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Song to Song – 7 Poetic Variations

Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

I.

“All that does not proceed directly from emotion is in poetry of no value. Emotion breaks the causal chain. It alone is capable of making possible the perception of things in themselves. The transmission of this perception is the object of all poetry.”

When Iggy Pop recites these lines in Stay Alive: A Method (Erik Lieshout, 2016), the fictional documentary treatment of the eponymous Michel Houellebecq text which the latter wrote in 1991 when he was still a struggling poet, he not only gives us a more eloquent rendition of the “Come at me! Fuck me!” advice he gives during his cameo appearance in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song (2017), at the same time he gives us an illuminating key to Malick’s post-Tree of Life output, which has been defined by the fragmentary content and emotional editing that is more related with poetry. Song to Song genuinely feels like the epitome and fulfillment of this approach and it therefore may not surprise us that it is Malick’s most physical film unto this date.

II.

“The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”

Scripsit Proust. Song to Song has a sense of Eden to it. Two lovers Faye and BV (Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling) fall in love (Paradise), betray each other (Original Sin) and find love with each other again (Paradise Regained, see both Proust and Milton). The opening line of Song to Song is “there was a time when I needed sex to be violent,” showing us not only the film will be about experience but also that we are looking back at a period that is over. Faye recounts a period in her life that was important to her but makes clear from the start that she no longer shares the mindset she had at the time. In true Kierkegaardian fashion she lived life forwards but now tries to understand it backwards. Experience gets meaning in retrospect. And the whole idea of experiencing as much as possible is an attempt at finding meaning as a person. The reason why this works better in Song to Song than in its predecessor Knight of Cups (2015) is that Faye actually believes she can still find it, whereas Rick, the titular Knight, doesn’t seem to believe in it anymore.

“We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” Faye muses. But they couldn’t. At the end of the day, they needed more.

III.

“For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.”

These verses from ‘The Divine Image’ by William Blake are recited on the soundtrack by Patti Smith (whose ‘My Blakean Year’ is also heard) and are the second most explicit reference to poetry in the film. The poem was written for the collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which I believe Malick took as inspiration for his title) and not only connects Song to Song to the previous films of a director obsessed with mystic love, it is also a collection that centralizes the age-old Miltonesque themes of Paradise and Fall.

IV.

“I’m through with those birds,”

Rimbaud famously responded when asked about his friends in Paris when he had left to become an arms trader in Africa. Not only does Rimbaud make an explicit pictorial cameo when Faye uses his image as the epitome of someone who’s “tried everything, experimented with everything, love, suffering, madness”; the pre-eminent romantic ideal. Birds are an important leitmotiv throughout all of Malick’s recent films, constantly seen and mentioned as the idea of freedom and lightness, but never before were they so prominent as in this film that was once announced under another title: Weightless.

V.

“[She] is ecstatic, she is one long moment of ecstasy, and since ecstasy is a moment extracted from time, a short moment without memory, a moment surrounded by forgetfulness […] it only repeats itself, without evolution, without conclusion.”

This critique on rock music by Milan Kundera might seem harsh but has to be understood in the context of Central-Europe’s history of the 1968 Prague revolution and the following communistic leadership. In terms of dealing with this form of lyricism Kundera was much more ambiguous and thus interesting when he built his second novel Life is Elsewhere (a title taken from Rimbaud) around the life of a young poet that should be read as the life of the young poet. Interweaving the fictional life of Jamoril before, during and after the May 1968 revolution in Prague, with the real life accounts of the poets Mayakovski, Rimbaud and Byron, what arises is an interesting critique of the ‘The Age of Lyricism’ (the original title of the novel) already foreshadowing the ideas of his most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

VI.

“with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”

For a while Faye believed that any experience was better than no experience. When she confesses this the image we see is not ‘coincidentally’ that of the word HOWL painted across the side of a building. Allen Ginsberg’s era-defining poem was an ode to experience, to life, to “the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness,” starting with a recitation of all the experiences he had with his friends in 1950s America but ending with a lamentation for Carl Solomon (“I’m with you in Rockland”), who was incarcerated in a mental asylum. The poem ends with a footnote declaring everything “Holy”, in this way trying to find a resolution to the orgiastic experiences that could have destroyed a man. The physical experience is important but ultimately has to become more. As the old saying goes, “an orgy is always too much and never enough.”

VII.

“In heart I’m an American artist,
And I have no guilt.”

Babelogue – Patti Smith

Of course even this Malick film ends with redemption. BV and Faye bid adieu to all that and leave the music scene for the pastoral western lands of his childhood where they succeed in reclaiming the innocence they have lost in the course of their experiences. Both get baptized there. BV by the oil that sprouts from the earth and ties him back to it. Faye in the next to last image where she’s being washed by the hands of her lover regained. The last image is that of the two lovers intertwined during golden hour; an image as Malicky as there ever was.