Existence and the American Dream: Part 1, by Rudie Obias
Recently, I’ve noticed that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was on a number of film critics’ and bloggers’ list of top ten movies of 2011, including mine. To many, though, this was the most polarizing, “over-hyped” film of 2011. It was surprising to see so much backlash and affection over a small film from Terrence Malick. Audiences across the country and the Internet were puzzled by The Tree of Life and felt duped by showing up to the theater to see the latest film featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. As a majority of moviegoers stormed out of mega-plexes and demanded their money back, to many, The Tree of Life was considered the worst film of 2011, so why was this film held in such high regard by cinephiles.
Why were people so upset with this film? Was it the unconventional narrative? Was it the lofty melodrama? Or was it simply the hype machine of Internet bloggers and pundits? Personally, I feel a lot of the outcry towards The Tree of Life was due to many people not having seen a Terrence Malick film. And, for those that did, it’s possible that they didn’t fully understand what they were watching. Whether they did or didn’t, The Tree of Life certainly delivers on one promise: it is a Malick film, through and through.
But what exactly makes a Terrence Malick film? How could The Tree of Life be so hated and so yet so loved? In this series of essays, I will try to examine the loose trilogy of humanity, existence, and ideas of the American Dream that Malick is trying to examine. Namely focusing this on his 1978 film, Days of Heaven, his 1997 film, A Thin Red Line, and his 2011 film, The Tree of Life.
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a beautiful film, not only in its photography but in its narrative. Days of Heaven follows a small family of drifters, finding work in the Texas panhandle during the 1920s. From the very beginning of the film, Malick’s approach is very distinct. I’d also like to point out that it is vastly different from his 1975 film, Badlands, which is considered to be more conventional than his later work. In Days of Heaven, it seems like Malick is unconcerned with delivering a specific, direct storyline. He thought it more appropriate to “find” the film in editing. But what he found was something more than what can be found on the page.
In the Criterion Collection’s release of Days of Heaven, there’s an exclusive interview with Richard Gere, who played Bill. During the interview, he states that, at times, he would butt heads with Malick over his character and the story. They both came from different schools of thought on acting, Gere being more theatre oriented and Malick, obviously, being more cinematic. This reminded me of Sean Penn’s experience on The Tree of Life. In an interview with Le Figaro, Penn states:
“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”
Understanding Malick’s approach is the key to understanding his films. Watching one of his films could be frustrating and intimidating, but if you are willing to accept Terrence Malick on his own terms, then you are better able to enjoy his films and ultimately find something rewarding.
I have a feeling if we read the script for Days of Heaven it would be vastly different from the final product. I feel Malick is exploring ideas of the existence of man and his conflict with other human beings. The dramatic conflict in Days of Heaven is the struggle between Bill (Richard Gere) and The Farmer (Sam Shepard) for the affections of Abby (Brooke Adams). But what’s deeper is how these characters relate to each other and their environment, along with notions of the class system in America, rich and poor, as well as the pursuit of happiness or the American Dream.
The conflict between Bill and the Farmer is very interesting considering that in a typical movie, Bill would be considered our hero. He is the one we are following; he is a hard worker and he is the love interest of Abby. And the Farmer would be considered the antagonist, as he is rich and essentially a slum lord. He is the obstacle between Bill and Abby, but in Days of Heaven no one is really considered good or bad. They are defined by their actions. After all, Bill is crooked, sly and underhanded, taking advantage of the Farmer’s illness by pawning off Abby to marry him, thinking that the Farmer will soon die and they will inherit his fortune. And in contrast, the Farmer is kind-hearted, a fair businessman not driven by greed but by good work. When we first meet Bill, he is a worker in a steel mill in Chicago. He gets in an argument with a co-worker, most likely over Abby, which leads Bill to murder. This is a major clue into how we should view Bill. But strangely, as the audience, we continue to root for him, even when he kills the Farmer and is on the run from the law. Why is this? Are we just conditioned by Hollywood filmmaking to believe that Bill is the good guy because the handsome Richard Gere plays him?
I feel Terrence Malick is making the point that man will be the end of man, but that, despite how man treats the environment, it will always come roaring back. The world is beautiful and man is the one that makes it ugly. This is a theme brought up over and over again in Terrence Malick’s work. Some would slight Malick as being more interested in nature photography than cinema, considering that a good chunk of his films are deliberate close-ups of trees, plants, and animal interactions. To some, this serves no real purpose to the narrative of his film. I disagree. Nature plays a big role in Malick’s exploration of man’s place in the world; his personal reverence to nature and the environment.
In Days of Heaven, the idea that work and play happen in the same location is interesting. By the end, the locusts invade the wheat fields, destroying them. Eventually, they are set ablaze. But none of this destroys man. As aggressive as nature can be, it is Bill’s jealousy that kills the Farmer. A jealousy fueled by Bill’s own greed and the promise of the American Dream. After all, Bill and Abby were poor, working class people that married into wealth. Linda (Linda Manz), Bill’s alleged sister, makes the point, “All the time in the world to play. Boy! The rich have it all figured out.” This would suggest the “ease” of climbing the social ladder in America. Hard work isn’t enough, but the ability to take advantage of the people around you is the key to real success in America. For Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven is a model for finding the American Dream.
I feel that Days of Heaven is Terrence Malick’s most accessible film. It’s his easiest film to understand and less intimidating than his later work. It is a good entry point in to Malick’s work and should serve as a template or a blueprint into understanding his brand of cinema. I feel that Terrence Malick is exploring notions of humanity, how it fits into the world, and the conflicts people have with other people. Overall, humanity’s downfall will not be nature’s undoing, but man’s. Nature will live on, long after man has left this world