May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
April 14, 2010
“To dwell is to garden.” (Heidegger, “The Origin of the work of Art”)
And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates: That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:19-21)
Most of what could be said about Badlands can be said of Days of Heaven. In many ways the film takes Kit and Holly from Malick’s previous film and reconfigures them for this new space in Bill and Abby, bracketed by references to silent cinema forms and allusions to the Bible. And behind all this is the legend of Malick himself, so exhausted by the production of Days of Heaven he simply disappeared from view, letting these two films speak for themselves over the next twenty years. As it moves a step closer to pure formality than the bare poetry of Badlands, I find it difficult to talk about, more accessible to language I share with others when walking through museums and talking about the paintings that we see.
I am enamored of awkwardly long shots of natural or industrial scenes. The opening to Herzog’s Heart of Glass, much of Roeg’s Walkabout, the middle bits of Ballard’s underappreciated Black Stallion, and P.T. Anderson’s derrick shots in There Will Be Blood are handy examples. But Malick’s lengthy shots of the fields, the life cycle of wheat and its harvest, set a high standard for such slow cinema. Giant agricultural machines hum along the furrows of crops, workers brushing behind through the golden stalks. Their scythes flick in sweeps across the fields. Large hoops of wheels rattle past, trains clatter, lines of men and women crest dry hills and sit to rest.
Thankfully, much of the film’s dialogue was scrapped for Linda’s halting voiceover, granting us more time to wander with Malick through echoes of Wyeth, Hopper, George Bellows, and perhaps further on after Benton and Wood is the later Van Gogh. The voiceover does not appeal to everyone, and feels like a weak spot in Malick’s creative logic. But I actually appreciate the distance this technique creates between me and the film for the same reason I like watching Sister Wendy talk about a particular painting. The voiceover becomes a helpful point of access.
At the center of the story is an image of Ruth (Abby) and Boaz (The Farmer) which is eventually ruined by the envy of Bill, Abby’s lover and partner in crime. And against this current of Ruth’s story is an allusion to Abraham and Sarah. Bill and Abby have fled Chicago with his young sister after he accidentally murders his boss, and decide to tell everyone they are brother and sister to just make things easier. In the Genesis 20 story this references, Abraham likewise claims that beautiful Sarah is his sister, lest the Philistines kill him and take her for themselves.
While the grace of the Ruth allusions unfold, the truth of the Abraham allusion dawns on The Farmer, eventually pitting him against Bill and shattering the perfect balance of the film’s many references. After all this is said and done, I have a hard time understanding what is referred to by “Days of Heaven” if it isn’t simply everything Abby and The Farmer could have achieved were it not for the con that began their relationship. Perhaps the film is driven by the same sense of prophetic justice that lurks at the heart of its biblical allusions.
The poetry of the film lies in the ambivalence of the land to the maneuverings of Abby and Bill. But eventually the land responds to their skullduggery with another biblical allusion, that of swarming locusts, a catastrophe made worse when The Farmer accidentally sets the crops on fire in his anger at Bill. The land burns through an incredible set of nocturnal edits, taking what the locusts had left. And the land, the foundational Malick poetry that has given their story context, has vanished – along with it the possibility of dwelling, which, at least according to Heidegger, is the goal of all poetry: “Poetry does not fly above and surmount the earth in order to escape it and hover over it. Poetry is what first brings man onto the earth, making him belong to it, and thus brings him into dwelling.”
There is an incredible sadness to The Farmer’s death, one that is bound up in the intensity of the film’s crafted beauty. It is so intent on directing us towards the logic of Malick’s poetry, towards the possibility of “dwelling” and catching a glimpse of true “days of heaven,” that when Bill kills The Farmer he ends every idea that the film imagined. This sadness may be exemplified in Malick’s biography, who simply drifted away for decades after editing Days of Heaven for two years. I can imagine him sitting there bewildered that Bill would be so foolish, watching hours of such perfectly natural footage vanish in a hectic gun battle.