The BFI are reissuing Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven on September 2 in a new digital restoration and it’s going out to various arthouses in the UK and Ireland (see below for details etc.). This is great news; anything that draws people to one of my favourite films of the American 70s. It’s available on DVD, in a no-frills widescreen edition that came out way back in 2001 (it doesn’t even have a title screen, never mind extras), and on Blu-Ray Region 1, if you can handle such a thing, so if you haven’t seen it, the recent release of Malick’s beguiling fifth feature, Tree Of Life, is a good enough excuse for having a look. It really is stunning. When I first saw it, years ago, I didn’t know that much about it, other than that Malick was a recluse who didn’t made another film for 20 years after Days Of Heaven, so I didn’t know what to expect.
I was less of a student of American painter Edward Hopper in those days, and although I recognised the paintings of Andrew Wyeth in Malick’s truly gorgeous endless landscapes of orange-yellow, wind-caressed wheat (not least Wyeth’s most famous work, Christina’s World), it was only when I watched Days Of Heaven again yesterday that I identified Hopper’s 1925 painting House By The Railroad in Sam Shepard’s abode, similarly placed on the horizon. [You can compare the two images above.] Malick is as much of an artist as any painter. With two cinemtographers working with him on the film – Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler – he obsessively painted with natural light, shooting almost exclusively during the Magic Hour between sunset and night, which casts a supernatural, God-like pink glow across landscape, humans and farm machinery. What a pain in the arse he must have been to work for. But what riches were captured.
It’s a typical 70s American movie in many ways: mumbled, episodic, esoteric, challenging, downbeat even under those heavenly red skies, lacking marquee names (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, even Shepard, were not known in 1976 when the film was made, nor in 1978 when it was finally released), set in the past (1916) but redolent of contemporary concerns, and evidently in thrall to European cinema. And yet, for all of its recognisable stylings and tropes, Days Of Heaven sits apart from Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Nashville, Shampoo, even Heaven’s Gate with its instant similarities of tone, period and the word Heaven. Though it tells a story that’s actually quite traditional and even classical – family of three leave the city to seek work in the country and the couple end up in a love triangle with their employer and benefactor which leads to deception and ultimately, trouble – Malick tells it in a non-traditional way, employing a seemingly improvised narration from Linda Manz’s younger sister, who meditates with a child’s idealism and absolutism about heaven and hell, work and leisure, right and wrong, and through a fractured narrative not in terms of chronology (there are no flashbacks; time moves forward) but in terms of jump cuts. Scenes do not end satisfactorily; rather, they end mid-dialogue, or fade, so that we are left wondering what else will be said. It’s intriguing; we pick up bits and pieces of information, but these are not spoon fed to us. We only find out it’s 1916 when a newspaper headline is seen, two thirds of the way through (this same headline tells us we are in the Texas panhandle, which I don’t think has been established before).
There is a climactic finale, which I won’t reveal even though it’s a 30-year-old film, and which seems all the more devastating for all the stillness and beauty that’s gone before. This fits in with a lot of slow-moving, European-influenced American films from the 70s, which very often lead to death or destruction, from Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider onwards. There was something in the air. And there is certainly something in the air in Days Of Heaven.