Here are two facts about Val Kilmer in Terrence Malick’s new movie, Song to Song: He is on screen for a total of maybe 90 seconds, and they are the most entertaining 90 seconds of the movie. It is astonishing how efficient he is with his time; just look at what he’s able to accomplish in less than two minutes:
- He saws an amplifier in half with a chainsaw while performing on stage with the Black Lips.
- He reaches into a large bucket labeled “URANIUM” and showers the crowd with a powdery substance. (“I got some uranium!” he growls in the raw footage. “I bought it off my mom.”)
- He looks directly into the camera as he hacks off clumps of his own hair with a switchblade.
- He rides off into the sunset in a vehicle that is probably a taxi but seems like it could be a cop car.
“What is the shortest onscreen appearance that has won an Academy Award?” is a sentence I just Googled. Five minutes and two seconds, is the answer — the length of Beatrice Straight’s performance in Network. Sorry, Beatrice, but in 11 months, that record is going to be broken.
Song to Song is a divisive movie — one of those films where you can perceive the audience’s mixed reaction in real time while you’re in the theater. I liked it and thought it was Malick’s best movie since Tree of Life, but on my way out of the theater I overheard two men yelling at each other about how much they hated it. (They weren’t even disagreeing! They just hated it so vehemently that they felt the need to yell!) The couple next to me walked out about 30 minutes in; some people behind me chattered throughout with audible impatience. The only moment that we were all united in enjoyment — a moment that, I suspect, jolted some people who had dozed off awake — was when Val Kilmer emerged from behind Michael Fassbender’s shadow.
In Song to Song, Kilmer plays an aging rock star character named “Duane,” although being that this is a Malick movie, I did not know the names of even the main characters until I looked them up on IMDb. (Ryan Gosling’s character is named “BV”?! That sounds more like a vaccine than a person’s name.) Duane doesn’t have any kind of discernible story line, but he makes Iggy Pop seem like an Iggy Pop impostor, an incredible feat in a movie that the real Iggy Pop is also in. All we know about Duane comes from his onstage performance, which Malick filmed at an actual Black Lips show at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest back in 2012. In a recent Texas Monthly profile of Malick, reporter Eric Benson set the (incredible) scene:
I wish I could show you the great Emmanuel Lubezki’s footage of this, but here is the second-best thing: footage that some guy shot from the middle of the crowd and then uploaded to YouTube:
In a rare public appearance at SXSW last week, Malick discussed his process in shooting the film. “With new cameras, you can quickly accumulate a lot of footage,” he said. “We had an eight-hour first cut. We thought, ‘Is this a miniseries?’ It really could have been. It took a long time to cut it down to a manageable length.”
My takeaway from that quote: There is a hell of a lot more Malick-directed, Lubezki-shot Val Kilmer footage out there, and I would like to see all of it. Perhaps as an uncut DVD extra titled, “Duane’s World,” or maybe now that Malick has become so prolific in his later career, as a whole other feature just about Duane and his celestial, poetic internal monologue (also maybe a prequel about where his mom got the uranium). But in a larger sense, Kilmer’s crowd-pleasing cameo in Song to Song does reveal something interesting about the auteur and represents an interesting crossroads for him going forward. That brief, anarchic scene proves that Malick still has a sense of humor and that — when he wants to — he can still surprise an audience that’s gone numb to his self-indulgent distractions. He doesn’t have to give up his meandering signature style, he just needs more Duane.