Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
In Days of Heaven (1978), we have a very young narrator with a gift, for putting a spin upon horrific incidents, which is both lively and worldly. She covers her older brother’s flight from Chicago, circa 1910 (on having murdered the overbearing foreman at the steel mill where he worked), along with her and his girlfriend, in this way—“Me and my brutha [“Bill”]… we used to do tings togedda… We used to have fun, roam the streets…Der was people sufferin’ pain and hungur. Some people, daer tongues were hangin’ outta daer mout… He used to juggle apples… He usta amuse us. He was amusin’… Lookin’ for tdings. Searchin’ for tdings… Goin’ on adventures… In fact all tree of us were goin’ places… Dey told everybody dey was bruddah and sistah. You know how people are. You tell them somethin’, dey start talkin’.”
As it happens, the bite of the powers that be extends far beyond umbrage about contravening such ruling pieties. That trio’s “adventure” plunges them into the prairie hinterland of Chicago (where, among other things, they regularly picked through garbage along the river), as far as the Texas Panhandle. The natural surround of verdant and gently rolling hills, deliciously colored and textured skies, receives further focus as a farming factory, the beautiful might showing its far less beautiful side, to the point, in fact, of consigning the family we know, and a bunch of strangers they shared the roofs of boxcars with in making their trek, to a crushing grind not unlike that of the steel mill. With the golden hues of the grasses and the blues of the soaring skies maintaining a link to purities of dynamics, the trio show us a helter-skelter consciousness (doggedly piling mown swaths in the fields, desperately feeding ripe bunches into the combines) dispiritingly bereft of gold and sweep. “Workin’ all the time, never stop… Just keep goin’… You don’t work they’d ship you right outta der…Tdey don’t need you…. Tdey can always get someone else…” At a low-point in being rattled like a toy, the compromised lovers awaken in the fields where they are meant to be, with deposits of snow in their hair and on their tattered, earth-toned clothes. The foreman discovers that the young landowner has fallen in love with the brutha’s big sistah and takes a switch to what he regards as a suspicious stray. He accuses her of sloppy work, docks her three dollars and fires Bill when he protests. She intervenes before Bill kills his second foreman, and soon they are aware of the difficult-to-play windfall of the boss’ needing them (as augmented by natural trespasser and eavesdropper Bill’s having caught wind of the guy sittin’ pretty also sittin’ on a cancer that leaves him a year at best). “Whyn’t y’tell him you’ll stay?”/ “What for?”/ “I don’t know, somethin’ might happen.”
After being driven like mules all their life, the trio proceed with becoming mule skinners, but achingly tentative in their discovery that the world has a steering wheel. “He was tired of livin’ like the rest of us, rootin’ around like a pig in d’gutta… I bin’ thinkin’ what to do wit my futcha. I could be a mud docta, checkin’ out da earth underneath… [And, after all three are installed within the infatuated VIP’s largesse] Nothin’ ta do all day but crack jokes. I’m tellin’ ya, the rich got it figgad out…” Though her resilient, instinctively witty assimilations of the sting of appetitive history (and instinctively affectionate befriending an older girl in the short-lived work crew) do indeed show the kid’s being qualified to embark on the life of a “mud doctor,” a student of grounds, her days of heavenly indolence included a food fight and having, due to being rude, her dinner tossed to the dogs by her “sister,” now married, and a vastly ambiguous, duplicitous chatelaine of the mansion. Despite struggles to be patient if not poised, Bill runs amok, kills the perceptively jealous rich man (a correspondent grasshopper infestation having eaten into his financial cushion), the three of them are voraciously hunted and Bill is killed. The girls say their good-byes at the narrator’s entry into a finishing school, the elder going on to attach herself to a trainload of soldiers headed to the Front during World War I, the younger escaping, along with the well-met chum from the harvest, her privilege, and facing a most uncertain future. “This girl didn’t know where she was goin’ or what to do. Maybe she’ll meet up with a character. I was hopin’ things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.”
Days of Heaven, in its delirium and desperate freedom, gives us pause precisely on the question of the fractured wisdom therein having anything viable to offer the issue of friendship, social resonance playing into and amongst that delicious scenery. Bill and the girl he urged to seduce the money bags pause in the midst of their triumphal grab for advantage. She says, “I’m sorry,” the always pinched features of her face clouded over, more by confusion than contrition. He quietly replies, “You didn’t do nothin’ to me… I didn’t know what I had with you…Got nobody to blame but myself.” A generous moment, to be sure; but where is the rootedness in nuance so crucial for sustaining power-generating links? (The fake-sister and her new husband enter upon the precincts of that integrity—carelessly stomped upon by Bill’s gold-rush approach to the dying man’s property, as supposedly validated by the inference, “We’ll be dead in a few years. Who gives a care that we weren’t perfect?”—with the coming about of her sincerely reciprocating his affections, as he expressed in terms of “… it’s like you’re right inside me… where I hear your voice, feel your breath.” But the dividedness and inconstancy of that love comes to not only violence and death but to an upshot of incipient steady interplay that doesn’t work for them but lends its puzzled tenderness [“Just like it seems I didn’t know you…”/ “I’m sorry… You have a right to feel that…”] to the thrust of the narrator’s (the true sister’s) oblique but extended reflection upon “character.” The narrator takes a careful look at the big farmer, a look that sees him as more than a fatted calf. “He doesn’t have nobody to hold his hand when he needs attention. That’s touchin’…” Turning cartwheels on escaping from a school that was too little too late, her kinetics, as usual, give us a moment but no more. She had to be thinking of that dilemma of sparks in a cold gale in lieu of fire, when she referred to her friend (and herself) as in need of a “character,” someone, that is, who’s “got it figgad out,” at least to the point of instigating some sustained, cogent daring.
For all its dazzling overture to a riveting crisis, Malick’s early film (as with his latest film) is a stunning crescendo that does not see its way clear to moving beyond splendid and tragic isolation, moving, that is, into some form of comedy. (The clandestine lovers do indeed establish moments of mature resolve and grace—“… this unhappy life… I’m tellin’ ya, we gotta do somethin’ about it… Can’t expect anyone else to…”—and mordant wit—[as when, after Bill throws their plates of food at a fellow-migrant and insulting vigilante on the job for puritanical mores, the lover says with a smile], “Too bad you ain’t got any real food left…Kinda hungry…”—but the blast furnace of material, raw, appetitive history, and their own unpreparedness, dispatch these lovely moments the same way the small animals of the field are obliterated by the grinding swathing machinery.) There is a film that takes up the aspiration to “meet up with a character” in a context of riptide distemper, militating against breaches of conventional wisdom. It seems a rather modest construction when placed beside Malick’s sublimities, and indeed it comes out of an era tending to keep things down to earth. In fact, right at the outset of The Seven Year Itch, apropos of its coy framing of Manhattanites each summer ditching their wives and children, to facilitate illicit sex, on the pretext of granting them relief from the heat and humidity (supposedly well established by the Indian tribe there five hundred years ago), we are explicitly assured, “Nothing has changed.” On tracking one such restive “hunter,” circa 1955, we notice that his means of survival, doing edits of classical literature to promote low-cost and still-profitable reads, seems to brazen the non-domestic priorities to an upshot quite different from furtive fun in the ancient forests. He’s going over a cover mock-up of the re-do of Little Women, with the new sub-title, The Secrets of a Girls’ Dormitory, and he indicates that the women’s necklines should be lowered. A spirit decidedly at odds with official, ascetic pieties is in the air. He’s got another book under surveillance—this time an original scholarly study which the author wants to call, Man and the Unconscious, but which “Sherman” (a great gung-ho name) sees fit to bring to the world stage as Sex and Violence.
Sherman’s advance toward some kind of reversal of the cloying asceticism much in evidence at his send-off to his wife and little boy (she reminds him to stick to his doctor’s orders about giving up cigarettes and alcohol and to largely confine his diet to vegetables; the kid is entombed in a plastic spaceman’s outfit and intent on exterminating aliens) is a study in just how formidable are the bonds, personal and world historical, devolving to the pat conclusion, “Nothing has changed,” a conclusion transparently tearing to shreds the lives of the trio in Days of Heaven. Sherman, the dealer to sensibilities whose direction toward gusto takes the form of contraband addiction, has come upon a means to material well-being taking as its first principle the inviolability of that violence providing him with a flush market. (Such coercive muscle tends to be ardently, and mischievously, embraced by the domestic interests of women like his wife, who calculate that their sensual priorities can only be sustained in the watered-down forms of conventional bondage.) With these live wires discharging in all directions, Sherman comes to us as a narrator of voice-overs and monologues strikingly dissimilar to the inventive little songstress of Malick’s rural yarn. Whereas her observations and touching psalms never fail to surprise and delight with their freshness, Sherman’s depressively noxious rants about what’s right come down to mealy-mouthed, predatory self-justification to an imagined world at large of timorous prigs. They are supplemented by childish paranoia in supposition that he has been discovered by them to be out of line, groundless braggadocio, and vengeful self-bloatedness in what he’s conceived to be suicidal liberties. Early on, he lurches from being attracted to his statuesque secretary to obeying his little lady by means of dining at a sensory-deprived vegetarian restaurant where the tip (generally denied on populist grounds) becomes dedicated to the pacifist and hypochondriac causes of a nudist camp. The less than statuesque waitress preaches about nude armies realizing their brotherhood, and tells him, “You should be proud to know that your dinner amounted to only 260 calories.” Like an eager to please, talking puppy, Sherman assures her, “I am proud!”
On getting home and letting his mind wander in lieu of boning up on “the repressed urge of the middle-aged male” as described by the project coming to us as Sex and Violence, he urges upon his wife (as an imagined audience out on their patio) that he’s had lots of romantic encounters due to “a kind of animal thing I’ve got” making him irresistible to women. In the course of this multi-pronged, geriatric lunge of bathos, who should inadvertently send his way a terracotta planter from the upstairs balcony of the townhouse’s second floor flat, the tomato plant just missing giving him something more physical to be agitated about, but a major antipode of nearly three thousand years of self-congratulatory asceticism, namely, Marilyn Monroe herself. The granny at the restaurant had regarded nudity from the resentful point of view of “poor suffering bodies” confined by failures of humanitarian opportunity; Marilyn (never named as the “character” here, but referring to herself as “the Tomato from upstairs”) blithely, on accepting Sherman’s invitation to come down for a drink, mentions getting kicked out of a woman’s residence for having her nude photo published in US Camera. “It got Honorable Mention,” she chirps. “It was about three textures—the driftwood, the sand and me.”
As written by Wilder, the narrative might seem to center upon Sherman’s somewhat countering the hard-headedness of “Nothing has changed,” as stumbling into the orbit of the summer tenant upstairs. Even before meeting Marilyn, he had displayed a lively but incomplete readiness to kick over the traces as far as his marriage was concerned, for instance, replying, to a phantom wife inquisitorially wanting to know how his day went, that he ravaged everything in sight. He first presents himself to his ravishing neighbor as “living here alone, all alone;” then, his wedding ring and child’s roller skate becoming apparent, he tries for “separated;” and then he admits to “only one child, but he hardly counts.” That rather adolescent bravado (bowing before the physiological scenario, featured in the book he’s editing) of a “seven year itch,” spelling trouble for marriages, like his, in their seventh year is, though, dutifully jettisoned in bowing before ever-present conventional pressures that mean to squelch any consistent “goin’ on adventures.” Sherman loves the idea of having a gorgeous and remarkably good-natured woman frequenting his apartment; but, rather than give her his undivided attention as a unique individual, he casts her as a player in an all-consuming melodrama in celebration of his supposed imperial marvellousness, outshining everything and everyone else. Wilder acutely recognizes and induces reflection upon what such divided attention means, and thereby he merits inclusion in the affairs of filmmakers like Malick. Moreover, in drolly playing off those intriguing rebel baby steps of George Axelrod’s stage play against the phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe, his cinematic narrative gives us a truly intriguing rebel, and the easily overlooked as such center of the revamp.
The Tomato from upstairs gives out a form of quirky, upbeat patter very closely aligned with that of Bill’s sister, the one who said, “You’re only here once… To my opinion, as long as you’re around, we should have it nice.” That simple and unexpectedly lacerating axiom, put into less explicit form by Sherman’s dream girl, scares the pants off of him and sends him running up to Maine with Junior’s kayak paddle as part of a navigation route that will likely, reminiscent of his vegetarian meals, leave him perpetually bilious and bored. Marilyn had, on first surveying his apartment and noticing part of a stairway stopping at his ceiling, once serving a more expansive residence, exclaimed, “A stairway to nowhere… I think that’s elegant!” (She would also touch upon that arresting inducement in terms of, in reference to his air conditioning and a subway updraft, “heaven,” “delicious,” “the most.”) The elegance (or lightly alien sufficing) of heading off to “nowhere” does not sit well with that ascetic imperative calling the shots and insisting upon tidy, bucolic ultimates like eternal peace and a temperate regime, ultimates that Sherman knows to be punishingly at odds with motives tied up with the serious changes of modern urbanity. His carnivorous fantasizing frequently ploughs into and demeans the Tomato, and her responses to this ugliness constitute the film’s major purchase upon a problematic subtlety you’d probably never suspect to be deliverable by Marilyn Monroe.
Neatly setting forth the shallow frenzy of a material infrastructure that doesn’t change in its compelling inertia, the first night she comes over they plunge into a snappy rendition of “Chopsticks,” interrupted by his resorting to a bit of pawing, a stab at a Dirk Bogarde-level kiss (the actor, Tom Ewell, can be made to look a bit like that romantic leading man, and in one of his fantasies he even affects an English aristocratic accent) and his toppling them both from the piano bench to the floor. He apologizes profusely and wants her to know this has never happened to him before. She’s a little surprised, as if falling off of a toboggan (“I kinda lost track”), and calmly replies to his vapid song and dance, “Happens to me all the time…” (The “Chopsticks ploy comes as a fall-back move on discovering [contra one of his daydreams] that she would not be “rocked” by a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert #2 [with its gusts of Brief Encounter. That he would be impressed by that sophisticated scenario is thought-provoking].) Seemingly encountering, with his introduction to Rachmaninoff, classical music for the first time—defining it as “no vocals”—and admitting to being a fan of crooner, Eddie Fisher, this is a figure whose depths have nothing to do with seeking out depth in the historical inventory Sherman knows so well to so little consequence. Her attempt at characterizing an instinctive aversion to marriage comes down to likening it to the living arrangement she got kicked out of—“Then I’d have to be home before 1:00…”—an arrangement harboring highly committed killjoys. She had brought down champagne and potato chips, and in approaching popping the cork there was a ribald undertow—“Do you really think you can get it open?”/ “Sure. Just a matter of pressure and counter-pressure…” But, shocked by the real physical contact of tumbling on top of her, he has landed in a desert of studied remorse and recovered probity, and (as if coming out of a Victorian melodrama) he tells her, “Go.” She says, “I think you’re being silly, but there is not a drop of resentment in her voice and presence. “It was a nice night. Thanks.”
While Sherman ties himself in knots enjoying and running away from her beauty (running—perhaps a bit too long—at the mouth about preserving and selling his virtue and the salt-of-the-earth hell ensuant upon almost certain public discovery, and imagining her breaking off from a TV toothpaste ad [as to countering a bad image] to tell the whole town that he is a sex maniac), his not-quite-girlfriend sees an attractive window of opportunity. “All I know is I don’t want to get married,” she maintains, adding, with fascinating guile, “not yet anyway.” She tries to convey to him that, he being married, “It can’t possibly get drastic.” The tonality, especially the body language of this comedy not-to-be-mistaken-for-farce, lets us see that she’s fine with whatever sexuality might ensue. She iterates that unmarried guys and cute hunks (like Joe DiMaggio, from whom she was separating during the filming) are a pain because they’re always asking her to marry them. Sherman, of course, seemingly out to prove the Pilgrims “got it figgahed out” once and for all,” imagines she takes him for a harmless hubby and does a lot of desperately tempered lip smacking while deluded that she could be in for a big shock. As the week of heaven transpires, there are real rewards in watching how her gambit, “We can do this all summer” (using, that is, the unfastened [by her] trap door between their apartments) plays into shutting down the dead-end, myopic nuisance he’s become. Coming back from a showing of Creature from the Black Lagoon, where she’s partial to the creature and his wanting some (unsanctioned) affection (a position that puzzles Sherman), she lets the rush of air from the subway vent on the sidewalk provide a “delicious” moment never mustered by the “ animal thing.” She asks to stay the night at his place because she needs some sleep to look good for the TV gig and his air conditioning can ensure that. While he dishes out a stream of innuendos, she’s already on to things like getting a better fan for her uncooled pad. He goes into paroxysms of being “proud” that things have come to this—“Try to explain this!” he smirks—and then is overtaken by terror in light of possibly being discovered. By the time Sherman high-tails it for Maine, leaving his a/c heaven for her to enjoy, she has already eased him to the bush leagues by declaring she’d be much happier with a shy, gentle little guy like him (He’d pretended he didn’t know her during an interruption by the janitor, and he rudely shooed her out with him) than some handsome megalomaniac in a fancy vest (proving, once again, her actions, not her words, do the trick here). She also assures him, being easy to fool, that if she were his wife she’d be jealous, not quite getting so far as vowing to be in before one. “I don’t think I’ll be able to stay for breakfast. I’m sorry.”/ “Don’t ever be sorry.” The increasingly geriatric family man runs off for the train, clutching his forgettable boy’s paddle, and forgetting to put on his shoes. The Tomato catches his attention and throws them down to him. Her smile is not the same as the one she wore the night she sent a pot of tomatoes his way. (There is a most engaging bit of repartee during their last night together, as ignited by Sherman’s panicky sanitizing of his place for the benefit of the janitor. At the door, out of the latter’s range of hearing, he says, “I’m sorry. But you can see how it is.”/ “Sure…I understand. No man’s an island…” Although she proceeds to make a U-turn by way of the trap door and makes the slightly-barbed proposal about doing all summer long what nearly killed him with anxiety in a few days, such an insular navigation route does sketch out a sort of island, a ploy to skirt social inquisition by keeping things very local; and thus she offers a glimpse into her staying powers, and an adumbration of who her real friends would be. The free-agent narrator, of Days of Heaven that aren’t that “nice,” remarks, “Sometimes I feel very old… like I’m not around anymore,” which is to say, she tends, like Captain John Smith, to let herself “sail right past” those Indies and their vivacity. She could savor a strong degree of poignancy and natural magic, in accounting for the farmer’s being smitten by her “sister” in this way: “Maybe it was da way da wind blew troo her haia…” But she could not absorb the kind of nourishment from it to accomplish entering into its saga as a player, or character.)
Whereas the runaway in Days of Heaven “didn’t know where she was goin’ or what to do” and had scant prospects of cobbling together a “character” (despite sending up looping passes for crushing slam dunks, as in, “The people who have been good, they gonna escape… But if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hea ya talkin’…”), the Tomato has made quite startling headway. Her shy little friend bespeaks some restless natives out there. Who knows? Or, as Wilder has had inscribed on his tombstone, “Writer. Well, nobody’s perfect.” Bill’s surviving family member had, while on the lam with him after he killed the farmer, given it a go with respect to not giving up on him due to his (vastly compromised but impressively energetic) taste for “adventure.” “Nobody’s perfect… There was neva a perfect person around…” Perhaps the most alluring feature within the launch of this truism is its maintaining levels of enormous (and of course far from perfect) dedication as entry points for appreciating likewise generous, comedic shortfalls. (A sidebar to this effervescence derives from the figure of a plumber who rescues Marilyn from getting her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet during an attempt to beat the heat by sleeping in its icy waters. He turns up again at the vegetarian restaurant, telling of the bad guy downstairs, in one of Sherman’s fearful musings. This player (namely, Victor Moore) had memorably supported Fred and Ginger in Swing Time. The resilience of these Depression Era pick-me-ups sits well with Wilder’s premium upon spunkiness.)