The Dreamlike Poetry Of Nature In Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven Essays Examples
One of the most distinctive elements of Terrence Malick’s films, and his work as a director, is the dreamlike, poetic nature of the look and story of his films. Far from being told in traditional narratives, Malick primarily uses evocative imagery and ethereal editing to depict the tragic and beautiful nature of human experience, particularly as it relates to nature. The oblique nature of his storytelling is distinctive and unique, as his characters become ciphers for the difficulty and majesty of life in all its forms, with whispered voiceover practically replacing dialogue and plot points replaced with elegantly-captured scenes of nature. In the case of his second film, 1978’s Days of Heaven, Malick’s use of voice-over narration, orchestral soundtrack, and other filmmaking techniques combine to create a deliberate non-narrative that explores visual and thematic material over story.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing and recognizable elements of Malick’s filmmaking is his use of voiceover, which occurs in nearly every one of his films (Verstraten 128). Rather than placing the focus on dialogue as with normal films, Terrence Malick typically has his characters speak in voiceover to the audience, whether they are simply saying philosophical musings or telling stories that obliquely explain what is going on in the story. In the case of Days of Heaven, the filmmaker places the role of storyteller on Linda (Linda Manz), the young girl who escapes with Gere and Adams to the Texas Panhandle from Chicago to make a new life for themselves on Shepard’s farm.
The significance of Linda’s particular narration lies in her naivete and innocence; being a young girl, she is not well-versed in the ways of the world, particularly the cruel and short world that the other characters inhabit. To that end, her voiceover makes up a series of barely-related non sequiturs, creating “a tension between the spoken words and the images” as what Linda is saying does not explain what is happening on screen, which is the chief goal of voiceover in most other films (Verstraten 128). Even when her voiceover is closely related to what is happening (e.g. when she describes Richard Gere’s unhappiness and restlessness at the farm), it is done in a way that evokes mood and atmosphere more than strict plot information. Linda’s voiceovers are full of Southern vernacular, contractions, dropped consonants and stammering, creating a decidedly imperfect voiceover; however, this cements her status as an unreliable narrator, who looks at the world through a child’s eyes. In contrasting this incomplete understanding of the world with the heightened, complex human drama between the adult characters, Malick lends a dramatic irony to our experience of watching the film, knowing that Linda does not fully understand what is actually happening around her.
The sound effects and score are used in place of dialogue in Days of Heaven to convey important thematic information, setting the mood of the film and firmly establishing the conflicts of concepts that permeate it. Ennio Morricone’s score is an elegant and haunting mix of glissando piano and strings, particularly the theme during the beginning credits, which plays over stock photos of the Depression (Blasi 68). This opening sequence does not provide narrative, but establishes the mood and the setting of the film; Morricone’s sound is haunting yet beautiful, and the Depression-era images are given a new sense of heightened significance as a result. Contrasted with that, happier times (such as when the main characters ride by train to their new home) are punctuated with jaunty, energetic country guitar music by Leo Kottke, which links the film to its setting (Texas) and offers the characters a reprieve from the melancholy and sadness they experience elsewhere.
Even when music is not found in the score, its absence allows the film’s soundscape to take prominence. Sound effects are often used in place of dialogue, with characters’ voices being muted or fading out in favor of sounds and score to communicate their thoughts and ideas to us. For example, in one of the opening scenes of Days of Heaven, where Gere confronts and attacks his old boss in Chicago (accidentally killing him), their shouting match and subsequent fight is drowned out by the sounds of hammers hitting metal and the hiss of smelting. While the audience cannot hear the specifics of what Gere and the other character are saying, the chaotic, ominous sounds that fill the soundtrack illustrate the violent mood of the scene itself. Days of Heaven is full of these aural and visual contrasts between life’s beauty and destruction, and it is telling that one of its most violent moments happen when the characters are in the city, furthest from nature.
Using these elements, as well as Malick’s unique visual style, the filmmaker tells a tale in Days of Heaven that is more universal than endemic to any particular era. Instead of offering the audience a peek into the lives of specific characters, those characters become emblematic of the human condition in many ways, their stories told in a decidedly non-narrative way. Time seems to exist in a vacuum in Days of Heaven, as the characters give little to no indicator of exactly how much time has passed for them throughout the film. This is due to Malick’s particularly dreamlike editing, which showcases the story as a series of sumptuous images punctuated with moments of drama between the characters. Malick spends endless scenes in ‘magic hour,’ the short span of time during the day in which the sun is about to set and the sky is given a reddish, amber glow, as if time stands still in Days of Heaven. This creates a bit of a blank slate, a thematic stage on which to play out these human dramas rather than indicate a strict narrative in which events sensibly progress from one to the other. Information is conveyed through image and mood rather than dialogue, as many scenes (particularly with Linda) simply feature idle conversation as characters wander through the thick blades of wheat.
Malick is still able to convey efficient expository information in his uniquely Malickian way; in the scene where Gere’s character learns that Sam Shepard’s character is dying and has only a year to live, the scene is framed only in a few shots, including one wide shot where we see Gere hiding behind a medical carriage while Shepard and his Doctor walk past him on the other side. This kind of exposition is typical for a normal narrative film, but here it serves as a rare bone thrown to an audience on Malick’s part, in order to understand Shepard’s and Gere’s motivations throughout the rest of the film. Other scenes also include this kind of expository dialogue, but like Linda’s narration it is often filled with its own kind of poetry (“I can remember the first time I’ve ever saw you. I’d never seen hair as black as yoursI was scared I’d never seen you again”). In this way, Days of Heaven includes a fair bit of narrative content in amongst its non-narrative focus on image and poetry, providing the bare minimum for its audience to understand exactly what is going on.
The overall effect of these non-narrative approaches to Days of Heaven allows the audience to see the more universal story being told, that of the endless cycles of wealth and poverty, life and death, and the complex relationship between man and nature. The film’s rural setting lends itself well to an exploration of the latter, as characters spend the majority of their time interacting with and living in the wheat fields in which they work. The beauty and calm of these images is often interspersed with violent images of industrialization and destruction, as wide shots of the countryside are punctuated with hurried, panicked shots of Brooke Adams throwing hay from behind a thresher toward the camera, or closeups of the spinning blades of farm equipment (Blasi 68). Even Sam Shepard’s opulent estate, sitting at the top of the hill, seems an indicator of the decadence and hubris of humanity in believing it can conquer nature – its silhouette cutting through the otherwise pastoral beauty of the sky.
In contrast to this invasion of humanity, wildlife and animals also feature prominently within the film; while they are not able to speak or insert themselves in the film, Malick uses them non-narratively to convey the terror and tragedy of man wasting its relationship with nature. The threshing scenes are often interspersed with close-up shots of frightened chickens and skunks wandering through the soon-to-be-chopped wheat, and an early scene in which Linda finds a locust foreshadows the brilliant and beautiful scene in which the workers must fight off a locust swarm. While these elements exist chiefly in the background, they offer a decidedly important bit of subtext regarding nature’s disapproval with the way mankind has interacted with it, Malick’s non-narrative techniques of image, editing and sound telling this story rather than strict dialogue.
Often, it can be tempting to write of Malick as “all style, no substance” when he places such an emphasis on image over plot, thematic voiceover, sound effects and music over dialogue, and so on. However, this becomes close to setting a rigid set of objective standards for film criticism, in which films must tell stories chiefly though script and character and no through theme (Carroll 150). Part of Malick’s genius is that he openly defies the standard way in which stories are told to emphasize poetry, stateliness and beauty over more literary concerns like dialogue. In Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick utilizes the most intriguing methods to capture the deep-seated, primal and spiritual connections human beings have to each other and to nature. Through the use of voiceover, music, poetic imagery and dreamlike editing, Malick seeks to capture the universal conflicts that pervade the human experience – life and death, wealth and poverty, childhood and adulthood, and so much more.
Blasi, Gabriella. "Nature and the Unmaking of the World: Reading Figures of Nature in Terrence
Malick's Days of Heaven." Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 61.1 (2014): 67-73.
Carroll, Noel. “Introducing Film Evaluation.” Engaging the Moving Image. Yale University
Malick, Terrence (dir.). Days of Heaven. Perf. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard.
Paramount Pictures, 1978. Film.
Shepard, Anne. Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art.
Verstraten, Peter. "A Cinema of Modernist Poetic Prose: On Antonioni and Malick." Image &
Narrative 13.2 (2012): 117-132.