Monday, March 10, 2008

The Great Movies: "Days of Heaven"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick, 1978.

OK, it's a costume drama about a love triangle set on the American frontier in the 1910s, narrated by a child, and I know! I know! I am falling asleep just writing the sentence! Honestly, I put off watching Days of Heaven for a full month, stopped in my tracks by a cover that showed men and women in period dress looking soulfully at each other against a sweeping backdrop of prairie and sky.

But despite that this movie has the plot of a Western melodrama -- despite, really, that this movie IS a Western melodrama -- it is also a film that radically transcends its genre. The plot of Days of Heaven is only a hook on which to hang a rich and beautifully drawn portrait of a way of life. What this movie really wants to do, and does, is to take those sepiatone portraits of great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers on the prairies, those hulks of agricultural machinery washed up with no context in the county museums, and to render them meaningful, to show what they meant in the context of actual human lives. For the social history buff, Days of Heaven offers the best realization I've seen on film of life in the early 20th Century west.

For the movie buff, Days of Heaven offers lots of pretty images. It is a true "moving picture." The cinematography is boss, with great, sweeping landscape shots. You need music inspired by Aaron Copland to pull this kind of thing off, and Ennio Morricone delivers with a restrained but effective score. The plot is a detail dealt with in gestures and key moments, and we are spared the long scenes of wooing, weeping, and loving looks that most movies of this type would wallow in. The result is surprisingly spare, smart, and original.

Plot: A brother-and-sister team of agricultural laborers who aren't really brother and sister decide to swindle a dying farmer, except that she falls in love with him, and oh dear, everything's a mess. A lesser movie would contrive a happy ending.

Visuals: Beautiful. This is the only film I've ever seen that captures what people who love the subtle beauty of the Great Plains really see in that landscape. You wouldn't necessarily want to just sit there watching it with the sound off, but if you had to you would still get something out of the experience. It must be spectacular on the big screen.

Dialogue: Real working class Americans speaking plausibly, and yet with a certain rustic poetry to their words. There is a lot of voice-over narration from the little sister of a main character, an unwashed urchin of about eight, and her prematurely world-weary, unschooled voice is pitch-perfect and surprisingly moving. (The urchin could alternatively be seen as the main character in her own right, but we'll save that discussion for another day).

Prognosis: Recommended to anyone who read this far, for days when they are in the mood for a more reflective, less action-packed, entertainment.


d said...

you know what i watched the other day? '40-year-old virgin'. talk about movie classics.

Rebel said...

OH man... Steve Carrel cracks me up!

Umm... yeah.... actually this movie sounds good, is the guy who did the score the same guy who did the score for The Mission? That name looks familiar - and if it is the same person, I'd watch it just for the music.

Michael5000 said...

@d: Unfortunately, "40-Year-Old Virgin" was made after "The Great Movies" was already published.