Is Days of Heaven a masterpiece? It has been canonized, codified, frozen in amber as such. That’s what happens when you’re Terrence Malick. When you make Badlands – one of the greatest debut features ever made – and then Days of Heaven a couple years later and then fall off the radar for a good twenty years, hell, it’s easy to see why the legend of Terry Mailck is so hard to deal with. Here he casts Richard Gere, Linda Manz and Brooke Adams as tramps that settle on a farm, and come to see Sam Shepherd’s character as a mark they can graft. But the film is so much more than that. My review of The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Days of Heaven after the jump.
What is Days of Heaven? It’s a story about three tramps in the early twentieth century who come to work a wheat field after the male of the group (Richard Gere) accidentally kills a man. He pretends the older girl of the group (Brooke Adams) is his sister even though they seem to be lovers, while the younger girl (Linda Manz) appears to actually be his sister. While harvesting they meet a man (Sam Shepherd) who owns the ranch they’re working on. He develops an attraction for Adams. Gere feels this might not be such a bad thing as he’s heard a doctor say that Shepherd isn’t long for this world. The two marry, but it creates problems in both relationships. Secrets. Mysteries. Gere takes off. Comes back. Locusts arrive. Crops are burned. The fire is also symbolic of the disharmony. A confrontation ensues that leads to tragedy for both men.
From a story point of view, it’s really simple. It’s also short (running 94 minutes, with credits), but it doesn’t feel short. That’s not to say it feels long; it feels lived in. It’s about watching wind whip through wheat. About watching the weather change. It’s about watching the beauty that comes from destruction, and the beauty that comes from a day’s cycle. It is… it is about the ineffable. About beauty. About life.
Does that sound vague? It is. The film must be taken on its own terms, a story narrated by Manz in half-truths and half-nonsense. The narration is key, it’s meant to stomp down the pretensions that can be asserted against the film. Should Malick be faulted for creating a reality so present that it seems alien? In all of Malick’s films, be it from the setting of the 1960’s through to “the new age,” there’s an overwhelming sense of alienation. But the same could be said of Kubrick, or Ophuls in their creations of universes. It’s about engaging the world on more than just a level that is about humans communicating. Though I think it’s fair to say that Rules of the Game was decidedly an influence. It’s easy to obsess over. It’s easy to fall into Days of Heaven and stay there. That is why it’s considered a masterpiece.
And that lighting. It won the academy award for lighting, which is sorta weird because the production decided to shoot much of its stuff at magic hour (often only 20-30 minutes), and involved no actual lighting. The world of cinema is tricky. It involves a lot of things people get credit for that aren’t necessarily of their invention. Is it Malick? Is it DP Nestor Almendros? Print the legend. Print the legend.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release is now the standard to which all great Blu-ray transfers must be judged. This is one of the most beautifully shot films in cinema history, and the new transfer seems based on the previous Criterion remastering, but now that it’s in 1080, it looks that much better. The soundtrack is also now in 5.1 DTS-HD, and again, the improvements are minor here, but the presentation is excellent. The film has long been a masterclass in cinematography, and this is not a disc that disappoints. For someone like me, this is why the format was invented.
Extras include a commentary by editor Bill Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden. It’s an okay track, I wish I could rave about it, but they talk partly from an outside perspective, talk briefly about Malick’s absence, and the process of the making the film in a way that’s interesting, but doesn’t get into the guts of the film. Little can’t be gleaned from the other supplements. There’s an interview with Richard Gere (22 min.) that talks about the making of, and he seems engaged, though slightly annoyed with how much of the dialogue was left behind. San Shepherd also appears (12 min) to talk about the film and how it brought him to the screen, and his love for Malick. John Bailey (21 min.) was a camera operator, and talks about working on the films, as does Haskell Wexler (12 min.), who shot when Nestor was out of the country working on a Francois Truffaut film.