DAYS OF HEAVEN - Tenley Circle 1.
It's no misleading publicity gimmick that the poster for "Days of Heaven" looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting.
This is a film more closely related to painting and artistic still photography than to the dramatic arts. It takes landscapes, portraits, plants, interiors, figures, buildings, animals and the elements of weather and shows them in a new way by using the great strengths of the motion-picture camera. It is breathtaking.
Several art styles, in addition to Wyeth's are used. But these are not cute recreations of famous pictures - simply influences that can be detected in the work of the director of photography. Nestor Alemendros, and Haskell Wexler, who did additional photography. You might see Van Gogh in the vast scene of a wheat field under a threatening sky, but the patterns of the wind through the plants contrasting with the slow, heavy cloud movement have created a new work that is a picture in motion.
Photography from the century' midteens, the period in which the film takes place, has contributed to the somber and poetic styles with which the faces of the poor are examined. But these faces are moving and pictured in color - often smeared with grime - in such a way that they are not redoing the old photographic style but building on it. The human figure is also used to dot landscapes in an Impressionistic way, or to convey horror through the way they are choreographed.
Then there is the very precise animal and plant photography, in which the nobility conveyed in minutely detailed nature drawings is added to the wonders of nature photography. A wheat stalk is shown growing through time-lapse photography. An insect, carefully observed, becomes a fantastic creature that seems to be made of mosaic.
Sound is also used in an interesting, although not always as successful, fashion. Natural noises - the crackling of a great fire, the metallic buzz of swarms of locusts - alternate with a rich musical score performed, in part, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
But do not go to this film expecting anything much in the way of a story. There is a theme in Terrence Malick's script - the theme of an American instinct for wandering for wallowing in the territorial riches of the land - but a story that is only sketchily told, as it might be in a folk song of a tragic triangle. And the narration of it, by an uneducated child, is naturalistically poetic but not easy to follow.
The story is, in fact, a primitive rendering of "Wings of the Dove," the structure - two poor lovers agreeing that one will marry someone who is rich and dying, to get the money for their own marriage - Henry James invented for his great complex psychological novel. (The man should be getting royalties: this is the second movie out in two weeks to use that plot. The other is a murder mystery, and to say which one would give away the ending.)
The actors - Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz - are beautifully used, but more as models than as actors. That is not to say that they are not making individual contributions to the art of the film, but they do so as living portraits, rather than dynamic characters.
But the absence of conventional movie-drama is not a drawback if one accepts the right of the film to make its statement of mood and beauty by other methods.