects of their father’s tumultuous one time fatal encounter. All of this contributes to a movie which can acceptably described as “ambitious” because it is, as Cianfrance himself showed at some points, difficult to juggle properly or effectively.

In this sophomore feature, Cianfrance is still flexing his skills as mood setter, but his skills as a storyteller have noticeably gone “Hollywood”. No longer do we have a muddle of emotions and complex situations where characters can do right and wrong, act good and bad. Everyone in The Place Beyond the Pines is too fleshed out and easy to decipher, they all have a trajectory which is too conventional and ends in cathartic resolution rather than bittersweet compromise. Avery especially is a total righteous cop, ready at the drop of a hat to turn his corrupt cop buddies in, and finds himself in and out of trouble through very simple means (simply blackmailing a lawyer for judicial assistance and of all things, a major promotion that he really isn’t even qualified for). Unlike in Blue Valentine, where emotions were palpable and almost tangible, and the relationship struggles were a helplessly real and raw battle, in this film Cianfrance’s characters don’t relate to each other at all and his play between husbands, wives and children suddenly falls out of the frame when he’s preoccupied with such a riveting story to tell.

Still, The Place Beyond the Pines features some great moments, one of the most intense being when Avery is asked by his superior officer Deluca (Ray Liotta) to follow him, and the sequence takes us through a rugged road surrounded by thick pines and as the scenery gets darker and the road winds and twists, the lights on Avery’s car start to point to an endless abyss, like a timid flashlight in a cave of horrors. The sequence is played with such mastery of suspense, it was more terrifying than the hundred “pop-out” scares in all the horror movies that have come out recently. It is the type of directing talent one should expect from Cianfrance, and his film, be it of lighter weight and of shallower depth than his debut, is still “entertaining” for what it’s worth, and marks a consecutive success with the camera that makes him a director to look out for.