Tag Archives: The Thin Red Line

To the Wonder

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Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder, released last week in select theaters, as well as on demand and on iTunes. It’s a characteristically visceral experience of a film, meaning I STRONGLY suggest you try to see it on the big screen rather than on a computer screen. See here for theater release schedule. 

I have been following Malick’s career with great interest for more than 15 years (basically since I saw The Thin Red Line in 1998), and have written quite a bit about the man and his films. See here, here, here, here and here for a sampling.

So it was with great pleasure that Christianity Today gave me the opportunity to write a lengthy review essay about the film, in which I synthesize the themes and cinematic vision of Malick’s larger body of work by a taking a close look at To the Wonder (which I’ve already seen three times). Below is one section of the review, but if you have a bit of time and you’re a fan of Malick, I’d strongly suggested reading the whole thing.

To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It’s no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil’s own cell phone camera (as they travel by train “to the Wonder”). It’s the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; “All things shining” (The Thin Red Line).

Malick’s camera has a particular gaze. He spends more time than most on almost gratuitous beauty (puffy clouds, swimming turtles, beautiful hands). And his lens lingers on the mundane: empty rooms, walls, appliances, even a laptop displaying a Skype conversation. Everything is interesting to Malick.

Everything except himself. In both To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the actors portraying the adult Malick (Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, respectively) come across as passive observers—quiet, contemplative, almost awkward bystanders in the movie. They are fitting representations of a man who seems far more comfortable paying attention to the world around him than bringing attention to himself.

Much has been made of Malick’s tendency to hire big-name actors for his films, shoot tons of footage, and then leave them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors ultimately cut out completely from To the Wonder. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from the big-ego actor’s point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos.

In this, Malick is suggesting that it’s far more important for us to see well rather than to be well seen. Insofar as cinema has a purpose, it should not be about audiences glorifying actors or actors glorifying themselves, as much as creating an environment of focused vision and contemplation wherein the beauty of this world confronts and perhaps transforms the audience.

The whole of Malick’s oeuvre seems to be a call to put aside our hubris and wake to the Divine all around us. Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life “wanted to be loved because I was great,” but by the end of the film he recognizes that he was foolish for paying no attention to “the glory all around us . . . I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

But when Malick speaks of being awakened to the “glory all around us,” what does he mean? Is it a sort of pantheistic deification of nature? A deistic affirmation of some vague, removed divinity? With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder, I am convinced that he is speaking of “the glory” of the world not in the sense of being the thing to be worshipped but as pointer to the Being to be worshipped, namely the Christian God. To adopt this way of seeing is to engage with external activators of the sensus divinitatis built into our very being—an innate proclivity to suspect God’s existence.

Read the full review at Christianity Today. I’d also suggest you read this fascinating piece on Malick’s filmmaking process for To the Wonder.

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Advent & Malick

Terrence Malick has never made a Christmas film, but I think his films, collectively, have a lot to say to us as we meditate on the meaning of Advent. Before you groan and say, “here McCracken goes about Malick again,” let me explain.

At it’s core, Advent is a season in limbo, in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a season about eschatological longing as much as it is about nostalgic joy for the Incarnation of God as man. It’s about longing for and awaiting the coming kingdom, the restoration of creation to a state of shalom and fully realized glory. A key word is “restoration,” for within the mystery of Advent is a deeply felt longing and remembrance of that original Eden, so long ago lost and yet made possible again in Christ.

In many ways, Advent is about existing in between two paradises. One lost. One still to come. Both are ever present in the believer’s consciousness, as persistent reminders of fallenness intermingle with persistent, grace-filled interjections of hope. And it is here that I think Malick’s cinematic vision has much to offer.

Consider his most recent film, 2011’s Tree of Life, which very literally depicts an original paradise (at least the creation of it) and a eschatological one (which, even if just a reverie or dream, is still very much an eschatological vision of Shalom restored). The Bible begins and ends with the “Tree of Life” (in Eden and in the Revelation 22 New Jerusalem), and in many ways the film echoes this bookended structure, with the middle section being the story of existence–struggling between sin/nature and redemption/grace–writ small in a tiny Texas town. In Tree of Life, Malick’s characters experience that Advent tension between darkness and innocence lost on one hand and a coming reconciliation/restoration of goodness on the other.

Malick’s other films reflect similar themes. In Badlands, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Adam/Eve type characters who “fall” and are banished from Eden, shamed in their fallenness and yet curiously moved by the beauty of life around them, even on the run. Days of Heaven features similar themes of shamed sinners in search of redemptive paradise and a fresh start in the picturesque wheat fields of West Texas. In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel) opens the film in paradise, on tropical beaches and indigo blue waters in Papau New Guinea. But then the reality of sin sets in, and war and death; everything is changed, and yet Witt still sees a spark of glory. The film ends with images of Witt once again in paradise, and the rest of the soldiers on a boat leaving the horrors of Guadalcanal, heading to some new shores of a better world.

Malick’s next film, The New World, picks up that image by opening with colonists on a boat, landing on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia: the New World. But as with Malick’s other films, the Edenic idealism of this “new beginning” paradise is disrupted soon by famine, war, and a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas that doesn’t last. And yet as the film goes on, something keeps pushing Pocahontas on, in spite of great shame and hardship. Glimpses of glory call her forth, giving her reasons to hope; perhaps the best is indeed still to come.

An inherent aching for Eden persists in each of Malick’s films, as each character instinctively strives for a fresh start in the midst of our brokenness. Indeed, I think every human feels this. Time and time again we fail, and yet some animating spirit of good keeps us on track, keeps us striving for the best, between the two trees.

This is what Advent is about: a hope that keeps us going, keeps us exploring, creating, cultivating, loving, making order out of chaos. It’s the lingering instinct of our created purpose; it’s the impact of the Incarnation: the Divine Creator come down to creation to redeem mankind and succeed where Adam failed, providing an example of humanity as it was created to be.

If Easter is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Advent is about the curious thing that happened next. Jesus didn’t stay on earth to rule his kingdom. He ascended unto heaven and left his followers–the church, animated by the Holy Spirit–to carry the torch of kingdom work, to long and ache for Jesus’ promised return but in the meantime to strive to be the humans we were meant to be, to spread the good news, to resist evil, to order creation and bring about flourishing.

Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It’s Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.

The Thin Red Line

After two acclaimed films in the 1970s, Terrence Malick fell off the Hollywood radar for two decades, moved to France, and lived the quiet life of a recluse. No one knew when or if he would ever make another film. But in 1998 he emerged with a third film, a big-budget WWII film (adapted from a James Jones novel) released the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It’s as if Malick wanted to hold the unresolved tension of his first two films as long as possible, waiting for just the right project to release the catharsis.

If The Thin Red Line is anything it is certainly a catharsis. The line between the holy and human is never as blurry within the Malick corpus as it is here. Even the form of the film, with its indistinguishable voiceovers and exchangeable characters, echoes this uncertain harmony. From the opening line of the film (“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”), the dualistic balancing act in nature takes center stage. While the protagonists of Malick’s two earlier films (Martin Sheen’s Kit and Richard Gere’s Bill) both encounter this “war” in nature, neither recognizes the simultaneous horror and rapture of existence for what it is. Only Line’s Witt (Jim Caviezel) sees the transcendental “light” amid the darkness all around him. Where others in that film succumb to desperation or nihilistic ambivalence, Witt sees sparks of a heavenly glory. He recognizes the seemingly paradoxical notion that “even—no, especially—in the throes of self-annihilation, man can apprehend the sublime,” as Gavin Smith wrote in his Film Comment analysis of the film.

The film’s World War II backdrop underscores the message of conflict as an elemental part of life, something running much deeper than just guns and bombers. It is a very Heideggerian notion—that reality shapes itself through conflict and struggle. As Heidegger puts it, the world (humanity) and earth (physical nature) are in a constant and essential striving, opponents that “raise each other into the self assertion of their natures” (“The Origin of the Work of Art”). Malick turns the philosophical concept into artistic exposition by showing how our existence is driven by conflicts between war and peace, darkness and light, love and strife, Paradise found and Paradise lost. It’s a film that is more interested in the fact that the world is governed by contrasts and conflicts, and less in the question of which side is right and which is wrong.

At the heart of the film is the notion that this warring tension is evidence of something other—some oneness and perfection just out of reach. It is perhaps what Chesterton deemed “divine discontent”—the happiness that comes from both loving and disdaining the world around us. If pure happiness is possible for man in this life, Chesterton says that it “will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance.” Happiness in life comes from the deepest longing for the other—for the filling of “the lack.” We see through the inhumanity of battle in Line that beyond the divisions of people and nations there is a common humanity that longs for that oneness and reconciliation which nature—in its beautiful brokenness—reflects.

As in all of his other films, Malick places his characters within gorgeous settings and idyllic landscapes, where they “move from innocence to experience haunted by a dream of Paradise” (Robert Silberman, “Terrence Malick, Landscape and ‘This War in the Heart of Nature'”). Indeed, the specter of Eden is ever present in his films–a haunting remembrance of some distant, more perfect world. In Line, the romantic longing is expressed in the film’s last monologue (which also foreshadows Malick’s 4th film, The New World): “Walked into the golden age. Stood on the shores of the new world.”

In Line, as in his other films, Malick uses raw and (relatively) unmediated nature as a chief expository tool. Much more than just a setting (the jungles of Guadalcanal) or a pretty background, the imagery in Line forms the heart of the film. Nature is at once cruel (creeping, suffocating vines) and beautiful (light filtering through the canopy), though in either case indifferent to human affairs. Like the final shot of an improbable palm sprout on the shores of a battle-weary beach, nature pushes on despite our best (or worst) intentions. The war in nature is eternal (at least as long as this world exists), and our own inner battles are indifferently digested in nature’s “neverthelessness.” Even so, there is a cleansing, redemptive power within in. Our transitory place within the realm of the physical brings us into an intimate bond with it. Water imagery in Line shows this, as does light.  The baptismal quality of the former appears throughout—when Witt swims with the natives, when the soldiers swim during their leave, when the G.I. huddles in the cold, drenching rain, longing for purification. The divine illumination of the latter also offers redemption—lighting our dark hearts, warming our cold souls, and keeping the “spark” alive.

If nature is the heart of this film, then the character of Witt is its soul. Witt sees the spark in others, even when they don’t see it in themselves (as in Sean Penn’s character). Witt looks into the eyes of the dying, and where others might see depravity and waste, Witt sees the glory. What Witt sees in his comrades and enemies is less the ‘heart of darkness’ than the ‘heart of the ordinary’—ordinary men bound by the thin red line which encircles them as they walk the threshold between life and death, in the fragile, liminal space between meaning and meaninglessness.

Witt approaches death with startling metaphysical calm. He begins the movie skeptically, musing about his mother’s death: “I was afraid to touch the death that I see in her. I couldn’t find anything beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t never seen it.” Over the course of the film, however, Witt comes to realize that mortality and immortality are symbiotic rivals, at war and peace with each other like most else in nature.

At the beginning of the film Witt explains his longing to meet death in the same way as his mother (“with the same calm”), because “that’s where it’s hidden—the immortality that I hadn’t seen.”  When death comes knocking, Witt faces it with similar peace, looking upwards at the light as it ushers him out of time. His selfless action–leading the enemy away from his company and offering himself as a sacrifice so that others might live–is a fitting culmination of the film’s redemptive momentum.

Witt comes to a peace about an unsettling question that defines the film’s existential pondering (and is expressed in the closing monologue): “The darkness and the light, are they the workings of the same face?” Sure, it’s true that “nature’s cruel” (one of Nick Nolte’s best lines in the film). But Witt sees that even in spite of the cruelty of nature, beauty and grace prevail: “All things shining.”

Even in the hardened face of the character (Sean Penn) who seems resigned to the “survival of the fittest” way of nature, Witt is able to recognize the way of grace: “I still see a spark in you.”

It’s this sort of interplay between nature and grace, security and passion, survival and sacrifice, that has always interested Malick. It’s a heavenly light glimmering through deteriorating leaves in the canopy, an alligator swimming freely and an alligator bound (two images in Line), aggressive waves crashing against a passive shore. It’s beauty through dynamics. The harmonious consonance of seemingly conflicting, dissonant things.

The Thin Red Line Comes to Criterion!

It’s Christmas in July! My favorite film of all time–yep, it has been for over 12 years now–is being released by the Criterion Collection this September.

I’m so excited. Extras on the DVD include everything I would have wanted (except for a Terrence Malick commentary… but that would never happen).

I love this film. I watch it at least once a year, or whenever I need a catharsis. It’s an utterly transcendent, pure, soul-enhancing masterpiece.

In honor of the momentous milestone of its long overdue Criterion release, I’ve posted the text of an essay I wrote about the film last year. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t read it–contains spoilers!

THE THIN RED LINE

After two acclaimed films in the 1970s, Terrence Malick fell off the Hollywood radar for two decades, moved to France, and lived the quiet life of a recluse. No one knew when or if he would ever make another film. But in 1998 he emerged with a third film, a big-budget WWII film (adapted from a James Jones novel) released the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It’s as if Malick wanted to hold the unresolved tension of his first two films as long as possible, waiting for just the right project to release the catharsis.

If The Thin Red Line is anything it is certainly a catharsis.  The line between the holy and human is never as blurry within the Malick corpus as it is here.  Even the form of the film, with its indistinguishable voiceovers and exchangeable characters, echoes this uncertain harmony. From the opening line of the film (“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”), the dualistic balancing act in nature takes center stage.  While the protagonists of Malick’s two earlier films (Martin Sheen’s Kit and Richard Gere’s Bill) both encounter this “war” in nature, neither recognizes the simultaneous horror and rapture of existence for what it is. Only Line’s Witt (Jim Caviezel) sees, though the sharpened eye of war, the transcendental “light” amid the darkness all around him. Where others in that film succumb to desperation or nihilistic ambivalence, Witt sees sparks of a heavenly glory. He recognizes the seemingly paradoxical notion that “even—no, especially—in the throes of self-annihilation, man can apprehend the sublime,” as Gavin Smith wrote in his Film Comment analysis of the film.

The film’s World War II backdrop underscores the message of conflict as an elemental part of life, something running much deeper than just guns and bombers.  It is a very Heideggerian notion—that reality shapes itself through conflict and struggle. As Heidegger puts it, the world (humanity) and earth (physical nature) are in a constant and essential striving, opponents that “raise each other into the self assertion of their natures” (“The Origin of the Work of Art”). Malick turns the philosophical concept into artistic exposition by showing us how conflicts between war and peace, darkness and light, love and strife drive our existence. It’s a film that is more interested in the fact that the world is governed by conflicts, and less in the question of which side is right and which is wrong.

At the heart of the film is the notion that this warring tension is evidence of something other—some oneness and perfection that life can’t fulfill. It is perhaps what Chesterton deemed “divine discontent”—the happiness that comes from both loving and disdaining the world around us. If pure happiness is possible for man in this life, Chesterton says that it “will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance.” Happiness in life comes from the deepest longing for the other—for the filling of “the lack.” We see through the inhumanity of battle in Line that beyond the divisions of people and nations lays a common humanity that longs for that oneness and reconciliation that nature—in its beautiful brokenness—reflects.

In Line, as in his other films, Malick uses raw and unmediated nature as a chief expository tool.  Much more than just a setting (the jungles of Guadalcanal) or a pretty background, the imagery in Line forms the heart of the film.  Nature is at once cruel (creeping, suffocating vines) and beautiful (light filtering through the canopy), though in either case indifferent to human affairs. Like the final shot of an improbable palm sprout on the shores of a battle-weary beach, nature pushes on despite our best (or worst) intentions.  The war in nature is eternal (at least as long as this world exists), and our own inner battles are indifferently digested in its “neverthelessness.” As such, there is a cleansing, redemptive power in nature. Our transitory place within the realm of the physical brings us into a close, almost spiritual bond with it. Water imagery in Line shows this, as does light.  The baptismal quality of the former appears throughout—when Witt swims with the natives, when the soldiers swim during their leave, when the G.I. huddles in the cold, drenching rain, longing for purification. The divine illumination of the latter also offers redemption—lighting our dark hearts, warming our cold souls, and keeping the “spark” alive.

If nature is the heart of this film, then the character of Witt is its soul. Not that the two are, in the end, distinguishable. Witt sees the spark in others, even when they don’t see it in themselves (as in Sean Penn’s character). Witt looks into the eyes of the dying, and where others might see depravity and waste, Witt sees the glory. What Witt sees in his comrades and enemies is less the ‘heart of darkness’ than the ‘heart of the ordinary’—ordinary men bound by the thin red line which encircles them as they walk the threshold between life and death, meaning and meaninglessness. The line is thinnest at the point of death, and this is where pure transcendence occurs.

Witt approaches death with startling metaphysical calm. He begins the movie skeptically, musing about his mother’s death: “I was afraid to touch the death that I see in her. I couldn’t find anything beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t never seen it.” In the course of the film, however, Witt comes to realize that mortality and immortality are symbiotic rivals, at war and peace with each other like most else in nature. Glimpses of immortality are seen all over life (the holy) as are pictures of death (the human), but to be completely either is to be completely both, and that happens when one crosses the thin red line.

At the beginning of the film Witt explains his longing to meet death in the same way as his mother (“with the same calm”), because “that’s where it’s hidden—the immortality that I hadn’t seen.”  When death comes knocking, Witt faces it with similar peace, looking upwards at the light as it ushers him out of time. Heidegger calls it “Angst”—a peaceful state in the face of one’s physical extinction and the only real place of immortality. Witt knows death is a just punishment—if not for anything specific he has done, then at least for his fallen nature. It is death that is at once the cruelest act of nature and the most merciful.  It is the punishment for sin and the only resolution for it—a terrible moment of rapture and grace where the two sides of everything make peace and return to the oneness that was torn asunder.

Ten Slow Films Worth Slogging Through

One of the most common complaints I hear from others when they watch the “art” films I recommend is that they are “too slow.” Indeed, it seems that our increasingly hyperactive, fast-paced culture considers any film paced slower than a John Grisham novel to be impossibly languorous. Thus, it’s an uphill battle to win over converts to such films as Flight of the Red Balloon (which I reviewed earlier this week), or anything from directors like Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant. Still, I think that if people try to sit through and attend to the beauties of these films, they will find them ultimately rewarding. Film as art (as in any art form) requires active attention and openness on the part of the audience. There are a lot of wonderful films out there that require some patience to sit through, but that reward the viewer immensely. Here are just a few (ordered by year):

Diary of a Country Priest (1954) – Robert Bresson
Bresson is one of the most widely acclaimed French auteurs, but his films are among the hardest to watch. They are about as far from the conventional Hollywood narrative as you can get. Still, there is a striking authenticity and meditative realism to the mundane worlds he portrays—especially in this beautiful film about the everyday struggles of a young priest in rural France.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973) – Ingmar Bergman
Though it is broken up into segments, this 167 minute domestic drama seems to go on and on, and in true Bergman fashion, it is an arduous, methodical descent into nihilistic flagellation. Nevertheless, the performances and themes here are utterly compelling and strikingly rendered by one of cinema’s greatest artists.

Paris, Texas (1984) – Wim Wenders
Like Gerry (see below…), this classic Wim Wenders film provides a captivating “wandering through the dessert” experience. It’s a dry, dusty, subdued sort of existential western. Harry Dean Stanton plays a broken down man, wandering the Texas landscape in search of himself. There are few words in the film, and even fewer conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But it is a memorable experience nonetheless.

Down by Law (1986) – Jim Jarmusch
This is a challenging film. More a mood piece than anything else (set in the Louisiana bayou), Down by Law eschews traditional plot and character development in favor of visual and sonic oddity. Quirkiness rarely makes for a compelling two hour experience, but this film is an exception: it’s a joy to watch. The unexpected trio of John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni are unforgettable in this film—one of Jarmusch’s best.

The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick
The challenging thing for audiences who watch The Thin Red Line is that they’ve watched too many war movies, and the understanding is that a war movie should be exciting, action-packed, and emotionally-wrenching. Personally I think Terrence Malick’s film is as emotionally-wrenching as any film I’ve ever seen, just not in the traditional ways. Give this complicated film a chance. It’s one of the most beautiful ever made.

Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant
This film pushes the limits of even the most patient filmgoer. The whole thing is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving desserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet—and yet—something about Gerry is utterly spellbinding.

The Son (2002) – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
“Slow” could be a designation given most all Dardenne Bros films, but they are all worth sitting through. The Belgian filmmakers have a way of withholding any catharsis for the audience until the final moments of their films, and never is this more clearly exhibited than in The Son, a beautiful relationship portrait of fathers and sons.

The Five Obstructions (2003) – Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
There were a number of Lars von Trier films I considered for this list (Dogville, The Element of Crime, etc), but I settled on this film—a documentary jointly made with Jorgen Leth—because, well, I think it needs to be seen. I’m actually not sure how anyone could call this film “boring,” but the sheer conceptual headiness of it is certainly unpalatable to many. Still, Obstructions is totally unique and features a stunning “twist” ending—if you make it that far.

Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set) (2007) – Philip Gröning

This film is the exact opposite of “commercial” cinema. It is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But it is a documentary about the ascetic life of monks, and as such, it should be a challenge to watch. But if you let yourself be still, silent, and contemplate just what it is you are watching, then Into Great Silence can become more than cinema. It can be a truly worshipful experience.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik
The most recent addition to this list goes to last fall’s Jesse James “biopic,” which turns out to be more a phenomenological contemplation than a narrative of the famous bandit’s life. Indeed, the 160 minute film leaves many wondering “when are the great shootouts and action sequences going to come?” Answer: never. But instead, you get an immersive, mood-driven photo essay; and again, a wonderful coda sequence at the end.