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Focus on Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven

July 11, 2011  |  3:00pm
Focus on Terrence Malick: <em>Days of Heaven</em>

For all of its claim to slight improvisational moments and location shooting, Badlands on the screen was a tightly scripted, traditionally well-crafted movie. Like a good short story it featured easily identifiable themes and motifs, understandable characters and after some consideration motivations for their choices. Not only that, it worked in a recognizable genre and adhered pretty well to its conventions. Sure, it was artistically daring, but it did so within what was still a fairly recognizable framework. Like a short story in The New Yorker, it’s polished and brilliantly made but not altogether new.

Following its success, Terrence Malick took its lessons to heart and expanded upon its methodology to break free far more from the grounds of traditional American film production. Badlands wasn’t a blockbuster like Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider, but with its small production costs and high artistic merit it immediately put him up there as one of the directors to watch in the still-burgeoning New American Cinema. Paramount’s president Barry Diller in particular took a liking to Badlands and made a deal with Bert Schneider, no longer working with Bob Rafaelson since the dissolution of BBS, for the creation of Malick’s next picture.

Originally titled Stay Hungry (abandoned when Rafaelson took that title for his own film), the movie was to take place almost entirely within a Texas corn plantation in the 1910s. John Travolta was hoped for as a lead but instead it ended up with Richard Gere and a tighter budget, as production was shifted later and later. A combination of delays and the impossibility of working with cinematographer Nestor Alemendros in the United States (due to union rules) moved it into Alberta, Canada and in the fall of 1976 it began its nine week production.

Badlands is a plot-based movie, and while it obviously deviates in many ways from a traditional Hollywood story, it still has an easily recognizable story structure. It’s a movie with murders at its center and its focus is on making sense of them and the characters who committed them. In contrast, Days of Heaven is little about its plot, to the point that its story is de-emphasized so much than many of its key events and motivations are elided entirely.. In many sequences the main action is actually far away from the camera and voice tracks aren’t dubbed in so it’s impossible to know what characters are saying, thus making its story even more oblique. This also makes it much more generic, and one point the movie makes is that the specificities of its melodrama aren’t as important as the world around it.

At its center Days of Heaven features a simple love triangle that could come straight out of a Douglas Sirk movie, and it’s likely that’s one reason Malick’s new title for the film features “heaven.” A farm owner falls in love with one of his workers, but in order for her to stay and marry him he has to take in her “brother” and younger sister. But it turns out the brother is in fact her lover, and when found out the farm owner attempts to kill him and during the fight dies. They’re both hunted down and he’s in turn killed. In an epilogue following this we learn that the wife has inherited the farm owner’s wealth and her “sister” runs away from an attempt at giving her a school education.

The basic story of Days of Heaven, while not irrelevant, isn’t particularly special. There isn’t a deep, driving need to understand these characters like there was in Badlands, meaning that anyone watching the movie for traditional reasons may likely end up disappointed.

Instead of a story and characters, the pleasures of Days of Heaven are twofold, purely audio and visual. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the film is its stunning cinematography. Following the tradition of the French New Wave and other independent American pictures from the ‘70s, director of photography Nestor Almendros rejected artificial lighting as much as he felt he could and the result is a picture that feels like nothing else from the period. Even when he left, Haskell Wexler and an unknown third cinematographer (likely Jacob Brackman) kept the picture’s style consistent and it’s impossible to tell who shot what, even down to the second unit photography.

Because of this what’s remembered are the film’s visuals. The locusts raining down from the skies and the conflagration burning up the fields stick out, not the love triangle. Shots across the corn fields frame the horizon high so that they look like they go on forever, with only a lone farmhouse standing out to disrupt the natural order. The most impressive thing about the photography is that despite its beauty, few shots look like a postcard, instead they look like the actual outdoors. There’s a visceral sense of actually being there on the farm, amongst the corn and the bugs and the buffalo that has rarely been captured since and arguably was never really seen before.

In the audio Days of Heaven is just as much a feast. Perhaps its most memorable tune is the one that wasn’t written for it, Camille Saint-Saens’ haunting tune “The Aquarium” from Carinval of the Animals. It only appears three times in the film, at the beginning, at the end, and when President Wilson passes through on the train, but it makes an indelible impression on the entire movie.

But just as miraculous is the picture’s original score, written by Ennio Morricone after Malick showed him a temp track he’d made using Morricone’s score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. Its title track “Days of Heaven” is fittingly gorgeous and Morricone fills all the spaces left from the absent narrative with sumptuous music, both lyrical and folksy to fit the setting. It’s one of Morricone’s finest achievements and manages to match the beauty of the visuals.

Frequently on top of this music is a largely improvised voiceover track by the young actress Linda Manz. As with Badlands, the voiceover is in no way necessary for the movie’s story. But Badlands’ voiceover is intentionally affectless and withholding. Manz’s voiceover is much more innocent and is less involved in storytelling than in creating a world and inflecting a way of viewing the film’s world.

This is particularly obvious in one of Days of Heaven’s earliest voiceovers, in which Manz describes her version of the biblical apocalypse. This immediately imbues the film with both an apocalyptic tone, one that’s certainly borne out by later events, but also that of an epic. What Manz sees is larger than this small world, and religious overtones are part of turning this small farm story into an epic. Viewed through the expansive visuals, with a fully orchestrated score and with Manz telling us that good and evil, life and death are at stake the story becomes much bigger.

Likewise the ellipses that make up Days of Heaven’s story make more sense when considering this goal of turning a small, country love story into a timeless epic. Most of the specificities that would keep things from becoming mythic are erased and instead there are generalities with the characters and romanticism in the sights and sounds. I would argue that it loses some of Badlands’ depth but in its place Days of Heaven tells a classic story that feels larger than life.

Days of Heaven wasn’t received by critics with nearly the acclaim of Badlands, which isn’t particularly surprising. While earlier Malick pictures intentionally flattened characters, Days of Heaven made this even more extreme such that in almost every scene they’re completely overpowered by the scenery and the music. It’s more likely than not that a person watching the film won’t know a single character’s name when the movie ends. There’s no real passion from the love story and several of its key events, the arrival of a flying circus and the locust swarm, are unmotivated. Critics looking for issues with the famously troubled film, with its set disputes and more than a year of editing, didn’t have to try particularly hard.

They also completely miss the point. Almost no movie offers the same level of purely cinematic enjoyment, recreating the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah as an American myth as large as the southwest it’s supposed to take place in. The simplicity of the story is the point, as are the deus ex machina that at times take control of its plot. Stripping the story bare removes the distance between the audience and the sensual pleasures of the picture.

With Badlands Malick found out how to make a film, but it was with Days of Heaven that he found his mature style, and since then he’s used the same elliptical, minimalist storytelling and improvised scenes in everything he’s done since. That being said, it was also 20 years before the world saw another film by Malick, and he certainly hasn’t been one to repeat himself. Next we’ll take a look at how a pastoral filmmaker who’s worked almost entirely in westerns does with a war movie and what’s known about his life until then.

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