Tuesday, 13 September 2011

days of heaven (w&d terrence malick)

Just because a film is pretty to look at doesn't make it a masterpiece. It needs a bit more than sweeping vistas and chiselled jaws. Fortunately Malick's now seminal film is more than just a pretty face. 

All the Malick tropes are here in action. The voiceover, the imminence of death, the poeticism of the everyday. This was just his second film and it was as though he emerged fully formed, a filmmaking monster who acted with complete assurance whilst everyone else was scrabbling around learning the rules. The real danger which Days of Heaven faces as a work of art is that it is too perfect. Something the filmmaker appeared aware of, deliberately throwing away his ending as though to throw the audience off track. It comes as no surprise that he followed the young girl Linda down the railway line at the end of the movie, heading off into the unknown, not to make another film for over a decade.

It's Linda who narrates. Her deadpan tone and offbeat perception keeps the film grounded in the face of the epic menage a trois love story that drives the narrative. The child's eye sees things in a different light; it has more in common with the philosopher than the adults, caught up in their emotional ties. The things that Malick really seems to delight in are the offcuts, the shards, the scraps of life around the edges. A tap dancer; a locust; the shape of the wind. As a result the most affecting aspect of the film's narrative has nothing to do with the drama of its central characters. It's the way in which it somehow captures the impermanence of the life these people lived and the value which this impermanance bestowed on the ordinary, small aspects of being human.

Days of Heaven is, in its way, a Western. If a Western is a movie that captures what it meant to live at the edge of the known world. The precariousness, the sense that you could fall off at any moment. Meaning you had to savour what there was to be savoured; something Malick's vision and Almendros' cinematography do with a vengeance.

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