Friday, October 8, 2010

Almost nothing like it

I've been watching again Terrence Malick's 1998 World War II picture The Thin Red Line. . . 45 minutes here, 30 minutes there, usually after the rest of the family's in bed. On the new Criterion disc it looks better than it ever has in a home video format -- oh so important in a film in which color, light and shadow are primary actors. TRL shakes me to the core every time I watch it. New layers are revealed with each viewing. Eventually I'd like to write a proper essay on it, but a few lines for now.

One of the things I'm noticing this time around is the proliferation of biblical allusion (that's a-llusion not i-llusion). Is it just me, or do those bare trees at the top of the hill that Charlie Company spends a third of the film trying to take look like crosses? I'd never noticed it before. And there's the private played by John Dee Smith who has 1 John 4:4 tatooed on his bicep. Hadn't noticed that before either.

What anyone will notice right off is that in a cast filled with A-list stars -- some of whom Malick edited out of the finished film -- it's the character played by a then little-known actor named James Caviezel that occupies the central position. Six years before he played Christ for Mel Gibson, Caviezel played Private Witt -- an apostle of love who lays down his life for his friends. A veritable cottage industry of critics has grown up trying to get into the head of Malick, the reclusive professor of philosophy turned movie director. Ryland Walker Knight at GreenCine points out a detail of Malick's bio that usually isn't mentioned -- he's a devout Episcopalian. That could explain the Christological imagery and sacramental sense of awe that suffuses his films, especially this one. It might also explain the glimpses of a paradise beyond and behind the hells-on-earth that men create.

Another writer, Josef Braun, helps describe why I come away from The Thin Red Line emotionally spent and seeing the world in a new way.

The overall effect. . . is to leave us by its end feeling as though we’ve been pushed through something, bore witness to something grandiose that only the cinema can offer. We feel closer to a particular vision that’s at once helmed by a single and singular artist, and a portrayal of a difficult to fathom experience shared by hundreds. There’s almost nothing like it.


Randy said...

Thanks for this, Steve -- and you must do that proper essay, maybe during the (heard-it-here-first!) career that will soon ensue in which you write prolifically and are paid handsomely for it!

You've heard my too-Luddite considerations of cinemma, but your comments on this film make me want to see it. It is impossible for me to deny the value and impact that film makes. I just find it nearly impossible to get past the nihilistic values that seem to drive so much of Hollywood. And then when I watch a movie -- any movie -- from there I find myself asking if it makes any sense to support the beast even though it can still kick out good stuff.

O well, my point was to say thanks for pointing us to a film that sounds outstanding in many facets. I look forward to seeing it sometime soon.

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks, Randy! From your mouth to God's ear (the part about a profitable writing career).

Yes most of what Hollywood produces is trash -- "Hollywood" being nothing these days but a subsidiary of our shallow celebrity-driven media culture. The monolothic Hollywood of yore is long gone.

Most good films of recent years come from artists working outside that system, or using it for their own ends. Movies like The Thin Red Line usually aren't a commercial success, but they'll stand the test of time.