Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Terrence Malick and the Days of Heaven

There's something truly exciting about being a cinephile and getting the chance to see one of your all time favourite films on the big screen. This past week I not only saw Jackie Brown on the big screen, but also Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. It's long been a mission of mine to see it in a cinema at the first opportunity, and the Malick retrospective at The Astor Theatre provided just that and, oh, what a glorious experience it was.

Days of Heaven was presented in a double feature with Malick's first film, Badlands. In some respects this 1973 feature starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek is Malick's most disciplined film; his most structured. Each of the two films are a scant 90 minutes - scant compared to his three subsequent films that have all been in excess of two hours - but it's Badlands that has the most traditional structure of all. Playing out like an art version of Bonnie & Clyde, it bears the unfortunate hallmarks of its low budget and debutant filmmaking talent, and yet is always a fascinating film in many respects.

It's a crucial film in the career of Malick for more reasons than it simply being his first. It shows the obvious beginnings of his obsession with narration, American history, and most importantly of all his desire to explore nature and the way people relate to it, particularly out of refuge or violence. Explored here by the way Sheen and Spacek's runaway lovers can't outrun the law even as the landscape gets farther and wider, but consider also the way nature is used as a destination for moneyless romantics to escape to in Days of Heaven; the way the blood of soldiers becomes a part of the Pacific locations used in The Thin Red Line; the way body and soul are crushed by British settlers in The New World, but are ultimately revived by a simple garden; the way he examines the bruised souls of The Tree of Life through their connection to nature.

It's also a telling reminder that Malick has always been a brash and thrilling filmmaker. Those who have only seen The Tree of Life may be surprised by the thrilling way he films a car chase sequence in Badlands like a lost reel from Vanishing Point (not to mention the gunfight sequences of The Thin Red Line). While it may lack the now commonplace dreamlike cinematography, it does have a wickedly sly sense of humour - love the early comment about Sheen looking "just like James Dean" and the payoff one-liner late in the final act - and a natural, effortless vibe to it that is in stark contrast to The Tree of Life, which felt like it was straining desperately to be Malick's personal statement on the meaning of life. Badlands simply is life. B+

Days of Heaven, however, is the more typical film we've come to expect from Malick. I maintain that this is the perfect convergence of everything Malick has tried to do in all of his other films. He is able to convey so much through his images that he doesn't need the bloated running time that I felt hampered The Tree of Life. Its imagery is simply astonishing with Oscar-winning cinematography by NĂ©stor Almendros that I consider the greatest of all time. So too is the music by Ennio Morricone, whose beguiling combination of peculiar instruments - what sound like pipes, harpsichords, strings and piano - is integrated so perfectly into the sound design of chirping insects, gusty winds and shimmering wheat crops.

Watching Days of Heaven within such close proximity to Badlands, I couldn't help but notice the similarities and striking differences between the two. Why had I not noticed the glaringly obvious similarities within Badlands and the final act of Heaven? As Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz take to living as outlaws in nature after a silly, bravado-stroking act of violence, had I simply not wanted to notice? What was Malick trying to say by doing this, I wonder? Badlands has the most traditional plot of all of his movies, so was Malick trying to make a point that he wasn't going to play as nice in the future? Was this his way of retroactively changing a version Badlands that he wasn't happy with? Whatever the reason, it certainly worked and got enough people's attention.

Of the differences though, I found it particularly interesting in the way he portrayed women. Whereas Sissy Spacek was positively meek as a sparrow in Badlands, Brooke Adams has a strong presence, grounded firmly by her deep, throaty voice. Adams' performance is probably the film's finest - one I feel is routinely overshadowed by her most high profile co-stars Richard Gere in one of his gutsiest, Earthiest performances - as she feels most at ease with the locations and the least conscious of Malick's camera. When he catches one of her wide grins there is magic in the air, I swear.

Sometimes movies really are a different experience on the big screen. To have gone without seeing Days of Heaven at a cinema is to have not have experienced what cinema is all about. It magnified my emotions for this 1978 masterpiece to levels I didn't think possible. It is an epic film about boutique qualities (this and Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff would be an even more appropriate double feature in the future) and one that will forever move me in ways I can't possibly express. A+

1 comment:

Andy Buckle said...

How amazing is Days of Heaven? I have seen it only once (earlier in the year) but you have motivated me to watch it again. I was recently given a copy. GOLD! It makes a case for being one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen, and the story is compelling to boot. I love Malick's work...I think The Thin Red Line is my favourite, but this and Tree of Life are just behind.