Song to Song

Chances are high that you haven’t seen Terrence Malick’s new film Song to Song. Few people have. It’s only grossed $421,856 since opening in limited release a month ago. The critical reception has been equally poor. Things weren’t always this way for Malick. Six years ago, he released The Tree of Life to universal acclaim and a domestic gross of $54 million. What happened between now and then? That’s the subject of this month’s podcast.

Join Jon and Tim as they discuss the ups and downs of Malick’s career, Adrian Brody’s 19 year grudge, Tim’s man-crush on Emmanuel Lubezki, falling asleep at movies, Jon’s obsession with The Tree of Life, the importance of the elevator pitch, and the one thing that makes a story great.

  • DocRLS

    Jon & Tim. Could it be the Emperor has no clothes? One word comes to mind regarding Terrence Malick — pretentious. I am sure he is a genius (because everyone tells me that.) But holy wha are his most recent films BORING. I don’t care how smart he is, his recent films do not tell me anything about my life and I do not want to see them anymore. And apparently about 98% of the population feel the same way.

    • Well in this instance, the Emperor did have clothes once. The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line are incredible films that unquestionably prove his talent. But it’s definitely a case of the Emperor losing his clothes. Here’s hoping he finds them again!

      • DocRLS

        Yes, I agree. Although I do not love “The Tree of Life” as much as you, those were impressive films. But that was 6 years ago. Since then… ? Maybe Malick should have stuck to his previous schedule of releasing a film every 7-10 years. Smile.

  • I agree with everything stated, but disagree with the conclusion that is drawn. Understanding not everyone wants a think-piece of a movie, and being okay with that, I do think Malick pushes the art form of cinema in a very necessary way. I was trying to think of a good analogy for what he is compared to the overwhelming majority of the film industry… even “good” movies that fall into the formulaic fall under a McDonaldesque form of entertainment — we consume it, it is quick, easy, and “fills us up.” Even movies that are thoughtful and challenging are satiating just as a movie; they do not always push us to place they want to (Get Out, Concussion, 12 Years A Slave, Selma — all good movies, following the formula that make us feel good that we appreciate them and little more than that [practically speaking]).

    We are so glutted on entertainment value that we neglect the place for this type of art (I agree it is not for everyone). Malick is more than aware of the standard formulas, more than aware of the tropes of film making; so we have to look at these points of deviation — the massive amounts of pure cinema, the post-modern and avant garde story structure that is as Tim says “highly impressionistic.” As movie goers we are so attached to story revealing character that we have forgotten the photography aspect of the movie, and how that reveals story and character as well… is as if there is a departure in literacy because of what has been so neatly packaged and mass produced. I think Malick is like a farm to table meal in a lot of ways, we (the viewer) have to do a lot of the work in order to consume; but when we do there can be a deeply rewarding and rich point of connection for ourselves and others who are willing to partake. Whereas the bulk of what we see is fast-food, and some movies might be Big Mac’s whereas others are ordered off the dollar menu Malick brings something more to films, something to savor, something to take in slowly, something to feast on.

    Again, I agree with 99% of what was said in the podcast, but would push, and not as an elitist or intellectual, but as people genuinely trying to experience the world as more than something to pass us through the moments not filled with flashing lights and loud noises (I am all for good commercial entertainment, or even formulaic but quality work, all of this has a place, but not THE place), to allow Malick to open you up to something different, and thoughtful.

    There is a lot more I want to say… maybe I’ll put an essay together 🙂

    • I partially get what you’re saying. Malick makes movies like no one else and that in and of itself should be admired. But I disagree with the idea that Malick films are more rewarding than, say, Moonlight – the best film from last year. That movie connects in a way that Malick films can’t because it follows the rules of storytelling, while also turning those rules on its head and creating an experience that’s unique, raw, and powerful. Malick simply forgoes all the traditional rules from the get-go, and that causes me to never connect on an emotional level to any of his post-Tree of Life works.

      Using your fast-food analogy, I would put films like Fast and the Furious and Transformers on the $1 menu and Malick films in the Big Mac category. Both types of movies lack substance and impact, though Malick’s artistry makes him the king of the menu. But a movie like Moonlight can’t even be called fast food. That’s a steak dinner where every bite reveals something new and you leave filled and changed.

      But hey, that’s just me. We all see film in different ways and I appreciate your perspective!

      • I appreciate your perspective as well — it’s good to be stretched, and made to stretch beyond where I feel comfortable, and am glad we have a place for this!

        I’ll quantify what I mean with rewarding — Moonlight is definitely rewarding on many levels, and far beyond what something like Transformers is; so it’s not a devaluation of Moonlight (or any other quality movie that falls under the formulaic… I love a lot of these movies). I think what I am (attempting, but probably not succeeding) getting at in terms of the reward factor with Malick is that he taps into a different perspective that takes more mental muscle to unearth, and in our day of instant gratification combined with a compulsive need to be entertained (I could see Malick standing at an opening yelling, “Are you not entertained” a la Maximus) he occupies an important stronghold that should not be relinquished even if it is disliked on one level. This could be seen as an elitist stance, but I am thinking more that this type of work has a place in the grand narrative of cinema and culture; this place should be indulged, in a sense, because of what it does for film (much like what Pynchon did for novel writing). I really think that (self included) we are largely illiterate with Malick films (you and TIm spend a lot of time on this), and that is okay — what I wholeheartedly believe is that Malick opens us to some of the most important existential questions out there; most movies do not shake us in that way, especially in a way that juxtaposes our insignificance regularly (Malick often underscores shadows of landscapes and figures under massive moving clouds, almost as if the heavens are consuming all that we know). I also get that he tends to fall back on the same questions — people are critical of Walker Percy novels for similar reasons… they are the same novel. I for one still enjoy Percy, and Malick as well, but do so understanding that most people won’t (understandably so), but with the hope that some appreciation for what he does will still remain.

        I am in complete agreement that there is not a broad market for this, and completely get why it turns people off… but I think there is a significant value in Malick’s ability to compel his audience (those who do connect with his work) in this way. I think Malick is the other side of the avant garde coin to Lynch… and maybe Paul Thomas Anderson could go in the Lynchian category as well. I love the connection with Linklater that was brought up — I think he is working in a similar space to Malick that holds an underlying hopefulness (unlike Anderson and Lynch who tend towards pessimism). In fairness I am also the guy who likes to read these very same types of novels — postmodern, meta-narratives that require a lot of mental gymnastics to get. Honestly, I get a lot less than I understand, but enjoy the work… this is just my Enneagram 5-ness coming out en force I’m sure.

        • I like your connection of Malick to Anderson and Lynch. I’d put Richard Linklater in that same category. All of those directors have the same strengths and weaknesses in my eyes. Compare There Will Be Blood to Inherent Vice. That’s the same leap in tone for me as Tree of Life to Song to Song. Moving from the concrete to the abstract.

          I definitely think there’s an Enneagram connection here! As a 6, I like secure systems and exploring answers. As a 5, you tend more toward abstraction and exploring questions. This must have a profound effect on the movies we like and the way we watch them. Someone should walk through each Enneagram type and how they interact with art.

          • Too funny — I just watched Inherent Vice a couple weeks ago, and it has become one of my favorite movies from the past few years… I actually prefer it to There Will Be Blood.

            You’re pretty Enneagram savvy – sounds like that could be a good book 🙂

          • Inherent Vice over There Will Be Blood? Heresy!

          • Well, if we’re all going Enneagram here, then I’ll jump in and add another mental type (Five) to the mix. I’ll participate and engage rather than simply observe, so three cheers to me.

            I feel like I get where you’re both coming from. I’ve found a good deal of value in more abstract/experimental films and novels, to Brian’s point. (Have been working my way through David Foster Wallace, on-and-off for the last six months.) My preference, though, is for film and novels that stick more closely to the traditional and familiar components of story telling. My own writing reflects this.

            Even so, I feel like watching abstract films (or reading less conventionally composed novels) has the ability to pull more out of me. When I read Infinite Jest or watch Malick, it’s not so much that I feel I have “work” in order to “get what they are saying.” I tend to think that the point is that more is left open.

            Years back when I first read James Joyce, I quickly gave up on getting it. I decided to read it like I was listening to music, like it was jazz, like the modal jazz of Coltrane or Miles Davis (when he was doing modal jazz). You have to sort of turn off the part of the brain that wants to place the events of the characters within the context of the overarching plot. The point is not that it is going somewhere, nor does it particularly matter what has happened in the past, the point is that the only thing that matters is what is happening now, in the immediate present moment. Getting into that state of mind isn’t easy, because it means I have to let go of something — but if I can let go, I can participate in the novel/film in a way that I can’t when the traditional devices of story telling are employed. I think there’s something deeply spiritual and contemplative about that space.

            Like I said, that’s not my go-to. Mostly, I like a novel or film to do things that my brain is familiar with. =)

          • I’m learning to appreciate that contemplative state more thanks to a lot of Richard Rohr. 🙂 His new book on the Trinity is fantastic by the way! As a 6, I do have shades of 5 in me too. 7 is my more dominant wing, but there are many things about 5’s that resonate with me. I can appreciate art that’s open-ended. Radiohead is one of my favorite bands, and I love their album Kid A. That’s an open-ended work from beginning to end. When Thom sings “Yesterday I woke up sucking on lemon” or “There are two colors in my head” – you can take those lyrics and run with them in whatever way you want.

            But I do have a breaking point. I can’t get down with David Lynch, and from the early reaction to the new Twin Peaks revival, I’m not alone. There’s a feeling in his work that even he doesn’t know what any of it means. I don’t doubt for a second that Thom Yorke knows what he means when he writes lyrics, but they’re open-ended enough that other people can add their own layers. There’s a subtle difference between the two that’s hard to pinpoint, but I know it when I see it.

  • DocRLS

    If any of you are interested, I just read a review of this movie (a month after it was published) by the wonderful critic Jeffrey Overstreet (, I think, it adds to your podcast. At one point he says of this film “a sort of half-bored contemplation of glamorous actors (everywhere!), creative cinematography (every single shot!), and my own increasing frustration with Malick as a director (his movies so far this decade are all starting to feel the same, their sense of redundancy increasingly blunting their effect).” I often disagree with Jeffrey about his take on movies but on this one I think he has it right.