Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Terrence Malick loves blowing grass

This is the latest in a series in which I reconsider acclaimed films I didn't like as much as most people did. I call it Second Chances, and it runs on Tuesdays.

Not that kind of "blowing." Get your mind out of the gutter.

"Blowing" like the regular kind of blowing, and "grass" like the regular kind of grass. (Though he might like inhaling the other kind of grass, I don't know.) And Terrence Malick can't get enough of it, if his last two films are any indication.

For the first time in this series, I prepared a viewing of a film by watching another film from the same director. I had been reading a lot on the blogosphere about The New World, and how strongly some of my fellow film bloggers felt about this retelling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, which some of them considered among the best films of the 2000s. I thought The New World might help me get in the Malick mindset, and give me a fresh perspective on The Thin Red Line, which I had found protracted and pretentious at the time.

It worked, to a point.

I say "to a point" for two reasons:

1) I only watched about half of The New World, at which point I had to shut it off due to DVD quality issues. It was blotching and freezing, and wiping off the disc on my pant leg didn't help. So after trying to fast forward through the problem scenes a couple times, and realizing they were all problem scenes, I decided to abort. I'd rented this from the library, and figured I'd just proceed with an unscratched copy from Blockbuster.

2) Even though I was enjoying The New World more than The Thin Red Line -- a sign either of being 12 years older, or genuinely liking Malick's approach better this time -- it only ingratiated me to his style of filmmaking a little bit more.

You see, to me, Terence Malick's approach to cinema can be defined by the idea that he likes how it looks when tall, blowing grass appears on film. Whether it's Virginia of 1607 or Guadalcanal of 1943, blowing grass frames men in moments of great intellectual and emotional crisis, and darn it if it doesn't look pretty.

The Thin Red Line is nothing if not pretty, especially as shot by master cinematographer John Toll. Like the part of The New World that I saw, it's essentially a nature film in which human beings sometimes seem more like necessary props and parts of the environment than specific characters. Neither film is plot heavy in the slightest, though both tell a story that's famous to us -- in the case of The Thin Red Line, even if it's not the most famous battle in World War II, at least it's the second film version of the James Jones novel on which it was loosely based. Perhaps this is intentional on Malick's part: If he tells a story we already know, he doesn't need to tell it with very much concern about communicating its particulars, and can concentrate on his high-minded intellectual ramblings about good and evil, life and death.

In 1998, these ramblings frustrated me to no end. I felt toyed with after The Thin Red Line. Terrence Malick had gathered together no less than 42 familiar actors (or actors who would go on to have big careers, making them even more familiar on a second viewing), given almost none of them a proper introduction, and then sent them through one really long battle scene, one really long segment of pointless aftermath, and one short offensive at the end. Meanwhile, he'd had at least a random half dozen of them narrate their thoughts in the most soporific tones imaginable, with the most broad, pretentious pontifications on fate and human nature you could conjure. Which seemed especially strange in a show-don't-tell medium, in which Malick clearly displayed mastery over the visual side of the medium.

Watching The Thin Red Line the second time, I don't feel quite so offended by all of Malick's pontificating. I understand that this is an arthouse war movie, probably more than I was prepared for it to be when I first went in. However, I did inadvertently set myself up to feel frustrated once again by its imposing length. For some reason I convinced myself it was only 2 hours and 20 minutes, so then, when I realized it was still going to wade onward for another 30 minutes, it renewed some of the impatience with Malick that I had been trying to quell.

The film made me wonder how much of the experience of watching a film should be beauty for beauty's sake. It's true that I was captivated by Toll's cinematography, of which that gently blowing grass was a primary, front-and-center example. And so this made the basic physical experience of watching the movie pleasant. And sure, who doesn't love watching Jim Caviezel swim in the beautiful South Pacific with a lot of native children? It is, on the most basic level, a pleasing experience.

But it's where Malick thinks that his movie is the most profound thing that's ever been made that The Thin Red Line loses me. There was a time in the history of cinema in which war movies existed primarily to celebrate heroism on the battlefield, in which people died, but not in very horrible ways, and the patriotic music on the soundtrack was supposed to make you feel pretty damn great about the American war effort. Of course, eventually this approach was supplanted by the "war is hell" approach, as particularly exemplified by the Vietnam movies of the 1980s.

By 1998, however, I already knew that war was hell. Just earlier that year, I'd seen a particularly convincing entry into "war is hell" cinema named Saving Private Ryan. Maybe The Thin Red Line came too soon on the heels of Ryan, but the theme seemed beaten into the ground even just six months later. Malick included one too many meaningful looks between soldiers and melodramatic swells in the soundtrack for my liking. All of this stuff I get: War is fought by young people who are scared and confused; soldiers are sent to their deaths for purposes that gain no strategic advantage, by commanding officers who are removed from the circumstances; battlefield injuries are frightening and gruesome; even the enemy is just as scared and helpless as you are.

In devoting so much time to several examples of each of these truths, Malick was drumming things I already knew into my head, and without much subtlety. I remember one particular image that stuck with me as an example of his overwrought approach to the material: An American soldier screaming silently as the music swelled, but not on the battlefield during a moment of chaos. Rather, this was after the Japanese camp had already been taken and held, and he was screaming/crying about some vague atrocity he'd committed, or someone else had committed, or something. I GET IT. WAR IS HELL. PLEASE TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF THE PEDAL NOW.

I will say that the film was interesting to watch just to see all the actors it brought together, and how some of them looked so much younger. For example, only 12 years ago, we didn't even really know who John C. Reilly was. Or Adrien Brody. Or Ben Chaplin. Or Jim Caviezel. In fact, the number of recognizable faces almost distracts from Malick's intentions of creating his poetic, anonymous every-soldier movie. There's also Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Nick Stahl, Kirk Acevedo, Dash Mihok, Jared Leto, Nick Nolte, George Clooney and John Travolta. And that's only who I can remember without consulting IMDB. (I just looked on wikipedia, and apparently there was also footage that was shot but not used featuring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke. Just imagine how much more spread thin it would have felt then.) Was it really worth it to get all these guys together, just because they were big fans of either Badlands or Days of Heaven? Especially since it meant that it would be even less clear which ones were worth following, and which weren't? And especially because it meant that certain cameos, such as the mustachioed Travolta or the throwaway final scene with Clooney, were basically just laughable?

The Thin Red Line proves that it's entirely possible to make a beautiful film that doesn't really succeed on its own terms. I am comfortable with saying that I find most of the movie totally beautiful to look at, and sort of even get into the vibe of the film, while still saying that the approach is ultimately scattershot and wrong-headed. I know Malick is trying to take me out of my comfort zone of having a single protagonist, and I know Malick is trying to confront me with the soldiers' pseudo-intellectual musings about the nature of mankind. But it doesn't mean I have to love it.

However, I do have to accept that this is the essential Terrence Malick in his all his grass-blowing glory. His next film, starring Penn and Brad Pitt, is called The Tree of Life, and is scheduled for release this fall. If that title weren't telling enough (and didn't remind me enough of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, another film Malick would have been comfortable directing), then how about this for what passes for a synopsis on wikipedia: "It's the tale of a Midwestern boy's journey from the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as a 'lost soul in the modern world,' and into his quest to regain meaning in life."

Second Chance Verdict, The Thin Red Line: I won't curse its name like I used to, but I still think a tighter film with fewer characters and less philosophical meandering would have suited me better.


Film Intel said...

I like this film a lot. In fact, it's one of my favourite ever films. If I ever were to attempt to compile a top 10/top 20 then it would almost certainly be there. I think all of your criticisms have some truth in them; it is pretentious and over-wrought, over-long and lacking a central narrative, but for all of those things I was absolutely transfixed by it and the character of Witt gave me enough to latch on to, to pull me through something which felt more 'real' than a lot of things I've watched. I found more that I could relate to here than in Saving Private Ryan.

And on the subject of actors looking so young they're basically unrecognisable: Thomas Jane. Literally had to pause the DVD to make sure it was him.

Simon said...

I have not seen it, for the reasons you once hated it. And I hate war movies in general.

Burning Reels said...

Brilliant film. I must admit first time I saw it, I found it a little too much in it's musings. Yet like all of Malick's works, the images and sounds haunt and linger in the mind for quite a while.

This is much more than just a war movie Simon.