Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Left Field Cinema: Terrence Malick -- The Thin Red Line

(Left Field Cinema, even when I disagree with Mike Dawson's analysis, is my favorite film analysis podcast. This is because of Dawson's historical contextualization of the filmmakers' place in film history, his analysis of the aesthetic components of the films, and his discussion of the political implications of the narrative. This episode is the best one he has done so far, and it led to my immediate purchase of the new Criterion edition of the film.)

Terrence Malick: The Thin Red Line
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema


Malick has never been one to follow trends of time or location, although he has always worked for American cinema, his films bare little resemblance to those of his peers or even his own back catalogue. He deliberately changes genre, subject and time period from film to film; but in each case he deconstructs the romantic ideals of the subjects he’s chosen in distinctively Malickian ways. He has a head start in The Thin Red Line; James Jones was notorious for his anti-war/anti-military stance, his criticisms of the US military were toned down for Fred Zinnemann’s film adaptation of From Here to Eternity (1953), although the film remains powerful in its condemnation of the military attitudes and procedures, the systemic nature of military brutality is not conveyed in the film. Malick takes Jones’ story and characters and makes his own anti-war message, one that Jones might well have been proud of even if the finished film is far from faithful to novel and the mode of attack is far from Jones’ own methods. Malick’s film isn’t about World War II in particular - it’s about war in general. World War II had long been off the menu for critical attacks, the threat posed by Germany and Japan to the rest of the world means that in the eyes of most World War II was an entirely justified conflict, necessary to halt the advance of evil perpetrated by dictators and tyrants. However with an estimated seventy million dead there is more than enough pacifist justification to appose World War II or at least de-romanticise it. Wars will always continue to be fought so long as men are such fools as to go to them; this is a murky area as without opposition German and Japanese oppression and genocide would have continued unchecked, but then again as Welsh angrily states: “Property, the whole Goddamn thing’s about property!” Malick’s tactic is to portray a world of equals and contrasts, he sets the film in a lush and exotic landscape, and then watches as mankind decimates said landscape with artillery, grenades, and guns. All the while nature continues with its business, nature is not even aware of the abstract concept of property, some of the time Malick seems to count the native people living on the island amongst the natural world and outside of this conflict, they exist separate from the fighting which ensues around them as brilliantly illustrated in an early scene when a line of soldiers make their way towards the centre of the island, an elderly tribesman wonders past Sergeant Storm (John C. Riley), Storm watches him but the islander continues uninterested to the point of being unaware of what the soldiers are doing. In the BFI Companion to The Thin Red Line, Michel Chion states: “In contrast to [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s world, in which nature is also very present, with Malick nothing in nature ever gives any sign to human beings.” (12, Chion). Nature in Tarkovsky’s films is omnipresent, visceral and absolute, with air, fire, water, and earth constantly pushing his narratives in different directions or making comments on the actions of his characters. In Malick’s film nature is on a different plain, it exists in a different dimension to the artifice of man, it allows this petty little war over property but eventually it will re-conquer this island and indeed the rest of the world long after man has destroyed itself. Although there are examples where man effects nature in the film; a group of soldiers capturing a crocodile, reminding us of the opening shot of the film, the crocodile is tied up and lies still despite the men’s attempts to goad it - nature ignores them. Another example sees a small bird, which has been presumably scorched by artillery slowly crawling away from a burnt tree and trying to open its wings, even if man has ended this creature’s life it will continue onwards oblivious to what caused its injuries. In possibly the most single stunning image of the entire film a distinctive blue butterfly passes the length of the screen in slow motion as the soldiers plough into battle, the butterfly is unaffected by the carnage and ignorant of the reasons why this battle is even occurring. Chion again states: “The world we admire does not need to be looked at to be beautiful. The world does not cease to live because men are making war: the wind continues to blow, the grass to wave, the sun to appear and disappear behind the clouds and to brighten the colours of the world; the dawn continues to break.” (33, Chion) After Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) the anti-war movie had it’s teeth very firmly into the Vietnam War. Such an obviously pointless conflict with such a horrific loss of life for absolutely nothing, surely World War II can not be compared to the Vietnam War, but Malick strips away everything that was noble and righteous about World War II and leaves us with an empty battle for an island that no one really wants. He demonstrates the futility of this war via the ignorance of nature towards it. Will this be remembered in a thousand years? Probably not. Will this be remembered in a million years? Definitely not. Nature strives forward, at war with itself, the vines continue to ensnare the trees, the Crocodile continues to swim for food, the trees grow, the fruit falls. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) states at one point “Nature is cruel” he is of course wrong - man is cruel - nature is oblivious. Storm later tells Welsh in a quiet scene between the two men "I don't care about nothing anymore" to which Welsh replies "That sounds like bliss". Storm has seen the pointlessness of it all, Welsh believes it’s pointless but can’t help but apply some sort of metaphysical justification to it all - no matter how much he resists. Such justifications are truly the work of man and cloud us from the devastating truth. Unlike Spielberg or Marton, Malick does not celebrate war in any sense; he doesn’t celebrate the soldiers, the conflict, the ends or the means. Whilst Saving Private Ryan and Marton’s Thin Red Line do depict the horrors of war, young men meeting violent ends at the hands of other men. They do not depict the most horrific part of any war - the hopeless pointlessness of it all.

To Read the Entire Essay

To Listen to Part 1

To Listen to Part 2

To Listen to Part 3

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