Terrence Malick, now 70, was still in his twenties when his first feature, Badlands, debuted at the 1973 New York Film Festival. Days of Heaven, released five years later, was not followed by another film for two decades. It is hard to think of another significant filmmaker with that kind of gap in his output. Although many (but not all) critics acclaimed Days of Heaven, and it won several awards, Malick apparently turned down many projects during his period of inactivity.
By 1978, Hollywood films had undergone a revolution. Studios and censors now exerted little control, and directors like Robert Altman and Arthur Penn had rejected conventional narrative in films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Bonnie and Clyde. Days of Heaven challenges the viewer to work a bit harder than “traditional” movies, but it is in some ways a throwback to the glory days a half-century earlier when silent films had attained a level of visual elegance (much of it due to the use of natural lighting) that was lost or understated in much of the sound era. Malick depends on imagery and imagination more than dialogue and actors. The film was photographed by the great Nestor Almendros (1930–1992), who was rewarded with an Oscar. Almendros, a Spaniard by way of Cuba, was the cinematographer of choice for the French New Wave giants Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer and the American Robert Benton. Although his films with other directors are very accomplished, it appears that Malick gave Almendros an especially high degree of freedom to experiment. Almendros commented on this: “Period movies should have less light…the light should come from the windows because that is how people lived.” (Although we did not include color films in our recent two-part exhibition The Aesthetics of Shadow—based on Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki’s famous essay on Japanese architecture and Daisuke Miyao’s book applying Tanizaki’s theories to film—Days of Heaven would have been a prime candidate if we had.) In pursuit of this ideal, Malick and Almendros managed to alienate much of their technical crew.
The production was also plagued by other problems, related to the script, the actors, and a lengthy and arduous editing process. Still, what emerged onscreen was a portrait of America quite unlike anything that had preceded it. My latter-day colleague Dave Kehr wrote at the time that the film “hovers just beyond our grasp—mysterious, beautiful, and, very possibly, a masterpiece.” This elusive/ethereal/poetic quality is also a welcome return to the silent days, when directors like D. W. Griffith, Carl Th. Dreyer, F. W. Murnau, or King Vidor could deliver an alternate vision of reality, unencumbered by dialogue and explicitness—a lost cinema.
The arch voice-over narration by young Linda Manz, which Malick uses to hold what there is of his narrative together, was commonplace by this time. Its use ranged from the great films of John Ford and Orson Welles in the 1940s to B pictures like the Whistler series, which we’ve been showing in the Lady in the Dark exhibition. More recently, it has been regularly used by directors like Woody Allen. Manz, with her disconcerting New York accent—in the midst of what is supposed to be the Oklahoma panhandle (but is really Canada)—was apparently working unscripted, commenting at will on what was happening to her and the other characters, with Malick later selecting choice bits. This strikes me as very effective, particularly in balancing the glories of nature with the thematic depiction of how America was built on greed, duplicity, and despoliation.