Ebertfest 2013 review: ‘Days of Heaven’

There are films that you won’t feel the full impact of unless you see it on a big screen and I don’t mean a big screen TV. That’s what Ebertfest is all about and if you didn’t see it in a theater when it came out in 1978 (some of you might not have even been born then) or didn’t make it to Ebertfest last night, then your big screen will have to do. “Days of Heaven” can be streamed on Netflix.

The movie is about the past and the narrator is neither of the main characters. From the clothes, we can assume this is sometime before World War II, and even the 1920s–before the advent of the flapper and shorter skirts. When men still wore suspenders and long sleeved shirts for hard labor and not t-shirts or a tank top and jeans. This is a time of greater formality and greater exploitation. These good old days weren’t good for everybody.

The movie stars Richard Gere as a Chicago man named Bill who gets in an argument with the boss at the steel mill. We don’t really know what it was about, but push really comes to shove and Bill accidentally kills the man. You’ll rarely see a death scene that is filmed with such beauty. In the red heat of a steel mill and the sweat and grim of the men working there, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, finds poetry and won an Oscar for it.

In a time before OSHA and workers comp there was much to complain about and when Bill, his girl Abby (Brooke Adams) and our narrator Bill’s sister (Linda Manz) flee, they find work that’s even harder in the wheat fields of some large farm. Under the cloud of a murder charge, Bill learns to take the unfairness. These are not, he thinks the days of heaven. All three work from dawn to dusk and even beyond, longing to hear the horn that will signal the work day’s send. Bill is passing Abby off as his sister, but more than a few men are suspicious. Remember that this is in a time before sex and the single girl would be the topic without scandal. You were either a good girl or a slut.

The farm is so large that even for as flat as the terrain is you can’t see another house. In this isolation there is both beauty and despair. The farmer (Sam Shepard) has a lovely two-story Victorian house that rises above the waving sea of wheat like a great castle. And so it must seem to the workers who sleep outside in tents and wash up in a nearby pond.

The farmer falls in love with Abby despite warnings from his trusted confidante, a man with a face more weathered than the barn and house. Bill has an idea after hearing a snippet of conversation that the farmer doesn’t have long to life. And doesn’t this farmer who’s getting rich off of the sweat of these men owe them something more? That thought isn’t expressed but it must have been there. None of the workers love this farmer and he is a lonely man. Bill’s plan is to offer his love Abby as a wife to this man and to later return and claim a widow and her wealth. If Bill is guilty of anything it is wanting something more than “nosing around like a pig in the gutter” and being poor. We don’t hate him nor do we hate the farmer. He’s not portrayed as particularly cruel or callous. His courtship and marriage to Abby is courteous and cautious. He’s almost shy but he isn’t blind and he grows uneasy watching her relationship with Bill.

You’ve seen this story before, perhaps even in real-life with the various housewives of Hollywood or perhaps your own local version. What makes this movie rich is the devotion to the light. Reportedly, filming was only done when the light was right–that means in the diffuse cold light of the morning or the golden light of the dusk before evening. Time was taken to consider the lyrical qualities of nature from the wildlife such as rabbits and pheasants who find food and sanctuary in the wheat fields, to the joy of the dogs running in the fields to the green shoots of grain rising from seed to green grass above the dark soil and even the blazing controlled heat in the steel mills contrasting the mesmerizing elegance of a fire on the wheat fields, replacing the placid waves of gold with raging high waves of red.

Director Terrence Malick and his team of cinematographers (Almendros who left the film early as it ran over schedule, going on to another project, and the man who was credited with “additional photography” at the end of the movie, Haskell Wexler, who attended Ebertfest) emphasized visual beauty over the words spoken by the three adults caught in this lovers triangle and found the right person in 16-year-old Manz as the narrator to set the tone. Neither Bill nor the farmer are the villains of this story. We see the yearning and jealousy in the faces of both men. When they both lose their little heaven it isn’t an act of nature, it is through an unwise choice they each make.

“Days of Heaven” is a movie that reminds us in the making that what’s worth doing is worth doing well and if that takes time, take the time. The movie made me look around and wonder if today and tomorrow aren’t my own “Days of Heaven” and if I don’t take time to appreciate it, those days will have been wasted. “Days of Heaven” is not a waste of time and it’s a film that required an extraordinary team who were willing to work together for a singular vision. And in his comments Wexler noted that his attitude toward that curious credit had changed (Almendros set the tone) and sometimes great special effects require no more than a little creative thinking and something as mundane as coffee beans.

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