Days of Heaven
It is said that there is really just a handful of plotlines in this world, and that every book and song and film we devise is really just a variation on one of these archetypal themes. That may very well be the case, though the variations are infinite. And if they weren't infinite, the methods by which those themes are expressed most certainly are.
Case in point: Terrence Malick's 1978 film Days of Heaven. A direct line can be drawn from William Faulkner's great novel Absalom, Absalom! through Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and on through this, Malick's second directorial effort. The film has just been released on DVD by Criterion in a pristine transfer that beautifully renders the movie's rich pastoral tones.
All three concern powerful men who forge vast empires, only to run up against forces with which they are loathe to reckon, and all three stories are told from the vantage point of intermittently reliable witnesses.
Welles adopted Faulkner's circular narrative form and moved his tale from the rural South to New York City in the deconstruction of the life of a man whose ambitions were ultimately curtailed by his own personal flaws. Malick moved the story back to the rural countryside, this time in the southwest. But whereas Faulkner's aristocratic plantation society was undone by the South's original sin of slavery, of racial tensions come to a head, Malick's is undone by less tragic but equally biblical plagues: locusts and fire. In all three, a man sees his particular brand of progress halted and reversed, ultimately leading to the destruction of the idyllic self-contained world he had sought to create.
But Malick makes the story his own primarily through the telling of the tale. His version, unlike Kane and Absalom, is told chronologically, but it is far more elliptical. Malick's style can be described as impressionistic, full of contemplative shots of nature, of faces, of time passing slowly. It is as though Malick is giving us the chance to pause and simply watch the world breathe. Inserted here and there amid the action are quiet shots of birds passing overhead, of fields of wheat swirling in the breeze, of insects alighting on blades of grass—ephemeral sights and sounds that leave indelible impressions that defy verbal expression. A Malick film is not something to be dissected, examined and intellectualized, but rather something to be experienced and felt.
Extra features include interviews with Gere and Shepard and cinematographers Haskell Wexler and John Bailey; a commentary by editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden; and an essay by film critic Adrian Martin.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz. Photographed by Nestor Almendros. 94 minutes. $39.95. Criterion Collection. www.criterion.com.
Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein's dramatization of an event from the Russian Revolution, is one of the touchstones of cinema. It caused a sensation when it was released in 1925 and remains one of the most influential films of the silent era. Its methods, bold and unconventional in their time, transformed cinematic technique. Kino International has recently released the film in what may prove to be a definitively restored edition, a two-disc set that includes both English and Russian versions of the film.
The film is primarily influential due to what became known as "montage." Though the word really just translates as "editing" or "putting together," it has come to mean several different kinds of editing: rapid rhythmic cutting; spatial and temporally jarring cutting; or the accumulation of images in the creation of either an emotional effect or an intellectual idea. Perhaps the simplest definition is the juxtaposition of independent and often disparate images in the creation of meaning. Eisenstein himself described it as independent shots placed not one after the other, but on top of one another, like layers of meaning and emotion.
The most famous example is the Odessa Steps sequence, a heart-pounding scene in which soldiers march methodically down what appears to be, due to Eisenstein's editing, an enormously long staircase, slaughtering a throng of people who rush to escape the gunfire. Eisenstein never fully orients the viewer to the landscape. Instead he provides a continuous rush of imagery: closeups of the dead and the dying; shots of crowds fleeing; stampeding feet; and, most famously, a baby carriage tumbling down the staircase, set in motion by the falling body of a murdered mother. Through the rapid juxtaposition of disparate shots, Eisenstein simulates the terror and bloodshed of the event, the disoriented space, the rush of motion, and the drawn-out feeling of time expanding, as though the horror will never end.
There are simpler examples of montage as well. Early in the film, when the crew on the battleship feels the first stirrings of revolution, a sailor smashes a plate on the edge of a table. Eisenstein, through montage, imbues this moment with greater import and force by rapidly cutting in several views of this gesture. In quick succession we see the plate smashed in closeup and in medium shot, along with closeups of the soldier's face and arm. Essentially we see the action repeated, the plate smashed several times, but all this action flashes by in a second. It seems very simple, but Eisenstein was touching on something profound here, using the unique properties of the cinema in the creation of a powerfully expressive technique. With a few clever edits, he transformed a gesture of frustration into a battle cry, the first act of mutiny. The smashed plate heard round the world.
Potemkin would be subject to far more cutting over the years. It would seem that every nation in which it appeared found it necessary to cut away at the film, diluting its revolutionary power and even shaping it to fit other ideologies. Thus the film, though it has been widely viewed and always appreciated, has rarely, if ever, been seen in anything resembling its original form since its 1925 premiere in Moscow. The Kino release does not claim to represent the film in its original state, but it is thought that this is as close as we're likely to get.
Extra features include a 42-minute documentary on the making and restoration of the film, English and original Russian versions, and a photo gallery.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein. 69 minutes. $29.95. Kino International. www.kino.com.
Under the Volcano
John Huston had one of the most varied careers a director can have. He started out as a screenwriter before making his directing debut with The Maltese Falcon in 1941. The film was a revelation, giving Humphrey Bogart his first truly great role. But as great as that film was, it owed much of its greatness to its source material, for Huston remained very true to the original text. He proved himself again and again though, and in many different genres, with Asphalt Jungle and Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Moby Dick.
Some of his works were failures. As Christian Viviani points out in an essay that accompanies Criterion's new DVD release of Under the Volcano (1984), Huston was inclined to imbue projects of his own choosing with great passion, while granting assigned projects little creative spark.
Under the Volcano is clearly one of Huston's pet projects. It features an excellent performance by Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin, a retired British ambassador in Mexico, reduced to alcoholism and self-destruction following the departure of his wife after she had an affair. Huston lavishes attention on the hard-drinking, self-loathing character, and on both the romance and the seediness of the environs.
The movie is based on a novel by Malcolm Lowry, a book long considered "unadaptable" and thus more alluring to a maverick director like Huston. The novel concerns Mexico in the years before World War II, as the country was aligning itself with the Third Reich. Huston stripped the tale of much of its political and social ramifications to focus on the man himself, on the nature and consequences of his alcoholism, and on the relationships between the man, his wife and his half-brother.
The film is mannered and theatrical, yet remarkably authentic in its portrait of a man simultaneously struggling to stay afloat and to drown himself, and of the loved ones around him who are desperate to help him with one and save him from the other.
The result though is a film that remains somewhat unsatisfying. There are flashes of directorial brilliance, and the actors easily hold our interest, but the sidelining of much of the social and political context leaves Firmin's self-destruction seeming somewhat melodramatic, more soap opera than drama, more pulp than character study.
The two-disc set includes commentaries by the film's producers, by screenwriter Guy Gallo, and by Huston's son, actor-director Danny Huston; a new interview with Bisset; a 1984 audio interview with John Huston; and two documentaries, one about the film's production and another about the life of author Malcolm Lowry.
Under the Volcano (1984)
Directed by John Huston. Adapted from the novel by Malcolm Lowry. Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews. 112 minutes. $39.95. Criterion Collection. www.criterion.com.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Science fiction is a delicate enterprise. No genre runs a greater risk of aging poorly. Theories and technologies can be discarded or adopted so quickly, and either way yesterday's fantasies just as quickly can seem quaint, naive, and silly. It's hard luck when these technical details overwhelm otherwise solid pieces of entertainment, and perhaps it is the works that avoid these pitfalls that age best.
Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a good example of a science fiction film that manages to eschew much of the techno-gadgetry that sometimes sinks the genre. Instead Haskin focuses his plot mainly on the problem of a lone man's survival in a hostile landscape. It is less a science fiction film than a simple update of the Daniel Defoe novel. After all, Earth has been fully explored—why not reset the tale in the next frontier?
Haskin is probably best known for bringing The War of the Worlds to the screen for the first time, in 1953. But Robinson Crusoe on Mars, though perhaps not quite as entertaining overall, is probably the more mature work. The special effects of course seem a bit simple at times, but this was, for the most part, cutting edge stuff. Haskin's spaceships move with frightening precision from one position to the next, like light-speed hummingbirds; his Mars is barren but with tantalizing signs of sustenance; and his caves are almost warm and comforting, perfectly conveying a sense of security, however tenuous, in a vast and terrifying landscape.
The film lacks pacing, however. It understandably avoids the heartpounding race from one event to another of the alien-invasion variety, but Haskin's grasp of the techniques for slowing a film to a contemplative pace is weak at best. A more skillful director would have developed the spaces between the action and dialogue, lingering longer on the haunting images of the landscape, the shifting shadows as Martian day gives way to Martian night, or the weary but determined face of his hero. Of course, he would have needed a better actor than Paul Mantee to do it right, but still the film cries out for more finesse.
Criterion's new DVD release of the film includes a commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Mantee and Victor Lundin, and historian and special effects specialist Robert Skotak.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Directed by Byron Haskin. Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin. 110 minutes. $39.95. Criterion Collection. www.criterion.com.