Now that the release of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups upon us, a review of his second film is in order.
With theme and character sublimated to the level of the gushingly sensory and a stream-of-consciousness structure that pronounces its own subjectivity, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is not only one of the defining works of cinematic experience but the closest that film form has come to replicating the semiotics of William Faulkner’s literary imagination. The outline of the narrative – laborer Bill (Richard Gere) courts Abby (Brooke Adams) and stages her marriage to land owner Farmer (Sam Shepard) in a ploy to escape their workaday miasma – is suffused with forlorn Southern atmosphere. But, as with Faulkner, the texture of Malick’s work is not explaining or exploring that narrative but rendering it untenable and deferential to fluid, impermanent figments of memory, perspective, and subjectivity. In both imaginations, experience is not – as in most fiction – assured and objective, but cursory, fugitive, and ultimately perhaps inestimable.
There’s an earthen quality to Malick’s imagery, but his freely floating, transient camera undercuts his audience’s ability to engage this Texas landscape haptically at every turn. Fulfilling the decade-beginning promise of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s earlier experiment in turning the lyrical Western imagination into a frustrated chill of subcutaneous, contradictory impulses, Days of Heaven threatens the faux-objectivity of representational cinema by vanquishing his characters’ generic and psychological centers. Although he empathizes with their disheveled beauty throughout the film, Malick’s impulses are to part ways with the normally sacrosanct character-first essence of most languid cinema. Malick’s imagery doesn’t crystallize around his characters or his narrative so much as it haunts our assumption that we can understand these fleshy spaces on the screen. We watch the people, but the imagery invites under-dramatization, distance, and deference to the wide nexus between the audience gaze and the imaginative realm of a film.
To an outside viewer imposing the norms of representational film onto Malick’s work, his unbridled subjectivity may seem maladroit. His preference for horizontal, lateral motion across the landscape rather than forward momentum through the story may induce torpor or promote accusations of straying from the point. But, rather than suggesting inadequacy to character, Malick’s style interrogates the assumption that an audience can ever exist within the imaginative space of a film altogether. Furthermore, it invites not the cataclysmic direct-action of most New Hollywood maelstroms but a far more ethereal, twilight-infused sense of otherworldliness, as though the characters inhabit spaces around theirselves rather than within their own bodies. By sitting back and wafting around the nominally human spaces on the screen, Malick expresses a deeply human sense of our own dreamlike disassociation from our selves.
Expanding upon the quietly theatrical vistas and artificial acting of the magisterial Badlands, Days of Heaven creates a vision of life as shuffling pantomime rather than in-the-gut experience. Dialogue is at a bare minimum, making even the elliptical Badlands feel of a part with the days of classical Hollywood by comparison. Emotion, reaction, and action are impressed in the realms of painterly image and discordant sound, with narrative distilled into a sequence of cryptic edits and suggested sensations rather than declamatory annunciations. Not that the film is empty mind you; the roiling landscapes brim with an unknowable but sensually provocative imitation of life as dust-caked aphids veil the screen in a second-coming apocalypse abstracted to the level of impressionistic ennui.
Meanwhile, Malick’s edits are similarly active and busy, rather than passive. They disrupt the sense of space as he uncouples tracking motions from their usual semblance of connection, as though we fade into scenes in-media-res and are drawn away before their assumed closure. The baleful twilight drips over the film and proposes a stasis with the world perpetually trapped in an in-between status. The edits instill a semblance of perpetually indifferent motion, as though we’re moving between scenes rather than existing within them. Recurrent motifs of transportation suggest entrapment within the state of journeying without a destination, with experience encased in the dueling realities of remembering the past and pining for the future, both of which leave no time for the here-and-now. Life, here, is an existence outside the self, outside the moment.
Malick’s work, famously difficult to interpret, is not in search of meaning then; rather, it suggests something fundamentally incalculable about life, questioning the validity of connecting the dots and prepackaging experience by analyzing it. Instead, Malick’s oeuvre is sensory, spiritual, and momentary, denouncing the need to understand and proposing instead the joys of basking in the dusk and washing around in the fleeting moments of existence around us. It’s a hint, although not a statement, against the Kubricks and the Scorseses of the world, the filmmakers who privilege the big and the progression of time rather than the small, the unnoticed, and the forgotten act of taking in the environment. It questions the overweening habit of relating scenes to the whole body of the film, as though each moment must provide passage to a greater truth; for Malick, this assumption of final truth or arrival becomes an albatross around the neck of cinema, the very noose which ensnares us in the shuck and jive of connecting the past to the future, circling around experience by thinking about it until we forget the actual sensation of the experience to begin with.
Days of Heaven is thus alive with the realization that humanity is but a pithy outsider in the world, that our squabbles and desires, often lathered in hyperbolic drama in individualist, Western films, are insignificant in the greater pale of a world of phantasmal beauty looking on at us. Ultimately, the film is a critique of this shortsighted conceitedness found in self-centered knowledge acquisition in modern society. The conception of knowing is reduced in the film to a simulacrum of untethered images floating around in the mind searching for connections and meanings that Malick ultimately laments as futile. Few films as powerfully imply the sense of disruption, as though human experience is fundamentally divorced from the cognitive processes by which we interpret that experience, as though cognition distorts and even possibly destroys the value of simple sensory experience altogether. Our monomaniacal quest for future-selves, most especially the future-first habit of connecting individual scenes to larger narratives in film or assuming that our lives can be encapsulated and analyzed in narrative form, preclude us from existing within the present of the world, the present of the imagery, around us.
Malick’s work, then, is not indifferent to human tragedy, as his detractors often state, but poetically aware of the greater costs of subsistence living. Although Days of Heaven precludes certain notions of modernity, preferring to create a vision of experience that defies questions of modern class, gender, and race altogether, the film implicitly comments on the perils of capitalism as well. Living under the economic systems of America, nature becomes an anonymous bystander as humans dismantle from the space around them. They no longer live within the world, but reside tentatively next to it, beside theirselves as every moment becomes a capitalist pursuit of future moments. The oppression of a money-centered economy saps humanity from existing for its current self, as one must always envision one’s own future personhood, becoming an analytical being rather than an emotional one. With a quiet sigh, Days laments these future-first habits found both in the pursuit of knowledge and in the acquisition of money. It’s a paean to sensing rather than interpreting, an ode to feeling experience rather than the distancing arm of understanding it.