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Heaven Is a Place in Downtown Manhattan

Heaven Is a Place in Downtown Manhattan

David Thomson once wrote, “Movement on a TV set is like a fish moving across a tank, whereas movement on a real screen is that of a great fish passing us in the water.” It may seem a rather blatant defense of cinema as it’s “meant to be seen,” but watching Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven this week on the (relatively) big screen at New York’s Film Forum evoked Thomson’s quote quite literally. There comes a moment late in the film, much lauded, in which Richard Gere drops a wine glass into the river; Malick cuts away in one of his many ruminative gestures of natural contemplation to a magnificent close-up of the glass lying delicately, deep down, on the river’s bed. Seaweed sparkles and floats ethereally all around it. And yes, a fish moves across…no, a great fish passes us in the water.

Coming so soon after the triumph of The New World, Days of Heaven, gloriously large and baffling as ever, is a welcome sight in theaters. A reissue of an important film is never merely just another chance to see a favorite; rather it’s a chance to let your age, maturity, and consideration play catch-up. Whatever misgivings I have had in the past about the film, while perhaps not eradicated, were put into a proper context, both in an auteurist and emotional way. The narrative ellipses and forthright disengagement that once so troubled me now seemed like calculated strengths: that I didn’t feel a connection to the central melodrama seemed less important than the intensity that it nevertheless manages to convey. Yet what’s most spectacular is the sense of discovery that the film is able to maintain from first frame to last, that the magic-hour landscape will always stand in unforgiving opposition to the foibles of those who inhabit it; thus destruction may always be right around the corner. On video, it never seemed clear to me (though that probably has more to do with my viewing habits that the limitations of a smaller screen width), that Days of Heaven a surpassingly frightening film; in which beauty surrounds us but cannot save us.

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