I saw Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” in a movie theatre last night. I have previously viewed it only on my wee television at home. Seeing “Days of Heaven” on a big screen with cinema quality sound is a totally different experience. Terrence Malick may soon force me to go out and buy a new monster-size home entertainment centre.
The fundamental point of “Days of Heaven” is conveyed in the extraordinary beauty with which Malick fills the screen. The words of dialogue and voice-over are often obscure and difficult to hear. But words are far less central to “Days of Heaven” than the visuals and natural background sounds of birds, animals, wind, water, and fire, combined with the extraordinary music that fills the film. The viewer could probably benefit as much from viewing “Days of Heaven” without access to any of the words of the screenplay.
“Days of Heaven” is a mood-movie. The film creates an intense lyrical feeling of beauty and wonder. As difficult as their lives may be the characters who populate the world of “Days of Heaven” inhabit a transcendentally beautiful universe. The problems arise when this is not enough.
Terror breaks into the world when Bill and the Farmer give in to the poison of dissatisfaction. For Bill his relationship with Abby and with his sister, being able to work hard as a labourer but free to relish in the lavish beauty of the world around him, is not adequate. Bill wants something more than the simple pleasures life seems to offer. He thinks that the something more he wants is wealth and a life of ease.
The Farmer who has more money than he could possibly need and lives a life of comfortable leisure in an elegant home wants the one thing Bill has. He wants Abby.
This twisted triangle of passion and discontent leads to the disaster in which both Bill and the Farmer lose all they possessed chasing after the one thing they felt their lives lacked.
What is it in the heart of human beings that causes this terrible discontent? Why is it that what we have is never enough and what someone else has seems always to be the one thing we feel is most necessary?
Terrence Malick poses these questions in “Days of Heaven”. And, while he offers no answers, he does intimate that this is the unresolved tension that lies coiled at the heart of all the catastrophes and tragedies of human history.
At the end of “Days of Heaven” Abby steps on a train accompanied by a smiling, celebrating, happy throng of young men. They are off to see the world and encounter great adventure. The adventure upon which these young men have embarked is the First World War. What the viewer is acutely aware of, that the characters in the film do not understand of course, is that the “adventure” these young men are taking is going to be a journey into hell. Just as Bill and the Farmer’s worlds were destroyed by the events in which their lives became embroiled, many of these young men will not return to their families and others will have their lives physically and spiritually shattered by the terrible events they approach with such ignorant enthusiasm.
The key offered in “Days of Heaven” is not to try to understand the confusing ways life unfolds. It is certainly not to enter into the struggle to gain mastery over the events of our lives. The response Terrence Malick offers to the suffering, confusion, and puzzle of life is to open our hearts to the deep Beauty that permeates all of life and allow that Beauty to be our guide.
Throughout the film, as difficult as their circumstances may be, Malick shows us people who are able to celebrate life. He shows us characters who, though poor and oppressed, are able to find the rhythm of Love that permeates the universe. They are able to enter into that rhythm of Love with an abandon that leads them from the hell of their circumstances into the heaven that is a part of daily life for those with eyes to see, even if they don’t own a large screen TV with surround sound to help with the vision.