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The argument of ‘Days of Heaven’

February 8, 2010

[Note: This is a cryptic, idiosyncratic attempt to sum up the argument of Terrence Malick’s cryptic, idiosyncratic movie Days of Heaven. It probably won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen the movie, and might not even if you have. Sorry, but I really wanted to avoid spoiling the movie twice over, with information and with pedantry.]

We think that beyond this there is another world, the one we’ll flee to when this one goes up in flames. We peer at it from across the border, looking to get fixed up. We watch it like we watch the fish in an aquarium, dreaming. If only I could come up with one big score. If only I could touch her hair, then everything would be all right. Then I’d carry that magic within me.

But the other world is just as artificial and just as impossible to inhabit. It can’t be traded for. We can try to buy it. We can try to mint what we have into a common currency, but there is no such thing. This only hollows everything out, impoverishes it, helps the fires along.

This side of death, there is no other world. Not the prettified, made-up world of dancing girls. Not the world of Woodrow Wilson’s armies, the world that is finally made safe for democracy. There is no Eden to go back to, no Utopia to aspire to. What happiness there is is in the seams, between things both good and bad, not beyond them. We find it at the end of a hard day, in the calls of animals, in the rush of new sights, and in the release of pain and frustration that comes when we go beat the heck of out some tree.

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