Tag Archives: 1978

Top 100 Films #39 – Days of Heaven (1978)

 

20130619-083335#39. Days of Heaven (1978)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz

Days of Heaven is the film that truly launched the career of mysterious filmmaker Terrence Malick, who continues to turn out some of the most beautiful, philosophical films of our time.  Despite its success critically and on the awards circuit, Malick took a twenty year hiatus after its release, coming back in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. Days of Heaven tells the story of siblings Bill (Richard Gere) and Linda (Linda Manz) on the run after Bill accidentally kills his boss during a dispute at work.  Bill’s girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) joins the two in the Texas Panhandle, where the three work for a quiet farmer (Sam Shepard).  The Farmer, who learns he is dying,  eventually falls in love with Abby, who is encouraged by Bill to marry him so they can inherit his money upon his death.  Unfortunately for all three involved, the once false love triangle quickly becomes very real, and things become far more complicated than they ever expected.  Days of Heaven is a quiet, meditative tale of love and betrayal, and features all of the elements that Terrence Malick would eventually become famous for.  The film, shot by acclaimed cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, is breathtakingly beautiful in every frame.  Malick’s eye for sweeping landscapes, horizons, and the mundane beauty of nature is unparalleled, especially in combination with the use of natural lighting during the famous “golden hour”.  The visuals featured in Days of Heaven are some of my favorite in film history, and I truly feel that its beauty is undeniable. Cinematographer Nestor Almendros picked up a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his efforts – famously making him the only man to win for photography on a Terrence Malick picture. Another highlight of the film comes in the form of its beautiful score by the master Ennio Morricone and guitarist Leo Kottke, which serves to push the film’s atmospheric naturalistic feel even further.  Though Days of Heaven is perhaps best known for its stylistic elements, Malick’s screenplay is another of its crowning achievements – featuring his usual philosophic ruminations on man’s relationship with nature, death, and innocence, but in a much more conventional narrative fashion than his later films.  Malick uses narration by Linda Manz’s young character Linda to push the story forward, using her naivety and innocence to compliment the film’s themes. We’re left with a quiet, beautiful, meditative story featuring a strong love triangle element that constantly leaves us wanting more and questioning what will happen next.  The film’s shining moment comes in the form of a locust swarm descending upon the farm, with the farmers being forced to burn their crops in order to ward off the invading insects.  These scenes are filmed with natural light, and use impressive film reversal techniques to give the illusion that the locusts are invading from all angles.  Days of Heaven is a triumph of 1970’s cinema, and my absolute favorite Terrence Malick film – they truly don’t get much more beautiful than this.  

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Top 100 Films #49 – Autumn Sonata (1978)

 

lead-autumn-sonata#49. Autumn Sonata (1978)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Bjork

Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman knew familial drama like few others before or after them, and his 1978 film Autumn Sonata may very well be one of his most powerful late-career projects.  Starring the always marvelous Liv Ullmann as a pianist named Eva who invites her aging mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) – a world class pianist – to visit her and her husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork).  Eva’s disabled sister Helena (Lena Nyman) makes an appearance in the home, shocking Charlotte and bringing about a wide range of difficult feelings.  Eva feels as if Charlotte has never truly loved her daughters as a mother should, which also brings with it a simmering tension ready to boil over at any moment.  Autumn Sonata is a beautiful, small film that likes of which are hardly seen anymore, especially from auteurs like Ingmar Bergman.  It deals with the usual Bergman themes of death, regret, and sorrow, but also delves deep into themes of reconciliation and the reconstruction of relationships, and does so very elegantly. The familial unit of Eva, Charlotte, and Helena feels genuine and depressing for a number of reasons – each character desperately wants to express themselves fully and say what they need to, but can’t for fear of furthering the chasms between them.  Eva and Charlotte’s subtle rivalry over their achievements and talents as pianists furthers the tension and Bergman uses it to produce some very subtle moments of building angst and bitterness.  The performances in Autumn Sonata are incredible, as they often are in Bergman’s best films.  Ingrid Bergman’s commanding performance as the cold Charlotte is one of the film’s strongest points – making viewers flip-flop between sympathy and genuine dislike of the woman.  Her chemistry with co-star Liv Ullmann is palpable and is a large part of why Autumn Sonata is such an affecting piece.  Ullmann’s more emotionally fragile Eva is terrific – she gives the audience a real sense that her current life is truly unsatisfying, living with constant regret and a desire for more. Lastly, Lena Nyman’s Helena stands out as being a very good performance – her character’s disabilities feel genuine and cause her and her family a great deal of real frustration and empathy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the films of Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata may not be the best starting point – but it sure as hell represents everything great that the director tackled during his prolific career.  It features great performances, an emotionally charged script by Bergman himself, and excellent, un-shaking direction.  When the emotional fissures between the lead characters finally begin to widen, Autumn Sonata becomes a true masterpiece.  

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Black Directors Feature #5 – Killer of Sheep (1978)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)Killer of Sheep (1978)
Directed by: Charles Burnett
Written by: Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sangers, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond

Charles Burnett is widely known as perhaps one of the most under-appreciated and underrated film directors in modern American history, largely due to his work on 1978’s Killer of Sheep.  Burnett wrote the film during his time at UCLA, and quickly went to work on making his screenplay a reality.  Casting friends, family members, and colleagues in the film, Burnett completed Killer of Sheep and spent less than $10,000 in the process.  He opted for a documentary-like style throughout the film, with the camera servicing almost as a fly on the wall for the moments caught on scree.  Burnett’s style is highly reminiscent of films made during the period of Italian neorealism in the 1940’s and early 50’s, a movement that created critically acclaimed classics like Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, Nights of Cabiria, Stromboli, and Umberto D.  Though Killer of Sheep is regarded as a triumph today, the film had an incredibly tough time playing to audiences of the time.  Its low budget nature and low quality prints made it hard to screen to mass audiences, and the film’s use of licensed music created legal complications for a wide release.  After fading into relative obscurity for a number of years, Killer of Sheep was restored and remastered and given a theatrical and home video release in 2007 – nearly thirty years after its completion.  Charles Burnett would get the opportunity to work with higher budgets in the 1990’s, directing the acclaimed To Sleep with Anger and later The Glass Shield. Despite having all of the acclaim and talent in the world working on his side, Burnett has opted to make a career out of documentary film-making and various made for television movies, including one for the Disney Channel titled Nightjohn, and an ABC film called Selma, Lord, Selma.  Despite never quite making it into the history books as an all-time great filmmaker with a catalog of revered classics, Charles Burnett has managed to stay relevant and on the cutting edge of his industry in whatever field he chooses to work in.  His influence on independent film-making and black films is undeniable, and the craft and skill he puts into his work is to be greatly admired.  All-time great or not, Burnett will be forever remembered for groundbreaking films like Killer of Sheep, and for carving out his own path in the film industry, and constantly (and admirably) doing it the way he wants to do it.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in 1978’s Killer of Sheep.

Killer of Sheep takes a documentary-like approach to the lives of a black family in the Watts district of 1970’s Los Angeles.  As such, there isn’t much of a coherent narrative to summarize.  Instead of a flowing act-to-act style story, the film observes their real, mundane lives and makes it something to truly behold.  We see Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a father who spends his time working at a slaughterhouse in the area.  It’s implied that the constant slaughtering of these animals is having a subtle effect on his family life, as we see through Stan’s interactions with his wife, son, and daughter.  Stan’s life is dull, grey, and monotonous, and it causes him to ignore the need for affection that his family yearns for.  The story is told through a number of events, none of them following any sort of strict timeline.  We see Stan nearly become embroiled in some nefarious criminal activities, be offered a job working in a shop owned by a white woman, and his attempts to purchase and transport the engine of a car.  What we really see though, is a disillusioned man struggling with existential ideas that are much bigger than himself.  He feels powerless in changing the course of his own life, probably feels trapped in the beautiful and loving family he has crafted for himself, and completely jaded with the life he is currently living.  Killer of Sheep is an experimental film that is nearly impossible to summarize in a coherent manner. It’s a film that needs to be seen in order to be fully comprehended.

Sometimes all you need when analyzing and trying to make up your mind about an experience like this is perspective.  After taking in all of Killer of Sheep and enjoying it – but not quite understanding it – I took to the internet and read some pieces on the film.  When I came across several references towards Killer of Sheep being heavily inspired by the works of Italian neorealists of the 40’s, everything suddenly clicked for me.  The story here is completely secondary to everything that Burnett is trying to get across with his film.  This isn’t a preachy, cliche-ridden drama like so many black films before and after it had been, but instead an unflinching look at the everyday lives of a family, in particular its patriarch.  It’s fitting that I watched Killer of Sheep and Touki Bouki in the same evening for my first viewing of both films, as they both take a very similar approach stylistically and thematically.  Both films are about people who are unsatisfied with their surroundings yearning for something far more grand, but never knowing quite what they want.  The same disconnected, fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary-like style is employed in both films, making both works feel far more powerful in the delivery of their messages.  The absence of a coherent narrative often throws me off for films like this, but Stan is an incredibly interesting lead character, and I found myself really compelled and wanting to know what he was going to get into next.  Director Charles Burnett shows some truly incredible talent in Killer of Sheep, often making neighborhoods in Watts resemble war-torn suburbs, further stressing the disillusionment and sense of un-fulfillment that Stan is feeling.  Everywhere the camera goes something interesting is happening, whether it’s in the background or front and center.  My favorite scene in the film is a very small, beautiful moment that sees Stan’s wife working in the kitchen while his young daughter sings along to the radio in the next room over.  The scene is incredibly simple and in no way technically impressive, but it managed to really touch me in a way I can’t quite describe.  Stan’s family is very lovely despite everything they’re up against, and yet our lead character can’t see just how much he’s taking them all for granted.  Instead, Stan is focused on fixing his car and setting his sights on escaping in whatever mental or physical way he possibly can.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan’s daughter (Angela Burnett) and a young neighborhood boy in Charles Burnett’s incredible Killer of Sheep.

While it may not be an action thrill ride, nor is it the most beautiful and stylistic film you’ll ever see, Killer of Sheep is an incredible piece of art from a filmmaker who has all the talent in the world.  The existential themes of longing for more, escape, and disillusionment are something that many of you can relate with.  It’s a film that resonates with you long after you see it, and one you may not be able to fully appreciate after just one watch.  It’s thematically rich, with an incredible script and a compelling lead character.  It may not be for everybody reading this, but I’m so glad to finally be able to say that I’ve seen Charles Burnett’s incredible debut.  Killer of Sheep is highly recommended.

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