How We Remember

Gilberto Perez writes about the films of Terrence Malick

The family is moving out of town, and as the car drives away the mother looks back at the house they’re leaving behind. ‘The only way to be happy is to love,’ she says in voiceover. ‘Unless you love … your life will flash by.’ We cut to her point of view and, through the car’s rear window, see the pale green two-storey house receding down the quiet street. Then, unpredictably, we cut to a shot from inside the empty house: through the middle of three tall bay windows, past a green tree overhanging the road, the car can be seen disappearing into the distance. The home returns the mother’s gaze; in a kind of shot/ reverse shot, the glance of farewell is reciprocal. This occurs towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which centres on a family in a Texas town in the 1950s. The use of voiceover is characteristic of Malick – no other filmmaker has been so devoted to the device. Also typical is the personified yet unascribed perspective, the sense we get in the empty house of seeing through the eyes of someone unseen, some house spirit watching the car go.

Malick’s first movie, Badlands (1973), is narrated by a girl of 15, Holly (Sissy Spacek). She and her dog are in her wrought-iron bed as she starts telling the story: ‘My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman … He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house.’ Wherever there is discrepancy between a narrator and the implied author there is always irony. In Holly’s case, some take this irony as an invitation to feel superior to a benighted girl, but the condescension or even scorn towards her that they impute to the author is their own. Holly’s adolescent sensibility, her forlorn romantic fantasies, her reliance on trite embellishments and reluctance to go into unpleasant things, her desire to tell the truth and still acquit herself as best she can for her part in what she knows to be a frightful tale – all this the author renders with sympathetic accuracy. Malick has compared Holly to Nancy Drew or Tom Sawyer as an ‘innocent abroad’. Badlands was loosely based on the case of Charles Starkweather, who went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s together with his teenage girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. In the movie Holly meets Kit (Martin Sheen) in a South Dakota town: ‘Little did I realise,’ she tells us over an image of her twirling her baton on the street, ‘that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the badlands of Montana.’

When her father (Warren Oates) finds out she’s been seeing a man ‘ten years older than me and … from the wrong side of the tracks, so called’, he punishes her by killing her dog and having her take extra music lessons. At the red-bricked music school she looks out of a Palladian window whose tripartite design – two smaller windows at each side of an arched central one – is amplified in the tripartite composition of the image, with two more windows on opposite sides of the wide screen accompanying the conjoined three at the centre: Holly seems to be held prisoner by traditional architecture. This image of confinement dissolves to Kit, who’s in an open field where he’s gone to speak to her father, who is at work painting a billboard advertisement for feed and grain. It depicts a farm in bright colours, green most of all, with assorted plants and animals, gabled roofs under a pretty sky; a square hole at the bottom of the unfinished picture lets the actual sky show through, no less pretty in its deeper shade of blue, though the expanse of land under it lacks the lustrous green of cultivation. Holly’s father flatly tells Kit he doesn’t want him around, and as the young man takes his leave, we cut to a distant long shot of the painter and his billboard, now dwarfed and decentred by the big sky. It is as if the landscape were inspecting the image on the billboard, as if the world in its uncontainable vastness were finding the human attempt to represent it wanting. And Malick would not exempt his own attempt: his images may be more realistic than the painter’s billboard, but he invites us to wonder whether they’re really so different from it, to note how his images too are dwarfed and decentred when set against the real thing.

Visually as well as verbally Malick is an exacting craftsman. And verbally as well as visually he liberates his films from the tyranny of the plot. Voiceover is the device he uses to embroider events with reflection and also to fill in narrative gaps, releasing the images from their usual subordination to the story so that they can flourish in splendid autonomy. Few scenes in Days of Heaven (1978) are allowed to unfold for long or to reach any dramatic resolution: instead we get bits and pieces of scenes arranged into a mosaic of shifting impressions. A train crossing a high bridge near the beginning, with nothing but a blue sky and white clouds in the background, seems headed for heaven; seconds later the narrator is talking about the flames of hell. This is a film of continual interruptions, breaks in perspective and mood. One moment we are asked to respond to the grandeur of nature, the next to the arduous labour of migrant farmhands, then to the characters’ personal feelings, their romantic yearnings or petty schemes; then, suddenly, a circumstantial detail will cut a scene short so that it amounts to no more than a glimpse. As the drama escalates, a flying circus with clowns and a belly dancer descends from the sky; as love seems about to prevail, hate furiously takes over and a plague of locusts inflicts rampant destruction.

‘This farmer, he didn’t know when he first saw her or what it was about her that caught his eye. Maybe it was the way the wind blew through her hair.’ Again in Days of Heaven a young girl is the narrator, this time an even younger one called Linda (Linda Manz), who tells us the story of a rich farmer (Sam Shepard) and his love for Abby (Brooke Adams). The film is set in the early 20th century on a farm in the Texas Panhandle. Abby and her lover, Bill (Richard Gere), are migrant workers who arrive on the train together with Linda, his little sister; because people will talk, Abby passes as his sister too, and the farmer feels free to court her. Having overheard a doctor say that the farmer hasn’t long to live (‘maybe a year’), Bill prods her to marry a man he sees as their chance to rise in life. The film’s central drama, or melodrama, concerns this triangle of Bill, Abby and the farmer, with Linda as an observer: ‘This farmer, he had a big spread and a lot of money … Wasn’t no harm in him. You’d give him a flower, he’d keep it for ever.’

There may be ‘no harm’ in the farmer, but his farmhands get low pay for long hours of hard work. Bill may be mean in trying to take advantage of the farmer’s love for Abby, but he loves her too, and ‘he was tired,’ as Linda explains, ‘of living like the rest of them, nosing around like a pig in a gutter. He wasn’t in the mood no more. He figured there must be something wrong with them, the way they always got no luck.’ Days of Heaven deals with the tangled interplay between the personal and the social, the attempt to manage the social through the personal, the typically American ambition to become a winner, to lift yourself out of the group and leave all those losers behind. But unlike John Ford or Jean Renoir – whose Toni also tells a story of tragic love among migrant workers – Malick conveys scant sense of the group, the living relationships, concordant or discordant, that bind people together. Like the outlaw couple in Badlands, the characters in Days of Heaven are alienated from a human community that seems hardly to exist at all.

The frontier in Westerns is the landscape in which the American nation was formed. While people and even towns may look small against the awesome natural setting, the part they play on that epic stage lends them dignity and, in turn, the landscape acquires human significance. But while the landscape in Days of Heaven is surpassingly beautiful – Néstor Almendros deserved his Oscar for the cinematography – human things look out of place in it, whether the transient, oppressed farmhands or the farmer’s lofty Victorian house, sitting alone like some presumptuous ornament plumped in the middle of a vast field. Here people are inconsonant figures in an elemental landscape that stands apart from history, beyond human ken.

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