Eat Your Vegetables: "Days of Heaven"

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some more high-brow culture we should be consuming.

High-brow Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)

Vegetable Equivalent: Any vegetable that requires migrant workers to help harvest it

Nutritional Value: Helps metabolize the cell walls in your physical and spiritual eyes

Recommended Serving Size: Watch in one, commercial free sitting; for maximum effect, pregame by listening to Alexander Scourby’s reading of The Book of Ruth while looking at an Andrew Wyeth painting

“I met this guy named Ding Dong. He told me the whole earth is goin’ up in flames. Flames will come out of here and there, and they’ll just rise up. The mountains are gonna go up in big flames. The water’s gonna rise in flames… See the people that have been good are gonna go to heaven and escape all that fire. But if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear you. He don’t even hear you talkin’.”

This apocalyptic narration from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven does not complement images of a blood-red moon or prairie holocaust. Instead, Malick deploys it over the faces of smiling migrant workers as they ride a train out into Texas’s glistening wheat fields. The life these workers lead is a tough one, but the visuals connote a gospel parable more than a prophetic vision. And our narrator is not one of the train’s grizzled seniors or poor, beautiful adults. She is a child who has accompanied her brother, Bill (a young Richard Gere), and his lover out to the Texas panhandle. Though Bill hails from Chicago, this narrator (Linda Manz) sounds like she’s from Jersey. And her tiny, but tough voice adds a lyrical counterpoint to Malick’s epic images.

The story is rich with biblical symbolism. Bill and his lover, Abby, tell their harvesting compatriots they are brother and sister, much like Abraham and Sarah. The wheat baron (a young Sam Shepard) falls in love with and woos Abby, much like the story of Boaz and Ruth. And most obviously, an Egyptian-esque plague of locusts descends on the baron’s field and hastens the film’s fatal showdown. The Bible is littered with stories and images of wheat-gathering, and Malick relies upon the dim sense that what we’re watching has allegorical import to help hold this fragmentary and emotionally enigmatic story together.

When you watch this film, you keep falling back on particulars because its scope seems so grand. You think things like: “God allowed train trestles to exist so Terrence Malick could film them” or “Ennio Morricone’s score is the musical equivalent of a sepia-toned photograph.” And while Malick’s last three features – The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life – each exceed 150 minutes, Days of Heaven clocks in at a scant hour-and-a-half.

Since the film seems to beckon its viewer toward something larger, I’ll venture a guess at its meaning. The film begins and ends in the industrialized city. Bill opens the film by working in a Chicago mill. In one of the film’s last scenes, Abby skirts automobile traffic on her way to the train station. In between, the film is pictorially pastoral. It is there, on the open wheat fields, where men and women see nature and, by extension, God. These are their days of heaven. But those days are few. Heaven is fleeting. Because heaven on earth is transient, we are tempted to spend the few hours we have with it fretting. But Malick’s images won’t let us forget the world’s beauty, even if we know that it could go up in flames any second.

About Jonathan Sircy

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