Having just mentioned the way the laborers work from dusk until dawn, I want to shift gears now to talk about the film’s cinematography, particularly its use of exterior light, because Days of Heaven’s exteriors are frequently cited by those who think that the stunning cinematography of Malick’s filmography is nothing more than pretty wrapping paper on an empty package. In a takedown of the film for The New Republic, which in the interest of full disclosure I must mention that I’ve never been able to read in full, Stanley Kauffmann called the film’s beauty “a lavish blanket on a coffin.” Then he delivered what Malick agnostics would consider the coup de grâce: “One sign of too-pretty photography is that nothing ever happens at midday, only early or late in the day when the light slants.” Malick is known for shooting his pictures using only natural light whenever possible, but his critics essentially suggest that these technically natural portraits and panoramas are nonetheless artificial, collectively if not necessarily individually, because they show the world in these fleeting moments of unusual splendor and suggest them as the norm. I have thoughts on this, but first tell me what you think. Is Malick’s filmmaking “too pretty,” and if so, what does that mean? Or are the charges that Malick’s filmmaking is “too pretty” fundamentally flawed?
EH: I think that Kauffmann quote is off-base. Malick’s work, though naturalistic to some degree, is not truly meant to be realistic, so his criticisms of Malick’s choices of shooting times ring false. I’ve often talked of directors whose aesthetics present a “heightened reality,” including the subject of our last conversation, Wong Kar-wai. Malick too is concerned not with reality as it is but reality as it could or should be: the sublime beauty latent in ordinary reality, teased out by his sumptuous photography. That’s why it’s banal to note that Malick’s films don’t contain any drab images, any moments where the light is less than striking. The artist’s task is to present his vision of the world, to display the world as he sees it, and it’s obvious that this is how Malick sees the world, that this perpetual magic hour bliss is Malick’s deeply felt perspective on the natural beauty of the world. To criticize Malick for the beauty of Néstor Almendros’s cinematography is to be blind to the heart of this film.
To me, a more valid point is that the extreme beauty of Malick’s imagery sometimes overwhelms the people who populate those images—people who are dwarfed by the wide expanses of the natural world. Badlands, as a character-driven story with two very distinctive antiheroes at its center, is an exception, but in the rest of Malick’s films, starting with Days of Heaven, it often seems like his characters aren’t fully fleshed-out people so much as they are allegorical constructs. That’s why the farmer—who doesn’t even get a name—can symbolize every wealthy person, or at least can symbolize the idea of wealth and success. The central love triangle is pretty flat and generic, and as I said in my original review of the film, “Malick has as much feeling for a wheat field shot at the ’magic hour’ as he does for an expressive face or a moment of tenderness between two people,” an opinion I still hold several viewings later.
To be clear, while I can see why some would be put off by the sense that foliage is as important as people to Malick, I don’t think this is really a bad thing—at least not in Days of Heaven. In this film, the beauty of nature, the allegorical ideas, the tension between the sublime and the prosaic: those things are the point. Of course the film is artificial, its beauty unearthly and surreal even though it’s shot entirely in natural light in outdoor locations. The cumulative effect of Days of Heaven is to suggest that human life in all its complexity is simply a part of the continuum of the natural world, which is why any individual story, any emotional drama, isn’t nearly as important or compelling as a particularly beautiful sunset, or a swarm of bibilical locusts raining upwards across the frame, or a scarecrow framed against an orange sky. Malick’s imagery is pretty, yes, but it’s not emptily pretty, which seems to be the real meat of his critics’ contentions.
JB: We’re pretty much on the same page here. The main reason I find many of the “too pretty” complaints tiresome is that they tend to do one of two things: (1) penalize Malick for daring to capture visual lushness in a visual art form; and/or (2) penalize Malick for daring to be interested in things beyond human-driven plot. Either of those complaints can be boiled down to this: Malick’s films don’t look like other films, and therefore there must be something wrong with them. Actually, to recall another of our conversations, the complaints against the beauty of Malick’s movies aren’t totally unlike the lavish praise heaped on Pixar, albeit from a different direction. In both cases, an arbitrary norm is set, and anything breaking from that norm is considered radical, for worse or better. Whenever I hear someone imply that Malick’s pictures are too pretty, I wonder why we aren’t demanding that more films look this luscious, because while it’s certainly true that Malick’s films have a preponderance of striking natural images, for the most part it’s the quality and quantity of these images that set Malick apart, not the subject matter. For each jaw-dropping shot, like a cloud of locusts swirling overhead, there will be two fairly straightforward shots, like an orange sky over the horizon—the kinds of shots that even average filmmakers employ, just not as gloriously or frequently. Malick’s sin is repeatedly taking our breath away with compositions that in another filmmaker’s hands would be mundane.
You’re absolutely correct that one of the reasons people are turned off by Malick’s attention to nature is that it’s unusual to see a filmmaker as interested in the natural world as in his human characters, so it’s important to think about why that is. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that nature has thematic significance in Malick’s world. Part of the reason is that Malick emphasizes emotion over plot. But just as significant is this: most filmmakers use exteriors to do little more than establish a physical location for the action. In the average film, exteriors are spaces between the words, or at best punctuation. In Malick’s filmography, exteriors are the words themselves. It’s an unconventional approach, sure, but hardly an empty one. When I hear that Malick’s films are too pretty, I can’t help but think of times that writers or speakers are criticized for being too eloquent, too well spoken, too educated. Implied in such charges is pretentiousness, and the same is true here. And yet the irony is that critics don’t imply that Malick’s images are beyond his audience—as if he’s using big words that require a dictionary. They imply that his images have no meaning at all.
Does a noticeable portion of Days of Heaven occur in the magic hour? Certainly. But it’s also true that, thematically speaking, Malick’s film lives on the fringe of light and darkness. The magic hour is as appropriate here as midnight is to film noir and rainstorms are to tragedies. Malick means to suggest the smallness and insignificance of these characters, and he does so by suggesting the enormousness and magnificence of the world around them.
EH: What you say about Malick’s nature imagery being more than simple establishing shots definitely resonates. Malick’s approach to nature and scenery aligns him much more closely with the avant-garde than with the conventional mainstream, narrative-focused filmmaker. After Badlands, Malick has seemed less and less interested in narrative and character, and more and more interested in capturing moods, examining themes, and, especially, in displaying beauty for its own sake. There’s also a very obvious spiritual/religious component to the relationship between humanity and nature in Malick’s work. There are explicit references to fire-and-brimstone Christianity in Days of Heaven, but Malick’s religiosity is not limited to any one denomination: it’s more a general embrace of the otherworldly implications of the world’s beauty and strangeness. Watching stalks of wheat waving in the wind, one feels the presence of something other, something beyond the human scale. Even for an atheist like me, Days of Heaven is a spiritual experience, one that doesn’t require any specific belief or devotion to a particular god so much as a general awe at the things in the world that defy humanity’s sense of control and mastery.
That’s why a sense of scale is so important to Malick, and also why he’s tended to move more and more away from traditional narrative. Traditional narrative demands human agency, and Malick is more interested in the lack of agency. The locusts simply appear one day; one moment everything’s tranquil and beautiful and the next moment there are bugs placidly perched on every surface. Malick’s characters are often unable to make choices for themselves, instead drifting through life, letting things happen to them. Bill and Abby make one big choice that does irrevocably alter their lives, but the focus of the film is on what can’t be controlled, on the forces—whether economic or natural—that operate far beyond the level of individual human dramas. Malick’s later films, after the 20-year break separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line, have worked on this level even more, whether their themes are the relentlessness of history and progress as in The New World or the eternal destructiveness of human wars in The Thin Red Line.
In Days of Heaven, despite Linda’s earthy voiceover, the film’s perspective seems almost godlike and omniscient, the slightly disinterested viewpoint of a being for whom human affairs are only a single piece of a far larger puzzle. The camera is easily distracted from the people within the frame, and when the locusts arrive Malick’s camera tracks in to watch the insects nibbling at the stalks of wheat, their eerie eyes staring into the lens, ready for their closeup. Not since Saul Bass’s Phase IV have insects had so much personality and agency—and the human characters so little.
JB: I’m so glad you brought up Phase IV, because I suspect that’s precisely the kind of movie that some people think of when they encounter those locust closeups. You meant no disrespect in comparing Malick’s use of insects to that 1974 sci-fi horror film, but those befuddled by Malick’s filmography would likely see the similarities as damning, because just like most of the exteriors we encounter at the movies are mere establishing shots, most extreme closeups of insects at the movies are playful gags, the stuff of Phase IV or Them!. Through such fantastic films, Hollywood has conditioned us to be amused by such images, and the truth is that even without Phase IV or Them! we’d likely be a bit amused anyway, because individual locusts aren’t majestic creatures; there’s something inherently goofy about seeing such miniature creatures filling up almost every inch of the big screen—which of course is the root appeal of Them! and Phase IV in the first place. The point is, when a Malick agnostic sees an extreme closeup of a locust munching on wheat, he probably thinks Malick has given undue attention to the insignificant, when in fact Malick seems to be trying to suggest that these insects that destroy the farmer’s crop are no more insignificant than the humans who tended to it. That’s a strong statement that I think many viewers aren’t willing to consider. To them, the insect shots must play like unintentional punchlines.
If Malick used only extreme closeups of insects to get his point across, I’d be more understanding of those who feel that such shots are random or empty. But Malick finds several ways to suggest the insignificance of his human characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. For example, twice in this film reminders of the outside world make their way into the idyllic setting: first when President Wilson’s train blows by on its whistlestop tour, and then when the circus comes to town on two small propeller planes. Both events suggest just how removed the farm is from the real world, which in turn makes it clear that the love triangle that’s of the utmost importance to everyone on the farm is entirely inconsequential to anyone beyond it. It’s not that Malick doesn’t care about these individuals. He just never loses sight of the bigger picture.
EH: That’s exactly my point. And I definitely did not mean the Phase IV comparison as an insult, in part because I don’t see Bass’s film as goofy. (Okay, I admit it’s goofy—but it’s also haunting and idiosyncratic and thematically consonant with Malick’s vision of the world.) It’s another good example of a film that dares to put the focus of the narrative on non-human presences, with the ants, oddly enough, being far more charismatic and interesting than the humans trying to destroy them. Malick doesn’t reverse the equation that thoroughly, but as you say, his emphasis on nature—on both the macro level and the micro level—is only part of his general interest in the way things fit together beyond the immediate story. That’s why it makes sense that Malick’s next film, The Thin Red Line—which appeared after a gap of 20 years during which the director didn’t make another movie—would further submerge stories and characters into the overall mood, fragmenting the solitary narrators of Badlands and Days of Heaven into multiple voices, all telling their own stories without any one being more important than the others.
As I mentioned earlier, Malick’s third film represents the director engaging with genre. This is a war movie, but as though to assure viewers that Malick’s sensibility hadn’t changed during his long absence from the cinema, it doesn’t start like a war movie. Instead, the film opens with an idyllic sequence on a tropical island, where the military deserters Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Train (John Dee Smith) spend their days swimming in the clear blue water, lounging beneath waterfalls, and watching the islanders go about their languid days. They play with the islanders’ kids, admire the natural beauty of the land, and listen to the beautiful choral music of the Pacific islands as the native people sing and clap in unison, joy in their faces and in their voices.
The peacefulness and natural splendor of this sequence—so typical of Malick’s style—is only interrupted by the sinister arrival of an American warship, glimpsed through the trees, the same way the ships of the arriving pilgrims would disturb the tranquility of the beginning of Malick’s next film, The New World. That’s a recurring theme in Malick’s work, with human presence appearing as a threat, a disruption, a tear in the fabric of the natural world.
JB: That’s a perfect way to put it. Over the course of The Thin Red Line, we watch that tear go deeper and deeper into Guadalcanal—over beaches, up hills, through jungles, down rivers. And for what? The Thin Red Line isn’t politically anti-war, by which I mean that there’s nothing in the film that suggests that the Battle of Guadalcanal was purposeless or criminal. Malick may not go so far as to portray it as a heroic or just war, which of course is the mood of Steven Spielberg’s World War II picture Saving Private Ryan, which came out that same year, but he doesn’t imply that it’s an unjust war either. In fact, Malick is almost sympathetic in regard to the enormity and irrepressibility of World War II’s momentum. Nick Nolte’s Col. Tall is a Homer-quoting maniac in one scene, and a guy for whom drinking water is considered a luxurious indulgence in another, but Malick traces Tall’s insensitive tunnel vision for militaristic conquest back to his superior officer, a brigadier general played by John Travolta, who before giving Tall his orders looks at Guadalcanal and wonders what on earth the Japanese army is doing there: “Why do the Japs build an airfield there, of all places? I guess we don’t know the bigger picture, do we? If there is such a thing.” Travolta’s Quintard has no interest in bringing war to Guadalcanal, but there’s where the enemy is, and that’s where the fight has to go. He has no choice. War expands like the roots of one of Malick’s mighty trees; that’s its nature. But while Malick doesn’t offer political objections to this or any war, he does offer spiritual ones. The damage done to the tranquil island speaks for itself while also serving as a metaphor for what’s happening to these soldiers.
Malick’s decision to divvy the narration amongst more than a half-dozen characters, including a dead Japanese soldier and an American soldier’s wife back in the United States, may be one of the most divisive and controversial of his career. In the least it’s an unusual approach: movies rarely have this many narrators, and when movies do have narrators they tend to be main characters who hang around for the duration of the picture. Malick breaks that trend, giving voice to whomever he sees fit, at whatever length he feels appropriate. Beyond that, Malick isn’t always explicit about who’s narrating. Numerous times in the film, we hear the voice of a narrator quite a bit before Malick gives us a shot that connects the voice with a character, and other times Malick will throw in a line of voiceover with almost no visual connection whatsoever. In most cases it’s possible to make these connections ourselves, on the basis of accent or context, but even the most keen-eared and attentive of first-time viewers will likely find the array of voices dizzying, which is clearly just fine by Malick, who means to have these words, thoughts and emotions overlap one another like the leaves in a jungle canopy. “Every man fights his own war,” reads the tagline on the poster for this film (which, by the way, has decorated the living room wall of every place I’ve lived since college), and that’s what this split narration suggests: each voice is reaching for the light, desperate to be heard. Personally, I love this approach. But I certainly understand why people find it frustratingly disorienting.
EH: I have to say, the use of multiple voiceovers, though thematically appropriate to what Malick means to accomplish here, is one of the choices in this film that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. At the beginning of this conversation, I admitted that I can’t quite join you in the choir of Malick true believers, even though I admire and enjoy much of his work. And the problems I have with Malick’s work, which were miniscule quibbles in his generally excellent first two films, become much more insistent when I’m talking about his later career. I find The Thin Red Line a frustrating film, at times almost unbearably moving, and at other times equally unbearable in its over-the-top poetic aestheticization. Malick’s verbal stylization was easier to take, for me, in Badlands and Days of Heaven, where the narration was tied to a single distinctive voice, a single personality. Here, there are multiple voices, all of them spouting poetry in effusive Malick-speak, and the plenitude of different voices and accents blur together. Rather than feeling like different narrators speaking their individual minds, it feels like all of the film’s narrators are simply taking turns reading from the same larger text, a text provided by Malick and the author James Jones, whose novels The Thin Red Line and From Here To Eternity Malick is adapting and quoting.
Maybe that sensation of sameness is purposeful. At one point, one of the narrators (I think it’s Witt) says that all of humanity shares a single soul, that different faces and bodies are merely surfaces disguising the essential oneness of the world’s people. That’s a beautiful sentiment in one way, but from another perspective it seems like Malick is de-individualizing his characters, subsuming them into the larger mass of humanity. He wants to deal with humanity as a whole rather than as individuals. That tagline, “every man fights his own war,” sounds good but I’m not convinced that it actually applies to the film. The individual voices of the soldiers are tangled together to such an extent that the individual man often ceases to matter, especially since the dialogue other than the voiceovers tends to be fairly minimal. Quintard and the soldiers beneath him may have no grasp of the bigger picture, but the bigger picture—meaning the nature and philosophy of war—is precisely what Malick is interested in examining here. He’s chasing after the “great evil” of war, the mystery of why men kill and maim each other like this, but I’d argue that in focusing on the big picture he doesn’t zoom in often enough for a glance at the details.
JB: Interesting. I understand how you get to where you are, and I’ll concede that the tagline can be used by the film’s detractors as well as by its supporters, but the way I see it, both things are true: Malick is recognizing the multitude of individual responses while also throwing them together in one giant tangled mass. At the risk of giving the tagline undue attention, what I love about it is that it can be read at least two different ways: one is to take it as a reminder of every human’s personal struggle regardless of subject and/or context (war, relationships, mortality, religion, etc.); another is to take it as a reminder that actual physical wars are won and lost by masses of individuals who are at the center of their own universe. I understand why people watch The Thin Red Line and think that the individual is lost in Malick’s embrace of the collective, but I see it differently. I see Malick doing his best to make us feel the impact of each individual life equally, to not feel for one soldier’s fear or death above another’s, to see these guys not as heroes but as humans. He doesn’t completely achieve this, of course, because Malick does “develop” (relatively speaking) the characters of James Caviezel’s Witt, Elias Koteas’s Staros, Sean Penn’s Welsh and Ben Chaplin’s Bell, whereas other characters are nothing more than names (Jared Leto’s Whyte, for instance), and many other characters even less than that. But in spirit I think he gets there.