01 June 2011

DAYS OF MALICK: THERE NEVER WAS A PERFECT PERSON AROUND. YOU JUST HAVE HALF-ANGEL, HALF-DEVIL IN YOU.

If Badlands defined the look of a Terrence Malick film, the themes and the humanity, it took his exemplary sophomore effort Days of Heaven to establish the filmmaker's most characteristic hallmark: his idiosyncratic editing language, intuitive and fluid, and not at all beholden to the decades-old system of continuity editing dominant in American filmmaking. Days of Heaven did not invent its editing scheme, and it's probably too much to claim that it perfected it. What Days of Heaven did that, to my best knowledge, had not been done, was to employ this editing style in a proper Hollywood movie made with proper Hollywood money; even in the anything-goes, up-with-auteurs spirit of the 1970s, you'd have to look pretty hard to find another movie made effectively without a script (or rather, the script they started with bears only the slightest resemblance to the finished project; give it a read, it's like tumbling into an alternate universe), with situations so loosely defined on set that the actors weren't entirely clear at all points what character they were playing; a movie that was "found in the editing room", as they say, slowly pieced together by Malick and Billy Weber (the associate editor on Badlands, who has since cut every Malick film except for The New World) over the course of two years following the end of principal photography in 1976. That kind of faith in the artist would not survive the turn of the decade, and even in '76 was hardly standard operating procedure when the artist in question had all of one movie under his belt; but then, Badlands is the sort of picture that would inspire that kind of confidence.

The picture that Paramount got in return for this gamble certainly does not want for a bold, sure hand: that much is certain from the first moments. To begin with, there is an opening credits montage of vintage photographs of life in the first years of the 20th Century; these are set to Camille Saint-Saëns's "Aquarium" from the suite Le carnaval des animaux, a languid and unmistakably "watery" piece of music, a most sedate and reflective thing. Between the two of them - the music and pictures - Malick is apparently endeavoring to achieve in two minutes the same disjointed, dreamy feeling that it took all of Badlands to achieve; or perhaps this is merely my impression of it. What I have always found in this sequence, is that it seems almost to create sort of tunnel or pathway; there's an uncanny and wildly inexplicable sense of being pulled physically into the film's reality, the ethereal, now-magical and now-foreboding music forming the bridge.

Does this sound deranged? Yes. Yes it does. But that's sort of an inevitable side effect of this most strange and even miraculous opening, which introduces us to a bold new element of Malick's style: outright subjectivity. The truly subjective is rare as hell in narrative cinema, largely because narrative cinema is one of the most representational of all forms: you see the people walking on sets, you hear the noises they make. Days of Heaven manages, more than any of the director's other films, to short-circuit that; it has always struck me as the American film, certainly of the 1970s and possibly of the whole era between 1968 and the present, that most resembles painting out of all the art forms, and not only because of Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler's exquisite cinematography. The imagery in the film has the peculiar sense of not meaning what it seems to mean; I would almost call it symbolic, except it doesn't appear to be symbolic of anything. It is suggestive, maybe, rather than symbolic, and what it suggests is different from viewer to viewer and even within the same viewer: I have now seen the film four times, and I can't honestly say that what I took away any one time was the same as the others.But I was talking about the opening sequence: a combination of music and images that glide into one another, with no absolute meaning and no connection to the film itself other than, loosely, that of the time period in which the film is set. Whatever unites these things, we are invited to discover on our own, letting the flow of imagery suggest what it will, as the music does its best to place us in, if not an hypnotic state, certainly a state of enhanced reverie. That is maybe what I was trying to get at: the meaning in-between the images in Days of Heaven is not a meaning Malick insists upon; nor is there necessarily "the" meaning of any given shot. In this respect, the opening credits train us how to watch the film, introducing us to the particularities of its flow. It is the only point at which Days of Heaven ever teaches us how to watch it, in distinct contrast to Badlands which is, thanks to its outward genre trappings, at least somewhat easy to comprehend in fairly concrete, normal terms. The same is true of The Thin Red Line and to a lesser degree The New World (I eagerly look forward to learning where The Tree of Life falls on this spectrum); and it is thus perhaps the case that Days of Heaven is the hardest of Malick's films to read, unconventional without giving us a cheat-sheet to its idiosyncrasies. At the same time, it's arguably the easiest to read, simply for the fact that there is no "right" interpretation.

I suppose I had better talk about the film, now. So, this beautifully subdued interlude abruptly and violently gives way the inside of a steel mill, in which the sound of heavy machinery is so ghastly loud as to hurt (machinery in this film is always associated with blaring, assaulting noise). Molten metal is everywhere. It is a moment of unbridled chaos, angry and aggressive; it feels like being present in the act of cosmic creation, the inchoate stuff of matter solidifying into something physical and contained. The act of creation is seen over and over throughout Days of Heaven, but it is only here that creation is specifically conceived of as a violent thing, destructive - and since images of destruction and death will also keep popping up throughout the film, if not so repetitively, we might say that this sequence also tells us how to think of the film: a study of creation/destruction, birth/death, coalescing into one and the same thing in this moment. Creation was much on Malick's mind at the time; immediately after finishing Days of Heaven, he devoted himself to developing Q, a story about the development of history from the beginning to the present; it finally saw the light of day, 33 years later, as The Tree of Life.

It is so loud in that mill that we cannot here what happens in the altercation between a hotheaded young man, Bill (Richard Gere) and his foreman (Stuart Margolin); only that it ends with the foreman dead at Bill's hands, apparently accidentally. What we can hear is the narration of Bill's little sister, Linda (Linda Manz), speaking in an impossibly gruff New York accent. These are her first words:
"Me and my brother. It used to be just me and my brother. We used to do things together. We used to have fun. We used to roam the streets. There was people sufferin' of pain and hunger, some people, their tongues were hanging out of their mouths."
That is what all of her narration is like, and there's a lot of it; like Sissy Spacek's Holly in Badlands, Linda is our entry into the film, which is presented as her recollection of the events that befell herself and Bill and Bill's girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), when they flee Chicago on account of Bill's act of violence, ending up in a wheat farm near Amarillo, Texas. There, the farmer (Sam Shepard) who owns the place takes a fancy to Abby - Bill insists on pretending that he and she are siblings, for reasons that Linda, in narration, idly notes are so obvious as to not bear mentioning.

Now I've got the plot out of the way, back to Linda: her narration throughout is choppy and erratic, often bearing no relation to what's going on and frequently falling apart in fragments that bear only a modest resemblance to language; it is unmixedly poetic and absorbing. Listening to Linda speak is like peeking in at the mind feeling its way around how to use speech as a mode of expression, turning concepts over and around, trying to figure out the best way to put them into words. Malick's narrators are invariably fighting to find the right way to say what's on their mind, but it is Linda, played with unspeakable grace and brilliance by 15-year-old Manz, who illustrates this fight in the most thrilling way.

An inarticulate teenager proves to be the very best way to bring us through this movie, which exists in defiance of having certain, settled impressions of each individual moment. Days of Heaven doesn't ignore its story, but it's certainly not overly concerned with it, spending far more time breathing in the sensations of the farm and fields. This is the film,after all, that created and typifies the most stereotypically Malick-ish of all Malick's stylistic quirks, the one you'd leap to if you were making a parody of the man's work: the unmotivated cutaway to an animal or plant, observing them for a moment or two, and cutting again. Some of the most striking moments in the film come about this way: microscopic close-ups of locusts eating, their tiny little gesticulations playing oddly like acting; a lingering shot of a glass in a small pool, fish blithely swimming by. The most reductive way to understand it, and by calling it reductive I don't mean to suggest that I think it's wrong, is that Days of Heaven is a film about awareness, standing still and being cognizant of the things around you, the sights and sounds (in addition to being gorgeous, the film has an outstandingly thorough soundscape, using the natural sounds of farm life in dramatic, imposing ways to create mood and emotion). Unlike his later films, and even Badlands, there's little or no sense of nature as a redemptive spiritual force, but simply as a fact; the view of nature that a farmer would presumably adopt. Certainly, redemption is in short supply in Days of Heaven, though the director lacks the urge to criticize his characters for their failings; it is this that separates him above all from Stanley Kubrick, whose Barry Lyndon came out in the gap between Badlands and Days of Heaven, and traffics in a similar visual language, and more importantly, a similar perspective on the action: Kubrick and Malick, uniquely among English language filmmakers in the 1970s, adopt a remote, even Godlike point of view concerning their characters, but only one of them is a spiritual humanist, and it is assuredly not the man behind A Clockwork Orange.

It is this same tendency that animates Days of Heaven, which is unquestionably the most spiritual of Malick's first four movies; not specifically religious, although there's a distinctly Christian cant to some of the moments; the fire that devastates the farm in the film's most famous scene ccertainly calls to mind the flames of hell, for though it visually echoes the molten steel in the beginning of the film, there is not a trace of creative energy her, only destruction. Meanwhile, the far more prevalent imagery of growth and fecundity, including a time-lapse shot of a seed sprouting underground, creates an omnipresent sense of openness and possibility that takes on a holy aura of sorts: more than slightly reminiscent of the verse from Deuteronomy that gives the film its title, "That your days may be multiplied and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth."

Largely, though, Malick's religiosity as expressed in this film is not to any one creator, but to perfection of nature in and of itself; an awestruck regard for the beauty and purity of how the world looks. Hence the reams of spectacularly beautiful golden hour shots; the lingering cutaways to the pulsing life of the natural world. And yet this is still a film about humans, desperately attempting to find peace and meaning and happiness in the face of all this grand, but ultimately indifferent nature. The love triangle is banal and expressed with little emphasis (in fact, every single time I have watched the film, there has come a point where I've honestly forgotten that Bill and Abby aren't really siblings), but it matters very much to the people involved; sublimity doesn't matter in the face of suffering, which is maybe another way of interpreting Linda's oft-quoted aphorism, "You just have half-angel, half-devil in you".

The movie ends with a startling coda, far removed from anything we've seen thus far; the last shot is of two girls walking to nowhere and the last sound is Linda's tossed-off delivery of the line, "I was hopin' things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine". There is the promise of possibility, and the sense of incipient failure in this last moment, much as the mixture of splendor and psychological suffocation is the driving force of the movie to this point. Even at the last, the film denies us the comfort of absolutes; as it is not, in its own self, easy to reduce to specifics, so does it refuse to reduce life to specifics. Life is a constant flowing thing, not a series of discrete instants, the film tells us, and I do not know of another film that has made that argument half as well, nor used the very fabric of itself to express that idea more fully.

1 comment:

RickR said...

"Life is a constant flowing thing, not a series of discrete instants, the film tells us, and I do not know of another film that has made that argument half as well, nor used the very fabric of itself to express that idea more fully."

Perfect.

"Days of Heaven" came out when I was about 17 or 18, and its themes and images have stayed with me since. That shot of the wine glass, dropped and forgotten st the bottom of the stream, is a perfect symbol of impermanence. I imagined some archaeologist discovering it centuries later, trying to imagine who dropped it there and why. And it would be pure speculation, as the person attached to this artifact (and more importantly, the MEANING of it) was long gone.

But that's the kind of shit you think about when you're 17. ;)

(Wish I could have seen this movie in 70MM...)