Malick, much like Werner Herzog, represents an active imagination in relating to the world, gazing in awe at all things. Herzog's recent film Cave of Forgotten Dreams asks us to spend long moments looking at cave drawings from 32,000 years ago and dream with the artists, wondering what they were trying to communicate and what they were dreaming that so led them to create these representations of Nature. Herzog – like Malick in The Tree of Life – may forecast the world's end, but it is wrong to label him a nihilist, being that his aim is for us to open ourselves up to others in this existence, from the dawn of consciousness to the present and then into the future. The miracle of this dreaming and reflection, far different from what Herzog calls "New Age bullshit" (of which both filmmakers have also been accused), functions so as to awe us, and to taste how significant – in its insignificance – a thought or a memory is. A memory is the whole world, just as it is doomed to become nothing.
Filmed images in our own time function to entertain and service us, offering us escape from the actual. The most popular films are safe, tidily framed in tropes to which we have acclimated ourselves. The film must do things to us, massaging our receptors and pleasing us with a serviceable orgasm for which we've paid about $10, not including nachos, soda, and popcorn. Once the film ends and the first credits slide up on the screen, we're through with it. We've evaluated and judged it. Either we've climaxed or we haven't. And if we are frustrated, we do not bother to ask 'why?' But in his film Herzog wants us to understand how important we are to the art being shown to us. We interact with it, we carry it on the sidewalks as we walk home, dreaming about it at night even.
The key challenge of The Tree of Life will be to endure – as a film that should be seen perhaps multiple times on a large cinema screen – in a culture that is impatient. I groan at the possibility of audiences only having access to this film in a large auditorium for a month. Widely reported in the press at Cannes were the boos that the film generated. And yet while it is more than conceivable that any number of persons may dislike the picture, to 'boo' such an experience immediately upon its last fade out bespeaks the shallowness and ineptitude of that particular viewer. It's like heckling in a cathedral. I believe The Tree of Life is worthy of applause, but clapping as the credits first roll up feels just as inappropriate as booing. How can one applaud or boo something that is still working its way through you? It's a marvelous feeling when a film does this to you, as the two other films that probably most remind me of The Tree of Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey and INLAND EMPIRE, did after viewing them on the large screen, both at the legendary Oak St. Cinema in Minneapolis.
The Tree of Life is the opposition to James Cameron's Avatar, a movie that acts quickly in its computer generated creations of reality and downloadable programs of personal mastery and transcendence. Yet Avatar was an Oz that demanded that people never want a return to Kansas. There were wide reports of depression in many viewers who were so unsatisfied with the actual, living Earth, that they demanded to return and live within Cameron's Pandora as soon as possible. The cyber-sickness is that same disease which keeps people in the forgotten realms of World of Warcraft and digital terrains of videogames or escapist science fiction and comic books. Christopher Nolan, influenced in many ways by Malick as seen in the attention he pays to human consciousness and the significance of mementos, commented on this addiction with Inception last year, and yet The Tree of Life makes Inception look like Harry Potter. What The Tree of Life accomplishes, in its prehistoric speculations, true-life memories, and audacious abstractions, is heightening our experience of the world we encounter outside of the theater. I went running around Lake Harriet the day after my viewing of The Tree of Life, and the trees, leaves, grass, and water seemed much more alive than I had ever experienced them. A tree is never just a tree in Terrence Malick. It is only that and by virtue of being only a tree it is much more than a tree. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the date of The Tree of Life's release. It is not a summer movie, at least as we are accustomed to summer movies since the beginning of the Spielbergian Era, and yet it is the definitive summer movie. You almost need leaves of grass, trees, the warm wind, and flowing water after viewing it. To wait for a year-end, Oscar-pandering release date, with ice, snow, and dead branches waiting outside, would be something close to awful, almost like lopping off the film's true final Act – which takes place outside through the viewer's own phenomenological experiences. Why the hell should anyone care about Academy Awards or other accolades when we're breathing this air or looking at the sky turn pink beyond this lake?
My point is that these images can open us up, and thinking about the mystery in the images we are reflecting on our own mystery, asking questions and expanding them by not wholly answering them but speculating. Malick's follow-up to Badlands was Days of Heaven, a work he spent well over a year editing, sculpting time to make authentic cinema impressionism and visual poetry. Days of Heaven begins with a montage of Wilson Administration Era photographs, the camera slowly moving in on the enigmatic faces of people from all classes. The intent connects to what Holly was doing in Badlands – and what Herzog wants us to do in Cave of Forgotten Dreams: as Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals plays on the soundtrack, we are wondering about these faces, these other Selves, and so we are wondering about our own selves. Days of Heaven will be an earnest effort to recreate – and reimagine – the past, but will be felt authentically as the present, exuding a temporality that haunts specifically because it is conscious of how the personages we will see in it are probably no more, even though they speak to us, while these individuals were also dreaming about the past.
Gazing probably is the theme of Days of Heaven. Beautiful period films are often criticized for their lushness when compared to what we expect of a work's substance: dialogue, plot, development, a message. There is Love in Days of Heaven, just as there is ground for thinking about class conflict and our relationship to Nature and Technology. But there's a purity to Days of Heaven that removes it from most other movies. Linda Manz's voiceover narration conflicts with what we are seeing just as it relates to it. This is an adolescent, tough-talking city girl (named Linda), traveling with her brother Bill (Richard Gere) and his lover (posing as his sister) Abby (Brooke Adams), fleeing from the industrial smoke of Chicago where Bill has murdered his boss, into the grassy vistas of Texas. In Days of Heaven, words may be inconsequential. The first ones diagetically uttered – between Bill and his boss – are muted in favor to the rhythms of industrial machinery. Words are mere representation, as is the case with these three drifters. There is a noted disparity between how they present themselves and what they really are. But seeing peers through everything. We may be tempted to judge the gossips of other wheat sackers, correct in assuming that Bill and Abby are more than they say that they are, as simple antagonists ("Your sister keep you warm at night, does she?") But they are right. It's the same as what Malick is doing with the opening photographs: he's imagining and interpreting that what he does not know by looking into images. Linda notes this about people early on, as they are "Looking for things, searching for things."
The characters in Days of Heaven are trapped in their relationship to Time: Bill is waiting for his big score that will never come, so that he can have a respectable living and properly marry Abby, who has likewise waited with Bill in turning down the advances of other men. The lonely Farmer (Sam Shepherd) who has hired them along with multitudes of other sackers to labor on his land, is terminally ill (something that Bill overhears – but we should note that we cannot see traces of a sickness that never seems to envelop him) with "maybe a year left," and yet has never shared his life with anyone. They're all running out of Time, which crushes them as it crushes all of us, and are so looking for permanence, like Kit was in Badlands. Their pursuit seems more authentic than Kit's, though it involves Bill and Abby essentially conning the Farmer, as Bill hopes to inherit the money after the Farmer's death. The Farmer, too, omits information, never sharing with his wife the truth about his terminal illness.
The longing and desperation in all of these characters is so plain to see that we do not need to hear them. We judge them accordingly, which is what, Linda reminds us, God will do in his judgment. She relates how a man named "Ding Dong" told her about the end of the world: "He told me the whole Earth is going up in flames. Flames will come out of here and there. It'll just rise up. The mountains are going up to flames, the water's going to rise in flames. There's going to be creatures running every which way, some of them burnt…People are going to be screaming and hollering for help. See, the people that have been good, they're going to go to heaven and escape all that fire. But if you've been bad, God don't even hear you, He don't even hear you talking." (My italics). Indeed, Days of Heaven's climax will end in apocalyptic flames, after a God-sent plague of locusts comes with the gentle Farmer's roused jealousy, as his suspicions grow more pervasive. "The devil's on the farm," Linda tells us during a moment when we see the Farmer's anger. Then come the locusts, then comes the fire, the Farmer yelling "Let it burn!" The kindness of one character and duplicity of another are rendered meaningless, as the Farmer has become a cruel avenger, whereas Bill has, prior to the film's climax, grasped perspective on his life and where he has selfishly erred.
Behind every word and every lie there is the immutable and living Earth, the world being the Word of God. Again, we see the human melodies rove through Malick's story, offset with the natural counter-themes: pheasants, rabbits, skunks, bison, and otters. There is a religious attitude towards the Earth; the Farmer oversees the blessing of his land before harvesting begins (and it's Malick's own voice being dubbed on the soundtrack as the priest's). Ideas of how "plot" operates are killed by Malick's handling of environment, as with the natural world imposing itself on the human conflicts, the story seems to open itself up to an infinity. It makes Days of Heaven a puzzling and incomparably rich narrative. It's a tidy 93 minutes, and yet it feels like three rewarding hours. Linda, through her voice, is mining the Living Word of the Earth. She even thinks about being a "mud doctor," exploring and understanding "the Earth underneath."
In the limitless landscape, there is a sadness in how the words that people say cannot do justice to their feelings – which is again why Linda Manz's own words work so well, particularly in regards to the Farmer: "You'd give him a flower, he'd keep it forever," or, "He had nobody to stand by him, hold his hand when he needs attention or something. That's touchin'." We feel it later when the Farmer tries to express how he feels to Abby, now his wife: "When I'd see you I felt if I could only touch her, everything would be all right. I always thought that being alone was just something that a man had to put up with. You just got used to it. Sometimes it's like you're right inside of me, like I hear your voice and feel your breath and everything." This is a sweet and true expression on the Farmer's part, but looking at Abby's face gives him – and us – grief, because she understands how she is not living in good faith with him. Even if Abby falls in love with the Farmer – which she seems to do – she can never be the person that he has projected onto her. And after all, the melancholy suggestion is that all a lover is, is what we have subjectively made them.
Bill cannot anticipate what will happen to Abby in her relationship to the Farmer, or for that matter anticipate any pity he might feel for the man who is a kind of adversary. Interested in his own advancement and fulfilling his own ends of wealth, he sacrifices Abby's fidelity and persuades her to marry the Farmer. But the Farmer does not get sicker – indeed, he seems to get healthier, corresponding to what the Farmer tells Abby, "You made me feel like I've come back to life." The greatest irony is that it's to the man that Bill is deceiving that he voices his greatest anxiety: "One day you wake up, find out you're not the smartest guy in the world, never going to come up with a big score. When I was growing up, I thought I really would." Bill justifies his con job by saying, "He'll never have a chance to enjoy his money anyway." When the wedding finally occurs, we overhear the priest make mention of "the dreadful day of judgment," which connects to the Ding Dong anecdote from the beginning of the film, and to the Apocalypse that ends the story.
Days of Heaven shows us a world that is always breathing by virtue of how the characters cannot help but interpret it: whether it is Nature, or the objects that fill up the Farmer's house. The photographs and furniture again point to the timelessness that interests Malick. We notice a photograph of a woman, and can wonder if it's the Farmer's mother. The objects point to the Farmer's own black hole, which we can never really understand. Why is this rich man so lonely? What was his youth like? He is close to Nature, and while his workers are obviously exploited by his foreman (Robert J. Wilke), he seems to honor their sentience. Things of Nature and things of Civilization speak to us and invade our dreams, whether it is the photographs, or a book (in this case, The Jungle Books of Kipling, where the creatures all think like human beings), or the wheat patches, which talk to Linda in her dreams. Everything is striving to communicate.
The lushness and calm, the "days of heaven" of the title, turns to Hell as the Devil comes on the farm. When Linda first notices a locust, we see an abrupt God's Eye View from the ceiling looking down at her. The day of judgment is coming, and the bountiful land is going to be consumed by the darker shade of Nature's face, just as the Farmer will give into his dark side. "Nobody's perfect," Linda narrates. "There was never a perfect person around. You just got half-devil and half-angel in you." The Farmer lets his land burn and ties up Abby, becoming a figure far removed from the stable pillar of calm he's elsewhere been. In the wasteland of a desolate and burned-out environment the next morning, he confronts Bill with a gun. But something strange happens. We notice that the Farmer rushes towards Bill intending to shoot, but Bill gets the upper hand, deflecting the Farmer's arm and stabbing him with a screwdriver. My own interpretation of the sequence is a kind of painful fulfillment on the Farmer's part: he wants to be stabbed. His despair and unleashment of nihilism demands his death. He gives into Nothing, separateness, and embraces his original stature of what is Alone. His action works to undo Bill, who is now once more an accidental and unintentional murderer (as he was with his boss at the beginning of Days of Heaven). Even the horses flee from him. He's once more damned to being a fugitive with Abby and Linda, just as the Farmer is damned to never transcend his loneliness.
Ironic considering its title, Days of Heaven is Malick's Inferno, where characters are trapped in their respective cages and unable to flee or escape the judgment. The Thin Red Line and The New World will open the gates of despair to the Earthly Paradise, and The Tree of Life wholly encapsulate the entire process, from pre-consciousness (Badlands), to suicide and hell (Days of Heaven), to the Other Worlds in the attentive conscious Self that resigns itself to All. After the Farmer's death, Linda's narration begins to reconcile itself to the Soul of Life, as she notes, "The sun looks ghostly when there's a mist on the river and everything's quiet. I never knowed it before." She feels the "cold hands touching the back" of her neck and thinks that it is the "dead coming" for her. After Bill's death, at the hands of lawmen who shoot him down at a river's shore, Abby departs from Linda, dropping her off at what seems to be a respectable school for girls. Abby goes on a train and rides off into history.
We all go into history, trapped as we perpetually are in the present. Linda meets up with a friend (Jackie Shultis) who laments about a solider boyfriend who failed to show up on time, and it's probably painfully obvious that he won't ever show up at all. It's passively treated, but the soldier's failure to show connects to the whole melancholy sense of Time in Days of Heaven. Everyone is waiting for something that will never come, while being irresistibly drawn forward quickly on those train tracks leading to the Future, and then to death, where we fall face-first like Bill does into the water at his own moment of death. (the water in this case being a final cage). Ennio Morricone's music rises as Linda gives her last voice-over, which happens to be about her friend whom we, the audience, know very little about aside from what she's shared with Linda in only a couple of short scenes. "This girl," Linda says, "she didn't know where she was going or what she was going to do. She didn't have no money on her. Maybe she'd meet up with a character. I was hopin' things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine."
The two figures walk hauntingly away from us, specters of the past seen by us in the present heading towards their own anonymous future, swallowing them in a wheel of Time. There is great sadness when we hear Linda talking about her friend, as there is no difference between her and the forgotten selves we saw in those opening photographs. Indeed, Linda's photograph was the last one in the opening montage. In every picture, every face, every Self, every Soul, there are multitudes. All becomes Nothing, but the struggles and dreams before the absolute obliteration of all things may direct us to the immutable noise of our own story, which is simultaneously the story of every other human being that comes before and after us, leading back to the beginning of Time and the Big Bang, just as it leads down to our own extinction and a White Dwarf sun at the End.
The last image makes me think of Joyce speaking through Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: "Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves. The playwright who wrote the folio of this world and wrote it badly (He gave us light first and the sun two days later), the lord of things as they are whom the most Roman of catholics call dio boia, hangman god, is doubtless all in all in all of us, ostler and butcher, and would be bawd and cuckold too but that in the economy of heaven, fortold by Hamlet, there are no more marriages, glorified man, an androgynous angel, being a wife unto himself." Malick gives us fragments of lives in time, but in those fragments – again, the bane of a screenwriting teacher's existence – he gives us a closer sense of remembering actual experiences than any other filmmaker. It's been said that Malick prefers representing the past in his films (and we only see the "present" for a few minutes in The Tree of Life, the only time we do in his body of work) because of the possibilities it offers an exploration of memory. The landscapes and objects surrounding the characters, themselves fragmented, tell us more about the characters than any expository dialogue. We know these people more than we do characters in other films, precisely by virtue of how they are ultimately a mystery to us, as they are mysterious to each other and to their own selves. Linda questions her own perspective and voice: "Sometimes I feel very old. Like my life's over. Like I ain't even around." Her voice is not different from the ghostly whispers of the wind through the leaves, or the mist on water at daybreak. It is a voice that is temporal and no more, just as it is uncanny in its permanence.