Saturday, August 15, 2009

Target #280: Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick)

TSPDT placing: #164

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is less a storyteller than a visual poet. At times, the images in Days of Heaven (1978) seem too beautiful to be believed – could Mother Nature even construct such moments of magnificence at her own accord? Cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (credited only as "additional photographer") consistently shot the film during the "magic hour" between darkness and sunrise/sunset, when the sun's radiance is missing from the sky, and so their colours have a muted presence, as though filtered through the stalks of wheat that saturate the landscape. Crucial alongside the film's photographers are composer Ennio Morricone – utilising a variation on the seventh movement ("Aquarium") in Camille Saint-Saëns's "Carnival of the Animals" suite – and a succession of sound editors, whose work brings a dreamy, ethereal edge to the vast fields of the Texas Panhandle. The film's final act, away from the wheat-fields, recalls Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but otherwise Malick's style, contemplative and elegiac, is in a class of its own, more comparable perhaps to Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975).

Malick refuses to explore his characters' motivations. The viewer is deliberately kept at an arm's length, and Malick eschews cinema's traditional notions of narrative development. Instead, the story is told as a succession of fleeting moments, the sort that a young girl (the film's narrator, Linda Manz) might pick up through her day-to-day experiences and muted understanding of adult emotions. Note that the girl is always kept separate from the dramatic crux of the film – the love-triangle between Billy, Abby, and the Farmer – and her comprehension of events is tainted by her adolescent grasp on adult relationships and societal norms. I was reminded of Andrew Dominik's recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) {another sumptuously-photographed picture}, which also refused to explore its title character, Jesse James, kept at a distance through the impartial objectivity of the historical narrator. In Malick's film, Linda's narration tells us one thing, and the viewer sees another. But one can never fully understand the complex emotions driving human behaviour, so perhaps the girl's perspective is as good as any other.

Days of Heaven derives its title from a passage in the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:21), and Malick's tale of jealousy and desire is suitably Biblical in nature. Essential to this allegory is an apocalyptic plague of locusts, which descend upon the wheat-fields like an army from the heavens. When the fields erupt into flame, quite literally from the broiling emotions of the film's conflicted characters, the viewer is confronted by the most intense manifestation of Hell-on- Earth since the burning village in Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1967). But, interestingly, Malick here regresses on his own allegory: Judgement Day isn't the end, but rather it comes and goes. Life is driven by the inexorable march of Fate: The Farmer (Sam Shepard) is doomed to die within a year; Bill (Richard Gere) is doomed to repeat his mistakes twice over. In the film's final moments, Linda and her newfound friend embark purposelessly along the railway tracks, the tracks being a physical incarnation of Fate itself: their paths are laid down already, but we mortals can never know precisely where they lead until we get there.

Currently my #2 film of 1978:
1) Watership Down (Martin Rosen)
2) Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)
3) Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman)


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Target #279: A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

TSPDT placing: #126

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger effectively introduced Technicolor to British cinema, but it's how they utilised the new technology that is astonishing. The Red Shoes (1948) and Gone to Earth (1950) each boast a wondrously flamboyant visual style, rich in lush colours and vivid tonal contrasts. A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a post-War fantasy that builds on Powell's work in The Thief of Bagdad (1940), is equally magnificent. As in many of The Archers' colour films, there is a certain slap-dash quality: rather than bearing the products of careful, meticulous planning, it feels as though the directors simply threw caution to the wind and went with whatever felt right {certainly, cinematographer Jack Cardiff took his to heart, choosing to "feel" the correct lighting rather than use a light meter}. Though the parallel settings never quite gel with complete harmony, the wealth of imagination, creativity and sheer gob-smacking wonderment left me utterly entranced for two hours.

In 1945, a doomed British aviator (David Niven) falls in love with June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator to whom he conveys his final words. After bailing from his floundering plane without a parachute, Peter Carter is resigned to death, but later wakes up on the beach to find that the heavenly angels overlooked him in the fog. He quickly requites his love for June, but Heaven soon sends a romantic French "Conductor" (Marius Goring) to retrieve Carter and correct their previous oversight. However, having suddenly found something meaningful for which to live, Carter demands a celestial appeal, winning the right to argue his case for extended life. Powell and Pressburger are judicious in avoiding any direct mention of Heaven, opening the film with a canny subtitle in which we are told: "This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental."

Roger Livesey's astute neurologist is the film's most rational character, recommending a surgical procedure to curtail what he believes to be elaborate post-traumatic delusions. In tales of this sorts, the skeptic ultimately suffers at the hands of the director, but here they're apparently on his side. That Carter's visions of the afterlife are a product of a shell-shocked mind is reinforced by the film's subtle nod to The Wizard of Oz (1939); both the celestial Judge and the surgeon are played by the same actor, Abraham Sofaer. However, the romantic in me – and, may I add, the atheist romantic in me – wants the converse to be true. At the time A Matter of Life and Death was released, the nations of the world were still mourning the War's significant human losses, and to see young British soldiers emerging from death, wide-eyed and cheerful, must have been emotionally reassuring for grief-stricken families, particularly the purely innocent image of a fresh-faced Richard Attenborough remarking, "It's heaven, isn't it?"

A Matter of Life and Death is a masterpiece of contrasts. In one memorable moment, the idyllic and vaguely-mythological scene of a naked goatherd on the beach sands is unexpectedly punctuated by the overpass of a low-flying Mosquito bomber. The most crucial contrast, of course, is that of Cardiff's photography. Inverting the logic of The Wizard of Oz, the Archers shoot their fantasy sequences in ethereal monochrome, whereas the terrestrial scenes are captured in glorious, vibrant Technicolor. This stylistic decision is also important thematically, typical of the filmmakers' Capra-like optimism in the years during and directly following the War (until they began to indulge in operatic tragedy). The film's afterlife is a Utopia of sorts, where the populace can indulge in their hobbies and neglect the worries of mortal life. However, the Archers' preference is most certainly for the real world. The souls of Heaven seem frozen in time, sporting the same dreary clothing and prejudices of their era. Conversely, the people of Earth – like Peter and June – are living, loving and learning every day. Life is a colourful wonderland of emotion, so make the most of it.

Currently my #3 film of 1946:
1) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
2) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
3) A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
4) The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
5) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
6) The Killers (Robert Siodmak)
7) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
8) The Locket (John Brahm)
9) Crack-Up (Irving Reis)
10) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak)


Repeat Viewing: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

TSPDT placing: #252

Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Written by: Harper Lee (novel), Horton Foote (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) has stayed with me since the time I first saw it, perhaps because the film caught me at an impressionable age. This was in 2004, not a particularly long time ago, but it feels an age away. High school greets you at a young, idealistic age, when the world sits at your fingertips just waiting for you to take it. Having just read Harper Lee's Pullitzer Prize-winning novel in English class, we followed it with Robert Mulligan's film adaptation, which scored an Oscar for Gregory Pick and would have won Best Picture had David Lean not hustled in with his masterpiece. Even when lamentably broken up into fifty-minute intervals, To Kill a Mockingbird left me captivated by its magic – and, yes, there is magic. Though typically celebrated as a statement on racial prejudice in the American South, the true core of both Lee's novel and Mulligan's film is distanced from Tom Robinson's rape trial, and lies in terrible, wonderful and beautiful experience of growing up.
The film, as in Lee's novel, is told through the eyes of Scout Finch (Mary Badham; voiced by Kim Stanley as an adult), the tomboyish daughter of small-town lawyer Atticus (Gregory Peck) and younger sister of Jem (Phillip Alford). Along with visiting neighbour Dill (John Megna), the two siblings whittle away their summers obsessing over local recluse "Boo" Radley, an agoraphobic, mentally-ill man towards whom the children develop both a fear and fascination. Meanwhile, Atticus is appointed to defend an African American (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white woman, and his determination to give the man a fair trial leads to heated racial tensions in the bigoted Southern township. To Kill A Mockingbird follows Jem and Scout as they go about the processes of growing up, learning of the bitter immorality and prejudice that lurks beyond the security of their home. Ironically, the film is weakest during its narrative crux – Tom Robinson's courtroom trial – as Mulligan strains to keep the story focused around the children, though Peck's virtuous performance compensates for the lapse.
I've never quite been able to put my fingers around why To Kill A Mockingbird is, to me, such an emotionally-draining (and fulfilling) picture. Perhaps it's Elmer Bernstein's musical score, sad and wistful, like the lamentation of a fairy-tale punctuated by reality. Childhood itself is not unlike a fairy-tale, a time of infallible ideals and black-and-white ethics. Mulligan justly celebrates the steadfast moral courage of Atticus Finch, but the overriding emotion at Tom Robinson's sentencing is instead one of sinking disillusionment: while Scout watches on, uncomprehending, Jem buries his head in his arms, his childish conviction in the goodness of adults irreparably shattered. Yet, even then, hope survives for those who, like the Finch family, preserve their moral integrity. The film's fairy-tale mood, at times reminiscent of Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1957), is enforced most strongly in the children's final walk through the forest, described as their "longest journey together." Arthur "Boo" Radley, a mockingbird who might have been destroyed by less sympathetic souls, ultimately becomes their saviour.

Currently my #2 film of 1962:
1) Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
2) To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
3) La Jetée {The Pier} (Chris Marker)
4) Le Procès {The Trial} (Orson Welles)
5) Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer)
6) Ivanovo detstvo {Ivan’s Childhood} (Andrei Tarkovsky, Eduard Abalov)
7) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
8) Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson)
9) Panic in Year Zero! (Ray Milland)
10) The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)