What’s the difference between Terrence Malick and Zack Snyder?
Less than you might think. Snyder is the director of the heavy-handed superhero dramas Watchmen (2009), Batman v. Superman (2016) and the forthcoming comic book epic Justice League. Malick is the beloved independent filmmaker responsible for soft, beautiful masterpieces like Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). Song to Song, Malick’s new film, is a boring mess, and the reason why has a lot to do with what he and Zack Snyder have in common.
These directors are bent on creating intoxicating cinematic moments at the expense of the hard work of building scenes.
The difference between a moment and a scene was expertly pinpointed by film critic Evan Puschak in this video. Film moments, he says, are those times in a movie that are charged both stylistically and emotionally. In Gone with the Wind (1939), a great movie moment occurs when Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), having endured destitution and war, defiantly cries out that she will “never be hungry again” as the music swells and the camera draws back to a wide shot.
The response sought from you, the viewer: that you’ll be awed.
Moments lose their power to leave you in that state, though, if they are not interspersed with strong scenes. As Puschak notes:
What a good scene does is dissolve the actors and the soundstage and the costumes and makeup and camera angle into a living and breathing reality. There should be a strong sense of place, a feeling of possibility, that the characters who inhabit the space could go anywhere within it . . . The discreet elements that make up a good scene should not feel like they are in service to something else, even though they are.
Gone with the Wind earned its never-go-hungry moment with a lot of wonderful scenes along the way. These developed the movie’s characters, setting, and tone.
Another example: Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas has several awesome moments in it, like the famous tracking shot of the protagonist, a gangster named Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), as he takes the back entrance into a dinner club. The film also has several great scenes in it—episodes in which character is revealed and it seems impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen. Well done scenes earn the emotion that a viewer feels when a great moment happens.
There are many stunning moments in Song to Song, but there are very few scenes. The film is set in Austin, Texas and revolves around the lives of several people involved in that city’s music scene. There’s BV (Ryan Gosling), a local songwriter; Cook (Michael Fassbender), a sleazy and unscrupulous music producer; Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician; Amanda (Cate Blanchett), a visitor from Britain. Cook is the kind of oily entertainment industry con man who would feel at home in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. He uses Faye sexually, and praises BV for his songwriting, luring him into a deal before stealing the copyrights to BV’s songs. Cook also befriends and uses Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress and teacher who has musical aspirations. Rhonda is devastated by Cook’s perverse and manipulative sexual behavior and drug use. She has a breakdown, as does her mother Miranda (Holly Hunter).
Song to Song uses Malick’s trademark disjointed, stream-of-consciousness artsiness to the point of parody. There is a lot of quick editing, pseudo-spiritual musing, and drifting camera work, but no real insight or plot. Malick’s favorite—and by now hackneyed—shot takes in actors moving slowly around a naturally lit room while voice-overs say supposedly profound things. When built up to and anchored by an actual story (like a soldier’s longing for his wife in Malick’s superior The Thin Red Line), the effect can be sublime.
Yet in recent years, in films such as To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and now Song to Song, Malick has shot without a script. He encourages his actors to improvise and then tries to find a story in the editing room. This is why there are so many awkward and embarrassing shots in Song to Song. The actors, knowing they are expected to do something but, not having been given direction or a story, walk around each other, wait for each other to say something, then fall back on clichés—an erotic snuggle or weird phrase that seems to come out of nowhere.
“I’m all about the fun,” BV says in Song to Song, in reference to precisely nothing. The edits are too quick to establish any kind of mood or theme, and Malick once again uses cryptic, pseudo-philosophical voice-over phrases that hint at something spiritual. These include: “When I was a girl, I loved everything.” “You came for me—you took my hand.” “I played with the flame of life.” And: “Touch my heart—with your foot.”
Okay, that last one is a joke. It’s from Annie Hall, the great 1977 film by Woody Allen. The line is said by a pretentious actor who is being mocked by Allen. It came to mind as I was sitting through Song to Song and realized that it could have been slipped in amongst the diaphanous dreaminess of this film and no one would have been the wiser.
Were Malick a first-year film student, the indulgence would be excusable. (He is in fact a former philosophy graduate student and translator of Martin Heidegger.) But there is a real movie buried in here, a missed opportunity to tell a story. Actresses like Blanchett and Portman, who radiate such beauty and soul, are never allowed to go beneath the surface. The elements of sex, drugs , rock and roll, duplicitous managers, parties, broken relationships, and the Texas landscape could have been combined to create captivating drama. Instead we flit from moment to moment watching a group of talented actors wander around wondering what to do. I have often defended Malick’s work, but when audience members at the screening I went to started laughing, I understood why.
There are a handful of spots in Song to Song when one gets a glimpse of what might have been. Much of it was shot at Austin’s annual South by Southwest music festival, and several actual musicians appear, giving the film brief jolts of gritty life. There’s Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it is art rock icon Patti Smith who offers what could have been a wonderful performance had Malick simply been a little patient. At one point Smith tells Faye that old guitars have songs in them if you just let them come out. Holding a battered old acoustic guitar, Smith then strums a single note over and over, letting her muse direct her. She starts to sing something improvised, but just as things are getting interesting Malick, intent on capturing a moment rather than let a scene unfold, cuts away.
There is also a wonderful shot of BV and Faye driving through Austin as night falls, one of the few times a shot is sustained for more the a few seconds. It’s beautifully captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but after two hours of directionless drifting and shifting, the moment comes too late. It’s also unearned. Here, as in much of his recent work, the director is trying to pass off laziness, cliché and a lack of a plotting as art. Full of moments but not scenes, intoxicated with a surface spirituality that doesn’t allow for the grit that makes godliness possible, Song to Song is not much different from Batman v. Superma.