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Divine directing

Terrence Malick sets the standard

Published: February 15, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


dc02150802.jpgTerrence Malick has made four movies over the course of four decades. He started out with the exciting and original amorality story Badlands in 1973. This marked the director’s first entry into our film consciousness. There we began to see the seeds of his unique style grow.

However, Days of Heaven (1978) stands as the director’s signature piece. A story of a woman caught between two men set in the vast expanses of North Texas (albeit actually filmed in British Columbia), this movie made the director a cult legend, and prompted many followers to take a stab at evoking the same kind of images Malick pioneered.

For a movie of this importance, many felt it was only a matter of time before a Criterion DVD release. I got the new, digitally remastered version of Days of Heaven for the first time about a week ago, and having explored the film, along with the exciting and fresh extra features, am markedly impressed.

First, the film itself. If you haven’t seen a Terrence Malick movie, now is the time. There are only four of them: Badlands, Days of Heaven,The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005).

However, Days of Heaven, for a number of reasons, is the definitive Malick film. First off, this is the movie where Malick’s innovative and evocative camera style came to fruition. All of Malick’s movies deal with the themes of man and his interaction with nature, and with the nature of America, so in many ways Malick’s visual, natural camera techniques benefit the subtle themes he aspires to convey.

Malick rarely shoots an indoor scene in this film. Much of it is set outside, using almost exclusively natural light and shooting only during magic hour (the time where it is still light out, but the sun is not in the sky) in order to accentuate shadow and the colors of his outdoor sequences.

One especially powerful sequence was lit entirely by an uncontrolled brush fire at night, and very recently copped by Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood. Malick, never a fan of stilted, pre-planned shots, had a knack for simply staging a scene and coming up with the filming on the spot. Thus the cinematography is among the best ever committed to screen (Days of Heaven cinematographer Nestor Almendros won an Oscar for his work) and the camera almost becomes an additional character in the film, adding texture and evoking emotions in unconventional and powerful ways.

Then there’s the story. The story is simply put together. A young man weds his girlfriend, while posing as her brother, to a rich, but dying, farmer in an attempt to lay claim to his riches. When the farmer does not die as expected, the tension rises to unexpected consequences.

However, the story is not that simple. Told mostly through the narration of a young girl, much of the main character’s dialogue is sparse, and the characters are deliberately kept at a distance by Malick’s steadycam techniques. The result is that the characters muted emotions manifest in the viewer and the scenery, cadding a unique and tragic feel to this story. Overall, Malick’s movie is a masterpiece of his meditative and poetic style, and a beautifully put together work of art.

The Criterion release is of note for several reasons. The first of which is that the movie comes digitally remastered. This movie relies on its camera far more than any other film of its kind, and thus the remastering lends extra “oomph” to the film’s provocative colors and elaborate scenes.

Second of which, the special features are excellent. The DVD comes complete with recollections from camera operator John Bailey, Haskell Wexler, and the two male leads, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard. Also included is an essay from Adrian Martin and another from Almendros.

Almendros often compares Malick to another director, the much acclaimed Francois Truffaut, and makes a solid case for such a comparison (I personally think Malick is better). Bailey’s interview is especially interesting, as he describes at great lengths Malick’s personality and how that directed the nature of the film and manifested in his unusual camera techniques.

Shepard’s interview is also of note, as he brings a truly well-thought out analysis of his character and his place in the film. All of these special features still feel incomplete without an interview with Malick himself, but the notoriously reclusive director does not give interviews to anyone, so the lack of one here is no big surprise. Nevertheless, this is a comprehensive release, one that any fan of artistic cinema should check out.