Friday, October 02, 2009

90. US director Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line" (1998): “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

If I were to state that the most interesting filmmaker alive and making films today is an American named Terrence Malick, the statement is likely to be met with stares, dead silence, or some incredulous query like “What, not Steven Spielberg?”

Who is this Malick? Unlike his American peer Spielberg, who has made over 30 well-received movies, Malick has only made four. By the number game, Malik is a loser. Unlike Spielberg, whose bearded face and personal details are splashed all over countless newspapers and magazines, even the resourceful Time magazine had trouble locating a recent photograph of Malick, notorious for eluding journalists and for including “no personal publicity clauses” incorporated in his contracts with movie studios. And unlike Spielberg who dropped out of his Long Beach University course, Malick has attended Harvard University, is a Rhodes Scholar and has even taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While Spielberg has won a clutch of Oscars, his fortune at Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals has been dismal. Venice finally gave him a lifetime achievement award. On the other hand, Malick has never won an Oscar but has won the prestigious Best Director award at Cannes for Days of Heaven and the Golden Bear for The Thin Red Line in the respective main competition sections. Arguably Malick is better received in Europe than in his home country or perhaps he is the toast of the cognoscenti rather than the Hollywood studio regulars, who vote at the Oscar polls. And, agewise, both Malick and Spielberg are in their sixties.

But why compare Spielberg with Malick or chalk with cheese? In 1999, the two directors’ works seemed to converge briefly when Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, both films on the Second World War, competed for the Oscars. While Spielberg’s film picked up many Oscar statuettes, Malick’s work had to remain content with the seven unsuccessful nominations for the statuette. (Seven Oscar nominations for a single film indicates a substantial following even within the Hollywood system.)  All of Malick’s films have won critical acclaim internationally and, not surprisingly, had to be content with a remarkably slow but gradually encouraging response at the box office. Why is that? While the studios were initially aghast with the poor reception from the general public, the latest data indicate that The Thin Red Line picked up over a 60% profit world-wide to date, quite in contrast to the initial assessments.

Many viewers paid good money to view Malick’s The Thin Red Line with the implicit expectation of enjoying the typical Hollywood war movie, replete with heroics and muscle-flexing. Many walked out of a film that had the flow of a meandering documentary, without a gripping plot, heartwarming heroics or even an explicit closure, associated with an average Hollywood product.  It was never marketed by the distributors as a different type of war film. In contrast to the regular war film, Malick’s film presented a metaphysical perspective of war, a haunting evocation of man’s existential woes and the philosophic human condition of incomprehensibility, relegating the James Jones novel as a mere tool to present a movie that seemed to use a new film grammar that is rarely taught in film schools. This film unfolds with voice-over commentaries, often with the commentator never appearing on screen. Malick uses voice-overs, music and natural sounds heard in the outdoors to provide entertainment that urges audiences to think and react in timed dosages, somewhat like time-release medication. For instance, how many war films from Hollywood could have these philosophical lines spoken as voice over: “This great evil, where is it come from? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who is doing this?” or this "Maybe all men got one big soul everybody is a part of, all faces are the same man. One big self. Everyone looking for salvation for himself. Each like a coal drawn from the fire."

Malick’s The Thin Red Line invites the viewers to move away from the James Jones novel and gently encourages them to reflect on many wars, one on screen, the wars between different types of individuals, and the war between man and nature, first through the minds of the individuals on screen, and subsequently nudging the minds of the viewer. This is best captured by the evocative poster of the film--an eye that peers through helmets of soldiers at the enemy. Though this war movie has guns and gore, it transcends guns as it focuses on the minds of men wearing those helmets just as the final shot is of a coconut seedling on an empty beach arguably signifying re-emergence of life and hope after man-made wars.

To the impatient viewer, The Thin Red Line would appear to be an unfinished film. In contrast, the same film is a wonderful experience for the reflective, patient viewer. I am reminded of my favorite Will Durant quote that the “more and more we know, we realize we know less and less.” Part of Malick’s unfinished flourishes, I believe, comes from his philosophic perspective, in contrast to regular Hollywood cinema that spoon-feeds the viewer with images of heroism or cowardice, ensuring the viewer leaves the movie hall gratified that the film ratifies the core values the viewer holds. European cinema on the other hand very often tends to either question the accepted norm or present a different view

Malick’s film is a radical departure from the accepted norms of cinema. There is no room for sentimentality. The film looks objectively at heroes and cowards, victors and vanquished, flora and fauna, life and death, the developed world and the underdeveloped world, hierarchical subservience/values at work (here of soldiers) but most of all different approaches to life by different people. This mosaic can be enjoyed or rejected by the viewer. Before the studio's and distributors' names appear on screen we see a flame as from a matchstick lighting up the darkness. Much later in the film, the same flame appears before the imprisoned AWOL US soldier (played by Jim Caviezel) has a philosophical verbal sparring with his avuncular superior (played by Sean Penn).

Malick’s film is less about action and more about atmosphere. Early in the film we are shown an alligator slithering into water. Conventional cinema will revert to the reptile’s role in the film within the next five minutes at the most. Malick’s film shows the alligator much later strung-up by soldiers as meat. Malick presents the alligator and soldiers as killing machines, and prods the viewer to review the necessity of killing or eating one another. Visually, the men prove more deadly than the alligator at the end of the film.

Halfway into the film, Malick presents an American soldier extracting gold teeth from dead and dying Japanese soldiers. Much later in the film the American throws the gold into the rain and mud. Asks a captured Japanese soldier to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” Films like The Thin Red Line are unusual to find among the piles of films made in USA.

The Thin Red Line is not about why there should be no wars. It is a film about the genesis of wars and why human beings get embroiled in wars. It is replete with quotations from the Bible, the Bhagvad Gita, the Illiad, and Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath and presents an argument that individuals are less in control of nature than they think they are. Philosophy and nature are important facets of any Malick film.

Malick has studied the works of philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger. It is, therefore, not unusual that his films always capture the metaphysical aspects of man’s relationship with nature. After making his second film Days of Heaven, Malick took a 20 year sabbatical from movies to watch birds. In between he avoided journalists like plague and then decided to make The Thin Red Line. Interestingly Hollywood had already made an earlier black and white film on the James Jones book. Malick’s version perplexes some but gains admiration of many. Repeated viewings make the film seem more valuable an experience than before. While the book was based on the real action of World War II in the Pacific front, Malick’s film goes beyond the World War. At the start of the film—a question in the voice-over gives a clue to what follows “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

Nature is the real star of Malick’s films. Those who saw Days of Heaven will never forget the harvesting sequences and the attack by locusts—reminiscent of the finest documentary traditions of Flaherty’s cinema in the 1930s (e.g., Man of Aran). Documentary traditions get interlinked with fiction in Malick’s The Thin Red Line, too. Waves of 5 feet tall green grass camouflage crawling soldiers, where harmless grass snakes appear less fearsome than armed humans. Nature unfolds forth waves of memories and feelings in the soldiers preparing for battle. Says one soldier, “Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel.” Water, too, plays fascinating roles in Malick’s cinema. In Days of Heaven, the death of the Richard Gere character Bill is captured by placing the camera underwater not merely as a gimmick but suggesting water as a cleansing symbol or a baptismal facet of nature.

Conventions are broken when Malick deals with music. In Malick’s films, music often unleashes verbal comments or drowns sentences that are yet to be completed, quite unlike traditional cinema where music underlines the spoken word or violins stress tragedy. In Malick’s movies music intentionally intrudes into the dialogue. Ennio Morricone (the wizard who contributed to the spaghetti Westerns) in Days of Heaven, and Hans Zimmer in The Thin Red Line provide powerful musical counterpoints to beauty and serenity of the landscapes captured on screen. In Malick’s cinema music is often more profound and moving than the spoken word. Zimmer’s work with Malick has been compared to the works of Shostakovich, the Russian composer.

Malick put together a fascinating ensemble of actors for the film The Thin Red Line, where the individual “disappears in the collective” to quote a critic. Actors like John Travolta, Adrian Brody (Oscar winner for The Pianist), and George Clooney stride the screen for less than a few minutes. Long footages of the film with actors Viggo Mortensen, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke were dropped on the editing floor. The director instead chose to give long exposure to Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. Malick propelled the then unknown stars like Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) and Ben Chaplin into significant roles. Caviezel has been quoted as stating that he would have left the acting profession had Malick not picked him for the role. Malick’s reputation have made good actors queue up to work on his projects.

How does The Thin Red Line compare with the other three films directed by Malick? Badlands (1973), I have always felt, was appreciated because it was the closest amongst his four movies to established Hollywood aesthetics. Days of Heaven (1978) was Malick’s major attempt to capture the magic moments of nature and meld them with music and natural sound, coming closer to the early masters of documentary such as Flaherty and even the few magical films made by the French stage wizard Ariane Mnouchkine (of Theatre du Soleil fame) or the German filmmaker Hans Jurgen Syberberg. In The Thin Red Line, I consider Malick attempted and achieved more than his earlier films because of the gravitas of director’s treatment of the subject that rejected conventions of cinema by almost rejecting the importance of predetermined scripts and throwing the established concepts out of the window. Malick broke new ground making some characters in the story more prominent and others less imposing, if not trivial upsetting top notch actors who were promised prominent roles that were eventually discarded by Malick. Malick was underlining his all powerful role as director, scriptwriter and editor. That is why James Jones recedes into the background while the "invisible" Malick plays Svengali to the chosen few actors/characters in the story. Malick apparently discusses the philosophy of the characters with his actors, which goads them to give their memorable best but gets staggering quality output from his cinematographers and composers of music. Unfortunately, his fourth film The New World (2005), though bearing Malick’s stamp of great performances, music, sound and photography could not match the brilliance of his previous two efforts. Meanwhile, I await with anticipation the release of his fifth film Tree of Life later this year.

How I wish I could meet and interact with this "brahmin" among filmmakers alive today!

P.S.: Parts of this post were published earlier by the author in National Review, New Delhi, Vol 2, no.9, in 2004. A review of Malick’s Days of Heaven was published earlier on this blog. A review of Malick's The Tree of Life appears later on this blog, exploring the connections between that film and The Thin Red Line.