Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
There was a time when the world groaned in eager expectation of a new Terrence Malick film, but the sun has set on those days. After the rapturous critical reception of Tree of Life, applause turned to scoffing jeers at To The Wonder and Knight of Cups. It is as if half his audience collectively decided that although Malick may have once built cathedrals out of light, he has since devolved into a self-parody, the vaulted heights of his cinema now nothing more than sandcastles waiting to be joyously trampled.
Unlike previous films, in which Malick’s characters yearn and seek to regain the innocence of a prelapsarian world, Song to Song redeems experience itself.It is for this very reason I stayed away from “late-Malick.” Days of Heaven was a bellows which breathed life into the coals of my cinephilia, and I had gone on to devour the ravishing beauty of The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life. Yet the sheer vitriol directed at To The Wonder kept me at bay. Much to my chagrin, I accepted the dismissal of his recent approach to film. So it was years before I discovered that late-Malick holds some of the deepest treasures found in recent cinema. Tree of Life spans time, memory, and creation, the camera literally taking on the presence of God. To The Wonder spins an intimate tale of love into the infinite spiritual reaches of human experience. Knight of Cups plumbs the depths of despair, the empty meaninglessness of success, and the interior pilgrimage of the self, even as it offers up a sprig of hope.
Malick opens the floodgates of sapiential literature; his films are corollaries to Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Psalms, and Song of Songs. These form the philosophical underpinnings of his work, often accompanied by Augustine and Kierkegaard. Yet he’s rarely an “intellectual” filmmaker. As his cinema has unmoored itself from conventional narrative and storytelling techniques, it has sailed into a sea of emotional and spiritual depths hitherto undiscovered. Malick’s latest films are radically rooted in the goodness of creation and the capacity of imago Dei to bridge the gap between an earthbound love, rooted in eros, and the agape-love of the infinite divine. The beauty and love of God are wrought through Malick’s images, grace bursting at the seams of every frame.
Song to Song, Malick’s latest film, does not explore the foundations of the earth or the firmaments of the heavens, nor does it wander through the lonely pilgrimage of the soul. Still, Song to Song wanders down a road familiar from his previous work: a love story, both intimate and grand in scope, baptized by grace and mercy.
Faye (Rooney Mara), a struggling musician adrift in a tumbling vortex of sex, success, failure, and a desire to be free (to “Roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss”), finds herself in love with a kindred spirit, BV (Ryan Gosling), even as she’s caught in the steely web of Cook (Michael Fassbinder), a producer whose “hands are in everything: the money, the fame.” As many critics have noted, their relationship plays out like the Garden of Eden. Cook slithers through their lives—as well as the life of Rhonda (Natalie Portman), his wife—offering knowledge and power. He cajoles BV at a party, “it’s all for sale; honors, titles.” His corrupting presence causes Faye and BV to implode, the air of suspicion and betrayal lingers in the air between them. What’s interesting about the film’s Adam-and-Eve allegorical aspects is how non-Edenic the world is. Corruption, temptation, and materialism have already gripped the world, steeped in raw, unadulterated eros.
Faye and BV are not pursuing an ideal modeled after a prelapsarian nature, but a worldly one—the lures of Cook have already engulfed them—although their spoils have yet to go sour. It’s the honeymoon phase of corrupting innocence. When Cook seduces Rhonda, we’re witness to the poverty she shares with her mother, and we hear him smoothly ask “Do you like physical things?” along with her awestruck answer: “You have everything.” The trappings of success are played against the delight of love, earthly power casting a mighty shadow over the simple light of the divine.
While the film’s title, ripped from Faye’s voice over, marks a desire to live from moment to moment, a carpe diem Romanticism (“any experience is better than no experience,” Faye admits), its title, once pushed, gives way to deeper readings, especially when seen through the lens of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, two volumes of poetry by William Blake (whose other work is referenced multiple times in the film). Moving from a Song of Innocence to a Song of Experience, Faye and BV are in a bubble, their innocent naïveté living in thrall to Cook’s machinations, before becoming wise to the world-weary reality of experience, then back and forth again. There’s a constant give and pull, as they allow themselves to be drawn back into the fold of innocence, only to revolt against goodness once they’ve found it.
Malick imbues his cinema with a Christian humanism that oscillates throughout his world. He is often guilty of presenting ciphers instead of characters, but the people he features, even when they are not “characters” per se, have a keen sense of being. In Song to Song, Patti Smith is prominently present, a wisdom-dispensing sage who seems to exist only to proffer life lessons to Faye. And yet, there is a gracious beauty in her face and gestures that mirrors her words, and Malick is content to simply linger on her features, as he does with many other non-characters. This culminates in an extended quotation from William Blake’s poem “The Divine Image”:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
This sense of the imago Dei permeates each sun-dappled frame of Song to Song. But of the four virtues mentioned in Blake’s poem, the film is caught up in a double helix of love and mercy. It is about love, both true and ill begotten, rapturous and quiet, filial and romantic. And mercy is bound to it, borne out of it. While most films leverage words like love and mercy, or foist them upon audiences, writ large as Themes, Malick’s approach is rooted in incarnate logos; word becomes flesh, the image itself a divine revelation. His voiceover—vulnerable, verging on precocious—is literally linked to the image on screen. Words metamorphose into images and back again, until the differences are erased. Ideas give way to thoughts, thoughts give way to images, images give way to emotion. This is what breaks his films apart from almost all others.
Philosophy is distilled into emotion: Faye and BV, Cook and Rhonda, all are lost and adrift in a fallen world, trying to make their way through it. Faye is tender, broken, and cuts herself off from the world so she can’t feel as strongly. Or rather, as she puts it, “the world builds a fence around us,” but there’s something out there which wants humanity to connect. She falls to pride, thinking herself above truth, above commitment, above mercy and the need to care for her soul. Song to Song cradles Faye through her struggle, as she tries to make her interior life blossom outside, asking BV to “save me from my bad heart” and confessing that “sex is a gift . . . I played with the flame of life.” Faye is never misjudged, nor blamed, nor punished for her weaknesses and transgressions; her soul is led beside still waters, and the woman who “revolted against goodness” is brought out of the darkness. BV is no saint either, prone to anger, jealousy, and a cold kindness devoid of true empathy. Yet he too is redeemed. They are both wrapped up in self-spun cocoons, an illusory reality that echoes back their desires and thoughts. The jealous love of their eros, hesitant to relinquish its influence, but is overcome by the overflowing abundance of agape.
Unlike previous films, in which Malick’s characters yearn and seek to regain the innocence of a prelapsarian world, Song to Song redeems experience itself. He doesn’t romanticize the past by allowing Faye and BV to return to their earlier relationship, but instead cross-cuts images of their past innocence together with present reconciliation. In the final twenty minutes of the film, Faye is undone by the realization that “mercy was a word I never thought I needed,” unraveling the tendrils of Cook’s influence and opening herself up to the love she shares with BV. Blake’s divine image begins to take shape, these two people stumbling into love and mercy. The two of them return to his home, where he can look after his family and return to “a simple life.” It’s far from bucolic—BV works on an oil rig—but it signifies a dramatic restructuring of priorities. In their old life, seeking after experience, they pursued the wealth of the world and all its pleasures; their new life is rooted in “a new paradise, forgiveness,” and a kenotic desire to live beyond their own petty desires, emptying themselves of selfish eros. Paradise is not a return to Eden, but a willful marriage of innocence and experience, learning from the latter while pursuing the former.
To consecrate this union, Song to Song requires a non-linear view of time. Malick approaches time as John Spencer Hill describes it in Infinity, Faith, and Time: “an existential reality, qualitative and teleological, experienced as occasion or event and always pointing beyond itself, always gathering up the significance of past and present into the generative fiat of a providential whole to be fully realized only when the succession of past, present, and future are subsumed into the simultaneity of an eternal now” (77). While this view of time trickles down throughout film, the floodgates are opened wide in its final minutes. Song to Song revisits scenes of Faye and BV on a date, joyfully exploring a rock formation in the middle of nowhere, laughing, smiling, resting in each other peacefully. It’s a scene which has been sprinkled throughout the film, flitting in and out of time. It’s an innocent, tender love, before the revelations of betrayal and cold heartedness. By bringing us back to this moment, Malick displays the immanence of his cinema: memory becomes reality; former bliss bleeds into the present non-linear relationship, two have become one, and their past is sanctified. Malick takes us from one to the other, looping innocence back into experience, because grace is holistic, unbound by time.
Song to Song’s melody is both a celebration and condemnation of eros, of the desire and love of earthly bodies, but Malick recontextualizes it along the lines of “Deus Caritas Est,” in which Benedict XVI aligns eros and agape to realize
the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice. (1.6)
In this way, Song to Song is a canticle of grace, bringing together the potential of eros-agape, as Faye and BV nestle in each other’s arms, and she whispers “this, only this”—the revelation of the beloved.
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