Tuesday, December 13, 2011



Director/Screenplay: Terrence Malick

It’s not just that Terrence Malick only works when he’s inspired. He also only works when he gets the money, and even then, if he can't do exactly what he wants to do, instead of compromising, he abandons the project entirely, deciding it better to get only what he wants than to get a compromised version, and often what he wants is some of the most amazingly difficult and nearly impossible-to-shoot scenes. 

In “Days of Heaven,” arguably his best film, all the scenes outdoors and in the daytime were shot during the “magic hour” (Film Dictionary: Magic Hour- The time during the day, about an hour before and after sunrise and sunset when the light from the sun is perfect natural conditions for shooting film). It took approximately three years and three cinematographers to finish.(That’s not counting the two years editing) He didn’t finish another feature-length film for twenty years when he made “The Thin Red Line.” That film, about the battle of Guadalcanal, according to film lore, he shot so much extra footage that supposedly an entirely different second film can be made from it. That’s part of his style, on top of getting everything perfect, he then allows the shoot to evolve naturally and shoots loads of extra footage, random cutaway stuff that has little to do with the plot, making his movies become poetic slices of life, whether that life be war, farming, murdering, or exploration. 

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take writing seriously, his films are incredibly well-scripted, but he prefers to discover movies through the process of making them, and not be nailed-down to the letter on the page, this also accounts for his long shooting schedules, and this inherit conflict in his own filmmaking style makes for some of the most interesting and unique of films. I’ve seen all of his feature films, the two previously mentioned,  along with “Badlands,” with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the masterful “The New World,” which tells the story of Pocahontas, one of the most underrated films of the last decade, and his latest, “The Tree of Life,” might be the most artistically ambitious movie ever made. 

All of his films are amazing to look at. “Days of Heaven,” won the cinematography Oscar for Nestor Almendros, although some debate whether Haskell Wexler should’ve shared top credit. Shot mostly in the wheat fields of Alberta, Canada, (Although it’s supposed to be the Texas Panhandle) sometimes I look at some of the shots from the movies and swear they could’ve been Andrew Wyeth paintings. The story involves a hotheaded Chicago steel worker, Bill (Richard Gere, in one of his earliest and best performances) who after snapping at work and accidently killing his boss, takes his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister (Linda Marz) on the run, eventually finding seasonal work on a gigantic wheat farm. 

Claiming to be brother and sister, with only moderate success at hiding they’re actual relationship, Abby soon becomes friends with the Farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill overhears a conversation between Farmer and his doctor that insinuates that the Farmer has only a brief time left to live, and he suddenly starts scheming to get Abby to marry Farmer, thinking she could inherit if/when he dies quickly. They get married, but this plan eventually backfires. Similar to Sissy Spacek’s unaware narration in “Badlands,” the film is narrated by Linda, Gere’s younger sister, which sometimes gives insight into what’s happening and drives the plot forward, and sometimes she’s completely unaware of the events and she’s simply wandering in her own thoughts, basically trying to contemplate all the events happening in her own life and her thoughts, completely unknowing about how her future is being altered. It also shows how other dramas are occurring around everyone else that the main characters couldn’t care less about. 

There’s another popular interpretation of the film that claims the four characters each represent one of the essential elements, earth, fire, water and air. I don’t recall all the details of that analysis, and frankly I don’t particularly trend towards that interpretation. I don’t think Malick thinks that literally anyway. His films aren’t plot-based; they’re more about emotional and the visceral feelings that go beyond normal plot dynamics. I couldn’t tell you scene-by-scene what happened in “The Thin Red Line,” but I remember how I felt as I was watching it. Watching “Days of Heaven,” again, or any Malick movie for that matter is like watching it for the first time and experiencing it anew. New details, new symbolisms… I have a different response each time I watch it. That’s a common thing with Malick. After watching “The Tree of Life,” a second time, I found more in it than in my first viewing. Only the most uncompromising and ambitious of directors make movies like that. 

Like the nature that foregrounds his work, and the character that are in conflict with it, “Days of Heaven,” and all of Malick’s film are constantly growing and evolving.  

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