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Days of Heaven

(Terence Malick, USA, 1978)


 

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

 

For all its exceptional qualities, Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) is a film that blended fairly easily into the groove of the independent American cinema scene of the 1970s – neither High Art nor pop genre, but somewhere intriguingly in-between. In this sense, it seemed to belong with the work of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn or Bob Rafelson in that period: stylised discombobulations of oft-told tales, pointed critiques of movie-fed myths, ironic manipulations of Hollywood clichés and stereotypes. Although it was clearly more emotionally distant, and more severely formalised, than Nashville (1975) or Night Moves (1975) or Five Easy Pieces (1970) – and few accounts of it at the time failed to mention the writer-director’s peculiar non-cinephile past as an exegete and translator of Martin Heidegger – Badlands nonetheless formed part of a potent trend: films that referenced other films, which mixed a feeling for the natural landscape with a fascination for unnatural violence, which placed their “last romantic couples” on the road to nowhere …

 

What served to normalise Badlands – despite its highly eccentric collage of soundtrack music (Satie, Orff, Nat King Cole), despite its extremely tricky voice-over narration – was the simple fact that it focused, from to start to end, on two central characters: criminal lovers on the run (Martin Sheen as Kit and Sissy Spacek as Holly, modelled loosely on Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate). This may have been as classical narrative as the film got, but it was enough to secure it an enduring cult success – fans who could lovingly quote its goofy lines and strike Kit & Holly poses. What was truly remarkable and innovative in the film’s form would only really become apparent many years later – by the time that up-and-comers like Paul Thomas Anderson or David Gordon Green were fastidiously imitating its unusual array of images, sounds, narrative off-beats and performance gestures.

 

In 1978, however, Malick’s second feature Days of Heaven came as a shock to everyone. I vividly remember the experience of sitting in a large, state-of-the-art theatre and first encountering this work which seemed like the shotgun marriage of a Hollywood epic (in 70 millimeter!) with an avant-garde poem. Wordless (but never soundless) scenes flared up and were snatched away before the mind could fully grasp their plot import; what we could see did not always seemed to be matched to what we could hear. Yes, there was another couple on the run – Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as lovers pretending to be siblings during the wheat harvest season at the turn of the 20th century – but, this time, the filmmaker’s gaze upon them was not simply distant or ironic, but positively cosmic. And there was so much more going on around these two characters, beyond even the eternal triangle they form with the melancholic figure of the dying Farmer (Sam Shepard) – now the landscape truly moves from background to foreground, and the labour that goes on in it, the changes that the seasons wreak upon it, the daily miracles of shifting natural light or the punctual catastrophes of fire or locust plague that take place … all this matters as much, if not more, than the strictly human element of the film.

 

Above all, the radical strangeness and newness of Days of Heaven was signalled, to its first-release viewers, by its most fragmented, inconclusive, decentred feature: the voice-over narration of young Linda Manz. It might have seemed, at first twang, like a reprise of Holly’s naïve viewpoint in Badlands, but Manz’s thought-track goes far beyond a literary conceit. It flits in and out of the tale unpredictably, sometimes knowing nothing and at other times everything, veering from banalities about the weather to profondities about human existence. Sometimes even her sentences go unfinished, hang in mid-air. Malick and his collaborators in fact arrived at this thread serendipitously, through a mixture of scripting and improvisation: rather than reading out a text, Manz was encouraged, in a sound studio, to repeat and embellish, in her own inimitable way, certain phrases and ideas that were thrown at her live. In this voice, we hear language itself in the process of struggling toward sense, meaning, insight – just as, elsewhere, we see the diverse elements of nature swirling together to perpetually make and unmake what we think of as a landscape; or human figures finding and losing themselves, over and over, as they desperately try to cement their individual identities or characters. In this mysterious Eden – as Stan Brakhage or Jean-Luc Godard more or less said – God has not yet gotten around to naming the animals.

 

Today, with the hindsight allowed by The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), it is clear that it was Days of Heaven, not Badlands, that truly announced Terrence Malick’s characteristic style and manner of filmmaking. Where his debut was tightly scripted, its successor was, deliberately, a much more loosely structured affair. Malick gave himself the freedom to shoot a great deal of material – not all of it centred on the lead actors (who, it is reported, felt rather left out), but also the land, animals, little spectacles with groups of extras … with the intention of finding the best, final form for the whole in post-production (sound editing being as crucial as picture editing to his work). He has taken this approach to greater and ever-more adventurous lengths in his subsequent films. While some industry-minded pundits tut-tut Malick’s preferred shooting method as wasteful and unfocused, it is an entirely valid creative process that aims – as in the cinema of Wong Kar-wai or Jacques Rivette – to discover the film in the course of its material making, rather than in the bloodless, abstract phase of its writing.

 

Writing, of course, remains important for Malick, who is an extraordinary word-stylist. The shooting script of Days of Heaven does not much resemble the finished film – in many cases, elaborate dialogue scenes have been reduced in editing to a line or two, a mysterious reaction shot, and a cut-away to some natural phenomenon – but the template is already entirely evident: styles of speaking, the cycle of seasons, and an elemental story line that can seem Biblical for the very good reason that it is: in essence, the film’s narrative is derived from a passage in the Book of Ruth. But this primal, almost mythic story ends up as thoroughly displaced as the legend of John Smith and Pocahontas in The New World; it is hardly surprising to learn that Shepard (who is a superbly haunting presence in the film) thought himself to be playing someone who was less a flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional psychological character than a kind of sketch, silhouette or ghost.

 

The Australian critic Meaghan Morris once suggested that Days of Heaven is a film in constant motion, and indeed about movement in all its forms: human, natural, mechanical. Cinematographer Néstor Almendros – whose work on François Truffaut’s eternal-triangle costume drama Two English Girls and the Continent (1971) may well have inspired Malick (just as, according to editor Billy Weber, The Wild Child provided a key influence on their placement of voice-over) – evokes complex set-ups that never made it to the final cut: the camera tracking and dollying in and through the Farmer’s house – this odd mansion plonked in the middle of a vast field – while various players entered and exited the frame in elaborate choreography. In fact, even the simplest shots have a trace of this type of structure: the mise en scène of Days of Heaven aims less at fluid continuity between images or gestures – indeed, it is a remarkably elliptical film – than the creation of each filmic unit as a cell which refers, in a non-linear way, to all other parts of the film, via echoes, comparisons, subtle flashbacks and flashforwards … Hence the deep affinity between Malick and F.W. Murnau, an affinity that persists through his subsequent work.

 

Malick’s underlying aesthetic aim – one he shares with several great directors, and which was already evident in Badlands – is to encourage the proliferation of a wide range of moods, sights, sounds and surface textures, while simultaneously arriving at an overall, unifying form. Nothing expresses this better than what is probably the most beloved and oft-cited element of Days of Heaven, its play of different musical inputs, those he appropriates alongside those he commissions: the music veers from classical to folk, but what holds the ensemble together is that Ennio Morricone’s grave score literally inverts the melody of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. One reflects the other, just as land and sky reflect each other in those characteristic Malick panoramas bisected by the horizon line …

 

Malick’s films have sometimes been frozen, by those unsympathetic to them, into pious homilies or grand statements: Man vs. Nature, the redemptive path to God via love and sacrifice, the corrupting effects of Civilisation encroaching upon an idyllic Wilderness … Yet nothing is so certain or schematic in his work. As always, everything is in motion, seeming opposites ceaselessly transforming each other.

 

Days of Heaven shows us, in myriad inventive ways, how nature and culture are always intertwined, how a certain kind of technology, a certain kind of civilising process, is part of even the humblest garden arrangement, the most elementary use of a cloth to cover the body, the fashioning of a piece of a tree to make music. This is part of the deep Heideggerian legacy in Malick: there is no pure Being, only the action of hands upon the world, fashioning (for better or worse) a living space, a temporary arrangement of people and materials. And those cosmic shots that conjure heaven and earth gazing at one another as in a mirror are far from constituting a reassuring New Age bromide. Malick resembles, at one level, the tragic philosopher Simone Weil: the God in Heaven in whom she so fervently believed was not, in her view, by our side and guiding our every step, but rather someone very far away, discernible only as a distant echo, someone who has set in motion a terrible Destiny Machine that will first bring us pain, separation, betrayal and wars before it will deliver us any faint or fleeting redemption.

 

Malick is a true poet of the ephemeral: the epiphanies that structure his films, beginning with Days of Heaven, are ones which flare up suddenly and die away just as quickly, with the uttering of a single line (like “she loved the Farmer”), the flight of a bird or the launching of a plane, the flickering of a candle light, or the passing of a wind over the grass. Nothing is ever insisted upon or lingered on in his films; that is why they reveal subtly different arrangements of event, mood and meaning each new time we see them (if we are and remain truly open to this experience). Because everything is in motion, everything is whisked away quickly, and the elements of any one cellular moment are very soon redistributed and metamorphosed into other moments: just look at and listen to the last minutes of Days of Heaven, with its split-second swing between end-of-the-line melancholic emptiness and wide-open possibility, for a sublime illustration of this ephemerality that is miraculously caught and formalised in the language of cinema.

 

Why twenty years between Days of Heaven and Malick’s magisterial comeback, The Thin Red Line? The filmmaker, who is not fond of giving interviews, has never spelt out the reasons, and so we are left with the reports and speculations of those who have crossed his path: on the one hand, Malick never stopped working on a variety of projects (one of which, the ambitious “creation fable” Q, eventually saw the light of day in a transformed state as The Tree of Life [2011]); on the other hand, he resolved to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to make his next film in total freedom, in a production situation where his open-ended process would be respected. Days of Heaven, according to the accounts of several collaborators close to the director, was not an ideal or easy shoot for Malick – his method was still too new, even for the New American Cinema of the ‘70s. By the late ‘90s, in contrast, casts and crews alike were willing to give themselves over to Malick’s singular vision. His particular kind of art cinema (if we must call it that, although simply cinema will do) is a paradox – because it depends for its existence (post Badlands) on large budgets, vast production resources, Hollywood studios and big-name actors. Yet who can say with certainty, in our age of new digital possibilities, where it may go in future?

MORE Malick: The New World

© Adrian Martin July 2007


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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