Pretty Vacant: Song to Song (Terrence Malick, USA, 2017)

A Malickian montage of thoughts about Song to Song, the latest film from Terrence Malick.

Kill your gods
There may be a God. There may even be Gods. But there is no god who is a human. And for many years I thought Malick something akin to a god after various films that I enjoyed enormously: BadlandsDays of HeavenThe Thin Red Line. I am even one of a few people whom I know who liked To The Wonder.

Things began seriously for me to fall apart with Knight of Cups. Christian Bale moping around his privileged world, standing over homeless black people and moaning on about how tough his life is. A punch in the face and a few gulps of shut the fuck up were what I thought Bale’s character merited upon seeing the film.

And here, with Song to Song, the same trend continues.

More on this below. But the initial point is that Malick – together with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, whom filmgoers also feel can do no wrong… are mortal. Utterly and thoroughly mortal. To this extent: Song to Song made me believe that I am a better filmmaker than Terrence Malick and that my cinematographer, Tom Maine, is as good as Emmanuel Lubezki. And we work wonders from a position of relative poverty. Letters to Ariadne says as much as if not more than Song to Song. And Tom’s images are every bit as beautiful as El Chivo’s.

But this bit of flexing aside, let us look at the film…

Pretty Vacant
Of course latter day sell-out Johnny Rotten turns up to collect his fee by being in Song to Song, thereby evoking the whole history of punk that he has turned his back on as he takes role after role in advert after advert.

And yet this Sex Pistols song, ‘Pretty Vacant,’ effectively sums up Malick’s film: ‘Oh we’re so pretty / Oh so pretty / We’re vacant.’

For we basically get Rooney Mara (actually quite good in this), the Gos, Fassbender and a collection of other, typical Malickameo stars turning up to give us their thoughts and feelings about life, the universe and everything. That is: everyone is beautiful and everyone is ‘Troubled’ because they have, like, you know, relationship and daddy and self-absorption issues.

Real estate and empty parking lots
Song to Song has loads of shots of empty parking lots. America has been constructed around and for the car. What is the car? A machine for travel, of course. But specifically a machine that one uses to travel only in small groups or alone; a private form of transport, increasingly taking on the bulk and the aggression of a tank.

Space is dedicated for the temporary housing of these vehicles. They are often empty. Pretty. And vacant.

Song to Song also features lots and lots of empty apartments. These also are pretty. And vacant. We have real estate for cars and we have real estate for stars. Malick’s film insists upon such spaces so much. The emptiness no doubt reflects the inner emptiness of the characters that we see onscreen. Well done, Terrence, for using ‘Symbolism.’ Repeatedly. But to what end?

Whenever anyone calls anything ‘real,’ they are making a claim about the nature of reality. That is, they are labelling one thing as real at the expense of other things. The real (so say I) effect of the phrase ‘real time,’ for example, is not that we watch things unfold at the pace that they would in the ‘real world.’ On the contrary, the effect of the phrase ‘real time’ is to justify only one particular temporality or rhythm – the rhythm of the media that deliver ‘real time’ footage, which in turn is the rhythm of capitalism – as real. All other temporalities and rhythms are thus demoted to a realm outside of reality. This is a political manoeuvre.

And so it is with real estate: to say that only these estates are real is to consign to unreality those other estates that people occupy: the hovels, the slums. There is no room for these really in Malick’s film; offscreen, they are unreal. Instead, the only reality that he offers is the pretty and vacant world of lavish apartments.

Glass houses and the attention economy
How many windows and glass fronts are there in Song to Song? In the pretty and vacant estates that are passed off to us as real, we see glass house after glass house. ‘Transparency’ is the ‘Symbolic Meaning’ of that: all of our lives are on show, for people to see, constantly under scrutiny from others and our selves.

Oh, how tough it must be to be a star we find ourselves thinking: always being watched, it must So Hard.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not sure that I would care to be Famous particularly (I have not experienced it so I would not know). For, I am sure that being Famous is not such a Good Thing as we are led almost always to believe.

But here we have Famous People being Pretty and Vacant on screen for 129 minutes. They are Pretty, for sure. But to what end is this being shown to us?

Malick’s film is filled with scene after scene of people Acting Out. Look, a Pixie Woman cannot but do a Pixie Dance as she crosses a road because Pixie Women are Free, and Free People do Free Things like Pixie Dances.

But what is the Pixie Dance really about – and why is Song to Song filled with Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance?

Pixie Dances are about Getting Attention. And the reason why people want to Get Attention is so that they can Be Seen, which in turn allows them to Make Money from Being Seen and Getting Attention and doing Pixie Dances. That is, the Pixie Dance is a capitalist performance that feeds into the attention economy.

Is Malick critiquing the attention economy? Or is he really reinforcing it by showing Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance? Why is there basically no dialogue in this film – but instead a relentless collection of solipsistic inner monologues? Look at me! Give me money!

Men handling women
Watching Song to Song, you will notice that the film is also filled with scene after scene of Men handling Women. Gripping, grabbing, tying up, covering over. The film is a relentless demonstration of how men consider women to be property.

Rooney Mara at one points ties up the Gos – but two things: he pulls her along as she holds on to the rope used to tie him up; and then we see her untying him.

Men want to possess women. But does this mean that Malick is critiquing this tendency? Is that why Rooney Mara is only billed third in the end credits, despite having the largest monologue and occupying the most amount of screen time?

And what is the deal with that lesbian relationship with the Unbelievably Pretty (and Vacant) Parisienne who turns up part-way through the film? Oh, that’s not there for the titillation of the male viewer (like the insistence of Lubezki to film Natalie Portman at breast height and for the camera to be on Mara’s waist at every available opportunity)… that is Mara’s character Discovering Herself.

So where is the scene of the Gos sucking off Fassbender? Fassbender connotes Shame. And where McQueen was trying to replicate Malick with the use of thoroughly Hans Zimmer-like music in Shame, it would seem here that at least McQueen has bettered Malick with Shame, while Song to Song remains utterly prurient, even oddly innocent, while trying to give us some sense of Desire as understood by someone who seemingly Does Not Fuck On First Dates.

Indeed, the Gos asks Mara longer than halfway through the film whether she has slept with Fassbender. Are you serious? In my world, I’d have asked her that about three minutes into our relationship… and what does it fucking matter anyway? Of course people can do what they want. But not these ones: they are Troubled and Alone. Ah, the burdens of being Pretty and Vacant.

Montage of the mind and Patti Smith
But you have to understand that Malick is making a New Form of Cinema. Because his movies are not narrative, but rather Montages of the Mind. They are, as they say, Film-Philosophy, because they show that film can ‘think’ and that the Brain is a Screen is a Brain.

Okay. Sure. But then why insist on characters and narrative – even if the montage is choppy, fragmented, and clearly as much concerned by space (and the location of Austin) as it is by story?

Patti Smith turns up a few times to tell us a few pearls. And one cannot but think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, where Smith rocks up on the Costa Concordia, too. But where JLG pushes for a radical montage that basically says Fuck You to story in a bid to democratise the image, Malick just offers Pretty Vacant Image after Pretty Vacant Image. There is no democracy here, for there is no critique of the rich, even if it is Democratic to explore how they might be Troubled by their Prettiness, too. This is just the Rich and their Troubles. Be Democratic, Terrence and get out of the Privilege – otherwise you are simply blinded by the limitations of your own world and showing us your blindness. No hermophroditic and fortune-telling Tiresias here, though; this is the blindness of the Powerful, who do not see that their own empty Real Estate is about to crumble.

Another Godard touch: an interview with a prostitute, whose pock-marked face perhaps reminds us that not everyone is So Pretty As A Star. She would have been a more interesting film than Song to Song, but Song to Song basically forgets her, just as it stuffs a few dollars into the hand of an old Mexican woman so that we can look at her face for a moment and Remember The Poor People – before going back to being Pretty and Vacant.

No one works
In the world of Austin, Texas, where Song to Song is set, apparently everyone is working on some music. Except that no one ever does any work. Ever.

Maybe the Gos and Mara pluck a few chords – because we all know the Gos can Play Piano after LaLaLand.

But basically No One Works in this world.

Because people basically drive around, park up, and then do some Pixie Dancing in or around Empty Real Estate, before driving on to a different Empty Lot where they do a bit more Pixie Dancing, they have nothing to fill their time or their minds but their worries about Love and Love Things.

But wait… at the end – more shades of a LaLaLand alternative ending montage – we see the Gos working for about two minutes. And we are told by Mara about how he dreamed of the simple life.

Because being an honest, hard-working American is a Simple Life, whereas being Pretty and Vacant is Difficult and Hard and brings with it many Troubles. Oh, to be poor and ugly. Life would be so much easier. And yet, we must carry our burden, and we are so burdened by it that we build glass houses so that everyone can see it. So that we can make ourselves gods, so that people will worship us as we demand their attention and thus earn money so as not to work but to worry about Love and Stuff.

And what work is it that the Gos does?

Of course it is drilling. So he is basically reminding us of how the USA is built upon energy for cars, so that the solipsism can continue. The destruction of the planet as fracking becomes increasingly common and we destroy nature even though we look at Birds and Dogs and Llamas and Deer and Horses and the various other Animals that feature in Malick’s film – along with Water and Air to remind us that there is a world out there and that the Privileged feel So Connected With Nature.

And America is not built upon genocide and slavery. And land grabs. And the claim that the estate created is real.

There is a rumour that Terrence Malick loves Zoolander and quotes it quite regularly. Maybe Song to Song is his Zoolander. But the speed of his Montage of the Mind would suggest more an ADHD editing style that is about Getting Attention as the film itself does Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance to convince us of its Prettiness and Worthiness (because it, too, is Heavy and Troubled). Indeed, for a film that is supposed to go from Song To Song, it seems odd that the film never in fact allows a song to play in completion.

The World Reduced To Symbols. A World Reduced To Cinema. To Be Consumed. And the poor, and women and other estates: they may feature as the playthings of the Rich – so in some senses they are in the film. But why not just commit to rejecting cinema and the values of the capitalist attention economy more thoroughly and make a film that really takes us into a human, even post human democratic or socialist vision of the world?

Even Zoolander, let alone Film Socialisme, manages to do that.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pretty Vacant: Song to Song (Terrence Malick, USA, 2017)

  1. Adriaan says:

    yes yes yes yes, THIS EXACTLY!

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