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Days of Heaven (Blu-ray Review)

22 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/23/10
$39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams.

Let us now say a few words about cinematography. Or at least a few more than the recent Oscarcast did when it found time for Kristen Stewart and that interpretive dance debacle — but no more than a few table scraps, time-wise, for the special Oscar that went to Gordon Willis. After all, Willis merely shot the “Godfather” movies, All the President’s Men, several of the best Woody Allen movies and on and on to the moon.

Sometimes, it seems as if the one ’70s Hollywood movie in the photographic pantheon that Willis didn’t shoot was director Terrence Malick’s pastoral masterpiece. Nonetheless, it had one of the great camerawork ‘A’-teams ever: Francois Truffaut right-hand Nestor Almendros, camera operator John Bailey (later a distinguished director of photography himself on films like Ordinary People and Silverado); and titan Haskell Wexler, who came in for some major mop-up after Almendros had to leave for another project.

Seeing Heaven on Blu-ray is the same kind of event it’ll presumably be when the recent restoration of The Red Shoes makes it into home release. As Gig Young kept saying in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?: Yowza, yowza, yowza.  

The Blu-ray basically replicates Criterion’s 2007 standard DVD, though adds a DTS-HD master audio soundtrack to make it even more visceral — the word cast member Sam Shepard uses to describe the movie in the first place on one of several outstanding extras. Which is pretty cool by itself: has Shepard (very personable here) ever even appeared on a talk show? No such guest shot comes to mind.

The story goes, and Criterion’s supplements back it up in a couple places, that writer/director Malick (in what for me is the prototypical Malick film) started out with a much more elaborate script than anyone will ever see or hear. The jettisoning of verbiage initially exasperated actors who’d played their hearts out — including Richard Gere, who impresses here on a 20-minute voiceover to crisply edited film clips — but Malick was looking for something more than just a story about a Texas Panhandle love triangle (set in or just after the World War I era) that partly involves two drifter/lovers posing as brother and sister (Gere and Brooke Adams).

Without smacking us in the face with it, Heaven is really about the tension between a fading agrarian society (a tough way to live but with eye-pleasing compensations) and the industrial society that’s about to consume it. Thanks to actress Linda Manz’s sometimes ironic narration — has there ever been a voice-over that was effective in quite her manner? — it is also a memory movie. With Ennio Morricone’s score (his best, I think) dancing on a Fred-Ginger level with the photography, the movie transports us to its specific era and “puts us in the picture” on a level rarely matched.

How few color movies does Heaven call to mind? In terms of specific production design, Giant for one — because Malick was inspired by Boris Leven’s memorable work on director George Stevens’ Texas epic (the Rock Hudson-Liz Taylor house in geographical isolation vs. Shepard’s here). But in terms of color exteriors, it’s very European. Think of certain sequences in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 or — to name another American film — Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

It isn’t exactly a stun-gun experience to hear that Heaven and Blood both won Oscars for cinematography. At least the voters knew (to use old Variety jargon) landmark lensing when they saw it — even if the recent Oscarcast didn’t.

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