Well hello there, all those that be faithful towards internet news feed. Welcome to the first edition of my new column for Manhattan Digest that I will be calling Netflix’d. Those that have been following my reviews will notice that I’ve mainly been focusing on recent theatrical releases. Thing is, we currently live in a day and age where so many people are getting their entertainment fix from the internet thanks to legitimate sites like Netflix and Hulu. Seeing that people are always asking me for Netflix recommendations (and that I certainly watch Netflix enough to get more than just my money’s worth), I decided I might as well write about some of the more hidden gems that the site carries. For my first entry, I’ll be tackling Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which is one of my favorite films, and a must see for any self-respecting fan of American cinema
Title: Days of Heaven
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Running Time: 94 minutes
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz
Genre: Drama, Period Piece, Surrrealism
Similar To: There Will Be Blood, Citizen Kane, great movies in general
What is the quintessential American movie? It’s a question that has plagued scholars for decades, with vital considerations coming up time and time again. Many would go with Citizen Kane, as it’s not just a powerful spectacle about the power our nation carries, but it’s one of the most important films ever made in terms of cinematic technique. Or, many could also suggest The Godfather as it’s a film so epic and ageless, that it’s subtext about capitalism is so relevant even today. You could even look at recent cinema like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and say that current film makers have a better understanding of America’s roots than ever before. I, however, feel that Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven, is more transcendent and visually striking than any of those aforementioned films.
Set in 1916, the film takes place primarily in the panhandle area of Texas. It follows a trio of drifters, Bill (Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Adams), and his little sister Linda (Manz), who are on the run after Bill accidentally kills his steel mill boss. The protagonists join a large caravan, with Bill and Abby deciding to tell people they are siblings rather than lovers. Eventually they come across a large farm, where they take up jobs from the owner (Shepard) who is only referred to as “the farmer” throughout the film’s running time. We soon discover that the farmer is both dying from illness, as well as infatuated with Abby. Bill and Abby then hatch a plan to have her pose as the farmer’s lover, only so that she may inherit his fortune after he dies.
Of all the great new Hollywood directors, Terrence Malick was the most enigmatic. Keeping much of his personal life private, and rarely responding to interviews, the director almost immediately became seen as a recluse. Also, Malick’s films didn’t adhere to popular American genre conventions (i.e. film noir, westerns) as much as his contemporaries, didn’t have snappy dialogue to them, and featured characters that tended to be social outcasts. These might be the reasons his films aren’t as ingrained into the public conscious as much as films like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon are, but there’s no doubt that his work is just as influential. Days of Heaven was most certainly an ambitious project, especially considering that this was only Malick’s second feature, after having shot his debut feature, Bad Lands just a few years earlier. The film could of easily been a mess (like Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate), but fortunately the script, cinematography, directing and editing all came together in a truly sublime fashion to form a film that remains an unqualified masterpiece.
Right from the film’s start, it’s clear that this is a film about America’s progression during the early part of the 20th century, even if the tone is so different than what we are used to. The film’s opening credits sequence showcases black-and-white photographs of workers, children and architecture from the era, with a rendition of The Aquarium by Saint Sans playing. It’s a haunting start for sure, and the film doesn’t become any less chilly. Regardless of the tension, the film is a perpetual beauty with Malick and his cinematographer Nestor Almendos illuminating the screen with lasting imagery. Malick said the film’s look took influence from the artwork of early 20th century painters like Edward Hopper, and it definitely shows. The film’s look is restrained yet expansive, asking us to view America during a shifting and perplexing period of time.
Still, as evoking the imagery is, it would fall on deaf ears if the story didn’t match. It certainly does though, despite it’s lack of dialogue. The film had a very arduous editing process, with Malick spending three years of his life to make sense of the massive amount of footage that he had shot. Eventually it was decided that much of the film’s shot dialogue scenes would be cut, and instead replaced with narration monologues from Linda Manz’ character. The effect is subtly eerie, as there’s just something so strong in hearing this story told from the point of view of a teenage girl, speaking in a very distinct Chicagoan accent. The film’s last spoken monologue from her is one of the most powerful closing lines I can think of.
Despite it’s surrealism and breaks away from convention, Days of Heaven is also a fairly accessible film too. It has a standard beginning, middle and end, a love story, and it does indeed climax with an exciting action scene that would not be uncommon in most other Hollywood films. Still, the more cinematically-savy people will get the most out of this film, and certainly find much to ponder about in terms of subtext, especially regarding it’s biblical content. Featuring an impeccably shot scene involving locust, a story that mimics Genesis 20, and lighting that often suggest illumination, Days of Heaven certainly seems to be tying godliness to the American dream. While many people have been discussing the religious implications in Tree of Life, I honestly think this earlier Terrance Malick film gives it a run for it’s money.
After Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick would not return to film making for another 20 years. I’ve heard conflicting reasons for why this is the case, with some sources telling me Malick was simply exhausted after the massive editing process, while others have told me that he was unhappy with the way the film was edited. Whatever the case, I feel that this film is likely to stay as his final masterpiece. While films like Tree of Life and The New World are certainly the work of a true visionary, they are ultimately bogged down by his insistence on using experimental and confusing narratives. Days of Heaven, however, is both a spectacle and a truly human work of art that will stay with you for a very long time. This and Bad Lands are enough to give Malick the distinction of being one of the best American film makers, and a most singular artist for the later half of the 20th century.