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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Road less travelled

This post has nothing to do with theology or ACIM. It is just personal. Movie critic Roger Ebert has been having health problems, and has had surgery, so he has not been writing reviews lately. Recently his website ran a little retrospective of reviews of the greatest movies ever. I was so glad to see Days Of Heaven listed.

No one I know has ever seen this film, or even heard of it ... but it means so much to me. Ebert calls it "one of the most beautiful films ever made."

Days Of Heaven gets its title from Deuteronomy 11:21 ("That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.") It is the story of three migrant workers in 1916, who take a job on a Texas farm to escape the law up in Chicago. One of the three, a young adolescent girl, is the voice-over narration of the film. She is old before her time. From her apocalyptic flashes we can glimpse the sweep and scope of the story:

I met this guy named Ding-Dong. He told me the whole Earth is goin' up in flame. Flames will come out of here and there and they'll just rise up. The mountains are gonna go up in big flames, the water's gonna rise in flames. There's gonna be creatures runnin' every which way, some of them burnt, half of their wings burnin'. People are gonna be screamin' and hollerin' for help. See, the people that have been good - they're gonna go to heaven and escape all that fire. But if you've been bad, God don't even hear you. He don't even hear ya talkin'.
You might think this is just the overactive imagination of a lonely deprived girl, but the genius of the filmmakers lies in knowing we will make just that assumption and dismiss her words. But they are prophetic, and at the dramatic climax of the film, everyone's world goes up in flames. Slowly we come to realize that the recurring flippant nihilism of her narrative voice is the descant -- it is the "point" to the "counterpoint" of the visual beauty.

You couldn't sort it out. The Devil just sittin' there laughin'. He's glad when people does bad. Then he sends them to the snake house. He just sits there and laughs and watch, while you're sittin' there all tied up and snakes are eatin' your eyes out. They go down your throat and eat all your systems out.
The film is shot in widescreen 70mm, and rich with the ominous sparse wonder of the praries. Recently I went to an Andrew Wyeth show at the High museum in Atlanta and the whole time I was there I kept thinking of Days Of Heaven. In a way it is like a giant animated Wyeth masterpiece.

Was it a mistake casting "pretty boy" Richard Gere as the central character: an inarticulate trouble-prone drifter, but with a genuine concern for his girlfriend/companion, and her sister? Was it a mistake adopting an oblique episodic style, where the dialog frequently seems improvised and muttered, almost overheard at times? At times there seems to be an intense narrative thread, and we become absorbed in the personal relationships. But always the immediate emotional roller-coaster is smoothed over by the great pastiche of the plains; sunswept, windswept, and quivering under the threat of giant thunderheads, and delicately sprinkled with Saint Saens. It is a disorienting masterpiece and you become clay under its influence. After a while you are just along for the experience, willing to accept any human outcome as long as the eerie beauty is sustained, yet sensing that no outcome is possible save a tragic one.

Credit for the mystical construction is usually given to director Terence Malick, who more recently directed The Thin Red Line, but I think differently. In 1978, shortly after the film was released, I lived for a short time in Greenwich Village in New York. There I met Jacob Brackman, the producer of the film, and had a long conversation with him about it. I was trying to get a handle (from a creative point of view) on exactly how such poignancy came into existence. Exactly what process, or whose decisions led to its disquieting qualities? At that time I had just left CBC Television in Canada where I had been working as a documentary producer in current affairs. My last stint there was a show with a TV host named Robert Cooper, who acted as a kind of roving investigator/trouble- shooter, advocate. It was your basic "Robin Hood" show. Since then, Cooper has made a name for himself as executive producer of "Stargate SG-1" and "Stargate Atlantis".

Anyway I was all ga-ga at meeting Brackman. It was a social meeting, arranged through an old friend. I must have seemed like a dumb teenager to him, but he is a peaceful man who shows respect and concern for everyone. During a long chat in a book-lined living room I learned some surprising facts, such as:

Richard Gere was not first choice for the part. First choice (but unavailable) was John Travolta.

The film was not shot in 70mm. It was shot in conventional 35mm, but was blown up to 70mm as part of a series of experiments to find a way to enhance its visual appeal to make up for perceived inadequacies in other areas.

The episodic, fragmented style was not deliberate. It represented an attempt to recover from failure. The shooting was fraught with problems: nothing worked, and nothing fit together. Sound was poor, continuity was off, key scenes were missing. Brackman's genius was in deciding to put the material together collage-style, and blend it all in with the larger visual panorama - add the girl's deadpan narration then blow it up to 70mm and let Ennio Morricone's music and the visuals carry everything along. It was almost an accident.

Brackman was modest enough about it all, as if he had just been lucky. But the guiding force behind it was his exquisite sensitivity to time and place and pace, and a recognition of the inevitable bittersweet tragedy of love.

I did not know it then, but I know now, that Brackman is a friend of Singer Carly Simon, and actually wrote the lyrics to a number of her greatest hits, including "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and "Haven't Got Time for the Pain" Sometime when you have a minute listen to the words of "That's the way I've always heard it should be." Here is a young teenage girl feeling her father's remoteness and unavailability, and lamenting the inseparable gulf between her parents ...

My father sits at night with no lights on
His cigarette glows in the dark
The living room is still
I walk by, no remark
I tiptoe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines
I hear her call "Sweet dreams"
But I forget how to dream

Ms. Simon's father was Richard Simon, founder of Simon and Schuster, the publishing company. He did indeed stay up all night reading and smoking. Their house was often the setting for fashionable receptions for the literati of the time, and the young girl often felt woefully inadequate and inarticulate. She developed a terrible stutter and it was her mother who suggested she try singing her words.

Ah, my ... why all ths reminiscence? There was a time when these things were important to me and I craved the high-profile creative life. Today what has become of me? Are my dreams shattered and squashed, or have my priorities simply changed? I live on a constant see-saw between love of the arts and disdain for them. Not an aesthetic disdain but a theological one. Two paths diverge in the woods, and sometimes I am sad for the one I did not take.


Anonymous marian said...

I think your priorities have simply changed. The desire to identify with some role or other is similar to an addiction in that it solidifies a sense of self. And your intermittent disdain for the arts is probably similar to the disdain one feels for people who are still smoking, when one has recently quit.

Once you know you won't start smoking again, you feel neutral and even affectionate towards smokers, and you realize that in truth, it's not such a big deal after all.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

Derek, I condensed the above comment from the thousand or so words I had before it so when I now revisit, it looks a bit cold.

Don't mean to sound like an enlightenment nazi.

What I meant to say, among other things, is that I liked this post, a lot.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Jo-Ann said...

How human you are to remember the past and wonder what things might have been if only….” I had taken the other path”. Be kind to yourself and know that you are on the path that is perfect for you today. Who’s telling you that your dreams are shattered and squashed? A shift in your creative course may surprise you and bring you many blessings of satisfaction. Derek, look at the words above, how interesting you are, how creative you are and how much
pleasure you give to others with your wisdom. It’s okay to ask yourself these questions but do not let the sadness hold you in it’s gripe. You have so much talent and can do most anything, give yourself a break.

When I’m setting on the see-saw, which is often, I just have forgotten whose hand I hold at that time. When I drop the hand of the Holy Spirit’s and pick up the ego’s hand I’m lost in this world. Walk your path Derek holding the hand that will give you Peace and I will take my own advice and do the same.

Be kind and loving to yourself, you are a beautiful person

2:03 PM  
Anonymous derek said...

I agree with Marian, it is an addiction, and we can learn to change our habits. In fact, change is relatively easy. We can and do change our obsessions compulsions and pursuits quite frequently. There are industries and institutions built around such change, such as colleges, and 12-step programs, and self-help programs. What we do not do, however, is understand and accept they are ontologically all the same. In our need to structure and layer the world of illusion to keep its problems insoluble, we assign different absolute values to different activities. There is a vague and rather fluid hierarchy. Thus someone who believes peace comes from drugs, or from money and power is regarded with suspicion and distaste. Someone who believes peace comes from arts and beauty is regarded with more respect. Someone who believes peace comes from family life and childbearing is given great admiration, and those who believe in self-sacrifice and helping others are usually given awe and reverence.
Twelve-step programs exist to help people change their habits away from drugs, gambling, even money. I have not heard of any 12 step programs to help people withdraw from pursuit of the arts. Why? It is a "higher" calling. ("Higher" as in "hierarchy" presumably.) But professional help might be called in where such a dedication interferes with, say family life, which is considered a more important activity. There are definitely no self-help programs to help people rid themselves of dedication to family. That would be considered "un-natural" So it goes up the hierarchy. But if the truth be told -- all these activities are the same in the sense they are all "displacement" activities in which we engage to avoid a profound underlying truth. And if we ever did face it we would realise is not "true" at all, and all this activity was unnecessary and foolish.
Much of our energy is wasted deciding which path to take, which activity to "believe" in and hold dear, and which variation of that path to follow. Once committed we tend to fight for the rightness of what we have chosen, and resist any calls for change, unless we can see or think of a suitable substitute. It is difficult or impossible for someone to give up drugs or gambling because they fear the vacuum they believe will result in their life. It is difficult for me to let go of involvement in the arts because I fear the emptiness which I think would ensue. It is difficult for Marian to leave her son at college because of the sense of loss and separation she believes must follow. As a society we find some of these more natural and acceptable than others... but that's the point. We are not a society. We just think we are. We are not many, just one, and all the complex activities we sructure to ward of the pain of alone-ness are completely unnecessary. As Peggy Lee sang: "Is that all there is?"

Anyway, gotta go. Gotta make money. Amen Shalom.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

I agree, it's all the same thing, be it an identification of yourself as a parent or an identification of yourself as a doctor or an actor or an artist. It's easy to use the free admission pass that these roles offer you without thinking about the fact that for all of us they will end. The parent and spouse may wind up alone, the doctor may wind up a lonely patient in a nursing home....

It's very humbling to think about the day when your ticket of admission will be gone. Best to do it up front, I think.

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Annie D. said...

Can you really think raising God's perfect little children is not more important than making money or making movies?

12:20 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

Hi Annie,

I'm not saying that one activity is more or less important than another. I'm not able to judge that. There could be a filmmaker who creates something so enlightening for so many people that compared to a particular parent, there's no contest.

I'm saying that the sense of self-importance and solidity one gets from ANY role is identical, impermanent, and because it is temporary, illusionary.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Annie D. said...

Some people including me think we have a very clear "role" that is given by God and is our reason for being here temporarily. I don't feel any sense of God the creator in this blog. The writer seems to have lost site of Him and become secular.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Political Umpire said...

Thanks for your comment on my post on the film, Derek. And for a most interesting blogsite!

You obviously have more of a connection with the film than me, but having seen The Thin Red Line and The New World, I would be surprised if Malick's role in the film was not of the first importance.

7:06 AM  


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