Every time I rewatch Days of Heaven, I have this nagging fear in the back of my mind that it won’t be as wonderful as the last time I viewed it. But each viewing holds up, yields more and strengthens my desire to revisit the film. Part of my fears have to do with the irrational thought that somehow this film has to be the cornerstone of my movie tastes, it needs to be the high bar, the pinnacle of what I think is great cinema. If I end up having a new favorite film, somehow that would invalidate my tastes, as if my tastes are this stagnant thing that will never evolve. Yes, it’s silly. Part of the reason I think I worry that one day Days of Heaven won’t be my favorite is because the first time I watched it, I didn’t like it.
Anyone who watched the film on DVD for the first time before late 2007 viewed a sloppy, dim and murky image and suffered a dampened audio track by a Paramount DVD that was only cleaned up enough to make the film watchable. Image quality is essential, especially for a Malick film. Seeing a Malick film with a proper image can literally change the quality of the film.
Criterion came out with a magnificent transfer in October 2007. At this point, I had already seen The New World a handful of times and knew Malick was a director I would want to revisit frequently. Even though I wasn’t enamored with Days of Heaven on first viewing, I wanted to give it another chance. At this point, I didn’t know much about Criterion, I had rented a few of their transfers from Netflix, but hadn’t owned one yet. I bought Criterion’s release of Days of Heaven. On the second viewing, everything changed.
Seeing Néstor Almendros’ golden cinematography in its proper glory (or at least as close as I could get in a pre-bluray era in the comfort of my home) and getting a proper audio mix brought out the richness of the audio-visual experience of Days of Heaven. I immediately fell in love with the film after that viewing and it has been my favorite film ever since.
Why Days of Heaven? I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to give a satisfying answer. All I know is that the second I start the film something happens that I’ve only experienced with a few other films. It might not be the best way of saying it, but the film is essentially a metaphysical experience to me. I chose that over the term spiritual, because I still derive a lot of pleasure and enjoyment from the film in the base, physical experience. The synergy of music, imagery and narration is enthralling. Linda’s opening narrative string on the train is possibly my favorite moment in film.
But it’s not just that experience, there’s more to it. I find Days of Heaven a soothing and relaxing experience. And I don’t mean in the kind of put something on to let your mind wander and unwind at the end of the day, but that the film captures a tranquility, a stillness that I find peaceful on a spiritual level. The film is one that celebrates being while never ignoring the hardships of existence. Yes, things can be tough, you can get stuck in hard work or find yourself in circumstances you see unfair or disparaging, but there’s still something wonderful and exciting about being.
That’s a thread that runs through all of Malick films, yet I find it most compelling in Days of Heaven. I find this film the most elusive of Malick’s work. Unlike Malick’s later films, this film holds any themes closer to its chest. While The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life all use narration and other techniques to frame the broader ideas of the film, Days of Heaven begins with Linda’s personable, low-lever narration of just existing on a farm. Yes, some of her narrations tie into the themes, but there never quite as direct or self-aware as Malick’s later narrations.
I like that nuance, I like having to tease those out, or mull over snippets of answers to questions the film never directly asks. I find that Days of Heaven requires a lot more digging than Malick’s other films to get to the questions and even more to suggest the answers. It’s a struggle, but a struggle I always enjoy returning to as I get more and more out of it with each viewing.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing