There is a weirdly intimate relation between movies and apocalyptic lore: the viewer of Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, Apocalypse Now, and Night of the Living Dead is drawn into fantasies that are both archaic and up-to-the-minute. These films exploit a sensational but hermetic text in a medium for which it might have been designed. DeQuincey once wrote that the coming of the newspaper—in an era dominated by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars—was like the opening of apocalyptic vials. What would DeQuincey have said of movies, where the effect of immediacy, of a terrifying, deathlike spectacle materialized from nowhere, is so radically intensified? When the medium of film and the subject of apocalypse are combined, even absurd scripts, incompetent acting, or poor direction matter not a whit (sometimes they help). People want to see Revelation on a screen. They will forgive much for this peculiar privilege.
The reader will have inferred that my fondness for the movies listed above is mixed. The expectation of an apocalyptic turn in history has often turned mass movements into disasters: the Anabaptists at Münster (1525) came to no good end, nor—more recently—did Charles Manson or Jim Jones. With its potent appeal to the popular imagination, the cinema of apocalypse is likely to play a role more sinister than otherwise. All the same, one occasionally finds films where the use of apocalypse is subjected to critical analysis: where, most especially, the links between cinema and revelation are questioned. One such work is Terence Malick's extraordinary Days of Heaven.
Since it first appeared (in 1978), Days of Heaven has become something like a cult film for critics. The story in itself is not all that esoteric. A penniless couple in America, just before World War One, pose as brother and sister. When a rich (and unnamed) farmer becomes obsessed with the woman (Libby), her lover (Bill) encourages her to marry him—they both think that the farmer will soon die and that she will inherit his wealth. Libby weds the farmer, as planned; he is revivified by her presence; the inevitable difficulties ensue. After the two male rivals end up dead, the woman disappears into a new life, leaving Bill's little sister (the film's narrator) behind.
Quite promising for a modern Hollywood film, except that in Malick's treatment this tale is subordinated to an intricate and mysterious play of images unlike anything else in American movies. The pictures take on a potency of their own. The sight of a wine glass dropped in a river, with fish swimming around it, or of horses gathering on a hill with a smoke-obscured sun in the sky, seems to fill the screen and the mind in an eerie way, largely unrationalized by narrative.
Unrationalized, and yet many viewers—myself included—will find that they want to discuss the pictures, to get a handle on them somehow. There is a limit, after all, to the number of times we can throw up our hands and mutter about ineffability. A first clue to Malick's imagery is in a kind of abstract patterning: each of the four major characters is associated with one of the four elements (air, fire, water, earth). If we follow this hint through the film, we find that what appears to be an emotional struggle among human beings is assimilated into an evocation of landscape. Malick's interest is less in class or erotic tensions (though he takes a certain care to define them) than it is in the way that wind—for example—spreads fire or that water puts it out.
Unlike Alan Spiegel (author of a good essay on Badlands—Malick's first film—and Days of Heaven in Salmagundi, Winter-Spring, 1980), I do not think that this play with the elements is mere "post-graduate apparatus." We are being seduced into looking away from ourselves; we are introduced to a drama of natural process which mirrors, then overwhelms, our usual (self-absorbed) frame of reference. Human passion is not so much magnified by its elemental transformation as lost: subsumed within a cosmos that threatens to swallow it up.
We have, then, a peculiarly tense relationship to the images in Days of Heaven. They are projected on a screen, removed from us so that we can regard them with aesthetic detachment; at the same time they act as a reminder that humanity is in some way much smaller than nature. Sitting in front of these pictures I often feel as though I am about to disappear—not just into that comforting darkness available to any moviegoer but into an altogether more encompassing void.
Malick occasionally meditates on this connection between scrutinizing photographs and becoming conscious of death. The heroine-narrator of Badlands observes at a crucial moment, "One day while taking a look at some vistas in Dad's stereopticon it hit me that I was just this little girl born in Texas whose father was a sign painter, who had only just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine. . . . For days afterward, I lived in dread."
Something rather subtle is going on here. The speaker's observation is appropriate to still photography, where a moment of time is arrested; a still photograph (cf. Barthes' Camera Lucida) almost always has an elegiac effect, reminding us of dissolutions past and to come even when the photographer has tried to downplay this aspect of his work. But moving pictures are not quite the same as still ones. They convey a greater sense of depth (like the stereopticon of Badlands ); they convey, much more vividly than fixed images, a sense of immediate presence—of events (disastrous or otherwise) happening now.
Malick is declaring his ambition to create movies that have the elegiac qualities associated with a related but distinct medium. When the narrator of Badlands looks through a stereopticon—or when Malick himself prefaces Days of Heaven with a montage of still, sepia photographs—we are faced with a declaration of intent; we confront a maker of images who is working against the grain, beautifully and constructively.
Thus described, Days of Heaven denies the logic of apocalyptic thinking. Apocalypse is quite different from the consciousness of dissolution and metamorphosis highlighted by Malick's allegory of elements and by his desire to associate photography with time's destructive passage. The Greek apocaluptein means to uncover, to unveil. Apocalyptic revelation comes as an unveiling, a disclosure of what was previously a secret. Everything is put in its place once and for all. What role might the yearning for apocalypse play in a film devoted to drift and postponement, to meditations on loss, to endings that are inevitable but never all-illuminating?
Malick first raises this sort of question at the beginning of Days of Heaven, when Linda (the narrator) and the young couple are travelling on top of a train, going to the harvest where they will encounter the farmer. Linda meets "a guy named Ding-Dong" who tells her about the Day of Judgment: the fire, the terror, the entrance of the saved souls into Heaven, the doom of the damned—whose cries for mercy God does not even hear. In a naive but sensitive way, Linda is impressed. We expect that we will be hearing about apocalypse again, no matter how unapocalyptic Malick may be.
Libby's marriage to the farmer brings on an apocalypse of a kind. At first this event is seen only in its millennial aspect. The millennium, of course, is that period of a thousand years when Christ and resurrected saints are to reign over a Utopian earthly kingdom. The title of Malick's film derives from Deuteronomy 11, where Yahweh promises "days of heaven upon the earth" to his wandering tribes, but is also connected with later and specifically millenarian prophecies (cf. the Ezra Apocalypse and The Secrets of Enoch). On the great day of the Lord, the earth will be transformed into heaven. So it seems to have been in Days of Heaven, whose characters loll in a privileged world, where, as Linda observes, they are like kings.
The idyll is first disrupted in a scene where Malick makes elaborate play with the power of veiling and unveiling. Bill, Abby, and the farmer watch a Chaplin film (The Immigrant); Malick draws our attention to projector and screen. Then he cuts to an elusive moment of dalliance in a gazebo near the house. We see from the farmer's point of view: he is standing outside the gazebo, where he can observe the shadows of Bill and Abby cast on a pair of drawn curtains. They are drunk. Their profiled silhouettes lean towards one another, and a kiss perhaps occurs—or is the kiss only an effect of air, of wind ruffling this stand-in for a movie screen?
The farmer's inquiries are temporarily postponed when Bill leaves, but shortly after his return the next fall a culminating disaster occurs. Once more the farmer spies on the couple—this time, however, without the mediation of a screen, of a veil that reveals. He thinks he sees Bill and Abby picking up where they left off. He is wrong— we know from our slightly more privileged position that they have decided to end their affair—but no one has time to clarify anything. A plague of locusts descends on the farm (Exodus? Revelations 9:3?); in the midst of a nighttime struggle to burn out the locusts, the farmer attacks Bill with a lantern hung on a pole. When the lantern is dashed to pieces, such crops as have not been destroyed are consumed in an uncontrollable blaze. By the next day the farmer is dead and Bill as good as dead.
By this stage of the film, it may seem that Malick has eased his way towards apocalypse and apocalyptic thinking. If his evocations of natural process subsume or overwhelm a private human tragedy, then nature in its turn is overwhelmed: a cosmos of elemental metamorphoses turns into a cosmos of definitive judgment. Certain details may give us pause, however. The descent of the locusts would appear like a punishment from God . . . except that it occurs just after the corrupting erotic triangle has been resolved. What interests Malick is less the plague itself than its effect on the farmer's mind. The farmer turns abruptly from fighting the locusts to fighting Bill. He is pushed to a premature judgment, he supposes (erroneously) that he is eliminating the cause of his misfortunes, both agricultural and romantic. The millennium presented by the film is no less false, an excursion into a pastoral kingdom little more than a fleeting theatrical pretense. Even Linda doesn't quite believe in it.
Malick's wonderfully cold ironies suggest that these people are fooling themselves. To put the point another way, the apocalypse of the film exists in the misconceptions of its characters, a principle of confusion rather than of clarification. This is not to say that Malick claims an impossible distance from the quest for revelation. The desire to tear off the veil, to open the forbidden seals, to understand the truth definitively and now, is admitted by his version of cinema no less than by anyone else's—however much he may work against the grain. If the director connects photography with an elegiac sense of time, he also admits his own complicity in encouraging apocalyptic expectations: not least when he presents the locust-fire disaster, where we are allowed, partially, to share the farmer's delusions.
But Malick's movie stands apart from most in resisting that logic whereby apocalyptic and cinematic thinking intensify each another. We could say of any movie screen that projected images appear to rest within more than upon it, that we are therefore tempted to go beyond surfaces. To create the appearance of mystery is equally to create a desire for revelation. Days of Heaven makes this desire almost irresistible—even while it warns us to resist it.
Perhaps the ultimate insight of the movie is that we learn more when curtains or veils are not torn aside, when we can catch just a glimpse through them, like the farmer watching the gazebo. If so, then Malick has achieved a vindication of art as distinguished from spectacle—something much needed by the Hollywood of Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg.
(My thanks to Mark Schwehn and Terry Maxwell for suggestions on the subject of Malick.)