“Magic hour” lighting in Days of Heaven
A few years ago I went on an early 20th century American literature kick and read, in quick succession, novels by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, and was astonished to find myself forming the opinion that the first two decades of that century constitute what I believe to be the single richest era for American literature. (I say “astonished” because I had previously taken a 20th Century American Novel class in college that completely dismissed pre-“Jazz Age” authors and had predictably begun with Fitzgerald and Hemingway instead.) The last name on this illustrious list, Willa Cather, became my favorite of the bunch when I read her 1918 masterpiece My Antonia, a short and deceptively simple “memory piece” in which the narrator, a successful New York lawyer, reminisces about his childhood growing up on a Nebraska farm and the first stirrings of love he felt for his neighbor, an immigrant girl from Bohemia. What made a much bigger impression on me than the plot or the characters, however, was Cather’s very specific sense of place — her poetic descriptions of the tall red Nebraska grass blowing in the wind and the quality of the late afternoon sunlight. Such passages put me in the mind of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which takes place on a Texas wheat farm (though it was shot in Canada) the same year that Cather’s novel was published and features similar “magic hour” images of farmers juxtaposed against tall wheat fields. While I knew that Malick had used F.W. Murnau’s penultimate film City Girl (1930) and Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World as visual reference points for his movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t also been inspired by Cather’s prose.
Andrew Wyeth’s evocative 1948 painting Christina’s World
I recently formed a “cigar and book club” with a couple of buddies (one of us chooses a book to read, then we get together a month later to discuss it over cigars and libations), and my first proposal was Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). While I am still in the process of reading this beautiful western novel about Catholic missionaries from Europe establishing a diocese in mid-19th century New Mexico, I have already been blown away again by her ability to capture what one might think of as “painterly” or “cinematic” images in the language of prose. In the novel’s second paragraph, for instance, Cather describes the quality and color of sunlight during the last hour before the sun disappears from a dusky Roman sky. Check it out:
It was early when the Spanish Cardinal and his guests sat down to dinner. The sun was still good for an hour of supreme splendour, and across the shining folds of country the low profile of the city barely fretted the skyline — indistinct except for the dome of St. Peter’s, bluish grey like the flattened top of a great balloon, just a flash of copper light on its soft metallic surface. The Cardinal had an eccentric preference for beginning his dinner at this time in the late afternoon, when the vehemence of the sun suggested motion. The light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax — of splendid finish. It was both intense and soft, with a ruddiness as of much-multiplied candlelight, an aura of red in its flames. It bored into the ilex trees, illuminating their mahogany trunks and blurring their dark foliage; it warmed the bright green of the orange trees and the rose of the oleander blooms to gold; sent congested spiral patterns quivering over the damask and plate and crystal. The churchmen kept their rectangular clerical caps on their heads to protect them from the sun. The three Cardinals wore black cassocks with crimson pipings and crimson buttons, the Bishop a long black coat over his violet vest.
Neither My Antonia nor Death Comes for the Archbishop has ever been adapted for the big screen. Reading the above passage kind of makes you wonder why no one has attempted to bring such vivid images to cinematic life, no?