Terrence Malick – Song to Song

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“Slower. It’s A Love Story.”

Some of you may have just read that quote and ran for the hills. Some of you may have come here hoping Malick has stopped being Malick, read that quote, and have already realized this won’t be the film for you. Or some of you might be like me, where a quote like this makes you even more excited than you already were, especially for a Malick film (I thoroughly enjoyed each movie since Tree of Life, including Tree of Life).

Our opening shot is of Faye (Mara) and Cook (Fassbender) separated by a wall. Divisions are a theme throughout this film and this story very clearly starts with this dynamic between Faye and Cook. She was his receptionist since she had been 16, trying to get her foot in the door of the music world, and Cook is the macho man with all of the contacts, all of the power, and the one to make the decision. The second shot is the water behind a speed boat, showcasing the way it creates a division in the water.

Song to Song feels like the movie Malick has been building towards since Tree of Life. In Knight of Cups, one of the women that Bale’s character interacts with has an ear full of piercings with none of them in. That same thing happens here in the beginning; Faye is at the music festival, expressing to us that she feels that the only way to get in is by knowing the right people, and she exposes to us an ear with piercings but none of them are in. To me, this is expressing vulnerability. Cook defines playing the game, the whole idea of needing to know people to get in, as a dirtying of one’s hands. This isn’t a pretty game to be a part of, but it’s the one that the players have become a slave to regardless. Faye making this decision to play the game is one of vulnerability, wanting to be successful and deciding to conform to the industry.

Knight of Cups brought about a water theme which returns here, and To The Wonder brought about a God theme which returns here. Water (and the color blue) seem to be tied to a lack of freedom. Rhonda (Portman) dives into a pool of water, completely submerging herself in it, while Cook watches from inside a house. A few minutes later, Rhonda comes to a realization that her life is only defined by Cook. He is into these women who do not make their own choices and simply submit to him. The times Cook has sex on screen involve all of the women naked while he remains clothed. When Cook first meets Rhonda, she is working at a restaurant as a waitress while he is a customer. In a matter of moments, the scene ends with Rhonda being the one sitting at the table and Cook standing above her in her own uniform. Rhonda thought she was giving something to Cook. “What part of me do you want? Take what you want.” All she was giving him was power. She ends up making a decision that she can own and define herself by and kills herself. In contrast, the end of the film shows Faye and BV (Gosling) out in nature, walking and wading through very shallow water. There is that slight amount of freedom that is sacrificed for the relationship, but ultimately they have the sun shining down upon them. The sun (and the color red) seem to act as the opposite of water/blue, embodying life, freedom, etc.

God comes up numerous times, specifically in Rhonda’s storyline. Cook tells her to eat something that was “dipped in God”. In that circumstance, it seemed to me more like Cook playing up his own God complex. Moving further, the prostitute(?) with the red hair that Rhonda meets with Cook mentions also being a teacher without a job (paralleling Rhonda’s own situation) and that God must have a plan for her. At the climax of these feelings, Rhonda ends up back in a religious setting, a return to God while dealing with this lack of identity, and it is said that “it is in giving that we receive”. She was giving but she wasn’t receiving.

A less blunt spirituality based topic that is involved in this film is the soul. BV playfully pretends to see Faye’s soul in her mouth and confides his love in her soul to her. Later on, in the club scene, Ryan opens her mouth again. Faye’s voiceover, “I knew I had to tell you. Come clean.” (Referring to the constant cheating with Cook). In this moment, it felt as though her soul was exposed to him, and she knew what it looked like. Or perhaps that her soul wasn’t there at all. Faye remarks on how she never knew she had a soul. The word always embarrassed her. She was always afraid to be herself. Conforming to the hand-dirtying system of sleeping with the guy who has all of the contacts was likely not who she would define as herself, so she wasn’t being herself at the time, or, at least not the way she’d like to be.

When BV first meets Faye at the party, he asks her what her name is and she doesn’t answer. Later in the movie, her name comes out as Faye just once (to accomplish letting the audience know she as 16 when she first started working for Cook) however, none of the other character names are ever used throughout the film. I believe Faye not answering with her name stresses this importance, as if Malick was trying to communicate that every emotion being put on display with this film is something felt by everyone. Names need not apply.

Climbing higher is established as being related to freedom. Faye says in her narration, “I wanted to escape from every tie, every hold. To go up, high, free.” (Excuse the paraphrasing, I saw the film two days ago at the time of writing this). However, it seems like going up higher is more related to success than freedom. At the height of their music industry collaboration (Faye, Cook, and BV) they end up going up in a plane to experience less gravity. The highest they could get. Later when Faye wants to stop seeing Cook, and consequently her career, because she feels wrong about it, the very next shot is her descending downwards on an elevator.

Even if Faye’s decisions were sometimes done as a slave to the system, she still made decisions for herself, a sort of freedom that BV’s ex-girlfriend did not exhibit. She was willing to sacrifice what her life was in the name of lifting BV up, but BV was attracted to someone else wanting to be lifted up. A relationship where they’d lift each other up. What he says about Cook but can easily be translated to Faye, “I didn’t think anything could break us apart. Thought we’d lift each other up.”

BV’s watch makes a few appearances as the front-and-center of the scene, displaying some sort of desire for time. Faye says at one point, “I wish this could last forever,” and at the end also says over a shot displaying the watch, “I won’t stop loving you. I don’t think I can.” The title of the film is name-dropped as living life moment to moment, “Song to song. Kiss to kiss.” This also encompasses the aspect of time and how we just go from one thing to the next.

Faye recites a portion of a poem from William Blake called The Divine Image. “Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace. And all must love the human form.” She later elaborates on herself, “Mercy was a word…I never thought I needed it, or not as much as other people do.” The poem is expressing how mercy is an integral part of the human form, and just being human involves this mercy. She was denying this aspect of herself previously, and after all, she was having trouble defining herself.

When Faye’s father asks Faye about whether or not she can trust BV, she doesn’t answer. (Which seems to be something she does a lot, no answer to her name, lots of lying throughout the film, and when BV asks if she loves him she states that she doesn’t like to say it). BV is shown as one who can be trusted, which to me could mean a few different things. 1) Cook is on her mind when the question is asked, and he cannot be trusted. 2) Just like when she told BV that she doesn’t like to say that she loves him out loud, she doesn’t want to say that he is trustworthy out loud and commit herself to those feelings. Or 3) She can trust him, but she knows that due to her cheating that BV cannot trust her, and the guilt is taking over. Malick manages to say so much by saying so little which I am continually impressed by.

In Knight of Cups, it felt very much like there was as little exposition as possible. A lot was left up to the audience to piece together and figure out and connect. I went into Song to Song expecting something similar and would find myself noting things that would a few moments later be confirmed through exposition, a voiceover declaring the things I was piecing together. For instance, there is a part where Cook says to Faye about BV, “All his life he tried to get free, he doesn’t know how.” I immediately noted to myself that this is talking about Faye as well, and she doesn’t know how to get free but wants to be. A few moments later, Faye’s voiceover says, “I wanted to be free like he was.” It is because of this that I believe Malick is finally hitting his stride, balancing the insane amount of themes and symbolism to be pieced together with exposition to keep the flow moving. A face-value aspect and below the surface aspect.

I read online (I forget where at this time, I’ll edit it in when I hunt it down, I’m just about to go out right now) that the first cut of this film was over 8 hours long, which then had to be trimmed down to a traditional film length. This seems very similar to how a novel is created, and I believe Malick is someone who has been able to use internal narration brilliantly within modern filmmaking. His movies, as a result, feel like a form of cross-medium, bringing in many aspects of literature. It was mentioned in that same article that there was so much footage that each character had a whole storyline and backstory that could have been shown. If I had to choose one negative thing about this film, it would be that I felt Cook does the least growth as a character. For most of the movie, he is just the all-powerful god-guy, but his response to Rhonda’s death to me shows that he struggles just as much with freedom. That unfortunately never gets shown, and I believe there is footage that could show it!

This was a film that captured raw emotion. Love. Dynamics of freedom and power. There were stellar performances all around, from both cast and crew. I apologize for how scattered this is right now, there is so much more to analyze and discuss regarding this movie (for example, a comment on talent versus playing the game. BV has the talent but doesn’t get anywhere because he doesn’t play the game. Faye plays the game but isn’t shown playing any music until very far into the movie), I’m looking forward to eventually watching it a second time. I started with a quote from the film, so let’s end with one. One that embodies the identity crises communicated throughout, and one that Malick clearly follows, and one that I hope to follow. “Do something of value. Make the money, not the money make you.”

Mike Mills – 20th Century Women

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Menstruation.

20th Century Women was possibly my favorite movie of 2016, rivaled only by Moonlight. It came out in late December in NYC, and even though the IMDb page says it was officially released this past week, it somehow got nominated for best original screenplay.

Starting at the beginning, Mills continues his use of montage the way he had in Beginners. In a seemingly Amelie-style (just rewatched so it is on my mind) he goes through the backstories of the characters with incredibly specific and almost odd ways of describing them, but they shed so much light on who the characters are at their core while saying so little. In this regard, the film, to me, screams vulnerability and intimacy in this regard.

There was a prominent emotional theme of dancing. It was displayed as this physical expression of emotion that could be expressed to anyone or no one. It was consuming on an individual level for each of the characters, and we saw them all get lost in different dancing to different music (Art Fag vs. Black Flag) in different spaces (someone’s bedroom, hardcore punk show, club, etc.) It is a very common occurrence to hear someone say, “I don’t dance,” or, “I don’t know how to dance.” The movie directly answers this with the comment on punk music. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the movie, but the line was something to the effect of: These are people who have emotions and passions that are bigger than the tools they have to express them. So someone with a guitar and microphone could have no idea how to play anything and know zero music theory, but they still have something to get out of them. This felt like a distinct parallel to dancing, and how even if people “don’t know how to dance”, it doesn’t matter, because you can totally feel the emotion of dancing in whichever way you experience.

When a family goes through two cars in one film, something is going on. The opening scene has their car burst into flames as it is sitting in the parking lot, and later on, the replacement car is covered in vilifying profanity. These different eras of cars are representing the changing time periods (of both the relationships involved and society on a whole). The characters in the film are constantly evolving their relationships with each other which are sort of synced with each new era of car. As for the societal parallel, the film is showcasing the rise of feminism and its impact.

Vehicles on a whole (cars, skateboards, etc.) are usually showed in a fast-forwarded speed, complete with rainbow colored effects. This is further establishing the sense of time passing. However, the final scene with Dorothea on a biplane feels very purposefully not sped up. That is the final moment. We aren’t changing anymore.

The dinner scene is one of the best scenes of the film, with each character sort of radiating their individual personalities without clashing. The dialogue is incredibly well-done, with Abbie and Julie speaking to the whole table, and Dorothea speaking to people individually, and Jamie sort of just soaking in everything around him. His experience of growing up. His role models.

The ending sort of loops back to the use of montage use of telling the story before this point. This is more akin to the series finale of Six Feet Under, where after you have connected with the characters so much, they are given definitive endings, ones that go beyond the scope of the film’s central story.

After reading this article in the New Yorker, it was interesting to find out that Mills specifically wanted to cast a 14-year-old for the role of Jamie, as he thought by 15 their sexuality would be too actualized.

I found this film to be a huge step up from the prior film, Beginners. Beginners won an academy award. I’m not sure if the cutoff dates made things confusing (somehow it got nominated for original screenplay) or if the notoriety of the competition was just too big before this movie could take off, but it feels weird to me knowing that Beginners, from purely an academy award stance, will likely be more accomplished. That being said, here is an excerpt from that same article in the New Yorker:

He was getting a stream of e-mails from the film’s distributor, A24, about “tastemaker” screenings, to position Annette Bening for a Best Actress nomination. July had told me that she’d reminded Mills “that the Oscars could be seen as a major artistic fail—that being beloved by the really homogeneous, conservative group that votes on them would be bad.” Mills said, “That’s where Miranda’s a savior. I felt dumb that I was falling for the competition.” But a moment later he added, “If we don’t get a nomination now, it is perceived as ‘You’re not worthy of seeing on Friday night.’ ”

I’m left to wonder if he would want an Oscar.

Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals

Spoiler Warning: Funny Games

nocturnalanimalsI just walked out of the theater and I am still recovering. This was a terrifying movie experience that I knew nothing about before heading in. The first scene where we see Jake Gyllenhaal feels reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games. The aggressors keep pretending like everything is fine, like they have a good reason for their behavior, like they aren’t the crazy ones — and that genuinely rattled me. In Funny Games, it was all about wanting another two eggs, and then another few, and then another few. The dread could be felt, but the situation itself didn’t seem to necessarily warrant that dread, which is why Naomi Watts keeps giving more eggs, and it is why everyone is tense when things start to go wrong because it seems like people are overreacting. With Nocturnal Animals, the aggressors kept pounding inside the family’s heads that they are supposed to pull over after an accident as if this whole situation was their fault. Then they offered to fix the flat tire, which they proceeded to do. If a police officer popped up at the scene and asked for statements, there is nothing that could be said that could replicate the dread that everyone in the car, and everyone in the theater, was feeling. All of the scratches on the car would be due to the accident they refused to pull over for.

Let’s back up for a second and establish that there were three main timelines going on in this film. There was the past (where Susan and Edward had their relationship), the present (where a long-time ex-husband Edward sends Susan his manuscript), and the story that is in the manuscript, acted out as a representation of the feelings Edward is communicating to Susan. One parallel that was used to establish the dynamic of Tony being Edward and his feelings was the line, “you’re a good man,” said by Susan to Edward about how he should call her brother and later used in the story timeline by Bobby the cop in the diner.Despite the opening and closing scenes of this movie being centered on Adams’ character, this movie was about Edward, not Susan. Even though we are never shown Edward in the present timeline, his absence is deafening. Susan goes behind Edward’s back to abort their baby in the past timeline. The entire story timeline, the story that Edward wrote and dedicated to Susan, was his feelings on that matter. As Tony (Gyllenhaal’s character in the story Edward wrote) was yelling out that he should have stopped it, the novel was breaking the fourth wall. In the story, the line is setup to mean Tony should have stopped the aggressors from kidnapping, raping, and killing his wife and daughter. This was Edward speaking directly to Susan through Tony. Edward feels like he lost his wife and his child and that it was within his power to stop it from happening, but he didn’t. What makes the story bite is the fact that we know Susan left Edward for another guy and we know Susan did the abortion behind Edward’s back. Susan was the one who took away his wife and child, and he has held onto that anger for a very long time. This book that he wrote, Nocturnal Animals, was meant to harm her.

At the end, we catch Susan in a place where she is willing to step outside of her marriage. This new guy and this new life aren’t satisfying her. She is acknowledging that what she had with Edward was actual love. The writing made sure to include that parallel. Susan is asked near the beginning of the film if she loves her new guy, and she dodges the question. Near the end of the film, she is asked if she loved Edward and she matter-of-factly remarks with a yes. Or maybe these are just new feelings that are occurring as a result of reading “Nocturnal Animals”. After all, she seemed to be distraught by the way Edward was demonstrating the events that had transpired between the two of them. Susan does note that she had been thinking about Edward recently before the manuscript arrived, and we see Susan’s new husband already in an affair, so I do think it is fair to say she had been having these feelings before reading the book, and not as a result of reading the book. So we have the emotionally not-okay Susan reaching back out to Edward after she is confronted with her feelings and actions head on with Edward’s cathartic vilification of a novel, and Edward agrees to meet with her. I genuinely felt the movie was at the midway point, and they were going to introduce Edward into this present timeline, but no. Edward didn’t all of a sudden feel better after writing it all out. He sent the manuscript to Susan with the intention of letting her feel hurt the way he felt hurt, echoing what Tony yelled at Ray, wanting to feel the hurt that his wife and daughter had gone through. I often find myself getting lost in a movie, in the narrative the writer and director are trying to tell, so I did not expect for Edward to blow her off, but it made sense. This was another blow he was dealing. He is still pissed and upset, at himself for not stopping it, at her for taking it all away. And because we watch this all through Susan’s POV, we feel the pain of stepping outside of your marriage only to have them not show up.

I enjoyed the final emotional payoff of feeling the way Susan felt. It resonated with me through the credits, as I left the theater, and still does now.