There are films that look reminiscent of a particular time period, and films that look as though they were actually shot in the time period in which they are set.Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970; available on DVD from Paramount Home Video) takes place in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, yet cinematographer Vittorio Storaro managed to make this film look as though it could have been filmed during these respective decades.Likewise, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, filmed in 1976 and released in 1978, takes place circa 1916 and the resulting imagery is like stepping back in time.
Bill, played by a 27 year-old Richard Gere, is a day laborer in a Chicago steel mill (filmed in Los Angeles) who has an argument with one of the bosses and inadvertently kills him, causing him to flee to the wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle (Alberta, Canada doubling as Texas) with his out-of-wedlock lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz).With Linda’s help, Bill and Abby present themselves as brother and sister and are hired as seasonal workers on a farm owned by a wealthy farmer (playwright Sam Shepard) who is ill and who may or may not live much longer.Since Bill has been poor his whole life and has never known an existence that was not arduous, he encourages Abby to respond to the farmer’s affections and marry him in the hopes of inheriting his farm and money when he dies.Abby agrees, and initially the plan works as Bill, Abby and Linda enjoy life as they have never known it, experiencing the film’s title by relaxing and playing games, and living a life free of toil, worry and physical labor.At some point, however, their masquerade becomes apparent and things take a turn for the worse when several tragedies transpire and their lives are forever altered.
Although Days of Heaven is set at the turn-of-the-century at a time when cinema as an art form was in its infancy, it is most definitely a shining example of 1970’s filmmaking.From the opening credits populated by picture postcards set to the strains of Camille Saint-Saën’s “The Carnival of the Animals” to the startling introduction of the Edward Hopper-inspired farmer’s house out in the middle of the wheat fields, Days of Heaven shines with a lovely score by composer Ennio Morricone (what movie hasn’t he scored?!) and good performances from the cast.It also benefits greatly from the Steadicam, which was just being introduced in Hollywood by it’s inventor, Garrett Brown.This ingenious device was used on the film by camera operator John Bailey using Panavision’s branded version, the Panaglide, and enabled the cameraman to get smooth shots that could not have been accomplished mere by going hand-held.Nestor Almendros is widely credited as the cinematographer on Days of Heaven (he won his only Oscar for it, while also being nominated for Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Blue Lagoon, and Sophie's Choice later on); Haskell Wexler has argued that he provided just as much photography after Almendros had to leave due to his commitment to another film.
Days of Heaven was released by Paramount Home Video in nearly every home video format that has ever been available to the public: videocassette, capacitance electronic disc (remember those?), letter-boxed laserdisc and even a standard definition DVD.However, it has never, ever looked the way that it does on Criterion’s new transfer of the film, available on March 23, 2010 in both standard definition DVD and Blu Ray DVD.If you have yet to take the Blu Ray plunge, this Criterion Blu Ray DVD provides the best argument to do so, as the film’s glorious cinematography necessitates viewing in full high-definition splendor.With the minor exception of a small defect in the image at 1:03:00 to 1:03:05 and 1:15:52 to 1:15:55, the image is simply stunning.Like the images in Stanley Kubrick’s works, you can easily take just about any frame from this film and hang it in a museum, as all the dirt and dust has been painstakingly removed.
Criterion had been releasing special editions of films on laserdisc going back to the 1980’s and the same love that they bestowed upon their treatments of King Kong, The Last Picture Show, Raging Bull and Se7en to name a few continue with this release.It features a running commentary with film editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden which provides great insight into the making of the film and their work with media-shy Malick.They point out that Malick originally wanted John Travolta to play Bill, but somehow I can’t see Bill telling people not to hit his hair (Travolta reportedly turned down American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman, both of which went to Gere).Much of the filming was often done with little to no lights, and the commentaries confirm that even the film’s most seasoned cinematographers were convinced that nothing would register on the negatives.Thankfully, they were wrong.
The disc also includes video interviews with John Bailey, Haskell Wexler, and Sam Shepard, in addition to an audio interview with Richard Gere.The Blu Ray comes with a beautifully illustrated 41-page booklet with essays and photographs.That being said, I cannot recommend this disc highly enough. Even if you haven’t seen the film, it is worth owning as it holds a special place in the history of cinema.
Another filmmaking great from 1971, Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout, is due out on Criterion in the middle of May.
I am already salivating over this forthcoming Blu Ray…