If BADLANDS is Malick's Highway 61 and DAYS OF HEAVEN his Blonde on Blonde, and THE TREE OF LIFE his Blood on the Tracks, then is SONG TO SONG his Under the Red Sky? TREE remains one of the transcendent experiences of my life, like the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. Like TREE, SONG is film aspiring to the state of poetry, or music. That's the vision, I think. I'm still fascinated by the way Malick "popularizes" (if that's the word I want) avant-garde techniques. I doubt he cares if we're frustrated. I can't think of another director outside of Godard whose later films are so controversial. (Inside Godard, it's too dark to see.) (When I saw THE NEW WORLD years ago, I thought the audience was going to throw things at the screen.) Why did SONG often rub me the wrong way? Malick's metaphysical voiceovers always walked a dizzying tightrope, reaching for the profound, teetering over the banal. Here, he loses his balance. Yet even when the returns are diminished, as they are here, tilting toward the pretentious, there are still those moments of grace or beauty. And they're just transcendent, and they redeem, at least for me, much of the stuff that's hard to swallow. I wish there were more of them here. Emmanuel Lubezki's Steadicam work is still a beauty to behold. I was moved whenever Patti Smith was onscreen. Malick's use of both Bob Dylan's and Elmore James's versions of Rollin N Tumblin is electric. His Austin film is a kind of photo album (video album?) about the intersecting love affairs of artists and moguls played by Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Roona Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe, and others. (As Roger Ebert helpfully pointed out in his last published review, of TO THE WONDER, "Although he uses established stars, Malick employs them in the sense that the French director Robert Bresson intended when he called actors 'models.'") It's even less about about Austin music than Robert Altman's NASHVILLE was about country music. Still, musicians knock about, often playing themselves, from John Lydon to Iggy Pop. The wiser, older creative rebels instruct the young--and those older rebels include Malick, in his sometimes moralistic voiceovers he places in his characters' mouths. As for the younger musicians, I especially liked Lykke Li, who seems to be playing herself. Gosling asks her, what's it like to be a girl? and she replies, I feel like I have special powers. To paraphrase Ebert, Malick's landscape is the terrain of the body as much as it is nature. Actually, much of the movie's kind of sexy. Much of it is improvised, and the actors risk embarrassment, and I admire that. We rarely get to see them working without a net like this. Malick shoots hours and hours of footage and then culls it, but there's still a lot of frolicking that's less than riveting. Some of it feels like acting school exercises carried out at a high level. Still, it can lead to some startling moments of candor: I recall Mara breaking in Gosling's arms, with a stark naked look of pain on her tear-streamed face. Malick loves Murnau, but as Jonathan Rosenbaum stated in his review of THE THIN RED LINE (which I find helpful in thinking about SONG), "Malick's intimate acquaintance with the aesthetics of silent cinema reaches well past Murnau. The punctuating shots of nature in the midst of combat--a wounded bird, a riddled leaf, a hill of waving grass--are pure silent-movie syntax...The poetic and philosophical internal monologues of Malick's various soldiers, often paired with a sustained and soulful close-up of the character, are the structural equivalent of intertitles in silent films of the teens and 20s." Maybe Malick's later films will be more highly regarded in the future.
"Its ideas are about things you can see or feel, not things you can say." -- Roger Ebert on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA