Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pacing

Film: Days of Heaven
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Terrence Malick has a reputation for making some of the most beautiful films around. I’m honestly not sure how much of that reputation really belongs to Malick and how much should belong to his cinematographers, but impossible to get away from. There is an undeniable beauty to Malick’s films. Of all of them, Days of Heaven may well be the most visually striking. It may have been eclipsed by The Tree of Life, but even that is a matter of opinion. There’s no denying that Days of Heaven is a film of surpassing cinematic beauty.

Make no mistake; that is precisely where the focus is in this film, because it’s certainly not on the depth of the story. In truth, the story tends to be the biggest complaint about Days of Heaven. It’s one of those films that can be summed up in a couple of sentences. Around the 1920s, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are a couple, but Bill insists on telling people that they are brother and sister to avoid dealing with questions about their marital status. As the film opens, Bill accidentally kills his foreman in a steel mill, and Bill, Abby, and Bill’s younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) travel to the Texas Panhandle to work on a wheat farm.

It is here that they encounter the unnamed owner of the farm (Sam Shepard), who is sick with an unnamed but fatal illness. He finds himself attracted to Abby, and marries her with Bill’s blessing. Bill assumes that the farmer will soon die, allowing Abby to inherit his vast fortune. However, the farmer manages to live far past his prognosis, and Abby begins to reciprocate his feelings. This leads to the third act, when the farmer and Bill finally confront each other over Abby’s affections, the farmer having come to understand the actual nature of Bill’s and Abby’s relationship.

The whole film is narrated by Linda, who sees the proceedings through the perspective of a young, uneducated child. In many respects, this accounts for the simplicity of the plot. Since it all comes through the point of view of Linda, the relationships lack any subtlety. In many ways, she is more affected by her friend (Jackie Shultis) leaving at the end of the season than she is by any of the interactions between Abby, Bill, and the farmer. It means that she is in many ways the only character in the film with three dimensions, since in most respects, the other characters are little more than how she sees them.

It takes a particular mindset to really appreciate a Terrence Malick film, and it’s not always a mindset that I’m able to find. There’s a reason that it took me this long to get around to watching this one—I was never really in the mood to spend time watching a story that unfolded this slowly. Malick requires that sort of contemplative mindset, or at least the Malick films that I’ve seen require it. The focus seems very rarely to be on the story itself and far more on the look of the film and the slow pace at which things unfold.

That’s sort of the reality of Malick’s work, though. It often feels like his films could easily be edited down to half their length and still tell the same story, but this would eliminate the visual poetry of his film style. I’m just not always in the mood for visual poetry. There's not a great deal of action here, although the locust swarm toward the end is pretty damned impressive.

This sounds like I’m going to say a lot of terrible things about Days of Heaven, but that’s not the case. This is a film of staggering and singular beauty, and the slow pace suits it. While the story could in fact be told in far less time than the 90 minutes or so the film lasts, it would be a much lesser film if it was cut down. It is far more than its plot because of how damn pretty it is.

But that’s really all there is. There’s sparse dialogue, romance seen from afar, and gorgeous landscapes. Even the performances are little more than something to be placed inside the vast, beautiful, and sometimes unforgiving landscape. If that’s not enough for you, Days of Heaven is a bad choice.

It’s worth noting that Days of Heaven is the film Malick made just before his 20-year self-imposed exile from the film world. It would be his last cinematic statement until The Thin Red Line. As a final note, Sam Shepard looks disconcertingly like Dennis Leary.

Why to watch Days of Heaven: It’s beautiful in a way few films can claim to be.
Why not to watch: The story isn’t as robust as it could be.

10 comments:

  1. What a beaut of a flick! Though nobody can really get in front of Malick's direction and vision, Gere still gives a great performance and shows us more compassion behind a character that's a bit sly dog. Probably my favorite performance of his, even if that isn't saying much. Nice review SJ.

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    1. In a way, it's a film to have on in the background--something to glance at and see the beauty of without paying attention to the limited plot. I'm pretty sure you could do that and not really miss much of the film that way.

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  2. I completely agree that Malick is all about the imagery and not about the plot. The Tree of Life may be the most egregious example.

    As you can tell from that last adjective, I've disliked most of Malick's films. For me the story is the most important thing in a drama. Comedies, action films, musicals, children's films - these can still be entertaining with the barest of plots, but a drama? That relies almost wholly on the story to work. Great performances can sometimes cover up a lack of plot, but eventually most dramas collapse without enough for the performers to work with.

    As it turns out the one film of Malick's that I did like was this one. And the reason I liked it is very likely that it is short enough (90 minutes) so that the lack of plot doesn't become glaringly obvious. The two and a half hour Tree of Life (with its 20 minutes of plot) was a serious pain for me to sit through (but before I returned it I re-watched about 10 minutes of the long form music video at the beginning of it because of the images.)

    If Malick would make shorts I'd probably like his work a hell of a lot more.

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    1. I don't completely disagree. Like I said at the top, there's a reason it took me this long to get to Days of Heaven. I need to be in the right mindset for Malick.

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  3. I'm not sure you're giving Days of Heaven enough credit. I'm not saying you're being unfair; you give it credit for the beauty, which is the main drawing point for sure.

    I think it stands apart from most of Malick's films (aside from maybe Badlands in a similar vein) as having a story and characters that do stick with you. I think the main reason is that it comes from a kid's perspective like you mention. There's a personal stamp on the story that makes the stakes seem higher than The Tree of Life or even The New World. This is my favorite Malick film, so I'm certainly biased.

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    1. You may be right. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that I focused too much on the aspect of a film that grabbed me and ignored the much deeper reality of the film.

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  4. I've forgotten, are they actually brother and sister? The look of the film is breathtaking, and sometimes overshadows the beautiful soundtrack:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5mmmWIqZUQ

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    1. Good point about the soundtrack!

      They aren't brother and sister. They pretend to be, but since they're pretty touchy-feely, it actually raises more eyebrows than it prevents.

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  5. I've seen Days of Heaven twice now, and both times were in a theater. The first time I saw it, I was absolutely stunned, completely blown away, and I loved it. The visual beauty was overwhelming, and I felt it perfectly encapsulated the sad, tragic, powerfully simple story told.

    The second time was a bit different.

    In my second viewing, which I was looking forward to greatly because I remembered enjoying it so much the first time around, I felt rather let down. The story fell flat to me, and it lost much of its power. Yes, it's beautiful, no doubt, but somehow the connection I had felt had been lost.

    So yes, I agree with your review. I do feel this is a good film, and it's definitely gorgeous, but it's not quite as profound as it pretends to be.

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    1. It is a bit of a fluffy cake. A recent cognate might be Gravity, which is visually stunning but thin in terms of plot (and science).

      it's not quite fair to say that this would be better with the sound turned off, but the plot does seem loosely hung on the frame of gorgeous camerawork.

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