You've probably read that Sean Penn, in an interview with Le Figaro, said this about working with Terrence Malick on "The Tree of Life": "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."
What you probably didn't read was what else he said, which was translated and posted as a comment by Guy Lodge in response to an article at InContention.com headlined "Sean Penn bitch-slaps 'Tree of Life'": "But it's a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It's up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved." (InContention.com followed up with "Penn on Malick, part deux.")
Back in May, the great production designer Jack Fisk, who has known Malick for many years, told Dennis Lim in the New York Times: "I was shocked by how personal the story was when I first read it. But when I watched the film I just think how universal it is." Or, as Richard Brody, who writes "The Front Row" for The New Yorker, aptly quotes Fritz Lang in Godard's "Contempt": "In the script it is written, and on the screen it's pictures."
"Troops of nomads swept over the country at harvest time like a visitation of locusts, reckless young fellows, handsome, profane, licentious, given to drink, powerful but inconstant workmen, quarrelsome and difficult to manage at all times. They came in the season when work was plenty and wages high. They dressed well, in their own peculiar fashion, and made much of their freedom to come and go.
"They told of the city, and sinister and poisonous jungles all cities seemed in their stories. They were scarred with battles. They came from the far-away and unknown, and passed on to the north, mysterious as the flight of locusts, leaving the people of Sun Prairie quite as ignorant of their real names and characters as upon the first day of their coming."
-- Hamlin Garland, "Boy Life on the Prairie" (1899), epigraph for Terrence Malick's screenplay for "Days of Heaven," revised June 2, 1976
At some point in 1976, "Days of Heaven" was a screenplay that contained conventionally discrete scenes, developed exchanges of dialog and a fairly straightforward (melo-)dramatic narrative structure. Principal photography took place that year in the plains of Alberta, Canada (standing in for the Texas panhandle shortly before World War I), and the movie that emerged in 1978, after two years of editing, did away almost all of it. What the movie became -- as everyone couldn't help but notice at the time of its original release -- is a film in which the "background" (nature, the landscape) moves into the foreground and the human characters recede into macrocosmic expanses of earth and sky, and microcosmic observations of flora and fauna. And bugs.
Terrence Malick's vision is reflected in his process, whereby an enormous amount of material -- scripted and unscripted, A-roll and B-roll -- is pared down, peeled back, opened up.¹ Camera operator John Bailey, in an interview on the Criterion Blu-Ray edition of "Days of Heaven," describes how the so-called "second unit" work. The close-ups of animals or plants, or the pastoral images of trees or streams are "very, very inserty-type shots, and yet they have the same kind of dramatic impact" as the spectacular wide shots -- or, for that matter, the scenes involving the lead actors. Some complained about that at the time -- that the film was gorgeous but insufficiently developed as human drama, that characters were cyphers, that the technique was "intolerably artsy" and "artificial."²