Monday, June 2, 2014
Reeling Backward: "Days of Heaven" (1978)
Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" may just be one of the most gorgeous films ever made. Some also find it among the most confounding. I acknowledge both the beauty and the resentment.
It was only Malick's second feature film; its reception was such that he would not direct another movie for 20 years, through a consensual unspoken arrangement between himself and Hollywood. It was shot almost entirely in the "golden hour" between dusk and twilight -- actual only about 20 or 25 minutes per day, which must have been a logistical nightmare during production.
The cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, won an Oscar for his efforts, though he was losing his vision and had to leave when the production ran long, so Haskell Wexler actually shot at least half the footage used in the final film. "Days" also earned Academy Award nominations for sound, costumes and the lush musical score by Ennio Morricone, which employs a rather traditional orchestral arrangement of strings and wind instruments that the great Italian usually eschewed.
The look of the film is just mesmerizing. The great sea of wheat fields in 1916 Texas Panhandle (actually Canada) often whisper and whip around in the foreground, while the characters are far away and small to us. When Malick does go in closer, everything has a dreamy, slightly washed-out character of indistinctness.
We feel like we've wandered into a painting. Indeed, you could probably snip any single frame from the movie, blow it up, frame it and put it on a wall in a museum, and it would not look out of place.
The line between cinema and painting has sometimes blurred with a few artists, including Kurosawa and Malick. Malick is famously indecisive as a filmmaker, often re-shooting things many times over or entirely changing around a day's shooting schedule on a moment's notice. He spent nearly three years editing the movie, and finally stumbled upon the idea of having a minor character narrate the entire story, calling the actress back to record bumpkin-ish lines that were largely improvised.
(In fact, as Peter Biskind noted in his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Richard Brooks was given a look at some of the footage from "Days of Heaven" to help him decide whether to cast Richard Gere in his movie, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar." That film went through pre-production, shooting, editing and post-production and was released into theaters while Malick tarried with his film.)
The three main characters remain very remote to the audience, and this is the main reason I think the film isn't nearly as engaging as it could be. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movie re-review of the film, argued that since the young girl Linda (Linda Manz) is the narrator, the audience is experiencing everything at her remove, so the people she's talking about are necessarily at arm's length. To me, that explains what the movie is trying to do but fails to justify the fact that it doesn't really work as a storytelling device.
The plot is pretty simple. A hot-headed young migrant work named Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his boss with a shovel while working in a Chicago factory, so he flees with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and sister Linda down south. To deflect attention from the fact that he and Abby are unmarried, they maintain the fiction that she is actually his other sister.
Given how they canoodle and romp during their their little down time at the farm where they end up, no one is really stupid enough to believe this. Although the rich young farmer (never named and played by Sam Shepard) who owns the spread is ensorceled by her. He offers to let her stay on during the off-season, and Bill overhears a doctor telling the farmer he has a year or less to live due to some mysterious illness. They hatch a scheme to marry Abby off to the farmer so she can inherit his rich 20,000 acres.
This goes well enough, except for two problems: Abby eventually comes to genuinely care for the quiet, decent man, and he manages to retain his vigorous health for the most part. Bill leaves in a huff, angry at himself for using the woman he loved so poorly. He later returns, and tragedy soon follows in his wake, some of it almost Biblical in aspect.
Everyone looks so impossibly young and fresh-faced. Adams had an ethereal beauty, with big eyes and a small downturned mouth, and seemed like she could belong to whatever era she was portraying. Shepard and Gere wear contemporary hairstyles parted in the middle, which I think was intentionally incongruous. Their smooth faces are contrasted with the foremen at the factory and on the farm, who serve as villains with their creased, pock-marked visages.
I loved watching "Days of Heaven," but in the sort of way one admires an arresting landscape. You never really tire of looking at it, but any meaning or narrative you must impose on it yourself. Paintings often tell a story, but only a tiny snippet of one. We must imagine what came before and after ourselves.