terrence

When Terrence Malick returned to film-making in 1999 after a twenty-year hiatus, I certainly didn’t notice. I was holed up in some empty East Village broom-closet theater watching Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s marathon Unser Hitler , or perhaps Aleksandr Sokurov’s impossible Mother and Son . I thought “American” and “avant-garde” were mutually exclusive, and I was dogmatically attached to the latter. Nothing that got a mention at the Academy Awards could possibly have been of any interest to me.

These days I pretty much just watch whatever I come across on Netflix that seems half-way palatable. I enjoyed the latest installment in the Harold and Kumar franchise, for example.

Anyhow when I saw Malick’s The New World , and more recently his Tree of Life , my complaint was certainly not that they were too challenging or “cerebral” (a favorite Netflix adjective). Had I not sat through Stalker from start to finish? Malick’s work strikes me, in fact, as pure Hollywood. He’s that classic American man with a vision, who says: I want to make a big picture, really big. We’re going to pull out all the stops. Now one might place that sort of vision in a line with, say, Wagner (surely a cinéaste avant la lettre if anyone in his century was); but it’s first and foremost the big studio men of the Hollywood golden age who breathed life into this stereotype.

But still, there is a coherent and compelling philosophy that comes out in at least the three films I’ve mentioned that perhaps justifies the Netflix descriptor. At its core this philosophy is a meditation on the interpermeability of the realms of the living and the dead.

As Rilke puts it in the first of the Duino Elegies :

But all of the living make this mistake, that they distinguish too sharply. The angels (it is said) would often not know, whether they were moving among the living or the dead.

Perhaps a corollary of this embeddedness of life in death is that of the historical in the mythical (Guadalcanal moves from 1942 to the eternal present of myth); another is that of the social in the natural (with the Melanesians, along with the bats and parrots and lizards with which they cohabit, representing the original unity of the two).

The Thin Red Line is also a Christian film. It contrasts the morality of the Iliad —which is announced by Lt. Col. Tall’s invocation of the eos rhododaktylos on the dawn of the first day of battle—with the morality of the Gospels. The good news is brought by two characters rather than one. The first is Cpt. Staros, who speaks a line of his native Greek to tell the soldiers under him that they are “like his sons.” It seems implicit that here the modern Greek is meant to contrast with the Homeric Greek as if it were New Testament Greek, that is, the good news of love and redemption, contrasted with the perpetual sublime battle that had been the existential condition of the ancients. Staros’ true paternal love is contrasted with the numerous false invocations of a family-like relationship by careerist officers, including Tall.

The other Christian figure is Pvt. Witt, who is coupled and contrasted with Sgt. Edward Welsh in the same way Staros is with Tall. Witt has no paternal love to offer, but only saintly, agapic love that does not distinguish between family and stranger. He gives succor to wounded Japanese and to frightened American recruits alike. His love is contrasted not with pre-Christian, Homeric morality, but with Welsh’s world-weary cynicism: a world-view that is understood to run parallel with, rather than to precede, the redemptive love that is known and offered by Witt.

Two-thirds of the way through Staros is relieved of his duty by Tall, and in the end Witt is killed by the Japanese. The relationship between Witt and Welsh is the only complex and interesting one that emerges over the course of three hours (I certainly could have done without the flashbacks to pretty girls in Texas). When Witt dies, Welsh is left with his cynical belief confirmed that “there is only one world,” and it does not care about us. It is understood however that Welsh’s deepened conviction is not the “lesson” of the film, since Witt’s own conviction was never something that could be disconfirmed by death.

The most striking scenes in the film, to me, were those following the capture of the Japanese bunker, in which the two shell-shocked parties were mingling and waiting, variously, to die, to be sent off to a POW camp, or to be relieved by other troops. The Japanese appear from the American perspective, which of course does not make subtle distinctions. But even so they are shown to be entirely unique as individuals: some are angry, some have gone insane, some are sobbing, some are praying. Some of the Americans, in turn, are abusive, some are flippant, some are professional, and one, Witt, is full of love.

I respond well to Malick’s vision of the world. But I wish he could get it across without the voiceovers, without the Rockwellian kitsch, and without the glossiness and unctuousness of the big-name, big-budget spectacle.

Justin E. H. Smith writes from Paris.

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