13 April 2009

A Certain Slant of Light

*This is an echo post I made for another site, which is now defunct and was mostly unread. I thought I'd repost it in case it finds an extra reader or two through this blog. It's also a lazy way of updating without having any new material.

There are always those movies which, for whatever reason, we are put off by (or even hostile towards) the first time around, only later to come back to once or twice and find out it is one of our favorites. One of those films for me is Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven.

My first experience with a Terrence Malick film was his latest The New World which I saw a few years ago. At that point I had never heard of Malick and was not really conscious of film being anything more than entertainment. Safe to say The New World was not entertaining - I could barely hear anything the characters were saying, silence and nature imagery displaced dialogue and characterization, the camera felt distant, cold, and unconcerned for its characters. There was lush visual beauty, sure, but the slants of light that came through the trees seemed disingenuous, as if they were enough to make up for the lack in everything else.

A couple of years later I watched Days of Heaven based on the recommendation of several people. Though at that point I had learned a bit more about films and was better able to appreciate more "difficult" works, I still felt unsatisfied by the film. I could not understand what Malick was telling me. What is the lesson? What are the symbols? Where is the meaning hidden?? I was frustrated, not so much by the film but by my inability to understand it. Even so, the images struck me a little more than I remember The New World affecting me - the shots in the wheat fields at magic hour, the swarm of locusts, the great hellfire. I determined that this was worth another look.

Before I had that second look at Days of Heaven, however, I watched Badlands, Malick's first film. This film was much more immediately accessible as its story structure was nestled in a genre (lovers-on-the-run ala Bonnie and Clyde), and it thus established a comfortable frame of reference from which to appreciate (or hate) it. I loved Badlands immediately. I think this was because of a few reasons: my love of the Bonnie and Clyde archetype, the strangeness of its alteration of that story, the beautiful shots, and my awareness of the enigma that is Terrence Malick through an inside joke. I think Badlands is a good place to start for Malick because it starts with themes and techniques central to Malick but which offer them in a more "viewer-friendly" way in terms of narrative expectation.

I later went back to Days of Heaven (as it was rereleased on DVD in a pristine restoration approved by Malick), this time deciding to leave any expectations I had at the door. What I discovered the second time around was that my focus on narrative and intrinsic meaning was largely misguided. I found the images incredibly arresting and let myself soak them in with every shot, abandoning prior anticipations of the characters' appearance or the progression of their story. There are almost as many shots of fowl and fauna, of horizons and fields, as there are of the central characters. The film's tagline "your eyes... your ears... your senses... will be overwhelmed" makes sense as it is a visual and aural spectacle that largely insist on the beauty of the filmic image as being jusutified in itself without the need of any narrative conventions of character or plot.

I eventually watched Days of Heaven again, quite recently, and realized that the displacement of character and plot by visual aesthetics is not completely the case. The story is actually a very engaging and beautifully tragic one that does not need any compensation by visual polish. I think what I learned the third time around was that sometimes I have to stop looking for importance in a film. My appreciation of its visual aesthetics is only an appreciation of a part of the film and not of the film as a whole. I think I was covering my inability to understand the characters by insisting that they were ultimately not important, but that is antithetical to the film. Yes, the visual is largely important, but they exist for the characters and for the story; Malick does emphasize visuals and camerawork in telling the story, but that does not mean the story is unimportant. I think this is in many ways like a silent film, which allows the camera to tell the story more than dialogue or tightly scripted narrative construction. The third time around I was able to enjoy the film much more completely, adding realizations upon my previous viewings. I was able to experience it, if that makes sense.

I think Days of Heaven deserves more viewings and I will certainly watch it many more times as the years pass. I think this is really part of the magic of Days of Heaven because it deconstructs my expectations in order to allow me to experience film in a new way, a more emotionally resonant way. I believe I will see much more in The New World when I come back to it and I look foward to that happening. I'm sure I will look at those slants of light in a new way. I still have to see The Thin Red Line to complete my Malick ouvre, but I will take my time. After all, I may not like it that much the first time around.


Kenji Nakai said...

I tend to like movies like that. I'll have to check it out.


James said...

"... mostly unread" ?!! That's an understatement. Good idea, though, recycling posts.

Mike said...

Defunct?! But I was still working on my first post!

kazu said...

Mike, you RUINED "The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World." RUINED it.

James said...

God damn it, Frollo!! You did ruin it! I had such high hopes. It will still exist in limbo until one day ... one day ... yes ... one day ... I'll be dead. Then I'll forget about it.