Art has been, is, and will always be political and in the most absolute way. We are often under a misconception that artists are rebels with the courage to challenge accepted truths. While I am certain there are artists like this, probably many, these are not the artists we are acquainted with. The rebel-artists we cite—take for example Lin Manuel Miranda—are not struggling with popularity. They are famous not because they have challenged the world with new ideas but because they are a voice through which a generation speaks, or, since a generation is never a monolith, more accurately, a significant portion of a generation. Perhaps it is a new and rising voice, but the popularity of the artist is a sign that the scale is tipping or has already tipped.
The illusion that Lin Manuel Miranda, Kanye West, or Iggy Pop are rebels seems to ignore the fact that they have millions of fans and millions and millions of dollars. A rebel-artist that challenged the modern notions, givens, morality, would come across to us not like a celebrity but like an Old Testament prophet. The message would seem jumbled, the conclusions strained, and we would kindly (or not so kindly) send them on their way. They’d appear to us as lunatics rather than geniuses.
Perhaps that is why the great film-artist (auteur) of our time has declined in popularity over the last ten years. His work is more like one of these “prophets” who stand against the modern notions and point out where we are wrong. This year Terrence Mallick’s Song to Song came out and has poor reviews on both IMDb (5.9) and Rotten Tomatoes (43%). The general critique is that “the dots never came together to form a legible image.” The story seems jumbled, and the motifs and message seems to fall flat. This is the response you’d expect from an age so at odds with Mallick’s artwork.
While the modern moment seems to define itself as an exodus from religion or at least towards a new reformation, Mallick’s work is supported by the pillars of an old and soon to be forgotten paradigm. From nearly the opening scene the quest of Faust is begun by Rooney Mara. She expresses her desire to “be free” and “try everything.” Her request is granted by Mephistopheles, played by Michael Fassbender. Of course he’s not referred to as Mephistopheles, but he is called the devil by a character and his charismatic attitude, his power to provide and protect, and his attempts to bring his associates deeper and deeper are all reminiscent of Marlowe, Goethe, and Dostoevsky. Only this time the devil is a little less self aware. He is a devil deceived by another devil. An instance of the blind leading the blind.
As in the oldest of biblical traditions, the central discussion of the film, the fall itself, is sexual. The film begins almost immediately with the F-word while men and women dance violently in a mosh pit at a concert. In homes, images of hedonism hang on the walls. A movie supposedly about the music scene in Austin is overwhelmed by men and women cuddling against the window, rolling in the grass, flirting playfully on the street. The excitement of travel, of music, of romance is only an attempt at something else. Whether or not the characters ultimately succeed at becoming musicians is unclear because it is irrelevant. They seek a deeper satisfaction which they attempt to extract out of one another. “There was a time when sex had to be violent,” is Natalie Portman’s opening line.
Women experiment with lesbianism and in the most graphic and disturbing sequence, a man watches as hired prostitutes, both women, make love. They seek fulfillment in large mansions but find only “desolate places.” The image of homosexuality is one more reminiscent of the “The Garden of Earthly Delights” than the recently dubbed best picture Moonlight. In the most shocking way, Mallick’s scene seems out of touch with the modern moment. Rather than freeing sexuality from its religious confines, Mallick attempts to lock it back up and thus, as he supposes, imbue it with greater meaning.
This attempt to celestialize sexuality is one of the oldest pursuits in christianity, and more anciently judaism. The title Song to Song is a perversion of Song of Songs, the great ancestor of Hebrew erotisim which was at times described as their “Holy of Holies.” Indeed, Rabbi Akiva warned that whoever sang the Song of Songs casually or irreverently “treating it as if it were a vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come.” By this interpretation sex is sacred, an act in the very image of God. Cheapening it is damnation.
So perhaps unsurprisingly then, the achievement of the characters is a return to sanctification. The movie ends with the mournful lines, “I have played with the fire of life.” After so much has been done in the modern age to destigmatize sex, to make it fun, common, conversational, Mallick returns to the old idea that sex is sacred, that it is given by God and must remain governed by him. The movie ends in baptism as the protagonists wash each other in a pool of water and begin again.
What is most surprising is not that such an unpopular and traditionally christian movie would be created by Mallick: he’s been making these sorts of movies for a decade. What’s surprising is that critics fail to arrive at substantial critiques. The film ought to be infuriating, or at least disturbing to modern sentiments: its rejection of self actualization as an ideal, it’s ambiguous and arguably negative portrayal of homosexuality, it’s delegitimization of casual sex. But critics don’t address these profound contradictions to their own philosophy, and instead quibble that, “When a poet fails, it’s not always easy to put your finger on why.”
It seems the problem is not so much that critics take issue with the film’s message, but that they are unable to understand the language communicating that message well enough to critique it. Perhaps if they were better versed in Old Testament or christian motifs they would be more offended. Its foundation in religious traditionalism veils the film’s driving moral and renders it inaccessible to viewers disconnected from the philosophies of yesteryear. In a sense, Mallick uses the actors, rockstars, and models like a masterful magician who pretends one trick but does another. They are all fools for acting in their own satire. But the satire is lost. The critique mostly ignored. The prophetic wisdom, chaff in the wind.
What Mallick teaches the modern critic is what Moonlight teaches the modern traditionalist: art is more than craft. We cannot deny the beauty of either film. The acting, the dialogue, the framing is sublime. But what do we do when great art is not a reflection of our beliefs but a condemnation? What do we do with art that instead of repeating the modern slogans stands in the way? It turns out we mostly ignore it. It’s like listening to poetry from another language. Yes it is beautiful, but what are we to do with it? That is the tragedy of Mallick. He has become unintelligible to our age.