Days of Heaven (1978); Dir. Terrence Malick

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Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is grandiose, leisurely, even melodramatic, in giving us the pictures of the vistas we see of the Texas panhandle. Every corner of the giant screen is packed with beauty, arresting images, startling closeups of dew on a grain of wheat, vast panoramic shots of empty waving fields, with one stark structure standing up in the distance. People are miniaturized in this landscape. They lose their individuality. They become moving black specks, secondary to the natural world. The overall memory I have of the film is not of the plot, or of specific scenes. It is of the images.

I have heard the film criticized for being too slow, and too muted, emotionally. All of this is true, I suppose, but I’m not sure I think that’s a fault. Perhaps it’s a fault of the audience, who is primed to wait for events and climaxes, but I think Malick’s mood here is deliberate. The main character of the story is not Richard Gere’s hot-headed Bill, nor Brooke Adams’ practical yet trapped Abby. The main character is not Sam Shepard’s “farmer”, nor is it Linda Manz’s wonderful character of Linda, the tag-along street urchin, Richard Gere’s younger sister. Linda Manz does the narration for the film (I’ll get to that in a minute), and so we get that we are seeing it all through her eyes, a child’s eyes. But still, the main character here is the landscape. All human endeavor, and all human relationships (made up of love, jealousy, anger, need) are secondary to the earth, and its movements and rhythms. This theme permeates the entirety of Days of Heaven, and seen in that light, of course the “problems of three little people wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans”.

The key to all of this is in Linda Manz’s narration. I am hard-pressed to think of a more effective use of narration in a film. Maybe Taxi Driver. Linda Manz’s childish tough voice, detailing the events and what they seemed like to her at the time (“at the time” – that’s key – part of the power of the narration is you get the sense that she is telling this story long after the events transpired), adds to the elegiac atmosphere in ways that I am still trying to understand. Narration is tricky. It’s awful if it is just telling you what you see on the screen. Then you don’t need it. It’s similar to unimaginative directors who choose a song to underline a scene that is so on the nose it loses its effect. An audience can start to feel condescended to if you consistently underline things for them, as though they couldn’t pick it up on their own. So narration is tricky. When it’s done well (like in Taxi Driver), you can’t imagine the film without it. Without Robert DeNiro’s tired bitter voice, detailing the filth and dirt that are seeping into his very soul, his exhausted disgust at the world he lives in, that film wouldn’t be what it is. Because yes, there is a plot that has to be acted out, there are characters and dialogue and story – Taxi Driver has all of those things, but what it really is is a psychological portrait. Or, no, not a portrait. More like an excavation. The Travis Bickles of the world are forgotten, ignored, looked down upon. They seem “off”. People instinctively stay away from such people. Taxi Driver gets inside his head. You are compelled to empathize, no matter how repelled you are. Narration is key to this. A recent study on psychopaths shows that mental health officials, prison guards, and other people who come into daily contact with people who are probably psychopaths (a true psychopath is very rare) all report a strange skin-crawling feeling when in the presence of such people. Gavin de Becker would call this “the gift of fear”. One person in the study said that the sensation is like, “I’m about to be lunch.” A propos, because these people are predators. A lion doesn’t pity you. A lion eats you. The skin-crawling feeling (and I’ve gotten it once or twice in my life) is a warning sign, a deep evolutionary flare from within, telling you: “Get away from this person. Your life depends on it.” We have Raskolnikov, an example of this in fiction, but the be-all end-all is Cathy from East of Eden. If you want to understand Travis Bickle, if you want to understand anyone with psychopathic tendencies, Cathy from East of Eden is a good place to start.

I have strayed far from my topic, but Linda Manz’s narration did get me thinking.

Her voice is so distinctive. So her own. It is wise beyond its years, and feels “caught in time”, rather than “acted”, in any way, shape or form. That is tough for an adult to pull off in a narration, let alone a child. It feels improvised, like she really is calling up her own memories. She is articulate in the way children can be, with a bluntness of expression that is in stark contrast to the painterly beauty seen in shot after shot of the film. “He was pretty close to the boneyard,” she states about Sam Shepard’s Farmer. Or: “They pretended they was brother and sister. I guess it made it easier for them, because people like to talk,” she says about the relationship between Gere and Adams. There is no affect in her voice. It’s perceptive, this is a child who sees a lot, and maybe doesn’t understand all that she sees, but she understands enough.

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It is HER story, not Richard Gere’s story, not Brooke Adams’ story, not Sam Shepard’s story. And yet, Linda Manz, in the film itself, has very little dialogue. She hovers on the outskirts, we feel her relationship to the others, we understand her character, but she the actress is NOT the lead. If the film were narrated by Brooke Adams’ character, we would be traveling into treacly Lifetime movie territory. Events and emotions feel distant in Days of Heaven because that is often how children experience the upheaval of adults. It makes, yes, for a muted atmosphere. But I think that is the film’s selling point, rather than its flaw.

Days of Heaven requires that you relax, you sink into it, you breathe into that world. You slow down your own rhythms to reflect the rhythms shown on screen. A river being ruffled by rain and wind. A frog sitting on a small rock, breathing in and out. Wild mustangs galloping this way and that as a thunderstorm approaches. A staring scarecrow, teetering in the middle of an endless field of wheat.

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There is a school of thought that says audiences must be invested emotionally in the story. Now, of course, this is true a lot of the time. An acting teacher of mine used to say that if you were “bored” watching a movie, that was a sign. A sign that “something was wrong”. Not with YOU, as in: you’re not getting it, you’re not paying close enough attention … If something bores you, that is a valid response. It is interesting to contemplate: what is missing in the story? Why does it not engage me?

But stories can work on audiences in many ways. There is something like Woman Under the Influence, which tosses you into the middle of that family blow-up, and requires that you not just “go there”, but you love these people. If you don’t love them, then you may end up thinking, “What the hell is everyone going on and on about?” It is hard not to love John Cassavetes’ characters, as rowdy and unreachable as many of them are. Even the drunken carousers in Faces, as cruelly as they all act at times … I love them. Love makes all the difference.

Days of Heaven is not that kind of story. We have Richard Gere, and at this point in his career it was hard not to be drawn to him, to care about him. He was able to show a sort of baffled HURT that demanded you be sucked into his story. Perhaps it was because of his beauty. His beauty works on us, of course, that sort of beauty compels you to look at it, marvel at it. But so much of that HURT quality he captured so well early on in his career came from a sense that things should be EASIER for him, why weren’t things just coming to him? I mean, I’m beautiful, I’m sexy, women want me … why is everyone giving me such a hard time? It’s strangely vulnerable. Gere has lost a bit of that now, in his middle age, but I think it is that that set him apart back then, that made such an impression in his early roles in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, American Gigolo, Days of Heaven and, of course, the pinnacle of this – Officer and a Gentleman. He’s gorgeous, but he’s vulnerable. He played great pricks. Irresistible pricks. Men trapped by their own beauty. Hard to do, hard to pull off. Because the trap here is is that those of us in the audience who are not beautiful, who have never experienced life being that gorgeous, may think, “Oh, boo-hoo, cry me a river. You’re gorgeous. So life doesn’t work out for you all the time. Welcome to the club.” Yes, and that’s it exactly. That is exactly the type of struggle that Gere embodied early on. He was a good actor. Limited, but that’s okay – he was able to get, in a couple of key parts, roles that capitalized on those limits, and utilized his great and cinematic beauty. In Days of Heaven, he plays a hot-tempered impulsive guy, with a keen of kindness within him (watch how he plays with the kids, chasing, laughing, running – it makes total sense that children would gravitate towards such a man. He was HOT, not cold. Not aloof.) Beauty like his can be off-putting. Here, he wears it casually, unlike in American Gigolo, which fetishized him brilliantly.

Brooke Adams, with her distinctive elfin face, the downturned mouth, the huge eyes, plays a kind woman, who does what she has to do to survive. She loves Richard Gere, but neither of them ever talk about love. Perhaps it began as a relationship of convenience. It’s easier to survive on the hustling streets of Chicago if you have a partner-in-crime than if you’re by yourself. Especially if you’re a woman. But their arrangement remains unspoken, understood. Events of the film bring their emotions to the forefront, as they realize how much they love each other only when they are apart. But again, none of this is spoken, or expressed. It’s all in the silences.

Their romance matters to the film, but I am not invested in it emotionally in the same way that I am with John Reed and Louise Bryant in Reds, or any of the other great sweeping romances of the time. The point of the story is not the romance, or the love triangle, when Brooke Adams marries Sam Shepard (at Gere’s suggestion). The “Farmer” is, as Linda Manz told us, “close to the boneyard”, so if Abby marries him, maybe when he dies (hopefully soon), she will inherit his money, his property – and they all (Gere, Manz) will benefit. Things naturally don’t work out that way, and the situation becomes tense, strained, sexually ambiguous.

It reminded me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, where Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) marries Claude Rains’ Nazi Sebastian, as a ruse to get closer to his Nazi secrets. Cary Grant basically pushes Bergman at Rains, despite his growing love for her. The marriage is, of course, a sham, and when Alicia does a good impression of being a wife (after all, she must act the part, otherwise Sebastian would suspect!), Cary Grant’s “Devlin” holds it against her. He thinks she’s acting a little TOO well. It’s all quite unfair, because it was his idea in the first place.

Brooke Adams is not in love with The Farmer, although she finds herself falling in love with him. None of this is said. You can see it in how she looks at him, and you can definitely see it in how he looks at her. Making love with someone every night is bound to change things, and her heart starts to open to this man. Yet she is still drawn to Gere, who scowls and pouts his way through the work on the farm, glaring across the wheatfields at the huge house standing alone.

But again, none of this appears to me to be the point. My response is not what I feel when I see Louise Bryant struggling on snowshoes through a tundra to try to get to Moscow. In that situation, I AM her. I must get to him. My life has no purpose without him. I must be by his side. The journey seems endless, and rightly so. Time slows down when we are denied what we need. Here in Days of Heaven, I do not feel the urgency of the romance between Gere and Adams. I don’t feel, as I do watching Notorious, that this whole thing is effed up, and they are HURTING one another instead of LOVING one another, and it’s awful! I feel here that these are two people, down on their luck, trying to make the best of it, making mistakes, acting impulsively, but still, not from any malevolent or underhanded motivation.

Days of Heaven keeps me at arm’s length, except for Linda Manz’s narration, and the beauty of the cinematography which is enough to catch my breath in my throat, repeatedly. It is surplus. How does one deal with surplus? Especially a surplus of beauty? I get that feeling sometimes in museums, if I spend too long there. I stop being able to take it in. I get satiated. Days of Heaven tiptoes along that line for me. You could freeze that film at any point and look at a work of art. Extraordinary.

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Looking at Days of Heaven, and its composition, I immediately think of two paintings (posted below the jump). I can’t believe that I’m the only one to have noticed it. It appears deliberate. I love these paintings not just for the artistry, and the beauty of the work. I love these paintings because there are stories here, untold, unspoken, and I look at them and immediately, almost by instinct, start filling in the blanks, asking questions, looking closer, wondering what is the MEANING of what I see.

The paintings are meant to be a springboard for contemplation, not the final word.

So, too, with Days of Heaven.


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17 Responses to Days of Heaven (1978); Dir. Terrence Malick

  1. brendan says:

    Sort of can’t believe I’ve never seen this. I will remedy that immediately. Great writing.

  2. DBW says:

    “I have strayed far from my topic”

    Oh, please embrace your straying. I have. What a nice piece of writing. I have seen this movie several times. As you write, the cinematography is spectacular. I have never been a big Gere fan, but he is very effective at times, and good in this film. The first time I saw this, I thought the framing and vistas were almost intrusive, and I felt it overwhelmed the film–or seemed too much. Having seen it since, I realize it’s on purpose, and meant to diminish your attachment to the characters to some degree(not sure diminish is the right work, but I’m in a hurry). As you write, narration can be a tough thing to do well. I remember how much I loved the narration in To Kill a Mockingbird when I saw the movie back when I was a boy. The idea that Scout had grown into the woman speaking, and the sense of nostalgia that nurtured really hit me then–and I still love that movie. Little Linda’s narration is terrific, and more effective because she is a child(although a particularly wise one). I also like that she doesn’t really have that much dialog in the movie. It’s there, but it’s so different from her narration that it strengthens the sense that the viewer is hearing ‘secret’ observations. Well, I’m babbling, but really enjoyed this piece.

  3. Desirae says:

    I am so, so fond of your writing.

  4. Simon Crowe says:

    If you don’t know it already I think you’d be very interested in the commentary on the Criterion DVD of the film, which is done by the production designer, costume designer, and a couple of other key technicians. There’s much discussion of the narration; it seems that a good deal of time was spent in the editing room figuring out what passages to match to what scene and that a story that Linda Manz’s character tells about the apocalypse has an unusual history. It’s strange to think of Malick laboring over things like this in the editing process and somehow it makes me appreciate him all the more.

  5. red says:

    Bren – it seriously is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention: little Linda Manz, who plays the child narrator, was also one of the stars in Orphan Train!!

  6. red says:

    DBW – I totally agree that the fact that Linda is sort of a peripheral character really strengthens the odd feeling of the film – that you are watching something that is long since past, all of the edges have blurred. I suppose if you’re waiting for passion and histrionics you would be disappointed (and I love me some passion and histrionics!) – but I just don’t think they fit at all in this film.

    Even Sam Shepard, with his growing realization that his wife is in love with Gere – he’s troubled, yes, but he doesn’t tear his (or her) hair out.

    The biggest moment of climax in the film has nothing to do with human beings at all – and that’s the plague of grasshoppers, which haunts me to this day. God, how did they FILM that? InCREDible. Quite a propos that the saddest moment in the film has nothing to do with the problems in the love triangle – but a sense of how brutal nature can be.

  7. red says:

    Desirae – thank you so much!

  8. red says:

    Oh, and DBW – Gere annoys me now, although i do think he can be a good actor (much better than he gets credit for a lot), and actually could get MORE interesting as he ages, if he allows it.

    I think his particular blend of sex appeal, isolation, hot-tempered impulsiveness, and REFUSAL to be tied down is classic 1970s male movie star – and he was just so fortunate to get the iconic parts he did. He could have just been cast as Beefcake, and that would have been a waste of his talents. He’s an interesting case. I’ve written a little bit about him before – I think he’s best when he’s in highly PHYSICAL parts. He’s so good with his body – Officer and a Gentleman is one end of the spectrum, and then there’s the manic coked-up naked-all-the-time dude in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But then my theory doesn’t hold up when I think of his still coiled presence in American Gigolo which I think is one of his best performances, and one of my favorite American films. I suppose his tightly-wound guy in American Gigolo could also be said to be a highly PHYSICAL part – it’s just that he uses himself completely differently in that context.

    That’s why I think he’s better than he gets credit for. The way he moves in Looking for Mr. Goodbar would be completely wrong for Officer and a Gentleman or American Gigolo or Days of Heaven – and vice versa.

    He’s always physical, but he can pick and choose HOW to bring it out. Not everyone can do that.

  9. red says:

    I shouldn’t say he annoys me. That’s too general. I was annoyed by Chicago, in general. By everyone, not just him. I liked him a lot in Unfaithful – and he allowed Diane Lane to STEAL that movie from him, which is an act of generosity.

    There’s something very very interesting about him – and his beauty is the least of it. I think he’s most interesting when you can sense, palpably, how cruel he can be.

  10. red says:

    I knew I had written something on Gere before. Here it is.

    It captures better what I was trying to say.

  11. red says:

    And DBW – I didn’t respond to the first part of your comment which is very interesting to me. I think the beauty is intrusive too – it’s overwhelming. Story is, ultimately, lost, in all of the images. It becomes like a tone poem or something – to the great plains, to the collective lives of migrant farm workers – to love itself, but seen from a vast distance.

    I would definitely call this a great film. Any film that is, shot for shot, the most beautiful thing on the planet, has earned that label. This is a work of art, plain and simple.

    But I still can’t say that I LOVE this film. I love its beauty and I love the images that will forever be in my head now. But there is something so distant about it – like it’s written on ancient scrolls – that keeps me from loving it. However, it is still a great film. And I think if the relationships had been more, well, intense – like Beatty and Keaton in Reds – then the film itself would have suffered – because that’s not what it’s about. The story is not about the STORY. It doesn’t REQUIRE us to love it.

    But it does REQUIRE us to LOOK at it. To pause it, time and time again, to revel in it, to drown in it.

  12. phil says:

    Brillllliant essay.
    Love this film.
    Wish I could’ve seen it on the silver screen.

  13. red says:

    Phil – if you care to elaborate, I would love to hear what you love about this film. What is it?? Can you talk about it a bit more? I’d love to hear if you care to share.

    And I also regret that I have never seen it on the silver screen. I think much of the “problem” with the film would be resolved – if I had seen it projected large, as it was meant to be seen.

  14. DBW says:

    Just to follow up a bit. This is difficult because I am at work, and getting phone calls about every 30 seconds, but here goes. I think at least part of the intent of the film is to make a comment about the machinations of we humans within the framework of the natural world. All of our fevered passions(and in this movie, less-than-fevered passions)really come to naught in the end. We have our personal concerns, goals, and desires–and the Earth turns on its axis, the seasons change, things die, and bloom, and so on. Now, I don’t think a movie has to explain everything to a viewer. In fact, I prefer movies that leave us to ponder their less obvious observations and comments–2001 comes to mind. I don’t think a movie even has to have a SPECIFIC message–it’s enough for me(in fact, thrilling to me)if it presents thought-provoking images and events that leave me wondering and thinking about it afterwards. This movie does that. The focus on the environment, and less on the characters–who are mostly muted in their emotional responses–means something, BUT we are left to think about what it means to us. We aren’t beaten over the head with it. The whole grasshopper invasion, and the Human cost and waste it leaves in its path isn’t accidental. We have these muted characters with real lives and concerns, and they work like dogs in this movie–but it’s all blown away like dust in the end. I find that thought-provoking.

  15. red says:

    DBW – yes, yes, yes. All the humans take second place to nature. I am hard pressed to think of another film that TRULY captures that. Because nature is so so beautiful in this movie – yes, these people work hard, and have no prospects – but their troubles are minimized beside the grandeur of nature. And also the brutality.

    The way the grasshopper plague was introduced – one here, one there – the way Malick filmed that – it just gives me goosebumps. You just can tell how bad this is gonna be.

  16. phil says:

    I just feel it’s a photographed work of art.
    Just one of those films where I don’t recall blinking, like Wings Of Desire or Malick’s Badlands. Perhaps too it is the melancholic atmosphere that aligns with my own – like we’re breathing in and out at the same time. And Manz just looks like she’s from the 1900s, don’t you think?

    Have a days of heaven weekend. ;^)

  17. red says:

    Phil – lovely comment. I agree: if you blink you miss something. Each shot so beautiful it stops you in your tracks.

    I am curious as to how they found Linda Manz – i agree. She also played one of the leads in my favorite TV movie from the 70s “Orphan Train”, about a missionary woman in the 1850s who rounded up the kids living on the streets in NYC and took them out West to place them with families.

    Manz, again, seems like she’s from another time, as you so perceptively put it. Not a modern child. Old before her time, yet with that strain of innocence – totally Dickens territory. I need to do some research – I wonder what happened to her.

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