Sunday, 11 March 2012

An Accidental Life

He didn’t mean it.  He couldn’t help it.  He didn’t want to be poor; it was his fate: born to be a no-hoper, a drifter, an impoverished workingman, a fool with a few ideas; all of them bad.  He didn’t mean to kill the foreman; it just happened; he didn’t want to kill the farmer; he was protecting himself, that was all.  Contingency: it is our modern fatalism.  He didn’t mean to do any of these things.  He wanted a home, a settled life, a family who could trust him; he didn’t want to keep running away; always to be defeated by a life too complex to control.  But he is not big enough for this world.  Brains is what he lacks, or so he says; with good brains they would bathe in money, shower in gold coins; do no work at all; this is what he tells them.  Stupidity.  It is his fate; born always to fail.

It is clear how little he understands! 

He wants just the one big chance.  That sack of gold to fall out of a passing plane.  It never comes.  The only aeroplanes he sees are from a flying circus: two Italians eternally playing for laughs by beating each other up; while their aging companion tries to look beautiful.   She belly dances now and then. 

He is always making the wrong decisions, he can’t help it; oh how he tried to change his ways; but he is too nice, too good, too emotional; without that speck of inhumanity to keep him in check; essential in the modern world.  Oh how he wants to be a free man!  He needs the big money, but it is never likely to come; and even if it did would he be wise enough to take it…

Then one day everything changed.

The big money arrived.  And his life became a fairy story.  Can you guess which one?  Ok, I know, you’re busy, and there is too much to read; and you haven’t got the time to think of Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella and the rest.  Oh!  Look at that mad man running out the door… He’s rushing out to buy the Brothers Grimm…. Skoob isn’t just round the corner you know!  Come back!  It’s all right.  It is ok. Ok, ok, you can calm down.  Some water? A tea? You can stop swearing now; I’ll tell you: The Princess and the Pea.  Well not quite.  Although near enough: atop those thick mattresses of luxury and easy living the hard round edge of jealousy was bruising him.  No more work!  Baseball and hunting and mucking about in the water, was all he had to do; and all day long; and late into the night, with wine and never-ending food.  What a life it was.  Heaven!  But there was a price to pay.  A price he couldn’t afford.  For he hadn’t realised that the rich have to earn their living too.

He wanted the money.  Not to hoard it in a dark cellar, or hide it in the attic.  He wasn’t going to invest it in real estate or buy himself some political clout; that world didn’t exist for him.  He didn’t want the money to make him famous.  No.  He wanted something simple - the good life, with its ease and happiness.  But there were certain things he didn’t understand.  You can buy a house, but you may not be happy living in it; you can buy a bed, but you may have to sleep alone.  He hadn’t realised that the rich have their own cares and nagging concerns.  It was something he hadn’t thought about; perhaps didn’t realise was possible, until the day he found himself living in paradise.

This film is too beautiful for a poor man.  Even the first scenes in the steel mill and by the city stream, where women are washing their clothes and bustling about, are too pretty to recreate the poverty of the times, that harsh America of the early 20th century, where men were the machines, and were disposed of accordingly.  The rust brown colours of the women, a stream of contrasting eddies and waves, move us to aesthetics not compassion; and it takes us far away from the injustices of industrial capitalism; the inhumanity of America’s factory life.  

And so it continues, this film a private gallery of stunning photography.  After the first murder there is the escape into the Midwest on a freight train with dozens of others.  We see the bustle of rust brown clothes atop the freight cars against the stillness of the yellows and greens of the passing fields; and the blues and whites of the huge skies.  There is an extraordinarily beautiful shot of a tall thin bridge against that enormous sky: a Paul Klee - a perfectly proportioned construction of geometric shapes against a white canvas tinged with blue.  So beautiful is this film.  It is a palace not a poor man’s hovel.  An enormous building full of fine antiques and stunning architecture; where the few residents are lost amongst its rooms and corridors; and the guests are mere decoration.

Is this the secret the film hides? 

The world is beautiful and immense, and humans, because they are part of nature, share in this beauty and immensity.  But that is all.  They are simply one facet of this natural world; and have no privileges beyond it.  They are just the leaves and petals a tree grows and later discards; letting them float picturesquely across the canvas when the season deems it right.  Both the poor and rich share in this equality.  With no value except their size and colour, and their odd movements: to keep the tones in balance, the weight of the construction in equilibrium; and the overall composition fertile and harmonious.  Nature is a work of art, and we are one of its materials…

We are animals and plants.  We live as they live, and we die in the same way, although sometimes our minds intervene; spoiling the grand design.  But this is not explored; rather it is suggested by the faux-naïve commentary of Linda, Bill’s little sister, that punctuates the film with her wisdom and folk wit.  At the end of the film a swarm of locusts feasts on the land; devastating the fields and symbolising the wreckage of the farmer’s jealousy; that hurricane which has destroyed all the walls and partitions of his once well ordered mind.  He is the raging fire.  And the wrecked fields his burnt out mind.  Man and nature, fact and metaphor, fused into one disharmonious whole.

Earlier we saw the casual labour strip a field of its wheat.  They are so small against the huge skies and the enormous expanse of land, its size reducing them nothing more than tiny beasts.  Are they locusts too?  Insects?  A symbol of our insignificance – specks of dust on the universe’s vast plains?  Is that what the director thinks of us?  That even a flea can be beautiful, if you put it in just the right place…

The farmer, although immensely rich, is a sad and dying man.  He lives alone, and doesn’t have the easy knack with people that could make his life very comfortable.  His house looks like the only one in the state, so vast is his lands.  Sometimes it seems he is the only man in them.  Knowing he has less than a year to live Linda, Abby and Bill feel sorry for him.  What they don’t know is that it is the loneliness that is killing him, separated from the lifeblood of other people by his huge estate. 

The farmer is lonely.

He falls in love with an attractive woman, a seasonal worker on his farm. 

The farmer is also ignorant.

She has a lover, the hothead who kills people by accident, and who looks like a matinee idol – so young and handsome is he.  They love each other.  But they are pretending to be siblings, a camouflage that causes all kinds of problems.  Well, you can imagine, there is no need to tell you.  It was an idea of Bill’s, to stop people asking questions.  It is a very odd idea, and typical of his character: foolish and ill-judged, creating complications that need not have occurred.  It lands him in a fight almost as soon as they arrive on the estate.  Attracting attention, this poor deception will come to obsess the farmer.

This huge and extraordinary land, where humans are reduced to a smattering of insects, is transformed into another factory, as the wheat is harvested.  It is beautiful here, but it is hard work; and there are only short moments of almost frenzied rest – the wild dancing around the open fires.  The camera lingers on them, as it does the scarecrow, the snow topped mountains, the wooden town at the film’s end: this isn’t a story about people so much as how people fit within evolving patterns - of nature and the artist’s canvas. 

Bill suggests an idea.  The farmer is dying, and the prognosis is less than a year.  Abby could marry him, to give him some happiness in his last few months… And later, after nature has reclaimed him, they would live in wealth and luxury.  She doesn’t want to do it, but gradually, under pressure, and the closer attentions of the farmer, whom she likes, she changes her mind.

Money has bought him a woman.  At first this is all she is: a woman.  Little more than a body; for as a person she will not open out to him; will not love him as he loves her.  Abby is not comfortable, is very reserved, and is not free with her emotions and her confidences.  She remains distant.  And always there is an undercurrent of unease, of jealousy – he senses there is something wrong in the relationship between brother and sister.  He keeps seeing signs he cannot quite interpret...  He has his suspicions, his instincts tend towards jealousy; and he sees things, flickers of action that suggest more than brotherly and sisterly love.  But he cannot know for certain; and she makes him so happy!  And slowly her love grows, like the wheat seed we see under the ground, the plant forcing its way to life, through the earth, until breaking the sky’s surface… Abby is now in love with the farmer.  When Bill recognises this he leaves.

For months all four of them were happy!  Linda calls it heaven.  For the rich have found the secret to life: no work.  Months of happiness.  But that pea is still under Bill’s mattress; and he feels it more and more: the farmer is not dying, and his illness seems to have stabilised.  There is nothing they can do, and he so wants Abby back…  They go out hunting together, and there are opportunities to kill the farmer but Bill cannot murder someone in cold blood; he is too human for that.  Slowly, like some disease, Bill’s frustration invades his being.  When the flying circus comes to the estate, and after a few days of fun and slapstick, they take Bill away with them.  This is a strange comedy.  All he ever wanted was the one big chance.  He has it!  But it costs him too much to keep.

The big house, the servants, the expensive furniture, the generations on the walls…  It all looks so inviting; is overwhelming when you first see it.  He wants it so much.  But in the end he has to throw it away.  For he has made yet another mistake: he has mistaken money for happiness.  He may also have done something else: interfered with nature’s fine-tuning.  The suggestion of incest a metaphor for the mind’s mistakes, that so human quality – ideas getting in the way of life, and thus destroying it.  Is that Bill’s problem?  Thinking too much about a world he cannot change he forces it to destroy him…

Then one day he comes back.  The idyll ends.  Again it is by accident.

He has returned to see them, to check no doubt if the farmer is alive, and to find out if Abby still loves him.  He finds everything as he left it.  He talks to Abby about her love, accepts that it is all his fault, and acknowledges their relationship has ended.  He will leave now for good.  It seems this is a turning point.  But their final parting is outside the workers’ accommodation.  It is tender and full of longing, as befits two people still in love.  The farmer sees them from the top of his house, and reads the signs all-wrong.  This is the beginning of his hurricane.  The start of his apocalypse.  The locusts come.  As the workers are smoking them out; the farmer reacts badly to a friendly touch from Bill. He goes crazy and tries to kill him, burning the fields as he goes.  He has created his own furnace, and many acres will now be burnt.  In the morning we see the destruction, and we see the farmer, like some knight after a battle, riding around the ashes and burnt out crops and farm machinery.  He sees Bill… it is the end of all their happiness and joyous life. 

Bill is unlucky.  A more careful and calculating, that is a more successful conman, would have hidden his emotions better, and kept his endearments to himself.  He is too spontaneous and natural, and lost in the moment forgets everyone else around him.  He is too innocent and thus allows the farmer to catch them.  Destroyed by jealousy the farmer can no longer see beyond it: does not notice that Abby’s feelings have changed, cannot grasp that she now loves with him.  Consumed in rage, he does not understand that the rhythms of the two affairs have been transformed, that Bill’s has ebbed while his flows with ever increasing vigour. It is the human in the beast, the mind and its mistakes.  If only… 

But ignorance too is part of nature, the burnt fields a terrible metaphor and a marvellous battlefield.  The fight between the two men is resonant with pathos: it is so pointless - all Bill wanted to do was leave.  Instead he kills the farmer in self-defence; another sort of accident.  Of course no one will believe him.  So is he hunted down like a bird of prey.

(Review of Days of Heaven)

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