First, a rant about one of my least favorite words:

I’ve asked my students to stop using the word “relatable” in their art criticism papers.

It’s not a bad word. (There is no such thing as a bad word.) Used skillfully, every word has its place. But I’ve noticed that students who haven’t written about movies before often show a preoccupation wth a movie’s emotional accessibility. It’s as if a movie is only as valuable as its emotional “impact” (there’s another word I ask them not to use) on them.

But aren’t movies about more than feeling? Don’t well-made films engage our intellect as well as our heartstrings?

“Relatable” means “able to be related to something else,” or “enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something.” So when a student, writing about movie, calls it “relatable,” what they are usually doing is making a leap from “I found that I could relate to something in this movie” to the presumption that “This movie is, thus, relatable.” That’s a questionable assumption. If a movie makes me feel something, can I assume it will have the same effect on you? And even if it does, well… what good is that? We are fickle creatures, and our emotions can flare up easily if someone pushes the right buttons. Does that automatically mean that the cause of those emotions is praiseworthy?

In a general sense, almost any movie is relatable in that almost every movie is about human beings, human experience, human expression, and human creativity. Thus, to write that a movie is “relatable” is to say almost nothing of value. It is so nonspecific that it wastes space.

We should also remember that one of art’s greatest powers is its capacity to draw us beyond the sphere of the familiar. If I only focus on art that seems immediately and clearly relevant to my present circumstances, I’ll box myself into a small and unsurprising world of self-affirmation.

So, that is my rant. And it is, believe it or not, just a preface for what I’m about to say regarding Terrence Malick’s new film Song to Song.

For all that I have just said, questioning the importance of finding a movie “relatable,” I have to admit that there was only one moment in Song to Song, Malick’s eighth dramatic feature, that commanded my attention when I first saw it. The moment caught me up out of 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).

And the moment that got my attention, that drew me suddenly and completely into the movie, did so because it was, for me, yes… relatable. 

Photo by Van Redin / Broad Green Pictures – © 2017 Broad Green Pictures

In fact, I choked. This particular scene caught me off guard precisely because I recognized it. I related. I’d lived it. I saw a character’s heart breaking in a scenario so similar in every way to my own experience of loss that I almost had to look away. As a man stood staring in disbelief, asking his lover questions that he didn’t want to ask in order to hear the answers he’d dreaded hearing, I felt a sudden pressure, as if a massive storm front were rushing in over the theater and obliterating a blue-sky day.

It wasn’t because the characters were interesting.

Like most men and women in Malick’s recent films, the characters in Song to Song reveal so little about themselves that they are little more than ciphers. They’re a selection from Hollywood’s It-List, beautifully dressed, meandering about open spaces, and wistfully spouting meditations so devoid of particularity or character that it’s like the actors were given their lines on fortune-cookie slips, told to read them whisperingly into a microphone, given a paycheck, and sent home for the day.

But here was something that rarely happens in Malick movies anymore: a substantial conversation that serves as a turning point in the plot. Maybe that had something to do with why I found myself sitting up straighter. For a few moments, someone asked questions… and someone had answers.

And then it was over, this crucial, plot-turning, life-changing exchange washed away by waves of wistful interior monologue, carrying us back into the perpetual motion, perpetual emotion, perpetual light shows, and perpetual introspection that have become Malick’s modus operandi.

My emotional seizure subsided. The movie played on, and I felt only half aware of it, the rest of my attention now tangled up in the memories that the moment had unlocked.

So, I’d found a relatable moment. And its effect was to underline just how ephemeral and distant the rest of the movie seemed to me.

Song to Song is the fourth film in Malick’s deep dive off the mountain of prose into the something that looks like poetry (even if the narration is too simplistic to sound like it). Brett McCracken at Christianity Today recently called this series “cinematic wisdom literature.” And sure, there’s wisdom in these reflections on love and lust. There are Biblical allusions. We can write pages and pages on the nature of love, innocence, temptation, and sin based on the equations of love’s simple algebra being acted out before us.

It’s just a shame that these parables, these stories of pilgrims and progress, are so moralistic and heavy-handed, and that these movie stars aren’t given characters substantial enough to make me forget I’m watching Ryan Gosling pretend to have chemistry with Cate Blanchett. (Ouch, what a lifeless mismatch.)

It’s hard not to get caught up in the trending arguments about which “New Malick” films are masterpieces and which are self-indulgent revels. When I saw The New World, I felt I’d seen a new kind of movie invented; its balance of “poetry” and “prose,” grounded more in history and particularity than anything since, worked so perfectly for me that I saw it six times in the theater and went on to purchase every edition in every format. I could hardy contain my excitement for what was to come. Then came The Tree of Life, which aspired to greater things, but left me with an unsettling sense that Malick was beginning to repeat too many maneuvers.

And I was right to be unsettled. While the light has remained dazzling throughout To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, too much has seemed derivative of past epiphanies. It’s as if Malick’s movies have become not only increasingly interior, but increasingly withdrawn from the world. As Lubezki’s magical cameras bring us closer to glamorous celebrities than we’ve ever dreamed of being — his cameras almost fly right down Rooney Mara’s throat during one crazy black-light sequence here — I’ve never felt more distant from characters played by any of these fine actors.

Your mileage may vary, as they say, but Song to Song amounts to only a few of the things that I love about Malick and way, way too much of all the things I don’t. It has all the narrative subtlety and sophistication of a Chick tract. How I’d love to see Malick shift to other people’s scripts now, or literary adaptations — something with some meat on its bones.

After those moments of mid-film crisis, the movie never drew me back in. It just kept me busy looking: Looking at beautiful light, beautiful architecture, beautiful faces, beautiful composition, and, oh… those beautiful people. Malick seems capable of casting whomever he likes and turning them loose on his boundless dance floor, where they come together to spin, twirl, weave, embrace, caress, tumble, separate, glare, and scatter.

This time around, the basic plot outline — which is all we really get (there isn’t enough detail for me to call it much of a narrative) — follows a manic punk-sy dream girl played by Rooney Mara (the credits call her “Faye”), the boyish musician who wins her heart (Ryan Gosling, playing a minimalistic, jazz-free version of his La La Land character that the credits call “BV”), and the producer (played by Michael Fassbender’s predatory grin) who exploits them both with all the subtlety of a comic-book supervillain so that he can keep, as the Bible would say, “know” Faye.

Before it’s over, they’ll all take tumbles with other lovers (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Bérénice Marlohe) who get to live out their Vogue’s Hollywood Issue dreams, looking more alluring than they ever have before in long sequences of teasing, foreplay, and — here’s a Malick first — orgies.

I’m not sure how the residents of Austin, Texas, feel about this portrait of their town. The place has never been given such glorious, panoramic attention, and I doubt it ever will again. I feel like I know the place now, from the mosh pits of rock festivals to the high-rise balconies of the rich and famous. Here’s a movie in which the scenery is much more interesting than the movie stars moving through it — until we’re blessed by this Malick movie’s version of a priest: punk rock high priestess Patti Smith, who gives the movie some fleeting moments of being grounded and almost believable. I suspect that her dialogue is unscripted; it sounds like it’s based in lived experience. And it sounds, refreshingly, like a genuine human moment.

The only other sequence that compares comes when Cook (Fassbender) steps away from Rhonda (Portman) and the prostitute who, it’s implied, recently completed their threesome. This character seems like a fully developed human being with stories to tell and scars to reveal. For a moment, I imagined a “New Malick” movie fulfilling the potential shown in The New World and The Tree of Life to further navigate trails blazed by Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire, giving us the real sense that we’re descending into an actual city, where the figures we see have complicated histories and lives.

But no, the camera is too committed to riding the emotional jetstreams streaming between the high court of Hollywood royalty. And that’s a shame, because all I see are Mara, Gosling, Fassbender, and Portman emoting. All I see is a pageant of “love moments” (to borrow a phrase from the movie) so general that, while they may be relatable, they’re the farthest thing from interesting.

All of this time spent meandering in their company “reveals virtually nothing about any of them,” says Mike D’Angelo in Las Vegas Weekly, “even though the leads—as is the case in every Malick film—continually relay their innermost thoughts in whispery voiceover. Replace the entire cast with catalog models and the movie would play much the same, and look far more honest.”

It’s easy to find oneself daydreaming about films in which these actors inhabited compelling stories. As the credits rolled, I wanted to go watch Carol again — just to see Mara play a character I believe in, and to see Blanchett find some actual chemistry with her supposed love interest.

“I took sex, a gift — I played with it,” confesses Faye in one of her many spells of stating the sledgehammerly obvious. But do we ever hear her play a song? She is a musician, after all, and this is a movie about how she got lost in the business. Do we ever get a sense of the music she’s so eager to share with the world? No. We hear fragments of Patti Smith, of Bob Dylan, and whatever band allows Val Kilmer to carve an amp into fiery pieces with a chainsaw.

Call it La La Languish. Maybe you’ll find it relatable.

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