07 June 2011

DAYS OF MALICK: IS THERE AN AVENGING POWER IN NATURE?

After Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick vanished from the face of cinema. It was not, as is sometimes suggested, a deliberate retirement; he actively pursued at least a handful of projects in the years after his sophomore effort, including his creation-to-today epic Q and a biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Yet is there not something right, in a way, about this exile? As though with Days of Heaven (which still is, in many important ways, the peak expression of what "a film by Terrence Malick" can possibly mean), he had exhausted everything he could say with the medium, and having left his indomitable mark, he turned to other pursuits and interests, leaving behind an art form which had no further horizons for him to explore.

Eventually, of course, he did return: after a 20-year hiatus during which just about everyone had long since assumed that Malick was done and all, his two-film career the stuff of legend, key works of the New Hollywood Cinema that represented the brief flaring of a man whose command of visual language could hardly be over-praised, but which we were to never see again. And in a certain way, the Malick of the '90s and onward is a different filmmaker: gone are the relentlessly intimate, even compact stories of his early career (both films just a hair under 94 minutes long), replaced by sprawling, uncontainable epics about War, about Civilisation, about Life Itself.

Certainly, you would never suppose, solely on the evidence of Badlands and Days of Heaven, that Malick would ever be driven to adapt a World War II novel by the grim realist and veteran James Jones, certainly not one that had been adapted already, thirty years prior; and yet his comeback was indeed The Thin Red Line, a 171-minute combat picture with a ridiculously long cast of characters played by a stunningly marquee-friendly list of actors. At the time - I remember it clearly - the media narrative was that The Thin Red Line was in some manner or another going to be the Pacific Theater counterpart to Saving Private Ryan,* the Alpha and Omega of the anointed Year of WWII Pictures

Allow me to stop a moment for personal reflection; my feelings towards The Thin Red Line can never, ever be objective, and I'd like to explain why.

Like most cinephiles, I really started to dig into films as an art form during my mid-teens: I think I was 12 or 13 when I started actively pursuing '40s and '50s movies with the sense that these were important classics, and if I wanted to have an informed opinion, I needed to be acquainted with things older than myself. I am certain that my first subtitled movie, Seven Samurai, came when I was 14 - this would have been the spring of 1996 - and so on and so forth; my tastes were criminally unsophisticated at the time, but the important thing was having the appetite for everything I could acquire.

So, it's the winter of '98/'99 - it must have been January, though I'd have testified under oath that it was in December - I've just turned 17 - and having been utterly impressed by Private Ryan, though by then smart enough to recognise the hoary war movie clich├ęs as unworthy of the exquisite opening sequence, I was all hopped-up for this new war movie that was coming out, and the reviews indicating that it was a bit on the slow, deliberate side only got me more excited; for was I not a Serious Film Watcher? So off my dad and I went (my mom had the flu & was anyway not in the mood for a war film) to the Regal Round Lake Beach 18 to see this no-doubt-exciting depiction of the hell of war.

I can remember with profoundest clarity, first hearing the tension of the single chord, on strings, that opens the film; the titles in stark white on black; and then the murky grey-green shot of a crocodile, sliding down a muddy bank and into a brackish pool, drifting along and slowly disappearing under the slime. I have now seen the movie five - six? - times, and every single time that image appears, I am thrown back to being a 17-year-old kid in suburban Illinois on a snowy night, the very exact moment that I became a man. There aren't words that describe how I felt in that dark theater, though I remember it as vividly as if it happened just this morning. Nothing in my experience readied me for this kind of audio-visual language, and I was hopelessly hooked as instantly as if the theater chairs had IVs of crack cocaine for each and every viewer.

Being a sensible person, I don't want to credit a single event with shaping my personality, but... if I were to select a single movie-going experience that divided my youthful enthusiasm from more more selective, analytical - I flatter myself to say "mature" - love of film, it would be the first time I saw The Thin Red Line. Everything since then - not least the very blog you're reading now - hinges on that string section, and that crocodile.

So you see, I owe The Thin Red Line far too dearly to ever dare to be "objective" towards it.

If I were going to be objective, though, this is the point where I would nod in the direction of a plot synopsis. The Thin Red Line has a massive cast, but I think most of us would agree that, if it has a "main" character, that character is Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), who has "gone native" as they used to say, somewhere in Melanesia. His life is one of radiant bliss, enjoying the simple rhythm of a life dictated solely by nature, and that's when the patrol boat finds him and his fellow AWOL-ee.

The thing is, of all Malick's films, The Thin Red Line is the most resistant to a plot synopsis, for it is of all of them the least possessed of a "plot" in any conventional sense of the word. Because I've gone and said that Witt is the main character, and yet, once he's been chewed out by his CO, 1st Sgt. Walsh (Sean Penn), he drifts back into the film's massive ensemble for a huge stretch, and isn't really replaced by anybody. The movie has a narrative thrust, all right - it's about the battle to take the island of Guadalcanal in December 1942 and January 1943, one of the defining events in the Pacific Theater of WWII, specifically the bloody attempt to take the summit of Mount Austen. Over the course of the days spent taking and securing the hill, a teeming mass of people pass in front of our eyes, some important for the whole course of the movie, some important for only a scene or two; beyond Witt and Walsh, the characters given the most space include Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), and Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), but there's never a moment at which the action truly "follows" any one face out of the many or fully commits itself to the perspective of a single man; and this is what makes it hard to state the film's plot with any more specificity than "first they have a hard time taking the hill, then they take it and penetrate further inland".

It is in part this collapse of narrativity that makes The Thin Red Line one of the great war films of all time - and though it is not only a great war film, perhaps not even primarily a great war film, it is assuredly a great war film - for it is through this that the film achieves the great equality that war is said to bring to the soldiers fighting in it. There is no one central figure in the film - a marked rarity in combat films from Hollywood or anywhere - because the central figure is C Company itself. The film levels all artificial distinctions in which movie characters are assorted hierarchically, preferring instead to mix them all up (literally: it took me three viewings before I could follow each character all the way through, start to finish, without confusing some of them) and follow each one for just a moment before switching to the next.

This doesn't just apply to the characters, but to the actors; Malick famously discarded all notions of star ranking in assembling his huge mound of footage (the assembly cut ran to a legendary six hours). Among the people not so important that they bear mentioning in the first tier of protagonists include Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson), Brig. Gen. Quintard (John Travolta), Capt. Gaff (John Cusack), Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody), and Capt. Bosche (George Clooney), and in some cases, the actors themselves were rather surprised to find that was the case (Brody was made to believe his character was the most important, and did not hide his bittereness at being reduced to some 15 minutes of screentime and fewer than a half dozen lines). And then there's the list of marquee actors who didn't even make the final cut: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke. It is said that Malick was presented with a list of ten stars by 20th Century Fox, and told that five of them had to be in the film, which is why Clooney's one-scene cameo was included, despite the director's concern that it would be a film-breaking distraction to have such a famous man crop up in such a tiny role so late in the film - and just to register his frustration all the more thoroughly, he has Penn's voice-over all but obliterate every one of Clooney's lines on the soundtrack.

Truth be told, it is a little distracting, but to good cause: it calls attention to what's happening "Hey, it's John Travolta!" we enthuse, only to be rattled when he is dropped like a hot potato while the film focuses its energies on Ben Chaplin (who? exactly). This is war: and war doesn't care who's a movie star or not. A dramatic line in the sand separating The Thin Red Line from hundreds of war movies before it, war movies in which Gary Cooper or John Wayne (or Tom Hanks) was the star & no two ways about it.

As a war film, The Thin Red Line certainly does what it can to stress the chaos and disorientation of combat; the march up the hill that forms much of the middle hour of the picture can't compete for sheer, raw impact the D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan, but Malick certain acquits himself nicely, with his three editors (Leslie Jones, Billy Weber, and Saar Klein) helping to make the whole sequence as choppy and terrifying as they can. The effect is not a "you are there" kind of immersiveness, but something trickier: an attempt maybe to recreate the film in the image of warfare, to make the film itself discordant and assaultive, rather than to mimic realism. The best comparison I can make offhand is to a later film, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!, where aggressive, even "broken" editing and cinematography are used to mimic the feeling of dancing, rather than to depict as accurately as possible the act of dancing. So too, does the construction of the combat scenes in The Thin Red Line attempt to create an impression of being constantly unaware of where noises and movement are coming from, having your attention fragmented between incidental moments rather than fluidly moving from place to place. There is still the chance for a single moment to crystalise; and this is represented by the film's most indelible image, a butterfly flapping past the running soldiers, blithely indifferent to what they do; the kind of single moment that catches your eye and holds your attention for just a second, and moves on (it could also, arguably, be a reference to the other famous butterfly in war cinema, from All Quiet on the Western Front, but that's a bit of a stretch).

But as I said, the movie is not primarily a war film, perhaps; being written and directed by Terrence Malick, it is also a philosophical treatise on violence and conflict, as we get laid out right from the start, in the beautiful opening voice-over: "What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?" One can read the movie, and not without reason, as the description of how war/mankind wreaks havoc on nature/balance/the spirit, but these opening words - and for that matter, the opening shot of the crocodile, silently dipping into the water as the music urgently reminds us that crocodiles are in general rather dangerous things to stumble across - tell a different story: war and violence are already there, mankind is just an extension of them.

To that end, just about every major character gets some time to mull over life, pain, beauty, peace; the dialogue in The Thin Red Line has an uncommon tendency to resemble aphorisms.
"Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of, all faces are the same man."
"It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you're at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it."

"We're living in a world that's blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it."

"Do you ever feel lonely?"
"Only around people."

"In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one."
"You're wrong, sir. I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination."

"The tough part is not knowing if you're doing any good. That's the hard part."
And that's mostly leaving aside the voice-over, of which there is a huge amount in the film. A stunning number of people get to share their thoughts with us directly, and though it is often said that Malick uses voiceover in a certain abstract way throughout all his films, The Thin Red Line represents a fairly huge change from the voiceover in Badlands and Days of Heaven: for one thing, both of those movies were narrated by a single person. For another, they were narrated: the speaker was recounting events from after the period in which they happened. In The Thin Red Line, as in the later films The New World and The Tree of Life, the voiceover takes place, roughly, in the film's "present", theoretically offering us insight into what the characters are thinking in the moment that we hear them. This is only erratically true: at times, part what makes the voiceover so striking is that it bears little or not relation to what we see onscreen. It's rather free-associative, at points: a character moved into a reverie by what he sees (always "he" - there is only one line and one short speech spoken by a woman in the whole movie), and following his thoughts to where they will go. Much as Days of Heaven created meaning through an editing scheme that brought together images without concern for their diegetic relationship, so does The Thin Red Line come together as a flow of sight and sound, intuitively meaningful but rationally incoherent.

It is a film mixing hectic violence with some of the absolute loveliest landscape photography in cinema history - it was shot by John Toll, one of the best exterior cinematographers of his generation - mixing menacing underscoring with plaintive, aching melodies - the score by Hans Zimmer is by leaps and bounds the best he's ever composed - and then topping it off with Melanesian chants, celebratory and joyous and sweet. It is not as challenging and cryptic as Days of Heaven, but the simple fact that it's easier to grasp the meaning of what's going on also gives the film more of a primal emphasis: if Days of Heaven is a movie to be admired and studied and grappled with, The Thin Red Line is more like a warm pool, something to dive into and let it completely overwhelm you with the sheer totality of its artistry: it is beautiful, it is terrifying, it is haunting, it is intimate.

Perhaps the most important elements that go to make this feeling are the spoken words - not just the voiceover, but the dialogue as well - , which have an ethereal quality; it would not be at all an exaggeration to say that it's poetry more than it is speech. And as poetry, it is designed to lead us to meaning through imagery rather than through exposition, much as the characters themselves tend to represent ways of thinking and ways of being rather than stand as unique personalities - though they are that as well. For example, there is brutal pragmatism in the form of the egotist Tall, contrasted to the humanism of Staros; yet the film does not box either man into a single position. The first thing we know of Tall, it's his fatigue and bitterness at having given away his life to a system that has not given anything back, while Staros's humanism is exactly what it's described as: softness, too much softness to survive the inhumanism of war. Tall is not a vehicle for reflexive anti-military boilerplate; he is clearly not in the moral right, and we do not respect him, but we also understand him; much as we want to praise Staros, but also recognise that men like him could never have won the war. (Though Staros gets the last laugh: even though he's removed from combat by Tall's orders, we actually see Staros last).

A much clearer and more sustained contrast is the one between Welsh, who has had all the believe in innate beauty and goodness driven out of him, and Witt, who believes only in beauty and goodness; I might go so far as to say that the only thing that keeps the early scenes with the islanders from lapsing into tawdry Rousseauvian "noble savages" bullshit is that Witt is clearly not a tourist, but a genuine believe in the divinity of life and nature. If Witt is the central figure in the movie, it's partially because he is its anima, the embodiment of all the things that Malick himself seems to believe: that life is a good thing, that war is temporary. Yet Witt does not get to escape the movie without losing his innocence: as it progresses, he slowly learns that violence is a real thing, that not all is glory; in one heartbreaking moment, he visits a village much like the one he was pulled away from, to find that the villagers here do not welcome him: to them, he is but a soldier (this scene is cunningly set right next to the moment in which Bell learns he has lost his wife, the anchor that held him together: a humanist belief in essential goodness while Witt's is naturalist).

And while all of these characters embody all these ideas about life and death and war and peace, the privilege of place is given to Pvt. Train (John Dee Smith), a figure who serves almost no point whatsoever in the greater narrative, and yet provides the film with both its opening and closing lines (many a fine critic has stumbled into a misreading of the film on the assumption that Witt speaks the first words; and undoubtedly, Malick is content to let us confuse Witt, Train, and Bell's voiceover, as all three men have similar voices; but no, Train is clearly the first speaker). He begins by questioning how nature, in all its beauty, could be so destructive; he ends with the understanding that all bliss and suffering are two parts of a unified, balanced whole. The last words of the film, shattering in context, are these:
"Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining"
It's nearly impossible to parse that out, but the meaning is clear, or at least is when you're at the end of three hours of exhausting, exhilarating poetic imagery and sound. We are both ourselves and the world around us.
Even this isn't the end of the movie: it ends back in Witt's village, with a few images of natural beauty serving as coda, and perhaps as an example. Even after war, after people, there is still this. And then the film ends with one of the finest closing shots ever, a coconut sprouting a tree, buried in the surf. Life does go on: not without a fight, not without challenges, but it goes on.

5 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

Those voiceovers were what killed this film for me when I first saw it, more than the spot-the-star silliness (thanks for putting that in business context for me) and the "one big soul" drivel. The content of the voiceovers aside, the device itself seemed anti-cinematic to me, though I don't know if I could defend that viewpoint intellectually. It's the same thing that helped kill Lynch's Dune for me -- and in that case Lynch was being faithful to the novel. In this case, I suppose Malick painted himself into a corner. Since I agree with you on his polyphonic intentions, there was probably no other way he could realize them than with voiceovers, but that raises the question of whether his entire agenda is suitable to cinema. Fortunately, The New World was somewhat reassuring on this point and I retain enough confidence in Malick to look forward to Tree of Life hitting my town later this month. And by now I probably owe The Thin Red Line another look.

chiaroscurocoalition said...

I was about the same age when I saw it at the cinema. Went three times, including dragging my rather perplexed father along once. I lacked the critical understanding at the time to explain why it had such a hold over me. I think now I could probably list a dozen reasons, but I'm not sure any one would be correct.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

Masterful essay, Tim, as I would expect. It gives me a bit of pleasure to know that we share a deep affection for this film, although in my case, the extent of that affection has only emerged relatively recently. If you had asked me as recently as a year ago which Malick film was my favorite, I would have said The New World, but having revisited The Thin Red Line twice in recent months, I've had to amend my stance and call it not only Malick's best and my personal favorite, but a stone-cold masterpiece.

Jones' essay, "Phony War Films," which is included in the liner notes to Criterion's edition of the film, is essential reading, and vital to understanding the deeply cynical ethos that underlies the novel, and partly finds its way into the film. One of the film's finer intellectual achievements is how it synthesizes that cynicism with Malick's own more hopeful, macroscopic viewpoint. The film really is a beautiful example of how an adaptation in the hands of an true artist can be a New Thing instead of sterile recreation. This also highlights one of my problems with The Tree of Life, which is that it's a little too definite, a little too assured, and and a little too baselessly soft-headed in its resolution of the Nature/Grace dichotomy. The unresolved ambiguity in the conflict between the worldviews of Welsh and Witt--even if that coconut gives Witt the de facto final say--is what makes TTRL so powerful, in my view.

I, for one, originally thought most of the film's voiceover narration was Witt's. It was only the Blu-ray subtitles that clued me in to the fact that it was Train's.

More thoughts:

http://gatewaycinephiles.com
/2011/04/25/the-thin-red-line/

what said...

"It's nearly impossible to parse that out, but the meaning is clear"

You lost me there with a contradiction of a contradiction. It's not clear! And even if it was, it wouldn't make sense for something clear to be impossible to parse. Lost! Me! There!

thepigdog said...

This is a truly spiritual movie, even for an old atheist like me. I love the stream of consciousness; the characters lost in there internal worlds. I love the slow walk of the movie, the shape of the hill that they fought over. For me this is a great movie, beyond words. Most people may not like it. We all live in isolation with only shallow communication. This movie is a light in the darkness that is soon lost as the world moves on.