July 16, 2012

Days of Heaven

--> I once loaned my copy of Days of Heaven (1978) to some friends, and when they returned it, one of them dubbed it, “the movie that wouldn’t end.” Indeed, a Terrence Malick hour-and-a-half feels much longer than a Francis Ford Coppola three-hours, because, for all its beautiful imagery, Days of Heaven is a bore. People who talk favorably about it never mention the plot, because Malick, the writer-director, doesn’t care very much about plot: instead, supporters of Malick’s work talk rapturously about its rich, Academy Award-winning cinematography (by Nestor Almendros). It’s a simple love triangle-story, set in Texas (but filmed in Alberta), in which an opportunistic drifter (Richard Gere) pairs off his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) with a shy sharecropper (Sam Shepard) who’s got less than a year to live. 

The story isn’t bad, but Malick wants the nature imagery to envelop it (and us). He enjoys de-emphasizing human stories in favor of natural imagery. (He's almost righteously anti-plot, which may explain why he uses such a tired one. We’ve already seen it before, and Malick prefers that we fill in all the gaps for ourselves, with bits of dialogue and parts of other movies we’ve seen. That way Malick can focus on art.) Like 2011’s The Tree of Life, Days of Heaven isn’t terrible, necessarily, and there are certain images that remain in your head, particularly the scene where locusts invade the wheat fields. But it all boils down to something pretentiously antithetical to the enjoyment of movies, as much as it tries for some kind of vapid “pure cinema” look and feel. The worst part is that so many people have been fooled into thinking it's great cinema. It's technically well-made, but it's difficult to respond to the characters when they feel so muted, so undernourished, as though their own creator had nothing but contempt--or worse, disinterest, which grows out of contempt--for them. Linda Manz plays Gere’s kid-sister, who narrates the film with her distractingly ugly New York accent. Malick wants her childish observations to sound philosophical, but they’re really just cant. 

Note: the picture that has long adorned the title page of this blog was from Days of Heaven. Now that I've reviewed the movie, I think I'm going to retire it. See if you can identify the next one.

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