I watched Days of Heaven yesterday for the first time (thanks, Chris and Kase, for telling me it was on Netflix Instant!) I had actually watched The Thin Red Line earlier in the day, and so was more primed for Terrence Malick poeticism than most normal human beings. Which I think was part of the problem. Obviously this movie does things better than any other movie could image— the locust attack, Sam Shepard’s endless simmering reaction shots, those furiously spinning weather instruments on the roof— but it also feels like an embryonic version of what Malick would do later. I think I specifically feel it in the cuts, when he uses these dissolves to cut off conversation, or slams from one place to the other with no sense of flow— comparing it to The Thin Red Line, and how all these dramatically different sequences lead into each other perfectly, it’s especially jarring. It’s patently unfair to look at a filmmaker’s early work and say “Yeah, but it’s not as good as what came next.” But it’s also patently impossible to travel back to 1978 and see this without knowing about The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life.
How do I see in Days of Heaven what the awestruck masses saw for two decades when they thought it might be Malick’s last film? How do I appreciate the embryo on its own terms, rather than focus on the amazing creature it will become?