Outstanding films are usually greater than the sum of their parts. This seems obvious. When you take great acting, great cinematography, a terrific story and excellent direction, the end result is like the left side of Einstein’s famous equation: a quantum leap in energy. My choice for this month’s Seldom Seen is a paradox. It is somehow less than the sum of its impressive parts. It’s a potential supernova that ends up being a pretty nice sunset. Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven is one of cinema’s neatest near-misses.
Not that contemporary audiences saw it that way. Days of Heaven reaped an armful of awards at film festivals in Los Angeles, New York, and Cannes. Judges were probably overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of the cinematography. Originally shot in 70mm to maximize the quality of the final print, Days of Heaven represents the best work of one of the world’s best cinematographers, Nestor Almendros. This Spanish-born, Cuban-educated artist, who worked for most of his life with such European directors as Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, was a shoe-in for the Oscar for Heaven. And thanks to a wonderful book by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers, we have Almendros’ own description of how the extraordinary look of the film was achieved:
“….we shot under very exceptional lighting conditions. We very often shot in what [Malick] called the ‘magic hour.’ We would prepare and wait the whole day, then we would shoot at the time after the sun set. We had about twenty minutes before it got dark. We would just shoot frantically to make use of this beautiful light.”
When asked how he did the night exteriors with the campfires, Almendros said that they invented the technique of using propane bottles with burners to simulate the light of the fire. This is illusion at its best. You can’t just go out and photograph people around a campfire. Between your eyes and reality is the chemistry of film negatives. What you see is not what you get:
“….normally when you shoot a scene that’s supposed to be firelight, you have a spotlight and you wave and shake pieces of clothes or plastic or something in front of it to imitate the flickering of flames. But that always looks very phony and ridiculous….So since my technique has always been realism, I thought why not go to the real thing and use real fire? So we had the bottles of propane with the burners and we put them as close as we could to the faces of the people, but out of range of the camera. We lit it exactly as we would light it with electric light only we used a flame instead. And that light had the real flickering, the real movement and also the color temperature because it’s very warm and has its own kind of reddish quality that you don’t get in electrical light. You know the scene where the fiddler is playing and all the people are dancing? All that is lit with propane.”
For anyone interested in how films are made, Masters of Light is a Rosetta Stone. It’s still in print, and is complemented by a documentary film with the same title, consisting of interviews with several of the world’s best cinematographers and examples of their work.
So what’s the beef? With all this hotshot photography, why am I saying this isn’t a great film? Is it the musical score? Not likely. The composer is the great Ennio Morricone, with bonus instrumentals by 12- string guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke. Is it the direction? Terrence Malick has been called the cinematic equivalent of J.D. Salinger. Days of Heaven was his second film. It’s also his last since 1978. No one knows why. A former journalist and MIT philosophy professor, Malick’s first film, Badlands (1973), based on the Starkweather-Fugate killings of the late 1950s, was a powerful, creepy piece of Americana which would be echoed in Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album and in Dominic Sena’s 1993 film Kalifomia. Collaborating closely with Nestor Almendros, Malick was at the top of his game in Days of Heaven.
Is there a problem with the story? Perhaps. Days of Heaven is about a Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere), his little sister (Linda Manz), and girlfriend (Brooke Adams) who are forced to flee their home city to work as itinerant farmhands in the Texas panhandle. The time is just prior to World War I. They wind up on a 20,000-acre spread owned by a young but ailing farmer (Sam Shepard) who falls in love with Brooke. Gere, convinced Shepard’s character is going to die soon, convinces Brooke to marry him in the hopes of setting themselves up for a better future. Inevitably, the husband recovers and Brooke comes to love him. This love triangle, lost in the vast prairie lands which wash like great rolling waves around the farmer’s Victorian house, has the makings of Greek tragedy. There is one moment— when we see Shephard, his face distorted by the certain knowledge of betrayal, starkly outlined against the massive timber framework of his suddenly pointless home—when we realize how truly powerful this movie could have been. Malick’s a fine writer, but this screenplay needed the Eugene O’Neill of Mourning Becomes Electra to freeze the blood in our veins.
Sam Shepard’s is the strongest performance in Days of Heaven. It figures. Here’s a man who does nothing by half measures. How many resumes would include several solid movie roles, the screenplay for Paris, Texas, an Oscar nomination (for The Right Stuff), a Pulitzer Prize, eight Obie awards for playwriting, a rock’n roll play with Patti Smith, and a stint as drummer for the ultimate folk-punk band, The Holy Modal Rounders? Richard Gere should be so lucky. Gere’s performance is the other weakness in Days of Heaven. He doesn’t do a bad job, but he’s just not quite convincing, Shepard has the kind of features that make him look like he was born on the prairies, with the wind howling through; Gere’s a smooth city boy. No rough edges. A steelworker he’ll never be. No qualms about Brooke Adams’ performance; hers is a completely believable mix of Chicago cynicism and sudden tenderness. Linda Manz’s precocious narration runs a perfect counterpoint throughout. And veteran heavy Robert Wilke, in one of his last screen appearances, makes a splendid avenging angel.
There’s an added bonus in Days of Heaven for those of us in the Great White North. The setting’s supposed to be Texas, but we know that it’s really Lethbridge, Alberta. The whole thing was filmed there, with the cooperation of Lethbridge’s Hutterite Communities. The actual farming scenes in Days of Heaven, with the gypsy-like bands of laborers and great chugging steam tractors, are among the finest evocations of this vanished life I’ve ever seen.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
After writing the paragraph below, and then re-reading my original review, I find myself in the unusual position of not knowing if I agree with myself. It’s been a couple years since I last watched Days of Heaven, but it seems I was even more impressed the second time around, No caveats this time. Perhaps, being prepared for the film’s stunning visuals the second time around, I was better able to focus in on the drama of the main characters and appreciate how that drama was played out. Perhaps I’ve gotten soft in my old age. Some day I’ll give Malick’s film a third viewing to see which of me I still believe. In the meantime, here’s my last impression:
Days of Heaven remains one of the most visually impressive films I’ve ever seen, but that wouldn’t amount to much if I didn’t care about the people in the story. The same was true of Malick’s previous film, Badlands. Days of Heaven’s classic, tragic love triangle is solidly anchored in the performances by Sam Shephard, Brooke Adams, and Richard Gere, just as Badlands’ doomed lovers-on-the-run were given dramatic weight by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. In retrospect, I’m rather surprised that I didn’t draw any parallels between Days of Heaven and The Marriage of Maria Braun, which I’d reviewed the month previous. In both stories, we have three people who deserve to be happy but discover that the heart’s a poor mathematician—it can only count to two.
Check out the fine 35-minute documentary by Cameron Beyl, Terence Malick: Days of Heaven & Crimes of Passion (The Directors Series), available on YouTube:
It was only after watching this documentary that I learned that another master cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, had filled in for Almendros when he was unable to complete Days of Heaven. A remarkable accomplishment given the challenging nature of the shoot. I don’t know if Wexler continues to remain uncredited in more recent versions of the film; he wasn’t happy to have his contribution go unacknowledged.