Ebert Fest 2013: Haskell Wexler QA: “Use available light”; the thousand-mile stare of Linda Manz

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Following the Days of Heaven screening on the first night of Ebert Fest, Chaz came back out onstage to introduce the special guest Haskell Wexler (the entire festival was dedicated to him). Haskell Wexler hadn’t been the principal cinematographer for the film, but he had come up to Alberta, at Malick’s request, to film a lot of stuff, and his contribution was so significant that he got his own credit title. By the time he got up there, filming was already well underway, so he just needed to fit into the Malick style already set. Malick, of course, has a style and sensibility so recognizable that you could pick it out of a lineup, but at that point, he had only made one short and one feature (the brilliant Badlands (1973). Days of Heaven came out in 1978. And then, of course, there was a famous twenty-year gap in his career, before The Thin Red Line in 1998. Since then, his pace has just kept accelerating, which is a bit of a miracle for those of us who fell in love with Malick from the get-go, with Badlands, and have had to learn PATIENCE when waiting for his next film.

NY Mag TV critic, Malick expert, and friend Matt Zoller Seitz was then brought out onto the stage by Chaz, to interview Haskell Wexler. I had known Matt would be there, but hadn’t seen him yet. In fact, I hadn’t seen any of the friends I knew would be there – Steven Boone, and others. It was a bit of a madhouse in the VIP section of the house that first night, although we all got into a groove by the end of the festival, and I made good friends with some folks I saw every day. It was great. So Matt came out onto the stage, and I felt very excited for him, and excited about the conversation we were about to listen to.

Haskell Wexler is a long lean glass of water, sharp as a tack, funny and completely present, despite his 91 years of age. He described Malick as a “weird guy”, and said that when he arrived on the set in the middle of the Canadian prairies, the shooting was well underway. So it was a matter of fitting himself into the process already in place. The entire shoot was about using “available light”, which, as is obvious in the final product, gives the film its sweep, scope, and almost unbearable beauty. Most of the film was shot during the “magic hours”, when the sun is on its way down (or up, I suppose, but mostly down), and everything gets that almost unearthly glow to it in the final rays. Magic Hour. There was very little artificial light in the film, even in the interiors. Haskell Wexler said that he likes to film what is actually in front of him. The images before him tell him how to shoot, and the images before him are so perfect that in some cases all he has to do is turn the camera on. Of course there is so much art that goes into a moment like that, you have to be damn good, and ready for the surprise moment. Malick would often tell them to shoot something spontaneously, if a certain image came up that was perfect and fleeting.

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Matt did a wonderful job of crafting the conversation (his questions were excellent).

Roger came up repeatedly (and also deliberately: everyone wanted to talk about him, every guest shared a Roger story – it was really this rather extraordinary collective experience). Ebert was a Malick champion from the start, and, of course, his final review was of Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, which is strangely fitting. As Matt was talking to Wexler, he took out Roger’s review and read the following bit, about the voiceover, which captures perfectly what I was trying to express the other day (and which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen the film, and listened to Linda Manz’s unique voiceover):

Against this backdrop, the story is told in a curious way. We do see key emotional moments between the three adult characters. (Bill advises Abby to take the farmer’s offer. The farmer and Abby share moments together in which she realizes she is beginning to love him, and Bill and the farmer have their elliptical exchanges in which neither quite states the obvious.) But all of their words together, if summed up, do not equal the total of the words in the voiceover spoken so hauntingly by Linda Manz.
She was 16 when the film was made, playing younger, with a face that sometimes looks angular and plain, but at other times (especially in a shot where she is illuminated by firelight and surrounded by darkness) has a startling beauty. Her voice tells us everything we need to know about her character (and is so particular and unusual that we almost think it tells us about the actress, too). It is flat, resigned, emotionless, with some kind of quirky Eastern accent.
The whole story is told by her. But her words are not a narration so much as a parallel commentary, with asides and footnotes. We get the sense that she is speaking some years after the events have happened, trying to reconstruct these events that were seen through naive eyes. She is there in almost the first words of the film (“My brother used to tell everyone they were brother and sister,” a statement that is more complex than it seems). And still there in the last words of the film, as she walks down the tracks with her new “best friend.” She is there after the others are gone. She is the teller of the tale.

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Now. One side note on Linda Manz. I first saw her when I was a kid in a 1979 TV movie called Orphan Train, starring Jill Eikenberry (and Glenn Close has a cameo). This movie, about a do-gooder who takes a bunch of street urchins out west in the late 19th century to find them homes on farms, knocked me OUT. It had everything I loved: orphans (for starters – I loved Everything Orphan), women in high-collared old-fashioned dresses, kids living by their wits on the streets, and, best of all, a little girl who dressed up as a boy. I was in HEA-VEN. DAYS of heaven? How about MONTHS of heaven, just dreaming about that movie, obsessing on it. I was so obsessed that I wrote it up as a novel. Let’s remember that this was really before VCRs were in vogue, at least in my house. So I saw the movie once, and wrote up the novel version from memory. I now own the damn thing on VHS and I have to say: IT HOLDS UP.

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Linda Manz plays a young girl who lives in a brothel (which I didn’t really understand at the time), and she is obviously being groomed to work there. She steals from the men who frequent there. There was something about her face that stuck in my head. She was so interesting-looking, so tough, and yet so open. She has instant authority and authenticity onscreen. She seemed to come from another time. I had no idea that she had got her start the year before in Malick’s Days of Heaven. All I knew was that she was the emotional center, in many ways, of this movie that transported me into a world of fantasy. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Linda Manz because of that.

What a face. It’s like an old photograph of a miner, or one of those pictures of the people fleeing the Dust Bowl, looking for work, living out of their jalopy. Her face belongs in Shorpy’s Kids gallery, even though she is a child of the 1970s. It has a thousand-mile stare. It has known hardship. But it has no self-pity. Great movie face.

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Someone stood up at the QA and said to Wexler, “Your work in Days of Heaven reminds me so much of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. I wondered if that was deliberate.”

Wexler said, “Any time anybody compares me to a famous painter …”

He left it unfinished, but it was clear his sentiment. Andrew Wyeth? Sure, I’ll take that compliment, man. Bring it on!

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days 3

Heartwarming stimulating night, exciting. Made my way back to the hotel, gearing up for Day 2.

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14 Responses to Ebert Fest 2013: Haskell Wexler QA: “Use available light”; the thousand-mile stare of Linda Manz

  1. Re Everything Orphan: Me too. My mother’s side of the family (southern Indiana) traces back to an orphan named Abrams who appeared in Madison sometime in the early 1800s, having arrived in an orphan boat (or maybe raft, who knows) sent down the Ohio from god knows where. Because nothing was known about him beyond his surname, descendants were free to make up his ancestry, which of course they did (i.e., he was probably a Jew, because his offspring were so smart, & etc.). The orphan looms large.

    • sheila says:

      Jincy – wow, I should have known you were an Orphan Person, too.

      I love the story of Abrams! He was not on an orphan TRAIN, but an orphan boat/raft. So interesting!!

  2. Todd Restler says:

    Here’s how one of the great voiceovers came about:

    Manz was discovered during casting calls for Days of Heaven (1978), eventually playing Richard Gere’s little sister, “Linda,” in Terrence Malick’s Texas Panhandle–set period piece. When Malick couldn’t find his 70mm epic in the editing room, he had the crazy-brilliant idea to let his 15-year-old starlet lead the way: “This was later on: They took me into a voice recording studio,” remembers Manz. “No script, nothing, I just watched the movie and rambled on . . . I dunno, they took whatever dialogue they liked.” Laid over the images, these extemporaneous monologues abut God, the Devil, and some kid named Ding Dong (“I just made that up”) gave the movie its perspective—and a surreal humor Malick never matched.

    From this article:

    http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-06-01/film/calling-linda-manz/full/

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, it really feels like subconscious ramblings! No other voiceover like it. “and stuff like that ….”

      Love Ding Dong. And Blackjack, too!

      • sheila says:

        Most often, I want voiceovers to go away. That one? I want it go on forever. And I guess it kind of does, right? Because here we are, 30+ years later, still talking about it.

        • Todd Restler says:

          Yeah, there is something hypnotic about it. My votes for best three voiceovers all time are Goodfellas, Sunset Blvd, and Election, but this could go on the list. I love that she just winged it, it’s kind of hard to believe, maybe more directors should try this!

          Also hard to believe from the article that even after Days of Heaven Manz did not have an agent! What a different world we live in today.

          And I love that Haskell refers to the all powerful, Oz-like Malick as “a weird guy”! That cracks me up!

          • sheila says:

            Yeah, I don’t see the DAYS OF HEAVEN voiceover in the same category at all with those other movies you mentioned – those have a more traditional voiceover. The voices push the plot along, tell us what’s happening, fill us in. Those are three good uses of voiceover – but none of them sound meditative, improvised, and dreamy like Linda Manz does – unconnected from story, need, structure. It doesn’t seem to be a device at all in the Malick (and he just keeps pushing that voiceover form further and further away from reality – in Tree of Life and To the Wonder it reaches almost an abstraction. But he was already going in that direction in 1978.) Badlands has more of a traditional voiceover in it, but it’s still got that Malick weirdness – she sounds like she’s lying on her back in a psychiatrist’s office, remembering her days on the road, talking almost to herself. Like, in a space where “connecting the dots” is not important. She talks about what she sees and smells, how she would touch her tongue on the roof of her mouth, etc. Very interesting voiceover. (and quite frightening, I might add. She’s got a totally flat affect.)

  3. Todd Restler says:

    Oh I agree it’s totally different then the ones I mentioned, I was just listing voiceovers I like. It is completely unique to not only this film but really Malick in general, as you mention. I’m a huge fan of The Thin Red Line, and I really love the voiceovers in that movie even though they drive many people nuts. Same with Tree of Life, which I think is amazing. Malick is definitely on to something.

    (duh! Hey everyone, check out this Malick guys movies, they’re pretty good!)

    • sheila says:

      Yeah – I started welling up the second I heard the voiceover in To the Wonder. It got to me. Whispered words, phrases, it all sounds like a voice pleading to God. Tree of Life felt like that too. I guess it seems to reside in the dream-space of my own head, my own past, all that. I wrote about it a little bit before in terms of Days of Heaven. Her voiceover is in the far past, AND the future. And yet her age is young, her voice is young. She becomes timeless and yet also totally spontaneously in the moment. That’s what memories are like.

      • sheila says:

        Have you seen To the Wonder yet, Todd?

        • Todd Restler says:

          Not yet but I will. There are a hadful of directors (Malick, Scorcese, PT Anderson, Coen Bros) whose films I will automatically see no matter what they are about..I will get to it, but am in that phase of life where I watch more stuff at home instead of the theater, unfortunately.

          • sheila says:

            To the Wonder is definitely a big-screen movie if you can swing it. All of Malick’s are – I have yet to see BADLANDS on the big screen, but it’s coming to the Film Forum soon! and this was my first time seeing DAYS OF HEAVEN writ large – it’s like a whole different movie!

  4. Stacia says:

    I was also obsessed with Orphan Train when it first aired! At the time, I was very much into hobos, including a series of books about kids who rode the rails in the 1930s (I will probably remember the names of the books in a few days, but I can’t think of them now). I remember going into Orphan Train very excited about the train part of the title, but leaving the movie just bowled over by Manz and Eikenberry. Though most movies I saw back then had children actors, I’d never seen a young actor actually able to act.

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen Days of Heaven that I’m long overdue a rewatch, and I’m embarrassed to say I never put it together that Manz was in it as well, not until I read your post. I’m a complete Malick novice, which is a problem in the current cinematic climate, obviously.

    • sheila says:

      Stacia!! I’m so excited to hear that someone else remembers and loves Orphan Train!! I had a similar hobo-love as a child – there was a book called The Boxcar Children that I absolutely loved – did you read that?

      Criterion just came out with Badlands – finally – have you seen it? It is still my favorite Malick.

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