Wednesday, April 27, 2011

There and Back Again: The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick didn't so much as burst onto the scene as he slowly trickled through the gaps, like a snap in the desert, creating a path all on his own. And it must be said that it is a path I have often found difficult to navigate, understand, and at times bother to care about. Among a collection of modern directors who have found some cinematic power in twisting the rules of cinema into their own elusive state. Along with the likes of Werner Herzog and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Malick has formed a manner of film in which silence is boisterous, cold-hearted is warm-blooded, and a seemingly stillness can sprint faster than Usain Bolt chasing a golden podium.

It is a style I find disconcerting, if not entirely frustrating altogether. In essence it is a form of narrative that plays against everything I expect in a movie, and unfortunately also the things I desire. I am a man of character. Well, I'm a character. But either way the aspect of a film I find myself most directly drawn to are the characters. Their motives are important to me. The way they carry themselves, the tales they tell, and the manner in which their lives unfold. So, while I appreciate the solemn nature of films like Badlands and Days of Heaven, I don't  find them particularly engaging.

Which brings me to the third installment in Malick's short, but well maintained and beloved, directorial resume - The Thin Red Line. Based on the novel by James Jones about the battle of Guadalcanal during WW2, The Thin Red Line follows a platoon of soldiers journey through bloodshed, reflection, inner demons, and the raw intensity of nature, Malick focuses his efforts on the men themselves. We seldom see the action, but we are always experiencing it. Often tight shots on groups of soldiers marching through the woods help create a claustrophobic sense of war. An ever increasing fear of the world around, the beautiful and covert surroundings, and the all encompassing desire to escape - mentally and physically.

My first experience with The Thin Red Line led me in quite a different direction from those of Malick's other films. Having taken part many years before them, I found the movie's initially first part, the taking of the hill, gripping at every turn. I could not get enough of it. But in time it passed, and there was still half the film to unfold! It was at that time that my interest waned, and eventually collapsed under its own pressure. I didn't so much hate the film as I longed to love it. An odd feeling that finds your review of it equally challenging. How do you rate a movie you feel indifference is too unbecoming and yet anything overtly positive would be misleading? Negativity isn't the way to go, but if I recall I threw out a 7 for good measure and was done with it.

And there it lay for many years. It was until some time later that the theory of second viewings being the tell all for many films crossed my mind, and inevitably became something of a fixation with me. I revisited hundreds of movies that traversed the gamut of love and hate, and found to my surprise a few real gems among the evanescent. Perhaps the most momentous being Malick's The Thin Red Line. Keep in mind this was still some time before I cared to see A New World, Badlands, or Days of Heaven. Yet, I could not deny the existence of a new feeling that didn't exist the first time around.

Perhaps since then my run through the world of Kurosawa, William Wyler, and David Lean had dampened my aversion to long, winding films with multiple interwoven parts. But that was not the only reason. The Thin Red Line marked a rather epiphanic turn for my understanding of the way movie reviewing worked: The knowledge that no matter what we declare, our opinions are roaming ideals, floating throughout our minds, and capable of being pushed in any direction - it is just a matter of finding a force strong enough to do the job.

The Thin Red Line still ranks among my favorite war movies to this day, some four years later. It's a constant outside shot for my top 100, and one of those movies I am constantly looking back on and wondering "what if." It serves, alongside the rather ubiquitous 2001: A Space Odyssey, as reminders that even the most unfulfilling of films are not always bad - just not right at the particular time in life they came along. So while we may be quick to lash out in hyperbolic claims of mediocrity or dissidence, acknowledgment that this is not final is perhaps one of the most crucial components of any review.

It does not mean you must watch every movie you ever see twice. Instead, that you should never close yourself to the idea that one can come along and surprise you, even when your sure your mind is made up. In the words of Chuck Noland you should do so "because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?"

5 better thoughts:

Castor said...

Glad to hear you liked this better the second time around. Perspective often changes after some time has gone by. I think the fact that Malick's style is somewhat unconventional and outside of mainstream Hollywood makes it a requirement to see his movies at least twice.

Dan O. said...

The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous with some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen on film. Good review!

thevoid99 said...

I agree, watching a Malick film the first time around if you're unaware of what he does as a filmmaker is frustrating.

I remembered seeing this film on TV when I was 19 and I didn't get it. I saw it again years later and I liked it even more though was still a bit baffled about it. Then, I found myself watching it and realized how great it was. Even when I bought the Criterion DVD, I was able to love it even more.

Malick is a mysterious individual yet someone whose films always tend to get better with each viewing. I'm definitely excited for The Tree of Life though I'll maintain low expectations which will be hard to do.

Univarn said...

@Castor: I watched this some time ago, and promised Mad a post after he sent me a copy of the DVD, but didn't deliver because I didn't have a chance to revisit the film. So when I did, I thought it time to revisit the notion of 'opinion as concrete' as well.

@Dan O: It is absolutely beautiful to watch. All Malick films are wonderfully shot.

@theVoid I still need to give Days of Heaven and Badlands second viewings. Since I saw this some time ago, A New World has earned a second viewing... and sad to say I'm still apathetic towards it on the whole.

Fitz said...

I could use a second viewing of this myself, but what struck me most was that this beautiful scenery could create such feelings of terror for this band of men.

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