Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Marx in a Texas Love Triangle: "Marrying Up" and the Classed Gaze in Days of Heaven

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Marx in a Texas Love Triangle: "Marrying Up" and the Classed Gaze in Days of Heaven

Article excerpt

Society is composed of two great classes-those who have more dinners than appetite, and those who have more appetite than dinners.

-Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, 1796

"HE FIGURED SOME PEOPLE NEED MORE THAN THEY GOT, other people got more than they need," says the girl Linda (Linda Manz) in the voice-over for Days of Heaven (1978), relating her adult brother's economic philosophy as if echoing Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort. Taking Chamfort one step further, the brother, Bill (Richard Gere), has the beginnings of a plan, which his sister relates: "just a matter of getting us all together," she finishes, as if somehow, magically, the goods will redistribute themselves equitably once the classes are in proximity. Days of Heaven, written and directed by Terrence Malick, can be approached from many different angles, including its unusual voice-over and its representation of the female gaze, free ranging in youth but constrained as it enters into maturity and heterosexual romance, as I have argued elsewhere.1 In this essay, though, I will explore how the film's narrative is shaped by class, a focus that necessitates a close examination of the relationship between the male characters. Where the construction of femininity is split between the child Linda and the young woman Abby (Brooke Adams) on the axis of age, masculinity is split between the worker Bill and the unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard) on the axis of class. I intend to look up, as does the film, taking the point of view of the disempowered, who shift uneasily in their positions and attempt to escape the specific constraints assigned by the ideology of class, but an ideology that often has implications for gender as well.

Most important, Bill's multiple attempts to establish his gaze test the limits of the persistent assumption that sexual difference is the primary factor in defining specular relations. Masculinity is not enough to guarantee a dominating look in an arena defined by both gender and class, although the psychoanalytic approaches that have been so useful in unpacking the complexities of sexual difference prove as important here as Marxist ones. Notably, it is through the exchange of gazes that the film's class struggle is dramatized-to paraphrase Laura Mulvey, the place of the look defines class in this film, and through the process of varying and exposing the gaze, the film presents the shifts in power between owner and worker as well as Bill's desperate search for a place in which he can have a gaze of his own (25). The multiple, violent containments he suffers at his death, discussed in the essay's last section, reveal the depths to which class hierarchy has been shaken by a single male laborer's challenging look. Bill's resistance in the face of his "betters" allows us to examine the gaze of surveillance from another angle, which in turn reveals a more complex intersection of competing gazes than sexual difference alone can account for. Implicit in this argument is the idea that Days of Heaven, rightly celebrated for its visual splendor but too often dismissed by critics as no more than a visual feast, has theoretical currency, especially in the ongoing dialogue about the gaze.2 Ultimately, the characters in Days of Heaven who are most likely to be dominated through specular relations, whether that domination is defined by gender or class, find any number of ways to disrupt the hierarchy imposed from above, but the crucial tactic is the looking back.

Bill's Gaze and the Division of Narrative Labor

While Linda's gaze scouts out information and her voice-over pursues the concerns of childhood, her narration also introduces in a very direct way her knowledge of the hard labor exacted from the working class.3 As Abby and Bill lug sheaf after sheaf of wheat to throw atop a wagon loaded high with profits for the owner, Linda reports, "From the time the sun went up 'til it went down, they were workin' all the time, workin' nonstop, just keep goin'. …

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