*. The rap against Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven has been consistent since its premiere. The photography by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is universally praised (Almendros won an Oscar though Wexler apparently shot more than half the picture, following Almendros’s lead). The story, not so much. In short, it’s a movie of beautiful surfaces, with depths that are left largely to the viewer to fill in.
*. I’ve talked before about the two issues I most often have with beautiful photography. In the first place, we shouldn’t mistake great design or art direction, or a beautiful setting, as being synonymous with great photography. If you’re shooting something beautiful, it’s easy to make it look beautiful (I said something about this in my notes on The Revenant). The second point I’d make is that beautiful photography shouldn’t draw attention to itself unless that is the purpose. If it doesn’t serve a purpose it is only a distraction, or something that can undermine the rest of the film.
*. It’s not as though people didn’t think that the beauty of Days of Heaven — and Roger Ebert considered it “above all one of the most beautiful films ever made” — to be a potential problem right from the get-go. On the Criterion commentary track editor Billy Weber says this: “the only thing I remember thinking is that it was too good looking, it was a little bit bothersome, you saw how good looking it was from the beginning, and it felt, I was nervous that it was going to take away from the emotion of it, that people were going to view it as like a coffee-table book . . . they’d leave the theatre saying it was so beautiful, but that’s all they’d say.”
*. When the first reviews came out Weber’s fears were confirmed (Pauline Kael: “The film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it”), which he found upsetting because he felt it really was about something and not just pretty. And I think most critical writing today would have his back on that. Though not all. David Thomson concludes his brief appreciation with the following admonition: “Days of Heaven remains one of the great visual experiences in American film, and a warning that film is more than visual.”
*. Ebert tried to salvage the film a different way. “Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven has been praised for its painterly images and evocative score, but criticized for its muted emotions: Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm’s length. This observation is true enough, if you think only about the actions of the adults in the story. But watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her, and its subject is the way that hope and cheer have been beaten down in her heart. We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end.”
*. I can’t quite agree. For one thing, Linda’s voiceover seems to have been almost an afterthought, and it’s not true that the story is presented as seen from her point of view. Personally, I also find Linda’s New Yawk accent to be a strain, and her homespun philosophy not very deep or affecting. If not for Ennio Morricone’s score I’d be tempted to watch Days of Heaven with the sound off next time. And what of the plot would I miss?
*. This leads to another point. I like the look of Days of Heaven as much as anyone. There are shots here that seem like they must have taken forever to get right, though I don’t think they had that luxury. And many of the interiors are just as gorgeous as the prairie landscapes (that’s Alberta, not Texas). Vermeer seems to have been a major inspiration. Honestly, you could cull at least a dozen pictures from this film to use as your desktop background. And there’s also a more personal connection. My father could remember the days of threshing gangs, which he often described as having a similar sort of romantic glow. And I also remember nearly burning down a wheat field with him one day.
*. That said, is there too much of it? After a while I did get a bit tired of that picturesque house they seem to have borrowed from Giant (or is that the Bates house?). And when there’s a single cut during the scene where Bill and Abby head out for an evening tryst to an abandoned parasol I thought it seemed a bit precious. Also, why insert all those shots of rabbits and pheasants in the wheat field if we’re not going to see what happens to them? They are being herded into the shrinking cover and will end up being massacred by the reaper. Why draw away from showing that? It’s an image that goes back to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and would have fit with this movie’s theme just as well.
*. Is it even a criticism of Days of Heaven though to say that it’s a bit thin on everything but the visuals? According to Peter Biskind’s reporting Malick didn’t like the way things were going initially and so made a conscious decision to “toss the script” and go “wide instead of deep.” The Farmer (Sam Shepard) doesn’t even have a name.
*. Script? Much of it was improvised, and much cut. People started thinking they were working on something close to a silent movie, and not just from this paring down. In the excerpt from his autobiography included in the Criterion material Almendros says that the “model was the photography of the silent films” and an homage to their “blessed simplicity.”
*. As for the cast, Sam Shepard wasn’t an actor at the time but at least he had an interesting face. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams do not have interesting faces, though we may be thankful that Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and John Travolta, the latter being the guy Malick really wanted to play Bill, were unattainable. The mind fairly boggles. Linda Manz, who Thomson thought gave the best performance, is wearing a mask, leaving us to wonder what Linda knew. I started longing for scenes with Robert Wilke just so I could see someone who looked like he was acting.
*. The plague of locusts and the fire are representative to me of the rest of the movie. They are wonderfully realized and have a kind of beauty all their own. And at no point did I feel any engagement with what was going on. Like a sense of creeping dread with the first appearance of the locusts, or hoping that they could put the fire out. I just watched and wondered at how, and how well, it was done. Or take the ending, with Abby and Linda heading off their separate ways like two female Bobby Dupeas. Did I care where they were going? Not really.
*. So sure, one of the most beautiful films ever made. And a personal vision pursued to excessive lengths, including two years of editing. But let’s face it, Giant was a more compelling story, with stronger characters, and it was Old Hollywood trash. New Hollywood broke a lot of ground, but it had some limitations too. I’m still not sure what Malick was even trying to express or do with this movie aside from showing that something like it could be done. In that sense at least it’s a triumph.