Thursday, October 25, 2007

DVD Review - Days of Heaven (*****)



The legendary Terrence Malick made the now seemingly unfathomable leap from his good but commonplace debut Badlands to the poetic pageantry of one the greatest films of the entire 1970s, Days of Heaven, in only a five year span. But labeling Badlands as embryonic would be to sell short the accomplishment that was his sophomore film - there was nothing in his debut that could have prepared the viewer for the unfiltered beauty and dreamlike ambiance that Days of Heaven would all but perfect. To look at it from a completely different artistic perspective, it would have been the equivalent of predicting the strides that Radiohead made between Pablo Honey and The Bends - it just couldn't happen. As fate would have it though, Malick didn't generate a fraction of the fame and fortune that many of his contemporaries received during the period, probably due to the fact that his films move at a snails pace and tend to work on a completely cerebral level rather than a visceral one - a no-no in the 1970s. In fact, the film did rather poorly, and in it's wake Malick all but fell off the face of the planet, only emerging 20 years later with his follow-up film, the landmark WWII film The Thin Red Line. With the benefit of hindsight however, it's not hard to see that Malick was not only decades ahead of his time, but simply working on a completely different plane than any other filmmaker of the period.

Over the course of his decades long exile, his stature grew to mythical proportions, with his two subsequent films (the other being the masterful The New World) being rapturously received. And now we finally have the chance to look back at Malick's first true foray into his idiosyncratic world of loss, longing and the eternal power of the soul, with Criterion's fantastic release of his 1978 feature, the majestic Days of Heaven. It's well documented how Malick decided to shoot the film, with his rotating cast of cinematographers shooting almost completely outdoors with natural light, preferably during the "magic hours" (the moments just as the sun sets and rises), so it comes as no shock that the film looks beautiful here, in it's new, Malick approved transfer. What strikes me most again after seeing the film for the first time in a few years, is just how Biblical it is. On the surface, the film is a kind-of love triangle between the Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard characters, and on another it is the story of a young girl (Linda Manz) discovering the intricacies of life and the power of memory. But buried underneath that are allusions to - and parallels with - the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis, as well as the quite obvious metaphor with the climatic plaque of locusts. And all this in only 90 minutes, with less than half of that time given over to dialogue. Of course it is open to interpretation, which is probably why it has held up so well and continues to be discovered by younger generations almost thirty years after it's release. There aren't very many movies that occupy the same head space as Days of Heaven, and for that reason alone, it will remain near the top of the greatest accomplishments in American film making.

This Criterion release of the film is a single disc affair, with a commentary track by editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden, as well as new interviews with Richard Gere (audio only), Sam Shepard and cinematographers Haskell Wexler and John Baily. There is also a nearly 50 page booklet with essays on the film by film critic Adrian Martin and Academy Award winning cinematographer Nester Almendros. This was a long awaited release for Criterion, and they have done it proud.

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