20 July 2010

Days of Heaven

Well, I've been talking about sensual filmmaking, right-brain stuff, and I felt this was a good time to finally watch Days of Heaven. After reading how it took two years to edit, and Malick couldn't find a way to put it all together until he ditched the majority of the dialogue and relied on Linda to voiceover the story with oblique narration, that certainly sounds like a precursor to how Wong Kar-Wai would work two decades later. (Of note because Wong Kar-Wai's "cinema jazz" style is one of the easiest examples of "Sensualist filmmaking" I know of. Wish I could take credit for this idea, but it's ripped directly from Salon.com's Matt Zoller Seitz.)

The way the story slides by with all this imagery and visual metaphor, never quite slipping into dream-like or merely poetic (that is to say, the imagery never falls into the abstract) is hypnotic, and the sparseness of the narrative is more than made up for by the richness of the experience. The less you tell me, the more I discover for myself, and the more I discover for myself, the richer the film has become. Glances that mean realization, framing that tells me how a character feels, a snippet in the middle of a conversation about one thing tells me that another thing has already been discussed, or is pointedly not being discussed: it all feeds a hungry audience, it all gives you handles so you can do the heavy lifting for yourself. This is classic show-don't-tell filmmaking.

One easy, concrete example of not-spelling-it-out that really stuck with me is early on, when Bill is trying to convince Abby to offer herself to the farmer, but he doesn't convince her by saying, "We could be rich and happy if you just do this one small thing," because that's so painfully direct it loses its impact -- both to Abby and to the audience. Instead he justifies it by simply saying he's sick of her struggling, not having anything, having to work in the fields all day. Already he's saying "I'm doing this for you," but we have to look for that message in his words. Then he continues, saying how much he hates that the other workers leer at her, bent over in the fields, ogling her like she's some kind of a whore. This is Bill suggesting that her current life is degrading, humiliating, and she is "as low as a whore" that she (and he) can't stop everyone from eyeing her lasciviously. The solution, the rise in dignity that Bill is suggesting, comes through actual whoring, through actually giving herself up quietly in the manner in which he fears it looks almost as though she already is. This is irony, this is commentary, this is bittersweet recognition of the human condition, and it's all right there for the plucking, all this layered meaning -- but the only thing Bill says is he's tired of her having to work, and he hates how men leer at her. The rest, the audience can easily put together, and by not having him just come out and say these things, the understanding we get is richer. It's broader and deeper and the whole experience of the film is more intimate.

Days of Heaven isn't sensual or "right-brained" in a nonlinear or surreal/abstract way. It's sensual in that it gives itself to the watcher and lets the watcher do the left-brain stuff. You just have to feel it out, live in the movie alongside these characters, fill in those gaps naturally, organically. (All of this sounds like I'm describing the recently watched Denis film 35 Shots of Rum.) In a sense, and I know how limiting (and paradoxically left-brained of me) it is to put it this way, but you could argue that Days of Heaven is "right-brained" because it never tells you a story; all it does is show you.

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