It’s somewhat depressing to think that the two best films on offer this summer, by far, were made over three decades ago. Robert Altman’s epic “Nashville” came out in the torrid summer of 1975, while Terrence Malick’s sophomore film, “Days of Heaven,” was released in ’78 after two years in the editing room. On the other hand, it’s rather heartening to see the cream of American cinema’s ’70s renaissance getting some big-screen revivals.
“Days of Heaven,” without a doubt, should be seen on the big screen or not at all. The cinematography of Nestor Almendros (who was going blind during the shoot) and Haskell Wexler is legendary, breathtaking in its naturally lit beauty and for Malick’s perfectionist obsession with capturing the Texas Panhandle during “magic hour,” brief 20-minute periods at dawn and dusk where the sky and light were just so. You’ll sink into this film and never want to come out.
The story is pure Malick mythic: It’s the year 1916, and we meet Richard Gere’s ne’er-do-well Bill working in an infernal Chicago steel mill. After a violent altercation with his boss, Bill hits the road with his 12-year-old sister, Linda (Linda Manz), and his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams). They hop a train with some migrant laborers, and find harvest-season work on the open plains of the heartland.
To avoid unwanted attention, Bill pretends that Abby is his sister; this gets complicated when the shy owner (Sam Shepard) of the farm falls for Abby. Bill, learning that the farmer is terminally ill, suggests that Abby should encourage him, so that they can inherit the estate when he dies. Amidst the endless horizons of God’s country, currents of jealousy and confused emotions begin to swell. The arrival of a horde of locusts and a wildfire almost seem like Biblical punishment for their sins.
The qualities that make this film special are so clear you could practically bottle them, and that is pretty much what Malick has done in his subsequent films (“The Thin Red Line,” “The New World” and “Tree of Life,” which opens next week). What’s amazing is that Malick seems to have embraced this style out of necessity; unhappy with the performance he was getting from Gere — a young and raw actor, fresh off of “American Gigolo” — Malick made the decision to cut the dialogue to the bone, and focus on ambience. Holding things together is the half-naive/half-jaded narration by street-urchin Linda, the most peripheral character to the story. The end result is a dreamlike, impressionistic quality, the feeling of a story that’s been pulled up from memories.
Robert Altman was perhaps the creative opposite of Malick: boisterous and talky, where Malick was poetic and reserved; feeding off the present, the political and the counterculture of the era, while Malick was at one remove, aiming for the eternal archetypes. Where Malick was the consummate perfectionist — so much so that he’s only managed five films in a 40-year career — Altman was more comfortable with rough edges. What the two directors had in common was an ability to improvise, to throw away the script and follow where inspiration on set may lead. Both were driven by the need to capture something that felt real, unforced, alive.
Altman rarely nailed that elusive quality better than he did in “Nashville.” Ostensibly a look at the then-burgeoning country-music scene, with characters loosely based on singers such as Hank Snow and Loretta Lynn, Altman nudged the film into a meditation on celebrity, how everyone wants a piece of it and what they’ll do to get it. If the core characters are the singer-stars played by Karen Black, Ronee Blakley and Henry Gibson, the movie nevertheless spends as much time on the people hovering around them: all the fans, reporters, lovers, stalkers, groupies, wannabes and slick political handlers.
With 24 major roles, “Nashville” is perhaps the most sprawling ensemble piece Altman ever made, and that’s saying something, considering films such as “Short Cuts” or “Gosford Park.” What’s fun is to watch him thread all the character arcs in and out; some characters, like Shelley Duvall’s jailbait L.A. Joan or Jeff Goldblum’s oddball Tricycle Man, are in nearly every major scene, but usually on the periphery; others, such as Allen Garfield’s sleazy husband-manager, get only one or two big scenes but leave indelible impressions. Altman was the master of this style, and everyone from Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia”) to Paul Haggis (“Crash”) has cribbed from it.
This was filmmaking on the edge: the climactic outdoor concert scene was shot before a real audience in one take on the last day of shooting, and it rained right up to the last minute. (Legend has it that a frustrated Altman screamed “Stop!” and the skies cleared.) The shocking incident that occurs caught much of the on-screen audience by surprise, and the reactions seen are real.
The film certainly has its detractors. Some say the music, all performed live by the cast, doesn’t hold up well when compared to real country singers; they have a point, but each song is uniquely tied to a character’s persona, often in an ironic way, something that would have been impossible if they’d used actual songs. Many also disliked Geraldine Chaplin’s over-the-top portrayal of a BBC reporter, saying that no responsible journalist would act as she does — which is exactly the point. She may not be a journalist at all, but a star-hound posing as one.
“Nashville” remains a landmark work in cinema — with innovations in sound design, narrative and the blurring of reality and fiction (anyone who turned up on the set was thrown into the film) — but more than anything, it is a perfect time-capsule of America in the mid-’70s, when hippie culture had oozed into the mainstream in some sort of bizarrely mutated form, post-Watergate political disillusion was rampant, and pop stars had become the new elite. Long unavailable on DVD or video in Japan, this is well worth catching while you can.