Essential is a series from Dallas Morning News writers spotlighting timeless works of art and culture.
Essential viewing: Days of Heaven (1978, directed by Terence Malick)
Visions of Light, the classic documentary about cinematography magic, begins and ends with Ennio Morricone's indelible score from Days of Heaven. It's a clever and altogether perfect choice. Days, made by Terrence Malick in 1978, speaks to that magic in every frame, every visual choice. It's one of the best-looking films you'll ever see.
If you've always wanted to see it on the big screen, wait no more. Days will conclude the Heart of Texas repertory series Sunday at the Texas Theatre. It's a rare chance to see the film in its original 35 mm format. It is certain to cast a spell.
Days of Heaven, like many cinematic wonders, is ill served by plot summary. In 1916 a young steel worker (Richard Gere) flees Chicago with his lover (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister (Linda Manz) after he kills his boss in an altercation. They hop a train to the Texas Panhandle - played here by Alberta, Canada - where they get mixed up in the life of a wealthy rancher (Sam Shepard) who happens to be slowly dying.
Even before they arrive we know a feast for the eyes is on the menu. The lighting, a great deal of it natural, gives the film a perpetual twilight feel. Malick and his two world-class cinematographers, Néstor Almendros (who shot most of the movie) and Haskell Wexler (who took over when Almendros left for another commitment), filmed primarily in magic hour, that time between light and darkness when all seems to glow a little. Everything from a wheat harvest to a stroll in a shallow river feels transcendental. (Almendros alone received the movie's cinematography Oscar).
As its title suggests, Days of Heaven conjures a short-lived paradise destroyed by human foible and deceit. Malick has become known for overtly spiritual films that announce their metaphysical intentions with a bullhorn of multiple voiceovers and questions addressed to God himself, for better (The Tree of Life) and worse (Knight of Cups). I still maintain Days of Heaven is his best film, mostly because it feels the most confident in its images and story. It never overreaches. It never strains for profundity; its magic comes free and easy.
The one voiceover belongs to Manz, the little sister, whose observations on the world's strangeness and beauty make her a sort of audience surrogate. "There was never a perfect person around," she intones in her street urchin voice as she watches her brother play the wealthy rancher for a sucker. "You just got half angel and half devil in you." She also says the wheat fields talk to her, and as we watch them billow in the prairie wind it's easy to believe her.
The sequence that plants Days of Heaven firmly in the sublime comes near the end, a plague of locusts right out of ancient Egypt. First we see the insects individually, in minute close-up (no filmmaker matches Malick's reverence for nature). Then come the panic, the fury, the smoke, the fire, and the lingering question: How on earth did they film this? (One shot, of locusts ascending from the ground, is actually a mass of black peanut shells dropped from above and shot in reverse).
You needn't be a film snob or a cinematography buff to absorb Days' impact. Just tune yourself in to the wonders of a movie that could only exist as a movie, that uses the medium as few other films have. Days of Heaven remains a vision of light.
Days of Heaven shows 5 p.m. April 23 at The Texas Theatre.