Monday, August 16, 2010

Days of Heaven

Originally Written on 10/28/05 at with re-edited content from 12/10/07

After helming his 1973 debut feature, the road crime drama Badlands, Terrence Malick was on his way into becoming one of the most promising directors of his generation. While Badlands wasn't a huge commercial success, the film's elliptical approach to storytelling along with Malick's visual scope was noticed by many. Still, a follow-up was awaited but Malick instead chose to co-write a film The Gravy Train under a pseudonym named David Whitney. Then in 1978, Malick finally re-emerged with his second film called Days of Heaven about young migrant workers fleeing to Texas where a woman falls in love with a dying farmer leaving her boyfriend jealous with his young sister looking on.

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven is set in the early 1900s just before the U.S. goes to World War I. With the basic plot commented through the thoughts and eyes of a young girl, the film revolves as a young trio arrive to Texas from Chicago for work as they seek a gold mine in a dying farmer. Yet with the plan coming into fruition, jealousy, greed, and tragedy comes ahead as the young girl looks on to her own destiny and the people around her. Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, and Robert J. Wilke. Days of Heaven is a visually stunning, enchanting masterpiece from one of American cinema's most poetic and enigmatic film directors.

It's 1916 in Chicago as a young migrant worker named Bill (Richard Gere) has just gotten into words with a factory foreman (Stuart Margolin) where a fight ensues and accidents happen as Bill flees. Taking his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) away from Chicago, the trio flee on a train with a bunch of migrant workers as they head to Texas. Landing onto a nearby farmed own by a reclusive young farmer (Sam Shepard), Bill, Abby, and Linda take jobs working on the farm while not getting near his house. Working under the young farmer's longtime foreman (Robert J. Wilke), Bill would be working for $3 a day with the women while getting into fights with workers of his relationship with Abby where they claim to be siblings.

While trying to steal some medicine for his sister, Bill overhears a conversation between the young farmer and his doctor where the farmer is ill and has a year to live at best. With his harvest of wheat surrounding him that makes him rich, Bill notices the farmer looking at Abby with great interest. Bill has an idea for Abby to hook up with the farmer so they can nab his riches yet Abby doesn't think it's a good idea but goes along.

With the harvest and crop gathering finishing up, the farmer and Abby begin to have a relationship while Linda befriends a young girl (Jackie Shultis) who is upset that her boyfriend has left while she is still working. With the migrant workers leaving after finishing the crop, the farmer asks Abby to stay so she can do some work with him and she does only if Bill and Linda join him.

With the four people living in the farmer's house, it was a joyous time as Abby begins to fall for the farmer as they get married leaving Bill to be jealous. Still, Bill became a good friend to the farmer while Linda loves the atmosphere living in the farm area with the three adults. The farmer's foreman becomes suspicious as he is dismissed until the next spring harvest as he tells Bill he knows something. Yet with Bill waiting for the farmer to die, his patience becomes troubling as the farmer's condition stayed the same. His feelings for Abby are still the same as does her feelings for him while she is also in love with the farmer. Then when a two little planes arrive on the farmer's home, it belong to a trio of Italian circus performers.

Their arrival only brought a brief sense of joy when the farmer finally becomes suspicious of Abby and Bill's affection for each other. Abby fears his behavior as Bill decides to leave for work in Chicago as he leaves with the circus performers. Bill's departure only left the farmer, Abby, and Linda to live a blissful life for a year. Then when the spring harvest crop starts to arrive, Bill makes a return. Plagued with guilt over things, his arrival brings a bad omen filled with insects on the crop, a fire, and tragedy followed upon by tragedy leaving a young Linda to observe the world around her.

For a story as enchanting as Days of Heaven goes, there could've been so many ways for it to be presented. Whether as an epic kind of film about love or a coming-of-age story. Since this came from mind of Terrence Malick, the approach comes off in not just in a very original way but also in its simplicity. Particularly in his narrative style and approach to structure in his screenplay. The first act being the young trio's arrival to the farm crop and the farmer's interest in Abby.

The second act is Abby living with the farmer and Bill's departure. Then there is the third act where everything comes together in a very tragic way that has a bit of irony along with a full development of the characters. Particularly Bill and the farmer where Bill starts off as very hot-headed and the farmer being very quiet and shy. Even during the arrival of locusts and fire, it's somewhat biblical in the way the behaviors of the main characters begin to shift. Then as the film progresses, their behaviors change as Bill feels guilty and is coming to terms with everything while the farmer becomes enraged in his return.

Yet in its narrative style, it's really through the perspective of Linda since her voice-over narration is what drives the film. She is seeing and hearing things about where the characters are as she feels for Abby, Bill, and the farmer in every way. She sees the good in them as well as the bad in them in a line that really sums up everything. The words and dialogue Malick puts into the film isn't just very simple but realistic in its authenticity to the way the characters speak to each other or what they are thinking.

It's one of the key strengths into Malick's creativity as a writer while as a director, he brings an authentic style to the film. Since it's set in the early 1900s, he goes for a distinctive look that almost looks like an old painting from that era while he brings an epic scope to the film with an observant eye to the environment the characters are in with wonderful close-ups on some scenes or moving the camera feet away for the character.

If there's another way to describe Malick's style of directing, it can be summed up as dreamy. Not in a visual scale but in its tone where the film's title sums up the joy and heavenly feel that the characters feel for each other only to have it shattered by horrible secrets and its aftermath. Malick could've gone and created a situation that would've made the story more conventional but he keeps it real, especially in the tension between the farmer and Bill. It's only conventional when it leads to its tragic consequences while the film's ending is really more about one part of a story ending and another person's story just beginning but that couldn't be told.

What is more surprising that since the film has an epic-like feel to its in terms of visual approach and narrative style. It is done in a very simple way where the movie's running time is 95 minutes. It's really the genius of Malick who used a story that could've been longer but only chose to keep the simple moments.

Helping Malick in the visual department of the film is the late but renowned Cuban cinematographer Nestor Almendros. With some additional work from another great cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, the film's stunning cinematography is lush in its setting. Notably for using sunlight but not showing the sun, particularly during what is called magic hour where it's that time to shoot just before sunset. The shots in the film, notably in its exterior settings is epic and magical in the way the sky is shown along with the atmosphere of the wheat fields. There's an authenticity to every moment and every scene shot, even in the interior settings where it feels like a film in the early 1900s. It's all wonderfully done by Almendros and Wexler.

Helping Malick in the film's presentation is editor Billy Weber who gives a nicely paced, along with nice fading, dissolving cuts that shifts from a scene to scene and helps out in Malick's perspective directing style. Even the sound design of Barry K. Thomas of the film feels very realistic to the times as it helps give the film a sense of authenticity. Longtime art director Jack Fisk with set decorator Robert Gould does a great job in capturing the landscape of the farming, which was done in Alberta, Canada, where he uses the realistic models of cars, gas tanks, and housing designs for the home of the farmer. Even costume designer Patricia Norris does a great job in capturing the look of the costumes that doesn't reveal a lot of colors but colors that matches the atmosphere of the environment as well as the times.

Then there's the film's music that features a wonderful, bouncy early 1900s acoustic guitar style from Leo Kottke that gives the film a bit of a playful feel. Part of the film's soundtrack includes Camille Saint-Saens' Carnival Of The Animals. Yet the main film score of the film is done by one of the greatest film composers of all-time, Ennio Morricone. Sergio Leone's longtime composer brings an elegant, sweeping feel to the film's soundtrack that doesn't just touch its dreamy landscapes but also the sense of drama that isn't overdone. Morricone goes for a simplistic feel while using his talents to create memorable, rich score pieces that gives the film a lot more in terms of its presentation and style.

Finally, there's the film's cast is filled with memorable, small characters like the circus trio performers played by Sahbra Markus, Frenchie Lemond, and Richard Libertini as well as Stuart Margolin as the factory foreman and Jackie Shultis as Linda's friend who appears early in the film and much later towards the end. The most memorable small supporting character is the farm foreman played Robert J. Wilke who is like a father figure to the young farmer while suspecting trouble immediately. Still in terms of casting and performances, the film truly belongs to the four principle actors that not only drive the film but bring the kind of performances that are majestic enough to remember.

Brooke Adams gives an excellent performance as the anguished yet mesmerizing Abby with her natural beauty and her warmth towards the people around her. Adams combined a maternal instinct as well as a loyalty and torment into the scheme that she and Gere planned. When the film and story progresses, she is forced to realize the role that she is playing as in the end amidst the tragedies that occur, she comes to a realization. It's truly Adams' most memorable work to date while she was also good in Alison Anders' Gas, Food, & Lodging, and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone.

The film's most impressive performance is the young Linda Manz, who was only 16 when she made the film. Manz brings an angelic quality to her presence while it's her narration and observant eye that really drives the story. Manz brings a lot of realism and innocence to her role while having great scenes with her counterparts. While she's only done a few movies since including her most recent work in Harmony Korine's Gummo in 1997, it's truly a remarkable performance.

In his acting debut in a film, noted film/play writer Sam Shepard gives an amazing performance as the shy, quiet farmer. Shepard hits all the right emotions and tones for his performance as a man ailing while dealing with loneliness. When his character is forced to go into rage, Shepard doesn't go over the top but knows that he shouldn't be too restrained. The way Shepard shifts his character from one person to another is amazing as he would prove to be great in not just his work as an actor but as a writer including Paris, Texas for Wim Wenders.

Now Richard Gere may be known now as a Hollywood A-list actor with such films as Pretty Woman, American Gigolo, An Officer & a Gentleman, and more recently, Unfaithful, Chicago, and Shall We Dance. Yet, it was this film that is one of the reasons in why Richard Gere is one of the better actors working in Hollywood today. Gere brings a persona that completely isn't the person in real life, a violent, bratty, charismatic kind of man who does everything he can to get a life that he can't have. Then when the film goes into the third act with his return, we see the guilt and caution that he brings as Gere brings in a spectacular performance in how he handles things and deals with mistakes.

***The Following Content is DVD Tidbits written from 10/07-12/10/07 specifically for the Criterion DVD***

The Region 1 DVD of Days of Heaven by Paramount that was released in 1999 and then re-issued with a different cover in 2006. The DVD shown on widescreen that is enhanced for 16x9 TVs was considered a disappointment. Notably for the fact that the film was originally released in 70mm film and the film transfer to DVD wasn't very good on some parts to complement the brilliant cinematography of the late Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. Another problem with the original DVD is the sound. Mixed in Dolby Digital in English for 5.1 and 2.0 Surround sound. Neither are well-mixed as when compared to the French Mono, the French Mono is much louder. The only extra feature in that DVD is a theatrical trailer that is grainy in some parts since it's a very old trailer. It's also misleading to believe that it's a love-triangle when in reality, that's not what the film is about.

For several years as the legend of Terrence Malick has grown through his other films like Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The New World. The cult of Malick for a longtime have been waiting through definitive DVDs of his work while they continue to await possible longer cuts of The Thin Red Line and The New World, the latter which has still been delayed in a rumored three-hour cut. Malick also was part of a list of the 25 films that had to be re-issued into a Criterion-like form on DVD with Days of Heaven as the only film in that list. Well, after years of waiting. Days of Heaven is finally given a DVD treatment it deserves and best of all, it is approved by its creator, Terrence Malick.

The 2007 Criterion Collection DVD version is vastly superior in both image and sound in comparison to the original Paramount DVD. With a new, high-definition transfer supervised by Terrence Malick along with the film's editor Billy Webber and the film's original camera operator John Bailey. The look of the film is richer, fuller, and lively without any moments of grainy footage, scratches, and such to not only complement the gorgeous cinematography of Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. The film is also remixed in a new 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound that blows away the sound work in the original DVD. Presented in the 1:78:1 aspect ratio in the widescreen format for 16x9 TVs, the film is even grander in its presentation and scope as it shows the film in its intended form by Malick and his collaborators.

Three section of special features appear in the Criterion DVD. First is a feature-length audio commentary track from the crew members of the film including two of Malick's frequent collaborators, art director Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber. Along with costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittendon, the commentary recorded in 2007 exclusively for the DVD. The discussion is mostly about the making of the film and their memories where Fisk and Weber talk about Malick's work method. Crittendon talked about the early casting sessions that had John Travolta as Richard Gere's character and Tommy Lee Jones as the farmer. What happened was Travolta couldn't do the film due to scheduling conflict with his show Welcome Back Kotter while Malick wanted someone younger than Jones and opted for Sam Shepard.

Patricia Norris discussed the making of the costumes while showing the Canadians attitude towards American, particularly in the way Malick and cinematographer Nestor Almendros worked. Fisk and Weber went further revealing that Almendros, who is known for his work with Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, had a very different style of creating images that infuriated a lot of the film’s camera crew and such who were used to working in a Hollywood style.

Ennio Morricone is briefly discussed as he was the composer Malick wanted due to his work in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 that they used and asked Morricone to create some music in Italy where the only cue he wrote for a scene specifically was the fire scene while the rest was just pieces he created. Weber revealed that the reason it took two years to edit the film was because Malick wanted to cut out a lot of dialogue to aim for something that was close to silent movies in the early 20th Century. The result of the two-years of editing would make Malick exhausted and then move to France in 1979 where he then, disappeared.

Fisk discusses the production scale where the houses and such made by Hutterrites, a religious group who owned the land but gave permission to use the location for filming in Southern Alberta, Canada. Fisk and Weber also reveal what material did Haskell Wexler shot which were a lot of the film’s interior scenes, the steel mill scene, and a large portion of the film's ending. The reason Wexler was hired because Nestor Almendros only worked for nine weeks and had to leave due to a commitment in shooting a film for Francois Truffaut.

Fisk and Weber did reveal that the film wasn't a commercial hit when it came out while receiving mixed reviews from critics despite praise for the cinematography. What was really surprising was that because it was a $3 million film and it was taking a long time to edit, Paramount didn't pay any attention to what was going on due to other films at the time like Saturday Night Fever and Grease that helped the company while were going over the problems with William Friedkin's The Sorcerer.

The surprising support from Paramount the crew admits was surprising since they liked Malick's films and for the fact that he could make them cheap. The overall commentary is informative and enjoyable with some great humor while the big question they talked about is, where is Terry? Probably watching Zoolander again, this time with Sean Penn and Heath Ledger while reciting many quotes from that film.

The second section of special features is devoted to the actors of the film. While actresses Brooke Adams and Linda Manz don't contribute to the DVD, the more well-known and revered actors Richard Gere and Sam Shepard do make contributions. Richard Gere's 21-minute audio interview recorded exclusively for the DVD is set against many of the film's images, stills, and such. Gere discusses Malick's methods of filmmaking while talking about his own experience since this film was the first he ever made. Gere wanted to do the project because of Badlands and wanting to work with producers Bert and Harold Schneider who had produced landmark films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Gere admits that Malick isn't very good at making decisions during the casting while with actors, he wasn't good at that either because he was still new to filmmaking at the time.

Gere talks about his fellow cast where in Brooke Adams, she was someone he knew and was hired at the last minute when another actress dropped out. Sam Shepard was someone Gere knew as well since he had done a couple of plays by Shepard while the two had a rivalry of sorts for Adams' affection whom they both had a crush on. Linda Manz was brought in as Gere talks about her performance and how Terry worked with her that Gere compared to the way Robert Altman worked with kids. He said the secret is to not tell them what to do. Gere also recalls on the film's cinematography and the work of both Almendros and Wexler and how the traditional Hollywood crew had grumbling on Almendros' unconventional style and Wexler making them feel at ease for a bit. Gere also lets in on a secret about the famous locusts flying scene that he reveals exclusively for the interview.

While Gere admits to his own frustrations at the time, notably in the post-production when a lot of the scenes of dialogue was cut, he understood what Terry aimed for and was very proud of the final film which he considers to be one of his favorite films he’s ever been in.

The 12-minute interview with Sam Shepard recorded in 2002 shows the actor/playwright discussing Malick's methods while giving some of his own analyzation of his own character. He says that Terry's films aren’t meant to be overanalyzed and such while he goes on further on the film's historical setting which he says was in some ways was about the changing times of man and machine. Shepard's discussion is very informative while he shares Gere's frustrations over Malick's approach with acting. Shepard also reveals some of Malick's methods with acting where if a spoiled actor worked with him, it would be terrible. An actor, when it comes to working with Terry, has to be independent and make his own decisions while trying to give Terry what he wants.

The third and final section in the DVD special features is about the film's award-winning cinematography. Featuring two video interviews with the film's camera operator John Bailey and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the two men muse on the film's unconventional cinematography and the late Nestor Almendros. Bailey's 20-minute interview, as he is seen working on the DVD transfer on the film, discusses a lot of the film’s technical moments while revealing that the film was made in the American New Wave style of the early 70s but without its urban look.

Bailey's job as a camera operator was to work under Almendros' instructions since it was the first time Almendros worked with a camera operator. Bailey also reveals the lack of artificial light and grips that were used to convey Almendros' style of photography and Terry's vision. The crew who worked on grips and such were not happy in the style. Bailey's interview is extremely informative and a must-hear for cinematography film buffs.

The 13-minute interview with Haskell Wexler, who filled in when both Almendros and Bailey had to leave due to other commitments. The legendary yet eccentric cinematographer chose the job after seeing some of the footage in the editing room and went to Canada to meet with Malick and Almendros where they were behind schedule and Wexler was used to get things going. Almendros told Wexler to not use any diffusion gauzes, natural light only. Wexler, whose background had been in both documentary and feature-films, had similar visual presentations that Almendros wanted while giving his insight on how he shot and such.

He also channels his frustration over not getting credit by the Academy for Best Cinematography. Though it wasn't anything against Almendros, who he was happy to see won, but wanted to have an Oscar to for his work on that film. It's understandable since he deserves full credit while producer Bert Schneider thought so as well when he told him at a Lakers game.

Accompanying the DVD that includes wonderful packaging for the cover and sleeve is a booklet featuring two essays about the film. The first essay entitled On Earth As It Is In Heaven by Australian senior researcher and Rogue magazine co-editor Adrian Martin of Monash University in Melbourne. Martin's five-page essay discusses the film and Malick's unique perspective on films and philosophy since the man was a Harvard graduate who briefly went to Oxford. Martin tells about his own experience in watching Days of Heaven in its original, 70mm presentation in theaters that was unlike any film at the time in the late 70s. Martin exclaims that part of Malick's philosophy came from Martin Heidegger while his film influences came from Europe, notably Francois Truffaut. He said the actual film in its plot might seen like a typical love triangle between the characters of Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard but what was added is the narration of Linda Manz as Gere's sister.

Martin says it was this film that would reveal Malick's idealism of his filmmaking, while his debut Badlands was more of a genre film of sorts that had an elliptical pacing style and voice-over narration. It was Days of Heaven that would define his filmmaking style that would come later on for The Thin Red Line and The New World. It would be a style Martin claims would influence many directors including Wong Kar-Wai. The film's original script had loads of dialogue but by post-production, Malick got tired of the dialogue and ended up cutting a lot of it into a completely different film though the script provided the basic story. The themes of Malick, notably nature which is something Malick seems to love more than anything. While Martin's essay is informative and insightful, it never gives reason into his 20-year departure that followed. Instead, it chooses to focus on the brilliance and influence of Days of Heaven.

The second essay is an excerpt from Nestor Almendros' 1984 autobiography A Man with a Camera. The chapter entitled Shooting Days of Heaven, Almendros discusses his experience making the film and how he and Malick wanted to push the film stock they had for a look that was unlike anything on film. With Almendros, he turned to the paintings of Vermeer for inspiration where he, like Malick, opted for a natural look with very few artificial lighting equipment. This caused conflict between Almendros and most of the film crew who were used to shooting in a glossy, Hollywood style where Almendros didn't give them much to do. Malick doesn't like blue sky and neither did Truffaut which suited Almendros as he usually did his own camera operating but in this film, he had John Bailey as his operator.

Almendros also talked about the technical pointers on the film, notably the use of the Panaflex camera, which was an early version of the Steadicam since Malick opted for use of hand-held cameras and other types of shots. Almendros worked for 53 days on the film and Haskell Wexler worked for 19 days and Almendros' departure was due to the fact that he was committed to shoot The Man Who Loved Women for Truffaut and Wexler took over after some discussion in which he told Haskell to not use any diffusion gauzes. Almendros talked about the difference between American and European film equipment that reveals more source of the conflict between him and the American crew. The excerpt overall is extremely informative for aspiring cinematographers with technical pointers and such from the late yet renowned cinematographer.

Nearly 30 years since its release that was followed by two feature films, both acclaimed and beloved by Malick's devoted following that included fellow film directors. While it received a mixed reception in 1978 despite praise by some critics and loads of awards including the Best Cinematography Oscar to Nestor Almendros and a Best Director prize to Malick at 1979 Cannes Film Festival. After a 20-year disappearance, Malick released his film adaptation of James Jones' The Thin Red Line that drew rave reviews and in 2005, he released The New World to similar acclaim.

In 2007, Malick announced his upcoming project entitled Tree of Life is set for production in 2008 that will star Sean Penn and Heath Ledger (later replaced by Brad Pitt). Though it's unclear when the film will be released, it will be met with lots of anticipation. Even as Malick’s influence has been noted on many directors including Sofia Coppola, Andrew Dominik, and most of all, protegee David Gordon Green whose 2000 debut film George Washington was inspired by both Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

Nearly 30 years since its release, Days of Heaven is a beautiful, heartbreaking drama from Terrence Malick featuring a superb cast, stunning cinematography, a rich film score, and everything wanted in a beautiful film. While Badlands is a more accessible, this film is the best introduction in terms of Malick's approach to storytelling and narrative. Fans of Sam Shepard and Richard Gere will no doubt find this film to be essential to their work. With the Criterion DVD release, the film is now a must-have for any film buff as well as any diehard fan of Terrence Malick. For a film with great scenery, wonderful plot elements, exquisite narration, and a rich score, Days of Heaven is the film to see.

Terrence Malick Reviews: Badlands - The Thin Red Line - The New World - The Tree of Life - To the Wonder - Knight of Cups - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) - Song to Song - A Hidden Life - (The Way of the Wind)

© thevoid99 2010

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