Monday, August 11, 2014

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven has everything to delight a lay-snob's appetite for cinematic artistic pretension. Though surprisingly enough, it doesn't pass the test of a true film snob.

There is beautiful cinematography, shot during the magic-hour (how technical). And a love triangle. Not the melodramatic kind you'd see on television, but something more muted, like you'd see in a foreign film. To top it off there are the blank stares and the precocious voice over of a child.

Thanks to these key elements, Days of Heaven is regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. It earned a place in the hearts of cinema lovers everywhere – right next to Terrence Malick's other films, The Thin Red Line (great cinematography and war), and The Tree of Life (great cinematography and Brad Pitt). Days of Heaven is one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made, but somehow certain critics still found something wrong with it. According to them, Days of Heaven is simply overrated.

The issue for these critics seems to be the devil in the details. Apparently some of Malick's crew didn't think he knew what he was doing during the making of the film. The film ran over budget because Malick allegedly started shooting inordinate amounts of coverage with the idea of solving the film's plot problems in the editing room. Infamously, he then took years to edit Days of Heaven, and had to add the voice over (much praised) after the fact just to cobble all the pieces together.

Why does this matter? For some, knowing these details takes the sheen off of the once-a-decade filmmaker’s genius. If only the movie was exactly as Malick had planned. Then they would consider Days of Heaven the masterwork of a true cinematic visionary. Knowing of
Malick's struggles opens the door to critics who wish to parse the film's thin story, and they say, disjointed composition. Not to mention Richard Gere's historically inaccurate haircut and bad acting.

In my opinion Days of Heaven is still a great film. Thank Malick for the magic-hour, the Texas prairie (actually Canada), and Linda Manz's adorably improvised Chicago-hick accent. Truthfully, Days of Heaven is pieced together just fine. And the film benefits from a story which doesn't convolute or detract from images already loaded with emotion. Even Gere's clumsy dufus approach fits a character as fleeting as the passing harvest. As Gere runs from the police like a chicken with his head cut off, with no hope of escaping, I couldn't help but think of the cruel reality of the passage of time. Gere's character is shot dead unjustly, with no hope of explaining himself and little chance of being remembered. Similarly, each summer a new batch of workers come and go, and with them foolish love affairs and forgotten children. Eventually even the wheat harvest and the prairie will disappear. 

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