Blunt force allegory in Aronofsky’s Mother! 

Image result for mother filmPhoto credit: Variety

By now it’s no secret that Darren Aronofksy has a thing. Mind-bending, epistemological thrillers are his bread and butter, and the intensity with which his latest pursues this motif pretty much seals that deal. Like Farhadi’s beleaguered families or Herzog’s dreamers, Aronofsky airs his inspirations and fascinations in very clear and consistent terms across his artistic output. What makes Mother! stand out, though, is the way in which it turns this act of sharing in on itself, bringing the director’s usual metaphorical and dreamy mise to a deeply personal place. The result is an adversarial and harrowing reflection on the act of creation, one that feels archetypal in ways that make me wonder how this exact film had not been made sooner. The film centers its attention on Jennifer Lawrence’s character (unnamed, like the rest), the short-suffering wife of Javier Bardem’s successful but temporarily frustrated poet. She’s been renovating their cavernous, stately old farmhouse, her husband’s childhood home, while he ruminates and waits for inspiration to strike. When a lost and road-weary traveller (Ed Harris, wonderfully off-putting as ever) mistakes their home for a bed and breakfast, Bardem’s poet sets him up with room and board in short order. From there, more guests begin trickling into the house (including Harris’s wife, played by a deliciously rude and foreboding Michelle Pfeiffer), social contracts and prized possessions are broken, the trickle of visitors becomes a flood, and the poet’s wife reels through a series of panic attacks as reality slips ever further from her control and plummets into a fantastical frenzy. This synopsis alone should imply a fairly obvious thematic upshot, one that sees Aronofsky working through some painful self-evaluation.

This blend of the allegorical and autobiographical lends itself to the sort of psychoanalysis that I don’t have much interest in unpacking, especially since the film does a lot of that legwork for the viewer. What I will say is that the darker side of this coin is the way the film’s deeply rooted misogyny reflects back on the writer/director. Lawrence floats through the house in sheer lounge-wear for the majority of the film, and caters to the needs of her husband and his guests with infinite doe-eyed patience. She weathers lascivious glances and catcalls from strangers, and her trials take on a violent redoubling as the film barrels through an explosive third act. With later nods to a larger system of prejudice towards women, it’s clear that the film wants to say something about the current, global state of womanhood. But it never quite sticks the landing, and the conceit falls to the same illogic that would otherwise make for a rewarding discomfort in the film’s nightmare world. It’s easy to keep a piece like Mother! on a long leash. After all, a film committed to sounding the ugly depths of both a personal and national unconscious is going to replicate some uncomfortable and downright distasteful realities. But the exploitation feels unearned, and narrative laziness that rests too much artistic weight on the backs of the oppressed should be snuffed out. Leave the warping of culture and ideology for the fascists, I say, and save us from the sort of authoritative, ruminative, too-prevalent woman-hating commonplace to contemporary caricatures like the Recently Divorced Man.

The really unfortunate thing is that up until a finale that firmly puts Mother! on this ethically shaky ground, the film has some fun with the macho “manic writer” trope by focusing on what happens to Jennifer Lawrence (instead of making the writer a man of action, like Jack Torrance). This empathy is coupled with claustrophobic blocking and framing, making aesthetic hay from the increasingly unjust invasions of privacy to which the poet’s wife is subjected. And the world that she has built for them is given due respect in the set design, with fixtures taking on narrative importance, flooring damage that feels emotionally wrought, and a meditative wall-painting sequence that is threaded through the film as an island of calm. The use of domestic space here, an attention to detail that is perverted to chilling effect, is captivating (and shows the continued impact that James Wan & co. have had with The Conjuring; they should be proud). It is matched with a soundscape that deserves recognition, as the house’s creaks and echoes lend a rhythmic quality to the film in place of a musical score. And the lighting scheme disarms as well as it disturbs, providing a soft naturalism by day and queasy high contrasts by night (Harris’s craggy face looks downright skeletal here). Lawrence channels her usual vacillations between bleak vulnerability and willful agency, a high-wire act that few can navigate as well as she. As much as the tight quarters and waves of invasion might lend themselves to a litany of jump scares, I echo Michael Koresky in thinking that the scarier moments are those that eschew horror convention and instead pick at a much subtler sense of social unease.

Ultimately, Mother! is well-crafted and deeply unsettling; a thing that stretches the limits of genre and makes one appreciate the raw, ethereal power of film. A modern day, surreal Bluebeard à la (Stephen) King that’s fun to parse as the mystery unravels. All that said, the most I can muster by way of an endorsement is that I’m glad it exists. I’m left with too bad a taste in my mouth over the mythopoetic misfires to feel any sort of elation at the dark wonder of it all. And I continue to find Aronofsky’s brand of puzzle-piecing a somewhat overbearing and ungenerous affair. He said of Mother!, “if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.” He doesn’t benefit from being in the wake of David Lynch, the Granddaddy of the Dream Enigma whose recently-concluded Twin Peaks: The Return is a gift that I’m still not quite sure we deserved. Perhaps this film was just something that Aronofsky needed to get out of his system (as the popular account goes, he wrote it in a 5 day frenetic burst), and he can now settle in to something a bit more measured and memorable.

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Enigma and anathema: Eraserhead’s wretched puzzles

EraserheadPhoto credit: Blumhouse

Is it an allegory for nuclear proliferation? A fever dream born from parental anxiety? A tale of nature reclaiming a post-industrial, near post-human world? Some combination of the three? One thing is certain: after 40 years, Eraserhead remains a film that leaves audiences saying, “I’m not sure what I just watched but I don’t feel good and I know I will never be the same again.” It’s a work in aesthetic counterpoint, as the ugliness of the narrative and its accompanying visuals is met with beautifully textured photography, exceptionally rendered make-up and props, and captivating set design. Lynch’s attention to detail, as displayed in each of these elements, helps elevate his film beyond art student avant-garde surrealist frippery and bring it into some emotionally affecting territory. As do the performances. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a pathetic figure, insofar as he is a linchpin for any pathos found in such a disorienting and revolting film. Nance is helped along in this effort by playing off wonderfully erratic and upsetting turns from Charlotte Stewart, Jeanne Bates, Allen Joseph, and Judith Roberts. He’s also helped by his characteristic meekness, playing Henry with a quiet, subdued goofiness that suggests an alternate title for the film could be Charlie Chaplin Goes to Hell. After all, Hell, or at least some existential reflection on agency and the afterlife, is one of the film’s preoccupations. As is masculinity. And labor. And the aforementioned anxieties over destruction, nature, and procreation. For a run-time of 89 minutes and a surprisingly linear overall story arc, the film packs in a dizzying array of ideas and memorable visuals. And just when it seems it won’t be much more than a drifting, episodic curiosity, it explodes into a truly harrowing crescendo of gore that will likely haunt me for the rest of my days. In short, Eraserhead makes for one hell of a feature debut.

Despite its overall surreal pacing and imagery, the film has an authentic-feeling, hyper-real design. This is due in part to Lynch’s use of texture. A pock-marked tapestry of craters and chasms on a mysterious planet. A tangled mass of peat moss piled on a bedroom floor. A sickly man , shirking and twitching in the dark, covered in boils and scars (and played by all-star production designer Jack Fisk, though you wouldn’t know it even if you knew what Jack Fisk looks like).  Even innocuous images like a puddle or a radiator. Every frame of Eraserhead is rendered in unsettling detail, drawing the eye despite presenting the viewer with some repulsive material. This is achieved mostly through lighting, set design, and some wickedly gross prop and makeup work. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes takes full advantage of the decision to shoot in black and white, filling the screen with a chiaroscuro so heavy it’d pull its subjects right out of the frame if it weren’t so precisely balanced. Lynch’s stagecraft skills are on full display, with sets that are just odd enough without distracting entirely, but he also does well to take his camera outside and highlight his ability to find some richly bleak industrial spaces. And one of the awful highlights of the film is the “baby,” a grotesquerie finely wrought in such stunning detail one wonders if there’s some truth to Lynch’s joke that it wasn’t made, but discovered by the crew one day while shooting. The notion of blurring the line between attraction and repulsion, of using a wide-ranging aesthetic toolkit to manipulate cognitive processes and force some reconsideration of what makes a thing “beautiful”, seems to be a preoccupation of Lynch’s. As he explains in a 1979 interview centered on the film, “I think that a lot of things that other people think are ugly, are beautiful. And if you look at them right, or if they’re sort of isolated, and put in a different context, they can be seen as shapes and textures and they’re beautiful.”

The overall effect is one of Lynch letting us in, or pushing us down, to a complex maze of hidden worlds. The camera drifts often, and leads the viewer into the shadows that dominate every frame, bringing them to see what’s on the other side. We are taken through a jagged hole in an ominous metal box to get a glimpse of the Man in the Planet, an agent of change who seems to control portions of Henry’s life by just pushing and pulling a few levers. We enter Henry’s radiator, where a deformed woman (Laurel Near) performs a stage routine in an eerie club (reminiscent of both the Red Room and roadhouse in Lynch’s Twin Peaks), enticing him with promises of Heaven but pretty much leading him to Hell. We sink into puddles, time and again, that raise questions of creation in the way they so often suggest the Primordial Soup. We are brought into these marginal worlds, and no good comes from it. It’s as though the viewer is being punished for participating in cinema’s campaign of voyeurism, turning the act of seeing into a practice of being complicit with violent absurdity. This creates a kind of trial on the nature of film, and especially on what’s accepted as tradition in the form. With its tight use of space, sparse dialogue, black-and-white photography, and old-timey Fats Waller organ music, the film seems conscious of Old Hollywood’s domineering influence. So it might be that the warping of voyeuristic engagement is a sort of reckoning with the sins of the motion picture industry. Or that Lynch is marking himself in his feature debut as a cinematic enfant terrible, tilting at anyone who thinks that film has always been and should remain a passive artform. I wonder if his training as a painter lends him an extra curiosity for and judgment of filmmaking, giving him a unique critical perspective and allowing him to “break the rules,” as it were. He fills his title sequence with a superimposed, translucent image of the title character. He uses strobe lights to throw figures around the frame, and sometimes jump cuts haphazardly to make them disappear altogether. Eraserhead pulls back curtain after curtain, and we’re left to wonder whether or not we ever should have taken a peek.

Watching Eraserhead has long been a sort of vocation for me. As someone who grew up and lives in the suburbs just outside of Philadelphia, I was always intrigued by this film that I’d heard was influenced by Lynch’s time in that city in its grimier days. As if the film and the city coexisted on this alien plane where I knew I needed to spend more time. Add to this the fact that Lynch and one of my brothers share an alma mater (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and some aesthetic sensibilities, and the result is a film that’s always felt personal to me even though I’d never seen it.  How perfect, then, to pursue this vocational beacon and find such a delightfully horrific skewering of notions like finding meaning and holding things sacrosanct. I think this may prove to be a transformative experience for me in terms of my film comfort zone. It’s going to get ugly, and that’s just fine.

Hail Caesar! : A cinema studies crash course, Coen style

hail caesar!Photo credit: Vulture

Frankfurt School dialectics. The “genius of the system.” The specter of McCarthyism. The struggle for the legitimacy of a medium (and its attendant journalism). In both form and function, Hail Caesar!  seems to be the Coens’ attempt to condense a large chunk of introductory film scholarship into one film. As a result, it’s a big film, opting for the sweeping scale of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as opposed to the tight, quirky character studies of other Coen comedies. Given the glitz and grandeur of its Classical Hollywood setting, the breadth of the film’s concerns makes a certain kind of sense. It can also be disorienting, as B plot vignettes are given plenty of room to breathe and the main narrative is kept at bay. These vignettes feel like the result of a late-night pitch session between the brothers, each trying to top the other’s ideas for skits set across one back lot in the early 50s. There’s a rousing cowboy picture featuring the flamboyant stunts and comically earnest glowers of a young frontier heartthrob (Alden Ehrenreich). There’s a pitch-perfect Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming number punctuated by its surly lead (Scarlett Johansson) voicing her frustrations over the “fish ass” of her mermaid costume, and an equally faithful Gene Kelly homage anchored by preternatural multi-talent Channing Tatum that’s just sort of impressive on its own with no ironic strings attached. There’s a theological consultation session set up as a focus group on the eponymous Biblical epic in production, a meeting which quickly devolves into a “priest, preacher, cleric, and rabbi walk into a boardroom…” joke.

And did I mention that this is a movie about Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) frenzied search for superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped and indoctrinated by a syndicate of Communist screenwriters called “The Future”? An angrier reviewer would call Hail Caesar! a disingenuous cash grab dependent on the cobbling together of parts that have worked for the Coen brand before (kidnapping, satirizing philosophical theories, Clooney). Three things trouble this reading: one, the film was actually a long time in the making, and only came to fruition after some arm twisting from Clooney; two, it didn’t make a ton of cash for very long; and three, for all its disjointedness it delivers an intricately detailed, well-acted comedy (come for the aforementioned leads, stay for brilliant character turns from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, David Krumholtz, Frances McDormand, and Heather Goldenhersh) that scratches the surface of some big ideas about the culture industry and its crises of conscience. One of the film’s most impressive feats is that it does not feel bogged down by Hollywood navel-gazing, despite being an industry satire set in an oft-romanticized era. While it’s not a piece of Hollywood hate mail, it’s not exactly a love letter either. This is just as well, as it does stumble a bit in getting its point across on finding agency in a field that lends itself to scripting a person’s life on all fronts. Though they are played for laughs, scenes of Mannix’s assertion of power over his stars can be a bit tone deaf. Given that the studio system’s campaign of control lead to many a tragic end, becoming especially volatile once the Red Scare (which the film keeps just outside the frame) was dropped into the mix, I felt a twinge of guilt poking through the madcap fun of it all. Perhaps that’s the point. And perhaps the glib treatment is meant to ironize these conditions, as certain characters are “saved” from the government’s version of Eddie’s coercive tactics. Of course, this consuming, love/hate relationship that Eddie has with controlling Hollywood becomes especially blackly comic when one considers the role that the real-life Mr. (and Mrs.) Mannix played in the tawdry death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. The film’s theological ambivalence plays into this ethical gray area. Time and again it coyly introduces, then dodges, inclinations that Eddie’s messes are somehow divinely ordained. Appropriately, the film ends on an odd note that drives this point home: a rising crane shot of the Capitol lot abruptly whip pans across the sky and into the sun, filling the frame with a divine, blinding light.

And so, as with any other Coen film, we are left with as many questions as answers. Another Coen staple, for me at least, is a line of dialogue that sticks around long after the movie, both as some kind of entryway to understanding the film and as objectively good, memorable writing. In the case of Hail Caesar!, this line comes in the form of what’s essentially a throwaway aside. As Eddie balances catching up with his secretary and watching unpolished dailies, a voice booms stage directions in the background: “Squint! Squint against the grandeur!” This is a film of reverence rendered absurd by its mandatory nature. If you squint just hard enough, you’ll at least be able to blur the film’s disparate ideas and parts into a cohesive whole that’s fun to ponder for a day or two after the credits roll. One hopes that the Coens will know to hang it up when the reverence for their work starts to feel forced, lest they end up the butt of their own joke.

 

A rewarding genre experiment in Another Evil

another-evilPhoto credit: Seattle International Film Festival

The recent surge in horror films scoring accolades and critical praise seems to have enabled a renewed energy around experimentation with the genre, yielding a provocative crop of films that have broadened the potential for horror’s tone, scope, and audience base. For instance, not many films can claim the descriptor “mumblecore comedy-horror,” save last summer’s Creep (2015). Taken at face value, this blend seems a counter-intuitive exercise: how could the understated naturalism of the former capitalize on the visceral thrills of the latter? Enter Another Evil (2016), the feature debut from Eastbound & Down and Silicon Valley scribe Carson D. Mell. Like Creep, the film follows the antics of two men in a mountain home faced with unnatural circumstances and a conflict of interests that gives way to terror. Both serve as a sort of uncanny comedian/straight-man act that undercuts the laughs with a sense of dread. While the earlier film may have suffered from a sense that the spooky trappings were tacked-on, Mell has dug deep into the emotional cores of the tonally varying genres and found an odd and thrilling common ground. And despite an occasionally plodding pace in the film’s set pieces, it goes to great lengths to establish a strong sense of architecture and aesthetic. Perhaps a somewhat detrimental preference for world-building over narrative is the lot of the debut filmmaker (see Robert Eggers’ uneven but affecting The Witch from earlier this year), but Mell’s stylistic voice is just clear enough (and his comedic voice just outrageous enough) to carry Another Evil away from the overwrought boredom that could have easily developed in this sort of experiment.

One of the key strengths in the film’s structure is the expertly crafted awkward chemistry between its leading duo. Steve Zissis plays Dan, a visual artist with a bit of a ghost problem at his mountain retreat/studio. After feeling dissatisfied with the non-confrontational advice of a schlubby New Age shaman (Dan Bakkedahl), Dan seeks a second opinion from the affable if slightly aggressive Os (Mark Proksch). Os’s invasive approach to exorcism has him staying in the mountains with Dan for a week and conducting a series of ghost-catching exercises. As in most haunted house films, the unnerving atmosphere gets thicker as the week wears on. But while the supernatural hangs over Another Evil, the film’s chills are drawn primarily from more terrestrial concerns like navigating another person’s desperate vulnerability. Proksch puts on a seriously good study in earnest absurdity (think Max von Sydow meets Dwight Schrute) and helps the film find its balance between cringe comedy and wincing in fear. And Zissis builds audience sympathy, even if his character isn’t exactly likable, from a solid deadpan foundation. So it’s understandable that Mell would want to give this pair lots of room to breathe, given the captivating potency of their uncomfortable interactions. But the laugh lines only surface from a substantial chunk of ambling dialogue that occasionally borders on the wrong side of hypnotic. Despite the tipping of scales towards scenery chewing, the film does have a command of aesthetic that pushes it into some intriguing territory. The team wisely leans on a variety of genre touchstones: the fleeting ghouls of Japanese horror, angular set designs that recall Caligari, rooms awash in “Giallo Red” neon, establishing shots that wind through domestic space à la The Conjuring. This sense of identity, coupled with excellent sound design and a budding sense for what builds tension, points to a filmmaker well on his way to carving out a space for cinema that rewards just as much as it befuddles.

Like the best examples from its more sinister parent genre, Another Evil is driven by epistemological mysteries concerning the source of its frights and asks the viewer to revel in its own uncertainty. In an emotionally wrought indie dramedy, the kind to which this film feels somewhat spiritually beholden, existential musings over careers and relationships can get tired and trite very quickly.  Thankfully, Mell finds fear in that ambivalence and imbues his story with some real narrative heft. These thrills, coupled with laugh-out-loud comedy of both cerebral and slapstick varietals, keep the viewer company through the lulls and produce a wickedly fun film to the end.

The damaging, diasporic nostalgia of The Thin Red Line

the-thin-red-linePhoto: Slant Magazine

Terrence Malick continues the search for a perfect cinema of memory with his take on the war film in The Thin Red Line (1998). Of course, the guiding principle in this pursuit is imperfection, and the film draws power from its refusal to tidy up an oft-valorized piece of American history: World War II. That’s not to say that it takes an overtly cynical or finger-pointing political bent in the manner of an Oliver Stone. Instead, it accesses a piece of the American collective subconscious that expresses an ambivalence towards the responsibilities of wartime. An aging commanding officer tries to stave off humiliation by forcing a little glory into his life, and dolefully admits to his superficial motives. A soulful, serial deserter gets pulled back into the fray but doesn’t shy away from the tough going of the action. A seasoned 1st Sgt swings between direct, confident command and drunken ennui. There is a sort of “doing what needs to be done” fatalism in every character that eats away at them in clear terms. The usual Malick musings on man’s relationship with nature are here, this time applied to the callous persistence of war. But the stakes are much higher than anything the director has approached in previous films, as acknowledged by the Homeric allusions and the immense scale of the cast and locations. Ironically, what results is a film that is perhaps Malick’s most intimate offering yet. Epistolary narration, an unabashed sentimentality, violent moments that offer more than just empty spectacle, and an almost wonky look at military bureaucracy combine to create a frustrated, emotionally affecting meditation on American nostalgia.

The film meets its reflection on the fractured nature of a collective memory with an aesthetic that can best be described as hazy. A thick fog crawls through the Guadalcanal jungle, creating real narrative stakes for the soldiers that must fight through it in addition to giving the environment an ancient and magical quality. Man-made smoke also fills frames in abundance (Jack Fisk, Malick’s go-to production designer, had to have worked double-time on this film), pitting destructive human intervention in direct conflict with the rhythms of nature. At times the screen seems clouded with an amalgam of both fog and smoke, teasing out the existential crisis of whether or not it matters if anyone is overseeing the charnel house. The camera is aimless, seeming mostly unmoored in the wake of this question. It glides through the grass with the breeze, lingering on objects, animals, and the occasional moment of abject wartime gore. Explosions erupt in the foreground as the camera wanders through these violent tableaux, underscoring the unsustainable tension between natural and cultural history. And while it may seem that Malick is treading familiar thematic ground, he freshens up his own mold by bringing an unprecedented heft to the subject matter.

Though the horrors of war are anything but romanticized in this film, it does not ignore the tendency to mythologize these stories and adorn them with the glorifying cadence of the epic. Specifically, Homer’s Odyssey clings to the screen before Lt Col Tall (Nick Nolte) even makes his overt reference to “rosy-fingered dawn.” The film opens on an Ogygia in the Solomon Islands to which Witt (Jim Caviziel) has defected, but eventually sets him back on a course that cuts across the ocean towards more carnage. It also gives us glimpses of a life back home for several characters in the form of flashback arcs, one of which undermines a staple of the Odysseus mythos and becomes the source for a masterclass in breaking an audience’s heart. Explicit atavism also works in service of the primeval atmosphere that the film strives for, with characters crying and twitching and writhing and howling as the weight of their participation in a canonization of murder bears down on them. One set piece involving the storming of a camp is particularly dizzying as a distillation of this sort of barking madness throughout the film. John Toll’s confining chiaroscuro in other moments serves to amplify this frenzy, but it also memorializes by providing statuesque casts of faces that leave a lasting impression.

Despite the humanizing characterizations behind these faces, the film spreads itself across so many voices that it renders absurd any notion that a depth of feeling can be drawn from the patina of history. One of the great joys of the war film is the ensemble casting, but this film uses that construct to a disorienting effect. Malick’s script deploys his usual voiceover narration, except this time the introspection is given over to a whole host of characters musing over childhood, spirituality, life back home, the ins and outs of a military career, and more. The result is what feels like a series of epistles and the skeleton of an intimacy that defies the otherwise cold disconnect towards human life required of a war story. However, this intimacy is eventually subverted by a number of instances in which it’s unclear who is doing the narrating, and the connections forged throughout the film begin to dissipate. Compounding this slippage is the sheer number of characters that the viewer must keep track of. And Malick takes the opportunity provided by this white noise of characterization to deflate Hollywood star power, tossing in roles for John Travolta and George Clooney that hardly even last long enough to register. Nolte’s performance, however, is unforgettable. He brings such a gung-ho bravado to Gordon Tall that fits right in with the John Waynes of the era in which the film is set. That he was largely snubbed for Supporting Actor accolades stands as one of the historically great awards season injustices.

It’s worth noting in a discussion of this film that nostalgia originated in the 17th Century as a medical term used to describe a range of behaviors in Swiss soldiers pining for home. The Thin Red Line digs into this etymology and raises questions about how we should approach loss and longing. Is an awareness of historical significance a destructive practice in its own right? What is our responsibility in maintaining a vision of a bygone America? Does nature play a role in how we treat each other and ourselves? The film and its characters remain enigmatically engaged with these questions throughout, and train an unblinking gaze on our participation in revisiting historical trauma. Despite the fact that Witt claims “people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it,” I don’t believe I’ll be forgetting him anytime soon.

 

The art of the slow burn in Days of Heaven 

Days of Heaven OPSdbPhoto: 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.

Badlands and the lyrical violence of myth-making

badlandsPhotoCriterion

Terrence Malick has made plenty of hay from the notion that all stories are only a microcosm of the infinitesimal. That there is some current of Truth or Beauty or Devastation or Something thrumming underneath the surface of any cultural product. He has a habit of punctuating the immediacy of on-screen action with a wealth of environmental context, using establishing shots that situate his stories not just in their physical settings but in their relationship with the natural order as well (say, an extreme close-up of conifer needles in the midst of a hideout set-up montage for a murderous teen and his runaway girlfriend). Ironically then, a convention of cinema that normally anchors the audience in a sort of narrative reality instead serves a destabilizing function, as the story’s place in the world (and in the case of Tree of Life, the universe) is brought into constant question. Many who have seen a Malick film know (and at times, lament) this conceit, but to see it on display so clearly in a directorial debut is at least a testament to the strength of his conviction. Badlands (1973) tracks Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) on a rambling stretch of murders and misadventures across South Dakota and into Montana in 1959. Inspired by the true story of Charles Starkweather’s headline-grabbing killing spree, the film dilutes its brutality with an airy, dreamlike innocence that could be described as “cute” or “Ur-twee” if it were applied to a different subject matter. In creating distance between audience and subject and giving the film a dusting of surrealism, the film is able to arrive at something like a commentary on the cognitive dissonance inherent to American image creation.

As is his wont, Malick takes every opportunity in this film to celebrate the natural world surrounding his characters. It is telling that executive producer Edward Pressman, in reflecting on the film’s production history, surmises that the second unit shot just as much (if not more) footage as the principal. Interstices of flora and fauna permeate every scene, as if nature is keeping tabs on these two wounded and wounding lovers, or as if Kit and Holly are just another part of the landscape. Coupling these waves of organic imagery with the heavy use of fading to and from black (another Malick staple) gives the scenes a stanzaic quality, and we drift through a landscape teeming with equal parts terror and beauty. Domesticity seems to arise as a constant threat to this landscape, as the tranquility of sleepy Midwestern life is interrupted multiple times by violent or otherwise disturbing vignettes involving dogs and cows. Dogs especially figure prominently in the first act, perhaps foregrounding the tension between domestication and atavism that could be said to drive Kit if it weren’t for the opacity of his motives. In another scene, a storm rages far off on the horizon as Kit looks out over the plains. This image provides a more succinct reading of the film’s male lead: there is an unknowable and violent spectacle to him that we can really only grasp from a distance. Psychologizing the “man of action” is not one of this film’s interests. Instead, it gives any instances of inward reflection and personal history over to Holly, possibly parodying traditions of sentimentality and literary realism (and much could be said about what the film does with the gendering of genres). She approaches a psychoanalysis of Kit in the form of supposing that there’s “something wrong with his bean,” but it doesn’t go much deeper than that. It may seem to be a philosophical cop-out to chalk up Kit’s behavior as something that’s simply “in his nature,” but Malick at least backs this up with plenty of visions of the sort of nature that might contain a man like this.

Despite all of its nihilist underpinnings, Badlands is, for lack of a better term, fun. Our criminal couple is idiosyncratic and funny, even if they lack the ramshackle energy of a Bonnie and Clyde (it’s noteworthy that Arthur Penn is thanked in the credits). I wonder if the anti-hero shtick would have been tired by 1973, but Kit and Holly are a textbook example of New Hollywood boundary-pushing and moral ambiguity in that they commit acts of mindfully shot mindless violence while simultaneously charming us with their gentle and personable demeanor. There’s a whimsy here that seems almost impossible to pull off, but is bolstered by the pockets of surrealism that Malick lets into his film: a live fish out of water expands and contracts slowly on a nightstand while Kit stares off in bed, a house burns brilliantly while a children’s choir sings a cacophonous mixture of English and German. In this dreamlike world Kit and Holly can retain some sort of innocence, and the camera can spend more time on the poetry of their aimless passion than the ugliness of their actions. The music in the film readily works in service of this paradox, with the young couple taking breaks between the murderous kinesis to dance to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” and Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” (both scenes indelible: the former should strike a familiar chord for fans of Moonrise Kingdom, the latter is dreamily shot in the desert under heavy key lighting from a car headlight and beautifully blurs the lines between romance and melancholy). Contrast this with Holly’s father (Warren Oates), a painter who comes on as quirky if mildly patriarchal at first but eventually devolves into a cruel and domineering monster. In the fog of the film’s liminality, criminals are expressive and creative while artists are violently committed to maintaining the status quo.

The film traffics in this sort of skewing of the way image-making is used to maintain social order. The ghost of James Dean hangs over Kit and helps to usher him into celebrity status by film’s end. Sheen’s costuming and hair certainly strike that image, but it’s rounded out by comparisons explicitly drawn by characters throughout and the cover of a gossip mag that Holly reads aloud. Kit is also very aware of how cool he has been made by infamy, taking various quirky steps to ensure the posterity of his story. And so, this storybook crime drama leaves us wondering how or if we are supposed to learn anything from mediated retellings of true stories. If that kind of rigging of social commentary to an actual tragedy seems specious, don’t let it bother you too much. As Malick would have it, we’re all just rocks and chaparral in the badlands anyway.