Monday, August 27, 2007


The Southerners Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down Philosophers

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the BIZARRO Blog-a-Thon being hosted by Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre.

By Edward Copeland
Terrence Malick's version of James Jones' The Thin Red Line opens with the ominous image of a crocodile slowly entering the muck of a pond. Of course, crocodiles are used to this sort of environment, which won't be the case with the American soldiers who find themselves trying to take the island of Guadalcanal from the Japanese during World War II. It also sets up Malick's point-of-view of not just this locale but everywhere: Man does not belong, if for no other reason that he keeps getting in the way of us being able to see nature in its purity, constantly interrupting with war and narratives.
Malick's adaptation of the World War II novel taught me something I didn't realize: Apparently the vast majority of Americans who fought in the South Pacific were from the South. Of course, Malick carefully instructs his actor not to distract from the reverent, dreamlike reverie of nature he creates by insisting that most of them employ the worst attempts at Southern accents they can muster. At times though, the damn actors still get in the way such as Sean Penn, whose accent seems legit at times, and Tim Blake Nelson who uses his real voice. Of course, the actors are an impediment in general since they keep getting in the way of the scenery. Malick's vision is about nature's vengeance and inner ability for self-preservation, and too often the actors get in the way. Fortunately, he remedies this by using odd, rambling voiceovers, assembled in such a haphazard way, that you can never quite be certain which character is speaking. This is good, because this film is not about people and doesn't stoop to humanizing the conflict but allowing its actors to add dimensions to their roles and allow sentimentality to seep in as Steven Spielberg allowed in Saving Private Ryan. The first American we see in the film is the one played by Jim Cavaziel, giving off a holy vibe as if he's preparing for his later title role in Mel Gibson's Jesus Chainsaw Massacre. When we first see Cavaziel's character, he is AWOL, romping on an island paradise with natives that seems as if it's out of Mutiny on the Bounty. That's not the only reference to other sources that Malick makes throughout the film: When we first see Cavaziel standing over the beach over the natives working with primitive tools, he's unmistakably supposed to be the equivalent of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cavaziel also gets the bulk of the dreamy monologues with fake drawls, as his internal conversation reflects on immortality and his dying mother. Unfortunately, the war intrudes on his peace in the form of a Naval vessel bearing his commanding officer (Penn) who plunges him back into the muck of the war. Now, I don't want to leave readers with the impression that The Thin Red Line is a pretentious, dull, humorless affair. Believe it or not, there is comedy to be found, laughs similar to those in the works of the Coen brothers with their dimwitted characters with overblown accents speaking in flowery prose. I have to wonder though: Who influenced whom? Did Malick pick up the Coens' tricks by watching films such as Raising Arizona or were the Coens inspired by earlier works such as Badlands and Days of Heaven which contained similar attributes? One scene for certain had to be inspired by Raising Arizona: When Woody Harrelson accidentally blows "his butt off" with a grenade, there is no mistaking that the expression on his face is an homage to Randall "Tex" Cobb when his bounty hunter in Raising Arizona realizes he's in possession of an activated grenade. Of course, Harrelson's presence is one of many notable cameos that makes The Thin Red Line play as if it's a World War II-variation on Robert Altman's The Player. Quick: There's John Travolta. Over there, it's George Clooney. John Cusack just showed up. I kept waiting to see Cher. Without a doubt though the funniest cameo is given by John Savage, who checks his dog tags to try to find out who his character is and make certain that somehow he didn't get teleported through time back to the set of The Deer Hunter. The character who makes the strongest impression, and therefore breaks the mood Malick is creating, is Nick Nolte as Lt. Col. Tall, outwardly a Nixon-like creature, but inside as reflective as all the soldiers, commenting on how he's degrading himself, that someone is always watching him like a hawk, regretting all he might have given for love and acknowledging that he is dying slowly, like a tree. Then, philosophy seems to be what all the Americans have in mind. Ben Chaplin's character is preoccupied with the wife he left at home, insisting he'll be waiting for her on "the other side of dark waters" only later to get a "Dear Jack" letter. When I first saw The Thin Red Line in 1998, I kept getting the characters played by Chaplin and Adrien Brody confused because of their similar facial features, distinguished only by Brody's slightly bigger nose. On my most recent viewing, the distinctions are clearer as you realize that Brody never says a word and that Malick must be making another film allusion, this time to Jean-Louis Barrault's character of the mime Baptiste in Children of Paradise. Malick excels at summoning his drowsy, trance-like Zentropa feel, but he does undermine his own movie with the sequence involving the storming of the beach and the taking of the hill. It doesn't belong and proves to be a true distraction, shocking the viewer out of his easy-listening mode. Even the character played by Elias Koteas seems to admit this in these sequences, stopping to check his watch as an audience surrogate impatient to end the action and get back to the existential. One thing that struck me on my recent viewing is his portrayal of the Japanese soldiers. They seem to be shrieking stereotypes with no humanity. One narrator even goes so far as to ask, "Who is this evil, robbing us of light and life?" At first, I was offended by this portrayal, then I realized that this must be Malick making a statement about the racist South, especially when you see the Japanese soldiers disguised as trees, showing they are much more in tune with nature than their American counterparts. "War don't ennoble man," Penn's character says at one point. "Turns them into dogs." Thoughts such as these preoccupy the troops, some who die, new soldiers who arrive and some who abruptly disappear from the film's canvas. They ask questions about the courage of a contented heart and the darkness beneath the earth that allows the sun to shine and which may dwell within us all. Penn also acts as a Malick surrogate to some extent, commenting that he's only lonely when he's around people and that every man should make an island for himself. While certainly flawed, The Thin Red Line has much bigger fish to fry than just war. However, Malick reveals his true target audience with one of his final shots. These two are who The Thin Red Line is really for.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Now that's a review! You managed to work in Randall "Tex" Cobb: Your stature has risen in my eyes immeasurably.

Of course, a review like this would fly in many circles as the real thing. Bizarro blog-a-thons are all fun and good at first until years later your review is plastered all over the internet, completely out of context, as an honest salute to Malick's work. And then little children start pointing at you and calling you names.

Now I loved the review but I'm confused as to our comments. Are they by association a part of the Bizarro Blog-a-thon too? Am I supposed to be saying your review sucked because it's good and I like it? Or the other way around? Or should I... no, wait. Maybe... ah, hell back to the bourbon.
This whole review was brilliant, but my favorite had to be the reference to "Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" true.
This was one of the hardest movies for me to review. The critic side of me was at war with the regular side of me. The critic had much to admire, and demanded I give the film a favorable grade. The regular Joe said that I can't in good conscience give a passing grade to a film I kept wishing would end. I wound up giving it a C+. I recall writing about the narration: "the last thing I'd be thinking about, while hot shrapnel pierced my ass, is butterflies and what love is."

And Jesus Chainsaw Massacre 2: Apocalypse-o is coming soon to a theater near you.
However brilliant this review may (or may not) have been as an expression of a legitimate point-of-view, it still made me want to scoop it up with a trowel and bury it while holding my nose (the review rather than the film, even if you'd prefer the opposite).

I also took the opportunity to follow the 'Arizona' link and remind myself of your staggering lack of perception regarding the scene between Marge and Mike (and its aftermath) in 'Fargo'; it's the CHARACTER and his lies that are undermined (and deliberately, thoughtfully, usefully so), NOT the scene itself.

Your '2001' monolith comparison was apt (even if you didn't intend it as a compliment), though re-reading your review of the Kubrick film made me want to face-palm (but I get the feeling I'm being too tough on you already so I'll get off your back - for now).

As for the additional comments, I fail to grasp how commenters who base their criticism of this film on claiming they know what they themselves would be thinking of (and not thinking of) when piereced by hot shrapnel think they have a leg to stand on (so to speak); what combat service have you seen? What mortal injuries have you suffered? And why is a movie character required to behave how you yourself claim you would behave in any given situation in order for that character (and the movie they're in) to connect with you? How presumtuous does a comment need to be before it can be safely dismissed?

and Mr Lapper being on the bourbon would explain a lot.
The entire review is meant as satire (though I do believe The Thin Red Line is an incredible bore. Nothing in it is meant to be taken seriously. That was the whole point of the blog-a-thon: To write a review of a film you don't like as if you did. I don't know how you got all bent out of shape over Harrelson and the grenade, as if in this spoof I was judging what a proper reaction to a shrapnel wound should be. You still seem to get awfully perturbed when people don't agree with your opinions and keep missing that opinions are subjetive and there are not objective truths to be found. My opinion on these films are as valid as yours. As for not having legs, I actually can relate to that in a way since to an incompetent doctor and hospital staff, I've been bedridden since 2008 and I'll never walk again. Even if I were judging how he shoul eact to shrapnel, to require a critic to have the proper experience to judge any possible scenario in a film would be pretty limiting. You like 2001 a lot, but I bet you can neither design nor pilot a spacecraft, so your opinion shouldn't be considered valid. Remeber Pauline Kael's response whenever someone said to her, "If you know so much about movies, why don't you make one?" to which she replied, "You don't have to know how to make an omelet to know if it tastes good."
You mean you DIDN'T like the film??!?

(I hate scarcasm; reading it AND writing it...)

You didn't make the shrapnel comment in your 'satirical' piece, Odeinator did (when I referred to "additional comments", I was targeting those separate from your piece; I should have typed "they" rather than "you", as I didn't mean YOU, Edward), so I don't see why you feel the need to defend yourself over this point (though it looks like you agree with it and are happy to defend it anyway).

Of course someone can be legitimately unconvinced by a cinematic representation of war and the reactions of its participants without needing to be 'qualified' as a combat veteran (I'm not one either), but I'm guessing I'd have a better chance of sympathising with Odienator's POV if I could read that entire review rather than one sentence in a brief comment.

and my love for '2001' has very little to do with its accuracy-or-otherwise; it dazzles, rivets, fascinates me as a piece of cinematic style and as a sensory experience, much as 'The Thin Red Line' does (again, regardless of 'accuracy').

and forgive me once again for getting 'perturbed' and wishing to add a defensive voice of praise to counter the attacking voices of dismissal; perhaps I AM too aggressive and inflexible and am unwelcome here, and if my contributions don't sit well then I promise I'll leave you alone.
I read your comment late after a long day of working myself harder than I should so I didn't realize you were referring to Odienator's comment and not my piece since I wrote it so long ago. Then again, your admission that you don't like sarcasm does explain a lot. People without a good sense of humor about things tend to be overly defensive in all areas that mean something to them and get exceptionally worked up when people crticize things they hold dear. It could be worse. You could believe that Obama wasn't born in Hawaii or that the Bush administration blew up the World Trade Center itself. Those people have no sense of humor or reality,
Your political gag brought a huge smile to my face and allowed me to forget about being self-serious and defensive for a minute :-)
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Follow edcopeland on Twitter

 Subscribe in a reader