Photo: One Perfect Shot
Patience meets passion in the wheat fields of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), to anarchic effect. In his follow-up to Badlands (1973), Malick shows a much steadier hand in his willingness to linger on rural vignettes rife with the frustrations of a manufactured love triangle. If his previous effort was to be a manifesto of aimless release, then this follow-up betrays that in its constraint, deliberation, and labor. The film centers on a trio of impoverished, hard-scrabble Chicagoans who flee south from their squalor to greener (albeit, still rough) pastures. They take on some migrant work on a farm in the Texas Panhandle belonging to a wealthy bachelor (Sam Shepard, captivating in his first feature film role), brooding and gentled by a mystery ailment with a diagnosis that gives him little time left to live. Bill (Richard Gere), beat down by the urban hell that he left behind, leads his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) into plotting a sort of con that would see her marrying the farmer and getting his money once he passes. The film mutes the nefariousness of this scheme by setting up the pieces and letting them play out in awkward starts and stops. As the plan goes awry and time wears on, the quiet sorrow of love under false pretenses gives way and the film’s machinations come crashing down in a violent, spectacular heap. Mutability wins the day, and the only source of clarity is our child narrator (Linda Manz) who bears the banner of the film’s frank poetics.
The elegiac tone of the film is supported by a measured pace, as careful and stable as the train that bears our protagonists and an overwhelming load of compatriot laborers down to the farm. For a long stretch of winter after the harvest, it’s a dreamy three-hander that chugs along with an undercurrent of conflict while confining its main characters to their ranch on the open plains. The simple question of whether or not the jig will ever be up (before even arriving in Texas, Bill and Abby have billed themselves as brother and sister, but can’t seem to keep their hands off each other and sell this act) proves daunting enough that the center cannot hold and the characters begin to lose their grip on their emotions and, eventually, their environment. A visit from a Fellini-esque flying circus provides a brief respite from the weight of this question, but they mostly only serve to foretell the carnival of biblical, frenzied comeuppance in the third act. The subject of the elegy, the loss that seems to have thrown the world of Days of Heaven out of order, is the infringing of an industrialized future upon a hazy, halcyon past. And the past is very much of interest to the film, identified at the outset by a montage of archival images depicting a Chicago long gone. But this past is best described as half-remembered. Scenes are softened by natural, magic-hour lighting. Dialogue fades in and out. Characters don’t quite seem to know what they’re going to do next. And the initially cooperative farmhouse trappings, the pastoral iconography fetishized in a Cather-like nostalgia (an adaptation of My Ántonia never really needs to be made, since Malick has pretty much handled that here), only obfuscate the ultimately destructive role that nature plays in the form of fire and locusts. Even the house’s weather-vane, normally a folksy adornment to a homestead, cuts through the air with sharp, metallic efficiency and menace.
In her Hester Prynne sort of way, Linda is able to remain a child of nature amidst the calamity. Her narration brings focus to a film that may otherwise be irreconcilably slow. Not only is hers an aesthetically amusing and naturalistic voice, taking on the quality of a grizzled street tough that’s seen it all, but she brings a captivating magical realism in envisioning herself as a “mud doctor” that heals the earth and talks to wheat patches. That’s not to say that her presence wards off any evil. In fact, she wonders if the devil may be out there with them on the farm, and talks the audience through a vision of hell while watching a Charlie Chaplin film brought in by the circus (perhaps an admission of guilt that the cinema is itself a harbinger of industrialization). Even Linda is powerless to protect their plot of paradise from the ravages of modernity. The only other trains we see are one in passing that bears President Woodrow Wilson, and another that carries soldiers off to the Great War. The melancholy felt over the inability to run history off the tracks gives way to a lashing out, and Malick drives home his frustration with a cynical world.
There are few that could be said to capture a literary mode of filmmaking better than Terrence Malick. A clear proclivity for symbolism. Artful transitions between scenes and ideas. Narrators that give the films structure and meaning. These all create a writerly syntax that I think speaks to Malick’s critical popularity: it’s possible that his work is tracked so closely by critics in part because he is one of the last bastions of pure, simple auteurism. Perhaps he provides the film crit class with their own version of a heavenly idyll somewhere out in the Panhandle of analytical thinking. Of course, the films are not just the result of Malick’s singular vision (though stories of his clashes with production teams may convince otherwise). Frequent collaborators like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber deserve credit for bringing Malick’s vision to life. And there’s more to his body of work than just a literary sensibility. Patience and the specters of violence are other Malick mainstays, for instance. Appropriately, he wouldn’t return to filmmaking for another twenty years after Days of Heaven, and when he did it was a film about the second World War. But before taking a leap into a gaping hellmouth of history that he tried so hard to keep at arm’s length in his first two films, he showed that hell can be, as Sartre puts it, other people.