Posts Tagged ‘Days of Heaven’

‘It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.’

This quote from the writer Raymond Carver seems very apt when we approach the work of Terrence Malick. Malick has a way of drawing attention to somewhat ordinary things, fragments of everyday life, and making them seem wondrous. After watching his latest film, my path home through London took on a different feeling; the tiled skyscrapers appeared majestic and untouchable, the empty tube and escalators eerie and mysterious. Even with a lesser work as Knight of Cups, Malick has the ability to make the audience see the world in a different way.

Christian Bale plays Rick, the jaded Hollywood screenwriter at the heart of the film, a stoic, passive observer of the insanity around him. His world is full of lavish, hedonistic parties at picturebook mansions and an endless stream of wild beauties. People seem to flow in and out of his life like ocean waves; his tyrannical father (Brian Dennehy), his errant brother (Wes Bentley) and saintly ex-wife (Cate Blanchett). There is a portentous voiceover by Ben Kingsley, reciting The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, detailing a man’s descent into hell and ultimate salvation.

Continuing on from the improvisation of To the Wonder, Malick has appeared to strip away all forms of conventional storytelling, relying on sound and image to conjure a mood. Rick is near mute throughout the film, with snippets of breathless narration the only illumination of his character. It is somewhat sad how the last two films in Malick’s oeuvre have progressed. He was once noted for his ability to illicit strong, memorable performances from his actors, yet now he seems to use them as mere floating, emoting mannequins. The pompous narration does little to assuage this disconnect; it is difficult to feel anything for these characters.

What is frustrating about Knight of Cups is that it is a genuinely beautiful film. There are countless images that other film makers scrabble their whole lives for, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, of banality. The relentless beauty becomes dulling, and because there is no emotional connection with the characters or the story, they become shallow. I never thought I would use ‘shallow’ to describe a Malick film, but there we are. DOP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is again astounding, roaming and swooping, ducking and diving, swirling and twirling, but we may have come to a point when it might actually be a hindrance to Malick.

Lubezki’s collaboration with Malick has been the most notable change in his recent career, and it has been an exceedingly rich meeting of minds. However, Lubezki’s eye is beginning to overpower the story, or what little there is of it. The sprawling improvisation that Lubezki has allowed Malick seems to have dulled his senses- perhaps Malick needs to go back to basics for his next one. The still framing of Badlands and Days of Heaven, a more linear structure, more causal development of characters. In Knight of Cups, there is a feeling that Malick has indulged himself too much, much like the central protagonist Rick.

There are some redeeming points to the film. Hanan Townshend’s score is playful and nuanced, giving this contemporary story a classical, mythical grounding. Some images will linger in the mind, even if they are somewhat literal, such as the canine diving into the luminescent pool, yearning to gets its jaws around an elusive ball. It is an obvious metaphor for Rick’s own struggle to find meaning, always clutching out for something more. Sadly, we find Malick in a similar mode, reaching out for greatness and falling at the last moment.

 

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I’m in two minds about Last Winter, the debut feature from John Shank. On the one hand, you’ve got an accomplished, serious, occasionally visually striking drama about a young farmer coming to terms with the loss of his industry/world. On the other hand, it feels like a film that’s predictable from start to finish, from every single character to every plot movement. There is nothing new here.

We are introduced to Johann (a commanding Vincent Rottiers), who is toiling alone on the farm that he inherited from his dead father. The farm is based in small village in central France, a stark, blustery landscape, bringing to mind some of Bruno Dumont’s film terrains. He is evidently dedicated to his work and revels in the environment. Shank shows him milling in idyllic rivers and tending to sun-glazed animals. He is supported by a local girlfriend, who waits each night for him to climb into bed. All rosy so far.

The edenic existence is shattered, however, by the realisation that the farming co-op that Johann is part of, is suffering. As the head of the co-op, it’s Johann’s ultimate decision whether to give in to Helier (Michel Subor), the middle man between the co-op and the larger foreign companies who want to dictate the farmers work. Johann, ever stubborn, is reluctant to adapt to modern demands.

Coming from a rural background, these issues are not unfamiliar to me, and there are many news reports about farms capitulating under bankruptcy, and even suicides. This is clearly a serious issue and one that I have not seen represented on screen much, if at all. Yet, it might be this familiarity that with the subject that makes the film slightly staid for me.

Perhaps it is because the director Shank, American born, was not already ingrained in the culture that he is depicting; does his outsider status perhaps make the film feel a little inauthentic? Altogether the film feels somewhat by the numbers. His girlfriend is of little or no consequence, barely saying a few words, and then there is the inexplicable presence of his mentally disturbed sibling, a strange staple of independent dramas (What’s eating Gilbert Grape?, Lost Times), whose only role seems to be to inject unnecessary angst to the story and bludgeon home how compassionate the protagonist is.

There are elements of Malick in the idyllic shots of nature and landscape, but these are mostly drowned out by the gloomy middle section. There is a particular sequence which seems indebted to Days of Heaven‘s famous locust spectacle. Bruno Dumont appears to be another reference point, with his stark portrayals of rural French life. Last Winter unfortunately feels like a lite version of these auteurs films, neither beautiful or otherworldly enough for Malick, or gritty and compelling enough to be a Dumont.

By the end I was pleading for Shank to refrain from an ‘open ending’. Once a thoughtful, challenging part of many art films, it now seems to be a weapon for lazy filmmakers unsure of how to end their story. Often there might not be a ‘right’ ending, but I think Last Winter had the choice of two interesting paths. It chose the middle road.

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