Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Days of Heaven

One of the most visually interesting films of all time, and certainly one of the most lush and beautiful, is Days of Heaven, made in 1978 by director Terrence Malick. His films often include long stretches that are sparse on dialog, instead depending on the images to tell the story. In making Days of Heaven he almost entirely filmed scenes during the Golden Hour, in the sweet light that photographers love.

While much of the credit for the look of the film went to director Malick, the exact allocation of all the credit generated controversy. As critic Roger Ebert explained:

"Days of Heaven's'' great photography has also generated a mystery. The credit for cinematography goes to the Cuban Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for the film; "Days of Heaven'' established him in America, where he went on to great success. Then there is a small credit at the end: "Additional photography by Haskell Wexler.'' Wexler, too, is one of the greatest of all cinematographers. That credit has always rankled him, and he once sent me a letter in which he described sitting in a theater with a stopwatch to prove that more than half of the footage was shot by him. The reason he didn't get top billing is a story of personal and studio politics, but the fact remains that between them these two great cinematographers created a film whose look remains unmistakably in the memory.

In one memorable shot during the film, men walk through a field that is infested with locusts. As they move through the frame they appear to stir the locusts that fly up from the ground and swirl around them. Actors and actresses are notoriously temperamental, and rather than deal with the additional headache of getting thousands of locusts to perform on cue, Malick solved the logistical problem in an ingenious way. He had peanut shells dropped from a helicopter while the actors walked backwards through the field. When the direction of the film was reversed for playback, the "locusts" performed perfectly. Such is movie magic.


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