Michael Bergeron
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Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song”

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Half the people who waited in line over an hour for the world premiere of Song to Song at the Paramount Theatre at SXSW were there for the Terrence Malick experience. The other half came away trying to come up with new ways to describe their discontent. It was the official opening film on Friday night and the rain was still hours away. An occasional breeze kept the line cool.

Make no mistake, Malick makes films that are progressively singular. Song to Song depicts an Austin music scene that exists in the same fantasy world as the Los Angeles movie scene depicted in Malick’s previous film Knight of Cups. Malick takes a long time to edit, and finds funding for his films despite the fact he’s notorious for avoiding publicity. No one who’s seen Days of Heaven (1978) and Badlands (1973), his first two films, express any doubt as to his talent as a director.

While his films have always had a lyrical flow of images more recently Malick makes films that blend storylines in a surreal disjointed manner and dialogue that’s heard voice over, not spoken in a literal sense. It’s almost like a silent film where the V.O. supplants the title card. Malick attracts bona fide stars and Song to Song, primarily shot in Austin, boasts a stellar line-up that includes Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Val Kilmer, Bérénice Marlohe, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and a couple o’ three other rockers. When speaking to Song to Song producers Sarah Green, Ken Kao and Nicolas Gonda the next morning they confirmed that the roles (and resulting storylines) played by Christian Bale and Benicio del Toro ending up on the cutting room floor. “A lot of times we are shooting an incredible amount per day, a lot of storylines and ultimately one has to make a manageable length film so not everything gets to go in,” says Green.

Of course there is no cutting room floor because everything is digital so it’s not like at the end of the day you are sweeping pieces of film stock like a broom in a barber shop would be sweeping up locks of hair.

Song to Song occurs in rooms with panoramic views of Austin or country homes with a view and mixes that with the more enclosed spaces of performing stages. At one point Mara’s bass player character, who may be involved with Fassbender and/or Gosling during the course the movie, sits on stage at the outdoor Austin City Limits concert gigging with Patti Smith. We never see Mara’s chops but rather the suggestion that she’s some bass playing wunderkind. There’s another moment where Gosling and Mara are dancing on the outdoor patio of the Long Center Terrace to the accompaniment of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” that is absolutely stunning in the marriage of music and visual. There are plenty of classical music cues to match the rock music cues. Val Kilmer’s character makes an appearance at ACL only to pull a chainsaw out as part of his musical arsenal.

The bottom line is that Malick, especially with Knight of Cups and Song to Song, creates beautiful looking films revolving around soulless characters. Sure, Before the Wonder (2012) had a character that was a priest and Malick also released a brilliant IMAX history of the Earth film Voyage of Time last year. But films like Song to Song are an acquired taste, and that’s a flavor that goes down smooth to cineastes.

Someone pulled some strings and the normally invisible Malick was sitting in a Saturday morning seminar, moderated by Richard Linklater and also featuring Fassbender at the Austin Convention Center. For every time that someone said the Malick was a recluse here was the guy taking questions from the audience and actually explaining the meaning of his most recent film. Check out the videos on Youtube because everyone in the room had their cell phones out.

Malick singled out Voyage to Italy by Roberto Rossellini as a particular inspiration and stated his desire to use “images that haven’t been used in advertising.” Cinematography by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki once again makes the viewers head spin. Since the dialogue is looped in afterwards Malick and Chivo are talking to the actors during filming. “Continuity doesn’t matter,” says Fassbender, adding, “One time I turned around and Terry was filming a beetle.”

Linklater would pause between comments as if he was letting the heaviness of the moment wash over the audience. Linklater was in fact doing a perfect Pinter pause. The original working title of Song to Song was Weightless, which is a reference to a Virginia Woolf quote. Alienation of modern surroundings has never been so fully realized as in Song to Song.

Sarah Green in addition to producing Malick films since The New World (2005) has produced films for Jeff Nichols, David Mamet and John Sayles. Speaking with Free Press Houston the morning after the world premiere Green noted regarding the seminar, “Terry really opened the window into his process.”

“Our job as producers is obviously to act as a bridge between Terry’s creative vision and the practical realities that come with making movies,” says Gonda. “There is a day to day schedule that is adhered to in our everyday responsibility to our partners.”

With regards to the multiple projects that Malick works on, like the IMAX film or the next current film, Gonda replies, “Each film has a totally different structure in terms of how they are developed and how they are produced and distributed. They are all different companies so all of the material is specific to that project.”

Song to Song opens this weekend in Houston.