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The 1970s is now remembered as a golden age of director-driven feature filmmaking. Several books have charted the years between Easy Rider and Heaven's Gate, when directors like Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie made 'personal' pictures on relaxed schedules, with little in the way of studio oversight. One of the most individual directors to emerge from this period is Terrence Malick, a Harvard scholar, AFI graduate and screenwriter who directed Badlands in 1973 and then Days of Heaven in 1978. Although it made only a modest commercial impact, Days of Heaven was an immediate critical success and garnered lavish praise and admiration from the filmmaking community. Malick remained a 'hot' director, even after a twenty-year break from directing.
Terrence Malick's films are easily distinguished from those made by his contemporaries, the counterculture directors and the film-school whiz kids. Like Badlands, Days of Heaven tells its story in small impressionist strokes, immersing us in impressive views of nature. The setting is rural Texas in the early 1900s, where itinerant farm laborers work and live under open skies. The world is clean, raw and unforgiving, and Malick lets his story play out with a minimum of dramatic embellishment. When people do talk, we often can't hear what they say; it's not a movie of speeches. Malick instead offers frequent voiceovers from young Linda, observations that advance the plot only tangentially, and add a verbal counterpoint to Néstor Almendros' breathtaking visuals.
The story begins in Chicago, where steel worker Bill (Richard Gere) strikes his foreman (Stuart Margolin) and flees from the law. He travels with his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), although they avoid problems by pretending that Abby is his sister as well. The three join a group of harvesters in the Texas panhandle, working for a wealthy Farmer (Sam Shepard). While keeping the peace with the harvest Foreman (Robert J. Wilke 1), Bill overhears that the Farmer has a serious health problem, and has only a year to live. When the Farmer takes an interest in Abby, Bill formulates a plan. If Abby were to marry their employer, in less than a year they'd all be rich.
Even though it ends in violence, Days of Heaven plays out not as a rural thriller but as a delicate landscape and character study. The laborers have a hard life but the world that surrounds them is vast, clean and stunningly beautiful. A generous shooting schedule gave French cinematographer Néstor Almendros the freedom to experiment with his visuals, shooting scenes without studio lights. Stanley Kubrick made news a couple of years before when he filmed scenes for his Barry Lyndon only by candlelight; Malick and Almendros routinely films in pre-dawn shadow and post-sunset darkness, and comes up with magical-looking footage. The film is photographically organic, eschewing standard Hollywood short cuts. Even the fades are created in the camera, as was done in silent days.
Rather than invent psychological complications for his characters, Malick simply observes their behaviors. We need only see the Farmer start a conversation with Abby to know that he's interested in her. The Farmer has little to say when his Foreman warns him that Billy and Abby are running some kind of con game. Malick communicates the rural pace of living by contrasting days of hard work with weeks of idleness -- life seems to drift by. In this natural setting, relationships cannot be hidden. Linda's poetic voiceovers are the only verbal expression of interior feelings, giving the film a sense of a living diary: "Nothin' to do all day but relax, walk. I'm telling you the rich got it figured out."
A couple of diversionary episodes seem to be included for their own sake, like the visit by the airplane barnstormers. Fiddler extraordinare Doug Kershaw performs by firelight for one memorable scene. When Malick wants to convey the fury of nature, he comes up with a terrific locust invasion and a subsequent fire. The film's visual authenticity elevates this spectacular sequence above the industry standard set by movies like The Good Earth, with their elaborate opticals and tricky montage cutting. Days of Heaven's only trick is to drop loads of almonds and peanut shells from a helicopter. When filmed in reverse, they look like a swarm of locusts taking flight.
Malick's script starts from the observation that life is terrible for some and easy for others, and never imposes a moral on what we see. The downbeat conclusion is treated as a natural consequence, as opposed to the workings of fate or cruel irony. Viewers expecting more focused dramatics may think Days of Heaven remote and muted, but those viewers sensitive to its expressive images will see a much bigger story unfolding. Human struggles and crimes pass and are forgotten, but the land continues.
Criterion's DVD of Days of Heaven presents a luminous enhanced transfer of a film that elicited oohs and ahhs from audiences when first shown in 70mm; we can imagine this title as a highly-desirable candidate for Hi-Def release. The audio has been mixed in 5.1 Dolby, highlighting Ennio Morricone's Oscar-nominated score. Malick is described on the package text as a filmmaker-philosopher, and his collaborators have plenty to say about his quiet but effective filming style. Editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden sit in for a fascinating commentary, describing the film's unusual filming circumstances. Local Hutterite workers erected the impressive farmhouse on location in Canada. The director personally wooed playwright Sam Shepard for the role of the farmer, and young Linda Manz was discovered in a New York casting call.
The most interesting discussion topic is the film's camerawork. Haskell Wexler remembers Terrence Malick's command of film technique and talks about his effort to maintain visual continuity after Néstor Almendros had to leave the production early. The filmmakers remark on the unsympathetic attitude of the Union-mandated Hollywood crew. Many crewmembers simply watched over truckloads of lighting equipment that was never used. A year later, the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Sam Shepard makes an appearance in a 2002 video interview, while Richard Gere's memories are heard as an audio featurette backed with images from the film. A fat insert booklet contains a thoughtful essay by Adrian Martin and an entire chapter from the late Néstor Almendros' autobiography. It's some of the best camera-related writing on the movies to be found. Criterion's disc producer is Kim Hendrickson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Days of Heaven rates:
1. One of the key Hollywood actors that specialized in playing western bad guys, Robert J. Wilke can be seen in dozens of westerns from High Noon to Man of the West, almost always as a heartless killer. Days of Heaven is probably the only film in which he plays a character that cries, a moment that Wilke's fans will surely appreciate.
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