Friday, July 1, 2011

Walking the Line

We were a family. How'd it break up and come apart, so that now we're turned against each other? Each standing in the other's light. How'd we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What's keepin' us from reaching out, touching the glory? 
Pvt. Witt (in voice-over), The Thin Red Line

It’s difficult to do justice to the works of filmmaker Terrence Malick. How can one begin to describe in words, let alone analyze, what can only be grasped in a cinematic experience, and sometimes only fleetingly or partially at that? It would take a book to adequately explore all five of Malick’s films, each of which is as enigmatic as the J.D. Salinger-like director himself. If we limit ourselves to a more manageable number, like, say, onethen which one do we choose? Beginning with Days of Heaven, his second feature, up through The Tree of Life, all are of a piece, steps in the forward progression of Malick’s apparent search for the presence of God in nature, in the universe.

The sublime The Thin Red Line, unjustly overshadowed at the time of its release in 1998 (though nominated for the Best Picture Oscar) by Steven Spielberg’s war-film-by-the-numbers, Saving Private Ryan, finally received the home video treatment it richly deserved last year, courtesy of The Criterion Collection. So let’s go with that one.  

In the years since its release, The Thin Red Line has come to be considered one of the best War movies ever made, but it’s an injustice to pigeonhole it into any one genre. Malick deals in the profound, and in Red Line, as in Days of Heaven, The New World, and The Tree of Life, he reflects on the entry of sin—of the Cain slew Abel variety—into Eden, and the ensuing desecration and devastation. While showing many of the gritty, gruesomely disturbing realities of war, both mental and physical, he nevertheless detaches the viewer to a certain degree by employing a point of view that’s simultaneously omniscient and intensely personal. Screenwriter-director Malick, who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, and taught it at MIT, allows us to hear the innermost thoughts of several individual characters while giving us a more serene overview of the whole, the Steinbeckian “one big soul,” and the indifferent but breathtakingly beautiful natural world in which it exists, as we hover over these men who are dealing the best they can with being in harm’s way. It recalls not so much John Ford’s They Were Expendable—another brilliant, fundamentally serene and reflective film about the sacrifices of war—as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. It is perhaps even more closely related to The Human Comedy, a World War II picture set on the American home front, which examines with a patient, empathetic, all-seeing eye the lives, deaths and longings of the people of a small town affected by the war. In it, as in Red Line, death is everywhere, and is ultimately embraced.

Malick has a distinct advantage over his precursors in spirit who worked within Hollywood’s old studio system. Nowadays, independent-thinking directors are highly regarded in many circles, practically worshipped in others; “indies” have been given their own film festivals, even their own cable TV channel, which makes walking the thin green line between commercial success and art for art’s sake a relatively common occurrence. Not so back in the days of maverick auteurs like Ford, Orson Welles, and a few others, when original thinkers had to bring their visions to fruition within the confining structure of the system, packaging their art in the guise of entertainment, pleasing to not only bottom-line-eying executives, but to the lowest common denominator of the paying public. Directors, like actors, were under contract to the movie moguls, if they wanted to work at all, and they had to meet quotas stipulated therein.  

The notoriously reclusive Malick, by contrast, had made only two films in twenty-five years at the time of Red Line. Yet his reputation, based not only on the strength of those two transcendent works (Badlands and Days of Heaven), but nearly as much on his elusiveness, had Hollywood A-Listers lining up to work with him, even if it meant only a bit part. Nick Nolte, John Travolta, George Clooney, John Cusack, Sean Penn, and Woody Harrelson all appear in Red Line, willingly occupying widely varying amounts of screen time.  Penn reportedly told Malick, regarding his salary, “Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up.” Scenes with Martin Sheen (Badlands’ co-star, with Sissy Spacek), Bill Pullman, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patrick, Mickey Rourke, and Gary Oldman were cut from the finished film, while Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Costner, and Johnny Depp all either took part in readings, were auditioned, or met with the director to discuss prospective roles in Red Line.

James Caviezel in The Thin Red Line.

When all was said and done, relative unknowns Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin were given the lion’s share of substantive screen time, and their voice-overs—which provide the primary stream of consciousness the film navigates—are the most deeply compelling. Both actors were more than up to the task, and proved to be wise choices for the linchpin roles, as known entities’ celebrity likely would have distracted viewers. Nick Nolte, on the other hand, who was certainly a well-known star, utterly transcends his celebrity and gives the bravura performance of his life as an aging Colonel, passed over when more than a few promotions were handed out, who sees a victory at the Battle of Guadalcanal (the historic event that is the ostensible focal point of the film, and the James Jones novel on which it is based) as the opportunity of a lifetime, no matter how many lives it may cost. 

Malick’s cache also earned him seeming carte blanche with producer Bobby Geisler, Pioneer Films, Phoenix Pictures, and 20th Century Fox, all eager to cash in on his magic touch as they backed his painstaking, laborious, and expensive process of researching and adapting a screenplay, and scouting locations in Central America and the South Pacific.

The importance of cinematography and music in Malick’s films is immeasurable, as they preside over most of the frequent interludes and passages that have no dialogue as completely as would a strong, fully realized main character. He utilized to full capacity the considerable talents of legendary directors of photography Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler in the stunning “magic hour” sequences of Days of Heaven. Lingering in the memory are such well-chosen music pieces as Carl Orff’s Musica Poetica, which features prominently in Badlands, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium,” from Carnival of the Animals, over Days of Heaven’s opening credits. The eminent composer Ennio Morricone provided the ethereal soundtrack music for Days of Heaven, with notable contributions from guitar virtuoso Leo KottkeRed Line features a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell, as well as such borrowed pieces as Gabriel Faurés celestial Requiem in Paradisum, Charles Ives The Unanswered Question,” and a beautiful Melanesian choral chant, God U Tekem Laef Blong Mi” which perfectly complement the lush and atmospheric cinematography of John Toll, and eloquently serve Malick's statement to Zimmer that the soundtrack music must be part of “a river leading to a destination.” 

Malick remains an enigmatic but vital force in the film world. With his current release, The Tree of Life, he continues his quest through nature, via introspection, to touch the face of God. This time around he seems to have polarized critics and audiences alike—just as Orson Welles did in 1941 with the now universally lauded Citizen Kane.  

© Jon Oye, 2011