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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Days of Heaven’ – sensuous movie to be screened at Lefont Film Society

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.


Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


1 Comment

  1. Jim June 14, 2014 9:34 am

    “The New World,” Eleanor, not “The New Land.” 
    I can certainly accept that a person, even a film critic, might genuinely believe that Frozen is a better movie than any of Malick’s four most recent films. But your zinger — “none of them comes anywhere near the genius of Frozen” — works better as rhetoric than it does as a credible assessment of these movies. Yes, granted, if we start from different ideas of what makes a film “good,” you and I will probably end up in different places. I recognize that. But until Frozen and its makers generate anything like the hundreds of books, articles, and dissertations that have examined Malick and his films, and until Disney’s movie regularly ends up on any list of its own greatest films, let alone as one of the greatest films in history, as Malick’s regularly do, I’ll reserve judgment on the relative merits of The Thin Red Line, which I think of as Saving Private Ryan’s dark and disturbing doppelgänger, or the hugely ambitious if flawed The Tree of Life, on the one hand, and Frozen, on the other. 
    Thanks for the heads up on the screening of Days of Heaven. I had a chance to see The Godfather on the big screen at Plaza Theatre recently. It’s wonderful to see these classic films again, as they were meant to be seen.Report


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