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Player Piano

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Player Piano

The following is a piece about the similarities between two Terrence Malick films, Days of Heaven and The New World. A condensed version of this piece also appears in the current issue of New York Press.

Despite its complexity and open-hearted spirit, Terrence Malick’s “The New World” became one of the most divisive studio movies in recent memory. Even some of the filmmakers’ admirers rejected it as opaque, choppy, unstructured, too sentimental in depicting its central love triangle, and too enamored with nature photography and Transcendental sentiments. To read some of the pans by critics who’d previously backed Malick, you’d have thought he’d started throwing lovely pictures and poetic narration onscreen and hoping something stuck.

Thanks to what The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called the cult of “The New World,” critical consensus is already shifting in Malick’s favor. Film Forum’s repertory screening of Malick’s 1978 masterpiece “Days of Heaven” should push that process along. Some detractors cite “Heaven” as an honorable example of Malick’s talent and dismiss the “The New World” as a devolution. But a close viewing confirms that that “The New World” is in many ways an enlargement of “Days of Heaven” that revisits its situations, themes and filmmaking vocabulary from a fresh vantage point.

Both films are built around migrations/immigrations—England to America and back in “The New World,” Chicago to the Texas Panhandle to an unspecified small town in “Days.” Both movies anchor otherwise free-floating narratives to a couple of spectacular music-and-image driven montages—the Wagner-scored arrivals in “The New World,” the acoustic guitar-scored train and boat journeys in “Days.”

And both are period pieces about doomed love triangles. In “The New World,” the lovers are John Smith, Pocahantas and Pocahantas’ eventual husband, John Rolfe. In Days of Heaven, the triangle consists of furtive lovers Abby (Brooke Adams) and Bill (Richard Gere)—who pose as brother and sister and flee Chicago after the hot tempered Bill accidentally kills his foreman during an argument—and a rich but sickly young wheat farmer (Sam Shepard) whom Abby marries so that she, Bill and Bill’s kid sister (Linda Manz) can inherit his property after he dies. In both movies the female romantic lead becomes the movie’s de facto protagonist. Both Pocahantas and Abby are torn between rugged social outcasts to whom they’re physically attracted, and more genteel, powerful men they latch onto for survival’s sake. Over time, both women grow to love their new mates (though without the fire they showed in their prior relationships). Most significantly, Pocahantas and Abby trade one culture and social strata for another. By film’s end they’ve truly become different people, so seemingly at ease in their new worlds that the audience can’t pinpoint any obvious turning point. (And both women turn cartwheels when they’re happy!)

The filmmaker’s aesthetic is a rebuke to commercial filmmaking conventions that were practically set in stone from the early days of sound. Malick’s goal is to deny us the usual anchor points, to make the experience of watching his films as much a blur of emotion as our own memories or dreams, and to suggest that the world is not really driven by individual will, as both drama and Western social myths suggest; that we may be less actors than acted-upon; that instead of individuals driving a narrative, perhaps narrative (a story in fiction, or historical events in the real world) drives individuals. Malick’s filmmaking turns this philosophy into rhapsody. Where most mainstream cinema unthinkingly swears allegiance to theater and the novel—forms that prize self-contained, conversation-driven scenes with clearly-marked beginnings, middles and ends—Malick makes music with pictures, deploying situations, lines and symbolically charged moments as motifs in an immense, interconnected whole. Other filmmakers work this way—Wong Kar-wai is arguably the most assured contemporary example—but none of them do it in America, with studio money.

Malick keeps us at arms’ length from his people, the better to illustrate the notion that there’s more to life than what individuals can see. He does this not just through unreliable voice-over narrators—Manz in “Days,” multiple voices in “The New World”—but by visually diminishing his characters through panoramic wide shots and frequent cutaways to landscapes, flora and fauna. Disregarding the 180-degree rule and often shrugging off spatial logic, Malick cuts not for continuity of action but continuity of feeling. (To give just one example, during the tragic foot chase by the river, the music, voices and sound effects are continuous but the action jumps all over the place.) Both films are comprised of pure montage and little else.

Specific filmmaking choices that “New World” detractors have described as vexing new additions to Malick’s vocabulary are used all through “Days of Heaven.” In both films, Malick often cuts into a pan or dolly shot after it’s begun and cuts away before it’s finished, and unbalances the viewer by lingering on some shots for longer than you might expect while cutting away from others at the split-second that their beauty has begun to sink in. In both “Days” and “The New World,” Malick rarely shows us the beginning or end of a conversation. Sometimes we don’t even know what, exactly, the characters are discussing, because in both films, it often doesn’t matter. What matters are gestures, expressions, symbolically charged images (a crystal goblet on the bottom of a riverbed, locusts scuttling across the surfaces of a kitchen), and most of all, the ironic contrast between individual desires and nature’s indifference to humankind.

The key to understanding Malick’s intent can be found in a camera move that begins the denouement of “Days,” picking up after the riverbank sequence. We see the keyboard of a player piano in closeup as it pounds out a song to give our heroine and other girls in a ballet studio something to dance to; then the camera dollies back to a medium wide shot, as if to confirm that no human force is producing that music. This haunting, humble image illuminates Malick’s films, all four of which depict individuals struggling (often vainly) to understand and influence mysterious cosmic forces—time, mortality, the elements, history—that are too vast to fully comprehend. The piano plays itself.