Tuesday 30 January 2024

At play in the fields of the Lord: "Days of Heaven"

Back when I first started thinking seriously about cinema in the early 1990s, Terrence Malick's 1978 drama Days of Heaven was presented to me, not unjustly, as among the most beautiful films ever made. (It was certainly framed that way in the influential 1992 doc Visions of Light, an overview of the cinematographic art, which devoted an entire section to Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler's Oscar-winning photography, as well as stealing off with Ennio Morricone's spellcasting main theme.) This is a film where the images do the most expressive talking: a full 94 minutes of sunkissed, windtossed Andrew Wyeth-like scenes from the lives of an itinerant 1910s farmworker (Richard Gere), his young sister (Linda Manz), his beloved (Brooke Adams) and the moneyed landowner who provides friendship, shelter and romantic rivalry (Sam Shepard) - and yes, you spotted it, it's some index of handsomeness when the two men duking it out in period costume are the 1978-model Gere and Shepard. Returned to UK screens this week as it approaches middle age, it strikes you as somewhat amazing it should have taken so long for Days to have received the digital restoration treatment - but here they are again: the big blue skies, turning purplish after the sun goes down, the golden wheatfields, blackening to infernal red in the final reel. Striking out beyond magic-hour commonplaces and into the realms of genuine photochemical sorcery, it remains as close as any American motion picture got to resembling a rapid succession of masterly canvasses; at a time when most contemporary studio movies appear variably ugly, newcomers may well start to feel overwhelmed by the movie's sheer physical beauty. Stendhal syndrome would seem a legitimate response.

Is the beauty anything more than skin deep? Back in the early Nineties, Malick was regarded as a recluse who seemed unlikely ever to direct again: little could we have known that he'd return with a run of films that, depending on your perspective, have either secured or chipped away at his legacy. (These have proved so airy that a consensus view has been all but unobtainable: I write as one swept away by The Tree of Life and the much-reviled Knight of Cups, but who found To the Wonder and Song to Song, composed in the same vein, blowing right past me.) Days has the outline of a noirish plot (a fugitive, a deception, a betrayal, a manhunt) relocated from city to country and reset to a different pace, but - all ellipses between small dabs of scenes - it's the work of a filmmaker who already appears far less interested in narrative unity and continuity than he is in evocation. Evocation of work: the equipment, the noise, the long days, the isolation (all those Jack Fisk houses on the hill), the exposure. And evocation of transience: the shifting around of labour, seasons, affections, fortunes. (Malick would later shoot endless reels of nature photography, and never come remotely close to matching the drama and horror of Days' Biblical climax.) So there is beauty here, but also an awareness of the ways in which beauty fades and sometimes withers on the vine. It's there in the Gere character's shrugging "we'll all be gone in a couple of years"; it's there in the film's slightly hurried quality - the result of colossal edit-suite deliberation - which makes you want to cling even tighter to each passing glimpse of paradise. It's both giddying and moving to think we are now almost as far removed from the film's first release as Days of Heaven was from the period it was depicting - but it has endured nevertheless, and become only more vivid with time: a shimmering dream of life as it was once lived, and of cinema as it was once made.

Days of Heaven returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment