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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Terrence Malick's Song of Himself III - The Thin Red Line: The Unanswered Question















"Help me see things the way You do."

This is the muttering of Sgt. McCron (John Savage) following the first elongated sequence of military battles in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. We first saw McCron praying with the 12 men he was put in charge of, then prepping them by reminding them, "You gotta breathe, mister!" Now we see that his entire squad has been lost to enemy fire, and he cannot wrap around his head around it. "I lost all twelve," he repeats to the other soldiers. He trained them, he told them what to do, and still lost them all. And why did he have to live? At dusk he stands up tall and screams into the hills, "Who decides who's going to live? Who decides who's going to die? This is futile! I can stand right up here and nothing happens to me!" Because of his practice of the Lord's prayer when we first saw him, we can assume that McCron is a man with deep faith. But now he has been crushed by God, to the extent that he shakes while looking at his own identity tag to remind himself of who he is. The Self has been eradicated, as the Self is throughout this film and throughout Malick's body of work. McCron tears away at the grass and says, "That's us, that's us. We're just dirt," a realization which the meat-grinder of combat compels us to understand as being true. "Help me see things the way You do. Help me see things the way You do."

The ability to see things the way the great, cosmic, benevolent and presumably loving God does is the plea of human beings going through all kinds of anxiety, from combat to poverty to cancer to a romantic separation, seeking to understand. But we demand our own individual existence to be acknowledged and felt, like Stephen Crane's man who screamed "I exist!" to a universe that shrugged in return. Made 20 years after Days of Heaven, we can only imagine what happened in the director's personal life to compel him to begin asking questions to the great "You," as his narrators do in all three subsequent films. This "You" takes many forms: a Judeo-Christian notion of God; a more universal and abstract vision of divinity; the Earth mother of Pocahontas; an absent love. Malick's characters are burrowing into the universe looking for answers, or at least someone to listen to their questions. They encounter the sublime through themselves. The Thin Red Line is interested in the despair and grief of a death that captures all. We come into the world alone, dream alone, and so will leave it alone, being nothing more than "just dirt." Is it possible to taste that ecstatic consciousness, the answer and clarity that the mad McCron is begging for? What is the "thin red line" of the title, anyway? In Kipling, it's the 'thin red line' defining "heroes," or there's a Midwestern saying telling of the thin red line dividing the sane from the mad, but isn't it also the line that separates us from each other? The line that separates our waking, conscious egos from the transcendent possibilities of awareness? The I-It from the I-Thou? Something that we can only taste in rare instances, small moments before it passes on in time?

The main criticism of The Thin Red Line is that it feels like an incomplete movie, evidenced by the many characters who have had their parts cut down, in some cases to nothing. These are more like ghosts than fully developed, rich characters that we are accustomed to. And yet the exhortation is issued, "Maybe all men got one big soul who everybody's a part of. All faces of the same man. One big self. Everyone looking for salvation by himself...each like the coal, drawn from the fire." The mass of faces we see in The Thin Red Line's Charlie Company, and even the Japanese foes we see later on, all are part of this fire, just as we are all part of the fire in the dark screening room, bridging past and present as Malick bridges the one to the many, the immanent to the Eternal. The Thin Red Line could never be complete, and indeed its sense of incompleteness only adds to its texture and so completes it. The film is unfinishable, like a sand painting. It does not sell itself as a "gritty" true-to-life war movie, the same way Saving Private Ryan did the same year, and yet it feels like one of the most psychologically realistic motion pictures ever made.

The question of Death and being able to accept it ties into this problem of the One to the Many. If Malick has a main character, it is Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel). The film is his journey, beginning with a memory he has while being AWOL, living in a kind of paradise with Melanesians. "I remember my mother when she was dying. She was all shrunk up and grey. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find anything beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it." Witt is looking at a Melanesian mother with her own child, wading in a pool of water. He then ceases to talk and looks down, reflecting. Malick cuts to Witt's childhood home, where the mother is patting the grieving hands of an individual we can presume to be Witt's father. Malick also cuts to two birds in a cage together. The memory seems to become pure abstraction, when the mother looks to the other side of the room and sees a young girl in white. Is this an angel? A messenger of God? Or is it her own younger self? The image cuts to the white dress, where an immaculate, heart-like design is embroidered, complemented by a beating sound. Realism is suspended absolutely and we see the Mother embracing the Child/Angel, pressing her face with a smile to the Mother's chest. They are as a single entity. Ending the memory is a moment of unparalleled and audacious beauty, as John Toll's camera arcs upwards to the ceiling, but there is no ceiling. Only the freedom of the deep white sky, which becomes the same sky of the Melanesian islands.

"I wondered how it'd be when I died," Witt narrates. "To know that this breath was going to be the last you was ever going to draw. I wondered if I could meet it the same way she did. With the same" – and there's a conspicuous beat – "calm. Because that's where it's hidden. The immortality I hadn't seen." The immortality is in that space beyond words and language, where Nature thrives, the place where Witt's prayer has a beat before he uses the word "calm." As an AWOL soldier removed from the cold steel and rust of the military, he sees glimmers of his immortality. His perception has reshaped the world. He talks to the Melanesian mother. "Kids here never seem to fight," he says. "Sometimes," she smiles bashfully, "sometimes when we see them playing, sometimes they always fight." Malick is making it clear that this kind of pre-technological civilization is no Rousseauian paradise, but Witt perceives it as such and – thus perceived subjectivity – so it is. That's how Witt sees it, and so it is real. Malick's (and Witt's) gaze rests on this mother for a long moment, then jump-cuts to her laughing, implying that there is a kind of break from an "objective" reality in Witt's bliss. He is molding the world through subjectivity, and we notice how a father and son sitting together are neatly framed through a doorway, like artistic impressions (Malick does this throughout The New World and in many instances throughout The Tree of Life).

But the intrusion of a patrol boat ends Witt's luxuriating. In the ship's holding cell, he is interrogated by the man who will be his opposite, Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), who believes the world is blowing itself to hell before it can understand what it's doing. "In this world," Welsh tells Witt, "a man himself is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one." Witt says that Welsh is wrong. "I've seen another world. Sometimes I felt it was just my imagination." "Well then you're seeing things I'll never see," Welsh answers, who lays down the bare facts to Witt regarding the state of war and how it makes life cheap. "In a situation like that, all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him. Look out for himself."

Malick has, in the first 15 minutes, laid the groundwork for awesome binaries to contemplate: the meaning of one life versus the lives of multitudes; despair of death versus acceptance; the brutality of Nature set alongside its beauty. Witt aspires to the freedom that we feel in his memory of the dying Mother, a death chamber where the soul is freed and there is no ceiling. Welsh and the blunt, militaristic reality locks people in and away from each other, just as the domineering and harsh Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) confesses to himself that he's "shut up in a tomb" and "can't lift the lid," "dying slow as a tree." In the tomb, all we have is our attentiveness, our memory, which liberates Witt just as it liberated Proust in Remembrances of Things Past, who was taken back several years by a the taste and texture of a madeleine. In The Thin Red Line we see Witt lighting matches (the motif of Light being important, the "fire" of the One Big Self) and staring at the cold walls of his cell. Somehow, these walls take him to a place that have absolutely no resemblance to them: being a child, reaching for hay in the wind as his father works. It's a mind-boggling moment, but if we understand what Malick is telling us about our consciousness, which is without frame and working ceaselessly, it is essential to The Thin Red Line's understanding and ambition to channel the Self. This is a practice that will be further worked with in The New World, where there are sequences of which we aren't sure are set in the present or are remembered moments from the past, or even if they are mere romantic fantasy. The whole of The Tree of Life is a memory, including the flashback to the beginning of Time. And as the act of remembering changes those memories, reshaping the past as it recalls them, the sense of what we believe as "realistic" is suspended. That is the significance of the Angel/Child in the house without ceiling in earlier remembrances of Witt, similar to moments denoting birth in The Tree of Life, or the Mother's grace which has so affected the child that as an adult he recalls her as sometimes floating. It is cinematic impressionism, but neuroscience has shown how the Impressionists actually had the process of human thinking much more correctly than the late 19th century Materialists and Realists. Whitman too was influenced by Darwin and the science of the second half of the 19th century, but still could not get past how "the ineffable remains." All of The Thin Red Line's binaries relate to the process of the Self with its ineffable mystery and workings.

*

There is much confusion about the voiceovers in The Thin Red Line, being that instead of a single narrator, like in Badlands and Days of Heaven, there are multiple voices here, as there will be with all subsequent Malick films. Only the most careful viewer will recognize the voice that begins and closes the picture, as it is not Witt (a common mistake) or a character played by a familiar actor, of which The Thin Red Line is overstuffed with. Given the similarities in deep, Texan drawl, one could almost wonder if it's someone doing an impression of Malick, whose voice we know from the walk-on cameo he does in Badlands (and the numerous impressions offered by some of his actors). But the voice belongs to a non-actor cast by Malick named John Dee Smith, a mechanic when the director first met him, who plays a private named Edward Train. We see him first frantically talking to Welsh, saying, "The only things that are permanent are dying and the Lord." As frantic, naive, and frazzled as he appears in this early scene, his voice becomes the calm querying seeker of The Thin Red Line. We may even recognize a Biblical verse tattooed on his arm: 1 John 4:4, which reads, "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world."

The allusion becomes highly significant, particularly when we connect it to the voice that begins and ends this journey, making profound commentaries in between. From Malick's Transcendentalist viewpoint, the verse seems to take on a universal meaning that goes beyond the perimeters of Christian dogma and scripture: All are from God, and God in You – who is You – is so in all of us, and greater than the smaller self that separates I from Thou. In another biblical text credited to John, The Gospel of John, a very densely textured book if one studies it, there is appealing material for a philosophical linguist like Malick, being that it begins, "In the beginning there was the Word," the logos, and Christ was the Word made Flesh. The Word was God, and with the Word, so was God. Language and consciousness evolved together, and with its mirror realization, so our deep inner sense of Being (God) was born. The Word, in our own philosophy, is our consciousness, and so our conscious, attentive Self is as God, bringing Light into the world, trying to pierce through the Darkness. Language is our attempt to parcel out the chaos of phenomenology. We are that Self, a part and parcel of that God, that Over-Soul, the Transparent Eyeball that is All. It lives as long as we ask, "Who are You?" It is lost when our consciousness gets caught up "in the world," in Heidegger's "groundlessness."

We first hear the voice set alongside Faure's Requiem, a Death Mass that nevertheless is burgeoning with the promise of resurrection and rebirth, played out against Witt paddling on water. Looking up to the sun through the great trees that seem to consume each other in nature, Train's voice asks, "What's this war in the heart of Nature? Why does Nature vie with itself? The Land contend with the Sea? Is there an avenging power in Nature? Not one power, but two?" We love to split things into Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Beautiful and Ugly. Up close, we get blinded in the passion of judgment, having desire and dislike, yearning and hate. What's Hate to a crocodile, though? To a bird? To a tree? Malick is seeking to grapple with the character of Nature, from his opening image of a toothy salt water crocodile, a breathing relic from the Dinosaur Age, crawling into murky water and eventually descending, invisible. The crocodile is certainly an image that we may fear, and yet the way Malick films it rouses a certain reverence, just as he will attempt to do with the dinosaurs in The Tree of Life. Humankind dominates Nature, however, just as its own impulses are governed by it: we will see a similar crocodile captured by the soldiers later on, tied up, seemingly benign, but ultimately unpredictable, which is more unsettling considering that the lassoed crocodile immediately precedes the moment that Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) will discover his beloved wife wants to leave him for an Air Force captain. Bell's wife was his own calm, the object of his prayers. Like McCron, though more sane, he seems lost after receiving the news.

*

The Thin Red Line seems to affirm Train's folk wisdom: the only permanent things are "dying" and the "Lord." And from a certain perspective, they are one in the same. When infantrymen are shot down, at times seeming to recognize that their last moments are approaching, Malick will cut to the wide perspective of Nature, the clouds sweeping over the blowing grass, or the light shining through leaves eaten through by caterpillars. In such moments we can see both the impersonal glare of Nature and the magisterial glory of something divine. The ugly is woven together with the beautiful. Malick's technique for laying out his narrative reminds me of Whitman's practice of "cataloguing," where the poet would have single verses detailing specific images, seemingly unrelated but like our own thoughts and memories, part of a whole (the "Song of Myself"). Some of the images are simple, some urban, some melancholy and grotesque (a suicide). Whitman takes us into a moment, a fragment of the whole, in order so that we get a sense of how large the One is. He writes, "And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them, / And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, / And of these one and all I weave the song of myself."

Train's voice-over begins to ask questions again, over images of soldiers moving, Melanesians (strikingly bereft of anxiety when juxtaposed against the soldiers) guiding them, and bodies blown apart on yellow grass. "Who are You that live in all these many forms? Your death that captures all. You too are the source of all that's going to be born." Again, like in Whitman, Death and Birth represent a false binary. The voice-over continues, "You're glory. Mercy. Peace. Truth. You give calm a spirit. Understanding. Courage. The contented heart." As these last words are recited, Malick cuts to highly stylized, transcendentally sexual memories/fantasies of Bell with his wife (Miranda Otto), indicating that to him, she, his love, is his own kind of God, a kind of romanticism we see in the Farmer's attitude towards Abby in Days of Heaven, and Pocahontas to John Smith in The New World ("A god he seems to me," her voiceover says). There is a danger is such terrestrial romanticism, which is nevertheless the consolation lovers look for. Bell's voice says while climbing a hill, "Why should I be afraid to die?" His wife's face looks on from their domestic window. "I belong to you," he continues. She is preternatural in her being, less a person than a divinity. "Come out," her voice tells him as he approaches danger. "Come out to where I am." She is Death, but the warmth of Death -- which is Eternal Life. And yet, he comes to learn, she is an illusion and temporal. The God was in him the whole time, and only in him, and being a projection of romantic love, it amounts to selfishness; there is no refuge in its absence. (I am reminded of how Michael Mann shot the intimate scene between John Dillinger and Billie Frechette in Public Enemies, which seems to be modeled on how Bell and his wife interact here; Mann used some of Hans Zimmer's Thin Red Line score in his film, possibly as an allusion. Dillinger, like the soldiers here, has burrowed himself into subjectivity as a path to freedom).



Another dichotomy of character is examined in Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) and Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), representing dual visions of a Father Figure. Early on, Staros is resented by some of his men, who believe that he leads Charlie Company into the worst possible situations, allowing them to be screwed over. But Staros is sincere in his prayers to "not betray his men." He does not know with certainty that God is on his side, but begs into the candle light, "Are You here? Let me not betray You…In You I place my trust." During battle, it's Staros who is sensitive to how so many of his men are no more than children (Nicholas Stahl plays a private who dies in Staros' arms, and by virtue of his looks he appears no more than an adolescent). Commanding Staros from a distance is Tall, an aging colonel who's been passed over and is now desperate to grab this chance to impress his superiors in "his first war." To do so, he will order Staros to attack head on into enemy area. Both men know that "lives will be lost," but the price is worth it for Tall, whereas for Staros it is unethical.

Maybe it should also be pointed out that Staros is, in a way, Malick's own invention in his adaptation of James Jones' novel. In the book, Staros is Captain Stein, a Jewish soldier. Here, renamed Staros, he is Greek. Observe how Tall quotes the beginning of Homer to Staros, "Rosy Fingered Dawn," in Greek. "You're Greek, aren't you captain? You ever read Homer? We read Homer at the Point. In Greek." Any reader of Homer will know the importance Homer places on the relationships between fathers and sons. Tall spouts Homer, but does he understand the sentimental bonds of Telemachus and Odysseus? We learn that he's ashamed of his son, who's "a bait salesman." To compensate for failure, he seeks achievement, and achievement in the adopted "sons" he has in his fold (like John Cusack's honorable soldier). Staros, on the other hand, is truly Homeric in his protection of the soldiers, all of whom he sees as his sons, even telling them in Greek that they have been as such. "You're all my sons. My beloved sons. I'll hold you in me forever. You'll be with me wherever I go," he narrates when leaving Guadalcanal. He would rather face a court martial than send his boys into a suicide mission. His spirit goes beyond boundaries, the voiceover even eulogizing a dead Japanese soldier. This is the voice of Grace.

In Tall's defense, even though he is probably the most antagonistic figure in the film (and maybe, as performed by Nolte, the film's most dominating performance), there is hidden insight to him, and a deep degree of reflective self loathing. His interior monologue reveals Malick's interest in how the interior voice of our deep self differs from the social self that speaks in respectable quips of either clever dialogue or polite discourse. A general (John Travolta) speaks to Tall about the mission, but Tall's mind fills us in on how he's really feeling: "Work my ass off. Brown-nose the generals. For me. For my family." There's a beautiful strain in Nolte's voice here. "All they sacrificed for me. Poured out like water on the ground. All I might have given for love's sake. Too late. Dying. Slow as a tree." Tall's need to be remembered and declaratively affirm his life through medals and titles is the deficit of human nature that needs to dominate and be satisfied, as we see in Badlands, the greedy characters in Days of Heaven, and Mr. O'Brien in The Tree of Life, another father whose need for love cancels out his grace. With time running out and passing by, these characters only see death (dying slow as a tree). The price is chaotic outbursts of passion, like the Farmer burning his land, Mr. O'Brien losing his temper, and Tall here embracing vainglorious military strategy, which may produce victory but will also put more lives in danger. At the end, after the achievement of victory and having dismissed Staros, he sits alone, peering at the bodies of soldiers. He has no words left, inside his spirit or outside to fill the air (playing "a role I never conceived"). His breath is almost stifled and we may notice that he's overcome with emotion in his tragic solitude.

Tall puts his faith in property, which is what most of us put our faith in. It is the concretization of achievement and value, and so the truest mark of the man looking for salvation on his own, "the coal drawn from the fire." His philosophy is justified in the present by Ayn Randian simplicity. As he says to Staros, "Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the trees, swallowing everything. Nature's cruel, Staros." There is the war in the heart of Nature, as opposing elements vie for power. That is what we think about in evolution and Darwinism (which is really from the mind of Herbert Spencer). Without the mark of achievement and will to power, one is rabble, dead meat, "dirt," and as we see in the film, dog food. Is there an avenging power in Nature? Tall believes there is, or at least he needs to believe there is. In The Tree of Life, Nature is further examined and explained as the element that requires affirmation, a love demanding devotion and reward, disliking criticism and rejection. Grace, Malick's binary to Nature, accepts all.

The achievements of The Thin Red Line, an Academy Award nominee (though winning nothing) and Berlin Golden Bear winner, and the recent controversy over The Tree of Life at Cannes, where Malick notoriously declined attendance at the press conference or Palme d'Or ceremony, may be seen as a very loud way of accepting accolades (as Peter Ustinov famously insinuated regarding George C. Scott's marked refusal to accept an Academy Award). But Malick's work seems to perfectly explain his position. After Welsh boldly delivers morphine to a soldier whose guts have been blown out, Staros applauds him and says that he's going to recommend him for the "Silver Star" and other medals of bravery. Welsh shuts him up. "Property," Welsh says, angry and exasperated. "The whole fucking thing's about property." In this respect, are movies so different from war?

*

The human soldiers are extensions of Tall's descriptions of the vines that seek to consume and dominate. They are the conscious evolution of the crocodile which they have now captured and conquered. "War don't ennoble men," Train's voiceover reminds us. "It turns them into dogs. Poisons the soul." When Charlie Company finally takes the Japanese snipers' position, we see the dominating animal come out. In some of the company, there is absolutely no intimation that the Japanese soldiers are even of the same species. They are simply murderers who want to kill soldiers, soldiers being strictly American soldiers. Later on, we notice another American reveling in his sadism. He collects the teeth of his enemies, and tells a Japanese commander, "I'm going to sink my teeth into you now. See them birds up there?" He points to some vultures coasting overhead. "They're going to eat you raw. Where you're going there's no coming back from." His interior voice is not much different: "What are you to me? Nothing." This soldier may remind one of a perversion of self righteousness that we find in the Gospel of Luke, where the author describes Hell. Train's voice asks over images of suffering and sadism: "This great Evil…Where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light? Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?" Malick's camera is on a Japanese face. "Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?" Train's questions are then conjoined with Malick's musical selection, Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question," which also necessarily relates to the quandaries of Emerson and American Transcendentalism given the composer's relationship to Concord.


There is the other perspective, though, which suffers with the enemy. Staros' voice lays out as smoke drifts over a dead Japanese face: "Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine that your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?" Staros' voice transcends Staros' own being, becoming the soul of the Japanese soldier. This is a transparent consciousness, free, unbounded, the "death that captures all," the voice of God maybe, not all knowing so much as all suffering. Witt has this consciousness, and aids a grieving Japanese man, laying his rifle down to hold the trembling hand. In watching people die, Witt wants to look at them so as to look into them, it seems, to capture their souls and hold their permanence within him, giving his own life to them as they give theirs to him.

In the middle of all this is Welsh, who is essentially us, Malick's secular humanist audience, and the same audience that will be resistant to the transcendent glimmers in The Tree of Life. Andrew O'Hehir is not too different from Welsh in his judgment of The Tree of Life's 'Shores of Eternity,' which seems like an afterlife (but I believe is more of an abstraction), when he says, "I'm not buying it." Welsh cannot understand how Witt "believes in the beautiful light." Why does Witt want to be in Charlie Company? He's "just running into a burning house where nobody can be saved. What difference you think you can make? One single man in all this madness? If you die, it's going to be for nothing. There's not some other world out there where everything's going to be okay. There's just this one. Just this rock."

Materially, Welsh is right. The "other world" of Witt, which might be "just his imagination" is subjective, a heavenly glow cast on a real world that is fraught with death and madness. A single man can't make a difference. Welsh understands the truth of war as he understands the truth of all governing structures. "Everything a lie," he narrates near the film's completion. "Everything you hear, everything you see. So much to spew out. They just keep coming, one after another. You're in a box, a moving box. They want you dead. Or in their lie." This could apply to government, military, private employment, entertainment, and education, where it is demanded that the individual live in bad faith in order to be successful, in harsh contrast to a dream of freedom. It is technically true. In a world where the facts continue to mount against the illusions of faith, and things are increasingly material and progress nearly inconceivable, how can Malick regress into this "God stuff," whether it's New Age Celestine Prophecy Bullshit or arcane Christianity?

Though he is at first condescending, Welsh is moved to be almost envious of Witt. "Still believing in the beautiful light, are you?" he asks in an empty house (which has, we will notice, an empty birdcage, and so recalls Witt's childhood home that we saw in his memory of the Mother's death). "How do you do that? You're a magician to me." "You care about me, sergeant." Witt understands how Welsh is compassionate, but then he asks, "Why do you sometimes make yourself out to be a rock?" I wonder if it's not na├»ve to wonder if the two men are dual representations of Malick's own nature, considering how the man that Witt is addressing corresponds in many ways to the isolated, intensely private Malick described by some people who know him (an ex-wife explains how she was not allowed to enter his office or borrow his books; when reading books in public, he would deliberately hide the covers so that no one could know what he was reading). The binary conflicts are not wholly resolved in The Thin Red Line, because a person rarely – if ever – is resolved. The Unanswered Questions remain, as we are Half-Devil and Half-Angel in Days of Heaven, many are Half-Witt and Half-Welsh in The Thin Red Line, or Half-Tall and Half-Staros.

The best Witt can tell Welsh is, "I still see a spark in you." That spark, again, the "light," the fire from which we are individually drawn and to which Staros prays at night (we even see it backlighting a Buddha statue at one point, the ashes dancing into the night sky), is "all in all in all of us." Welsh, like Witt, would give his life for his fellow man, but Welsh struggles to get past the "rock," whether that stone is the Earth or his own numb heart. Maybe altruism is more natural than we are led to suspect, and we even find the grace of altruism in nature (something more dealt with in The Tree of Life). Indeed, in our educated and aware liberal humanist shells, it's not fashionable to think of Witt's Zen, or struggle towards Whitman's or Emerson's Over-Soul perspective. We see the other side which revels in stifling fanaticism and denial. How is Witt's perspective different?

"One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain. That death's got the final word. It's laughing at him." This is Train's sage voiceover, as Malick's camera overlooks Welsh, awake and depressed. He then cuts to Witt, sleeping soundly. "Another man sees that same bird. Feels the glory. Feels something smiling through it." "Do you see O my brothers and sister?" Whitman asks. "It is not chaos or death – it is form, union, plan – it is eternal life – it is Happiness." It is audacious to suggest such an emboldened affirmation, when Malick even shows us a picture of that dying hatchling, doomed and crying out in agony, as his men in combat are also trapped. The dying bird is an image more ambitiously framed in The Tree of Life, with the dying plesiosaur, who is both the Book of Job's ferocious Leviathan, emblem of the jealous Yahweh, just as he is a Hobbesian allusion to Nature; but the plesiosaur, gash on its side, is also a reference to Christ, the lapis fish, an image of forgiveness and Eternity. For Malick, and for Witt, Heaven and Hell co-exist. Sympathy consoles even in furious selfishness. The Thin Red Line works to contain multitudes, contradicting itself in its largeness.

Witt will give his life to save the platoon, becoming a decoy by luring the Japanese in the wrong direction. He finds himself in a clearing, surrounded (like Kit in Badlands, Bill in Days of Heaven, and like John Smith will find himself early on in The New World). An enemy soldier yells at him, his gun poised. It is significant that Malick chooses not to use subtitles here, as we are left to interpret what words the soldier is saying. He sounds threatening, but apparently he is actually asking Witt to surrender his weapon and that he does not want to kill him. But Malick is interested in how we each live in our own worlds, and it is in that world, alone, that we connect to any sense of bliss or reconciliation with the rest of the world. Witt, as far as he can tell, understands that this is the moment of his death. He is encountering the hypothetical situation he wondered about at the beginning of his journey. He has somehow found the mother's calm. He does not drop his gun. He looks into the abyss and raises it as a Kierkegaardian knight of faith.

Malick cuts to the sensation of Paradise, as Witt wades in the water, a sensation of death's indestructibility that he raises to transcendent heights elsewhere, during The New World's ending moments, as Pocahontas/Rebecca seems to have elevated herself above Time and Mortality, and The Tree of Life's conclusion on the Shores of Eternity, where the protagonist, Jack O'Brien, does not only seem to be reconciled with his father, but also embraces his own younger self (Hunter McCracken), as well as the brother he grew up with and lost to suicide. This abstraction is in the subjectivity of the character – or the subjectivity of the artist Malick – and should not at all be interpreted as a literal landscape. But it is, Malick like Whitman would tell us, real. All we are, all we see, all we love, are ourselves. Welsh stands by Witt's grave and asks, "Where's your spark now?" He halts tears, as if the sense of emotion is the answer to his cold, "frozen up" disposition.

Welsh's thoughts wander. "Only one thing a man can do. Find something that's his. Make an island for himself." Then he adds, rather puzzlingly, "If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours." This is the answer to the Lie he contemplated moments before. Welsh's words imply that the escape for which human beings long is a seemingly impossible paradox, of deep sympathy for other beings (where there seemingly is no line between the extended and unextended), and deep introspection, as one is to "make an island for himself." One of the many fascinating things about Malick's war film is that it bypasses sociopolitical or historical ends. It wants to understand the Universal problem of suffering, grief, and the will to power. The tree of life in this film is also the tree of death. Malick separates himself from New Age euphoria by his embrace of the dark, which cancels itself out with the light. Each being goes on his own private journey, either seeking salvation and achievement for himself, or seeking to identify with "the light." Death stalks all, a feeling magnificently executed by Malick and cinematographer John Toll by way of the Akela Crane, a remote controlled camera crane able to traverse over the rough grassy terrain, feet away from the actors, surpassing the most effective Steadicam shot. Light and Space cannot impede Malick, no more than a human being can evade death.

"Where is it that we were together?" Train's voice asks as the military boat, the "floating graveyard," leaving Guadalcanal, faces staring out into space and into the dark of rifles that peer back. "Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend." These are once more faces of the past, departing from the subjective voice, and it also anticipates The Tree of Life in how "the brother" certainly holds a deeply sentimental tie to the filmmaker's own deceased brother. Malick emulates and slightly rewords Wordsworth to end his film: "Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of One Mind? The features of the same face? O my Soul, let me be in You now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things You made. All things shining." Malick is telling us that we are all Creators as perceivers, indeed even as voyeurs in a movie audience. The Thin Red Line is much more than a war film. It is nearly a religious text, bearing its own creation myth. The brute force of the military boat piercing through the ocean dissolves to the placid water of the Melanesians, Nature overlooking. On the beach, there is a coconut sprouting. The waves roll in rhythmically. Is this an image of New Life or Death? For Malick it is the same thing. All things shining. Soaring above Good and Evil, whereas most movies are mere representations of life, The Thin Red Line boldly achieves the exhausted and exasperated feeling of having lived it.

4 comments:

  1. This is the greatest essay on a film that I have ever read.

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  2. Wow, a true moment. Truly not everyday one finds something worth spending more X seconds on. I have seen the film, of course. A couple of times actually, and every time as if I watch for the first time. A true quality of a great film. After Reading this I´m sure I will see the film again and again and again,
    Thank you

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