Terrence Malick is obviously determined to be an extreme case. If you're impressed by his approach to film-making, the word "uncompromising" naturally springs to mind. If not, "incorrigible" takes its place.
After only two features, "Badlands" and his new "Days of Heaven," Malick is regarded as a distinctive, "difficult" talent operating at a tangent to main-stream dramatic films and inviting rejection in the marketplace.
"Days of Heaven," now at the Tenley Circle 1, is a sketchy account of a young proletarian couple who migrate from Chicago in 1916 to work in the wheatfields of the Texas panhandle.
Paramount has launched the film with more confidence and style than it accorded Ridley Scott's "The Duellists," which was also pictorially magnificent and had conventional dramatic interest to boot. If Malick's film fails to catch on, a considerable likelihood, it will be idle to compalin that neither the business nor public is up to the curiously simplistic alienating challenge of his art.
"Days of Heaven" creates such an enormous disparity between sensory and dramatic stimulation that you begin to imagine that the superlative color composition and dynamic sound recording must depend on the inert exposition and characterization. Malick tries to survive on starvation rations of story content while feasting on spacious, luminous, breathtaking photography, supervised by Nestor Almendros, and bravura sound effects.
Some filmmakers care more about how a scene plays, others about how it looks. A rare few remain dedicated enough to seek a transporting fusion of vivid performance and vivid visualization. Malick exemplifies the supremacy-of-the-image tendency at its most extreme and possibly self-defeating.
Malick's big imagery demands a lot of story, an epic pioneering saga borrowed from Willa Cather of Hamlin Garland or Frank Norris. Malick has imposed a literary tone on both "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," but he seems unable to enrich it with a dramatic narrative or detailed character exploration.
With luck he might soar as high as Jan Troell did with "The Emigrants" and "The New Land." Restricted to his own storytelling resources, Malick may remain forever circumscribed. "Days of Heaven" isn't quite as arid as "Badlands." It shifts scenes more often and moves more fluidly, but in the long run it still dries up and blows away.
One becomes accustomed to the superior quality of the screen image itself. You want to see movies that look this good all the time. Far from unprecedented, the cinematography reminds you of how great pictures like "The Big Country" and "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Bible" and "Far From the Madding Crowd" and "Patton" and "McCabe &Mrs. Miller" and "The Duellists" and dozens of others looked when they were new and being projected properly.
"Days of Heaven" leaves one wanting more: either a totally revolutionary approach to pictorial storytelling or traditional dramatic interest. The story is supposed to depict a romantic triangle that leads to tragedy: Lovers Richard Gere and Brooke Adams conceal their passion in order to take advantage of farmer Sam Shepard, who becomes infatuated with Adams after watching her gather wheat in his fields for a season.
This situation is not unprecedented either. Malick's inability to dramatize it adequately proves a critical short-coming. He's more adept at setting wheatfields ablaze to achieve a visual spectacle than at guiding the actors.
It may be artistic suicide for Malick to continue his style of pictorial inflation without also enriching his scenarios. If he doesn't, he's likely to be remembered not for his undeniable pictorial talent but for his eccentricity. It's as if he aspired to become the greatest second-unit director in movie history.