In a poster for The Tree of Life (2011), an adult male is examining the foot of a newborn child. That the adult is a movie star, Brad Pitt, is of no particular relevance to what concerns me here. Rather, it is the foot itself, its various connotations and implications that I wish to emphasize. The baby’s foot in the poster is, of course, very small, its smallness magnified by being placed in Pitt’s hand as he examines the base of the baby’s foot with his thumb. (His hand dominates the foreground of the image.) Another poster for the film is simpler, showing only the base of the foot cupped in the hand of an adult.
For once, truth in advertising: The foot is crucial to The Tree of Life and, as we shall see, to Terrence Malick’s work in general. The feet in these posters are meant to be those of Jack O’Brien, the oldest of eventually three O’Brien sons. Just after the moment of Jack’s birth in the film, his father kisses the boy’s feet, a touching parental gesture that also announces the physical and metaphysical journey that is central to The Tree of Life. While the kissing of the foot is perhaps intended to foreshadow the unresolved Oedipal elements of the film’s scenario, I would like to bring these feet literally down to earth. One associates the foot above all with physical movement, with walking. The Tree of Life is a film of walking, of learning to walk, of stumbling; but it is also a film of running and, very briefly, dancing. Through a combination of a highly mobile frame and elliptical cutting, images of the human figure in movement in The Tree of Life become at once indelible and elusive. No sooner do we seem to have understood the essence of how someone is moving than that image is taken from us. What follows here is an intuitive attempt (perhaps futile) to seize these kinds of images, these mobile figures in Malick, through words.
In Louis and Auguste Lumière’s Premiers pas de bébé(1897), a female infant takes what the film’s title assures us are her first attempts at walking. At the start of the film, a woman (presumably the girl’s mother) picks up the baby, sets her down on a sidewalk and gently pushes her forward. The static camera is about a dozen feet away from the baby as she begins to move; she hesitates for a moment as she considers turning back until her mother pushes her forward again. In the bottom foreground of the shot is a doll, clearly placed there as a form of enticement. But she is no less drawn forward by the camera that is filming her and by the men behind it, to whom she repeatedly looks as she moves. There are obstacles in her way. First, there is the wind that blows against her, making her infantile steps forward that much more difficult. As she is about to reach the doll, a large gap in the sidewalk causes her to stumble. This stumble does not prevent her from simultaneously reaching for the doll, and she successfully grabs it at the moment of the fall itself. It is at this precise moment of tortured success that the film ends.
A typical Lumière situation, with its appearance of spontaneity dropped into a framework that is, just as clearly, fixed -- a manufactured mini-drama with a precise beginning, middle, and end. But the power and hilarious poignancy of this little girl staggering towards her goal, fighting against the elements as bravely as Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928), contains a deeply cinematic idea. As the cinema itself is taking its own “baby steps” at this early moment in its history, the first walk of a little girl in 1897 achieves a very evocative, metaphoric embodiment.
“Dear Mother. You fill the land with your beauty. You reach to the end of the world. How shall I seek you? Show me your face. You, the great river that never runs dry.” These are the words spoken by Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) in the voice-over of the first post-credit sequence of The New World (2005). The mother being referred to is not a biological one. Pocahontas is speaking to a potentially transcendent universe, in which nature is also equated with a maternal body. The images that accompany these words are of a woman who initially appears to be Pocahontas (her face is difficult to make out) swimming underwater. Then another woman emerges, followed by another, all of them looking very much alike, as they hold hands and engage in a choreographed swim, their legs and feet sometimes flapping in close-up. As the sequence nears its conclusion, the women swim towards the top of the water, towards air and light, evoking movement through the birth canal.1 Malick’s films take place at moments in which historical transition weighs very heavily, in which one world is giving way to (or being transformed by its contact with) another. This is not saying very much, as a concern with transition is virtually the raison d’etre of historical fiction (and Malick’s films, while not necessarily historical fiction, are all set in the past). The interest of transition in terms of Malick has to do with the specific forms his films take in relation to this, the imagery it draws upon. Malick’s cinema of passage is dominated by movements through doors, windows, gates, as well as over stairs, bridges, complicated and sometimes dangerous terrains, and over and within bodies of water. The desires for “new worlds” push the films towards ineffable “days of heaven” which nevertheless find themselves subject to the same laws of contingency and skepticism as the old worlds. The image of something coming into being is central.
In The Tree of Life, the baby Jack takes his own first steps, and on dry land. But it is the father who teaches his first son how to walk, while the mother is later shown putting medicine on the baby’s foot. These two different functions of the foot, one for the father and another for the mother, are central to the film’s struggle to reconcile the states that the two parents embody: the mother connected not simply to healing but also to a full-scale embracing of the world; whereas the father comes to represent the world as a site of obstacles which the individual must aggressively surmount. But both of these states are flawed, insufficient, and it is the furious attempt to bring them together that is at the heart of the film’s handling of the mobile human figure. If this is a cinema of birth and of passage it is also (as in Murnau) a cinema of an agonized desire for fusion: of one body with another; of the body with the natural world; and of the physical body with the metaphysical world. The Thin Red Line (1998), for example, enacts the maternal/paternal split that is also central to The Tree of Life. But in the absence of women, The Thin Red Line does this through two men, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) and his eventual replacement, Captain Bosche (George Clooney). Staros becomes a type of mother to his soldiers and by the time of his dismissal he is implicitly maternal. “You are my sons,” he indirectly declares to them on the voice-over. “You live inside me now. I’ll cry for you wherever I go.” Bosche, on the other hand, even while he conceives of his unit as a family with himself as a father figure, is entirely locked into the notion that this unit is based on hierarchies of power, with him at the head.
Malick’s framing throughout the sequences dealing with Jack’s infancy is the opposite of the ironic distance supplied by the Lumières. Malick’s camera is often low, on the ground. If the camera placement does not literally and always convey the young Jack’s point-of-view it at least aligns itself with the perspective of an infant’s proximity to the earth and to the floor. When the camera is on the ground it is not static but frequently moves, an idealized and fluid crawl. The ground represents one potential state of becoming, of moving from a horizontal position of crawling to a vertical one of walking. But to crawl is in itself a process of discovery, encapsulated in the poignant shot of the baby crawling up the stairs inside his home. Such a state produces its own particular insights that are lost once one begins to stand and move upright. Nevertheless, this “innocence” is not inherently superior to other states of movement. The opening shot of The Thin Red Line is of a crocodile crawling not over flat ground but even farther downwards, into the water where it slowly sinks, an inversion of the equally metaphoric movements of the women swimming underwater from The New World. The crocodile embodies an insidious, destructive and prehistoric force but one that is no less “natural” than that of a crawling infant. Later in the film, as the maneuvering soldiers are crawling through the grass, on their own mission to kill, there is a cut to a snake slithering over the same terrain. Like the crocodile, the snake’s entire method of moving through the world involves negotiating its way very closely over the ground. “It’s so goddamned hard to stay upright,” Quintard (John Travolta) says to Tall (Nick Nolte) earlier in the film. “There’s always someone watching you, like a hawk.” Within the context of this line of dialogue, standing is a metaphor for resisting corruption. But the struggle to stand upright may also be a literal struggle with a body that is giving out, as later in the same film when a soldier is unable to stand upright because of extreme illness.
To stand and walk is, of course, one of the crucial methods of becoming “civilized” and of separating one’s self from the animal world. A film Malick apparently admired, François Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage (1970), ambivalently documents the process by which a boy in the wilderness is civilized by the doctor who finds him.2 Part of this process is altering the boy’s guarded, hunched-over method of moving naked in the wilderness to one in which he is totally upright, away from the world of the ground and of the beast. Badlands (1973) reverses this process, in which Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen) run away from a civilization (fifties South Dakota) that is precarious, emptied out, and decaying, a world without mothers. Badlands is part of a generic tradition in American cinema of the runaway criminal couple. A trope in some of these films involves the feet of the male protagonists being injured or constrained. In Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Clyde (Warren Beatty) boasts to Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) on their first meeting that he chopped off two of his toes with an axe in order to get out of working. In the opening of Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1947), Bowie (Farley Granger) injures his foot; and in Robert Altman’s version of the same source material, Thieves Like Us (1974), Bowie (Keith Carradine) has difficulty in walking because of new shoes that are hurting his feet. In these films, the limited mobility of the male criminal serves as an entrée into a new world, in which the presentation or announcement of the injured foot coincides with meeting the female protagonist: girl meets boy meets boy’s foot. At the beginning of Badlands, Kit is a garbage collector and one of the first things we see him discover as part of this job are a pair of old boots that have been tied together. After unsuccessfully attempting to sell them to an old man, he tosses them to Cato (Ramon Bieri), his co-worker, and says, ‘Why don’t you see if these fit you?” While Kit’s foot is not injured or limited in any respect, when he is fired from his job, he tells Holly that at least no one will complain anymore about the boots he wears. (His snake-skinned cowboy boots serve to define Kit, at least in his mind.)
Both Holly and Kit initially move in ways that associate them with a state of relative innocence, their activities those of childhood and of play: the bare-footed Holly twirling her baton, crossing back and forth in the middle of the street as she performs this; Kit walking down an alley immediately prior to his first sighting of Holly, as he balances a mop, sifts through garbage, and kicks a can. Given the killing spree that soon follows this meeting, their innocence could not be more deeply ironic. Malick will return to this notion of innocence as physical-movement-as-play (however qualified or ironically treated) time and again. Days of Heaven (1978), for example, has one of the richest and most extended realizations of this: images of Linda (Linda Manz), Bill (Richard Gere), and Abby (Brooke Adams) playing tag in the fields, chasing peacocks, or Abby doing cartwheels as Bill watches her. The film’s use of shots of a rather brief duration and its avoidance of sequences that rely on conventional dramatic arcs results in virtually every image having its own particular visual weight. As in The Tree of Life, the human figure in motion makes an immediate but also quite fleeting impression since these movements are not always directly tied to a narrative function.
The film’s days of heaven are most likely intended to be the period after Abby’s marriage to the farmer (Sam Shepard), days when the world of manual labor gives way to a total abandon to the world of play due to the farmer’s wealth. “The rich got it figured out,” Linda wisely states through her voice-over as we see her, Abby, and Bill running and playing in the water. Charles Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1918) is screened at a party inside the farmer’s house and the brief excerpt used is of Chaplin and his fellow immigrants looking at the Statue of Liberty as they are being roped together on a boat pulling in to Ellis Island. Like so many of the characters in Malick, Chaplin’s immigrants are moving towards a new world, in which the lived experience of that world will now attempt to fuse with the myth of it. But Chaplin’s presence within Days of Heaven also points to something else. Chaplin is arguably the first major filmmaker and screen performer for whom the entire body was mobilized for expressive purposes, from the top of his head (including his hat) to his feet (including his outsized shoes) and even to his backside. Moreover, this mobilization occurred primarily within the realm of farce, in which gesture, walking, running, and dancing formed part of a new lexicon of the mobile human figure in cinema. The movements of Linda, Abby, and Bill are not only those of play but of farce: the transformation of the utensils at the breakfast table under the pavilion, or Bill placing Linda on his lap as they emulate the movements of ventriloquist and dummy. (Linda’s voice-over at the beginning of the film describes Bill’s talent for juggling apples and that “he used to amuse us, he used to entertain us.”) The attraction to farce crystallizes with the surreal appearance of the Italian flying circus around which the party itself is constructed. At these moments, the film embraces an ideal of a completely spontaneous body, submitting to nothing other than its own desire to move where, when, and how it desires, a state of anarchy but divorced from any detailed and heavily populated social environment where it might cause physical harm. There are traces of this love of the farcical body’s capacity for reversal and transformation as well in The Thin Red Line when, prior to being captured after going AWOL on a Pacific island, Witt and Doll (Dash Mihok) run and play with the native children, Doll and several of the other boys holding the feet of the children as the children walk on their hands.3 In The Tree of Life, Jack (Hunter McCracken) ties cans to his feet and quickly walks down the street in them. When Jack and his brothers go into town, they comically parody the staggering of a drunk. But the discombobulated movements of a disabled man, while also ripe for cruel parody by children, put an end to laughter and instead serve as an inexplicable image of strangeness to them. And Bill’s line to Abby about the farmer’s terminal illness is one that uses a farcical description of a situation that will eventually play itself out as melodrama: “The man’s got one foot on a banana peel, the other on a roller skate.”
Running All the Way
In The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) comes into the bedroom of her three sons early in the morning and playfully awakens them by putting ice on their feet.4 For Mrs. O’Brien to awaken her sons through their feet intensifies her maternal function in that her love is expressed through the lowest part of the body, literally and symbolically. But the importance of the foot also links the mother to the boys’ physical agility and grace. The movement that most strongly ties the mother to her sons is running, fully realized in the film after the father leaves the family for an extended trip. The father’s departure effectively sets the mother and her sons free, away from the oppressive discipline and rigidity of Mr. O’Brien, a freedom realized in a series of ecstatic images of them running through the house and around the neighborhood, a virtual paradise of moving bodies. The end of The New World likewise links Pocahontas with running and, as with Mrs. O’Brien, this is partially tied to her status as a mother. Her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), is shown playing with their son as part of the closing minutes of the film. While he is not an imposing figure like O’Brien, Rolfe is physically stiff with his boy, hardly moving at all, as the boy moves around Rolfe. Pocahontas, in contrast, happily runs with her young son while playing with him. After it has been announced that she is dead, we are given shots of her running which, even though she appears to be doing this in England, suggest a world of movement outside of time, as though her spirit is profoundly tied to running. Earlier in the film, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) tells John Smith (Colin Farrell) of the possibility of Smith engaging in a passage to the Indies: “Shall you be a discoverer of passages which you yourself refuse to explore, beyond the threshold, that is?” As Newport finishes saying this to Smith, an image of Pocahontas is intercut, in which she runs and leaps through the air. This could be read as Smith’s subjective image or simply as a rhetorical insertion on the part of the film, a comment on (and inevitable foreshadowing of) what he will soon be abandoning: Pocahontas, a figure whose essence the film condenses in this one image of physical freedom. But such an idealized representation and embodiment of the running figure in Malick is complicated elsewhere. The boys of The Tree of Life, for example, “run before the wind” even as they run directly and innocently into DDT that a truck is spraying throughout their neighborhood. After Badlands, Malick’s use of motion-control devices (the Panaglide, employed tentatively on Days of Heaven, and then the Steadicam, virtually a defining feature on the films after that) allows the camera to achieve a physical presence as it not only follows the movements of the actors but will literally run with them. This can lead to the ecstasy of the boys running with their mother in The Tree of Life; but it also, particularly in The Thin Red Line, ties the mobile camera to violence and death, a camera that not simply follows the human figure but also moves around it, beyond it, operating as a free agent, so to speak.
To run in Malick also means to run away, to flee from one world to another. Days of Heaven properly begins after Bill has gotten into a fistfight with the foreman at his factory and this violent action precipitates his running away with Abby and Linda. A single, low-angle shot as they run from the foreground of the shot to its background, across railroad tracks in Chicago with suitcases in hand in order to catch a train, brilliantly condenses this type of movement. They run because their social position gives them no other possibilities. This image of running away is repeated and extended near the end of the film, as the three of them must run again, after Bill has killed the farmer; Bill’s own death occurs in the midst of running, as he is shot by the police and he falls (in one of the film’s most frequently discussed images), face down, into a river, the camera positioned under the water. “I gotta run,” Holly tells Kit at the end of their first meeting. It is the sound of her father’s voice that causes Holly to run at this moment, whereas very soon it will be the presence of Kit and his murdering of her father that will cause her to run for another reason. In a long shot that forms part of a montage of their early dates, she runs to his car and her yellow skirt sways, as though responding to Kit’s bidding. After the death of her father, when she decides to run away with Kit, Holly gets her books out of the locker in high school, walks normally down the hallway, then begins running to his car once she is outside. Running comes to dominate Holly’s relationship with Kit, both metaphorically (as criminals “on the run”) and quite literally, a world of killing and then running.
During Holly and Kit’s idyll in the woods, a shirtless Kit, bandana tied around his head and carrying a rifle, runs through the woods while making whooping sounds; this “rehearsal” for killing is soon realized when he emerges out of a hole in the ground and chases after a bounty hunter, shooting him in the back. Kit seems to be possessed with singular a power of movement at such moments, as though he is fully embodied, like a wild animal able to abruptly acquire ferocious speed when in attack mode. In contrast to Malick’s later films, the animals in Badlands form part of an atmosphere of immobilization and decay, in which most of the animals die during the film, are already dead, or are entrapped. Kit’s speed and physical agility come to replace the absence left by this world of dead animals. His murder of Cato is especially agonizing within this context. In a transparent attempt to either escape or call the police, Cato runs back to his home, filled with discarded objects (presumably collected from the garbage), in the midst of a desolate prairie landscape. But the tall Cato possesses none of Kit’s animal speed and cunning and the pathetic nature of his run is intensified by the decision to shoot this movement with a long lens, further frustrating any sense of progress.
In The Thin Red Line, Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson) tells his men to “go down in groups of ten” and that they should “run all the way, we ain’t got no choice.” Throughout the film, both running and walking are highly restricted, with the outdoors conceived of as a cage or a prison, resulting in movements being alternately cautious and chaotic and tied to death. If a trope of the outlaw criminal film is the injured or constrained foot of the male protagonist, a trope of the war film is the severed foot or leg of the soldier. King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) is the classic example in which the amputated leg of John Gilbert is not only a sign of the futility of war but also a fulfillment of the film’s obsession with feet and legs in relation to war itself. The Thin Red Line shows us a soldier, already dead, whose leg has been blown away. Later in the film we see a dead Japanese soldier, lying on stretcher, with a blood-stained tag on his foot. In the background of the shot, slightly out of focus, are other corpses whose feet protrude with tags attached to them, as though in death all that remains visible to the world are feet that can no longer stand, walk, or run. Running in such films, then, not before the wind but directly into it, a movement towards death over which one has no control.
Holly eventually refuses to run with Kit any longer. Why does she do this? There are moments in the film in which we see subtle shifts in her responses to Kit’s violence and to the situation in which she has let herself become involved. One of the crucial turning points occurs when Holly and Kit take possession of the home of the rich man. Holly leaves the house and goes for a walk alone, taking the man’s walking stick with her. She stops by a tree and stands holding the stick on the ground in front of her. Within this context, a walking stick is an icon of faded gentility, the decorative prop of a “gentleman.” (Hence Chaplin’s ironic use of a cane as part of his costume as the Tramp.) For Badlands, it connects Holly back to an idea of civilization to which she is beginning to be drawn. Not long after this walk, Holly’s voice-over refers to her sighting of a train as the first glimpse of civilization she’s had in weeks and she compares it to the caravan in The Adventures of Marco Polo. But aside from walking upright, what does it mean to be civilized?
Let us return to the foot. Kit and Holly’s dance in the woods is a celebration of their escaping into an uncivilized and childlike paradise, Holly dancing in her bare feet and with her arms akimbo, Kit in his boots with his hands in his back pockets, the two of them not touching. Holly’s eventual rejection of Kit is partly foreshadowed in a later dance, a slow one to the Nat King Cole record, “A Blossom Fell.” Unlike the more improvisational and folkloric dance in the woods, the slow dance (with Holly in shoes) is linked with the world of urbane romance and it is performed to a record by a famous singer whose nickname signals his pop culture aristocracy, all of these signs of the world Holly is now being drawn to. “Actually,” Abby tells the farmer as she is performing ballet steps in the woods, “I could have been a dancer.” After her marriage to the farmer, we see her on the front porch with a manual in her hand, teaching herself how to dance. But it is ultimately not Abby who is given formal lessons in dance. It is Linda, whom Abby deposits at a boarding school at the end of the film, where dance lessons form part of an elite education that will now allow Linda to presumably ascend from her working class roots.
We may think of dance as the final, most expressive state of movement in relation to this question of civilization. In the cinema, such a concern is scarcely Malick’s alone: It is fundamental to the work of John Ford, for example, where social dance so often serves as a privileged moment for uniting the diverse strands of a culture. Ford’s Wagon Master (1950) has a great sequence in which a Mormon community happily dances with cowhands, prostitutes, and alcoholics and where even a man with an amputated leg is able to join in, his wooden leg bouncing in time to the music. Later, the same group participates in a social dance around a campfire with a tribe of Native Americans. Malick works both within and against this tradition. Smith is incorporated into a social dance around a fire with the Algonquins but it has none of the mythic resonance of Ford. Dance frequently punctuates the social environment of Days of Heaven. But the dances are far more spontaneous than in Ford. The folk dances around the fireside in Days have no sense of the choreography that one finds in Wagon Master, resulting in a much greater sense of individual physical freedom within a group in Malick but a less clear sense of a new community being forged through dance. Malick’s obsession with fusion and transcendence results in a fundamental lack of interest in the myth of community as a microcosm for a civilization (a Ford obsession). There is a brief sequence in The Tree of Life when Jack is banished to the front porch by his father. As he waits there, he takes small, rhythmic steps up and down the stairs of the porch. In very basic form, Jack is doing his own variation on the Stair Dance, associated with black dancers and vaudevillians beginning in the late nineteenth century and later identified with Bill Robinson. In Days of Heaven, a black laborer on the farm (Gene Bell) tap dances on a board, with Linda briefly joining him. At such a moment one can sense the emergence of a certain contemporary urban energy on the space-outside-of-time that the farm sometimes assumes, an energy that will soon be paramount in an America after the end of World War I. At the end of his dance, the black worker pantomimes the movements of a train (one of the great metaphors of the film) by quickly repeating steps while essentially moving in place. But Jack’s shapeless dance, taking place in a small town in Texas in the 1950s, has nowhere to go, no audience, no community to whom it speaks. This is not a film of trains but of flight: the mother who, in one delirious moment, seems to be levitating; and the father, who flies around the world in a jet.
In Days of Heaven, as Abby and Bill (still working as laborers at this point) wade through a stream, Bill stops to briefly touch and wash Abby’s feet. After Abby’s marriage to the farmer, Bill is forced to observe Abby, now expensively dressed as a “fine lady,” being helped into a carriage by the farmer, who reaches down to tie a loose strap on her shoe. This echo of Bill’s earlier gesture captures Abby ascension from her working class roots, and from the earth and nature, towards a world of gentility, in which nature is there to be controlled and harnessed. In The New World, the passage of Pocahontas from her own native culture to a “civilized” white one is announced when an Englishwoman puts low-heeled shoes on Pocahontas’s feet and she learns to walk in them. The shoes temporarily become a type of corset for the foot, restraining the movements of a character who has so strongly been linked with spontaneous mobility.
Pocahontas’s courtship with John Rolfe is initially played out as a series of walking moments, him following her, her knowing that he is behind her, her not speaking. Their movements accelerate and become more playful only as their relationship develops. Walking in these films is often tied to the very act of courtship, to the moment of physical attraction between a man and a woman. The farmer in Days of Heaven, for example, first becomes attracted to Abby as he observes her walking through the wheat fields. “You wanna take a walk with me?” Kit asks Holly at their first meeting. Sheen’s method of defensively placing his hands in his back pockets and Spacek’s very short, tight white pants, white socks and loafers serve to create an indelible impression of their walks together. The unraveling of their relationship is articulated through walking as well. As is made explicit in the dialogue, their walks are now out of synch with one another, in which she consistently moves ahead of him. An awkward, embryonic version of walking as courtship is played out in The Tree of Life as Jack, too young to fully engage in a traditional courtship ritual, only knows enough to follow a girl home from school, not walk alongside of her. Jack’s most urgent sexual longings are directed towards an adult neighbor, the erotic attraction condensed into his observing the woman washing her feet with water from a hose. This attraction is one he can only enact by stealing a negligee out of her chest of drawers and then running, as though not fully understanding the implications of what he is doing. In The New World, part of the mating ritual between Pocahontas and Smith is one in which they play with each other’s bare feet, locking them together, a gesture that also serves to pull Smith into the values of Pocahontas’s culture, one more closely tied to nature and the earth. But in the aftermath of Smith’s abandonment of her, her bare feet are constrained within a costume linked with Smith’s world and not her own.
Are we to read this change in Pocahontas negatively, the beginning of a tragic turnabout of events in which the values of her native culture are forsaken as she is appropriated by a white, colonizing influence? I think not, at least not entirely. Civilization is also culture in the fullest sense of that term, the world of art, science, and philosophy. To move through the world is not just conquest over and confrontation with an Other; it is also knowledge. The world is (as Holly puts it) “a fine place, full of things that people can look into and enjoy.” Walking sequences in Malick are crucial to this possibility. To walk is a method of gaining knowledge that does not occur with the often more purely sensory experience of running or dancing since in walking one may also more easily look around at one’s environment. The early views Pocahontas has of England are ones in which she is first taken in a carriage through the streets but in which she soon also walks, absorbing the sights of the English court. She looks upon England with no less wonder than the English when they first landed in her own world. As Pocahontas is presented at court, fully attired in English costume, she walks in a stately, deliberate manner, her cape trailing behind her, and this is no less beautiful than the “free” movements of running and leaping in North America. “Mother, now I know where you live,” we hear Pocahontas stating in the voice-over at the end of the film. This not only answers the question of the opening (“How shall I seek you?”) it also ties her fully to nature via motherhood. Are we to see this as a satisfactory resolution to what is at stake in the film? This will most likely depend upon whether one’s response to The New World is grounded in metaphysics or materialism. Pocahontas has achieved a fusion with her world by eventually attaining what one can only call a total understanding of the scale and specificity of that world and of her own place within it. However, such an achieved fusion also coincides with the moment of her premature death, even as the death itself guarantees her eventual ascension to the status of myth in American history. (She could almost be a John Ford heroine.)
At the end of Days of Heaven, it is the men who die and the women who live on. The precise choreography of the girls in Linda’s school performing their ballet steps opens this final section of the film, presenting a new civilization to Linda. It is civilization as “culture” and “refinement,” dance as a form of physical and mental discipline, and as strange for the working class Linda as the sight of the English ships arriving on shore was for the Algonquins in The New World. Both Linda and Abby are mobile beings at the end of the film. But their movements are also tied (as so much of the film is) to the act of looking. After depositing Linda at the school and heading to the train station, Abby does not simply walk through the town but looks around her. As Linda escapes from the school and goes running off with her friend from the days of working on the farm (Linda briefly performs a cartwheel that returns her to the state of play possible on the farm), she slows down her run just long enough to turn and look at her surroundings. What are Abby and Linda looking at? Abby sees a woman selling apples and lingers for just a moment over this, as though she is taking in the social world that she once belonged to and has now escaped from. As she continues to look around the street as she walks she notices two women (of a slighter higher social rank than the woman selling apples) and well-dressed men talking to one another. All of them are standing, contrasting with Linda’s mobility, but the editing patterns create an uncertainty as to whether the people on the street are looking back at her. One of the women on the street looks over, points, and says, “Will you look at that?” Is she referring to Abby or something else? The only person who is clearly positioned as looking at Abby is Linda’s friend, whose spotting of Abby prompts the friend to track down Linda. It is also unclear clear during Linda’s run if the shots that cut away to the surrounding sights are necessarily meant to be Linda’s point-of-view, since standard eyeline matches/shot-reverse shots are not employed. Instead, we have running and then cut away, running and then cut away. Nevertheless, the sequence has the feel of a subjective experience, of capturing the sense of a magical new journey that Linda is embarking on, in which she is just beginning to comprehend the mysteries of the things around her.
Arguably what is most important about these implicitly linked activities of Abby walking and Linda running is how they signify passages for both women out of one world into another. But what are these new worlds they are moving towards? There are a number of automobiles on the streets of the town and the train that Abby boards is filled with soldiers going off to war. The sense of Abby potentially embodying the modern woman, born in the aftermath of World War I, is vaguely suggested here. Linda, by contrast, seems to be harnessed into an outfit that has stepped out of Jane Eyre. And whereas Abby boards a full train, Linda walks along a railroad track with her friend without a train in sight. “Where are you going?” Linda asks her. “For a walk,” the friend says. “I don’t know where.” Linda’s friend invites her to walk along the tracks with her. Linda’s method of following her is to walk entirely outside of the tracks as her friend moves forward within them. Linda turns to look back, presumably towards the town and the school that she has escaped from. She turns back around and moves towards the center of the tracks, catching up with her friend, as they continue to walk, the friend periodically breaking her movements with a skip. Is Linda definitely walking away from the school where Abby has placed her? Both the initial steps outside the tracks and the look back suggest hesitation, as though she could change her mind, and her own walk within the tracks has a firmness that her friend’s does not have. What is most overriding in the final sequence of Days of Heaven is simply the sense of uncertain transition in the images of both Abby and Linda, these mobile women, as they begin to move through a beautiful and mysterious new world on their own. They have not yet attained the full level of understanding that Pocahontas achieves at the moment of her death. But at least they are alive. And walking.
1 In an excellent analysis of the film, Richard Neer argues that the three Powhatan girls can be seen as variations on the three Rhinemaidens from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, a connection encouraged by Malick’s use of Wagner’s music from that opera on the soundtrack at this moment. Richard Neer, “Terence Malick’s New World,” nonsite.org, June 12, 2011. http://nonsite.org/issue-2/terrence-malicks-new-world
2 For Malick’s admiration for this film, see Nestor Almendros, A Man with a Camera, trans. Rachel Phillips Belash, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984, p. 165.
3 The function of hands and gesture in Malick is a topic all its own.
4One may be reminded here of the moment in Jacques Tourneur’s great film of walking, I Walked with a Zombie (1943), in which the Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is awakened on her first morning in the West Indies by the maid Alma (Theresa Harris) by Alma gently shaking Betsy’s foot. Alma explains that this is a loving gesture in that it involves waking someone by touching the part of their body that is farthest from their heart.