I first saw Terrence Malick’s historical, visually poetic epic, Days of Heaven, in 1978. It was brand new back then, and I saw it in 70mm, at San Francisco’s now-defunct Regency II. I saw it a second time last night at the Cerrito.
I’m pleased to report that it is still a great film.
Which is odd, because the story seems a better fit for a 64-minute B noir from the 1940s. Two itinerant, poverty-stricken lovers (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) pretend to be brother and sister because it makes things simpler. When a lonely, dying, but very wealthy man (Sam Shepard) falls for the woman, her lover convinces her to encourage his feelings. This results in marriage and a comfortable life for all…at least until the rich man notices that his wife and brother-in-law seem a little too affectionate for siblings.
But Days of Heaven isn’t about story, and only moderately about character. It’s about time, place, and atmosphere.
The time is around 1916, and for most of the film, the place is a large wheat farm on the Texas panhandle. It’s usually a lonely place of empty fields stretching out to the horizon. Not totally flat, though. Gentle hills and a stream give it a unique beauty. And when harvest time approaches, it becomes alive with humanity, as migrant farm workers descent on it, seemingly from all over the world, to earn their $3 a day. They work hard, but they also build camp fires, sing, dance, and fight. In other words, they become a community.
Then the harvest ends, everyone leaves, and the place becomes lonely, again. Not a bad setting for a love triangle.
Actually, there are four people in this dysfunctional family. Gere’s character has a young sister, played by Linda Manz. Malick tells the story through her eyes–or at least through her voice. She narrates the film. There’s very little dialog, so Manz’ voice really dominates the picture.
Telling a story through narration can be a tricky business, but Malick never overdoes it. Many important plot points are told visually, or through the sparse dialog. Others are never told at all. Malick respects the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks.
Like another of my 1970s favorites, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, this is a very good film turned great by the photography. In this case, the credit goes to cinematographer Nestor Almendros. I’m not saying that because the images are beautiful, although almost every shot could be framed and mounted on a wall, but because they so perfectly evoke a time, a place, and a mood. Through the yellow of the wheat fields, the haze of the sun, and the smoke of early 20th-century technology, Almendros creates a sense of something that is not quite nostalgia, and not quite a dream, but a reality seen through the haze of distant memory.
I said above that Days of Heaven is only moderately about character. Gere plays the most interesting character. A likeable man with a quick temper, he’s sufficiently desperate and unethical enough to send his lover into another man’s bed for financial gain. His reaction to the reality of his plan isn’t the one most film-goers would expect. He doesn’t turn violently jealous, but recklessly affectionate. With everyone living in the same house, that can be just as dangerous.
Gere was the only famous name in the movie, and he gets star treatment. He plays a poor man who starts the film working in a Chicago factory, and spends much of it as a farm laborer. But his face is always clean, and his clothes always look like something brand new.
That sort of treatment usually goes to leading ladies, but not here. Until her character marries into money, Adams is often shown with a torn dress and a dirty face. I guess she wasn’t big enough at the box office.
One technical note about the presentation at the Cerrito:
I was surprised that they screened Days of Heaven in their upstairs theater. Not that I objected—from the audience’s perspective, the two screens and sound systems are pretty much identical.
But the downstairs theater can to do changeover projection, while the upstairs one can only screen film off a platter. Because platters can be hard on prints, studios generally object to screening old films—for which there are few prints–on them. (See Methods of Projection for details.)
So why did Paramount allow them to screen Days of Heaven on a platter? Studios generally allow this for really popular classics, like Casablanca or The Godfather, because they keep a lot of prints of those movies. But I doubt that Days of Heaven qualifies.
A more likely possibility: As the studios move away from film as a presentation medium, they may have stopped to care about their old prints. Much as I love digital projection, I don’t find that comforting.