Scott: It should be said up front that Days Of Heaven has some of the most beautiful photography in cinema: That first shot of the train crossing the trestle, puffs of black smoke against a blue sky; the gateway to Sam Shepard’s house, which remains perpetually bathed in the heavenly light of “magic hour”; the dark silhouettes of humans against flames during the locust sequence. Many have acknowledged Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s historic achievement in cinematography, but it should be noted also that their images are enhanced greatly by Ennio Morricone’s score, Camile Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival Of The Animals: Aquarium,” and Malick’s overarching quest for the transcendent. Days Of Heaven aspires to a heightened reality that his later work attempted even more strenuously, and the film now seems like an evolutionary leap in his development as a filmmaker. (Granted, he didn’t pick up where he left off until 20 years later.)
During post-production on Days Of Heaven, Malick famously jettisoned much of the dialogue in favor of Linda Manz’s voiceover narration, which carries the same innocent/naif tone as Sissy Spacek’s in Badlands. That alone was a liberating choice, freeing him from having to establish the world of the film through dialogue and over-the-shoulder shots, and letting the story more purely unfold through images. Manz gives the audience information like the “brother-sister” con of Bill and Abby’s relationship and reports of Shepard’s health, but were the voiceover merely connective tissue, the film wouldn’t be such an enigmatic marvel. It’s equally important in offering a kind of coarse, jaundiced, occasionally hilarious, altogether strange perspective on this particular time and place. Her headspace becomes ours.
Tasha: Scott hates talking about “extra-textual” things like the fact that Days Of Heaven started out in a very different form than it ended, and that much of what we see on the screen was reportedly the result of long-term experimenting and problem-solving. But the process that produced Days Of Heaven fascinates me more than the film itself, because so much of the film’s style carried over into Malick’s other movies. The natural lighting was an on-set experiment that frustrated the electrical crew. The storytelling via images, with dialogue kept to a minimum, emerged during editing, and the final result shocked the cast, who had filmed a talky, expressive movie with an elaborately wordy script. The hushed voiceover interpreting the emotions onscreen was, as Scott said, a post-production decision, and Malick had Manz improvise it to boot. Frankly, the extended development, shooting, and editing of Days Of Heaven, which ran ruinously over schedule, sounds like a nightmare for everyone concerned. But all these stylistic choices became part of Malick’s signature style. At times, reading about the film’s production, it looks like something halfway between a Rosetta Stone to Malick’s work and an origin story.
Noel: As long as we’re getting extra-textual, the Malick crewmembers interviewed on Criterion’s Blu-ray debunk the long-touted notion that the bulk of Days Of Heaven was shot at the “magic hour,” as the sun was setting. They do, however, note that Malick was able to suggest perpetual twilight by shooting some key masters in the gloaming, then filling in with insert shots and coverage, often shot quickly, in the exact same locations, without changing the lighting setup. (This technique is often called “the French reverse.”) Some of those Malick confidantes also confess that they were worried the film would turn out too beautiful, and that the artistry would distract from the story. And maybe it did for some folks back in 1978. All I know is that Days Of Heaven is one of those movies I can watch over and over, the same way I can walk through the same wing of a museum again and again.
Matt: At this year’s Ebertfest screening of Days Of Heaven, Haskell Wexler specifically discussed that “French reverse” technique as crucial to capturing the movie’s unique magic-hour look. He also described working with Malick thus: “Terry… he’s a weird guy.”
What I love about the Manz narration is how casual it sounds, and the way it works in counterpoint with Malick’s painterly compositions. Each image looks like it took days to frame and shoot; the entire voiceover track sounds like it was recorded in one take off the top of Manz’s head (which, according to interviews, is basically what happened). It gives the film such a lived-in quality and makes it feel watching someone’s memories.
Nathan: Part of what I love about Days Of Heaven is that it doesn’t upend expectations so much as inhabit a space where expectations, particularly genre expectations, don’t exist. Reduced to its broad outlines, Days Of Heaven sounds a lot like a film noir: A desperate, struggling couple flees a bad scene, posing as siblings so they can live high on the hog once the rich, fatally ill farmer the “sister” marries has died. Narration is a cornerstone of film noir, yet Manz’s narration is the antithesis of the hardboiled, world-weary exhaustion common to the genre. Days Of Heaven’s plot and extensive, almost wall-to-wall use of narration leads audiences down one path, only to swerve dramatically in the opposite direction.
Keith: We’ve covered the style of Days Of Heaven, and it’s hard to start talking about the film anywhere else. So let me ask a question: Does the style overwhelm the characters? For me, it doesn't. We barely hear Bill, Abby, and The Farmer talk, but I felt like I understood who they were by the end of the movie, or at least knew them as well as I needed to know them. Malick occasionally gets accused of dealing with types rather than characters—an accusation that sticks the most to his latest film, To The Wonder, even though there’s a character simply called “The Farmer” in Days Of Heaven. But despite the shortage of dialogue, Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard all give full-bodied performances, often saying more with their eyes than they could with words, and often saying with their eyes what their words try to conceal. And the more I watch this film, the more I feel like Linda Manz’s character (credited as “Linda”) is the central figure. Whatever the conflicts between the three adults, the real tension of the story is between her innocence and the way it interferes with her ability to understand the schemes and desires of the fallen world. There’s the story we see and there’s Linda’s interpretation of that story, which aren’t quite the same. In the gap between the two lies much of Days Of Heaven’s beauty, and its sadness.
Noel: I think Days Of Heaven contrasts well with both To The Wonder and Badlands. In Malick’s first film, the characters are so strange and affected that they almost don’t seem real; in his latest film, they seem so abstract and moody that after a while, I wished they’d stop musing about God and Nature and Love and instead start talking about the best taco stand in town, or what happened on last night’s Mad Men. In Days Of Heaven, though, the characters are in a sweet spot between cartoonishly odd and earnestly navel-gazing. It isn’t hard at all to understand how Bill, Abby, and The Farmer feel, or why they feel it. Their love triangle has a mythic quality, but it also comes across as very down to Earth.
Scott: Malick has never been the type to establish character through over-the-shoulder shots and dialogue, and he’s also never been the type to believe that human experience of any kind can be measured apart from something larger. In Days Of Heaven, that something larger is partly the Industrial Age, which sweeps Bill, Abby, Linda, and other working-class transients up in the quest to find work wherever they can get it, and it’s partly forces that can’t be controlled, like the cancer that threatens The Farmer’s life, the locusts that ravage his crops, or perhaps the way his heart skips a beat as the wind rustles through Abby’s hair. Malick establishes all these relationships in a glancing, elliptical style that some have mistaken for shallow, but I find the love triangle’s simplicity powerful. I think Malick is always thinking about where such relationships fit in the larger context of life and nature itself. I’m struck here by how much Bill’s death is handled like Pocahontas’ death in A New World: The world does not end. Death is natural even when it isn’t a natural death. Life goes on.
THE INDUSTRIAL ERA
Nathan: The U.S. industrial era figures prominently in Days Of Heaven. The film opens with historical photographs from the period, a trope that easily could have come off as lazy, cheap, and derivative of stuffy PBS documentaries. Instead, it registers as lyrical and powerful. Haunting, even. These photographs force us to confront the messy humanity of the people depicted, to see them as suffering souls who loved and lost and lived, rather than as faceless components of a massive historical movement.
Days Of Heaven depicts a nation in flux. The country was moving from an agrarian, farm-based economy to an industrial economy, and shifting gradually from farms to cities. Days Of Heaven depicts an opposite shift: Its characters go from an industrial, urban life to an agrarian existence in golden, heavenly fields ruled by the same cruel dictates of commerce and capitalism as the hellish-looking industrial job Bill flees early in the film. The Farmer seems to be a gentle soul, but his underlings are less kind-hearted, and Days Of Heaven powerfully captures the bond formed by workers united in an everyday struggle. Some of my favorite sequences in Days Of Heaven involve the farm workers blowing off steam and enjoying their hard-won free time. They don’t advance the plot, but they do providing shading and detail to a richly realized universe that’s changing rapidly.
Scott: Appropriate for a film about the industrial era, Days Of Heaven focuses heavily on machines and the human beings who both benefit from them, like The Farmer, and spend their days feeding them. That’s what connects the opening in Chicago, where Bill shovels coals into a fire while fighting with the boss, and the business on the farm, where Abby feeds wheat into a combine while Bill again fights with the boss. It’s plain enough in every locale that workers do not yet have the leverage that might allow for fair wages, better working conditions, and job security, and that’s what sends our trio of Chicagoans westward to look for something else. Malick doesn’t miss any opportunities to dig into the cars, trains, and gadgets of the period, too, and it’s that commitment to detail that brings the film to life. It’s enveloping.
Keith: To expand on Nathan’s point, in some ways the farm feels like an oasis from modernity. They retreat from the hellish furnaces only to find the same philosophies behind them have crept into paradise. They can escape for a bit, but not forever. If it’s ultimately the characters’ deceitfulness that gets them cast out and sent running after The Farmer’s death, it’s also that deceitfulness that allowed them to hang out there in the first place. It’s a respite from the inevitable.
Noel: Let’s also not forget that strange little interlude with the flying circus, which gives a sense of how these people pass the time when they aren’t threshing. I get the feeling that my idea of “idyllic” isn’t the same as Malick’s—after 10 minutes of lying around on a riverbank, I’d be going out of my tree—but I definitely believe Linda when she says how happy they all are. And then that circus arrives, which, if nothing else, allows us to hear Linda’s impression of these fools who fell from the clouds. (The big one hits the little one, the little one falls over… “You couldn’t sort it out.”)
MALICK AS A DIRECTOR
Tasha: I mentioned in the Style conversation thread that I see Days Of Heaven as an origin story for Malick’s work. It wasn’t his debut—it was his second film, after 1973’s Badlands—but it seems to have been the film where he experimented his way toward the stylistic choices he’s stuck with, and gradually refined, throughout the rest of his career: the hushed voiceover, the storytelling through image with minimal dialogue, the lush use of light. Days Of Heaven’s intense closeups of wheat kernels waving on the stalk and locusts chomping away at that wheat are symptomatic of a fascination with the natural world that’s extended throughout his career as well.
But that career was on hold for 20 full years after Days Of Heaven. To this day, John Travolta claims that’s because of him—he says he was cast in the Richard Gere role in Days Of Heaven and had to drop out, and that Malick has repeatedly confirmed to him that it broke Malick’s heart to not be able to make the film with his chosen star, so he lost interest in filmmaking for decades. Malick himself is pretty mum about the whole thing; he famously refuses interviews and keeps his life private. He’s a mystery, which has naturally prompted endless speculation and theorizing. The films, however, suggest a continuity that a simple IMDB timeline doesn’t.
Noel: I’ve read that Gere, like many Malick actors who followed, was upset that so much of his dialogue was cut. I guess I understand where Malick’s casts are coming from, since I’ve heard his scripts are beautifully written, and have actors believing they’re going to be appearing in complex but conventionally comprehensible dramas, with magnificent speeches; then Malick goes in and delivers the “remix” of his films, without ever letting the general public see the original. Part of me hopes that someday those scripts get published, and that some ambitious film scholar might produce the alternate-universe version of the Malick filmography, if only to allow for a greater appreciation of what Malick ultimately produced. Still: Terrence Malick is Terrence Malick. He’s a one-of-a-kind artist. It’s strange that so many actors feel compelled to tell him how he should do his job.
Nathan: Days Of Heaven is also a key film in Malick’s filmography in that it established improvisation as his reigning aesthetic. Malick sees movies as living, breathing organisms, forces of nature that continually mutate and evolve during seemingly every phase of the filmmaking process. For Malick, improvisation is the essence of what he does, not just a tool for creating dialogue or scenes.
“Days Of Heaven is one of those movies I can watch over and over, the same way I can walk through the same wing of a museum again and again.”
Malick has a unique relationship with actors. His film shoots are famously lengthy and involved, so he requires an enormous time commitment from his cast. His collaboration with actors is unusually intense and intimate—it kind of makes sense that he would opt out of filmmaking for two solid decades because he couldn’t get the actor he wanted—even though he throws out a lot of what his actors create. Malick’s actors are seemingly willing to follow him to the ends of the earth to help realize the master’s vision, even if it ultimately means getting cut out of his movies altogether (as has happened to many actors, particularly in A Thin Red Line) or having meaty roles reduced to cameos in editing.
Scott: The idea of Malick being so upset about John Travolta not appearing in Days Of Heaven that he didn’t make another movie for 20 years is delightfully absurd, but it’s true that his relationships with actors have been fraught—just ask Adrien Brody, Christopher Plummer, or Sean Penn. One of the great discoveries Malick made with Days Of Heaven is that characters and relationships could be handled more elliptically, with images, montage, and voiceover narration. But that discovery wasn’t good for actors, who of course prefer scenes that better take advantage of their capabilities. And with that revelation, he not only changed the way he made movies, but forced audiences to recalibrate their notions of what a movie should be.
Tasha: We haven’t really touched on the Biblical aspects of the film: The title seems to come from the King James Version of Deuteronomy 11:21, which references God giving his people a land “that floweth with milk and honey,” so long as they heed his commandments. In exchange for their faith and obedience, he offers them their land and the long life and prosperity to enjoy it, “as the days of heaven upon the earth.” Out of context, both in that partial quote and in Malick’s title, the reference seems to be to Bill, Abby, and Linda’s temporary idyll in this peaceful spot—a virtual heaven compared with the smoky, flaming industrial hell Bill left behind in the city. But other translations of the Bible render the same phrase as something like “as long as the heavens are above the earth”—a promise that God will keep his people safe forever, as long as they follow his laws.
But Bill and Abby sin by lying to The Farmer, and committing adultery after Abby marries him, so they’re cast back out of heaven via some apocalyptic Biblical imagery: a field of flames, a plague of locusts. The marriage plot itself has a Biblical inspiration in Genesis, where Abraham presented his wife Sarah to the king, claiming she was his sister; when the king married her (or planned to, depending on translation/interpretation), God said “Oh hell no,” and the king wound up paying restitution to Abraham, even though the latter was the one who lied. Not exactly how Days Of Heaven ends.
Noel: Malick’s films are rarely thought of as “quotable,” but my wife and I toss around Days Of Heaven lines all the time. The most popular in our household? Linda’s terse “you deserve a medal.”
Also, there are all sorts of fascinating tidbits in the Criterion commentary track, including the info that Days Of Heaven escaped the intense scrutiny of Paramount’s brass in part because the bosses liked Malick’s work and in part because they were distracted by William Friedkin’s boondoggle Sorcerer. The casting director says that she was skeptical about Malick’s choice of Sam Shepard as The Farmer because she thought Shepard was too sexy, which would make Abby’s choice seem clear: rich, good-looking dude, or violent, poor dude?
Scott: I say this often when I write about Terrence Malick movies, but it bears repeating: Their chief value, I think, is in simply reminding us that our lives take place in the larger context of nature and the transcendent. And it isn’t just the gesture itself that’s important, but Malick’s ability to supply image after breathtaking image of humans communing with, and sometimes resisting, the natural world. There are shots in Days Of Heaven so gorgeous that they put in a lump in my throat, and it made me appreciate how far Malick goes out onto the ledge with this and his subsequent efforts. These movies have to be that beautiful, or they would collapse.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the keynote essay on Days Of Heaven’s idiosyncratic narration, and concludes tomorrow with a video essay by Kevin B. Lee and Scott Tobias that examines Malick’s evolving use of voiceover throughout his career.