Noel Murray’s Keynote essay on Days Of Heaven addresses at length the difficulties Terrence Malick had in figuring out how (and whether) to use voiceover narration, before finally arriving at Linda Manz’s extemporized musings—without which the film would be severely impoverished. Manz’s narration solves practical problems, like giving the audience information about the love triangle at the film’s center, but Days Of Heaven now seems like an editing-room crisis that opened up new possibilities for what Malick could do with the form. There’s some carryover in tone between Sissy Spacek’s naïf in Badlands and Manz’s more worldly variation here, but Malick allowed himself the freedom to use narration to broaden perspective and open up the audience to more abstract ideas.
Inspired by this thought, the video above traces Malick’s evolution as a voiceover artist, and the creative ways he’s found to innovate with the form while accommodating the specific needs of each individual film. The fundamental value of Terrence Malick’s films is in how they remind us that everything happens in the larger context of the natural world. The voiceover in Days Of Heaven unshackles the director from the humdrum business of over-the-shoulder shots and melodramatic confrontation, and widens the frame to bigger observations about the period and the astonishing beauty captured by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s cameras. Malick didn’t pick up the thread until he made The Thin Red Line two decades later, but it changed the way he made movies, and changed the way movies could be made.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion concludes here. Don’t miss Monday’s keynote on how Linda Manz’s narration colors Days Of Heaven, and Tuesday’s staff forum on how the film functions as a sort of non-debut origin story for an idiosyncratic director. And next week, we’ll be discussing Peter Bogdanovich’s stealth double-feature Targets.