By Eleanor Ringel Cater
A few years ago, I was asked to contribute to the National Society of Film Critics newest book, “The X List,” subtitled “Movies that Turn Us On.”
You’d be surprised by what turns critics on (maybe not…)
Roger Ebert chose a movie he’d co-written, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern went for Brad Pitt’s “Troy.” Time’s Richard Schickel chose “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Peter Travers from Rolling Stone admitted he gets hot and bothered by “Body Heat.”
And me? “Days of Heaven.”
It is not only the most beautiful movie ever made; it’s also a movie you want to have sex during.
Director Terrence Malick is now probably better known for the 20-year hiatus he took from making movies than for anything else. Having created two masterworks in the ‘70s, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” he pulled a Salinger and disappeared.
In some ways, I wish he’d stayed disappeared. None of the movies in his second career —‘The Thin Red Line,” “The Tree of Life,” “The New Land” and “To the Wonder” — have come anywhere near the genius of his films from the 1970s. Actually none of them comes anywhere near the genius of “Frozen.”
You have the chance to check out “Days of Heaven” for yourself Saturday, June 14 (10:30 am) and Monday, June 16 (7 pm). It’s the next picture being screened by the Lefont Film Society at the Lefont Sandy Springs (“A Hard Days Night” is on the schedule, too).
Malick’s magnum opus shimmers with the sensuality of a languorous summer afternoon: undulating wheat fields, serene and ripe; plush, billowy clouds scudding across the sky; the lulling buzz of insects and, in the background, the simmering eroticism of a love triangle seething with greed, desire and deceit.
The story — as primal as it is starkly moralistic, almost Biblical — is about a paradise lost, dismantled by human corruption and weakness. Sin comes to this Garden of Eden in the Texas Panhandle; in its wake, come plagues of locusts and hellfire destruction.
After accidentally killing a co-worker at a Chicago steel mill, hot-tempered Bill (Richard Gere), his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) take off for the wide open spaces of Texas. Still a frontier in the early 20th century, it’s a place where it’s as easy to hide from the law as it is to change your identity. Just like Abraham and Sara in Egypt (as told in Genesis), Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister.
They find migrant work harvesting wheat for a rich, lonely farmer (Sam Shepard). Isolation has made him awkward with people. So has a diagnosis of a terminal illness. But he’s attracted to Abby, something her “brother” encourages. Bill sees the farmer’s bad health as their good fortune. Abby will marry him and, soon enough, inherit his money and land. What neither Bill nor Abby count on are the feelings she develops for her new husband, which churns up murderous jealousy in Bill.
Like the workers dotting the limitless golden fields, Bill and Abby reap what they sow. Punishment is doled out with Old Testament fury and inevitability.
Malick is blissfully indifferent to the things Hollywood considers essential. Stuff like, oh, action, dialogue, character development. For him, these things are just a backdrop for the film’s intense, lyrical images, indelibly lensed by Nestor Almendros. A single grasshopper gnawing a stalk of wheat (presaging the calamity to come) gets a better close-up than most of the actors. Even John Ford kept Monument Valley in the background and John Wayne up front.
The result is an implicit emotional detachment that turns conventional notions of love, sex and romance upside down.
Another distancing device is Malick’s use of Manz as the film’s narrator. She’s like a color analyst at a sports event, capriciously commenting about whatever catches her attention. Sometimes, it’s a salient and surprising observation; more often, it’s a child’s scattered chatter, random and almost nonsensical. Watching some strangers on a riverbank, she notes, “You couldn’t tell what they were doin’. They were probably calling for help. Or burying somebody.”
For Manz, a corpse has no more weight than a puff of dust. In the movie’s final scene, seemingly unaffected by the cataclysms that have shaken everyone else to the core, she and a newfound young friend skitter off toward the horizon, into the vastness of a Promised Land still searching for its people.