Sunday, April 22, 2007

35. US director Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978): Seeing heaven by twilight on earth

Director Terrence Malick strides the world of cinema as a colossus in the company of Soviet directors Andrei Tarkovsky (, Sergei Parajanov (, and Grigori Kozintsev. After viewing Days of Heaven for the third time in 20 years, the film touches me the same way as did the works of the three aforementioned Soviet filmmakers.

The title is from Deuteronomy 11:21:

"That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth."

Technically the movie can be appreciated by each of the three elements that build the final compound product. First, there is a pristine innocence in the images of this movie that few Hollywood movies have been able to record on celluloid. Nestor Almendros richly deserved the Oscar for filming Malick's requirement in the magic hours of twilight. Haskell Wexler contributed "additional photography". Wexler and Almendros are giants among cinematographers; this movie is a testament to both their creative abilities. One of my favorite takes is the final shot of Richard Gere falling in the water!!

The second major contribution is the music of the brilliant Ennio Morricone. After every viewing, I am convinced Morricone contributed as much or more to the film than the cinematographers. It is easy to spot the visual artistry, but being able to pick the aural artistry of composer's four or five connected but distinct pieces of music is exhilarating. Compare this with Hans Zimmer's work in The Thin Red Line and we see the importance music plays in Malick's cinema (as is also the case with Tarkovsky, Parajanov, and Kozintsev).

The third is the writing and the direction. A casual viewer would see the movie through events surrounding the adult characters and wonder where the 'Heaven' was in a story woven around deception, anger, jealousy, pestilence, murder, sickness, etc. A closer appraisal of the film will take you to the perspective of the young narrator (as in The Thin Red Line) which is at times all play and at other times a distant impersonal observer of events. What is 'Heaven'? Perhaps heaven is far away from industry, perhaps you glimpse it when you are playing with your friends. Malick's days of heaven seem to be limited to a short period sandwiched between long months of hell. The film invites us to look at a slice of life in each of us that prepares us for the rest of our existence. The amoral world is lovely to behold (young Gere and Adams) and tragic but the moral world is weather-beaten (Robert Wilke's face) or sick (Shepard) but true--a contradiction similar to the beautiful close-up of the locust, a pest. Malick is forever inviting the viewer to reassess and reflect on our accepted norms.

The lack of dialog and the abnegation of a conventional story lifts up the film far above the average Hollywood fare to a cinema where dialogue is muted by sounds and visual splendour. Malick's celluloid poetry enmeshes nature with human actions that seem to be out of synchrony (as it is inThe Thin Red Line as well) not far removed from derelict spaceship of Tarkovsky's Solyaris, the visual violence of Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors or the flowers in a otherwise barren landscape of Kozintsev's King Lear.

Malick has won the top honors at Cannes, Berlin, Montreal, and San Sebastian for his cinema but has been denied an Oscar. A prophet is never acknowledged in his own village.

P.S. Malick's The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life have been reviewed on this blog.


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