Sunday, June 12, 2011

Days of Heaven

There are numerous scenes in Days of Heaven where field laborers are shot under the glow of a setting sun. There are numerous scenes in Days of Heaven where field workers are shown at the end of their day’s work, no longer able to work due to a lack of light. To me this seems perfectly natural and should certainly go together; to others the use of the light of the so-called ‘magic hour’ is merely a ploy by Malick to find prettier pictures than he could have found otherwise. I don’t see it, myself. There are many shots in the film that do not fit into the magical hour of day, especially, and tellingly, once the leading couple find their way out of the fields and into the leisure class. At this point in time even the early morning sun provides light for a few scenes, not to mention lazy mid afternoons and cold winter days. If Chantal Akerman had directed Days of Heaven I believe that there would have been a fair share more scenes of work shot under the mid day sun, but Malick’s main concern is in the goings-on once the work is done, be it for the day or for a lifestyle, and the choice of light he shoots with tends to match the circumstances portrayed. When the landowner discovers the central couple’s secret relationship it is tellingly revealed through shadows in the dark of night projected through a white veil. Later the fire spreads uncontrollably as the landowner’s own anger burns most intensely at his darkest hour. One could certainly comment that fires are most strikingly photographed at night, but placed within the context of the film’s consistent use of light to convey mood and tone it registers with me as little more than a molehill. In addition to the use of magic hour, another of this particular film’s most defining features is the voiceover, but I don’t think I even noticed the particular words that were being spoken after 20 minutes or so in my most recent viewing. Just as the machines at certain points in the film emit noise so loud (or perhaps the boom mic was too far away) that the spoken dialogue is impossible to hear among the sounds of the scene I seem to feel as if the voiceover itself merely became the noise of an object on the farm, like a machine, but whose words needed no more deciphering than the rattling of the machines. Sometimes the human voice can be a beautiful instrument, even when the speaker is not singing, and perhaps especially when the singer has an accent and a dialect which makes her sound like her strings are out of tune. People often complain about voiceovers, as well, but instead of focusing on their particular and befuddling complaints I will simply say that Days of Heaven possesses a combination of visual and aural elements which are superficially entrancing and which, upon certain further investigations, may even enlighten an inquisitive viewer to treasures hidden just behind the shadows. Or, perhaps even more interestingly, they may find that the human voice is just as valid an instrument as the strings which they will find accompanying the soundscapes of so many films, each producing a string of phrases of which people only seem to find the explicit meaning of the former irksome. I guess the text of the voiceover becomes like the wheat for the landowner, and people just wish it would burn. But there’s more to the fields than the cash derived from them, and I think the voiceover is as essential an element of the film’s aesthetic as the golden hues which blend with golden sunsets or burn in the black of night.

There is a thin thread of black comedy running through Days of Heaven, but not enough that would make me single it out for this blog if I were not otherwise prodded. There may be a few threads, in fact, but the film’s main focus is on the plight of a pair of lovers whose combination of impatience and poverty fail to provide them with anything resembling the amount of cushion they require to maintain stability. As such, the pair tend to find themselves either wandering or fleeing or grappling with the imminent possibility of either of the former. The combination of benign human folly and all-too-common threadbare existence provides a simple but fitting formula for what tension manages to grow out of the cracks in a narrative otherwise bereft of dramatic cracks. This setup works well for black comedy, though, as the tension never dissipates and the characters make just enough dubious choices and develop enough ambivalent feelings to prevent the film from dissipating tension. There are a number of anti-climactic moments sprinkled throughout the film, be it the supervisor whose rightful skepticism finds himself summarily shipped away or the ‘brother’ literally flying away from conflict or a brief flash of violence where neither justice nor injustice can possibly be said to result – these are the workings of black comedy, but these and all of the conventional elements of narrative are relatively muted in this film. What replaces these is a heightened sense of the passing of time, either as the sun sets or the harvest comes to a close or a sick man perseveres through his troubles, and a presentation of the entire array of human interactions which are the most memorable bulk of that time, even if they tend to fail to show up in synopses. Even these elements serve to strengthen, if not heighten, the film’s black comedy, as the viewer comes to understand the idiosyncrasies of the characters and the impetus behind their choices and even their aspirations and hopes. As such, when these elements finally crest in a moment of drama that might find its way into a synopsis these other elements are already present, preventing the action from coloring any characters involved as heroes or villains, merely characters trapped in the balance between their conflicted desires and imperfect circumstances. To this end even the wealthy landowner is not singled out – his own circumstances dictate that he will be envied more readily than admired and thus he must suspect the prospect of love even after it has fully bloomed. By the film’s end both the landowner and the ‘brother’ discover that they have lost their chance at love because of their own inability to accept it unconditionally, always searching for clarification and improvement at the risk of dedication and fulfillment. Both are to blame and both are the victims of circumstance, a dramatic resolution where there are no easy resolutions – black comedy to the core (but deep within the core). The lover who finds herself caught between two loves gets off no easier – she chooses to let her first love lie fallow while she entangles herself in a situation which is fraught with the perils of duplicity. She is the ‘winner’ of the three, with the prize being that she is stuck in the same sticky situation as the landowner before he found a love that he could never trust. I think that’s called poetic justice, but I don’t remember clearly.

So there is black comedy in the film, and it is enhanced by the film’s relative de-emphasis on drama to some degree, but this does not necessarily indicate that the film is primarily one which I enjoy on the level of black comedy. However, the same instances which I find to enhance the black comedy also enhance the principle experience of humanity, life, and nature. In other words, it is a Terrence Malick film. And what can I say of this film that will be of interest to those who have already read about Terrence Malick films? Well, I think I can say a few things, but I have already said them about a film which will be coming up next, and I feel they are more applicable to that film, so I won’t say them at all here. I recommend: read the upcoming piece about Times and Winds, perhaps even see the film, and after that you may want to take a look at The Tree of Life whenever it swings by your town.


  1. Sam JulianoJune 12, 2011

    "If Chantal Akerman had directed Days of Heaven I believe that there would have been a fair share more scenes of work shot under the mid day sun, but Malick’s main concern is in the goings-on once the work is done, be it for the day or for a lifestyle, and the choice of light he shoots with tends to match the circumstances portrayed."

    Interesting point Jean, as is the more subtle ones about an underpinning of black homor and a superficiality in the rapturous visuals and aural accompaniment. And a good choice to usher in your planned review on TREE OF LIFE. I guess I can say I liked DAYS OF HEAVEN less than Malick's other four films, but still found it for the most part a ravishing tone poem.

    Excellent essay as always.

  2. I'm not sure I'll be writing an essay on The Tree of Life. I'm sure the rest of the internet will have that one pretty well covered. Maybe I'll sneak some links to interesting articles that I stumble across in the comments here, since it's referenced in this piece, but it really doesn't have much of anything to do with black comedy. I find myself reticent to read any more articles about the film due to over-saturation, so if I wouldn't read someone else's article I can't reasonably expect anyone else to muster much interest in mine. I did find it excellent, though. A marvel of editing (which I can't say about many films) and... stuff I'll struggle to find the words to describe. Je ne sais quoi. Maybe after the second viewing. I'll work on the phrasing while under its spell, although it may slip through my fingers like memories of a dream. I make no promises.

  3. Hi Jean. Very fine piece on "Days of Heaven" -- you went far more in depth into it than I did. I don't particularly admire the film (as you might suspect from what I wrote on it) and in fact I found its editing to be the source of the distance it erected between my admiration and the "tone poem" beauty it undeniably has (as all Malick films inevitably capture in some form or other). "Days of Heaven" does have the potential for dark comedy running through its plot structure (particularly in the jealousy aroused in Sam Shepherd's character by the "brother+sister" relationship shared by Gere and Brooke Adams) -- but it is in the nature of Malick to take his poetics somewhat seriously.

    I suppose the most obvious dark comedy Malick's made is "Badlands" -- Martin Sheen's character is particularly hilarious, in a very endearing way, even if he happens to be a murderer. I suppose you'll do "Tree of Life" eventually: and I look forward to that!