Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Film #130: Days of Heaven
A lonely Victorian house stands guard over winding wheat fields. Greys and oranges seep through the torrid air of a Chicago smelting plant. Smothering swarms of hungry grasshoppers attack a newly-birthed harvest. Nighttime fires rampantly run as murder swirls bloody in the Midwestern breeze. A migrant worker gleefully tap-dances away on a dusty springboard. A brother and sister mount a wacky faux ventriloquist act beneath a secluded gazebo. Two lovers snuggle close atop a moving train packed with the destitute and desperate. And, seen from underwater, a body falls face first into a shallow river.
These images--and so very many others--propel Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven into its largely uncontested position as the cinema's premier showcase for the art of color cinematography. Before the film's 1978 release, its Spanish-born cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, had amassed an unimaginably brilliant photographic resume, having contributed painterly hues to films by Francois Truffaut (The Story of Adele H, The Wild Child), Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee, Ny Night at Maud's), Monte Hellman (Cockfighter), Barbet Schoeder (More, General Idi Amin Dada). And, trailing his one collaboration with Malick, this meticulous artisan would shoot glorious Hollywood-centric product for Robert Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart), Alan J. Pakula (Sophie's Choice), and Martin Scorsese (his segment for New York Stories, called "Life Lessons," is that great director's most unsung piece). However, given such wonder amongst his doings, Almendros--who died way too soon in 1992--had an unmatched canvas on which to paint with Days of Heaven.
Malick's regal opus--only his second, after 1974's wry and violent Badlands--is a boldly eloquent study of an accidental, tragic clash between castes. Early on, Richard Gere would hit a career high playing Malick's intrinsically duplicitous working class boy who escapes Chicago lawmen following his accidental murder of a hateful factory boss (Stuart Margolin). With his smudged 13-year-old sister (Linda Manz) and his olive-skinned lover (Brooke Adams) as posse, Gere hops a train bound for the midwest, with survival their only destination. The trio mix with a teeming gaggle of migrant workers taking root as fieldhands on the vast estate of a wealthy wheat baron (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, in his first major role).
As romantic couples are prohibited from employ, Gere convinces Adams to pose as his second sister, and this proves complex when the lonely Shepard--slowly dying from an unnamed disease--falls in love with Adams. This begins a secretive rivalry between Shepard and Gere over Adams' dazed affections, with Shepard's suspicious father figure (the excellent Robert Wilke) constantly casting the hairy eyeball at an oblivious Gere and Adams. Throughout--in a common feature for Malick films--the astonishing Linda Manz dryly narrates this powerful yet subtle melodrama with a sandpaper-thick Chicago accent (she brusquely, endearingly pronounces "fur" as "fuh"). As this spare, deliberately-paced, even documentary-like movie chugs towards its inevitable conclusion, its stirring heartache tears at us (the movie is even potently suspenseful at times, particularly during a zap-tense scene in which Gere and Shepard, deathly suspicious of each other, go duck-hunting with dedicated pointer-dogs in tow).
It's not hyperbole. I can securely assert there's never been anything in cinema like Days of Heaven. Its impossibly wide horizons, juxtaposed with intimate close shots and even detailed macro-photography, make it essential viewing. Regardless of its magnificent Criterion Collection release, if one can see Days of Heaven on the big screen, projected via the warmth of film (as I've been lucky enough to do more than once), they are forthwith advised to do so. Malick is working at genius level here, but Almendros is clearly his closest ally. Valuable second-unit assistance is given from legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, while Ennio Morricone provided a suitably stirring and diverse score (his orchestration of Camille Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals - The Aquarium" over the credits has insured the piece's eternal fame; also, it should be noted that folk legend Leo Kottke's athletic 12-string guitar work provides an upbeat respite). Patricia Norris (The Elephant Man, Scarface, Twin Peaks) crafted the understated and accurate costuming, while production designer Jack Fisk (Raggedy Man, The Thin Red Line, Eraserhead, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) oversaw the movie's unassailable period detail (the locations, not surprisingly, hail from an unspoiled Canada rather than the American midwest).
Even with that mild deception, things are never false, never dull, never wrong in any way here. Malick would net awards for direction in 1978 from the New York Film Critics, the always-reliable National Society of Film Critics, and the Cannes Film Festival, but would be criminally ignored by the inattentive Academy (Almendros took an Oscar for his work, though; meanwhile, Norris, Morricone and the sound design team also got recognized with nominations). I'm thinking that Days of Heaven was a few years ahead of its time and, since the film suffered low box office returns and a unfair pack of tepid critical notices, I wonder if Malick felt he was working so above everybody's heads that he'd do just as well to wait 'til audiences could catch up. The Texas-bred filmmaker went on to disappear into the Paris streets for over twenty years, becoming the J.D. Salinger of the movie world, furtively toiling on unnamed projects and doctoring Hollywood scripts without credit. He'd finally emerge in 1998 with the lyrical WWII epic The Thin Red Line, assuring excited film fans that the man hadn't let time murder his unique voice (in fact, his direction would become even braver with 2005's The New World--still, for my money, the finest film of this decade). These more recent masterworks remind us of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven and its assured place among the mainstays of cinema.