Posts tagged “Terrence Malick

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)I’ve been keeping a look out for Days of Heaven (1978) ever since I heard an interview with Richard Gere on the radio whilst promoting a recent film. Mentioning his working and understanding of Terrence Malick it was enough to get me searching. The second feature-length film by the auteur (dare I say it) who has only directed a handful of visually distinctive films. His next film would not be for 20 years, The Thin Red Line (1998). I can see the direction he is going in visually, from the murderous road-trip of Badlands (1973) to the failure of an American dream in Days of Heaven (1978) to the almost serene war film on the Pacific front of Red Line (1998). Each have the effective voice over in some way or another to give some sort of a human connection to the imagery.

Moving away from all the comparing and contrasting of Malicks small back catalogue to the crux of this film, running slightly longer than the Martin Sheen film we have a failed American dream at the turn of the century as three people leave Chicago to go south in search of a better life. Bill, Abby and young Linda (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz). They get a job panhandling for a farmer (Sam Shepard) in Texas, working the fields for a season along with others escaping the poverty of the modern cities.

There’s a pretty even split on the focus of plot and cuts to pure nature, working in those lingering shots of nature and the sounds of a developing world around us, deafening out the men who populate. They just don’t really count when you think about it. Even the love-triangle between the three leads is secondary really plays second fiddle really to the ambience of the great outdoors that is Texas. You can see where this leads Malick 20 years later.

What ties it altogether is the narration of Linda who acts more as an onlooker into the events between the adults. Trying to understand what is going on, reflecting back on her life or the year or so that saw her move from the city wandering the country. She is also a radical change from the more southern Sissey Spacek who was plain confused by what was going on between her and Sheen’s wannabe James Dean character Kit. Theres more an urban innocence of what is going on, both girls around the same age, trying to understand what is going on around them, making sense of these events as they unfold for us.

The more I see of Malick’s work the more I understand the film, I am hoping to rematch The Tree of Life (2011) which was my first encounter which needs to be re-evaluated. My understand is far clearer, with a fascination for the lingering shots of nature, pointing the camera away from the conventional content of American cinema figures in a situation that develops before being resolved, pulling away to see what is around that developing plot, characters who grow and change, before everything is concluded. We see the beginning of far more going on, with natural history style camera work. The acting is highly stylised which I’m not surprised at really, paling away next to the ambience and nature that is captured, the American dream has to fight against nature to prosper.

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Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven's Gate (1980)Due to the sheer length of Hevean’s Gate (1980) I have decided to watch it in two parts, just over the hour mark tonight (8/11/14) and I feel that I should hold back until I have seen beyond the Johnson County War horses ride off into town. My initial thoughts are that Michael Cimino for all he is now known for, almost bankrupting a studio by blowing his budget, his film truncated for theatrical release he has produced (only looking at the first half of the directors cut) a masterpiece that is the scale of a David Leancover vast stretches of even just one state, the emotional depth of a George Stevens and the romanticism of Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).  If that is even possible for a man who only a few years before caused uproar with The Deer Hunter (1978) has taken on a dark page in his countries own past, as it turned on the immigrants who tried to make a life for themselves, as the Americans years before once did. I can’t wait to see how the  town react to the state and even country whose middle class army turn on the people who make the country so rich.

I could only wait a single night to complete this epic of a film, putting the label to shame when applied to The Big Country (1958) somewhat. I could see the length issue, needing to bring it in to theatrical release friendly length, which would only hinder the film. Noticing scenes which could be cut back, none entirely removed. Everything is in there for a purpose, prolonged to enjoy the spectacle of their integration with American’s who here are living alongside one another in peace. An issue that has become a hot topic in the UK with the borders within the EU for free movement the influx of people from all over Europe, which is having an effect on the fabric of the nation, its politics and infrastructure. I’m just glad we have moved on even from the 1950’s and the comments of Enoch Powell wanting to pay each immigrant to leave. That’s was progress when compared to the extremes which the US government went to in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 with immigrant causing “near anarchy”. This conflict between the towns people enabled by the President versus the immigrants is the backdrop for this dusty dramatic epic.

Beginning in 1870 when two friends are graduating from university it seems that the possibilities are endless for James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Englishman Billy Irvine (John Hurt) in a sequence that is full of great promise for all the young men and the adoring women who join them in dance and celebration. We can see the beginning of something special for James and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) which’s brought to an abrupt close with cut to twenty years later and the shooting of an immigrant from a shadowy figure from behind a sheet, the figure – Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), of authority  is looming in, wanting to control if not quell the bubbling situation of fear that is brewing out in Johnson County 1890.

We can see the speed of development in the country, as we cut to not a boom town, but a booming metropolis of a busy main street, horses pulling trailers, men in shops kitting themselves out in the latest suits and guns. It’s still very much a mans world. It doesn’t quite fit for James/Jim who quickly leaves for his homestead where we find Ella waiting for him. He has all he needs, a sheriffs job and a woman who makes him happy, what more does he want. The fear of a list of 125 names made up by cattle men who fear the influx of new Europeans. His friend Billy‘s revealed to be a weak man of only clever words and ideals that get him nowhere in the West kept alive only by his class that.

Before the conflict begins we’re treated to over an hour getting to know the people of the county that have shaped it, reminding us of the fabric the growing country then and now. Something that is the foundation of most countries that is sometimes forgotten. It’s a rich tapestry of scenes that are woven together to give us an image of a cohesive community that ultimately stand-up and fight the cattle men. Ignoring the law that was behind this influx of men is long coasts riding over the countryside with guns in hand, ready to deliver justice.

With all the grand imagery that is the overwhelming factor that makes this film so enjoyable and rewarding. We see a lot of dust in the air, brought up by the wheels on the ground, the sub seeping through the windows. Visually its splendid to watch, taking us to a dirty rough and ready. It falls down on the characterisation, the old friends only have a few scenes together. Cimino is doing what I do when documenting my work, he “milks it” squeezing everything out of his scenes, allowing them to play out. A lot is going on, it’s hard to see where any cuts were made for this final directors cut. We could easily have a documentary cut of the film seeing a historical account of the conflict rather than that characters. The only characters that are really focused is within the love triangle which’s tolerated and not tested. Jeff Bridges is given a few scenes as John L. Bridges who protects Ella more than anything. The ending is probably my only major fault that never really says anything, asking more questions, whose the girl who sits before a very much hurt James who cannot seem to move on. Maybe this ambiguity that has allowed such respect to build up around this film that is unique from any other in the Western genre.

If we take only one thing away from this controversial landmark film it is the visual detail, the love devotion that goes into every scene, every frame even. We should forget about the controversy behind the film, the massive budget, the incredible number of takes. However it does mark the end of an era in Hollywood film-making, the loss of directorial control, the creative reins have been now pulled in considerably. We still get the rare film that from Terrence Mallick and   Scorsese which has their stamp all over it. Now we have films that are generated out of successful franchises, reboots and superhero universes that are proven to make a massive box-office return. The studio has won out, thank god for the indie film.

The New World (2005)

The New World (2005)You can never pass up a chance to catch a Terrence Malick film, even just to see what he has been doing. This time catching The New World (2005) the latest version of the Pocahontas story which I recently read may never have actually happened, more a fabrication to romanticise the first men to arrive on the then untouched continent. Pocahontas did indeed exist, so did John Smith, it’s just very doubtful they met, the Native Powhatan would have been far younger at the time when she saved the lucky captains life. It could be as author Thomas King suggests is just a story fabricating by Captain John Smith that has lasted from his first arrived in Virginia in 1607. He is believed to have brought it back to life Pocahontas arrived in England 1616 at royal request. There is some fact in their, which itself has become one of the early legends to emerge from America.

That’s not to take away from this film, it’s just the context from which I view this film. It carries on that legend with a touch of Malick to boot. His previous film The Thin Red Line (1999) focused on WWII and the men who were fighting the Pacific islands. There was still an equal balance between the landscape cinematography which makes the film so breath-taking to watch and the inclusion of the actors. Which over recent films has been paired back considerably. The same can be seen in The New World with a clear narrative in place, there is a story to tell, one that really suits Malick’s direction. As a British crew arrives on what would become Virginia a group of settlers begin a new life, hopefully co-existing with the Natives or “Naturals” for as long as possible. I can’t help but think of all the events that are to follow and how they could have been so different with this mindset.

Obviously the peace cannot last between the two people and the first of many conflicts begin. Amongst all of this a, romance between at native woman, daughter of the chief Powhatan and the captain of the settlers. After saving him from certain death, it’s up to her to learn all she can from him. It’s going well between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) a whirl wind romance, based on the exploration of two different worlds coming together, learning from one another and ultimately loving each other which costs them both in different ways.

I’ve never really been a massive fan of Farrell (he is growing on me) here is feels strained, not used to the introspective world of Malick unlike Christian Bale‘s (John Rolfe) who saves the film after Smith is recalled to lead his own missions. Giving more depth to the film opposite the increasingly westernised Pocahontas/Rebecca who is fast becoming an upstanding member of the new community and the civilised world. There seems to be some harmony between the tribe and the settlers who increase in numbers, It’s not really explored, instead looking at her relationships. She is the real centre of the film, as she leaves one untouched world of nature to one that has been shaped by centuries of development and history, a culture that comes to admire and love her.

Ultimately that shots without dialogue and actors are the money shots that make this film worth watching. The subject matter is secondary to the serene landscape shots of the new world that is ripe for exploring, using the camera as a form of recording the past, the old new world comes alive once more, and is still there is you look hard enough to enjoy and appreciate it. I wonder if the tale of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith were really true, or just the first of many legends to come out of the country that is both rich is fact as it is in fiction. Sometimes the fiction is more romantic than the fact.

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