There is nothing quite like that moment when the lights go down and all our hopes are concentrated on the screen . . . .
That's it. An unfathomable optimism takes hold with each new movie; this is the one that will move us, mark us, bring us back over and over. And sometimes it does. More often than you'd think, less often than you hope. And when we can't have that first moment again, we drag others off to have it, so we can scan their faces and wait for their laughter or for the tears that came so shamelessly to us.
What movie could I give you as a present that would make most of these explanations superfluous? It used to be simple: I'd say "Children of Paradise" and it had it all--every one of those overheated poster words--passion, spectacle, drama, tragedy, life. And it was French.
But I'm irrevocably American, and I've spent too long in the era of the great color movies, so my gift to you would be Terence Malick's "Days of Heaven," which holds fate and apocalypse, a magical evocation of our American past and doomed lost love within its boundaries.
It's a voluptuary's history lesson: a flash of that film in memory and you think of a crystal wineglass at the bottom of a clear, blue stream, nosed at by an inquisitive fish; a plague of locusts, caught first as one single insect, horribly out of place in a kitchen mixing bowl; the firefly sparks of a blaze rampaging through a wheat field and the red-hot blast from a Chicago smelting furnace.
Think what film can do--"Days of Heaven" does it: that converging of literature, painting, photography, dance and music. This film holds an almost Thoreau-like feeling for the seasons; a painterly feel that is like Edward Hopper's for the land and for solitude, for the harvest and for the indolence of summer. There is a Jacob Riis quality to its photographs of these migrants of 1916, and when Hamlin Garland wrote "Boy Life on the Prairie" in 1899 and told about the "Troops of nomads who swept over the country at harvest time," Malick and his artists put them before us.
"They told of the city," Garland wrote, " . . . they were scarred with battles. They came from the far-away and unknown and passed on to the north, mysterious, leaving the people of Sun Prairie quite as ignorant of their real names and characters as upon the first day of their coming."
A great film can give you all of that, especially the mystery, and it can shift your point of view from the almost microscopic (a seed pushing its way above ground) to the celestial, to suggest the unity of both. Perhaps not all films, but "Days of Heaven," can and does. And it pulses with a real romantic's ardor.
Of course, this is just my choice. I'm sure you have your own--one that for whatever reason makes a theater full of people disappear until it's only you, connected to that screen, coming out of a daze when the lights go up. And each person's special movie is a secret password and a Rorschach test and a dead giveaway.
A devil's advocate may well ask: What is all this passion for a movie made 10 years ago? Have you been asleep since then?
Wouldn't you call "The Last Emperor" more spectacular, more full of that "only in the movies" awe? Maybe, for some. It's too precision tooled for me; I can find no heartbeat below those acres of embroidered silks. Wouldn't "Broadcast News" be more fun? You bet. But, for me, the great memories need a sense of loss.
Then for heaven's sake, take a great American Western if you want all that--take something like "Ride the High Country." Ah, but you forget, I need what Mr. Thurber used to call that man-woman thing.
Well, why not "Jules and Jim"? Why not indeed? For a very long time it seemed the epitome of movie-making to me, and you might notice that Brooke Adams, the woman at the apex of "Days of Heaven's" triangle, was an American Moreau with every bit of her unpredictability and sullen seductiveness intact.
And yet, for all reasons, "Days of Heaven" remains my summing-up film. And if you'd like to know what I'd like for Christmas, you might find Terence Malick and send him back--for all of us. We miss him, deeply.