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.It is screened alongside the Gallery’s summer exhibition, The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art .
* Monday 19 July 7.15 for 7.45pm in the Linbury Room, Dulwich Picture Gallery
* 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
In Part 2, David Gray continues his thoughtful account from Part 1 of how Malick and Wyeth reflect and complement one another artistically.
…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.
This was the cultural stream into which both Andrew Wyeth (1917) and Terrence Malick (1943) were born, and by which both were heavily influenced. Wyeth was there first, but both drank from the same waters.
And the tradition has continued during their lifetimes. The literary inheritors of the Melville / Fenimore Cooper tradition can be seen to include Ernest Hemingway (1899 to 1961) and Norman Mailer (1923 to 2001). In painting we may note Harvey Dunn of South Dakota (1884 to 1952), notably his 1950 The Prairie is My Garden. And California’s Maynard Dixon (1875 to 1946), with works like 1942′s Open Range.
After Wister’s The Virginian, Western literature continued to evolve in the 20th Century. The novels of the hugely popular Zane Grey are credited with having spawned no less than 110 films. But also inspired a ‘wealth’ of lesser writers, lampooned via Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins character in the 1949 British film noir The Third Man.
The contemporary writer, Cormac McCarthy on the other hand has achieved genuine literary recognition via various awards including the Pulitzer Prize for works in several genres as well as the Western. And also providing starting points for movies such as No Country for Old Men. Another contemporary writer, is the prolific Larry McMurtry, whose writing ranges from the more or less conventional cattle drive plot of Lonesome Dove to the screenplay for the artistically credible gay cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain.
Every artist or author named so far, and all who will be named further on is a man. Their themes are relentlessly masculine. Their works have often been denounced as patriarchal, sexist. Their content privileges male physical struggle, and tends to reduce women to at best secondary and supportive roles, and at worst, complete absence. More of this later.
It is said that the art form of the 20th Century has been film. And that film has been the American art form, the USA’s unique and technology-based contribution to the evolution of art forms. Since the arrival of sound, cinema has united the literary / theatrical and the visual. And the simple, outdoors tradition of the Western has been at the heart of that fusion.
Two of the greatest names in American cinema and among the strongest visually are John Ford (1894 to 1973) and Howard Hawks (1896 to 1977). It is important to note that both Ford and Hawks were worshipped by the directors of the French New Wave as both auteurs and powerful influences on their own work. Influence often ignored by those who wish to assert that rigid separation between the ‘art film’ of the elite and and the ‘popcorn movie of the vulgar masses.
Hawks’ 1948 Red River and Ford’s 1956 The Searchers are regarded as two of the best American films ever made. Both films feature the man who can arguably be designated the absolute antithesis of the arthouse film – Iowa-born son of the Midwest Marion Morrison, stage name John Wayne. It seems incongruous to use his name in the same sentence as the word ‘art’ so much does Wayne seem the embodiment of all that is regarded as commercial and vulgar in US popular culture.
Yet Wayne’s minimalist acting style, his mumbling, plain-speaking characters, usually set by Hawks or Ford backlit against a wide-open sky in a vast landscape, represent the themes that link Andrew Wyeth and Terrence Malick – the simple, the strongly visual, the outdoors, people in landscapes much bigger than they are. Ford’s famous habit of tearing out many pages of dialogue preferring to “show it rather than say it” worked perfect for Wayne. Malick often uses his male actors similarly. In Days of Heaven a female voiceover narrates while we watch the less articulate men in action. Wayne continues our theme of the aggressively, conventionally masculine.
Malick’s films are overwhelmingly populated by male characters, who will generally be fighting each other. Casting delivers for us established Hollywood stars who combine good looks and traditional masculinity: Martin Sheen (Badlands), Richard Gere and Sam Shepard (Days of Heaven), Sean Penn and George Clooney (The Thin Red Line), Colin Farrell and Christian Bale (The New World), Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life). Female characters are there to be loved, fought over, dragged along, or to narrate. The best known actress in a Malick movie is Badlands’ Cissy Spacek from way back in 1973. Since then no Malick films has featured a very well-known female actress.
We can finish by pulling together the cultural streams from which both Andrew Wyeth and Terrence Malick appear to have emerged. All can be seen to be part of the evolution of an vernacular American culture characterised by simplicity, the visual, and the landscape. What can be shown literally is privileged over the abstract, ideas, intellectualisation. Malick, despite his artistic auteur persona, fits within the mainstream US traditions of literature, Western art, and film. He also prioritises action over words, and features Western landscapes, masculine themes and images, and violent conflict between men.
All of which challenges those who come to Wyeth’s and Malick’s works from the perspective of traditional ‘High Culture’. From Manhattan and Boston to London and Paris intellectual elites have their preferences. and prejudices. Film should privilege ideas and words over action. Novels should feature strong characters and complex plots, over action. ‘Art’, cannot by definition be popular, in the statistical sense. Andrew Wyeth’s huge attendance figures automatically make him suspect in a world in which being part of an elite minority is a qualifying requirement for artistic status.
Above all, ‘the artist’ should be a million miles away from the cigar-smoking, bullfighting machismo of John Wayne or Ernest Hemingway. Which brings us to another and final psycho-cultural split, the socially constructed separation between male and female, men and women.
In its traditional social role ‘art’ has stood between and linked the two. Male artists and writers are expected to be sensitive, able to explore the inner world, to understand their female characters. Male homosexuality is far more accepted in the world of high art than in the military or Western settings of Ford, Hemingway or Mailer where men are without exception always ‘real’.
Andrew Wyeth and Terrence Malick can both also be understood to link the traditional worlds of masculine and feminine. In Wyeth’s work there is the traditional American outdoors, yet an absence of aggressive, violent masculinity. When his subjects are women, he appears to understand them.
Malick’s films overwhelmingly involve men in violent conflict, and yet the the films’ overall visual and narrative style is a long way from the standard Hollywood action film. The word “lyrical” is overwhelmingly used to describe his films, which seems to refer to that transcendental, out-of-body quality which results from the combination of music and voiceover and hypnotic cinematography. While we may see men behaving badly in his films, they are enveloped by an artistic process that is somehow female, conveyed to us both in sound and image. The sound often involving that female narration. Men do. Women notice, examine, talk.
Furthermore his male characters can be divided into two types. On the one hand are those who we see very clearly to be experiencing absolute terror. The young soldiers in The Thin Red Line, Colin Farrell’s John Smith in The New World. These characters are complemented by men driven by love, usually the calmer version, known by the Greeks as ‘agape’, rather than the murderous, lustful form. Sam Shepard’s gentle farmer in Days of Heaven, or Christian Bale’s gentle farmer who rescues Pocahontas via marriage in The New World.
On the other hand are the most violent of Malick’s men. Those who are driven to violence by passionate emotions – Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. Or by an almost emotionless, even psychopathically calm aggression, like Martin Sheen’s killer in Badlands. Or Nick Nolte’s screaming officer in The Thin Red Line, cajoling and threatening his scared young soldiers towards their deaths.
In Days of Heaven. Malick uses a charming device of visual metaphor as he explores the ambiguities along the continuum of gender. Each of the four major characters is characterised by one of the basic elements which is particular to them. When you see Days of Heaven, see if you can spot which goes with which.
To conclude, when we compare the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and the films of Terrence Malick we are challenged to reconsider elitist assumptions as to a rigid separation between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art, and in parallel, the between ‘art films’ and the commercial cinema.
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 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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