Everyone has a type and I’ve always noticed what type the artsy-philosophical filmmaker Terrance Malick prefers. Since his debut feature Badlands (1974) starring Martin Sheen as a Texas serial killer, Malick protagonists have been dark-haired, brooding types. Richard Gere first got noticed in Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) as the itinerant laborer whose deliberate involvement in a love-triangle accidentally leads to murder. Apparently badboys with a not-always-graspable spiritual yearning are Malick’s thing. His reputation for profundity is based on surly, brunet/blue-eyed Commandment-breakers whose glamour recalls such Hollywood heart-throbs as James Dean, a gay icon who reflected the eternal turmoil between sex and sin. Yes, every Malick hero works as a gay matinee idol.
For example: Malick’s new film Song to Song. It’s modern enough to take place among South-by-Southwest music hipsters in Austin, Texas, but its old-fashioned theme is sex vs. sin. Think back on other Malick sinner-heroes: Jim Caveziel’s contemplative WWII combat soldier in The Thin Red Line, Colin Farrell’s Captain John Smith landing at the Plymouth Colony and struggling toward enlightenment inThe New World, Ben Affleck’s errant husband in To the Wonder.
If it seems like Malick has broken his own casting-couch commandments in Song to Song by starring the blonds Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling as music-biz partners, note how these actors stiffen Malick’s erotic interest in guys who singlemindedly express themselves through their libidos. Song to Song’s sexual emphasis uses awareness of Fassbender’s well-hung breakthrough in Shame (even George Clooney, Malick alumni from The Thing Red Line,went on about Fassbender’s “golf club” at a Golden Globes ceremony) and Gosling’s popular doe-eyed vanity. These traits matter in Malick’s allusion to the Book of Solomon’s sensuality that provides Song to Song’s theme.
Sex as temptation, as a moral and spiritual crisis, connects this primarily heterosexual story to gay consciousness. Fassbinder and Gosling’s flirtatious bromance, then their fall from grace, precedes their troubled liaisons with Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman. Malick devotes more time to male-male bonding than he does to the film’s one gay—lesbian--encounter (more on that later). His fascination with Cain-and-Abel tension is visualized while female conflict is overstated on the prayer-filled soundtrack. Some of Malick’s most audaciously carnal scenes put women in sexually servile postures before Fassbender and Gosling’s male principle.
Gay filmgoers may be the ideal audience for Malick’s meditations; his masculine perspective goes to the heart of the quandary explored in gay writer Jeff Chu’s book Does Jesus Really Love Me? that ponders the distinction between spiritual and physical desire. When Malick directly depicts queerness (during Rooney’s side-chick dalliance), her seduction by the strikingly voluptuous Berenice Marlohe disrupts the film’s thematic focus. Frankly, Portman and Mara are as childlike and wide-eyed as Keane paintings while Marlohe’s Big Dish curviness is almost campily physical.
This results in Malick’s male-oriented concentration on Fassbender and Gosling’s furry forearms, their constant stroking and sniffing of faces, hair and nether regions--fetishism and adoration combined. Beneath the high-art music cues (and Song to Song’s rock legend cameos by John Lydon, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop’s 3D-dissipation), Malick’s approach is virtually monastic. His always focuses on masculine frustration as those time-travelling pilgrims Christian Bale and Brad Pitt each showed in multiple Malick films. (I first felt Malick’s yen through Alan Vint’s comely visage as the young deputy torn between duty and compassion in Badlands.)
In Song to Song Malick’s philosophical musings (it’s his ninth feature) have become undisciplined by artistic license and the ease of digital filmmaking. The repetitive flirtation and meandering starts to feel like one of those drug commercial warnings about four-hour erections. Song to Song lacks the intellectual and sensual follow-through seen in earlier erotic-existential classics: Steve Cochran and Alida Valli in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido and Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco. But Song to Song’s storytelling is scattered, without the fulfillment of Biblical lust and repentance Malick planned. In Hollywood, the big head often gets distracted by the little head.