Sunday, October 5, 2014

Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978)

It’s far past time that I write something about what I’ve long considered to be the most beautifully photographed movie ever, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.  Thousands of other people, of course, have already made this assessment.  But when a film is so filled with rhapsodic images, that’s how individuals respond; they rhapsodize, and they do so because the astonishing principal cinematography by the late Néstor Almendros guarantees such a response.  When an audience is quietly presented with one rapturous image after another, the viewer’s perceptions are elevated (or sublimated) to a higher level, at which expressing in words one’s appreciation for a newfound understanding of beauty becomes almost too daunting a task.

There’s a narrative here that I’ll go into later, though it’s best to start with the importance of the images themselves.  Rarely does a director of Hollywood movies choose to let the images do the vast majority of the work.  Silence is expensive unless it’s written into the film itself, as Malick’s sparse screenplay exemplifies.  The long stretches of silent contemplation soothe as much as they unsettle, in order to convey fully the feeling of being alone in the world.  The film follows a group of nomadic migrant workers, whose solitude is palpable even when they’re together, forming a kind of desperate, haphazard community.

The film's cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1992.  His eyesight was already beginning to fail when Days of Heaven was being filmed.  He worked carefully and improvisationally, insisting that the movie incorporate as much natural light as possible.  (Apparently, some of the lighting crew quit the film in frustration because he didn’t give them enough work.)  This technique was inspired by early motion pictures from the silent film era.  Rightly, Almendros won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on Days of Heaven, his first Hollywood feature.

I remember the first time I saw Days of Heaven, on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive about twenty years ago, which was a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience.  I also recall that I was alone in the back of the theater, with only a group of several film students who were sitting together in the middle row of the auditorium.  They applauded when Néstor Almendros’ name appeared on screen during the opening credits.  I took note of that then, and soon after, I understood why.  Days of Heaven is often referred to as a poetic film, and it’s because poetry relies equally on the beauty and strangeness of its imagery to convey its implicit messages.

The movie was filmed on the wide plains of Alberta, Canada, but the landscape is a stand-in for the open wilds of the American midwest just across the border.  No film better captures that landscape and its euphoric aura of boundless autumnal light at harvest time.  Many of the scenes were filmed during “magic hour,” although as Almendros made clear in retrospective interviews, it was never an entire hour.  Most scenes at that time of day, after the sunset and before nightfall, were filmed in about twenty minutes.

Days of Heaven is endearingly narrated by a feisty young girl, Linda (Linda Manz), who’s traveling west by train from Chicago with her older brother and guardian, Bill (Richard Gere), and Bill’s girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams).  Bill got into a fateful skirmish with a foreman at his factory job and had to skip town fast.  To avoid problems on the roads and rails as they seek migrant farm work for a few dollars at a time, Bill and Abby masquerade as brother and sister, too, which ends up causing them trouble with suspicious strangers on more than one occasion.

Deep in the American heartland, they find work as sackers on a sprawling, idyllic wheat farm owned by a handsome young overseer who’s billed only as The Farmer (Sam Shepard).  Eavesdropping on a house doctor’s visit, Bill learns that the farmer is slowly dying from a terminal illness and may be dead within a year.  He convinces Abby, somewhat against her will, to pursue a relationship with the farmer, hoping that within a couple of years, they’ll inherit the farm, house, and a sizable amount of money.  The ruse works, and Abby becomes the farmer’s wife, while Bill and Linda stay to live on the farm as members of Abby’s family, or so the farmer initially thinks.  Before very long, his suspicions grow and turn into anger at the perceived deception and his failing health.

Clearly, Malick’s quietly intelligent screenplay is built on an archetypal story, a love triangle with a revenge subplot.  As often as Malick relies on seemingly formulaic narrative components, each of these instances is handled so distinctively that they belong entirely to this film.  Romantic scenes of the happily married couple riding a sleigh through the snow in winter on the abandoned farm are so precisely picturesque that they become Malick’s own, as do the frantic scenes of a plague of insects that invades the wheat crop and destroys the land when the vengeful farmer sets the fields ablaze.

All of this is handled with a fluidity, grace, and immediacy to which most other filmmakers can only aspire.  This sort of classic tale requires classic storytelling, yet what gives Malick’s film its lasting power is how thoroughly it creates its own impressionistic rules.  As audience members we know where all of this is going, but scene after scene still takes us by surprise in some unexpected way.  The emotion intensifies as the pace slackens; then the emotion will suddenly relax as the pace speeds up again.  After the film’s main trio must flee the burnt-out farm and make their way to a boat to escape, the whole tone shifts in a way that’s perfectly sensible and also feels like we’re suddenly in another movie, when in fact we’re just in the final act of this majestically tragic adventure that’s both too beautiful for reality and totally true to life.