Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Accomplishment #004: Days of Heaven
Director: Terrence Mallick
Edition: Criterion Director-Approved Special Edition
What immediately stands out about this film is the photography. Philosopher/director Terrence Mallick teamed up with nearly blind cinematographer Néstor Almendros and shot one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. They decided to step away from the trend of the times and did not try to beautify every person and every set with large swaths of defused lighting. They were audacious enough to depend almost entirely on natural light. There are some great stories relating the doubtful and nearly mutiny like reactions of Mallick and Almendros's Hollywood crew. Even when some of the crew where invited to some early viewing of dailies, they still doubted the artistic authenticity of doing something different.
The most noticeable positive result of the natural lighting is of course the plethora of "magic hour" shots that span the duration of the film. The amount of these shots is almost mind blowing. Most major motion pictures include maybe one or two of these "magic hour" shots in their entirety. The difficulty that is encountered attempting to arrange large crews, actors, camera, extras and more into proper location to take advantage of what is really only about 20 minutes of perfect light is massive.
Mallick's free-flowing, naturalistic approach to filmmaking did not require massive setups for these shots. He was completely ok with figures in foreground being underexposed to the point of silhouette. While shooting against a bright sky he did not try to fill in the foreground with large lights he would merely bounce a little fill onto the faces, then allow them to be underexposed while over exposing the background. This created a massive sense of depth in the large open fields of the farm the characters worked on. If he had attempted to evenly expose both fore and background as was typical in many major films of the time he would have severely flattened the images he was creating.
Beyond the photography, the film lends itself to contemplative analysis of its themes of nature, the cyclical nature of life and love. We watch the group (Bill, Abby and Linda) start anew when they escape Chicago and head by train to Texas to become migrant workers. They again start a new life of luxury when Abby marries the farmer. Later, they start anew when they have to go on the run after Bill kills the farmer in self defense. And at the end of the film Abby and Linda are starting new lives on their own after Bill's death.
In addition to the cycles of our characters lives, the cycles of the harvest are also very much a part of this movie. We arrive in Texas as the wheat is at it's pinnacle of growth, ready to be cropped. We then experience the actual harvest, snow, and the wheat's re-growth. Just as drama and pressure is increasingly disrupting the lives of our migrant workers and the farmer, so too is the life of the wheat being threatened by biblical plagues of locusts and fires.
Mallick's contemplative and naturalistic film eschews heavy dialogue in favor of telling the story in pictures. Fortunately, he supplies pictures that are more than worth listening to.