Thursday, August 24, 2006

Saw this tonight at Cornell Cinema. It stars a very young and beautiful Richard Gere, a nearly as beautiful Sam Shepard (though I was often disconcerted by an unexpected resemblance to Denis Leary), Brooke Adams (who in face and voice often reminded me of my first great movie crush, Karen Allen, aka Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and an uncanny young woman named Linda Manz who also spiels one of Malick's trademark elliptical voice-overs. Set in the mid-1900s just before the United States made its entry into WW I, it shifts tone continually from something resembling socialist realism to something more like a fairy tale (or rather, one of the more fairy-tale like episodes in the Bible, the Book of Ruth), and then in its last fifteen minutes or so becomes a kind of reprise of Malick's Badlands. Above all I can't help but see it as a masterful espousal of and meditation on pastoral, especially since Malick is the American director whose sensitivty for nature combined with intensity of sheerly visual perception (though this is to slight the complex and beautiful soundtrack) is unmatched. Much of the first half of the film is taken up with images of labor on a vast wheat farm in the Texas panhandle: the work is dirty, dangerous, and exhausting, yet there's a kind of beauty and joy to it and to being part of the landscape that all of Malick's characters seem to find infectious. Then the pastoral mode shifts into the domestic interior of Sam Shepard's character's mansion on the hill; another kind of interlude precariously balanced on the lie that Gere and Adams are brother and sister rather than lovers. (In a kind of artistically magnanimous gesture that I can imagine few other directors pulling off, this interlude is prolonged by the arrival of a miniature circus via prop plane.) Shepard's discovery of the truth coincides with the arrival of a literal plague of locusts, and then a hellish firestorm which ends in the violent confrontation that had been deferred only by the integrity with which the figures of the film composed themselves in their beautiful wind-haunted landscape. At the end, after Gere has been hunted down for the apparent murder of Shepard, Manz, something of a wild child (whose wildness is magnified by the strangeness and beauty of her voice-over) is deposited at a dance academy where we are given to understand she will somehow turn into the teller of this story, or maybe as she at one point muses, "I could be a mud doctor, checkin' out the earth underneath." Adams, haunted by her part in the deception and in love with two dead men, is seen boarding a troop train, transformed metaphorically into a black-haired Helen. But the film resists allegory in whatever mode—Biblical, classical, Marxist—even as it invites a kind of doubled awareness in the viewer, who has the leisure (the otium) almost unheard of in contemporary films to look and look and to discover mystery in its images.
One of the things that fascinates me about Malick's films (I haven't yet seen The New World) is how often they're spoken of as being "poetic," and how right that description feels. This quality is easier to define negatively: plot, characterization, and dialogue have diminished importance in the films I've seen. But to speak positively, there's a curious mixture of extreme precision (one reviewer has noted that Malick's close observation of the wheat harvesting process could easily belong to a documentary) with the mythic, a combination I can't help but regard as quintessentially Modernist. Myth and precision meet most immediately in the lingering shots of natural phenomena, and also in the silent, listening faces of the actors (in Days often shot from below, magnifying their stature). Then there's the voice-over, which imposes a single startling subjectivity over the action and more or less substitutes for the usual through-line of fiction films, plot. This is a literally de-dialogizing move: Malick thus moves toward the poem and away from the novel/narrative in an almost Bakhtinian sense, except that the language of his voice-overs is not that of Homer or any other epic narrator, but the fragmented half-savage consciousness of a teenage girl. (In Badlands, the narrator is a disturbingly affectless and morally obtuse Sissy Spacek, while in The Thin Red Line we have the diffused "epistolary" narration of various soldiers; the Homer-loving Colonel played by Nick Nolte seems countered in his desire for a heroic narrative by the distracted terror of his men, minute figures in the wandering seagrass.)

Does this have anything to teach me as a poet? Perhaps only that "the poetic" is not a catalog of means, or at least not only that, but also a desired stance toward experience, and the staging of resistance toward the means of narration we associate with prose and the "true story" alike. There is also, it seems, a place for largeness and scope, and mixed contemplation of universals alongside socio-historical particulars. It's inspiring to think on. It reminds me that the process is the goal.

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