Film and Philosophy

Volume 24, 2020

Fred Rush
Pages 84-97

Sotto voce: Inscription as Voiceover in Malick’s Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick’s widespread use of voiceover is generally noted, as is its nonstandard bearing. Malick’s use of voiceover is non-standard in virtue of its loose narrative fit. That too is often marked. Much less discussed is the philosophical basis for Malick’s voiceover, more specifically its ontological function in bounding the filmworld with intentionality. This paper addresses such ontological questions. It first develops a general schema for voiceover and Malick’s use of it in several of his films. Malick’s discovery of the potential for oblique forms of voiceover in Truffaut is treated. The discussion then focuses on the film Days of Heaven (1978) and, in particular, on an undiscussed and easy to miss visual riddle in one of the key scenes, involving the marriage of two of the principal characters. The riddle concerns an inscription in what for most viewers will be indecipherable symbols written on a backdrop formed by the side of a wagon. It turns out that the inscription is in Blackfoot syllabary and translates the opening of the Te Deum prayer. The paper argues that the inscription is best understood as a cousin to voiceover and, in particular, to Malick’s conception of voiceover. The inscription has, accordingly, an ontological and critical function in conjunction with the scene it accompanies. The paper concludes with remarks concerning The New World (2005), a Malick film that includes several prayers in voiceover and more comprehensively and resolutely represents the linguistic presence and expressiveness of Native Americans.