A dreamy fairy tale about a psychotic killer and his teenage girlfriend, Badlands features two fine performances (Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek) and a compelling story. Spacek's matter-of-fact narration and Sheen's modest charm draw you into a drama that appears to unfold spontaneously. Writer/director Terence Malick made a radical departure into more visual storytelling with his next feature, Days of Heaven. Because Days of Heaven is so dependent upon those visual components, Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere has sounded the alarm that Criterion's upcoming re-issue of the film on DVD will look "really different" than the previous version.

Wells pointed to a blog entry by Criterion's Lee Kline in which Kline described the process involved. A new film interpositive was needed for the transfer; Malick initially wanted Kline to "simply match the existing transfer because he'd always liked it," but finally agreed to be present for the color-correction process. Once there, he "made it clear that the new transfer needed to feel natural and not too 'postcardlike.' ... The natural beauty of the land needed to be represented, since that was what they were going for when shooting. ... I told Terry that people were really going to be pretty surprised by this new transfer, since it was such a radical departure from before, but he said it was perfect."

Wells relates that he saw the film in 70mm in 1978 and "no viewings since have ever come close in terms of basic visual grandeur." In response to a reader's comment, he writes that Kline's alarm "was almost certainly due to Malick naturalizing the look by making sure the visual values were in no way heightened or warmed-up or made to look 'too pretty.' ... The Criterion Days of Heaven may be perfectly fine, but something tells me it's going to look much better on high-def with a perfect plasma screen than on, say, my Sony flat-screen or other tube screens owned by Regular Joes."
The concern that the new transfer won't look as good on televisions owned by "Regular Joes" misses the point, I think. While critical opinion on the overall artistic merits of Days of Heaven remains divided, there's little disagreement that it's a gorgeous thing to look at, though it's hard to be believe any home video version will match the theatrical experience. In his 1997 reevaluation, Roger Ebert went so far as to call it "one of the most beautiful films ever made." But is it just the beauty of the imagery that makes people feel so fondly about the movie?

I first saw Badlands and Days of Heaven together on a double bill at a repertory theater in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I fell in love with Badlands for the understated, powerful way the story was told, but Days of Heaven was simply astonishing because it threw out the narrative in favor of long, wordless stretches, in which the landscape and forces of nature dominated. Ebert makes a persuasive argument that the film presents a child's view of love, loss, pain and joy, which would help explain why the characters appear so thinly-drawn. Still, it's the visuals that deliver the message -- not just the beauty or grandeur, but the awe they inspire in the one watching. It's a natural reaction for anyone who's traveled through awe-inspiring landscapes, and stopped to consider the surroundings, to feel humbled and child-like. With Days of Heaven, Malick captured this feeling in spades, and that's what makes it so memorable.

In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind says the cast and crew felt Malick was cold and distant during the filming of the movie and was "having trouble getting decent performances." Two weeks into filming, Malick reportedly tossed the script and decided to "shoot miles of film with the hope of solving the problems in the editing room." Biskin claims that Malick took two years to edit and kept on cutting out dialogue until the plot became incomprehensible, finally deciding to solve things with a voice-over narration. Whether that's true or not, the finished product was certainly very different from other American films, especially those that had been subsequently made by Malick's contemporaries, such as Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma and George Lucas (each of whom also released key films in 1973, the same year as Badlands).

Of course, Biskind also claims that director of photography Nester Almendros was "slowly going blind" and would have "one of his assistants take Polaroids of the scene, then examined them through very strong glasses and made his adjustments." It must have been taken Almendros a very long time to go blind, since he continued working as a cinematographer (Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice, Places in the Heart) until 1991.

On a somewhat related point, Ebert says that Haskell Wexler, who received a credit for additional photography, once sent him 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." To that point, San Francisco Chronicle critic Edward Guthmann wrote in 1999: "When the film ran over schedule, [Almendros] left for France to start a Truffaut film, and Haskell Wexler shot the last 19 days."

Getting back to the main point: ideally, Days of Heaven should be seen in a theater. Barring that possibility, the Criterion edition should be a good alternative, even if you don't own state-of-the-art equipment. The important thing is to give the film a chance to work its magic on you. The Criterion DVD releases on October 23. Complete details are available at the Criterion site.