25 February 2009

DAYS OF HEAVEN (Dir. Terence Malick, 1978, US) - Magic Hour

I can still remember the first time I encountered ‘Days of Heaven’ at University. It was during a seminar on cinematography. The extract was from a video, ‘Visions of Light’ that explored the evolution of cinematography as an art form in American cinema. I did manage to track down a copy on VHS and even though it was of a relatively poor quality, the poetic images on display were still compelling. Eventually, with the advent of DVD, Paramount grudgingly released a DVD of the film, and watching the film for a second time, it made me truly appreciate the purity and naturalness of director Terence Malick’s incredibly gifted eye for detail. Most recently, Criterion finally released a beautifully restored print of the film on DVD and threw in some very illuminating extras including a commentary track. Watching the film for a third time confirmed that this may just be Malick’s best film and also one of the great films of the 1970s that tends to be eclipsed by the likes of ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Chinatown’, and ‘The Conversation’.

It’s hard to write about the cinema of Terence Malick without sounding deeply biased. Another difficulty is that his films are so dense and layered that they are not easy to analyse without adopting some kind of empowered intellectual and philosophical approach. Having only made four feature films to date, I would argue that his 1978 masterpiece ‘Days of Heaven’ is one of Hollywood’s finest cinematographic achievements. Actor, Sam Shepherd, refers to the cinema of Malick as visual poems, a description that I also feel aptly sums up what is a deeply unconventional style of film making; observational, transcendental and humble – all terms that seem to oppose the pretentiousness of many Hollywood film makers. Malick is a humanist but any kind of creeping of social agenda remains very much in the background of his films and I would go as to far as to place him alongside world cinema directors like Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky. ‘Days of Heaven’ is only ninety minutes yet Malick’s extraordinary and adept pacing prolongs the journey of his characters so that the narrative becomes wholly subordinate to characterisation, generating a lyrical tone.

Malick was lucky enough to be able to collaborate with three different cinematographers on ‘Days of Heaven’, and Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler and John Bailey achieve some staggering results with photographing much of the action during what is commonly referred to as ‘magic hour’, a time in the day when the sun is setting and the light produces an amazingly translucent effect. Having developed voice over narration in ‘Badlands’ as a technique that could question what was happening on screen by the protagonist, Malick decided to add a voice over to ‘Days of Heaven’ whilst editing the film. Voice over narration had been a convention of film noir in particular but the emergence of the Nouvelle Vague re introduced the voice over into American cinema and a film like ‘Taxi Driver’ underlined how such a technique could be implemented to act as an additional psychological dimension, giving an alternate voice to characters. In ‘Days of Heaven’, the voice over of the little girl (Linda Manz) is delivered in an indescribably monotone fashion, offering a childishly subjective point of view.

The film does play out like a Greek tragedy especially in its biblical finale in which a plague of locusts sets in motion a fiery inferno that consumes the fields of wheat, destroying the harvest and leaving only a singed landscape. Producer, Bert Schneider had already forged a reputation by producing liberally inclined films such as ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Hearts & Minds’, and he was overly enthusiastic in his support for an auteur kind of American cinema. ‘Days of Heaven’ took an unusually long time to edit and this delayed the release of the film by nearly two years, but even today, it is still regarded by some critics as inferior to Malick’s startling and influential debut feature, ‘Badlands’. ‘Days of Heaven’ is a textbook on how to shoot landscapes and its purity as an organic film is what makes it such a remarkable illustration of what is possible within the narrow parameters of Hollywood cinema. I am convinced that Malick’s masterpiece features some of the most unforgettable and potent imagery captured on film and this is perhaps why:

The Workers Arrive...

Malick's extraordinary eye for detail...

The First of Many Sunsets...

It is hard to imagine that this all natural lighting...

The harvesting begins...

Meeting of two strangers...

The film works through the key seasons...

Observing nature is a key Malick visual motif...

Magic Hour...

A tragedy begins to unfold...

The lost glass...

Wide open spaces...

Landscapes...

The Plague of Locusts...

A Tribute to Murnau's 'Sunrise'...

Apocalyptic imagery...

The devastated landscape...

Imagery of water reoccurs throughout the film...

The Death of Bill...

Linda's journey continues...

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