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Criterion Files #409: Beauty and Sadness await in the “Days of Heaven”

By  · Published on May 25th, 2011

Some films represent to many the indefinable expression of a dream. Often times it’s nightmarish, as that’s what we can easily discern as being particularly dream-like because those are the dreams we tend to never forget. They haunt us, indefinitely, and some filmmakers are keen to capture that sense of uncomfortable fear of the odd, or non-understandable. Filmmakers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg seem to know it and are willing to explore and share it.

Then, there are some films that don’t necessarily look like a dream, but feel like a familiar one that you don’t fully remember; they’re too grounded to feel fantastic, but too gorgeously free to be fully attached to reality. It’s dramatic, but not “dramatic.” It’s not void of human emotional expression, but not entirely engagingly emotional. It’s both wonderful and disturbed. It’s affectingly confusing to your senses. Like a dream.

In the case of Terrence Malick’s sophomore feature Days of Heaven, that presence of a dream isn’t quite so…prevalent, but it’s certainly submerged; and it lightly permeates. It’s very ambient and tonally solemn, but it’s what makes the film feel unique in comparison to most period dramas. Some elements are consistent and carry through from beginning to end. Others, like the prairie home which seems initially like a country-style castle modeled after a classic dollhouse, alter in your perception as the picture goes on from feeling imagined to feeling natural. Like a dream.

The Sound of a Dream

Famed music composer Ennio Morricone is credited as the film’s composer, having composed original pieces for the majority of the different musical selections for the film. One of two pieces that Morricone did not compose however, is probably the most prominent piece of music in the entire film and one of the major elements to Days of Heaven’s tonal sadness.

That piece of music is the seventh movement (Aquarium) in Saint-Saëns’s “The Carnival of the Animals.” Composed to reflect and complement the serenity and grace of the world underwater, Terrence Malick uses it to reflect the melancholy state of the turn of the century lower-class and to signify solemness in moments appearing visually to be joyous. In the opening credits it sets the mood as it plays along to black-and-white photos of blue collar America in the 1910s. It’s a mood that seeps through the entire picture and encompasses a world of helplessness, even in the land of the American dream.

It starts as a desire to stop your wife from slaving in the wheat fields, which leads to unrest in the relationship at the proposal to marry another (even as a planned con), which leads to turmoil when love develops where it wasn’t supposed to and always ends in tragedy.

The Voice of a Dream

Along with the unconventional use of a French composition to encapsulate the aura of an early 20th century American period drama, the voice used to narrate the film is equally irregular in its own way. Linda Manz plays the young sister of Richard Gere’s Bill and the sister-in-law to Brooke Adams’s Abby, and it’s Linda’s unrefined, uneducated and rough lower-class East Coast vernacular juxtaposed with such pointed and sincere words about the things happening around her that translates the film’s unique language.

It isn’t necessarily what she says so much as how she speaks. Her sandy, scratchy voice and accent are as important to the feel of the film as the camera lens used to capture some of the most gorgeous scenery of open fields. The dialect of someone young from the East Coast telling the story about travels into the Texas panhandle, experiencing the lowest of the lows and highest of the highs in lifestyle and social class along the way. It’s oddly connective. Though she isn’t the main character of the story, she’s allowed the perfect perspective as the major story points don’t necessarily happen to her, more near her, and because of that she can speak as someone experiencing it while slightly removed from the inner wreckings taking place in the love triangle between Abby, Bill and The Farmer.

The Look of a Dream

While the audio elements of the picture carry the tone of Days of Heaven, the images can leave an indelible imprint on your subconscious.

Nestor Almendros was known up through most of the 1970s as the primary cinematographer for French New Wave filmmakers Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, as well as an acclaimed documentary photographer for Barbet Schroeder. On his collaborations with Rohmer and Truffaut much of the settings were urban, contemporary and intimate. Days of Heaven would be none of those in its projection of open, undisturbed wheat field landscapes of the southern United States. The natural lighting of the piercing sun and the dim shades of dawn play as much with the atmosphere and mood of the story just as much as the scenery of the seemingly endless prairie.

Though not stopping at just the one capturing the image, the people involved in putting together the pieces to even have an image deserve just as much recognition. Most noticeably with the vibrantly colored house at the center and the muted, depressed costumes of the working class working the fields – all coming together to form a picture of the dichotomy of the upper and lower class at the turn of the century. However, while the desperate and worn look of the clothing on the poor mirrors the perception of how they internally feel, the brightness exuding from the home of the farmer is used to mask his struggle with loneliness and interactive connection.

The Dreamer

After Days of Heaven, only his second picture, it took twenty years before Terrence Malick got back behind the camera to direct, spending much of his time in the interim with different writing endeavors and teaching in Paris. Upon the release of The Thin Red Line in 1998 some viewed the picture as deeply poetic, unconventional and hypnotically gorgeous, while others felt it was nearly all of those things to a fault while being excessively indulgent and disappointing – which is where the current state of feelings towards Malick-helmed films appears to have begun.

Much of those feelings stem from feelings developed towards Malick after he made this picture. His story was complex, yet simple and much of the emotion is visual and not via dialogue. It’s almost purely cinematic and oddly intimate though not conventionally affectionate. In that sense it shares a unique commonality with the pictures of Nicolas Roeg and early Peter Weir, where no single element stands head over heels and all form a whole that is connective, but not superficially engaging.

Kind of like, well, you know.

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