Posts Tagged ‘ terrence malick ’

Days of Heaven, by Terrence Malick

My piece on Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven has been published over at Static Mass Emporium:


Terrence Malick holds a unique place in my personal canon of film directors, partly because I discovered his films at a watershed moment when a passing interest in cinema was turning into something more consuming. His films fuse a European formalism and philosophical seriousness with a classically American pastoral aesthetic and sense of nostalgia. They hover somewhere around the boundary between the popular and the recondite, giving them the character of a strange cultural hybrid.

Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, is superficially a classic American crime film concerning a young runaway couple, borrowing from Bonnie And Clyde and the long prehistory of road trip narratives that forms a central current in the American cultural imagination, from Twain to Kerouac, The Wizard Of Oz to Easy Rider. Yet this traditional material is refashioned by the modernist narrative device of the unreliable narrator. This casts an uncertain light on its nostalgic aesthetic and throws the focus narcissistically back onto the film’s form as the key to its meaning.

Though Malick has never completely shed his connections with classically American cinematic tropes, his films have become progressively more abstract and formally adventurous. His later films are ponderously paced and heavily aestheticized visual poems, seemingly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. Meditations on time, memory and spirituality, they are also investigations of the relationship between form and content.

Days Of Heaven sits at the intersection of early and late Malick, retaining some of the cohesion of Badlands while pointing the way to the more ruminative style ofThe Thin Red LineThe New World and The Tree of Life.

Read the full piece here


Tabu, by Miguel Gomes

The latest offering from Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, Tabu revolves around a series of unresolved oppositions: realism and romance, fact and fiction, the metropolis and the colony, the internal and the external, the narrator and the narrated. Not only is the film structured around thematic contrasts, formally it is split into two bipolar halves: present and past or, in its own literary terminology, Paradise Lost and Paradise. The former is a prosaic study of urban alienation, while the latter is a self-consciously poetic melodrama set in colonial Africa.

The thread that links the two sections is Aurora, a senile old lady who gambles away vast chunks of her fortune and rambles semi-coherently about filial plots, the machinations of her taciturn maid Santa, and escaped crocodiles. We encounter her through the eyes of her neighbor Pilar, a lonely middle-aged spinster and Catholic do-gooder. Along with Santa, they form the central triangle in a low-key urban character study that resembles a less dramatic Haneke or a less wry Kaurismaki.

The themes are all there: the impossibility of communication, the atomization of modern life, the arbitrariness of a faithless world, the failure of multiculturalism. The characters are ideas with names. Santa (saint), an impoverished African immigrant, remains as utterly inscrutable as her postcolonial generic precedents would lead us to expect (she even secretly reads Robinson Crusoe). Pilar’s (pillar) Catholicism insulates her against the meaninglessness of her lonely existence. The surreal poetry of Aurora’s demented monologues provides a contrast to the unrelenting prose of daily life. All of which, while not without its merits, on first viewing errs on the side of obviousness and didacticism.

However, the film is flipped upside down by a second section that could scarcely be more stylistically incongruous. An elderly stranger, Gian Luca Ventura emerges like a ghost from Aurora’s past and recounts to Pilar the tale of their histrionic romance, set at the foot of the remote African Mount Tabu. Replete with elemental passion, shattered taboos, elopement, murder, betrayal and tragic separation, the tale breathes life back into the dead themes whose very absence haunts the opening section. The world is re-enchanted before our eyes in a manner whose potential spuriousness we are more than willing to temporarily forget.

The contrast is as much stylistic as thematic. The neo-Bressonian minimalism of the opening section gives way to an unashamedly lyrical homage to the silent era, all aestheticized black and white shots of verdant mountainsides in the setting sun and smoldering close-ups of the youthful star-crossed lovers. The section is soundless other than the atmospheric hum of crickets and the disconnected voiceover of the now-elderly protagonist telling the story at Aurora’s wake in Lisbon.

Reviewers have invoked Terrence Malick as a reference point, and the magic-hour lighting, leisurely panoramas and enigmatic voiceover would all seem to suggest his influence. The unconfirmed relationship between word and image serves as the formal crux in Malick films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven, and Tabu utilizes a similar structural instability. We do not know whether what we watch in the second half is a visualization of the events from an omniscient perspective, a projection of Gian Luca’s memories as he sees them in his mind’s eye, as they are transfigured in the romance-starved imagination of the listening Pilar, or even a commentary on the way we the audience might perceive his memories to look because of our own preconditioning by the very cinematic norms and clichés it employs. In a sense it doesn’t matter – the effect lies in the uncertainty.

If the section’s aesthetic were merely intended as homage to a bygone cinematic era we might dismiss it as mere trainspotting or self-indulgence. But the romanticizing cinematic language is problematic. On the one hand it serves to poetically exaggerate and universalize its themes in the manner of classic middlebrow melodrama. But on a more subtle level it emphasizes the potentially violent subjectivity of nostalgia. Stripped of their sentimental baggage, the events it depicts are largely destructive, culminating in the hastily covered-up murder of an entirely undeserving victim. Like the ironically fairytale aesthetic that disguises the violence of Badlands and Days of Heaven, this treatment conceals the nature of the events it describes.

The second section, then, provides a mythic counterweight to the drab social realism of the first, which purports to merely show things to us ‘as they are’. But this is rather more than dramatic relief or escapism. For one thing it calls into question the limits of cinematic realism, underscoring the gap between appearance and quiddity. Just as the characters in the first half are unable to really communicate or empathize with one another, our window into Aurora’s tumultuous past – outrageously distorted or downright untrue though it might be – serves to emphasize the inauthenticity of appearance. Though the realism of the first section pretends to document concrete reality, the second half shows that it has communicated nothing of its characters’ inner lives. The actual nature of the present is as fugitive and hypothetical as that of the past.

If the purpose of the second section were merely to correct our initial reading of the first with a revelation of the past, while juxtaposing the prose of the present with the poetry of nostalgia, it would have run the risk of triteness. Yet its complexity stems from its ambiguous relation to any notion of objective truth. By retaining an uncertain relationship between the words that form the historical data of the narrative (themselves potentially unreliable) and the aestheticized images that relay it to us visually, Tabu refuses to give us an authentic version of events to fall back on.

Indeed, the truth of the film lies somewhere within the very contradictions inherent in its opposing forces. The poetic truth of the second section is as selective, questionable and incomplete as the prosaic truth of the first. The whole remains inaccessible. Ultimately Tabu serves as a monument to the glorious futility of any attempt to impose a narrative upon the world.

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has been referred to as an American who makes films with a European sensibility. A former student of continental philosophy who dropped out of his PhD at Oxford over an argument about Wittgenstein, Malick has never had much to do with the Hollywood establishment, and his status as a mythic recluse is enhanced by a glacial production rate of just five films in nearly 40 years. Like just about everything Malick has directed, The Tree of Life is an enticing and unusual combination of the sort of highbrow narrative experimentalism one associates with European art-house cinema, infused with a lush, and occasionally heavy-handed romantic lyricism that connects it to a more classically American pastoral tradition. The result is something like a Calvin Klein advert scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and inter-spliced with outtakes from the Discovery Channel. Sound strange? It is, pretty. But it somehow works.

The film takes as its subject a 1950s suburban American family, a married couple and their three young sons. Malick has never been shy about employing rigid gender roles in his films, and the parental characters are classically Freudian. The opening voiceover from the mother of the family speaks of the eternal metaphysical (materialists: this isn’t for you) conflict between grace and nature. This sets up a framework through which to view the warring maternal and paternal principles, and their formative effect upon the three boys; however, though the mother’s monologue sets this conflict up as a clash between the ruthlessness of nature and the redeeming spirituality of religious grace, the forces at play could also be interpreted through a Nietzschean Apollonian/Dionysian paradigm, or indeed as some sort of negotiation between rationalism and empiricism. The uptight, disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt), is the realist, empiricist and pragmatist: a military engineer who is also a talented musician, he runs a borderline-abusively tight ship in order to toughen up his sons in preparation for the demands of the real world. The mother, meanwhile, is an impractical dreamer, both idealistic and idealised, who is inadequately equipped to deal with life’s more prosaic demands.

Telling the story of the family through a cryptic succession of fragmented flashbacks, The Tree of Life weaves together several key thematic threads: an investigation into the formation of personality, a study of bereavement, a recreation of the distortions to which memory subjects childhood, a rumination on, yes, the origins of the universe (Malick is nothing if not grandiose), along with a subtle interrogation of traditional film narrative methods and their shaping effect. In classic Malick style, the premises of the narrative remain shrouded in mystery, the audience left to do much of the interpretative legwork in piecing together a narrative that is primarily visual, a fragmented chain of heavily stylized images overlaid with various more or less cryptic voiceovers. What we can readily gleam is that an older version of one of the sons (we infer it to be Jack, the eldest), a disillusioned architect played by Sean presumably-not-paid-by-the-word Penn, lapses into an extended reverie concerning his childhood and his deceased brother when he sees a tree being planted outside his New York office.


Towards the beginning of the story we learn that one of the sons –strongly hinted to be the middle of the three – dies at the age of 19, a period not otherwise touched upon at any point in the film. This immediately reverses a cinematic norm; we are hit with the emotional crescendo at the very beginning of the film, before we have any real context for it, and we spend the rest of the film trying to work out what exactly has happened, when, how and to whom. Malick has a penchant for this kind of concealment and indirectness, like the sudden and psychologically unexplained murders that are central to both Badlands and Days of Heaven. If we are to come to somehow empathize with the characters, we must do so incrementally and indirectly; Malick refuses to give us the sort of easy, sham access to their thoughts and emotions implicit in traditional spoon-fed characterization, and instead imitates life by keeping us insurmountably on the outside. We are consequently denied the facile emotional release of a head-on confrontation with the circumstances of the parents’ grief, which to devotees of Hollywood convention may be interpreted as perverse. We instead experience their grief as a mere spectacle shorn of its context, a series of outward gestures without an established cause. By refusing us the summary objectivity of the classic realist narrative eye Malick draws us into the plot, activating us by making us piece together the causes and referents of the dissociated reactions we observe.

In fact, many of Malick’s effects are dependent upon his subtly eroding the contractual trust that we place in the nature of the sequence of images we are watching. In place of a more classic unreliable narrator figure such as those used in Badlands or Days of Heaven, a dialogue is taking place throughout between the very sequence of images Malick places before us, and the norms, conventions and assumptions that we use to interpret them as a recognizable narrative whole. There is a sense in which Malick’s approach amounts to a critique of realism, in a way that is far more closely engaged than in a surrealist such as David Lynch. Whereas late Lynch films such as Inland Empire or Mulholland Drive reject the conventions of realism wholesale and instead move in phantasmagoric, dreamlike chains of vaguely associative images, Malick mostly confines himself to more traditional and circumscribed scenarios. It is the manner in which he reveals a chain of events, rather than the chain of events themselves, that forms the basis of his engagement with cinematic convention.


On a formal level, The Tree of Life in many ways resembles a cinematic equivalent of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Simon. Indeed, central to the theory of the nouveau roman was Robbe-Grillet’s distinction between the classic realist novel (of which Balzac, as in the eyes of Barthes and Becket, is the prime exemplar) that places the reader in a passive position, and the ‘new novel’, which activates the reader by forcing him to take on an active role in piecing together the adumbrated form of a fragmented and incompletely revealed narrative.

The (novel) author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work – and the world – and thus learn to invent his own life. 

Countless works of modern narrative art – from Beckett’s Molloy to Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur and Le Clezio’s The Interrogation, to films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Michael Haneke’s Hidden and The White Ribbon – use the trope of the detective story as a way of activating the reader, and bringing to the surface the process by which we, as the consumers of a work of narrative art, are complicit in its effects in our role as the solvers of the mystery. Yet in The Tree of Life we are faced with something less playful and more mystical, cryptic and abstract. We may try and find an answer to the mystery but one senses that, as in a Thomas Bernhard novel, all we are ultimately likely to find there is a painstakingly achieved aesthetic effect that is held together by the very absence of any definite answer to the questions it raises. The film styles itself as a flashback, placing us in the mind of the central character as he remembers his childhood, but contains events he could not have witnessed. It gestures at a completeness that it never fulfills, refusing to differentiate between potential interpretative angles and provide the one thing we normally expect film to provide: an objective representation of events. As in life, that is something we must construct for ourselves.

All of this played out just fine at Cannes, where Malick won the Palm D’Or, but it will be interesting to see how it goes down with the cinema-going public. The relatively lavish budget and the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the bill is likely to draw plenty of punters who have little interest in the tricks and ambiguities so central to Malick’s engagement with his subject matter, his ongoing dialogue with narrative modes and conventions, and the overreaching bombast of his pseudo-metaphysical enquiry. The near-unanimous audience reaction at the screening I attended in New York (it doesn’t come out in the UK until next month) was one of bemusement, boredom and mistrust. There were most of a cinema’s worth of audible sighs of relief when the film came to its abrupt end, alongside a smattering of ironic applause.

The skeptics had a point in the sense that Malick lays it on pretty thick. This is a film that leaves itself open to accusations of pretentiousness at times, in which whole sequences seem to have been shoehorned in purely because they look good without serving any particular narrative function, and I’ll never know what was going through Malick’s mind when he decided to reel out the dinosaurs. But nonetheless it would be a shame if the reputation of the film suffers for the disparity between its high profile and its relatively obscurist pitch. The Tree of Life contains some of the most visually stunning sequences I have ever seen, and for these as much as its narrative cleverness one can imagine it being studied for years.  What’s more, whereas Malick’s stubborn refusal to grant us simplistic access to character and motives could have resulted in sterility, his fragmented and dissociated reconstruction of childhood contains enough vivid scenes and glimmers of personality that he ends up achieving a hard-won empathy that is somehow more valuable for the lack of shortcuts. It isn’t often you see a big-budget film replete with Hollywood stars that has genuine artistic ambition. And ambition is one thing that nobody is likely to accuse The Tree of Life of lacking.

Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick

So, to continue on a Terrence Malick theme, on to Days of Heaven – which, having been blown away by Badlands, I watched pretty much the next day. Days of Heaven was made three years after Badlands, and it’s tempting to take the two films as companion pieces. Days of Heaven takes many of the things that I found most interesting about Badlands and develops them to another level

Again, a child retrospectively narrates an adult-themed story that she only partially comprehends over a visual narrative (this time with remarkably little dialogue) purportedly showing us these events. And once again the split between visual narrative and voiceover seems to deliberately call into question the relationship between the two – as well as disrupting any attempts we might make to come to a stable conclusion about that relationship.

Having cursorily scanned the Wikipedia page – a level of scholarly rigour and diligence I would typically reserve only for writing articles at work – apparently the voiceover in Days of Heaven was added pretty late in the day, when Terrence Malick had been descending into Jack Nicholson-esque insanity on his own in an editing room for a couple of years. (Apparently this is pretty standard practice for Malick; hence he only actually finished four (soon to be five films in the last forty-odd years).

To be honest, having pretty limited knowledge of the actual process of making a film, I’ll not delve into this too much. Except to say that, whatever the original intention (which, let’s face it, becomes largely irrelevant once a film enters the public domain), Days of Heaven ends up being in many ways an amplified version of Badlands. It expands the narrative trickery, goes to town on the lavish visuals and cinematography (and also incorporates camera tricks more obviously as part of its unreliable narrative strategies), at the expense of some of Badlands’ formal symmetry and tightness. And accordingly it seems to have split critical opinion rather more.

The plot itself is pretty melodramatic (Days of Heaven is not a film, either thematically or visually, that goes in for understatement – if it’s gritty realism you came for, you’re in the wrong place). Bill – played with taciturn reserve by a young Richard Gere (a kind of exquisite corpse, if you will) – is romantic and rebellious but shackled to a dead-end job in a Chicago factory and bereft of money or prospects. Early in the film he gets into some sort of argument with a foreman in the factory (we can’t hear what it’s about), and in a moment of rage twats him round the head with a fairly hefty-looking spade, apparently killing him.

Cut to a romanticised shot of Bill, his girlfriend Abby and his little sister, Linda (also the narrator) on top of a freight train, chugging through the autumnal countryside. Malick loves these juxtapositions and playfully oblique presentations – fairytale sentimentality interspersed with violence and squalor, toil and mundanity presented with the stylised indulgence of a Gucci advert.

The three flee south to the Texas Panhandle, where the rest of the film is set. Pretending that Bill and Abby are brother and sister, they find work as (underpaid and exploited) migrant labourers harvesting corn. Malick certainly gets his money’s worth from the cornfields aesthetically, and the harvesting scenes come across as a slightly incongruous cross between John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – poor workers being exploited by ‘the man’ – and DH Lawrence’s hammy, over-pumped lyricism.

Apparently the film was shot almost entirely without artificial light, and mostly during the ‘magic hour’ before sunset, giving it an ethereal gloss that contrasts with the crushingly mundane, repetitive existence the characters are living out. While this can be taken as aesthetic indulgence for its own sake (it feels a bit sickly-sweet and heavy-handed at times, but some of the shots are astonishing), it becomes more intriguing when considered in combination with the other elements of the narrative. In this way, Days of Heaven feels very much like a continuation of Badlands. Style subtly jars with content in such a way as to bring the relationship between the two – their convenient grammatical separation, of which we conventionally have so few quibbles – into the spotlight.

Badlands contains lots of beautiful shots of badlands, and this presentation seems slightly dissonant in the context of a film about mass murder. Camera shots – so we generally hold to be the case – are chosen and styled in part to create a narrative atmosphere, and for a murder-themed film we might expect the director to go for something a little darker, more unsettling, more suggestive of a disturbed mental state. When taken in conjunction with Holly’s subtly misleading narrative, the incongruously stylised visual appearance of the film would appear to align itself with the fairytale music and the romanticised and clichéd voiceover. We appear to be watching Holly narratively refashioning the material that forms the historical basis of the story she is telling, subjugating and bending content (as it were) to fit a form lifted from elsewhere (the popular cadences and ‘sense of an ending’ that tend to feature in tales that we tell). All of these elements appear to cohere to fit in with some sort of narrative scenario – Holly is somehow responsible, we feel, for this presentation, and even though that doesn’t really stack up (she hasn’t actually edited the film and chosen the music), the obvious answer that what we are watching is a piece of fiction that doesn’t owe us overall tenability because it isn’t real, is rather mundane and spoils the effect.

In Days of Heaven this aspect is brought even more to the fore by both the more overtly aestheticised appearance of the film, and the way in which the story is visually ‘told’ to us. Malick apparently wanted to make a ‘visual poem’ in which images have greater narrative significance than dialogue, and part of the way he achieves this effect – undermining the primacy of the syntactically ordered and sequential narrative of the voiceover – is by editing the film in such a way that it doesn’t appear to be telling us the story in a coherent narrative order. Like a William Faulkner novel, it jumps about in fragments, usually declining to present us with an easy and established narrative or temporal link between one scene and the next. This means we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and also we are never sure that some significant event has not been concealed from us.

Whereas Holly’s voiceover is clichéd and seems to imitate storybook phrases and narrative patterns, Linda’s voiceover is semi-nonsensical (as well as being a lot younger than Holly – probably about nine or ten – she seems to have some sort of mental impairment). The fantastical aesthetic provided by the mood-lit cornfields seems to tie in with this narrative perspective – it gives the scenes a magical and incomprehensible quality that seems to be partially recreating the impression they would create from the perspective of a nine year old. The incongruously lavish visual style encourages us to detach the images we’re watching from their contextual significance – the misery of poverty, the backbreaking mundanity of the work, the wider social injustice and cruelty underpinning it all – and view it as a purely aesthetic spectacle.

This seems to align us with Linda’s perspective, who as a child with an incomplete understanding of the world around her and the forces that affect her, focuses on appearance more than meaning or explanation. Her narrative is full of observations about what things look, sound, or feel like, but she never really offers an opinion on how or why anything has happened. Likewise, the fragmented order of the narrative and primacy of images over words means that we have little explanation for much of what happens (it took me a while to work out that Bill and Abby aren’t actually brother and sister, for example). Thus we are placed in the wide-eyed and oblivious position of a child looking on, witnessing events without understanding their full significance and the adult motivations, causes and consequences that underpin them.

As the film goes on, then, this purely aesthetic focus seems to be in conflict with the fantastical, melodramatic and romantic arc the narrative increasingly takes on. It becomes clear that the rich farmer who owns the farm on which they work – shy, lonely, naïve and sheltered, and like Bill largely taciturn – is holding a torch for Abby. He is also immensely wealthy and, conveniently, dying of an unspecified terminal illness (again, due to the fragmented narrative style, we only really piece this all together in retrospect).

Bill (whom he thinks is her brother), realising the hopelessness of their life and the bleakness of their prospects for the future, concludes that a Faustian wager whereby they scam the farmer in the hope that he’ll soon die and leave them to inherit everything he owns, would be worth the pain of seeing Abby marry someone else. Eventually he persuades Abby to accept the farmer’s advances, they are married, and suddenly the three go from being farm labourers living in miserable poverty to living the life of lords of the manner.

As time goes on, the farmer’s suspicions are increasingly aroused about the relationship between Bill and Abby (when he confronts her about it she manages to persuade him, an only child, that an absurd level of heavy petting between siblings is in fact perfectly normal). Eventually he cottons on to the fact that he’s being scammed, goes appropriately ape-shit, and tries to shoot Bill. Problem is, he’s just a bit too nice to actually pull the trigger. Bill, who as we know is free of such prissy moral quibbles, manages to stab him through the heart while he procrastinates.

Now wanted for two murders, they move on sharp-ish and, like Kit and Holly in Badlands, hide out in the wilderness. After a pleasingly protracted chase scene, Bill is caught and gunned down by the police, directed by the hunched, ghoulish, paper bag-faced old foreman who was the farmer’s father figure, and who was on to them from day one.

And from there, we learn that Linda was sent to a boarding school (I’m guessing Abby still got the inheritance after all), where she makes a new friend, whom she runs away with. As the film ends, Linda seems to be setting off on a new adventure. Appropriately, they are walking off down a railway line. And, just as the end is a beginning, Linda’s voiceover narrative doesn’t end – she is still rambling on when the credits come in and cut her off.

This narrative u-turn undermines the plotted-ness of the film and the circularity of the story. But it also reinforces the purely aesthetic perspective that Linda provides – she doesn’t deal in interpretation, designation of narrative beginnings and ends, she just describes what she sees. So the ending detracts from any attempts we might make to read a ‘meaning’ into the story by preventing us from isolating it as a self-contained narrative whole.

It reminded me of the ending of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, when the two main characters, Frederic and Deslauriers, conclude that the most important and meaningful episode in their lives was in fact something that happened years before the narrative begins, and was in fact never in any way alluded to before. Just as Flaubert’s ending undercuts our attempts to read Frederic and Deslauriers as coherent and explicable characters, so the ending of Days of Heaven prevents us from deferring to the narrative boundaries, highly artificial structure and symmetry that it has established for us, by undermining it’s own finality.