Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Sense of Longing

After watching Matt Zoller Seitz’s lyrical video essay on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978): All Things Shining: Part 2, I was struck by how this exquisite film about human longing is the type of film that satisfies my movie-going soul and responds to a deep longing for cinematic fulfillment. A finely made film like this - one that fills the viewer with lucid sights, sounds, and emotions - gives me a wonderful sense of satisfaction even though, after the glow has worn off, it gives way to that aching sense of longing once again.

The beauty of Days of Heaven, a film I revisit yearly when I show it to my A.P. English class as the topic for an essay, always leaves me with a feeling of wonderful satisfaction that settles that aching yearning for days after I have watched it. Fittingly, the film is about longing. Bill (Richard Gere), Linda (Linda Manz), and Abby (Brooke Adams) long for their “days of heaven,” better days than the ones that see them shoveling coal in a steel mill, doing piece-work, sorting through garbage, or doing back-breaking work in a wheat field.

After they pass through those very symbolic gates, Bill and Abby hatch a con that ensnares the dying Farmer (Sam Shepard) who longs so desperately for a companion. And the damage they do enrages the Foreman (Robert J. Wilke) who longs for a son.

Longing also plays a role in Malick’s The New World. The yearning for a new start and progress in a new land is an iconic theme central to American history. John Smith (Colin Farrell) wants to be part of that huge undertaking, and he is willing to delve farther than others, as seen when he wades into the wilderness wetlands alone.

Meeting Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) instills in him yet another kind of yearning which is wrapped up in his involvement in this significant human venture. Pulled by a longing for fame and that indefinable itch that keeps humans striving, searching, John Smith leaves Pocahontas. How can he? In a performance that is purely naturalistic, Kilcher is exquisite in her deer-hide leggings.

Pocahontas pines and sinks into a despair of longing, but she is saved by John Rolfe’s touching yearning for a wife to share in his contributions to progress and industry. Malick as director and Christian Bale as actor are at their best in these scenes filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Other recent films have satisfied that longing for viewing fulfillment as they combine emotional themes with visual beauty. Some even explore the theme of human longing, a quest for an answer or fulfillment.

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, Benjamin’s questions about his life-in-reverse are essentially the same questions we ask about this mystery that is our life. We yearn for an answer and most likely never find one.

During his search, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) comes in contact with an interesting cast of characters: an African pygmy longing for the past (Rampai Mohadi); a hard-drinking sea captain fascinated by hummingbirds (Jared Harris); an enigmatic Englishwoman (Tilda Swinton) who wants another shot at swimming the English Channel, and this journey, as filmed by Claudio Miranda, is presented with striking imagery that depicts the lucid moments in Benjamin's backwards life as well as the beauty of the mysterious world around him.

A perfect image of sad longing comes in the strikingly filmed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik, filmed by Roger Deakins. Jesse James (Brad Pitt) looks out over the prairie and sees an approaching prairie fire, suggesting an impending threat to his life. What goes through his mind? Does he regret the past? Does he long for forgiveness and deliverance from damnation? Jesse James’s inner torment plays out in an achingly beautiful world of prairies, snowy ridges, and ice-covered lakes. The camera frames a vision of the past that has depth and reality.

What Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) feels in There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is much stronger than longing. It is a desperate rapacity that strives to dominate, and the film takes the viewer to dark places when Plainview’s disturbing urges succumb to bitter indolence. Despite the film’s heaviness, its stark visual grandeur, as shot by Robert Elswit, presents a world that is memorable and palpable. You can feel the dust and smell the oil. For this viewer, a yearning to enter this world brings one in contact with gut-wrenching elements, yes, but the experience offers the satisfaction of superb filmmaking.

Wondering how I might end this post, I did some blog surfing and came upon Sheila O’Malley’s wonderfully touching story about a group of film enthusiasts bonding at a party over the question, “What movie is your heart?” (Jason Bellamy was part of that conversation, and he posted his own account here.)

Appropriately, that movie of the heart for me is one that incorporates the theme of longing, and its moving story and visual splendor definitely satisfy my gnawing cinematic yearning whenever I watch it: John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

When Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s ranch in Texas following the Civil War, after a three-year search for something, it is clear that one thing that might have made him reluctant to return is his passionate love for his sister-in-law, Martha. I love how Ford shows this silently. Behind the back of Captain Clayton (Ward Bond), Martha takes up Ethan's Johnny Reb coat, brushes it off, and hands it to Ethan. Ethan kisses her reverently on the forehead. Aware of this impropriety, Clayton laboriously swallows a mouthful of coffee and donut.

Did Ethan spend three years yearning for his love, Martha? And how horrible it is for him to pick up her bloody dress and look in at her violated body less than two days after his return! This longing for her, cut so tragically short, clicks on something very dark inside him, a wrathful longing to kill Scar, the Comanche leader who raped and killed Martha, perhaps to kill Debbie, tainted by her years with the Indians.

Throughout the depiction of this quest, Ford frames landscapes so beautifully and classically Western that the viewing of this film is always a sublime experience. In this red, rocky wilderness, strong passions play out to an emotional climax. A family has been torn apart, but Ethan’s racial hatred threatens to tear it further.

Longings for the stability and peace of civilized family keep tugging at the searchers. Mose (Hank Worden) knows. He hankers for his rocking chair by the fire and “a roof over old Mose’s head.” Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) keeps pulling at Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) to give up the search and start a family. Finally, at the end, the power of family cuts through the rage. When Ethan holds Debbie up in the same way he held her up as a little girl, he sees that she is Martha’s daughter. She is her blood, and he can’t kill her.

But in one of the greatest closing shots ever filmed, Ethan walks away toward that majestic but wild wilderness. He’s a man of the West’s violent past and can’t be part of civilization and family.

The door closes on an exquisite film, and the movie-loving heart yearns for more.


Jonny said...

Really nice essay on all these films, many of which are my favorites. I'm really hoping Malick's new film is as good as I expect it to be.

J.D. said...

I also enjoyed this essay thoroughly and am right there with ya re: DAYS OF HEAVEN. Such a gorgeous film to look at and I absolutely love the atmosphere of it - so easy to get lost in its images and Malick almost makes you feel like you're out in those fields. Great stuff.

Hokahey said...

Jonny, J.D. - Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

J.D. - What you say about Days of Heaven is certainly true. When story and cinematography and sound - and everything else: performances, music, editing - are done so well, a film is going to have that power that draws you in and makes you feel the experience.

What I love about these movies is that there's so MUCH they get right - and that rightness is what satisfies my movie-loving soul in such a deep way.

Jonny said...

I think what all these films have in common is a big scope. When scope and ambition succeed, you have something larger than life. Often it's those that have the largest ambition that are going to work harder. It seems to me that when Malick puts his mind to something, there's no doubt he's going to get it right. Same with John Ford in The Searchers etc.

Hokahey said...

Jonny, I agree. I love films with scope. I tend to forgive them for deficiencies more than other films because they risk more, they attempt more. Right, when care is taken, they have more impact. John Ford filmed scenes in his other films that were basic, utilitarian, without much flair, but in The Searchers he is thoughtful and artistic in every scene, virtually every shot. Not only does Ethan chase Debbie after the attack on the village - and the action is thrilling as it is - you see him ride after her from the POV of the interior of a cave, evoking the first shot of the film. Excellent!