Days of Heaven: Criterion Collection Review

Days of Heaven doesn’t simply recreate the past, it resurrects it. Scene after scene is like watching a cinema verite account of rural American life in the period immediately before the country joined the First World War. The film begins with photographs of the period and goes on to turn the monochrome into colour images which are so luxuriantly sensuous that the viewer becomes lost in another time and place. It’s as astonishingly ambitious a directorial endeavour as has ever been attempted and although the finished film is somewhat flawed, the flaws seem piffling in the face of such achievement.

The title comes from the Bible; the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 11 – “That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.” It is a powerful quotations and seems to partly refer to the central character, the narrator Linda (the extraordinarily quirky Manz). Linda is a young teenager who travels about America with her itinerant brother Bill (Gere) and his partner Abby (Adams). After Bill accidentally kills a foreman at a steel mill in Chicago, the triumvirate travel South and begin working during the Harvest at a farm run by a man known only as The Farmer (Shepard). Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister, allegedly to avoid awkward questions, but things become complicated when Farmer falls for Abby and she agrees to marry him. Gradually, the days of heaven which Linda has come to know – longed for days of pastoral quiet and joy in the fields of the Lord – fall apart as desire, sin and obsession come into play and natural forces begin to mirror psychological ones. It’s a deeply Biblical conception and the film has the fiercely stern simplicity of a Bible story.

Yet the film is about something more; the days of heaven which are now inextricably lost as the slow forces of time and progress march inexorably on. There’s certainly an irony to the term – Malick shows the back-breaking work which was involved in agricultural labour – but the film is shot with such aching nostalgia that one feels an instinctive retrogressive pull. It’s set in 1916 and 1917, just before the end of American isolationism, and perhaps the last time that the country could feel culturally enclosed – the final scenes show American soldiers going off to a European war about which they know virtually nothing. It’s not so much about a loss of innocence, either on the part of Linda or the country as a whole, as the loss of a way of life. But it’s also about the way in which Linda copes with losses – by the end of the film she has lost nearly everything but she puffs out her cheeks, smiles and carries on with yet another new life. Perhaps Malick is saying that the days of heaven are not merely behind us but could be around the corner. If so, of course, he’s also saying that if we find them again, we’ll just as surely lose them. The optimism of the film is edged with terrible sadness and, perhaps, a measure of anger.

The visual beauty of the film is pivotal to its emotional impact. We are sucked into the world in which this story takes place because the images are so extraordinary. The film is credited to Nestor Almendros with “Additional photography by Haskell Wexler” and therein lies a controversy. According to Haskell Wexler, Almendros shot approximately half the film before leaving to go and shoot The Man Who Loved Women for Francois Truffaut. Wexler took over, trying to respect Almendros’ wishes, and finished the project. Meanwhile, Almendros won an Academy Award for the film and gained immense kudos within the industry. Wexler seems to have got over his bitterness about this, judging by the interview on this Criterion DVD, but one can understand his frustration at not receiving a co-credit with Nestor Almendros.

But to be honest, and with great respect to Wexler, the controversy is a red herring since our eyes tell us the truth; this is the remarkable product of two great cinematographers, both of whom did a lot of their own camera operating along with John Bailey. The film has become famous for being shot at ‘Magic Hour’, the period between daylight and twilight when there is a preternatural haze hovering over everything. The stated aim of Terence Malick was to have a white sky and no sun. Throughout the film, the use of light is ethereally beautiful in the way that it reflects off water and interacts with the crops and grass. Meanwhile, some scenes are deliberately underexposed while others are shot with nothing more than available light. The use of the Panaflex camera allowed for quick working, capturing spontaneous moments of light and nature, and for the peculiarly documentary style of the film; a lot of the drama seems to be taking place off-hand or half-glimpsed. Days of Heaven looks like few other films – an immediate comparison would be Vilmos Zsigmond’s work on Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which also used Magic Hour filming – and it still has the visual power to knock a first-time viewer sideways, both in the numerous quiet moments and during the big set-piece where an invasion of locusts is followed by a terrifying fire, reflecting the confrontation between Bill and the Farmer.

In giving deserved credit to the cinematography, it’s important not to forget to superlative art direction by Jack Fisk and the costume design by Patricia Norris. The exteriors in Alberta, Canada are suitably isolated and wild without being spartan – there’s always something to look at – and Fisk’s plywood constructions look exactly right. Norris’ costumes are never needlessly fussy in the Merchant-Ivory period style but the details are spot-on, particularly the hats worn by the male characters. The sound design of the film is as brilliant as the visuals with due attention paid to the sounds of nature which resonate around the Dolby surround channels. Ennio Morricone’s score is an organic part of the sound design, exerting its own nostalgic tug with a main theme based around Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.

The film was shot in 1976 and Malick and Billy Weber took two years to edit it. The painstaking process involved touches such as inserts of Sam Shepard shot under a freeway overpass. During the editing, Malick heavily cut the dialogue scenes, turning the film into less of a narrative and more of a poem. It’s traditional to describe it as a ‘tone poem’ but it reminds me of the work of Philip Larkin; not merely in the quality of imagery but in how specific the imagery is – Malick, like Larkin, appreciates how “the smell of grass displaced the reek of buttoned carriage cloth”. The finished film was hailed as a visual masterpiece while being criticised for being somewhat emotionless. I find this baffling since the film explodes with emotional meaning for me. It’s a simple story certainly but it has a mythical purity. One should also bear in mind that it’s seen through the eyes of a young girl. Some things are heightened, others misunderstood.

Having said that, I do have some misgivings about the film. In terms of dramatic shortcomings, the relationship between Bill and Abby never rings true and, in purely logical terms, they make so little effort to render convincing their pretence of being brother and sister that one wonders why they bother. At times they are jaw-droppingly indiscreet. There’s also a frustrating series of ellipses involving Sam Shepard’s character and his character seems to change very suddenly in the middle of the film. Most damagingly, Richard Gere is a major problem. He’s miscast and I think he knows it. His method acting doesn’t gel with the naturalistic tone of the film and he sticks out as not belonging there. Bill is a frustratingly unsympathetic character but a more subtle performance might have papered over the cracks.

Still, the flaws don’t matter because the beauty of the film – almost a memory play – is so stunning that it washes away all other considerations. This isn’t a film to put on late at night when you want some quick diversion. It demands to be watched and concentrated upon, then watched again. The more you watch it, the more secrets it gives up. Days of Heaven is some kind of miracle, one which Terence Malick is yet to repeat. It’s impossible to recommend it highly enough.

The Disc

Days of Heaven was released by Paramount back in 1999 on a disc which was considered pretty good at the time. Criterion’s new DVD is an improvement and a worthy upgrade for anyone who loves the film.

The film is presented at a ratio of 1.78:1 and the transfer is anamorphic and progressive. That’s the least one could expect. The good news is that the quality of the image is quite magnificent. Colours are eye-poppingly rich and the level of detail is staggering. It’s crystal clear throughout and there is no print damage or artifacting in sight. The use of natural light comes across particularly beautifully in this new transfer, supervised by Malick and John Bailey. The transfer looks a little more earthy than the earlier DVD release but this would appear to be in line with the filmmakers’ desire to be true to nature rather than simply make pretty pictures.

There’s not much to say about the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack except to praise it. It’s drawn from the 6-track 70MM mix and fills up the channels with music and ambient sound. Dialogue is always clear but that’s something of a side-issue in a film like this.

The extras are limited but fascinating. There’s a very informative commentary which features casting director Diane Crittenden, Patricia Norris – recorded separately – and Jack Fisk and Billy Weber who are recorded together. The participants have numerous things of interest to say and their memories are good. All concerned have tremendous affection for ‘Terry’ and are almost worshipful of Nestor Almendros. The comments are not constant and there are some gaps but there’s enough here to keep you listening and the index is, as ever, very welcome for quick reference.

In terms of video supplements, there are three interviews. The first is a brief but superb interview with Sam Shepard who belies his taciturn image by producing incredibly insightful and eloquent comments on his character and the film in general – he likens it to an end-of-the-trail Western. The second interview is with camera operator John Bailey who talks about working with Nestor Almendros and reveals the edge of danger in scenes such as the fire. Finally, Haskell Wexler appears in surprisingly placid mood to recall his work on the film and lay to rest any lingering resentments. There’s also an audio interview with Richard Gere who is often quite funny about Malick’s inability to make decisions and very generous about his fellow actors. This last item is set against scenes from the film.

As ever, Criterion have supplied a beautifully appointed booklet containing a critical essay – this time by Adrian Martin – and some contextual material – an extract from Nestor Almendros’ 1984 autobiography. Optional subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features.

Days of Heaven remains an awesomely gorgeous piece of filmmaking and Criterion’s special edition gives it the transfer it deserves. A delightful disc and an essential purchase.

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