Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A thought on Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN and Henry James's THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal..." -- T. S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger," The Sacred Wood

By the Eliotic standard, filmmaker Terrence Malick must be considered a 'mature poet,' even in his early work. Malick's second film, the beyond-beautiful Days of Heaven, boldly steals its central love triangle from Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (a novel written, appropriately, in the same general period in which the film is set [within a decade or so]). Genders are switched, and the action is shifted from London drawing rooms and Venetian palazzi to the harsh world of the early 1900s Texas Panhandle (portrayed credibly by Alberta, Canada), but the attentive and literate viewer will have little difficulty seeing the wealthy, doomed Sam Shepard as wealthy, doomed Milly Theale, the conspiratorial Richard Gere as conspiratorial Kate Croy, and the lover-turned-conspirator-turned-lover Brooke Adams as lover-turned-conspirator-turned-lover Merton Densher. Critics have often pointed out the thin, elliptical nature of Days of Heaven's narrative, a story so slight as to be dwarfed by the stunning visuals, but it seems less elliptical and more intertextual (not to mention more interesting) once one identifies the Jamesian intertext.

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