I’ve been binging on a lot of quality movies lately, trying to make the deadline for this 100 Movie Challenge I managed to get myself into (the number of ways I find to make watching movies feel like work is utterly astounding to me). That’s not my favored way of doing things. I like to sit back and ponder what I have just seen for a day or so. Okay, to be honest, if I don’t like what I’ve seen, I like to take a couple of days to figure out just how mean I’ll be to it. But my general covenant with movies – You entertain me, and I agree to be entertained – works and works well. I rarely have to be mean.
But sometimes I have to admit I’ve just not entertained as much as I am bumfuzzled. I’ve been going through a lot of movies with extraordinary imagery lately, and the processing on those takes longer. Some, like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “magical autobiography” The Dance of Reality are lush but fairly accessible – I had to satisfy myself with a briefer-than-usual review on Letterboxd just to get it out of my system so I could work on the more difficult tasks, all the while aware that the clock was ticking and I’ve got to cram in ten of these movies a month to make my quota, and win the challenge. Which has no prize other than finally watching movies I’ve been telling myself I really need to watch.
Now first up on that list is Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which I grant you isn’t as jam-packed with symbolism or hidden meanings as something like 8 1/2 (which is one of the movies I’m still processing), but it is, unmistakably, all about the imagery. There is a well-deserved Academy Award for Cinematography given to Nestor Almendros (though Haskell Wexler will point out to you that he shot at least half of the movie, if you give him half a chance).
Now for a personal digression: I recall reading an article sometime in the 80s about the difficulties of being a film’s producer, and one of the passages that really stuck in my memory talked about the wonderful director the project was lucky enough to score, but who demanded that the movie only be shot during “golden time”, the hour before and after sunset and sunrise, increasing the budget by drastically limiting the shooting time available. It is only now that I realize this somewhat bitter and bemused paragraph was about Terrence Malick.
Days of Heaven is beautiful, have no doubts on that front. When a movie evokes Wyeth’s Christina’s World (and I had a print of that on my wall for years), and does it well, that’s art. Where it falls down for me is the story.
The time is 1916. Richard Gere is Bill, a hot-tempered sort who flees Chicago when, in a fit of rage, he accidentally kills a foreman in the steel mill where he’s working (the foreman is Stuart Margolin, and who among us has not desired to murder him at one time or another?). Bill hops a train with his young sister, Linda (Linda Manz), and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams). They wind up working on an enormous wheat farm in the Texas panhandle owned by Sam Shepard (The Farmer isn’t even given a name).
One problem for our peripatetic trio – besides Bill’s temper – is that they’re living under the lie that Abby is also Bill’s sister, but they don’t bother hiding their feelings for one another. The other problem is The Farmer becomes enamored of Abby (it’s Brooke Adams, who wouldn’t be enamored?). Bill overhears a conversation that indicates that The Farmer has only a year to live, and convinces Abby to marry the smitten Farmer, so their fortunes will be made. The last problem is that The Farmer is a genuinely good man, and Abby falls in love with him, too.
No, wait, the last problem is that plague of locusts. And the fire that burns the entire farm. And Bill, once again, accidentally killing the Farmer (who was, to be sure, trying to kill Bill). And then the law on their heels. And…
The cult around this movie perplexes me. It is beautiful to look at, I cannot stress that enough. These are all fine actors. That story though… that’s only one step removed from a TV miniseries from the same era, and one of those would have been better scripted, to boot (apparently Malick just let the actors improvise for a good while to “find the story”). I find I don’t have a problem with overwhelming imagery, as in 8 1/2 or Dances of Reality, as long as those images are backed up with ideas. So much of the two Malick films I have seen thus far – this and The Thin Red Line – seem to be about the beauty of nature providing a contrast for man fucking up. I get that. I got that with Easy Rider. Can we move on?
There are more Malick movies, these are just the two that were on The List. I will watch more; my resistance against these two have not been enough to turn me against Malick (though I know plenty of people who have not only walked away, but are driven to screech on social media whenever I mention him). What has been presented has been presented so well that I feel there must be something I am missing. And I am not sure which may be the true failing here – my missing whatever it is or thinking that there is something I am missing.
I am much more kindly disposed toward Picnic at Hanging Rock. Rather famously, it concerns the class of a girls-only boarding school in Australia who go on a picnic on Valentine’s Day, 1900 to the titular rock, a huge misshapen piece of volcanic stone jutting out of the forest. Four girls, against the prior orders of the school’s headmistress, climb the rock. Only one comes back, in a panic. One teacher goes in search of them, and she vanishes.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is mainly about the wear and tear on the people left behind by that singular event. The school and its personnel; the townspeople; the roommate of the ringleader of the missing girls, who was desperately in love with her; the son of a visiting English family who saw the girls wander off and becomes so obsessed with them that he spends the night on the Rock, hoping to find a clue as to what happened.
There is an underlying feeling of the supernatural at work, but never so overt or clear that one can say, “Aha! This is what happened!” Which has always presented a problem for the movie, especially in America, where we like our mysteries solved (That last sentence really needs a font that implies sarcasm). Even knowing that this is going to be the case, the pining in your soul for an answer, any answer, is going to be extreme. Although the story is entirely from the imagination of novelist Joan Lindsey, many have tried to research the incident, only to be stymied when they can find no corroboration. It’s rumored the production company started a rumor that it was true story, just so people might not come to the film expecting any sort of closure.
Lacking an explanation, then, Picnic at Hanging Rock, while telling a period piece in a time and a place almost none of us have experienced, still manages the magic quality of veracity; though the images are pretty and often poetic, it feels real, as we are forced to ponder similar incidents which have no explanation, no end, no matter where or when we may be. This was Peter Weir’s third crack at a feature film, and he demonstrates a remarkably sure hand at a tricky subject, ably aided by his actresses and one of the more remarkable physical locations that was just waiting to be discovered.
I said last week that I like to leave things on an upbeat note when possible, so I’ll finish up with another movie also packed with remarkable imagery, but one that I could understand and appreciate: Wings of Desire.
Wim Wenders, after the success of Paris, Texas had wanted to make a movie about Berlin, which was, at the time, still a city divided by the Wall. In trying to find a hook on which to rest this movie, he at one point hit upon the idea of guardian angels. And here it begins.
Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander are Damiel and Cassiel, two angels who watch and observe the people of Berlin. They can hear the thoughts of these people, but it is their lot to watch but not interfere. The most they can do is, with a touch, impart a bit of grace, a calm, a peace. It sometimes helps; sometimes it does not. The two are part of an apparent flight of angels in the city; one of the best sequences is Cassiel slowly walking through a library, luxuriating in the chorus of thoughts, nodding to his fellow angels, each at a person’s shoulder, observing. Wandering through the story is Homer (Curt Bois), an elderly writer, who may or may not be the original Homer, immortal and eternally pursuing and preserving the story of Man.
The thrust of the story concerns Damiel’s growing disenchantment with his angelic lot and a desire to become active, to, in short, become mortal. There are two things that drive this desire: a female trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a failing circus, whom Damiel first encounters complaining about the angel wings the Ringmaster wants her to wear; and an American actor (Peter Falk, playing Peter Falk), who can sense the angel’s presence, and tells him how good it can be on this side of existence.
The thematic touches are simple and glorious throughout; the angels’ world is black and white, only humans see in color. And perhaps the most striking scenery is provided by that Wall, which seemed so damned eternal in 1987. It is a frequent backdrop, covered in graffitti. When the angels walk through it to the Soviet side, the sight of those closely guarded walls so white and clean is shocking.
Hollywood, of course, sought to remake Wings of Desire after its success, and as usual sought to “improve” it. I’m not sure about the “improvement” part. City of Angels has much more of a three-act structure and solid through-line to it, but Wings of Desire, slipping in and out of Damiel’s quest, follow other threads, other people, manages to take an extraordinary, truly supernatural story, and make it feel more real that any number of movies built on carefully-studied Syd Field script models.
I really liked it, is what I’m saying. Am I missing anything Wim Wenders was trying to say? Does that matter? I liked the movie. I’m likely to tell other people to see the movie.
And really, that’s what this is all about.