The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line – 1998

Director – Terrence Malick

Starring – Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson

Terrence Malick’s floating, lyrical film about the battle of Guadalcanal in World War 2, avoids the clichés of most other big war epics.  Where other films seek to wow the audience with man’s inhumanity to other men, The Thin Red Line, instead seeks to show man’s absolute humanity.  For good or for ill soldiers are people, they get scared, their motivations are often impure, and they can be tremendously courageous.  Where a lot of other war films might dwell on the violence and carnage, Malick aims his camera towards the calm, and the natural stillness of the battlefield.  That is not to say their isn’t a fair share of action or death, it is after all a war film, about World War 2 in the Pacific, but it isn’t this action and cruelty that makes the soldiers great, it is their compassion, their courage, and their honor.

There is no hard and fast story in this film.  Instead we have a  general idea of the goals of the soldiers as we lilt back and forth between the men in this company learning about how each man deals with his circumstances.  We learn about each man not so much through back story, but through occasional inner monologue, and how they interact with the other men.  There really isn’t a main character, although the closest thing to it would be Jim Caviezel’s character, Private Witt.  The film opens with Private Witt living on an island in the South Pacific, after having gone AWOL, and follows his subsequent recapture, punishment, and re-stationing as a medic during the battle.  While he is not necessarily the main character at all times, he does touch the lives of each of the soldiers featured in the film, most heavily on Sgt. Welsh, played with surprising restraint by Sean Penn.

Nature plays a big role in this film, so much so that it shows just how much the soldiers and their war, are out-of-place here.  This concentration on nature provides some similarities to the films of Werner Herzog, in which nature is heavily featured and often plays a very central role in the story.  While not as overt as a Herzog film, the surroundings in The Thin Red Line do provide a visual and a metaphorical juxtaposition to the action.  Soldiers die in unspeakably beautiful surroundings and explosions and gun fire are the only things that drown out the roar of the river and a the call of the wildlife.

When the two sides finally see each other face to face it becomes obvious how similar they are, despite their opposing view points.  Both are made up of people who are scared, opportunistic, and brave.  The war makers are sitting in their respective countries, comfortable, and safe, while the war is being waged by common people with the least to gain and the most to lose.

By and large I really liked this film, aside from the compelling visuals, the acting and story telling managed to compliment the cinematography and avoid being too heavy-handed or preachy.  The only weak elements in this film, in my opinion are the music, and the poetic inner monologue.  The film, which runs at just under 3 hours, has the tendency to feel sluggish and repetitive, not because of the situations, not because of the lack of action, but because of the score, and the narration.  This semi-dramatic undercurrent of music swells at just the right time when the emotionally confused soldier has just seen the beauty of this land destroyed by war. 

Once the music swells, we get yet another semi vague, flowing, pondering on the nature of perception.  These elements work just fine to a certain degree, but ultimately are used far too often to inspire emotion, or to describe the absurdity of the conflict.  A huge teaching in film is, show, don’t tell.  What could be inferred into this statement also, is “Don’t do both.”  There are more than enough times where we understand exactly what we are supposed to, but the music swells and the narration comes in any way.  These are our cues that we are supposed to be walking away with some larger message, and frankly I didn’t need them.

This film was a quite refreshing despite its slight flaws.  It is rare that you come away from a war film that isn’t an actioneer type film with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, feeling uplifted and generally positive.  War films can be horrific, and disquieting, and contemplative, but The Thin Red Line shows that they can also be a cathartic, teaching experience, with more to offer than they take away.  Well done Mr. Malick.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)

FastTimesAtRidgemontHigh

Fast Times at Ridgemont High – 1981

Director – Amy Heckerling

Starring – Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, and Phoebe Cates

So now we start getting into some of the movies that could be considered fluff.  Potentially not worthy of being on the list of 1001 movies that you MUST see, but possibly being on the list of 1001 movies you might think about checking out sometime if you aren’t busy.  Does that mean it’s bad?  Not at all.  Does it mean that this space could have been better used for something else (like the Big Lebowski or The Blues Brothers for example?) in the comedy genre? Yup.

This isn’t at all an indictment of The Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but as it didn’t really do anything particularly revolutionary for film as a whole (aside from including a lot of young and up-and-coming actors and actresses), it more than likely was pulled from a hat with a list of movies meant to pad out the numbers to 1001.

That aside, Fast Times was a very fun movie.  I particularly liked Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Each reminded me of people that I went to high school with, but not in a sappy or sentimental way.  Everyone knows, or knew a Judge Reinhold.  Everyone saw the Phoebe Cates character walking down the hall.  And everyone was friends with or dated a girl like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character.  These characters make the movie relatable for people, at least for someone who grew up in the relatively safe suburbs, like me.

Unfortunately I don’t have a whole lot of analyzing to do for this film.  It was great fun to watch, but I haven’t really thought about it too much since.  Some quick things to say about the film…It did strike me that there was an awful lot of nudity from a character that was supposed to be 14 years old, and the subject of abortion was dealt with in a pretty straight forward and un-dramatized way.  So much so, that I have to imagine that it would have sparked some controversy on it’s initial release (it certainly would today at any rate).   Next, I think I can appreciate Sean Penn in this movie more than anything else that I’ve seen him in (that is of course without seeing Milk yet).   Lastly I have to say that there is a similar thread going through all of the movies that Cameron Crowe has had a hand in (aside from the dominance of music), each one seems like a close relative of the others, different, but only by a little.

So…watch it, enjoy it, but don’t expect too much.