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In Memoriam: Linda Manz (1961-2020)

Linda Manz in 'Days of Heaven' (Terrence Malick, 1978)


Days of Heaven (1978) opens with a cavalcade of the real: a series of black and white photographs, taken by several turn of the 20th century American photographers; the likes of Lewis Hine and Frances Benjamin Johnson, who, regardless of whether they were working from an explicitly political purpose or aimed at the tourist trade, when taken together unfurl a realist tapestry of American urban existence, fin de siècle. The sequence finishes with a simulacrum: the image of a girl huddled on the pavement, looking a little worse for wear, treating the lens to a thousand-yard stare. The texture of the image and the look of the girl seem to be of a piece with everything we have seen prior, even though the portrait is actually contemporary, taken by on-set photographer Edie Baskin. The subject is the actor Linda Manz, dressed up in her role as Linda, the youngest member of a makeshift family of three runaways, with Richard Gere as her hot headed and desperate older brother Bill and Brooke Adams as his sweetheart Abby, disguised as their sister; a deception that will be the root of their newfound luck and later, ruin.

According to the film’s original conception and her role as we see it on-screen, Linda is a more of a supporting character, with the narrative focused on the love triangle between Bill, Abby and a terminally ill, as well as terminally lonely, young farmer (Sam Shepherd); at first their employer, but after falling for Abby he takes her and her ‘siblings’ into his home. Yet through the film’s narration, over which she has the sole reins, Manz transcends her original role or even that of a straightforward dissembler.

Born in 1961 and raised by a single, hearing impaired mother in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Manz made her acting debut in Days of Heaven and at once cemented her unique presence and persona, with her thick, blue-collar New York timbre and sharp and hard features on a moon face. Her attitude is resilient and mischievous, stemming from both a punk and a kid’s natural Dadaist tendencies. In films like Days of Heaven and Out of the Blue, her two starring roles, she plays characters with this toughness but also a perceptiveness and a vulnerability that feels performed but also consistently lived in and honed by the fires of experience and hardship. How she chanced upon the role has been semi-mythised by director Terrence Malick, who, in a rare interview in 1979, claimed that she was “a street child…discovered in a laundromat.” It’s only half the truth, for though she is from a working-class background and spent more of her time out of school than in it, she was actually discovered as a student at a showbiz academy, where she was enrolled by her mother. She hoped that it would keep her daughter out of trouble while fulfilling an ambition to be a star mother. Manz herself has said she was indifferent to such aspirations, but went along with it anyway.

Regardless of her own hopes and Malick’s original designs, she would transform the film. The story goes that Malick, stumped after nearly two years of editing, was struck by inspiration. He decided to take a film that, as it stood, bordered on the monosyllabic, and give it the gift of the gab by having Manz come in to improvise a narration, reacting to the events of the film or using it as a springboard for other speculations and imaginings, all the while staying in character—with only a blurred separation from her real self. Not only does she fill in or make clear the narrative but rewrites it while expanding the world and flavour of the film. The film’s opening sequence—where Bill signs off from his job as a foundry labourer by braining his foreman and the makeshift family flee by steam from Chicago to the Texas panhandle—is a synecdoche of the function and idiosyncrasies of Manz’ aural presence. We see Manz, as Linda, crafting paper butterflies when her narration begins with a recollection of their life prior in Chicago, a description of living down and out that rhymes with some of the opening photographs. She tells of how they used to “roam the streets,” seeing “people suffering from pain and hunger;” a state of total dereliction and hopelessness that caps off with the grotesque image of people “lying with tongues hanging out of their mouths” like dead livestock piled up at an abattoir.

After a brief interlude we return to her crafting and storytelling. She runs a tangent away from bone deep poverty, to say that he (presumably her brother) “used to juggle. He used to amuse us,” before returning to the story at hand, to their getaway. She says, “in fact, all three of us have been doing things, going on adventures,” as the, by one turn jubilant, by others ominous fingerpicking of ‘Enderlin’, a tune by the great American primitivist guitarist Leo Kottke, stirs and we see the trio hop on a freight heading south. As they tear through vast open land, over bridges and through fields, surrounded by other weary and fortune-hungry souls, the narration continues. Linda explains that Abby is passing as their sister. It was Richard’s idea, with his reckoning being that they could hide his fugitive status and dodge rumour by further obfuscating their identity. “You know how people are. You tell ‘em somethin’. They start talkin’.” But then she digresses again, talking about a mad seer called Ding Dong, who we never see but of whom she tells us that he preaches an apocalyptic vision, that “the whole world is goin’ up in flames’. There’s gonna be creatures runnin’ every which way, some of them burned, half their wings burnin’. People are gonna be screamin’ and hollerin’ for help.” Out of this inferno, the good people will be sent to heaven while the bad will go to damnation, or as Ding Dong, via Linda, puts it, “but if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear you. He don’t even hear you talkin’.”

In this sequence we see how she clarifies the plot using colloquial terms and to a free-from structure, rather than with a rigid and formal locution. She is prone to tangents and her interpretation, in keeping with her personality, switches or combines registers from realist to bemused, from serious to humorous and even surrealist. All the while she is exceptionally perceptive about other people’s thoughts and feelings. For instance, Bill’s deep, often destructive, insecurities, as a man who never had much of a chance at attaining stature as convention defines and measures it, are described with, “He was tired of livin’ like the rest of them. Always nosin’ round like a pig in the gutter. He wasn’t in the mood no more. He figured there must be somethin’ wrong with ‘em—the way they always got no luck—and they oughta get it straightened out.” She seems to be particularly fixated on The Farmer. Treating this frail figure who is tragic and yet somewhat absurd, masochistic and, despite his pains, very privileged, with a combination of sympathy, mockery and pragmatism. Voicing a teasing yet appreciative sentiment in one breath, “You’d give him a flower, he’d keep it forever,” and a flat, matter of fact “He was headed for the boneyard in any minute…” in the next.

She also expands the film’s purview. Ding Dong’s divinations and later her descriptions of phantoms or otherwise half-glimpsed and potentially dubious acts that she imagines lining the banks of the river down which she, Bill and Abby later abscond, push the film into the terrain and atmosphere of the southern gothic and skirt the edges of magical realism. In moments such as these, and in her more straightforward explanations, Manz is like a working-class wunderkind version of the magic lantern impresario or the benshi, a tradition in Japanese silent cinema of a performer who, located by the screen, would provide running clarification and dialogue. Their commentary was not only self-authored but could circumvent the on-screen narrative, often openly contradicting the action and intertitles on-screen. The sonic plane therefore becomes less supportive and more actively expressive. The same goes for Linda, who not only assists in relaying the film’s narrative and space, but, in letting her thoughts run wild in a mix of genuine and performed world-weariness, rewrites the film to the dictates of the mind of a child of her age, disposition and experience. Prone to untampered imaginative leaps while also being forced by reality to stumble into great insights.

This quality, that we are getting a peek into a person’s consciousness more than just a guide to a film, reaches a peak in a moment where, apropos of nothing in particular on screen, Linda states that, “sometimes I’d feel very old, like my whole life is over, like I’m not around no more.” It is a sign of things to come, in terms of Malick’s approach to voice. He had used narration before. His debut, Badlands (1973), has voiceover written by Malick and beautifully performed by Sissy Spacek. And yet it is more conventional, sticking closely to the events on-screen. After Days of Heaven and his resurfacing, Malick would increasingly explore the use of voice, as an autonomous element and avenue for expressing a character’s consciousness and unconsciousness, their emotional and spiritual state, while also exploring more minimal, or outright effacing, approaches to narrative and characterization. Though he would eventually take it to heights and effects more abstract and polyphonic, Manz is at the root of these future experimentations.

Manz, however, is not exclusively a creature of the acousmêtre. Her place on-screen, as abovementioned, is on the periphery but still is important and compelling. True to her being an instinctive rather than a heavily trained or technical performer, as well as Malick’s propensity towards filmmaking as catching lightning in a bottle, she does not have many lines nor is she frequently the centre of attention. Rather she is generally seen at the edge of the scene or cut to briefly, getting up to some antic, in little skits that function as breaks in the film’s rhythm. She is almost always engaged in some physical, usually dexterous, activity, from the abovementioned butterfly sewing to plucking a chicken, starting a food fight, cooking, rolling in the fields, pinching and pulling at wheat stalks and clambering over harvesters as the men work. In between or during her gallivanting, you also see her very actively engaged as a sounding board, a John Singer type who talks back. This is mostly in relation to her friend (Jackie Shultz), another street-smart blue-collar kid, a mirror though slightly older with more extroversion and persistent boy troubles. Though also there is a short but critical scene where she asks Abby why she is playing along with this ruse, of pretending to be Bill’s brother in order to bilk The Farmer, despite its moral fuzziness. In response, Abby reveals a sense of her background, and so simply and quickly powerfully fleshes out her character, by telling how her life has been swallowed up by mind-numbing labour. Like so many of Malick’s characters, her motive is flight.

Ultimately though, on-screen, Manz isn’t just a child let loose, to be a free spirit or to blankly react. Her performance is full of specific choices, one of which creates perhaps the film’s most disturbing moment. Near the end, she witnesses Bill trying to outrun a posse, only to get shot and killed. We see him plunging into the water and then both Abby and Linda reacting in horror. Abby’s display of grief is moving but more conventional, as she wails, cradling the body. Linda’s however, is brief but more upsetting. Her limbs suddenly stretch out and flail, not wildly but rigidly, as if a powerful electric shock has suddenly shot up and down her spinal cord. At the same time, she raises her hand to her mouth and then lets it fall again, the action of a fragile and sheltered maid, not the tough, little scamp we have seen throughout the film. Afterwards she seems back to her normal self, but this sudden catabolism, of her motor control and her persona, gives the impression that we have seen a terrible trauma brand itself upon her brain. Quickly sublimated but ready and waiting to periodically plague her for the rest of her days.

Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980)

Manz’ next and final starring role would come two years later, in another film that, in its own fashion, was tore down and reconceived to her advantage. The film is Out of the Blue (1980), an independent Canadian production, filmed in and outside of Vancouver. Though intended for the big screen, its original conception would have fit the bill of your bog standard, straight to TV social issues drama. It was to star Raymond Burr as a child psychologist out to save the soul of a teenage girl (Linda Manz) from the clutches of her overwhelmed, heroin addicted mother (Sharon Farrell) and her unstable, alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper), who is just fresh out of prison. The production hit a snag however only a few days into filming, when Leonard Yakir, the film’s screenwriter and one of its producers, stepping in for the first time as director, quickly proved unable to turn out usable footage.

So, he bowed out and, in order to keep production afloat, Hopper was drafted in his place. Hopper immediately began to radically reassemble the film, rewriting the script based on conversations with Manz and other cast members. As a result, Burr and his character were almost completely excised from the film—in order to keep the private and public funding dependant on casting a well-known Canadian actor, he was kept, but only in two brief, inconsequential scenes—with the focus instead on Manz as Cindy or ‘Cebe’. No longer just an anonymous problem child, she now worships at the altar of Elvis, Johnny Rotten and punk while trying to distract from severe family troubles and small-town inertia. The first half of the film focuses on her: hanging out on her own; with her friends; her relationship with her mother Kathy, played excellently with a frayed nerve obsequiousness by Farrell; and the looming prospect of her father Don, still played by Hopper, returning to civilian life. He has been serving five years for drunkenly causing a horrific traffic accident—the film’s opening scene—which claimed several lives and traumatized Cebe, who was in the passenger seat. The second half of the film focuses mainly on the relationship between Cebe and her father and his inevitable and catastrophic backsliding into his old selfish and noxious ways.

Out of the Blue is, in many ways, a different beast than Days of Heaven. There is no voiceover. It seems to be more thoroughly scripted and its cinematography is more precise with scenes staged and played out according to room canvassing sequence shots. Its world seems a lot smaller and certainly less beautiful—with its dingy honky-tonks and the seagull riddled dump where Don works, to the other film’s country mansion and corner of wheat. Consequently, Manz’ performance is more controlled but still, within these parameters, wonderfully unfettered and based on her acting out stream of consciousness quirks and a rogue’s charm. For instance, after the traumatic prologue, we are introduced to Cebe sitting in the husk of her father’s truck, talking into her namesake, through which she teases other truckers and, in a punk-sprechgesang, pronounces slogans like “subvert normality” and “kill all hippies.” We then get to see how she spends the rest of her time, either checking in on her mother, who works in a deserted diner for her huffy and weak-willed not-quite boyfriend (Eric Allen), or kicking about on her own or with her friends.

Like her on-screen presence in Days of Heaven, Manz’ Cebe is focused on dexterous, strange and solipsistic activities, from saying a mass then burning an effigy to her dearly departed icon Elvis, experimenting with make-up and her drum-kit and guitar, to just wandering about picking at plants and tossing out non-sequiturs: “pretty but not edible.” When out with her friends, she is less inward and more focused on acting as old and confident as possible: refuting a guy who hits on her by matching and then upping his macho assertiveness, complimenting his car, his ass and then chucking one of her drumsticks at him; getting kicked out of a bar that plays ‘cornball music’, she counters the infantilization of being literally picked up and thrown out by treating the exasperated bouncer to a puffed-up chest, a kung-fu stance and a “motherfucker” pronounced with an emphasis indicative of someone for whom swearing is still new and subversive.

This show of grits and guts is close to universal. It is a child’s desire, especially pronounced when they are in their teens and put down, to feel and appear big instead of small. But Hopper and Manz also expertly express it as a manifestation of her confusion surrounding her father, a figure she’s repulsed by—because of the accident, his unreliability, how he bullies her mother and later on, strong intimations of sexual abuse—but to whom she’s also attracted. Her response then is to copy. While bantering with her mother, she gets compared to her father and then soon after, mugs, jokingly aping a wife beater, saying her mother deserves a smack. She browbeats her teddy bear like her father does her mother and later she reacts to a girl she overhears sneering about Don in a way that parallels an earlier scene where Don himself is confronted by the same girl’s father, whose son was killed in the accident. Don refuses to admit any further wrongs and presents himself as a gross pariah, performing a pointedly mocking self-debasement, as he dowses himself with whiskey, before shouting the man down. While Cebe goes for verbal intimidation first, then smudges and paints the girl’s face with ice cream. She even goes as far as donning her father’s leather jacket and cap; an act which, as things in the house are rapidly deteriorating, throws fuel on the fire of Don’s instability.

Like her puppet with its strings cut moment at the end of Days of Heaven, there are times when all this toughness falls away. During moments of extreme stress, Cebe goes mute, curls up and starts sucking her thumb. And then there is one of the film’s most remarkable scenes, when on the eve of his release she and her mother go visit her father in prison. Hopper registers this is a fundamental occasion—a long time coming, both dreaded and hoped for by all involved—by switching from the more distanced combination of tracking and medium shots, to portraying this almost unbearably awkward and intimate reunion as a tightly edited three-way of extreme close-ups. Don and Kathy both waffle, keeping the conversation just above small talk, but then he starts to crack under the intense pressure of Cebe’s gaze. Manz’ performance here suddenly becomes incredibly still and focused, radiating an overwhelmingly clear vulnerability. An expectation of love that she here, in this moment, dares to show. The agony of the rest of the film is that this expectation will not be met. Instead, it will slowly and steadily crumble away.

The Wanderers (Phillip Kaufman, 1979)

Manz’ roles between Days of Heaven and Out of the Blue and before her early retirement are, unfortunately, generally of the dig them up only to bury them variety. Take the year between the release of the two aforementioned films, 1979, and you will find something like Orphan Train (William Graham). A feature length TV production about the Orphan Train Movement, a mid 19th to early 20th century American welfare program which relocated orphaned and homeless children on the east coast to families in the mid-west. It shares a milieu and stretch of time not unlike Days of Heaven and is exactly the kind of movie Out of the Blue could have been but thankfully avoided, a soppy bourgeois drama with Manz badly miscast as a delicate street waif and effacing sidekick to an annoyingly gumptious mock-cockney kid. Dorothy, a CBS sitcom which ran for four episodes and then was promptly cancelled, features her as a supporting player in a creative environment that is polar opposite to the circumstances of her major roles: the studio-bound sitcom, a bathysphere only slightly less determined than a Noh stage. She is an ill-fit for canned laughter and as a street cat among pampered pedigrees, a working-class character conspicuously dropped into a very petit bourgeois coded space.

The one exception from that year is The Wanderers. Directed by Philip Kaufman, and written by him and his wife Rose Kaufman, it is a Panglossian, though ultimately rueful, depiction of life in the Bronx in the early sixties—i.e. the conformist fifties are ending and on the horizon is the summer of love—done in a comic book style. The focus is mostly on the eponymous Italian-American teen gang, though it also features Manz, in a role specifically written for her. She plays Peewee, ‘Terror’s girl’; Terror (Tor Johnson) being the leader of the Fordham Baldies, a cross-cultural gang of skinhead, leather strapped proto-punks who rule The Wanderers’ roost.

The Wanderers could be filed under a loose agglomeration of fifties nostalgia, teenybopper and greaser pictures from the seventies and eighties, such as George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) and Francis Ford Coppola’s two S. E. Hinton adaptations, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (both 1983). Nevertheless, its comedy and social strata—predicated on depicting working class New York life as a melting pot of different races and creeds, of finding solidarity and solving inter-ethnic tensions through duelling stereotypes and a pantomime of conflict—have roots elsewhere: on the stage, in vaudeville, and then on the screen with comedy outfit East Side Kids, later known as The Bowery Boys, the Our Gang shorts, also renamed, as The Little Rascals, and Raoul Walsh’s masterpiece The Bowery (1933). Under Kaufman’s direction, Manz’ more obtuse edges are suppressed, while her persona takes a more exaggerated form, making her the epitome of the New York street squirt. She is cast as the latest in a lineage of zesty and emotional kid-performers, with humour derived from how well she fits the stereotype, the dissonance between her pint size and her fierce bark and how despite the former she is the hulking Terror’s controlling inamorata. By the end of the film, and like in her other two major roles, she loses that control, with Terror and the Baldies shanghaied by the marines and she, her type, abandoned along with a host of other sub and prevailing cultural forms and personages.

Manz too was soon left behind. As the eighties trundled on, the roles began to dry up—according to her, because of competition from other actors and her lack of an agent—and so eventually she quit acting, to live privately or, as she put it, to enjoy “staying home and cooking soup.” She would reappear sporadically throughout the nineties, in small roles and cameos, including David Fincher’s The Game (1997) and cult films like Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997), where her presence is highly symbolic, since the film is dedicated to the sort of mundane weirdness, cock-eyed wisdom and time-killing native to small town or peripheral American life, which was Manz’ knack. But these appearances were too intermittent to amount to a coming out of retirement. Her career as an actor was essentially unsustainable past 1980 because the fact that she managed to wind her way into the movies at all was something of an anomaly, born out of chance and the specific qualities and interests of the two filmmakers who directed her in her best work.

Both Malick and Hopper were odd ducks, even among the other major directors who made up the much worshipped and mythized New Hollywood, which had mavericks to spare. Both worked within the bounds of commercial American filmmaking and yet were tied to its production norms and ethos by just a thread. In Malick’s case, that thread was to be cut with Days of Heaven, which was followed by a few years of wheel spinning, with a project stuck in development hell, and then many more on a sabbatical of his own, until he would re-emerge with The Thin Red Line (1998). Hopper refashioned the thread with Out of the Blue on slightly jerry-rigged and independent terms, as his first directorial effort in the nine years since The Last Movie (1971), one of the most unusual films ever made with big studio money. Both rebels, and at this stage in their careers in particular, interested in depicting rebellion, they saw in Manz a perfect outsider, and, tied by their commitment as social cartographers, an authentic harbinger of the other half’s experience.

For Malick, with all his reputation as an artist with his heads in the clouds, this impulse is evident across all his films. In Days of Heaven, it is declared right off the bat with that opening photomontage. The film that follows not only has its eyes open to the details of a hardscrabble life, of the particular sights, sounds and sweat of industrial labour and itinerant farm work, but also on the ship in the bottle opulence of the new rural gentry and the period’s popular culture, from folk tunes, soft-shoe and travelling vaudevillians to early cinema. All are mixed in with more niche or high-brow art, like Leo Kottke and the impressionistic swirls of Camille Saints-Saens’ Aquarium, along with allusions that could be drawn to the artist Andrew Wyeth, if he painted to magic hour, or the novels of Willa Cather.

Dennis Hopper’s own ethnography is more sustained in his photography, which is not only a collection of famous faces, but studies of places like Harlem, New York and Taos, Mexico per diem, as well as lesser known regions of bohemia. This side of art finds an explicitly outing in Out of the Blue with the sequence where Cebe goes an excursion to a nearby big city. Out on the street she has what seems like an off-the-cuff, documentary encounter with a bizarro Elvis impersonator and witnesses an impromptu boxing match. She eventually makes her way to a punk show—shot also like a semi-documentary—and a heartbreakingly rare moment of unadulterated happiness. Cebe in these scenes is meant to be a bit of a stranger in a stranger land, yet Manz herself fits these situations like a glove and is the ideal chaperone for Hopper’s flânerie.

On the other side of the coin, Malick and Hopper’s distinctly different but similarly unorthodox approaches to direction freed Manz up. As an instinctive performer, Manz fitted perfectly to Malick’s lifelong pursuit to, paraphrasing Olivier Assayas, make what is a heavy artform look and feel light, by subverting the script and letting Manz improvise lines and action, both on and off screen. And though Hopper is definitely using more pre-planned material, his film was built to Manz’ specifications and, according to an interview with Hopper conducted by Robert Morales in 1983, he often directed her performance with specific and minute commands, while the camera was rolling. A method that increasingly became Malick’s own main approach to directing actors.

When all these impulses and Manz met, it led to a personality and creative force that the medium’s combination of artifice and the real made manifest, more intense, but at same time seem unchecked and unvarnished.

Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)