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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H83Z3UFcyo.
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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7JB68sLGY8 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tree_of_Life_%28film%29) 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.