I live in Austin, Texas, the home of Terrence Malick, whose latest film Song to Song is set in the increasingly hip Texas capital. In watching the famously reclusive director’s camera rotate around and fly above locations that I drive by every day, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what Malick’s Austin really looks like. I identified numerous familiar spots in my two viewings of Song to Song: Cenote Café on Cesar Chavez, the food trucks on South Congress, the stunning view of the downtown skyline from the Long Center. These images coalesce into a vision of Austin that’s at once familiar and alienating. Of course, Malick’s unmistakable and easily parodied filmmaking style, in addition to the disorienting cinemaphotography by Malick regular Emmanuel Lubezki, is bound to make even standard shots of Austin feel removed from the real thing. But there’s more about Song to Song that makes its rendition of Austin so bizarre, even grotesque at times. I think it has something to do with all the fancy houses.
Before that, some plot summary is in order – at least, as much summary as can be done for a movie written and directed by Malick. Like most Malick protagonists, Faye (Rooney Mara) lives a life marred by existential angst. She’s torn asunder between BV (a gamely stoical Ryan Gosling), an aspiring indie musician, and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a magnetic but controlling music producer. Faye herself seeks a musical career, but every time she’s on stage – usually at the Austin City Limits festival, which based on the way it’s used in this film happens every weekend – she looks around, wondering if she’s meant to look out on all the crowds staring back at her. This moody love triangle branches off into numerous sub-romances, which range from the natural to the thoroughly awkward. The latter characterizes the romance between BV and Amanda (Cate Blanchett) that crops up toward the end of the film, the former describing Cook and Rhonda’s (Natalie Portman) fraught relationship and then marriage.
Bless those tasked with writing promo copy for DVD and Blu-ray releases of Malick’s films, chiefly among them whoever wrote up this almost comical description of what goes on in Song to Song: “In this modern love story set against the Austin, Texas, music scene, two entangled couples – Faye and BV, and music mogul Cook and the waitress whom he ensnares – chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal.” This summary does about as well as any summary of Song to Song could hope to do, all the while getting the movie entirely wrong. As I’ve written about Malick’s filmmaking before, thematic concerns like “love” and “success” float above the action of the thinly-sketched stories that comprise his films. Faye wants love from BV, and to be a successful musician, but those earthly goals are subsumed by the broader philosophical questions that arise in the ethereal voiceovers. When Faye thinks to herself at one point, “I love the pain. It feels like life,” that revelation has less to do with the immediate circumstances of her love triangle and far more to do with that topic as a philosophical generality, as something – like Malick’s cameras – that flies above and around us all.
Anyone who jumped off the Malick ship after his increasingly controversial post-Tree of Life films — To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015) – won’t find Song to Song a reprieve. If anything, Song to Song represents the most obtuse iteration of his inimitable style thus far. Yet while critics and fans are well within their rights in disliking the picture, they are wrong in expecting a particular type of film out of Malick, a man who has made it clear that conventional filmic storytelling is of no interest to him. In a one-star review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers writes, “As usual, the images captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are gorgeous – but visuals are no substitute for narrative momentum, which is non-existent.” This claim presupposes that it is incumbent upon Malick to make a movie whose primary goal is building a particular narrative, which has not been particularly true of Malick’s filmography. In a way, his 1973 debut Badlands marks his first and last narrative feature, and even then he handles the narrative far less conventionally than most would. There’s an understandable aversion to a filmmaker who says, “Either you’re in or you’re out,” but Malick is that kind of filmmaker.
Taken on the terms that Malick has laid out for this unusually productive period of his career – 20 years span 1977’s Days of Heaven and 1999’s The Thin Red Line, yet since 2010 Malick has released five films — Song to Song is a pretty but minor picture for this auteur. Malick knows where to find resplendence in his home city, and his camera zooms in on all of it. The almost entirely unchained camera glides throughout the scenes, providing intimacy in person-to-person interactions that otherwise feel remote given Malick’s style. The acting fares about as well as one could expect for a Malick movie, given Malick’s treatment of actors. The job of Mara, Gosling, and Fassbender is less to act than to suggest, to provide bodies upon which Malick can layer film and voiceover that shapes the scenes, rather than the scenes shaping the film. Gosling’s character is named BV, but any two letters would do. In the end it’s Gosling who proves to be the ideal Malick actor, perhaps in part due to the years he’s spent honing a certain unflappable mode of performing (Drive, Only God Forgives, The Place Beyond the Pines).
As a capture of the Austin music scene, which leading up to its release was its ostensible main feature, Song to Song is decidedly one-sided, focusing primarily on corporate festivals with cameos by big-name artists like Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The lone musician who makes an impact is Patti Smith, whose fleeting scenes late in the movie come the closest to reaching Malick’s signature sublimity.
Now, to get back to those fancy houses. Fassbender’s character Cook lives in what appears to be a lush west Austin house, perhaps overlooking Lake Travis. (Given Malick’s penchant for short shots and jump cuts throughout, it’s difficult to get a firm grasp of a scene at any given moment. A fight between Cook and BV cuts from a rooftop bar at an Austin restaurant to the street level, suggesting that location hardly matters for staging a conversation in Malick’s vision.) Faye and BV fight in an upscale apartment smack in the middle of downtown Austin, whose monthly rent can only likely be afforded by the upper middle management class of Austin’s booming tech sector at best. Pricey real estate forms the background of Song to Song. Austin’s hyperspeed gentrification continues to make headlines, and Malick’s first film to be shot in Austin illustrates just how far along that process has come. Whenever the camera travels to the East Austin neighborhoods being hit the hardest by influxes of trendy bars and gaudy corporate high-rises, it’s easy to miss the ongoing transformation unless you’ve seen the change firsthand.
Place is important to Malick’s films, but it usually takes a backseat to the grander ruminations whispered in the voiceover. Knight of Cups more than any of his pictures captures a place so vividly (Los Angeles, in this case), all the while taking it apart and dissecting it to its component parts. Song to Song might be the first motion picture to give a stark view of the city’s gentrification, even as it does little to comment on it. When Faye and BV cavort about the downtown apartments (yes, multiple) that they could in real life ill afford being aspiring musicians and professional drifters, a question irrepressibly presents itself: “What Austin is this?” Apropos of a Malick script, rhetorical questions litter Song to Song. Curiously enough, though, that question never gets asked. But it definitely should.
Song to Song is now available on Blu-ray. Check out our review from SXSW.