Spotlight 1978: Beauty Bukkake

This entry is part of  Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

Cover of

Cover of Days of Heaven

In Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick just literally fucks your eyeballs with visual gorgeousness. I’d only previously seen his later work, starting with The Thin Red Line, on to The New World, and most recently The Tree of Life. But even the aesthetic heights reached by that eye-gasmic trifecta left me unprepared for this… this diabolically beautiful film! I wasn’t really surprised at all the pretty pictures though, this IS Malick we’re talking about, and working with legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who’d cut his teeth on the great Rohmer and Truffaut’s films, no less. What shocked me was it’s length. At 94 minutes, it’s SHORT, even shorter than most Hollywood blockbusters these days. And yet despite this modest runtime and a rather simple plot, it effortlessly gives off this epic feel. There’s something primal about the story Malick weaves here, basic human urges and emotions and age-old conflicts play out against the backdrop of the American Midwest during the Great Depression: man vs nature, two men fighting for the love of a woman, man vs. the establishment, class struggle, power struggles, all these manage to get across on screen with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of long, lingering, almost fetishistic shots of whatever catches Malick’s eye – whether animal, vegetable or mineral, they all get their glamour close-ups here. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams & Sam Shepard all do great, naturalistic work, but as actors they’re upstaged and betrayed by the stunning lighting, camerawork and composition. How can you focus on or be affected by a performance when the mise en scene is drowning in visual overload? I guess the short length limits character development, as we never get to know the three leads as real people but more as archetypes, stripped-down representations of The Hero, The Shadow and The Maiden. And apparently that’s really all that Malick needed them to be. It’s not the pieces themselves that matter in this game, but how they look and move across the board.

And what a lovely board for them to play across. This is not a film that lends itself easily to screencapping since you just want to stop and share practically every frame. In Malick & Almendros’ cinematic dream world though, there seems to be no such thing as midday or high noon. The “Days” of Heaven pass in perpetual magic hour. All the scenes seem to have been shot either in the first hour after sunrise, or the last few hours before sunset, or in the evening, in the glow of fire or gaslight. Credit must also be given (especially since it was previously denied) to Haskell Wexler, who stepped in behind the camera once the saga of the shoot went on far longer than the in-demand Almendros could accommodate. And like the fleeting light of dusk, the visual heights reached by this movie-making dream team’s collaboration was just as ephemeral. Almendros passed away before Malick came out of hibernation. Wexler moved on to work regularly with another distinctive independent filmmaker, John Sayles. Malick would eventually find the next enabler for his visions in the younger, hungrier DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who’d been honed on the anything-goes-make-it-work worlds of Mexican and indie film and still managed to create imagery worthy of Almendros’ legacy. Through all his films, Malick’s one constant is Art Director/Production Designer Jack Fisk, and with a body of work so reliant on visual tone, his influence on the Malick “look” clearly cannot be undervalued.

One can’t help but wonder what transpired during Malick’s 20 year-long sabbatical that caused him to shift from the succinct, soaring tone poems of his 1970s work such as this and 1973’s Badlands (also a mere 94 minutes), to the more lugubrious, but no less ravishing, 3-plus hour epics that he’d emerged with at the turn of this millennium. Was it age? Being given more creative control? The loss of producer Bert Schneider’s guiding hand? Days’ production woes so scarred Schneider, already a respected  legend having steered such seminal 1970s touchstones as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show into fruition, that he quit the film business altogether.And why this recent burst of industry? We may never know the objective answers for sure, given Malick’s reticence about his private life, methods and plans. And yet subjectively, it’s all there on the screen, all the way backwards from death to birth, and beyond. We can just watch in awe, and continue to wonder, as the last minutes of magic hour play themselves out.

1 comment
  1. Reblogged this on judefensor and commented:

    The We Talk About Movies blog goes back to 1978, a year filled with film classics. The series starts with my thoughts on Days of Heaven, Terence Malick’s aesthetic triumph

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