When Terrence Malick uses a piece of music, you listen a little closer. Days of Heaven (1978) begins with Saint-Saëns’s “The Aquarium” (from The Carnival of Animals) over old pictures of people from the 1910’s or thereabouts. Though you can feel the sense of the water (once you see the title), applying it to the fields of wheat and passage of time, it creates an intense, dreamlike quality. This was the first Malick movie I had seen and it was not a good first impression. The many shots of insects and other wildlife without the aid of clear, audible dialogue was simply too much for a young man to take. Compounding the problem, it was either VHS or a poor-transfer DVD and making those blurry insects even less interesting. Seeing it now on Criterion’s Blu-Ray transfer with a few more Malick films under my belt, the experience was entirely different. Those fields, framed by the arch and house are calmingly beautiful. It’s like walking through an art gallery listening to a great novel read over a perfectly matched musical score.
Bill (Richard Gere) works in a factory in Chicago until a brief altercation with a foreman. He takes his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and sister Linda (Linda Manz) off to find work far away. They land in Texas (Canada) and work as sackers for a lonely, ill Farmer (Sam Shepard). The Farmer falls in love with Abby and Bill, knowing the Farmer’s illness, sees an opportunity. But sometimes when you see an opportunity, you miss the cost.
It would be interesting to watch Malick’s films in reverse, watching the way he uses music, narration, and camerawork when the technology was decreasingly light and intimate. How would his earlier films have looked differently? Would they have been improved? That’s not a very interesting thought. I don’t think it would be interesting to go through a litany of symbols and connections, plague, sin, not sin, fire, jealousy, family, migrants, technology, time. The score by Ennio Morricone is hard to pull out from the use of original material. Was that satisfying? I promise talking about this film isn’t nearly as satisfying as watching it.
In the interview with Richard Gere, he says that Malick is basically making the same film over and over, expressing his view of the universe. That’s probably right. Most auteurs are probably doing the same thing but without the breadth and depth that Malick sees and somehow translates into film. Apparently, Days of Heaven had a traditional script and was performed in the usual manner, like Of Mice and Men (1992) or something, but in the two years Malick spent editing the film, we got an early piece of American impressionism. When you watch To the Wonder (2012), which is almost entirely inaudible (besides narration), the actors must be in on the secret that what they’re saying is less important than how they say it. Does that improve the performances? When editing can carve up a “normal” scene into what we get in Days of Heaven, are they actors performing at all?
Days of Heaven just makes me curious. It doesn’t inspire direct answers, but makes a direct answer feel inadequate. Let me see it happen. Malick makes me calm.
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