DAYS OF HEAVEN: Magic Hour (and a Half)

April 29, 2024 - 11:16am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on Days of Heaven were written by Will Quade, PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Days of Heaven screens on Friday, May 3, at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By Will Quade

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ spine-tingling classical piece “Aquarium” hovers like a ghost over the drama within Terrence Malick’s revered second feature Days of Heaven. The music is first placed over the film’s opening credits, where documentary photographs of people working, living, and playing in the 1910s dissolve into each other before Malick ends on one final image: a lone preteen girl, Linda (Linda Manz) – huddled over, knees scrunched to her chest – staring right at the viewer. It is this girl, and Manz’s remarkably vivid voiceover, who will anchor us throughout the film’s dreamy narrative.

The mix of overpowering music, small human drama, and rigorous historical grounding that made Days of Heaven an instantly formidable American film are, by now, part and parcel of what we know as the overall Malick style. While his first film, Badlands (1973), still utilized the trademark pastoral photography he would only become more renowned for, that movie’s conventional lovers-on-the-run premise seems shockingly clear in comparison to Days of Heaven’s almost anti-narrative ethos. Even during the film’s opening few minutes, one can’t help but ask themselves certain questions: where did this strange style come from? Who is responsible for this non-stop barrage of jaw-dropping images? What drove this filmmaker to tell this story this way?

Often discussed in almost cryptid-like terms, the notoriously private Malick was not originally a filmmaker. Graduating summa cum laude at Harvard in 1965, he became a Rhodes scholar in philosophy with a specialization in the works of Martin Heidegger. While never finishing his degree, his translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons was published by Northwestern University Press in 1969. A philosopher by trade, Malick’s attention was drawn to cinema. After receiving an MFA from the brand-new AFI Conservatory, he found steady work in the industry as a writer and the success of Badlands made Paramount anxious to work with him on a bigger project. What followed was the script for Days of Heaven. But what was originally a smaller, more manageable film about an impoverished con-artist couple trying to marry into the enormous wealth of a dying farmer soon snowballed into a tumultuous production process that rivaled other New Hollywood classics like Sorcerer, Apocalypse Now, and Heaven’s Gate.

Taking place in the Texas Panhandle but shot primarily in Canada, one of Days of Heaven’s most striking aspects is its use of “magic hour” photography to capture footage of the 15-20 mins of golden daylight remaining just before dawn or right after dusk. While this footage is clearly integral to the film’s dazzling imagery, the pain-staking process of shooting this resulted in a near-mutiny from the crew on set. As production languished, cinematographer Nestor Almendros was slowly becoming blind and eventually had to leave the project to lens another one, resulting in director of photography Haskell Wexler finishing what he started. The script was tossed mid-shoot to allow for maximum improvisation. This meant daily call sheets and shooting schedules were constantly changing, angering the crew further. The film ended up taking two full years to edit as Malick switched creative directions and enlisted Manz to provide a backbone of voiceover narration, effectively making her the central protagonist.

All the tumult in the years-long journey of making Days of Heaven still managed to yield instant accolades. Malick won the Best Director award at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival and from the National Society of Film Critics, and Ennio Morricone was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA Award for his score. Almendros won an Oscar for his cinematography but—true to the film’s acrimonious production—Wexler crusaded for a co-credit (and Oscar statuette) for his work after replacing him. The entire ordeal exhausted Malick. He retreated from Hollywood, dropped out of all public life, and moved to France. The mystique around Malick himself continued to grow in his absence, seemingly encouraged by Days of Heaven’s hazy and tender tone. The sensitivity of the film’s approach and its towering photography turned the director into a somewhat-deified “missing poet” of American cinema. While Malick did appear 20 years later in 1998 with his World War II epic The Thin Red Line and has continued to make films into his eighties, the elements that make him the director he is today are all present in the conception, production, and reception of Days of Heaven.

Malick has continued to craft productions that remain vague, discombobulate crews, disappoint actors, and make little money. The reception of his films from critics has only become more divided as his works have drifted closer to legitimately experimental film in his late career. But Days of Heaven remains his unimpeachable early career achievement if for no other reason than it serves as something of an origin story for one of the most iconic directors in the history of Hollywood cinema. However, its overall quality goes beyond just the craft and reputation of Malick himself.

Manz’s magnetic performance and perceptive voiceover showcase another dazzling light demanding the viewer’s attention along with its awe-inspiring vistas. As the character Linda matures over the course of the film, we feel Manz the actor doing the same. Her questioning, timeless descriptions reflect the philosophical interests of Malick, especially his interest in the sublime quality of nature. In the end, the young girl in the black-and-white photograph from the opening credits seems to be recounting to us her own days of heaven; not ones without hardship and strife, but still representative of a time that encompassed the most resplendent memories of her young life. The gob-smacking beauty of Linda’s story is both wondrous and terrifying, giving and damning. Watching Days of Heaven recalls critic Fernando F. Croce’s praise of Malick’s 2005 feature The New World: “It makes you view the world with virgin eyes again.”