GalleryFilm ‘Days of Heaven’ – American Film and the Wyeth Influence – Part 1

Days of Heaven (1978, PG, 95 mins) is one of the most beautiful and unusual American films of the 1970s writes David Grey.  And this is a rare chance to see it on the big screen at Dulwich Picture Gallery thanks to GalleryFilm.

* Monday 19 July 7.15 for 7.45pm

* Introduced by David Grey, a Terrence Malick aficionado

* Free wine and American snacks donated by Blackbird Bakery

*Free raffle prize – a book about the Wyeth Family

It is screened alongside the Gallery’s summer exhibition, The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art . A choice reflecting the common idea that Days of Heaven is “strongly inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s paintings”. That influence should not be exaggerated. It is more accurate, and more enlightening, to see Andrew Wyeth and Days of Heaven’s Director, Terrence Malick as swimming within the same, broad US cultural movements and reflecting a common heritage. The specific influence of Wyeth on Days of Heaven is undeniable, best seen in the many shots of the ranch house on a hill reflecting  Wyeth’s best known painting, Christina’s World (1948).

But it is more interesting to see from a wider perspective how Wyeth and Malick share an important socio-cultural position. Both men straddle the artificial division between ‘High Art’ and ‘popular / commercial’ culture.  Wyeth merits display in such an august artistic institution as the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Yet his work has been dismissed by some critics as “sentimental”, “mere illustration”, “emotional”, “formulaic stuff”.  Wyeth was known as the “Painter of the People,” due to his work’s popularity with the public.

This divided reaction mirrors the fallacious division of cinema into two rigidly separate realms,  the worthy one of the “arthouse” and the despised one of the “popcorn multiplex”. Malick’s films are fascinating in how they challenge the misguided and snobbish assumption that all American cinema belongs in the latter category. Like all his films, Days of Heaven is a Hollywood film, featuring Hollywood stars, and made via the Hollywood system, albeit an off-centre strand. Producer Bert Schneider was also a cross-over figure. Co-creator of plastic pop group The Monkees. But then an avid supporter of the New Hollywood via Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and, later, Days of Heaven.

At times Days of Heaven looks and feels like a Western, structured narratively as it is around two common themes of that genre, the parallel battles of man (sic) versus nature, and civilisation versus man’s (sic) lower, passionate nature.  A battle for “order” on both levels.

The “art” v “popcorn” fallacy rests heavily on another myth, that of the “auteur” as solo filmmaker, responsible alone for a film’s entire artistic and literary content. Malick is often claimed as a rare example of a Hollywood auteur. Not surprisingly given the signature trademarks which run through his films.  All of which are present in Days of Heaven: strong visual narrative; shot almost entirely outdoors; use of minimal electric lighting; characters often backlit and filmed towards late afternoon / early evening; much on the spot improvisation; use of almost disembodied voiceover to drive narrative. The result is a series of films often described as ‘hypnotic’ or ‘transcendental’.  A long way from standard Hollywood fare.

Malick’s auteur persona reflects how unusual he is as a Hollywood filmmaker. He studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, then taught at M.I.T.  Since his first feature, Badlands in 1973, he has made a total of just 5 features in 37 years. Compared to the 31 films directed by that undisputed Hollywood auteur, Clint Eastwood in a similar period.  In between films Malick has continued to teach.  Clearly a man not driven by standard Hollywood motivations of fame, wealth or ego.

On the other hand, Malick is in some ways a quintessential American filmmaker. Born in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum into a family of middle-eastern (Assyrian) background,.  Brought up as a farm boy in Oklahoma and Texas, neither known as hotbeds of High Art. Established in his Ivy League career the lure of Hollywood drew him from the East Coast via the not unusual route of journalism then scriptwriting.

Like Wyeth, Malick has been criticised from two directions. To hardline arthouse fundamentalists his films are “superficial” and “sentimental”, not far enough from mainstream Hollywood. While users’ comments on IMDB by members of the multiplex demographic who have stumbled on his work via DVD rentals frequently include the words “boring” and “pretentious”.

Commonalities between Wyeth and Malick are seen via other specific influences on Days of Heaven.  Beyond Christina’s World, the famous house in the film is almost an exact copy of Edward Hopper’s The House by the Railroad (1925).  And also reflects Hopper’s American Landscape (1920).

The word “landscape” provides an important clue for our search. Much of Wyeth’s work features people in a landscape. His landscapes often appear empty, even bleak. Malick’s first four films (the fifth is currently in post-production) all feature individuals in conflict in and with their landscape.

In the significantly titled Badlands two young lovers go on a killing spree, pursued by law officers. Eventually they build for themselves an artificial environment of tree houses and underground hides. Days of Heaven features, as we have seen, human v human and human v nature conflicts on the wide open plains of Texas. In the Thin Red Line, US soldiers in World War 2 must scale a steep mountain against the withering fire of entrenched Japanese soldiers, protected only by deep but fatally thin grass. In the New World English colonists in 1607 battle with the alien environment and alien peoples of what is now Virginia. native princess Pocahontas marries one of them and must in turn face the equally alien urban landscape of Jacobean England – the New World of the title.

Morrison and Schur sum up these parallels in Wyeth and Malick thus, “these works share a concern over the effects of modernity on the relationship bet humans and their environment . . . the ways in which industrial culture . . . may be seen to displace humans from their sense of connection with nature”. (The films of Terrence Malick, by James Morrison, Thomas Schur)

These mutual 20th Century concerns have a long history which goes to the heart of American culture.  And indeed to that overlap between “popular” and “High” culture.

Well into the 19th Century both American intellectuals and nationalists bemoaned the lack of a genuinely domestic culture. It was argued that across all art forms the US was still effectively an offshoot of Europe in general and England in particular.

A genuinely vernacular American culture is often said to have begun in literature, it’s hallmarks important to this discussion. Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels (Last of the Mohicans et al), begun in 1823, and Melville’s Moby Dick of 1851 are regarded as important landmarks. These have in common men (sic) battling against nature or each other outdoors in land- and sea-scapes. They also share a sort of simplicity.

That word is used here not to mean intellectually vacant or simplistic. But that this trend reflects the cultural tradition of the US North East for religious, spiritual and cultural simplicity, as the word is used by Quakers.  An overt and self-conscious attempt to get away from the Old World of Europe with its fustiness, tradition, and class hierarchies. It’s rococo and baroque. The woodland battles of Leatherstocking can be seen in this light as the antithesis of the drawing rooms and psychological interiority of the likes of Jane Austen.

Around the same time another literary and philosophical tradition emerges, Transcendentalism, characterised in literature by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and the poetry and essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both reflected similar themes of simplicity and nature.  Andrew Wyeth’s father N.C. Wyeth was very heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists.

In the 1840s,  American expansion westwards took off with the later to be traditional Hollywood wagon trains of settlers heading across the Plains. Simple people battling with and in new landscapes. With them went artists who visually idealised both the landscape and the noble settlers, often backlit, Malick-style, by the setting sun. Famous examples are Leutze’s 1851 Westward the Course of Empire Takes it’s Way (Image F) and Bierstadt’s 1867 Emigrants Crossing the Plains (Image G).

Judged by the values of High Art these classics of 19th century Western art now appear cliched, populist, even  embarrassingly politically incorrect.

In their footsteps followed the more artistically worthy Frederic Remington (1861 to 1909) and Charles M Russell (1864 to 1926). The work of both can be seen to be less sentimental, less “corny” than Leutze’s and Bierstadt’s. Yet both feature heavily the themes of cowboys, horses, Indians, soldiers – men (sic) battling in and with landscapes.  Their paintings could easily serve as storyboarding for Western movies.  And both men’s lives overlapped with the beginning of that genre, 1903’s silent The Great Train Robbery.

The Western artists were followed, though often not literally, by the literary fraternity. Western adventures became a popular theme in the explosion of ‘dime novels’, the U.S.  equivalent of the British ‘penny dreadful’. Churned out factory style by hacks who had never been West of the Appalachians these represented the undeniably ‘low’ end of American literarture.

But a whole new standard of literature was reached with the publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902. Not only does The Virginian work as serious drama, but it explores intelligently the very real social conflicts between cattle barons and poor farmers. Which in themselves became one of the most common tropes of Western movies.

We are now into the 20th Century and can connect our chain of links to the Wyeth family.  Andrew’s father, N.C. Wyeth was commissioned in 1904 by the Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a Western story. His teacher and mentor, Howard Pyle ” . . . urged Wyeth to go West to acquire direct knowledge, much as Zane Grey had done for his Western novels. In Colorado, he worked as a cowboy alongside the professional “punchers,” moving cattle and doing ranch chores. He visited the Navajo in Arizona and gained an understanding of Native American culture. When his money was stolen, he worked as a mail carrier on horseback to gain back needed funds”. This was the first of several trips West by Wyeth senior.

Thus we have traced a tradition of vernacular American culture in which painting, literature and Westward expansion go hand in hand.  A tradition in which ‘High Art’ and popular culture, including illustration sit together on an undivided continuum. Characterised by simplicity and populism, and by themes which both reflect and entertained “the people”. Heavily featuring the outdoors in general and the trans-Missisippi West in particular.  All of which provided fertile material for Hollywood movies in general and The Western in particular.

Part 2 of David Gray’s fascinating account of the background to Malick and Wyeth continues next week.

Director: Terence Malick             Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams

Certificate: PG                           Running time: 95 minutes

Oscar for Best Cinematography, Cannes and Best Director, Golden Globe

Monday 19 July 7.15 for 7.45pm in the Linbury Room, Dulwich Picture Gallery

* Introduction by David Grey, a Terrence Malick aficionado and cheerleader for film making with available light

*Free wine and American snacks provided by Blackbird Bakery, Herne Hill & East Dulwich

*Free raffle prize – a book about The Wyeth Family

Tickets £8, £6 for Friends. Telephone boookings on 0208 299 8750 or the Friends’ desk in Dulwich Picture Gallery. More info at GalleryFilm.

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About bellabeck

Bella used to work in advertising and TV production and is now studying History of Art foundation course at Birkbeck College. She also enjoys film and is a volunteer for GalleryFilm, the Friends of DPG film society.
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