I sat in the dark, scruffy theater, not far from all the classrooms in which I was reading Beowulf again, and Proust against Sainte-Beuve, unable to move or speak, even after the final credits rolled. A sudden train, coal black, flashed over a bridge under a heady, exhilaratingly cloudless blue sky. A little girl delivered a gritty, raspy voice-over, haunted by spooks and vagrants, that had something of the unworldliness of a homemade Book of Revelation. A family played a lazy, scuffling game of softball in golden cornfields, and somehow, set to Ennio Morricone’s lilting melody, it stilled something inside me and left me choked up and transported to a domain I could intuit more than recognize.
I couldn’t say where I’d been, or what those images of gates and fires and wolves running down a silver slope at night meant exactly, but before I stepped out of the cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in February 1979, I had sworn to myself that I’d duck every obligation the next day, and come back to see Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven again. Before long—and this wasn’t easy in those pre-computer days—I had seen the film so often (15, 20, 30 times) that my friends began to tease me relentlessly about it and screen it for me even when it was their birthday we were observing.
I was a grad student in literature when Days of Heaven, Malick’s second feature film, came roaring in on me, and I was used, I thought, to being moved by works of art (D. H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died, Keats’s letters, the last page of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet). But the intimate epic somehow shook me out of words by being at once as literary as any work I was studying and yet as post-verbal, and fluent in the language of a less analytical medium, as any piano concerto by Mozart.
On its surface, Days of Heaven spins a rough, bare story of three vagabonds struggling to scrape out a living in the Texas panhandle during the dark days of World War I. In every frame, however, one can feel the presence of larger forces, and it hardly matters whether one calls them “god” or “fate” or just the intensified hopes and miseries of an almost mythical New World in which everyone is on the move and every destiny is provisional.
I could tell that the words improvised by the 12-year-old urchin played by Linda Manz recalled the ghosts of Huck Finn and looked back to the vision of Leaves of Grass, but were here made new. I knew the central characters were reenacting the story of Abraham and Sarah and the Pharaoh. I read that Malick, in his 30s then, had already translated a book by Heidegger, written pieces for The New Yorker, taught philosophy at MIT, and as a Rhodes Scholar, mixed the sounds and light he’d absorbed amid the wide-open spaces of his Texas and Oklahoma childhood with the Emerson and Wittgenstein he’d studied at Harvard.
But this unlikely filmmaker was taking all his classical learning and bringing it into a form that spoke to the senses, the guts, and the spirit in ways I couldn’t put words to. I could break down Days of Heaven as confidently as I did any play by Aeschylus or poem by Eliot, but none of that could explain the magic-hour flash of a light on a passing train in the dusk. The almost monitory presence of the watchful moon. The fires that scar the earth after a plague of locusts. The film told me I would have to leave the same book-filled classrooms that Malick had inhabited and venture out into larger scenes of terror and wonder.
At the time it came out, Days of Heaven earned many favorable notices and won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Néstor Almendros. But it didn’t draw on American myth as ironically and as flamboyantly as Malick’s debut film, Badlands; Days of Heaven owed more to the Transcendentalists, you could say, than to the Bonnie and Clyde myths that cinemagoers had been taught to love. And coming out around the same time as Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull, it could seem elliptical and subdued next to the revolutions that were exploding the limits of American cinema then. Some even confused it with the famously extravagant fiasco Heaven’s Gate, made by Michael Cimino and released the following year.
Besides, Malick gave no interviews and posed for no photographs. After Days of Heaven, he disappeared from view and filmmaking for 20 years (to Paris? to the Himalayas? to write a film about Jerry Lee Lewis, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?) until he came back in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. Revolutionaries aren’t meant to be so silent.
Yet 35 years after I sat speechless before scenes of harvesting in the twilight that resurrected the canvases of Jean-François Millet, Days of Heaven has come to be regarded as a classic, by a master as majestically (and infuriatingly) distinctive as any director in cinema. Malick’s films are taught and discussed and given prizes now, even though, for many of us, none of the new ones catch the energy and sense of discovery of those first two from the 1970s. I meet kids in their 20s for whom he’s as hallowed a figure as Bergman or Antonioni was to us then. Perhaps, as our age accelerates, the singular features of a Malick film—silence and slowness and space—grow more invigorating as they grow less common.
Like any true visionary, you could say, he knew to stick to his own pace and make deliberate, layered, ageless works that the world would catch up to only slowly. The film lit up a way for me to redirect my life: I would slither out of my sequestered classroom (as Linda Manz’s character does at the end of the film) and lose myself in a vaster landscape where things can’t be explained, however powerfully they might be experienced. It brought home to me what Harold Bloom has called the American Religion, yet carried it into a new era and medium, locating its scripture in running waters and the equivocal play of wind across the fields. The beauty of Days of Heaven, ultimately, is that it made fresh for me, without words or doctrines, the very essay by Emerson that gave this magazine its name.
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