Song To Song (Photo: Broad Green Pictures)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

Unlike my colleague Jesse Hassenger, who gave it a positive review in these fine digital pages, I thought Terrence Malick’s Song To Song was ass-numbing drivel. It’s an Adam and Eve story that, aside from some scenes filmed at Austin music festivals, has the mise en scène of porn. This is a statement of fact: Much of the movie is set in hotel suites and realtor-ready mid-sized mansions that look like the crew rented them about two hours before filming, with the actors tossing around bed linens and touching each other’s faces in an endless clothed dance that approximates sex. And then there’s the famous Malick backward walk, which has been repeated to the point of self-parody—tentative, swaying, with one foot drawn behind the other. Like the joke goes, “You know what else has a lot of weird cuts and improvised dialogue?”

Song To Song is Malick’s idea of an erotic film, from the first whispery voice-over, spoken by Rooney Mara’s character: “I went through a period where sex had to be violent.” However, it turns out that Malick’s idea of eroticism isn’t all that different from that of any number of the more professional San Fernando Valley outfits. It looks like nice kitchen countertops, high heels, Daisy Dukes, and random topless women lounging around pools. Except you can’t get off to it. There’s an interesting vein of sexual guilt in Malick’s work (for example, the stolen underwear in The Tree Of Life, tossed into the eternal riverbank), but nothing like sex. Not here, anyway. His characters are musicians who never perform music, businessmen who never do business, lovers whose names we never learn—just vague, repetitive situations couched in a hack aesthetic of erotic wooze.

It has its grace notes: Mara’s goofy dancing, some of the more forceful camera movements in Malick’s oeuvre, the way Michael Fassbender manages to invent a relatively memorable performance despite having no apparent material to work with. These things might be called sexy, because they are mostly awkward and human. Song To Song itself is an awkward and very human failure, shot back in 2011 and 2012 and apparently never found in the editing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. Artists fail all the time. Writers, too. It’s part of the process. The only difference is that some of us get to fail privately, while others fail in public. Dig deep enough into biographies, and you will find that almost any seemingly perfect body of work hides within it an assortment of unrealized or unfinished projects. Obviously, Malick—who has released as many movies in the past five years as he did in the first three decades of his career—has migrated his failures from the private to the public sphere. The many attempted projects of his long “hiatus” from film (including an adaptation of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and biopics of Jerry Lee Lewis and Che Guevara) are well documented. I don’t begrudge him this latest failure. Sometimes it’s better to get that stuff out of your system. I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time thinking about things I haven’t done. More than I should, probably. Better to be embarrassed once than haunted forever.

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