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Terrence Malick's Masterpiece About How Human Nature Consumes Our Rationality Gets The Criterion Treatment
on October 23, 2007
Terrence Malick is one of the greatest filmmakers alive, and after Sergio Leone he is my second favorite director of all time. In his career that spans almost 40 years he has only made four feature length films. What I love about Malick's films is that they are poetry; they break all the conventions of filmmaking. When you sit down to watch a Terrence Malick film you are readying yourself for an experience. The way he examines human nature in every single one of his films is extraordinary. Every one of his films also deals with man's impact on nature and he slowly erases the lines between sanity and insanity. His directorial debut was with Badlands starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek; a haunting story of lovers on the run from the law. His next film is still undoubtedly one of the most moving pieces of cinema ever created, Days Of Heaven.
Days Of Heaven tells the story of Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams); two young people in love trying to make ends meet and find work. The two go around pretending to be brother and sister as to protect themselves from the outside world. At the beginning of the film Bill gets in a tussle at the steel mill and accidentally kills his boss. Now Bill, Abby and Linda (Linda Manz) hop a train to go work on a farm to harvest wheat. The story is told through Linda's perspective. Linda is the real sister of Bill and she is barely a teenager. It's interesting that Malick lets the story unfold through the eyes of an innocent child; I think it gives complex situations in the film a simpler point of view. As the story unfolds and they work on the farm Bill finds out that the owner of the farm is dying of a terminal illness. The farmer is played by Sam Shepard in his first major role. Bill hatches a plan for Abby to get the farmer to fall in love with her. That way when he dies he will leave all his assets to her and they will become rich. As can be imagined after a full year passes the farmer is still alive and tensions begin to grow that leads to an inevitable climax.
The number one aspect of this film that garners so much attention is the cinematography. The story goes that Nestor Almendros started the picture but about a fourth of the way through he had to leave due to a prior commitment. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler came in and shot the rest of the picture according to Almendros's standards, but in the end didn't receive any credit on the film. Almendros went on to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography that year. All quarrels aside one can't deny the brilliance of the film's photography. Every frame is crafted with absolute detail that in some cases will give you goose-bumps. They shot most of the film during "magic hour"; that twilight period right before the sun sets. It creates a perfect backlight that if framed correctly can create haunting silhouettes. It seems as if there is always a ring of fire on the horizon that is slowly getting closer, which it in fact does. During the scene of the locust plague a lantern breaks in the wheat fields and the entire farm erupts into flames. It symbolizes rage in the characters as tensions mount, but I don't want to spoil anything for those who want to experience the film for the first time. All in all this film is a visual feast that will stay in your mind's eye.
Since the film is extremely light on dialogue it relies on two major elements. Cinematography being the first thing I discussed and Ennio Morricone's score being the second. Morricone's incredibly dark and foreboding score is a haunting masterpiece. It underscores the human conflicts being depicted in the film and of course has tragedy spelled out plain and simple with the tone right from the beginning. The first time I saw the film I cried because of the subtle power of this Oscar nominated score. The haunting elements of it will resonate with you for quite some time, and honestly this score is the major source of emotion in the film. It accentuates Malick's themes perfectly.
So, what is this film ultimately about? One could spend all their time writing about a Terrence Malick film and every word could be wrong and right at the same time. His films need to be experienced, because it is absolutely impossible to try to describe how his films affect you. In my head I saw this film as an exploration of love and how human nature is a flaw that can allow our emotions to consume our rational side. If you've seen The Thin Red Line, Badlands or The New World then you should have a good idea of what Days Of Heaven will be like. It's a surprisingly short film at only 94 minutes, especially if you compare how long his last two films were. Thanks for sticking with me for this entire review/analysis. I really like to do more than the average critique when it comes to important films like this.
Since Terrance Malick is the most elusive filmmaker ever (not a single interview ever?) the commentary track features editor Bill Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden. This is a fascinating track that really delves into just how much detail can be found in every single frame of the movie; a must for film enthusiasts.
Audio Interview With Richard Gere:
An interview conducted in 2007 just for this release. Richard Gere examines how he came to doing the movie. He discusses how he really wasn't into film but rather theater. However, he saw Badlands and was immediately interested if Terrence Malick was directing. He does ramble a bit, but he does offer some insight. The fact that it's a 22 minute audio interview set to stills and footage of the movie makes it kind of a bore to sit through.
Video Interview With Sam Shepherd:
This 12 minute interview from 2002 is an interesting look at how Malick got Shepherd into acting. He talks about how he was more into writing at the time, but he decided to do it just for the hell of it.
Video Interview With John Bailey:
Bailey was Nestor Almendros's camera operator and this is by far the most interesting interview on the DVD. It's a 20 minute interview and it is incredibly in depth. He uses a lot of lingo that may go over the head of casual viewers. He explains in detail all the techniques they used and it really opens up a lot. It's a really fascinating interview that uses visual examples throughout as he talks.
Video Interview With Haskell Wexler:
Wexler was the cinematographer who took over for Almendros and in the end received no credit for his work on the film. In this 11 minute interview he explains his relationship with Malick and how he came to take over for Almendros. It's a great first hand account from the man himself.
The booklet contains an essay by Adrian Martin and a chapter from Nestor Almendros's autobiography.
When you buy a Criterion DVD you are paying for perfection. This remastered version was supervised and approved by Terrence Malick. The original 1.78:1 aspect ratio is maintained exactly with absolutely zero flaws in the transfer. The new high definition transfer was created from a new 35mm interpositive struck from the 35mm A/B roll original negative. Thousands of instances of dirt and scratches were removed and the resolution is magnificent because they mastered the DVD at the highest bit rate possible. I just wonder when Criterion is going to make the move to Blu-ray?
A brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track was created for this release. The old track was tossed and this new track was remastered at 24-bits from the original 4.1 magnetic tracks. Every effort possible was implemented to reduce clicks, hiss and crackle. This is fantastic, I love Criterion so much.
Days Of Heaven is one of my favorite films of all time and I certainly think it's Malick's best. The film will overwhelm you with its visual power and you certainly won't forget it. Criterion has done a great service by remastering this film and I can only hope that Malick's other films will eventually get the same treatment.