Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick's second feature, Days of Heaven, has a nominal story at its core, a rather conventional Hollywood story even, but that's not really what it's about. Malick's filmmaking is quiet, assured, meditative, and his film slowly parcels out fragments of narrative with a gentle rhythm that matches the steady flow of the natural world surrounding his characters. The film is deeply attuned to a world beyond its characters and their earthbound problems, and Malick seems to be at his best when he's working on a grand scale, when the people are just dots or black outlines in the midst of vast, seemingly endless vistas or when there are no people at all to clutter the flat, wide-open spaces he's filming. This is a film of grandeur and beauty, an epic in which there is no epic action, no broad drama, only the wonder of nature and the nearly equal awe inspired by the cinematography that captures nature in such unguarded moments.
The story here is a simple one. Bill (Richard Gere), a laborer in a steel mill, accidentally kills his foreman in a fight, and consequently goes on the run with his girl Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister (Linda Manz). The trio, with Bill and Abby pretending to be brother and sister, find work on a wheat farm, harvesting the autumn crop under the attentive eye of an unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard) who soon falls for Abby. The predictable love triangle that develops, and the equally predictable tragedy that results, are related almost entirely in short, elliptical scenes that strip down the basic story to its most essential details and moments. Malick is clearly a filmmaker who believes in economy in his storytelling, and there's also a certain flatness of tone that equates all of the film's images and moments. A scene of whispered conversation between Bill and Abby is given the same emphasis as a scene where Bill's sister and another laborer girl walk through the fields hunting for insects. And all of these human moments are interspersed with the film's haunting, evocative images of natural beauty. Malick has as much feeling for a wheat field shot at the "magic hour" as he does for an expressive face or a moment of tenderness between two people. This quality of narrative flatness is enhanced by the sporadic voiceover, provided by Bill's sister with a quirky, thickly accented drawl that was simply annoying at first, but soon revealed itself as very much in tune with the film's folksy rhythms.
There are many individual moments here that must surely rank among the most beautiful shots ever filmed. A sunset spreading rich hues across a cloudy sky, as men pop up from amongst the wheat waving flags as some kind of signal. The many gorgeous shots of the laborers at work in the fields, the farmer's distinctly shaped house rising out of the wheat in the background, always a subtle presence at the rear of the frame. A train chugging across a bridge, sending puffs of smoke flailing backwards in its wake. A scarecrow posed against a pumpkin-orange sky. Foreboding thunder clouds turning strange colors against a darkening sky. There are also moments that work on a more human scale, like the scene where Bill's sister joins a black man in a spirited tap dance on a fallen door, or the subtly sexual moment where Bill washes Abby's feet in the lake, lifting her skirt and running his hands along her ankles.
The film is propelled along by such tiny incidents, accumulating its force and its emotional impact by positioning its characters' petty drama in a context that is both universal and socially engaged. Malick's pictorial sensibility, his love of natural beauty, doesn't prevent the film from dealing with the realities of Dust Bowl living in the Depression era. In fact, the film's emotional locus is in its treatment of extreme poverty and transient labor, not in the rather rote love triangle and its effect on the lovers. The driving force of the film's drama is poverty, and when Abby begins gravitating towards the farmer, she seems to fall in love with his lifestyle more than she does with him. The farmer himself is a cipher. He's never even given a name the voiceover always refers to him in an abstracted fashion as "the farmer" and the details of his life are hinted at rather than developed. Abby seems to know as little about him as the audience does, but she does know that he has the capacity to change her life. She goes from working in the fields sunup to sunset, covered in dirt and clothed in rags, to lounging around all day, having fun, finely dressed and clean. The emblematic image of this romance, and the one moment in the film in which Abby looks truly happy, is a fluid tracking shot in which Malick's camera follows her around the farmer's house, as she looks over the objects in the room and admires her clothes and new possessions. She twirls a lace shawl across her shoulders, smiling broadly and genuinely.
Scenes like this do not condemn Abby for her materialism, which Malick views with affection and warmth, capturing her obvious pleasure. The glimpses we get of Abby's past indicate a hard, thankless life as a child, she worked in a cigar factory from morning to night, never even seeing daylight, an experience that taught her to appreciate all those things that were "not so bad" in comparison. For her, the farmer's wealth is not really an end in itself; she seems to have little use for or knowledge of money, which remains an abstract concept in the film. The value of money is defined, rather, in time and the way it is spent, in the quality it imparts to life. As the sister's voiceover nostalgically relates, this makeshift family finds, in the farmer's welcoming embrace, that life is rich when there's nothing to do but wile away the hours, enjoying each other's company and taking pleasure in the countryside and its many entertainments. There is no room in this film for a lament over upper-class boredom, or an earnest testimony to the satisfaction of honest work these characters guiltlessly and eagerly take joy in the freedom from work, the freedom to be idle provided by money.
This joy is perhaps most deeply felt in the brief, slightly surreal segment when what's described as a flying circus troupe invades the farm a trio of Italians in biplanes who swoop in, arguing and comically assaulting one another, then put on a show that involves a belly dancer, a gorilla, and a midget. This odd interlude, funny and silly and celebratory, precedes the film's dark final act. It's as though this absurd trio arrived for one last joyful moment before carrying away the characters' last chance for happiness, just as they carry away Bill in their planes when they leave. Later, Bill's return to the farm has all the allegorical force of a Biblical plague it's as though Satan himself has darkened the door, bringing with him fire and locusts and death. Malick's images, always beautiful, take on a terrible beauty here, horrifying even as they inspire awe.
This apocalyptic climax eventually gives way to the film's flatly conventional ending, which echoes Malick's first feature Badlands with its gangster-on-the-run overtones. This is the only point when the film falls short, when Malick's narrative suddenly intrudes too heavily on a film that, prior to this, seemed to be simply drifting along, ebbing and flowing with the rhythms of everyday life and the passage of the seasons. Malick's sense of time is well-honed, and this film breathes like no other; the periodic fades to black that punctuate it are like slow intakes of air. In the latter half of the film, seasons shift from a cool, mild winter with a dusting of fluffy snow to the return of the harvest season, evoked by a series of shots that recall the beginning of the film, bringing things full circle with a cyclical finality. It's in touches like this that the film is at its best. Malick uses his landscape shots as a fully developed language in their own right. These shots have a wide variety of meanings, signaling the passage of time, suggesting metaphorical content that relates to the story, as rhythmic inserts for purposes of pacing, and sometimes, simply for their own sake, to bask in the beauty of a natural world in which even the most melodramatic of human-scale stories can seem small and inconsequential.