Billy Blake, the mad leveller, described the characters in his lost painting “Vision of the Last Judgment” as representatives not of mortal persons but of eternal “States.” He said that he had seen these States in his imagination, and that they looked different depending on the distance at which he regarded them. Sometimes they appeared to him as “One Man,” but when approached nearer they appeared as a “Multitude of Nations.” Whitehead expressed a similar sentiment, although with considerably more curbed enthusiasm: “It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.” For both Blake and Whitehead, monism = pluralism.
It seems to me that a similar thought is being presented in the image that closes the climactic mystical sequence. After the reunion at the beach, after the surfacing shots and after the mother bequeaths her son to God, there is a sudden cut to a field of sunflowers, as vividly colored as the slickest ad or Hallmark greeting card.
(I had to stifle a giggle when this image flashed up. It was so heavy handed in its “meaning something other.” I have to believe that the writer and director of Days of Heaven knew how ponderous it was, that he knew how heavy-handed and gravely sodden the whole film was, and could not help it. I have to believe that Malick was at once embarrased by the film and helpless to change it, like the parent of an ungainly and graceless child.)
In any case, the image is pretty much demanded by the thought the film is thinking. Something is left out of the image, but nevertheless presupposed by it. Obviously this is the sun. The sun is a necessary or a priori component to the concept of the heliotrope. Literally, of course, this coupling sun/sunflowers is taken from “nature.” But the film’s allegorical principle immediately “captures” this coupling and turns it into a sign of something else, of something outside the “natural realm.” It should go without saying that this allegorical transformation of significance works by metonymy: we know it is not just a field of sunflowers because of its immediate positional contiguity to the preceding mystical sequence. As it is the last image in that sequence (after which the film cuts to older Jack (Sean Penn) in his concrete and glass jungle), it stands as a kind of summary of the film’s idea of the realm outside nature, history and necessity, the realm we can alternately refer to as the realm of freedom or the messianic realm or the Kingdom of God. In short, the logic of the sequence makes it obvious: the sunflowers represent the human collective redeemed from time, and the sun which they presuppose represents their divine unity. Unlike its natural counterpart, however, the divine sun does not predate the redeemed plurality. Rather, it comes into being as the plurality trope (turn toward) it.