Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dream-state in the cinema of Terrence Malick: Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick's films are simultaneously realistic and hypnotic, both grounded in historical situations and transcendent in their evocativeness. Both Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) seem to rise above the times and places that provide them with such decisive settings; the characters are not archetypes or mythological heroes, but they aren't mere humans, either, with those quirks and textures that are so important to unique personalities. These characters are projections, spiritual avatars of desires and emotions, and the histories they inhabit are luminous stages for their dramatic interplay.

Malick's films are broad, sweeping dreamscapes, where acts take on special significance, and where emotional reactions are blunted. The acts depicted may be chilling, or traumatic, or disheartening, but rather than strong notes, they evoke sustained tones, extended feelings of bliss and preponderance. Ebert makes much of this in his acute reviews of the films. There is narrative logic, and there is emotional content, but the threads binding them together are tenuous at best... the result is an experience like a daydream, or a revery, where our feelings unfold peacefully no matter what's on the screen before us.

Yet, despite the lack of strong emotional involvement, there is movement and momentum in Malick's narratives. From the very beginning, Badlands is a desire-fulfillment fantasy, chronicling two impulses: first, Holly's romantic desire, her infatuation with and idealization of Kit; second, Kit's violent tendencies, those sudden "heroic" rage issues mixed with paranoia and self-preservation, the emergence of the suppressed death drive. Holly's voiceover and Kit's mean streak are remote from each other, the signs of parallel desires bubbling up from the subconscious and overflowing into everyday life.

Badlands takes place in a messy world, smoothed over by the bright sunlight and deadpan direction. It may be a place of oneiric nostalgia, but it's infused with the mundane. Days of Heaven takes Malick's dreamlike aesthetic one step further, giving us a world that's focused, illuminated, and deliberate, a heightened reality if ever I've experienced one. The film is shot in color, but the golden wheat fields and late afternoon sunlight evoke sepia-toned photographs. The endless emptiness of the Great Plains provides a canvas for the placement of objects, people, faces, bodies, and landmarks. Every element becomes a focal point: the plow, the farm workers scattered along a pathway, the master's house, the gazebo, the airplane; later, the locusts, the fire, the gun, the automobile. There is a sense of isolation that pervades this lonely landscape and filters down into everything, from the objects and locations to the people themselves.

According to some commentators, it's the material nature of the camera itself that brings about this effect. Consider, from Kinema Journal's article LIKE A DREAM. A CRITICAL HISTORY OF THE ONEIRIC METAPHOR IN FILM THEORY:

"The cinematic apparatus, in fact, presents the spectator with representations, which offer themselves as perceptions. Even more, it creates an impression of reality which has no comparison with the one provided by normal perception; in front of a film, one has the sensation of seeing something 'more than real'. For Baudry, it is not the film's imitation of reality, of varying precision, which creates the illusion, but the functioning of the apparatus itself. Spectators are like the prisoners in Plato's cave: they see only shadows which, moreover, are projected by statues, that is to say not by reality, but by a reproduction of reality. Analogously, by projecting shadows cinema creates the same 'more than real' effect that is experienced in dreams."

Whether or not the camera is the primary agent, it's undeniable that Malick's direction heightens this sense of hyper-reality, through his flawless control over mis en scene in these earlier films. This is a large part of what replicates the dream-world: each object in each scene transcends its physical referent and becomes a mental image, representing an abstraction of something below the level of awareness.

In Days of Heaven, Malick strengthens this effect by bringing the general mood on the farm into alignment with the emotional states of the characters. Part of the reason emotions flow so naturally through the film is that they're prompted and prefigured by changes in setting. This is true of the dusty and exhausting train ride that begins the film, and it's true of the luminous, idyllic beauty of the Farmer's estate. The correlation becomes even more acute late in the film, as the Farmer starts to feel a loss of rationality and control, and the biblical advance of locusts and fire heralds the tempest of his anger. His anger doesn't shock, because it's been foretold by the apocalyptic changes in the environment. This identifies Days of Heaven as a work of Romanticism, a movement that treats nature as a corollary to man's emotional life.

And after all this discussion, we return to an important observation: Malick's films are not irrational or random, nor full of non-sequitors, nor chaotic and unresolved. They're journeys through a sensory world that's tinted by the imagination, and though they maintain emotional distance, they're strikingly lucid. This is notable different from the other dream auteurs I'll be covering in the next few posts, who surrender their continuity in favor of elliptical causal relationships. What Malick achieves, uniquely among his contemporaries, is a world that's hazy and cerebral, and yet fully plausible, an acceptable surrogate for everyday life. And this is what dreams do: they become our lives when we're sleeping and confined to our own minds, so they're eminently believable, even though they're nothing but the manifest expressions of our restless thoughts.

Malick's style is hard to encapsulate in a description, even if it's a rather long one. However, his affinity with the dream-state should offer some insight into what makes his direction so compelling, timeless, and universal.

Next entries: David Lynch, and Warner Herzog's Heart of Glass.

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