Archive for July, 2010

Going into my viewing of Terrence Malick’s WWII opus The Thin Red Line I was tainted by expectations from a childhood of watching war films.  You all know the films I am talking about.  The one’s with John Wayne where the American’s were all morally sound heroes that put the cause before all else, even life itself.  These characters spoke in long monologues, declaring their national pride and their belief in the cause they were fighting for.  They exuded masculinity and honor.

There are none such characters in The Thin Red Line.

What we find in this sprawling war film are conflicted characters, depicting the even deeper conflict that Malick is getting at.  The film almost plays like an adult version of Lord of the Flies, with the picture-esque island of Guadacanal being the setting.  Here Japanese and American soldiers try their best to survive at all costs.

Like all Malick films, the plot is secondary to the characters and the scenery.  If you could pull a plot out of this film, it would be the exploits of the C Company in attacking the island of Guadacanal.  It especially follows Witt (Jim Caviezal), Welsh (Sean Penn), and Tall (Nick Nolte).  All three of these characters are played very powerfully and poignantly, and each is deserving of careful examination.

The film opens on Witt, he is on a Polynesian island and is AWOL from his unit.  He is enjoying all the simple pleasures of life that these Polynesian’s enjoy.  He swims and plays with the children and canoes out into the clear blue sea alone, with a massive smile on his face.  He exudes a sense of calm and grace, he cares for the people around him.  He is found by a patrol boat and forced back into service.  As a soldier he is not reluctant in the face of combat, but he still exudes the same grace and calm as on the Polynesian island, albeit much different surroundings.  He volunteers for every mission most would ignore.  In many way’s he is a Christ like figure, and he is showing Welsh and the rest of his unit that there is another world outside of the one they are in.  His arc is a poignant one, and his character is a beautiful human.

Welsh is Witt’s Commanding Officer, and we are introduced to him as he reprimand’s Witt for going AWOL.  He tells Witt that there is no world but the one they are given, however in his delivery one could see he only half-believes this.  He loves Witt at his heart, because he can see the preternatural Love that Witt exudes.  Welsh is cynical and jaded, but Witt represents to him the hope of humanity.  He is heroic, he runs across a battlefield at one point to save one wounded man, a moment of singular heroism Malick rarely allows to penetrate this film.  As time wears on we see Welsh beginning to change his mind about things.  The relationship between these two represents the dichotomy of mankind, to potential to do such good as well as the potential to give into the bad circumstances in front of us and act accordingly.  Malick’s is a primarily positive view of mankind in this, as we see these two interact in a way that gives hope for the future of humanity.

The last character I feel is worthy of analysis is Colonel Tall.  This is by far my favorite Nick Nolte performance, as his gruff and abrasive nature is put to great work as the looked over Army man searching for his moment of glory.  He leads C Company with such vigor and ambition that he is blinded by the men’s simplest need, Water.  He continues to push, hoping that if he can simply take this one ridge on this one island, all of his career getting passed over will have been worth it.  He has given into the lie of humanity, that these moments of achievement will equal a greater good that outshines the means it took to get there.

The characters in this film are so rich and real, you have met people that remind you of each of them.  The dialogue is so brilliant it makes you wish Malick would write more of it in his films.  We learn the characters through this rich dialogue and through the layered performances from all of the talented actors involved, many giving career performances.  It is Malick’s eye for the little moments in relationship and in life that allows for these real portrayals of people in extraordinary scenarios.


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Days of Heaven

Wow, wonderful. I have heard quite a lot about Days of Heaven this last year. I’ve seen it at the top of a bunch of lists, seen the trailer for it, and other pictures from the movie. Beyond all the hype (which is always a tough thing for me to cut through), and the mystique of the film’s director, Terrence Malick , the movie itself was one of the best that I have ever seen; it just sunk right through my skin. It wasn’t charming, it wasn’t cool, it wasn’t an epic narrative. It just was, and was wonderful.

Beautiful. The locations they used on the Canadian prairie are breathtaking. Both of my Dad’s parents were born and raised in Saskatchewan. It blows my mind to understand that they lived amongst the sorts of visuals this movie offers. They grew up, fell in love, and lived life there.

I have this idea of virgin snow; you know, like snow that has fallen and been left alone. The wheatfields in this movie remind me of that sort of snow, because I get the same sort of feeling looking at both. The world feels uncluttered when you are standing in a vast pasture of still snow, or when you are running your hands through swaying fields of amber wheat. Uncluttered, peaceful. But also lonely. The landscapes and characters have just this very pull in them: tension between peace and lonliness.

In the beginning,  the main character, Bill, is working in hell. At a Chicago factory, liquid metal pours everywhere. Bill pounds a glowing hot rod of metal, he throws coal on a thundering furnace, wincing as he turns his face away from a blast of heat. His work knows few things: fire, heat, danger, deafening noise, blackened features– a hard and unfulfilling life. He treasures his girlfriend Abby, and kid sister Linda.

Somehow, Bill, Abby and Linda find themselves in North Texas. In those swaying amber planes. They sign on to be hands for a harvest, at the farm of a young, chronically sick farmer. Like Abraham and Sarah, Bill and Abby tell a lie when they arrive, spreading the story that they are brother and sister; in reality, they are caught up in passionate love. Bill says to Abby “I can remember the first time I ever saw you…Never seen hair as black as yours, skin so pretty. I was scared I’d never see you again”

Life on the farm is hard, the hours are long. But the environment is heavenly. Abby’s beauty snaps the farmer out of melancholy. He asks her, and Bill and Linda, to stay on as domestic help for the rest of the year. He comes to love Abby deeply. He offers marriage. At first dishonestly, Abby accepts him; Bill convinces her that the sick farmer will die soon regardless, and will his fortune to her. But against all odds, Abby and the farmer develop a real and deep bond. He says to her:

“You know what I thought when I first saw you? I thought, ‘If only I could touch her, that everything would be all right.’ You make me feel like I’ve come back to life. Isn’t that funny? I always thought that bein’ alone was just something that a man had to put up with. You just got used to it. Sometimes, it’s like you’re right inside of me, you know, like I can hear your voice and feel your breath and everything.”

Sam Shepard plays this unnamed farmer, and what a tragic character he is. He is stuck in a life of leisure and beauty but also physical pain and loneliness. He sits bored on his sofa, placed out in the wheatfield. He shakes the hand of each farmhand as they come in to get paid at the end of the season. He writhes in his bed at night, wracked by an unknown ailment.  His eyes; they are restless.

Bill cannot stand seeing his love taken away from him; he chooses to leave. He cannot live with himself, for encouraging Abby to marry the farmer. Besides that, he cannot keep his hands off of her, and the farmer begins to notice. With his departure, Linda, Abby and the Farmer truly enter into the kingdom of God–the titular Days of Heaven. Their life on the farm is peaceful, full of love; beautiful changing seasons. A sleighride through snowbound fields. A warm home to return to.

Theses scenes are are really with me. I cannot think what more there could be to do in life, other than to live in their way, with such love and peace. And togetherness. My ancestors might have lived this way. My great grandfather, Roscoe Buckner was an owner of a large farm in Saskatchewan. But he was a very restless man. He lived his life in tension.

Bill must return, eventually. And everything falls apart. The Farmer suspected Bill before; He and Abby had never treated each other like brother and sister. But he sees something that confirms his worst suspicions. And then a plauge. Fire. Suddenly, we are back in hell. The inferno, the awful world of machinery and burning heat. The farmer unravels. He shatters his medicine bottles with a sweep of his arm.

I won’t say anymore about the plot; suffice it to say, things happen, and at the close of the movie, only Abby and Linda appear on screen. They are alone. The achingly beautiful song, Aquarium from Camille Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals suite, opens and closes the movie. It is mysterious, somehow menacing, but also charming. It ends with warm and ambiguous piano notes, played softly. Icy, warm, like the piano can be. Days of Heaven seeps right into you. We all want to connect, and get outside of ourselves. To feel the being of another “right inside”, hear the voice, feel the breath and the warmth. Everything.

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For so long in my life I thought of “The Last Temptation of Christ” as that heretical novel and film about “Jesus having an affair with Mary Magdalene”.  I rarely gave it more than a second thought except to catergorize it with books like “The Da Vinci Code”, which were Anti-Christian and would instantly damn me if I read them.

So naturally in the time sinch my youth I have read both out of my curiousity of what it is that incites so much anger and derision from the evangelical church.  I read “The Da Vinci Code” in high school, and it was honestly nothing to write home about.  Dan Brown wasn’t saying anything substantiave in an extraordinary way, he was merely concerned with selling books, which he does very well.

Then I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ”.  This is a book that offers a different look at Christ’s life than we have seen before.  In Last Temptation we see a Christ that looks decidedly human, and his struggle is equally hard to watch and inspiring.  Beautifully written by the Greek Philosopher Kazantzakis, this book takes you back to the holy land back during the life of Christ.  The character of Christ is a man lost between two kingdoms, the kingdom of Man and the kingdom of God.  In the Garden he pleads with God to allow him to perform his salvific work by leading the life of an everyday man.  This foreshadows the final temptation he receives from Satan, a prolonged vision of Christ as a normal man having a family and growing old in Jerusalem.  This is disturbing to see because it is not real, it is not the Christ that Kazantzakis has shown throughout the story.  Christ resists this temptation and finishes his work on the cross, and utters the last line of the book…”It is Accomplished.”

Kazantzakis’ work is even more sharply defined by Scorsese’s film adaption of it, where we are allowed to visually see Christ in this way.  This is not the Christ of the Jesus film, this is a Christ (portrayed brilliantly by Willem Dafoe) who is desperately afraid of his purpose, and begins to understand it more and more as the story unfolds.  He wants to follow God, but is afraid that he is unworthy.  He goes through the spectrum of human foibles and struggle, Fear, Doubt, Worry, Lack of Self Worth, and Reservations before the Cross.  It is incredibly powerful to see this vision of Christ.  He doesn’t know what he is really supposed to do, he doesn’t know what he wants to do, but his pure passion for people and Love are attributes of his Messiahship.  Scorsese is a devout Catholic and wanted to make a film on the life of Christ his whole life.  He takes full advantage of it here and brings his distinctive style to this film.  Many times he will cut to an overhead shot of Christ, which could be assumed to be the “God Shot”, giving the viewer an idea of the constant surveillance of Jesus from above.  The film is a masterpiece, especially when taken hand in hand with the novel.  It has it’s flaws, the characters of the disciples are not very well developed and Harvey Keitel’s Judas Iscariot isn’t his best moment.  However beyond these the film is a powerful portrayal of the duality of the human condition.  The constant give and take of the warring natures inside of us.

In the end The Last Temptation is a hopeful tale, showing Christ’s victories over the nature of man, and portraying it in such a way that we can greater understand the nature of his sacrifice.  It should be seen by Christians everywhere, because it makes us more aware of Christ the man, a man we often tend to forget.

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Days of Heaven

The film Days of Heaven should be viewed as a tutorial to understanding how Terrence Malick does film.  The enigmatic and recluzive director has only made 4 films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) yet each hea been held up as a modern masterpiece.  His style is similar to his contemparary Stanley Kubrick in that he finds much more interest in telling his stories with visuals than with expoesitory dialogue.  Days of Heaven is exemplary of this due to its focus on scenery and on the beauty of the landscape it’s characters inhabit.  In many ways this aids the storytelling as we get a much deeper understanding of the “place” we are in as viewers and all that happens grows out of this understanding.

The film is set in 1916 in the Texas Panhandle.  Bill (Richard Gere) has fled here after killing his boss in a steel mill in Chicago.  He brings with him his lover(whom Bill refers to as his sister to everyone else for an indisclosed reason) Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz).  In Texas they work for a shy yet wealthy Rancher (Sam Shepherd) who begins to fall in love with Abby.  Bill allows Abby to marry the Rancher because he knows the Rancher has a terminal illness.  This action leads to the conflict that brews later in the film that needn’t be dealt with here.

What interested me about this film was Malick’s almost lack of interest in what his character’s were up to.  Many times the dialogue is drowned out by sounds of nature around them.  In many ways this is a visual poem of astonishing power, and to me it tells of man’s relationship with the nature around him.  We are constantly being shown shots of beatiful and austere landscapes, the entire movie seems to have been filmed at sunset,  and contrasting with these images we see our characters changing and molding to their new environments as well.  The serenity and peace of nature is met with the calmness and beauty in the characters lives, and the peace in their story.  For example the film begins with Bill in a factory in Chicago shoveling coal.  Here we see scenes of fire and brimstone and the mind automatically compares it to hell.  As Bill escapes from this he goes to the countryside and the beauty of the Ranch, on which the Rancher’s house sits as a beacon of hope.  There is even a shot of Bill and co. entering the Ranch through an ornate Gate that could be compared to the Gates of Heaven.  The Harvest season serves symbol of the titular “Days of Heaven”, as man is at peace with his natural surroundings and all is well with the world.  As the season ends and poor decisions are made resulting in the destruction of this ethereal existence, the landscape turns into a hellish environment.  There is an especially poignant shot when Bill and co. leave the farm through the same gates, however this time they are on fire and reminiscent of Hell once again. It reminded me of a quote from John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, which profoundly influenced this movie, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Malick shows in this film how much man was meant to live in unison with his environment, yet how greed and foolish desires can make that bond an unholy one.  The film is a difficult watch, it feels slow-paced and foreign than what we are used to.  However it’s subtleties are what make it so intriguing and beautiful.  The shots Malick gets are incomparable to anything we see being released today.  No matter how amazing the CGI was on “Avatar” nothing can compare to the natural “special effects” of mother nature herself.

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What I was trying to get at in Ran, and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings’ behavior.—Akira Kurosawa

Ran means Chaos or Revolt in Japanese, and Akira Kirosawa’s film displays both of these themes very powerfully, using them as a starting point to tell a story about the sins and wrongdoing of humanity.  This was one of Kirosawa’s final films, and it is his most ambitious production both financially and the scope of the story.

Ran is a reworking of Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”, and the fact that it takes this timeless story and sets it in feudal Japan shows the universiality of the ideas Shakespeare tried to get across so many years ago.  The story tells of an old feudal lord named Hidetora, who has imperialistically gained land and power throughout his life.  At the end of his life he bestows power over his kingdoms to his three sons: Taro, Jiro, and Saguro, with power foremost lying in the hands of his eldest Taro.  This transfer of power sparks the conflict of the entire film, leading to a struggle between the family over the kingdoms and who shall control them.

What struck me most about this film was how it depicted Men, and the pride Men have in their decisions.  In this film many of the characters make poor choices that are not well thought out or planned but born of anger.  The imagery of the men are all very powerful.  The Men in the film are constantly grasping their swords, almost as a form of safety psychologically.  This phallic imagery shows the dependency men of power have on their Manhood or this idea of pride in being a man.  Because of their pride the Men in the film do not allow themselves to change their minds, even when things get desperate.  There is a powerful scene in the desert after Hidetora has burnt bridges with all of his sons.  He is seated upon his throne in the middle of the desert, ruling over a mere 100 men.  His advisor begs him to reconcile with his youngest son Saguro whom he banished earlier.  In doing this Hidetora and his men would have a place to stay and safety from enemy forces.  However Hidetora denies such an idea, and has the advisor punished for even thinking it.

Another theme that comes in the form of two different characters is loyalty and truth.  Hidetora’s advisor is loyal even after banishment, following his master around in peasant’s clothing and helping him throughout the entirety of the film.  Truth is symbolized by the Court jester or the “fool”, whom is constantly coming up with comic anecdotes that reflect the truth about the kingdoms and their warring ways.  Both of these characters are present throughout and helping Hidetora through the error of his ways.

Another interesting bit I was musing on for the entirety of the film was the parallels to pre WWII Japanese expansion leading to destruction and the demise of the powerful Japanese state.

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