As Roger Scruton says, “Sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory in between.” That’s essentially the thesis of Terrence Malick’s recent trilogy of films: To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and now Song to Song. To the Wonder opens the trilogy by, in accordance with Pope Benedict XVI, emphasizing that the loves of eros and agape are incomplete if they do not purify each other. Knight of Cups emphasizes the sacramental significance of sexuality, in that it possesses a special nature that persists whether or not it is abused and desecrated. And now, in Song to Song, Malick explores, among many other things, how sexual shame resulting from that desecration nonetheless reveals personhood and makes possible a purer love.
No One Cares About Reality Anymore
Song to Song depicts various intersecting romances in the Austin music industry, which involves Faye and BV, who are musicians; Cook, who is a producer; and Rhonda, a kindergarten teacher moonlighting as a waitress and who eventually marries Cook. Much like Knight of Cups, in which a character feels that no one “cares about reality anymore,” a major theme Song to Song explores is the reality or unreality of the world, most explicitly in the Luciferian figure of Cook. Cook speaks of deceiving the world, describes the world as a “stage show,” and offers Rhonda hallucinogenic drugs whilst promising her that she will not die if she ingests them. Song to Song might be Malick’s most self-referential film, and it’s impossible to watch these scenes without remembering Tonio in Knight of Cups, who declares that there no principles, but only circumstances, so there is no moral meaning to creation, and people may act as they like without reference to any natural law or ethic.
(It’s important to note that the question of the world’s reality is not, with sophomoric pseudo-profundity, asking whether the world really exists, but has to do more with whether the things in the world have moral, even sacramental significance that should inform one’s life and actions. If such a sign does not exist, one might as well take drugs to escape, as what’s the difference between a hallucination and a meaningless physical world? Not much, for Malick.)
Related to this demonic insinuation of the world’s meaninglessness is the characters’ constant search for an “experience.” Again turning to Knight of Cups, a character in that film accuses another of wanting not love, but “a love experience.” This search for “experience” turns life into a series of amusements, usually sexual exploitations, instead of a journey with a purpose. Malick often depicts this search as a descent into emotivism and subjectivism, and so these sexual encounters are not acts of union with another person, but a withdrawal from engagement with the world by focussing only on self-centered pleasure. Characters undertaking such a quest tend to dismiss the value of the world and embrace their own individual power to give the world meaning instead of living according to whatever meaning the world already has.
Song to Song illustrates this attempt to escape from reality through “experiences” most vividly when Cook, BV, and Faye are on an airplane, pretending to be weightless. They press their backs up against the ceiling, supporting themselves by a single foot, or walk their feet along the ceiling while their backs rest on a chair. This scene is shot so that we see them as if they are weightless, but then realize that they are supporting themselves. Just as they pretend that they can defy the laws of gravity for the sake of an ecstatic experience, they act as if they can ignore the unitive and procreative nature of sexuality for the sake of an ecstatic experience. However, just because they pretend that their actions have no repercussions does not mean that there are in fact no repercussions. Defying the law of gravity is not an offense that results in criminal charges, but is instead a failure to live in accordance with the ordering of creation, and has a natural consequence: falling. Similarly, for Song to Song, ignoring the nature of sexuality is a failure to live in accordance with the ordering of creation, and has a natural consequence: shame.
The Revelation of Shame
The answer Song to Song gives to the question of the world’s value and the search for experiences is a shame, which brings the characters back to earth. In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyła, later Pope St. John Paul the Great, describes shame as being “linked with the person, and its development goes hand in hand with the development of personhood.” For John Paul, shame reveals the interiority of the person, and confirms that the person is not an object; as he says, “Only the person can feel shame, because only the person by his nature may not be an object of use.” Furthermore, “sexual shame is not a flight from love, but quite the contrary, it is some opening of a way toward it.” This shame is not simply a feeling of embarrassment, but a realization that one has been objectified, and an understanding that this violates one’s dignity.
We first see this shame in the dread which haunts almost every sexual encounter in the film. Cook is especially fond of asking the women he undresses of what they are afraid; one of them answers that she’s afraid of spiders, but it’s hard for the audience not to respond that the women should really be afraid of him turning them into sexual objects. When these women are objects, Cook uses them as the means of withdrawing into a monadic experience of pleasure, which he believes transcends the world for which he has only contempt. However, just because he acts as if he can shape the world as he likes does not mean that he is actually able to. His flaunting of the unitive nature of sexuality still has consequences. He is terrifying not because he threatens physical harm, but because his conquests carry with them this dread of objectification and exploitation, and because every major character who interacts with him comes to feel some sort of shame, be it due to the sexual objectification Faye and Rhonda suffer at his hands, or the artistic exploitation to which he subjects BV.
Faye, who says that she did not believe that she had a soul, to the point of being embarrassed by the word, who allows herself to be objectified by being the victim of violence, and who rejects the reality of the world in favour of subjective experience, starts on the road to conversion because of this shame. Although she is in a romantic relationship with BV, she is unfaithful and has an affair with Cook, who also compels his wife to participate in this tryst. Faye tells BV of her infidelity, and feels shame at having to tell him of her failure, and what Cook asks of her. In the short term, this disclosure ruptures the relationship, as BV is not yet ready to forgive and Faye is not yet ready to fully confront her shame, as she changes her story when she confesses to BV. However, confronting her shame leads to her eventual realization that she needs the mercy of those against whom she has sinned, in that she becomes aware that this mercy is the remedy for her disordered relationships with Cook and BV.
In knowing that she has done wrong and that she has a nature created to be something more than an object of sexual violence, Faye can, as John Paul says, turn towards true love that does not objectify and which offers the mercy that she needs, instead of denying that she has sinned. Faye’s shame is a healthy one, making her understand that she does, in fact, have a soul, that she has personal dignity, as she would not be ashamed by her objectification if she were truly an object. Her shame, once she does not try to downplay her sin, opens her to BV’s mercy. And being open to BV’s mercy opens her to God’s; the further the film progresses, the harder it is to distinguish which of them her voice overs address. Her healthy shame brings about her conversion to a truer love.
Moreover, Faye’s shame makes the world around her more meaningful and dissuades her from seeking more experiences with which to distract herself. Knowing the objectification that results in shame, she strives to act in accordance with natural law, so that she might neither be objectified and shamed nor objectify and shame another. Instead of, to use her words, toying with the flame of life, sexuality, as if it has no inherent meaning, she treats it with more reverence and acknowledges its unitive and procreative nature. This unity transcends the rupture of sin because of the mercy that BV and Faye can offer each other. Furthermore, continuing Malick’s recent emphasis on the fecundity of sexuality, both BV and Faye end romances in which they do not intend to bring forth children in order to be reconciled to each other and also reconcile themselves to their relatives who have young children. Because she feels shame, she knows that her sexuality has nature with which she must live in accordance, and so reality does have a moral meaning that she cannot fully displace or ignore.
In contrast to Faye is Rhonda, whose shame overwhelms her. After Cook hires a prostitute to share their bed, she speaks with the prostitute, who believes that she sells an illusion that is separate from her true self; this distinction is shaky, however, given that she wants a better life. Rhonda recognises something of herself in the prostitute’s shame, but Rhonda’s shame is unhealthy and self-destructive. Married to a man who only objectifies her and thereby desecrates her, and apparently not wanting to return to her mother in disgrace, she kills herself. She despairs of finding someone who can forgive her participation in Cook’s debauchery in exchange for his material wealth, and of being anything more than a trophy in his eyes. Shame has the potential to bring about good, but only when there is the knowledge that there is an opening to greater love. Without that knowledge, shame is despair. In this way, Malick shows us both the dangerous and the hopeful promises of shame.
One of Song to Song’s working titles was Weightless, and in the end, the true weightlessness occurs not in the airplane, but when Faye floats above her bed, supported by BV after they have reconciled. The true weightlessness is not being able to support oneself but to be supported by another’s love and mercy. It is to take the easy yoke and the light burden. In To the Wonder, the best of the trilogy, a priest declares that love is not only a feeling but something one shows and performs. Similarly, in Song to Song, the characters must not treat love as a feeling or experience of elation, but as a project which involves them doing the work of forgiveness and mercy, and which requires their acceptance of the natural laws which structure the world in which they live.
In this trilogy, Malick has been accused of, for example, descending into inscrutability. That’s not fair at all; he has a vision of sexuality in the contemporary West that he communicates rather clearly, despite narrative issues and the occasional actor who looks uncertain or lost, which are certainly fair targets for criticism. Indeed, Song to Song (his best-paced film in forty years) comes right up to the line of being preachy when Faye talks about the way she abused and toyed with the gift of sexuality, the flame of life. How that could possibly be inscrutable is anyone’s guess.
Really, I find it hard not to think that the difficulty lies less in Malick’s oblique presentation, and more in that, as Jon Baskin says, “what is being asked of the viewer is not only appreciation but conversion. And there will, of course, be those who refuse to be converted.” Baskin points out that always, “there remains the question of how to respond to Malick’s deeply unfamiliar teaching — for his call for them to convert, not just to his art, but also to the way of life that is promoted by his art.” This way of life is often profoundly “alien” to his viewers: it is “an intensely Christian ethic. And that this is ultimately what is hardest about these films.” This is especially hard for the self-appointed but unschooled cognoscenti who, rightly entranced by Malick’s peerless visual splendour, want to be able to say they appreciate Malick, but want to do this in as secular a sense as possible (because of course it wouldn’t occur to them that orthodox Christianity could produce great art, and theology is, in any case, far beyond their competency) and on their own terms, instead of letting go and engaging with Malick on his own theologically and culturally demanding terms.