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Days of Heaven

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert J. Wilke

(US DVD: 23 Mar 2010)

Review [19.Dec.2007]

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”
—Sixth Patriarch Huineng


“Word to the father and mother earth
seeking everlasting life through this hell
for what it’s worth
look listen and observe
and watch another sea cycle
pullin’ my peeps to the curb…”
—Guru, Gang Starr, “Above the Clouds” 1998


Terrence Malick writes in the hallucinatory language of sight and sound. Like the Buddhist parable his films point to an ultimate reality that is beyond what is simply on the screen. Like Gang Starr, his characters must live in relationship to Nature, however alienated that relationship may be. 


Days of Heaven was the film that made Malick. It was an ambitious follow-up to an already ambitious film, Badlands , and the story behind its making is a true-grit summation of American independent filmmaking. Unfortunately, the video versions available up until now have never done justice to the film’s visuals, even the original Criterion Collection version. It’s taken Blu-Ray to be able to finally see what Malick had intended the film to be as he sat in the darkened cutting room, dreaming.


Days of Heaven is visually beautiful, but it is a beauty that requires the viewer to pay attention, lest he or she walk away, as supposedly authoritative critics like David Denby and Pauline Kael did, with the impression that the film isn’t really about anything at all. The photographs that are shown underneath the title sequence point to the depth of what Days of Heaven is composed of: hundreds of individual moments which convey the narrative of the story, largely through intuition, and effect the sympathetic viewer in a manner much deeper than conventional cinema is capable. In many ways it’s as if Truffaut or Fellini (circa Nights of Cabiria ) had been transplanted into a baby boomer Texan, albeit one who attended Harvard and was also a Rhodes Scholar.


As Peter Bogdanovich said of Hollywood’s silent-era directors, Malick is a filmmaker that, “[has] other interests than the movies, other interests than show business. It’s a key reason why there is more depth, maturity and knowledge about people [in his films].” It’s also why the storytelling in Malick’s films is now so imitated (The Assassination of Jesse James).


However, it cannot be said that Malick is a filmmaking revolutionary, as he is much more updating and putting into an American context European films of the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realist era. According to film theorist and critic Ray Carney, also a Harvard graduate, at one time Malick had written him asking for advice on how to produce a film in the style of New Wave filmmakers and other directors like John Cassavetes. Carney’s reply was decidedly acerbic, but the incident reveals that Malick was intentionally looking towards those epochs in film history for a roadmap when producing his own films.


According to an essay contained in the DVD booklet written by the film’s cinematographer Nestor Almendros, certain photographs and paintings had a significant influence on the film. It requires only a rudimentary education in art history to see the echoes of Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston placed throughout.


One of the more obscure references, which makes it much more interesting because it implies there are so many more, is the shot-reverse shot sequence of Sam Shepard and Richard Gere early in the film.


The evocation of Alexander Rodchenko’s “Pioneer Girl” adds to the film’s ethereal effect on the subconscious. The references are typically too quick to recognize but iconic enough to invoke the dreamlike feeling of having seen it all somewhere before.


More importantly, the influence of painting and photography are evidence that Days of Heaven should be viewed as a collection of moments, almost of still images, rather than a conventional film that follows the traditional form of a dialogue-driven stage play. However, the excellent DVD extras containing commentary and interviews with principal crew members reveal that the film was not always intended to be so abstract. It’s from their anecdotes that the story of two films begins to emerge: the straightforward narrative film that was written, produced and shot, and the final film that Malick and his editor, Billy Weber, over the course of two years eventually carved out of the footage.


Days of Heaven is a film that pushed the boundaries of film forward as an American art form. Watching it with the right kind of eyes reveals an ecstatic vision of an America that no longer exists. It is an America whose population was still subject to the whims of Nature, a Nature that’s tendency toward the violent and beautiful manifested itself in the hearts of the women and men who endured it. This new Blu-Ray edition underscores the film’s raw power. It’s hard to imagine we deserve such an experience.

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George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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