First Glimpse of the Magic Hour: A Beginner’s Look at Malick’s Days of Heaven

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Amidst the great depression, a young man named Bill (Richard Gere) kills the foreman of his factory during an angry spat, and runs from Chicago with his young sister Linda (Linda Manz), and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), also posing as a sister of his so as to allay the puritan suspicions of the time. A train packed with other homeless takes them down to the Texas panhandle, where they find work harvesting wheat in the fields of an unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard).

When Bill learns the farmer is potentially dying within the year, and that Abby has caught the other man’s eye, he starts prodding Abby into a relationship with the farmer in the hopes it’ll set her up to inherit his estate once the man succumbs to whatever’s ailing him. But once the marriage has taken place, the man’s health stays steady and Abby starts to genuinely fall for his simple charm and the comforts of his wealth. Bill, rejected, leaves, but returns again months later for a final farewell. The farmer sees their goodbye kiss, and his mind further strained by a wave of locusts which devours his crop, he sets fire to the fields and goes after Bill with a gun.

In the end, the lovers are on the run once more, but Bill’s slaying, in defense, of the farmer catches up with them and he’s gunned down by the police. Abby, dressed well and still seemingly in possession of what remains of the farmer’s wealth, sets up Linda at a boarding school before they go their separate ways: Abby onto a train filled with the soldiers of a society just entering the first World War, Linda escaping from the school and walking the dusty roads with an equally penniless friend she made along the way.

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To tap into the ebullient hyperbole of Nathanael Smith for a moment, Days of Heaven is astonishing. The cinematography paints fields of wheat with the golden backlight of a setting sun in a sumptuous, enveloping feast for the eyes. What bits we get of Ennio Morricone’s minimal score are largely dedicated to a rendition of “Aquarium”, a magical piece from Camille Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, where the aural encapsulation of the grace of the aquatic depths are juxtaposed against the dry fields of dirt and grain. Even sparser than the music is the dialogue as most of the story is told through visuals and the looks exchanged between the main players as the tragic central triangle gradually settles into place, and the scenes that lack both music and voice still have a rich soundtrack of animals, booming machinery, the toil of a hard day’s labor, and the gentle rattle of wind rippling through the seed tipped stalks.

Minimalism through majesty is probably the best phrase I can coin to describe this film, as the story is a very simple one, with characters equally thinly drawn, but the way the camera lingers on the central players allows them to unfold the subtlety of their driving emotions as vastly as the fields which roil around them. Thin though they may be, there’s nothing weak about these characters, as you feel Abby longing for a life where she doesn’t have to live in constant toil, and Bill wanting to give it to her, but unable to do so in a way that doesn’t blow up in their faces and send them running off to another labor line. With the farmer, you can see the man Bill wants to be and the life Abby wants to live, but as the dying man refuses to die, Bill finds himself increasingly without a hope of being a part of things. To his credit, he does move on. After jealous bits of lashing out, and toeing the line with what foreplay he can get away with towards the now married Abby, he finally realizes that he’d rather she have the life she wants, even if he’s not the one she gets to have it with. And when he shows up again some time later, it’s just to see if there’s any last hope of a chance, and to say goodbye when he sees the chance has gone.

The central cast is uniformly strong, and when the fateful day of the locusts brings everything to a tragic focal point, it feels real that all of the goodness within the farmer is stripped away like the grains in his fields, and all he’s left with is doubt and rage, and more interest in punishing the guilty pair for having lied than in finding out the truth. And when he takes a screwdriver to the chest in his confrontation with Bill, the two lovers are once again on the road, living the hard life in the wake of Bill’s failure. But the film goes one step further, as their riverboat adventure abruptly ends. They’re denied a typical ending where they leave much the same way they came in, as they spent so much time anchored in one spot that it refuses to let them go, and the nameless foreman of the fields – both a representation of the foreman Bill killed in the opening, and a father figure to the equally nameless farmer – tracks them down and makes Bill pay the ultimate fate for what should have been a harmless scheme for him and his girl to find the life they dreamed of in that mansion on the hill.

And going back to the “minimalism through majesty” phrase of a thing that I’m not dropping because I need some kind of a theme to keep kicking my word count with, the pure power of filmmaking Malick exudes in his sophomore outing is stunning. I’ve talked about the pretty pictures, but I love the way he draws the viewer into the daily lives of these people, following along as they struggle to keep up with the threshers and clear the bundles of grain before the next is dropped in its place, or gathering around a campfire for booze and fiddling and jokes and dancing, or in running through fields blazing with man-made fire in a hellish landscape that shrugs off any attempt to douse it. Malick’s vistas and paintings of country living are no less strong when they’re on a handheld camera up in a player’s face than when fixed to a crane steadily hovering over the natural stage. Even trick shots, like when peanuts dropped from a helicopter turn into a swarm of locusts rising from a field when the print is reversed, still maintain the beauty and enhanced realism of events. And when the biplanes of a travelling circus land in the fields, bringing with them the brief appearance of a midget, a belly dancer, and a ringleader/clown, the momentary fantasy doesn’t falter the story in the way the absurd treehouse did in Badlands, as the chapter provides a surprise distraction from the increasing tension of the lead triangle, which then becomes a false respite when it triggers the ultimate decision of Bill to leave.

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Overall, I think it’s a magnificent film and I absolutely love it. But it had quite a tricky road to take to become what it is, and it left Malick stamped with the reputation of an eccentric obsessive whom studios became wary of giving money to, especially as it failed to deliver much in the way of box office returns. The first decision that troubled the production was Malick insisting on shooting most of the film at magic hour, a brief point just as the sun either rises or sets and casts the land with a golden hue among shadowy blue clouds. This limited takes, stretched out the schedule of the shoot, and left people standing around for the bulk of the day waiting for their brief chance to hopefully not screw up. The final results speak for themselves, but it ended up being the work of two men when initial cinematographer Nestor Almendros had to leave as the expanded production overlapped a Truffaut film he’d already committed to, and Haskell Wexler picked up the reins. He largely matched the earlier style, but it was apparently he who brought the use of handheld to the production, making for powerfully immersive bits like the steel mill of the opening or Bill and Abby playing in the river. He was unfortunately only credited for “Additional Photography”, which denied him any chance of an Oscar nod.

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Malick also chose to throw out entire swaths of his shooting script, replacing dialogue with distant action, much of which was improvised on the spot, and tightening the focus of his narrative. He then continued playing with the footage in editing, revising and reworking it over the course of two years, until the studio finally forced him to meet a release date (more strikes against his reputation which would stick with him later). A voiceover was also added at the last minute from the character of Linda, meant to staple the bits of story together and gloss over lost exposition.

Fortunately, the text of this initial shooting script, dated June 2, 1976, is available, and it’s quite a striking contrast in style against what we ended up with. The main beats of the story are the same, but you can see the vast amounts of dialogue that were cast aside – jokes, stories, bits of business, expression of feelings – so the focus could be put more on silent expressions of where the characters are at a given time. The opening crime Bill is running from is also different, there’s an entire segment dealing with life on the farm during winter that’s been compressed to a handful of brief shots in the film, and segments like the locust swarm and the climactic standoff between Bill and the farmer (whose name, Chuck, is revealed here – his foreman, Benson) is more theatrical, as he sets out to string up Bill and bleed him from the throat like a pig instead of merely shoot him, and Bill’s stabbing weapon is a broken spoke from a tire damaged in the fire. The Bill of the script more strongly resembles Kit from Badlands, with the disturbing compulsions beneath his charm more heavily apparent, and the two share an impulsive tick of blurting out whatever’s on their mind. Linda is also more of a background presence, her name of Ursula having likely been changed because Linda Hanz was an inexperienced child actress at the time and letting her character name be her own could make improvised bits easier for her. The script is also largely devoid of a voiceover, but when it comes, it’s in the form of Abby’s journal instead of Linda’s wistful ramble.

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It was a perfectly good script, a rich, sprawling examination of a very small, gripping melodrama, but I have to admit that none of the changes or cuts Malick made ultimately hurt it. In fact, the tightening of the story makes it even more accessible and focused, as he took what could have been a slog of a 3 hour story and gave it to us in a mere 95 minutes. With the trims also came additions, like the teenage girl Linda befriends, who’s always longing for her latest in a line of sweethearts. And the best change, in my opinion, is the voiceover of Linda. It still has the same detached quality as the narration of Sissy Spacek which kept me from warming to Badlands, but here it works because that detached individual isn’t the focus of our narrative. She’s the observer, always on the periphery of the main action of the central love triangle, and so it doesn’t wall us off from warming to the leads in the way a cold, quiet reading from Brooke Adams may have.

As I said, it’s a magnificent film, one I very much look forward to revisiting over the years and a welcome followup to Badlands, which I enjoyed but ultimately didn’t quite gel with me. I get it now. After just two films, I can see the appeal of Malick which made him such a respected name among cinephiles. And now I’m going to pack my things away as I look forward to returning to this blog some day twenty years from now when I’ll finally get to take a look at The Thin Red Line.

Originally posted 2013-03-13 17:05:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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