Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Days of Heaven is a poetic and dream-like film. It has Biblical undercurrents in its plot, as the main characters go on a transformative journey from a hellish Chicago factory to a paradise of endless land and sky in the panhandle of Texas. The central character Bill (Richard Gere) has committed a crime and along with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister (Linda Manz) they flee the city for the open fields of America where they find work on the harvest on the land of a wealthy farmer played by Sam Shepard. In the end, a swarm of locusts leads to a tragic conclusion where the images are consumed by flames.

Days of Heaven came out in 1978, and was the second work by Terence Malick. He made Badlands in the early 70s and after Days of Heaven he would not make another film for 20 years until The Thin Red Line in 1998. His fourth film The New World was released in 2005. 

All of Malick's work has a pastoral, humanist, and transcendental quality with an emphasis on image and music. The story is told through visuals, with minimal dialogue. All of his films use a voice-over narration by one or more of the characters to move and comment on the story. The music adds a spiritual and emotional quality to the cinematic experience. 

There is a dark edge to the films as well as they show human suffering and the inequality of the social order in the worlds they depict. Malick's films show the people in power, and those who have little or nothing, and the conflict that arises from this imbalance. 

Days of Heaven has amazing cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. They photograph America as a strange and beautiful place. It takes place in the early 20th Century and has a silent film quality. The landscape becomes a dominant character. It is larger than the people in the film.

Malick and Almendros didn't use studio lighting much and modeled Days of Heaven after silent films that used natural light. They were inspired by painters such as Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. A lot of the film is shot during the magic hour - in the 20-25 minutes between sunset and total darkness. In the incredible apocalyptic locusts scene, this lighting style creates haunting silouhettes of man against the horizon.

The production was not rigidly prepared and allowed for improvisation. Malick shot tons of footage and put the film together in the editing room. Often dialogue sequences hit the cutting room floor, replaced by long held shots of nature. There are shots of wheat fields swaying in the breeze under storm clouds. He begins scenes in the middle of a tracking shot and ends with cuts to black or dissolves causing a floating in and out feeling that contributes to the dreamlike quality of the film. The voice-over narration ties the elements of the film together without being too literal.

Linda Manz does the voice-over in Days of Heaven as Sissy Spacek did in Badlands. Manz was a non-actor who had a natural presence. She never seems to be acting, playing, or forcing her reactions. She talks about God and Satan, the value of people, and the coming of the apocalypse. Her words are full of wonder and cynicism, but there is a detachment as well. Her commentary portrays the world through the eyes of an innocent, which creates a distance between what we see and her character's perception of what's going on around her. 

Ennio Morricone's soundtrack is dark and foreboding. It is haunting and adds to the timelessness of the film.

In his last film, The New World, the last 20 minutes are transcendent as the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold is put against a montage of natural images. Malick creates hypnotic experiences with his use of music and image.

Terence Malick's films are unique because they put a visual and aural emphasis on a vast natural world that would just be a backdrop for most filmmakers. Man is just a small part of a world full of life and death. Days of Heaven is a beautiful, strange, and haunting cinematic experience. 

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