Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Thin Red Line

Looking forward to 'The New World' (and the new 2-hour cut) I sat down for a refresher with Malick's previous films. I had been planning to write about 'Days of Heaven,' but ended up getting out of sorts during the viewing.

With 'Days' a bust, I got around to 'The Thin Red Line.' Seeing it again I find it anemic.

(1) The faces. Jared Leto. Woody Harrelson. Ben Chaplin. Elias Koteas. Nick Stahl. Jim Caviezel. Penn. Clooney. And some ugly extras to provide "realist" modulation. The star lineup betrays Hollywood glamour willing to "sacrifice" the terms of the typical easy shoot to "work hard" for a "brilliant director." The result is a battalion of pussies, star-pupils working toward the proverbial 'A'-for-effort.

(2) John Travolta. What goes on in this man's mind when he steps in front of a camera? What force does he believe he's channeling? Was his the main name that convinced Fox to come aboard with the money? No wonder that scene stayed in the picture, the one with him and --

(3) Nick Nolte. At what point did Malick decide to let go of the reins, and let the meditation-on-Man-in-war become a simple Hollywood war-film, rife with archetypes, clichés, artery-popping "GODDAMMIT!!!"s every six seconds? Nolte's performance is the crux of this crust -- playing Colonel Kilgore and Buck Turgidson and every other movie-military zealot out of the collective memory, he sputters unchecked by the director who, by the way, it's inconceivable to surmise is supplying "meta"-commentary on The Hollywood War Film at any point in the fiasco. Seeing Woody Harrelson's histrionic order-barking, followed by a ridiculous scene in which, his genitals blown off by a grenade, Woody moans "I can't fuck no more!" in some meaningless perversion of Kubrick, only added to my impression that Malick pretty much let the troupe go freestyle. "Terry's great to work with; he lets you try out anything..."

(4) The editing. The collage effect works to the advantage of the film, providing rhythm to the mise en scène's main idea of "man as organic occurrence," while all the cutting-away-and-back in the battle sequences works to the film's disadvantage -- or rather, to the disadvantage of any exploration of the equal human presence on both sides of any conflict. The Japanese here are Japs -- gibbering, fervent, Other; the Americans are post-trauma sadists, whose here-and-there murders of soon-to-be-prisoner Japanese -after- the firefight clears gets covered up by the filmmaker (because the troops "know not what they do"? in order to convey the consequences of "the heat of the moment" in which the perpetuation of life becomes a willy-nilly thing?), not only by means of the indistinctness of the smoke, fog, and mud, but by the reduction of these acts to downright visual sluice: a jarring, arrhythmic montage wherein the murder act (money-shot) gets sandwiched in a 3- to 4-second collision of masters, angles, and inserts, and is granted literally no more than 4 or 5 frames before a cut out to the next sequence. -- Small wonder the DVD is branded under "Fox War Classics."

Friday, January 13, 2006


To revisit Terrence Malick's first feature, 'Badlands,' is a thrill, and I only wish I were immediately able to see it again on the big screen. Not just to bask in the quality of the natural light, or to become more absorbed in the filmmaker's (tremendous) trademark microcosmoses-made-macro, but simply to take on the succession of stills, presented in detail, as Sissy Spacek tries out her dead father's stereopticon. In voiceover she muses upon the "vistas" experienced with the device; one image in particular, of a railroad track receding off-center to the horizon, stands in for the whole Malickean metaphysics -- space, time, and their relationship at any given point to the whole of American history. The image is brief, but it's a large one -- deserves to be larger than DVD allows.

Martin Sheen reads someone's discarded late-payment notice lying inside of a trash can. His partner snatches a folded-up magazine from the ground, skims the page. As he chucks it to the garbage-truck, the opening credits appear on-screen: it's our turn. Malick has always shown a wry sense of humor -- and 'Badlands' may be his funniest picture -- but this round-the-table reading exercise reminds us that at least some of his films' intimacy stems from their inclusiveness with regard to the audience. Those shots of beetles aren't called "magnifications," after all; they're "close-ups."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


The third film in Spielberg's 9/11 trilogy, 'Munich' finds the director dispensing with the overwrought allegory of 'The Terminal' and the brilliant, multivalent allegory of 'The War of the Worlds,' to return to that zone of 'historical re-enactment' wherein his least risky pictures have always been produced. Regardless of what Newsweek would have me believe, I can't say 'Munich' revealed to me anything new about the Israeli v. Palestinean conflict, let alone changed my perspective on the so-called "war on terror" -- indeed the main idea of the film might be expressed as: "here and elsewhere are humans, families" -- but Spielberg's latest does contain material worth discussing, in fact contains more -discrete- moments of interest than either of the preceding films. The movement from the "general" to the "specific" has in any case been marked out almost as an overt concern in the films' titles alone: the "terminal" --> the war of the worlds --> Munich.

This winnowing down to the specific carries right through to the final shot of the newest film, to an image that was the implicit subject of the trilogy all along: the World Trade Center, the films' ultimate "structuring absence." The crane shot that swept past the consumerist ocean of Times Square up to the empty night-sky void at the close of 'The Terminal' suggested the hole left in the city's skyline by the towers' collapse (while cannily linking the proliferation of globalized commerce to the destruction). In 'The War of the Worlds,' the electromagnetic vortex that opened up over lower Manhattan, and the chaotic turmoil that exploded throughout New Jerseyan (and, eventually, American) communities evoked not only the WTC attack, but the subsequent retaliation -- and implied that all acts of war not only begin, but also progress, with the mass murder of civilians. Why then did seeing the towers at the end of 'Munich' move me so little -- as little as seeing them at the end of Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York'? Is it because 'the unseen' has proven itself more resonant for the audience than 'the explicit' time and again throughout the history of the cinema? Or because the causal leap from the events of the Munich Games and the assassinations that followed, to the notably more complex political climate of 1999-2005, seems simply too arbitrary, insubstantial -- is it that the line from Munich to Manhattan isn't as direct as Spielberg suggests? Given these uncertainties, the appearance of an intact (digitally inserted) Trade Center comes not as the powerful summation of a thesis, but as a vague "warning to the world" -- with Spielberg also extending the rather pat assumption that there not only exists an easy equivalence between Middle East '72, Europe '74, and New York '01, but that Americans might also be able to lay a large portion of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on the great Jewish diaspora. As if these parting sentiments weren't bizarre enough, Spielberg flattens the perspective of the shot so that the towers, looming in the background of the frame, and despite their position across the East River, seem close enough to the foreground promenade that any passers-by might touch the buildings' surface like they were already "monumentalized," commemorated in obsidian -- as though their fate was implicit in their form. The memorial at the end of 'Munich' is therefore neither an expression of defiant mourning (the end of 'Schindler's List') nor a totem of hard-earned victory (the end of 'Saving Private Ryan') -- it's the death-knell made material. Whatever Spielberg's intention, I myself am unable to comprehend (or just fathom?) the muddle of this toll.

Earlier I wrote about "discrete moments." These manifest themselves in the following aspects:

-"Le Group." Eric Bana breaks bread with "Papa's family" -- Michel Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, and a profusion of 8-year-olds. Lonsdale stresses the importance of the homelife, of independence and resilience before states (le Group started out as a Resistance cell before shifting to an intelligence/assassination unit without national allegiance), chastises his insubordinate son. In short, Spielberg quotes here from the colonialist dinner in Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' "Redux." The purpose, perhaps, is to draw some contrast between the old and the new: Governments that once needed to rely on internal ministries, or agencies, in the flexing of statecraft... can now outsource the trickiest imperatives to an NGO.

-The light. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's regular DP, fills the spaces in 'Munich' with either moonlight, or an unusual diffraction of the sun's rays. We've seen this particular effect before -- this -smearing- of the light -- in 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,' in 'Minority Report,' in 'The War of the Worlds.' It signifies the presence of the beyond -- the beyond-the-screen, The Public -- for it's no secret that Spielberg approaches each film with the audience foremost in mind. He uses Kaminski's luminescence like an ever-present skein, a "film" that distances the spectator from the image even as it lulls him or her, as in a dream, into believing in the images' "realness," hoping for their "paradise." In 'Munich' the daylight dazzles; pooling up in windowpanes it blinds; it bathes, and distorts, bodies. The cell members are smiters, agents of fury. The light in 'Munich' is Yahweh's light.*

-Bodies. Are the murders of Ciarin Hinds and Marie-Josée Croze parallel sacrifices on God's altar? Spielberg gives us the naked male and female body, both desecrated and come to rest in states of sexual repose. When Bana attempts to cover Croze's slaughtered form with her robe, Hanns Zischler forcefully uncovers the body as though only so grotesque a maneuver could vindicate Hinds' earlier demise. With his action bearing all the force of a symbolic rape, Zischler later regrets uncovering Croze's body, and slips into melancholy. Later that morning, Zischler's body is discovered on a bench near the Thames, a knife-wound having punctured the chest. The surviving cell members speak of the death in terms of murder, but everything in Spielberg's staging of the discovery -- played out in a single long-shot -- suggests post-coital melancholy and suicide: the early-morning blue light, Zischler's back turned toward the audience, the human forms presented in silhouette, the telephoto presentation, the inexorable rushing of the river. One might note, in fact, that the only actual sex acts presented in the film take place between the emotional cipher Bana and his wife, played by Ayelet Zorer. In the first, Bana has to enter Zorer from the side, as his wife's pregnant belly prohibits his mounting; in the second, he thrusts in missionary while flashing back to the death of the Olympic hostages. Sex in 'Munich' is either inutile, or tied up in bloodshed. All vectors in Spielberg's vision of the body lead toward death: no legacies -- moreover, no heaven on earth.

-A political thriller. The film is perfectly paced; the suspense, as they say, "is taut." Yet Spielberg's picture does not "thrill politically." In chasing the perceived triumphs of Pontecorvo, Schlöndorff, and Costa-Gavras, our filmmaker fulfills the requirements of thriller convention by steadily ratcheting up and releasing emotional tension; surpasses his predecessors by maintaining a real spatial fluency in the myriad open-air set-pieces; and finally bucks the mores of the genre completely by throwing ideology in earthly political terms out the window, in favor of a message which reads: "Peace; that is, death." This being the case, Steven Spielberg has either made the most daring, or stupidest, film of his career.

* Nade Dieu is blinded by this light, though the quality differs (greatly), in Godard's 'Notre musique.'