“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.” – Alan Watts
The Magic Hour, or Golden Hour, is a fleeting period of each day at dawn and dusk, an evanescent time of stunning color and breathtaking beauty. It’s within this realm that Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, DAYS OF HEAVEN, frequently lingers, the soft light revealing rolling, resplendent fields and the silhouettes of those moving slowly through the picturesque landscape. Such compositions are among the most gorgeous ever to be committed to celluloid, and demand to be seen in their full glory projected on film wherever and whenever possible, but they’re also symbolic and emblematic of the film as a whole. There’s an almost aching longing in the quiet radiance of it all that acknowledges both the gorgeous imagery and its transitory nature simultaneously. It registers on an emotional level not so much through its human interactions as its wondrous rendering of a specific quality of life in this world: its inherent impermanence. The days fade, the seasons shift, relationships change, and what is most clear is that each moment in existence is just as magnificent and temporary as the dwindling lights during those late hours of the day. In only his second feature as a director, Malick reached for grand, mysterious, and meaningful heights with a simple story practically whispered to his audience, making for a daring film that rewards the patient and reflective viewer willing to become swept up in its hushed majesty.
“Me and my brother. It used to be me and my brother,” states young Linda (Linda Manz) in a matter of fact voiceover in the film’s opening moments, already providing an air of recollection and reflection. Her view of the past is not particularly romantic or exaggerated, but more honest in its lensing, as she notes that they used to have fun together all while people around them were suffering. The two of them, Bill (Richard Gere) and Linda, live a nomadic life, seeking out work or fleeing from retribution, along with Abby (Brooke Adams), Bill’s girlfriend, under the guise of his other sister. Hopping on trains crossing the country, they become hired workers for the harvest on the land of a wealthy, but secluded, farmer (Sam Shepard). They attempt to keep to themselves as they always have, trying their best to avoid any rumors or potential conflicts, but the farmer quickly becomes quite taken with Abby while watching her at work in the fields. When the seasons change, he asks all three to stay behind, hoping to develop a deeper connection with her. Bill’s jealousy and frustration boils within him, but sticks to their ruse once he realizes the farmer may not be long for this world as a result of a vexing sickness. It isn’t long before the conflicting passions of Bill and the farmer come to a catastrophic clash mirrored in a climactic sequence of natural destruction that spreads wildly, consuming everything in its path.
My companion at the screening I attended commented afterwards that “Malick has a way with faces” and he couldn’t be more right. Throughout his filmography, he’s been just as infatuated with the geography of the natural world as he has the contours of the human visage. Of course, it isn’t hard to look at close-ups of a young Richard Gere and Brooke Adams bathed in the soft glow of the setting sun and ponder how, in that moment, they might be the most gorgeous people on the planet. Still, even the moments where the camera lovingly pauses on Linda Manz or Sam Shepard, their features are arresting, mesmerizing, and lovely in their own right. Malick famously excised a majority of the screenplay he had written to give way for more improvisation, and cinematography heavily influenced by that of silent film, leaving a film made up of primarily visuals and minimal dialogue. This left the actors to communicate their thoughts, motivations, and feelings as if screen legends of old, like Nora Desmond says in SUNSET BOULEVARD, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” They’re some truly splendid performances to be sure, ones that exude emotion in relative silence. Gere’s matinee idol looks become rough hewn by the elements as well as by the jealousy, frustration, confusion, and anger that flares up on a regular basis. His counterpart, Adams, is softer, gentler, kinder, but one can easily see the weariness she experiences in her eyes, something which perhaps connects her to Shepard’s farmer. He is a shy and lonely man, one of very few words, yet his sadness and fears are glaringly apparent from the way he gazes at Abby, himself in the mirror, or the vast plains spread before him. But when it comes to whose story this is, it falls on the shoulders of Manz to tell it, and her observational, wandering narration is captivating, occasionally amusing, and surprisingly moving in the way it captures a young individual’s understanding of the world around her. And Manz gets her share of beautiful framed portraits too, including at the film’s very beginning, her features display the trials she’s been through, yet also reveal a determined will persisting through the hardship.
As notable as it is for its remarkable beauty, the production itself was notable for delays, unrest, and frequent conflict. Even with its lengthy schedule, it took Malick more than two years to complete editing of the film after wrapping principal photography. What emerged from that storied process is definitively Malick in style, something that would shape every single film of his to follow. The painterly imagery he and cinematographer Néstor Almendros so vividly captured is far more static than some of the swooping, free-moving work he’s known for in his recent collaborations with the great Emmanuel Lubezki, but what they share is a distinct fascination for the natural world, viewing everything from minuscule insects to expansive vistas with the same level of wonder and awe. Almendros’ use of primarily natural lighting was a source of frequent frustration for many of the crew, but the results are jaw-dropping, especially when projected. Still, even Almendros couldn’t remain with the film for the entire length of shooting due to another commitment, leaving a different great, Haskell Wexler, to fill his place. Wexler’s credit has been oft disputed, primarily by the man himself, but it’s no doubt the two helped create one of the most astounding and spectacular visual narratives of our time. Malick’s notoriety for finding his film in extensive editing, a habit that has resulted in many an angered actor whose part was left on the cutting room floor, finds its beginnings here as well. He shaped his film around the images at the expense of dialogue and performance, relying heavily on experimenting with voiceovers recorded of Manz as a means of communicating the arc of the story and the ideas within. There was even some difficulty in his relationship with legendary composer Ennio Morricone as he would frequently make requests that were impossible, only to realize he liked Morricone’s original pieces more.
For all of its (ironically) plagued production and extensive journey to the screen, it truly becomes emblematic of its title in every sense. What Malick achieved was a piece of art more meditative and reflective than narratively straightforward, more poetic than prosaic, something that has become synonymous with his name. DAYS OF HEAVEN feels less personally connected to Malick the man and his life experiences as some of his later work, though that is no slight. It fascinates with its observations, as if hanging on the outer edges gazing in, like Linda watching the lives of those around her and attempting to make sense of it all. Chaos and tranquility are viewed through the same lens, in ways simple and profound. Its stunning camerawork elevates the proceedings to levels mythical or biblical, evocative of a time that seems to fade into obscurity with each passing day. Malick reaches out to grab hold of it, to imprint it in our memories in all its glory and sadness, as well as to remind us all of life’s natural transience. Upon reaching its conclusion, those that remain stride forth on new roads and new journeys pursuing something that might bring them the sense of joy or happiness or contentment that they so desperately seek. And yet, it’s never really attainable, as their attempts to maintain perfection and satisfaction eventually slip through their fingers because what they’re seeking cannot truly last, much like the days themselves. Their heavenly quality is a brief flicker, but, as Malick seems to silently argue, they’re all the more beautiful because of it.
Re-watch rating: A+
(The Re-watch is a series of posts dedicated to revisiting previously viewed films and analyzing the ways they change, alter and sometimes grow upon repeated viewings and further reflection)
(They Shoot Pictures is a series of posts dedicated to viewing films from the yearly updated 1,000 greatest films list “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?”, compiled from rankings by critics and filmmakers alike at theyshootpictures.com)