Crimes and Pastimes: Screwball


Image source: Greenwich Entertainment

Screwball is as much a true crime satirical comedy about American morality theater as it is a documentary about A-Rod’s steroid scandal.

My latest for Film International:

John Carpenter’s cinema of claustrophobia: Prince of Darkness 

John Carpenter has a penchant for bringing well-oiled technical chops and studious thematics to schlocky, genre-driven films with mass appeal. What’s always struck me about his films is the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that persists throughout each one. This is just as apparent in Prince of Darkness (1987) as any of the other bigger ticket films in his repertoire like Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), and They Live! (1988). In Carpenter’s world, we are trapped, by whatever metaphysical forces pull a serial killer back home, by systems of oppression maintained by a clandestine alien race, and in the case of Prince of Darkness, by the Devil himself. Whatever the cause, the camerawork in Carpenter’s films bears out this pervading stuckness.

In service of this sense of confinement, Carpenter’s mise is defined by an economy of space. His settings are mostly (with some exceptions) limited to cities and suburbs, the camera winding down alleyways, between houses, down hallways. This presents a paradox, of pinned in blocking met with often fluid camera movements, which in turn outlines a professional mantra: make the most with what you’ve got. The famous example here is the opening tracking shot in Halloween, a slam-bang bit of auteurism in a lower budget slasher that helped define a new technical innovation (as well as a few careers). But Carpenter’s films are marked by “no exit” compositions across films under his two most frequent collaborating cinematographers, Dean Cundey and Gary B. Kibbe, implying that it’s a preoccupation of the director that is borne out by the stories that he shows and tells.

Hardly a marquee title in the Carpenter pantheon, Prince of Darkness still provides evidence for the claim that the director’s films are defined in part by their claustrophobia and overall use of space. The story defies quick categorization, but the gist is that a mysterious canister in the basement of an abandoned LA church draws the attention of the archdiocese and an interdisciplinary team of professors and graduate students, analysis reveals that it contains the liquid essence of Satan, and signs point to a still more powerful and ancient evil reaching out to awaken this force so that it can subsequently join our world and bring about Armageddon. Elements of techno-horror, possession, and zombie apocalypse are all in the mix, a swirl of haunted computers, murderous shuffling hordes of homeless paeans, and demonic prophecies. Containment (or lack thereof) is key to the plot, as the action is propelled by the liquid’s leeching out from its confines, and the “father of Satan” über-demon inches ever closer to escaping the mirror world that serves as its prison. Spatial limitations dominate the film, as the church and its immediate surroundings serves as the sole setting for 2/3 of the story. It’s no wonder that this church has become a destination for Carpenter pilgrims, and even hosted a screening of the film back in 2015. These characters are locked into their spiritual battle with no hope for escape, and Kibbe drives this point home with a wealth of shots that increase the claustrophobic tension in their composition well before the team digs into their spiritual battleground.

In the opening minutes of the film, Donald Pleasence’s unnamed priest is introduced to us as a man hemmed in by his duties, as he deliberates with his fellow clergy in part of a dialogue-free montage.

Prince of Darkness Pleasence with clergy

For a passing moment, he stands framed by bars and columns, shadows stretching towards the near-pitch black void that the holy men keep behind them. A bit later, as he approaches the church for the first time, the spiritual prison grows around Pleasence as bars fill the frame entirely.

Prince of Darkness Pleasence church bars

This technique recalls the framing traps set by film noir cinematographers, achieved mostly through chiaroscuro lighting, that were meant to imply or presage the doomed outcomes of their criminal subjects. The priest’s imprisonment is brought on by a crisis of faith, as he faces an ontological dilemma that can only be addressed by synthesizing his biblical study with theoretical physics and computer engineering. But again, this shot and the one above present a paradox of kinetic stasis, as the camera moves in a continuous pan across the trapped Pleasence. It is the same paradox of constricted, perpetual motion seen in a swarm of ants in the beginning of the film (a flourish reminiscent of the opening minute of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch [1969]). This fluid sense of encroachment and restriction is not limited to the priest, as others get caught in Kibbe’s cross-hairs.

As our de facto main character Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) heads out of class one night, he catches sight of love interest Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) cutting her way across campus. Even here, an ostensibly gentle moment in an idyllic setting, the camera packs in some voyeurism and paranoia, tracking Catherine on her walk and briefly trapping her in the gap of a tree.

Prince of Darkness Blount campus

This quotidian dread recalls the clash of comfort and violent confrontation at play throughout Halloween. It also brings a bit of menace to Brian and Catherine’s romance, a strange and stilted relationship that is left at an eerie impasse at the end of the film. Catherine is visibly suffocating under the patriarchy, as most of her interactions with Brian end with him guffawing his way through sexist presumptions and her getting morose and aloof. Again, this is claustrophobia in motion, a moment of ephemeral containment that is over just as soon as it begins. If the panning underscores the fluidity of these characters’ constraints, the camera’s tilts show their divine (or cursed) provenance.

The camera drifts up and down at several key points throughout the film, but my favorite example is the shot that serves as the starting gun for the second act. After the crew is assembled for their unholy research project (and directly after Brian and Catherine consummate their awkward affair), the film cuts to the top of an alley outside of the church. A slow tilt makes its way down the seam of the alley, and the score picks back up as special guest ghoul Alice Cooper steps out from behind a dumpster.

Prince of Darkness Cooper alley

The beauty of this scene is really in its motion (I tried to make a GIF but it didn’t pan out, no pun intended), but you can still get a sense for the symmetry of the blocking in this frame. In a film about the battle between evil and those that wish to keep evil contained, the metaphoric weight of consistent camera tilts is hard to ignore. And this being a Carpenter film, there’s probably some sociopolitical messaging to be taken from the fact that the neighborhood’s homeless population is the first group affected by the satanic awakening.

These are just a few examples from the first (into the second) act of the film. There are yet more examples of drifting claustrophobia throughout Prince of Darkness, like the surreal mirror world and the disorienting use of camera tilts in indoor settings. I am interested in Carpenter’s ability to find space in the city throughout his career, especially in politically charged urban action films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981), and They Live!, and may take a crack at digging deeper into this claustrophobia motif in a more sustained effort some day.


Blunt force allegory in Aronofsky’s Mother! 

Image result for mother filmPhoto credit: Variety

By now it’s no secret that Darren Aronofksy has a thing. Mind-bending, epistemological thrillers are his bread and butter, and the intensity with which his latest pursues this motif pretty much seals that deal. Like Farhadi’s beleaguered families or Herzog’s dreamers, Aronofsky airs his inspirations and fascinations in very clear and consistent terms across his artistic output. What makes Mother! stand out, though, is the way in which it turns this act of sharing in on itself, bringing the director’s usual symbol-heavy and dreamy filmmaking to a deeply personal place. The result is an adversarial and harrowing reflection on the act of creation, one that feels archetypal in ways that make me wonder how this exact film had not been made sooner. The film centers its attention on Jennifer Lawrence’s character (unnamed, like the rest), the short-suffering wife of Javier Bardem’s successful but temporarily frustrated poet. She’s been renovating their cavernous, stately old farmhouse, her husband’s childhood home, while he ruminates and waits for inspiration to strike. When a lost and road-weary traveller (Ed Harris, wonderfully off-putting as ever) mistakes their home for a bed and breakfast, Bardem’s poet sets him up with room and board in short order. From there, more guests begin trickling into the house (including Harris’s wife, played by a deliciously rude and foreboding Michelle Pfeiffer), social contracts and prized possessions are broken, the trickle of visitors becomes a flood, and the poet’s wife reels through a series of panic attacks as reality slips ever further from her control and plummets into a fantastical frenzy. This synopsis alone should imply a fairly obvious thematic upshot, one that sees Aronofsky working through some painful self-evaluation.

This blend of the allegorical and autobiographical lends itself to the sort of psychoanalysis that I don’t have much interest in unpacking, especially since the film does a lot of that legwork for the viewer. What I will say is that the darker side of this coin is the way the film’s deeply rooted misogyny reflects back on the writer/director. Lawrence floats through the house in sheer lounge-wear for the majority of the film, and caters to the needs of her husband and his guests with infinite doe-eyed patience. She weathers lascivious glances and catcalls from strangers, and her trials take on a violent redoubling as the film barrels through an explosive third act. With later nods to a larger system of prejudice towards women, it’s clear that the film wants to say something about the current, global state of womanhood. But it never quite sticks the landing, and the conceit falls to the same illogic that would otherwise make for a rewarding discomfort in the film’s nightmare world. It’s easy to keep a piece like Mother! on a long leash. After all, a film committed to sounding the ugly depths of both a personal and national unconscious is going to replicate some uncomfortable and downright distasteful realities. But the exploitation feels unearned, and narrative laziness that rests too much artistic weight on the backs of the oppressed should be snuffed out. Leave the warping of culture and ideology for the fascists, I say, and save us from the sort of authoritative, ruminative, too-prevalent woman-hating commonplace to contemporary caricatures like the Recently Divorced Man.

The really unfortunate thing is that up until a finale that firmly puts Mother! on this ethically shaky ground, the film has some fun with the macho “manic writer” trope by focusing on what happens to Jennifer Lawrence (instead of making the writer a man of action, like Jack Torrance). This empathy is coupled with claustrophobic blocking and framing, making aesthetic hay from the increasingly unjust invasions of privacy to which the poet’s wife is subjected. And the world that she has built for them is given due respect in the set design, with fixtures taking on narrative importance, flooring damage that feels emotionally wrought, and a meditative wall-painting sequence that is threaded through the film as an island of calm. The use of domestic space here, an attention to detail that is perverted to chilling effect, is captivating (and shows the continued impact that James Wan & co. have had with The Conjuring; they should be proud). It is matched with a soundscape that deserves recognition, as the house’s creaks and echoes lend a rhythmic quality to the film in place of a musical score. And the lighting scheme disarms as well as it disturbs, providing a soft naturalism by day and queasy high contrasts by night (Harris’s craggy face looks downright skeletal here). Lawrence channels her usual vacillations between bleak vulnerability and willful agency, a high-wire act that few can navigate as well as she. As much as the tight quarters and waves of invasion might lend themselves to a litany of jump scares, I echo Michael Koresky in thinking that the scarier moments are those that eschew horror convention and instead pick at a much subtler sense of social unease.

Ultimately, Mother! is well-crafted and deeply unsettling; a thing that stretches the limits of genre and makes one appreciate the raw, ethereal power of film. A modern day, surreal Bluebeard à la (Stephen) King that’s fun to parse as the mystery unravels. All that said, the most I can muster by way of an endorsement is that I’m glad it exists. I’m left with too bad a taste in my mouth over the mythopoetic misfires to feel any sort of elation at the dark wonder of it all. And I continue to find Aronofsky’s brand of puzzle-piecing a somewhat overbearing and ungenerous affair. He said of Mother!, “if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.” He doesn’t benefit from being in the wake of David Lynch, the Granddaddy of the Dream Enigma whose recently-concluded Twin Peaks: The Return is a gift that I’m still not quite sure we deserved. Perhaps this film was just something that Aronofsky needed to get out of his system (as the popular account goes, he wrote it in a 5 day frenetic burst), and he can now settle in to something a bit more measured and memorable.

Enigma and anathema: Eraserhead’s wretched puzzles

EraserheadPhoto credit: Blumhouse

Is it an allegory for nuclear proliferation? A fever dream born from parental anxiety? A tale of nature reclaiming a post-industrial, near post-human world? Some combination of the three? One thing is certain: after 40 years, Eraserhead remains a film that leaves audiences saying, “I’m not sure what I just watched but I don’t feel good and I know I will never be the same again.” It’s a work in aesthetic counterpoint, as the ugliness of the narrative and its accompanying visuals is met with beautifully textured photography, exceptionally rendered make-up and props, and captivating set design. Lynch’s attention to detail, as displayed in each of these elements, helps elevate his film beyond art student avant-garde surrealist frippery and bring it into some emotionally affecting territory. As do the performances. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a pathetic figure, insofar as he is a linchpin for any pathos found in such a disorienting and revolting film. Nance is helped along in this effort by playing off wonderfully erratic and upsetting turns from Charlotte Stewart, Jeanne Bates, Allen Joseph, and Judith Roberts. He’s also helped by his characteristic meekness, playing Henry with a quiet, subdued goofiness that suggests an alternate title for the film could be Charlie Chaplin Goes to Hell. After all, Hell, or at least some existential reflection on agency and the afterlife, is one of the film’s preoccupations. As is masculinity. And labor. And the aforementioned anxieties over destruction, nature, and procreation. For a run-time of 89 minutes and a surprisingly linear overall story arc, the film packs in a dizzying array of ideas and memorable visuals. And just when it seems it won’t be much more than a drifting, episodic curiosity, it explodes into a truly harrowing crescendo of gore that will likely haunt me for the rest of my days. In short, Eraserhead makes for one hell of a feature debut.

Despite its overall surreal pacing and imagery, the film has an authentic-feeling, hyper-real design. This is due in part to Lynch’s use of texture. A pock-marked tapestry of craters and chasms on a mysterious planet. A tangled mass of peat moss piled on a bedroom floor. A sickly man , shirking and twitching in the dark, covered in boils and scars (and played by all-star production designer Jack Fisk, though you wouldn’t know it even if you knew what Jack Fisk looks like).  Even innocuous images like a puddle or a radiator. Every frame of Eraserhead is rendered in unsettling detail, drawing the eye despite presenting the viewer with some repulsive material. This is achieved mostly through lighting, set design, and some wickedly gross prop and makeup work. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes takes full advantage of the decision to shoot in black and white, filling the screen with a chiaroscuro so heavy it’d pull its subjects right out of the frame if it weren’t so precisely balanced. Lynch’s stagecraft skills are on full display, with sets that are just odd enough without distracting entirely, but he also does well to take his camera outside and highlight his ability to find some richly bleak industrial spaces. And one of the awful highlights of the film is the “baby,” a grotesquerie finely wrought in such stunning detail one wonders if there’s some truth to Lynch’s joke that it wasn’t made, but discovered by the crew one day while shooting. The notion of blurring the line between attraction and repulsion, of using a wide-ranging aesthetic toolkit to manipulate cognitive processes and force some reconsideration of what makes a thing “beautiful”, seems to be a preoccupation of Lynch’s. As he explains in a 1979 interview centered on the film, “I think that a lot of things that other people think are ugly, are beautiful. And if you look at them right, or if they’re sort of isolated, and put in a different context, they can be seen as shapes and textures and they’re beautiful.”

The overall effect is one of Lynch letting us in, or pushing us down, to a complex maze of hidden worlds. The camera drifts often, and leads the viewer into the shadows that dominate every frame, bringing them to see what’s on the other side. We are taken through a jagged hole in an ominous metal box to get a glimpse of the Man in the Planet, an agent of change who seems to control portions of Henry’s life by just pushing and pulling a few levers. We enter Henry’s radiator, where a deformed woman (Laurel Near) performs a stage routine in an eerie club (reminiscent of both the Red Room and roadhouse in Lynch’s Twin Peaks), enticing him with promises of Heaven but pretty much leading him to Hell. We sink into puddles, time and again, that raise questions of creation in the way they so often suggest the Primordial Soup. We are brought into these marginal worlds, and no good comes from it. It’s as though the viewer is being punished for participating in cinema’s campaign of voyeurism, turning the act of seeing into a practice of being complicit with violent absurdity. This creates a kind of trial on the nature of film, and especially on what’s accepted as tradition in the form. With its tight use of space, sparse dialogue, black-and-white photography, and old-timey Fats Waller organ music, the film seems conscious of Old Hollywood’s domineering influence. So it might be that the warping of voyeuristic engagement is a sort of reckoning with the sins of the motion picture industry. Or that Lynch is marking himself in his feature debut as a cinematic enfant terrible, tilting at anyone who thinks that film has always been and should remain a passive artform. I wonder if his training as a painter lends him an extra curiosity for and judgment of filmmaking, giving him a unique critical perspective and allowing him to “break the rules,” as it were. He fills his title sequence with a superimposed, translucent image of the title character. He uses strobe lights to throw figures around the frame, and sometimes jump cuts haphazardly to make them disappear altogether. Eraserhead pulls back curtain after curtain, and we’re left to wonder whether or not we ever should have taken a peek.

Watching Eraserhead has long been a sort of vocation for me. As someone who grew up and lives in the suburbs just outside of Philadelphia, I was always intrigued by this film that I’d heard was influenced by Lynch’s time in that city in its grimier days. As if the film and the city coexisted on this alien plane where I knew I needed to spend more time. Add to this the fact that Lynch and one of my brothers share an alma mater (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and some aesthetic sensibilities, and the result is a film that’s always felt personal to me even though I’d never seen it.  How perfect, then, to pursue this vocational beacon and find such a delightfully horrific skewering of notions like finding meaning and holding things sacrosanct. I think this may prove to be a transformative experience for me in terms of my film comfort zone. It’s going to get ugly, and that’s just fine.

Hail Caesar! : A cinema studies crash course, Coen style

hail caesar!Photo credit: Vulture

Frankfurt School dialectics. The “genius of the system.” The specter of McCarthyism. The struggle for the legitimacy of a medium (and its attendant journalism). In both form and function, Hail Caesar!  seems to be the Coens’ attempt to condense a large chunk of introductory film scholarship into one film. As a result, it’s a big film, opting for the sweeping scale of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as opposed to the tight, quirky character studies of other Coen comedies. Given the glitz and grandeur of its Classical Hollywood setting, the breadth of the film’s concerns makes a certain kind of sense. It can also be disorienting, as B plot vignettes are given plenty of room to breathe and the main narrative is kept at bay. These vignettes feel like the result of a late-night pitch session between the brothers, each trying to top the other’s ideas for skits set across one back lot in the early 50s. There’s a rousing cowboy picture featuring the flamboyant stunts and comically earnest glowers of a young frontier heartthrob (Alden Ehrenreich). There’s a pitch-perfect Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming number punctuated by its surly lead (Scarlett Johansson) voicing her frustrations over the “fish ass” of her mermaid costume, and an equally faithful Gene Kelly homage anchored by preternatural multi-talent Channing Tatum that’s just sort of impressive on its own with no ironic strings attached. There’s a theological consultation session set up as a focus group on the eponymous Biblical epic in production, a meeting which quickly devolves into a “priest, preacher, cleric, and rabbi walk into a boardroom…” joke.

And did I mention that this is a movie about Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) frenzied search for superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped and indoctrinated by a syndicate of Communist screenwriters called “The Future”? An angrier reviewer would call Hail Caesar! a disingenuous cash grab dependent on the cobbling together of parts that have worked for the Coen brand before (kidnapping, satirizing philosophical theories, Clooney). Three things trouble this reading: one, the film was actually a long time in the making, and only came to fruition after some arm twisting from Clooney; two, it didn’t make a ton of cash for very long; and three, for all its disjointedness it delivers an intricately detailed, well-acted comedy (come for the aforementioned leads, stay for brilliant character turns from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, David Krumholtz, Frances McDormand, and Heather Goldenhersh) that scratches the surface of some big ideas about the culture industry and its crises of conscience. One of the film’s most impressive feats is that it does not feel bogged down by Hollywood navel-gazing, despite being an industry satire set in an oft-romanticized era. While it’s not a piece of Hollywood hate mail, it’s not exactly a love letter either. This is just as well, as it does stumble a bit in getting its point across on finding agency in a field that lends itself to scripting a person’s life on all fronts. Though they are played for laughs, scenes of Mannix’s assertion of power over his stars can be a bit tone deaf. Given that the studio system’s campaign of control lead to many a tragic end, becoming especially volatile once the Red Scare (which the film keeps just outside the frame) was dropped into the mix, I felt a twinge of guilt poking through the madcap fun of it all. Perhaps that’s the point. And perhaps the glib treatment is meant to ironize these conditions, as certain characters are “saved” from the government’s version of Eddie’s coercive tactics. Of course, this consuming, love/hate relationship that Eddie has with controlling Hollywood becomes especially blackly comic when one considers the role that the real-life Mr. (and Mrs.) Mannix played in the tawdry death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. The film’s theological ambivalence plays into this ethical gray area. Time and again it coyly introduces, then dodges, inclinations that Eddie’s messes are somehow divinely ordained. Appropriately, the film ends on an odd note that drives this point home: a rising crane shot of the Capitol lot abruptly whip pans across the sky and into the sun, filling the frame with a divine, blinding light.

And so, as with any other Coen film, we are left with as many questions as answers. Another Coen staple, for me at least, is a line of dialogue that sticks around long after the movie, both as some kind of entryway to understanding the film and as objectively good, memorable writing. In the case of Hail Caesar!, this line comes in the form of what’s essentially a throwaway aside. As Eddie balances catching up with his secretary and watching unpolished dailies, a voice booms stage directions in the background: “Squint! Squint against the grandeur!” This is a film of reverence rendered absurd by its mandatory nature. If you squint just hard enough, you’ll at least be able to blur the film’s disparate ideas and parts into a cohesive whole that’s fun to ponder for a day or two after the credits roll. One hopes that the Coens will know to hang it up when the reverence for their work starts to feel forced, lest they end up the butt of their own joke.


A rewarding genre experiment in Another Evil

another-evilPhoto credit: Seattle International Film Festival

The recent surge in horror films scoring accolades and critical praise seems to have enabled a renewed energy around experimentation with the genre, yielding a provocative crop of films that have broadened the potential for horror’s tone, scope, and audience base. For instance, not many films can claim the descriptor “mumblecore comedy-horror,” save last summer’s Creep (2015). Taken at face value, this blend seems a counter-intuitive exercise: how could the understated naturalism of the former capitalize on the visceral thrills of the latter? Enter Another Evil (2016), the feature debut from Eastbound & Down and Silicon Valley scribe Carson D. Mell. Like Creep, the film follows the antics of two men in a mountain home faced with unnatural circumstances and a conflict of interests that gives way to terror. Both serve as a sort of uncanny comedian/straight-man act that undercuts the laughs with a sense of dread. While the earlier film may have suffered from a sense that the spooky trappings were tacked-on, Mell has dug deep into the emotional cores of the tonally varying genres and found an odd and thrilling common ground. And despite an occasionally plodding pace in the film’s set pieces, it goes to great lengths to establish a strong sense of architecture and aesthetic. Perhaps a somewhat detrimental preference for world-building over narrative is the lot of the debut filmmaker (see Robert Eggers’ uneven but affecting The Witch from earlier this year), but Mell’s stylistic voice is just clear enough (and his comedic voice just outrageous enough) to carry Another Evil away from the overwrought boredom that could have easily developed in this sort of experiment.

One of the key strengths in the film’s structure is the expertly crafted awkward chemistry between its leading duo. Steve Zissis plays Dan, a visual artist with a bit of a ghost problem at his mountain retreat/studio. After feeling dissatisfied with the non-confrontational advice of a schlubby New Age shaman (Dan Bakkedahl), Dan seeks a second opinion from the affable if slightly aggressive Os (Mark Proksch). Os’s invasive approach to exorcism has him staying in the mountains with Dan for a week and conducting a series of ghost-catching exercises. As in most haunted house films, the unnerving atmosphere gets thicker as the week wears on. But while the supernatural hangs over Another Evil, the film’s chills are drawn primarily from more terrestrial concerns like navigating another person’s desperate vulnerability. Proksch puts on a seriously good study in earnest absurdity (think Max von Sydow meets Dwight Schrute) and helps the film find its balance between cringe comedy and wincing in fear. And Zissis builds audience sympathy, even if his character isn’t exactly likable, from a solid deadpan foundation. So it’s understandable that Mell would want to give this pair lots of room to breathe, given the captivating potency of their uncomfortable interactions. But the laugh lines only surface from a substantial chunk of ambling dialogue that occasionally borders on the wrong side of hypnotic. Despite the tipping of scales towards scenery chewing, the film does have a command of aesthetic that pushes it into some intriguing territory. The team wisely leans on a variety of genre touchstones: the fleeting ghouls of Japanese horror, angular set designs that recall Caligari, rooms awash in “Giallo Red” neon, establishing shots that wind through domestic space à la The Conjuring. This sense of identity, coupled with excellent sound design and a budding sense for what builds tension, points to a filmmaker well on his way to carving out a space for cinema that rewards just as much as it befuddles.

Like the best examples from its more sinister parent genre, Another Evil is driven by epistemological mysteries concerning the source of its frights and asks the viewer to revel in its own uncertainty. In an emotionally wrought indie dramedy, the kind to which this film feels somewhat spiritually beholden, existential musings over careers and relationships can get tired and trite very quickly.  Thankfully, Mell finds fear in that ambivalence and imbues his story with some real narrative heft. These thrills, coupled with laugh-out-loud comedy of both cerebral and slapstick varietals, keep the viewer company through the lulls and produce a wickedly fun film to the end.

The damaging, diasporic nostalgia of The Thin Red Line

the-thin-red-linePhoto: Slant Magazine

Terrence Malick continues the search for a perfect cinema of memory with his take on the war film in The Thin Red Line (1998). Of course, the guiding principle in this pursuit is imperfection, and the film draws power from its refusal to tidy up an oft-valorized piece of American history: World War II. That’s not to say that it takes an overtly cynical or finger-pointing political bent in the manner of an Oliver Stone. Instead, it accesses a piece of the American collective subconscious that expresses an ambivalence towards the responsibilities of wartime. An aging commanding officer tries to stave off humiliation by forcing a little glory into his life, and dolefully admits to his superficial motives. A soulful, serial deserter gets pulled back into the fray but doesn’t shy away from the tough going of the action. A seasoned 1st Sgt swings between direct, confident command and drunken ennui. There is a sort of “doing what needs to be done” fatalism in every character that eats away at them in clear terms. The usual Malick musings on man’s relationship with nature are here, this time applied to the callous persistence of war. But the stakes are much higher than anything the director has approached in previous films, as acknowledged by the Homeric allusions and the immense scale of the cast and locations. Ironically, what results is a film that is perhaps Malick’s most intimate offering yet. Epistolary narration, an unabashed sentimentality, violent moments that offer more than just empty spectacle, and an almost wonky look at military bureaucracy combine to create a frustrated, emotionally affecting meditation on American nostalgia.

The film meets its reflection on the fractured nature of a collective memory with an aesthetic that can best be described as hazy. A thick fog crawls through the Guadalcanal jungle, creating real narrative stakes for the soldiers that must fight through it in addition to giving the environment an ancient and magical quality. Man-made smoke also fills frames in abundance (Jack Fisk, Malick’s go-to production designer, had to have worked double-time on this film), pitting destructive human intervention in direct conflict with the rhythms of nature. At times the screen seems clouded with an amalgam of both fog and smoke, teasing out the existential crisis of whether or not it matters if anyone is overseeing the charnel house. The camera is aimless, seeming mostly unmoored in the wake of this question. It glides through the grass with the breeze, lingering on objects, animals, and the occasional moment of abject wartime gore. Explosions erupt in the foreground as the camera wanders through these violent tableaux, underscoring the unsustainable tension between natural and cultural history. And while it may seem that Malick is treading familiar thematic ground, he freshens up his own mold by bringing an unprecedented heft to the subject matter.

Though the horrors of war are anything but romanticized in this film, it does not ignore the tendency to mythologize these stories and adorn them with the glorifying cadence of the epic. Specifically, Homer’s Odyssey clings to the screen before Lt Col Tall (Nick Nolte) even makes his overt reference to “rosy-fingered dawn.” The film opens on an Ogygia in the Solomon Islands to which Witt (Jim Caviziel) has defected, but eventually sets him back on a course that cuts across the ocean towards more carnage. It also gives us glimpses of a life back home for several characters in the form of flashback arcs, one of which undermines a staple of the Odysseus mythos and becomes the source for a masterclass in breaking an audience’s heart. Explicit atavism also works in service of the primeval atmosphere that the film strives for, with characters crying and twitching and writhing and howling as the weight of their participation in a canonization of murder bears down on them. One set piece involving the storming of a camp is particularly dizzying as a distillation of this sort of barking madness throughout the film. John Toll’s confining chiaroscuro in other moments serves to amplify this frenzy, but it also memorializes by providing statuesque casts of faces that leave a lasting impression.

Despite the humanizing characterizations behind these faces, the film spreads itself across so many voices that it renders absurd any notion that a depth of feeling can be drawn from the patina of history. One of the great joys of the war film is the ensemble casting, but this film uses that construct to a disorienting effect. Malick’s script deploys his usual voiceover narration, except this time the introspection is given over to a whole host of characters musing over childhood, spirituality, life back home, the ins and outs of a military career, and more. The result is what feels like a series of epistles and the skeleton of an intimacy that defies the otherwise cold disconnect towards human life required of a war story. However, this intimacy is eventually subverted by a number of instances in which it’s unclear who is doing the narrating, and the connections forged throughout the film begin to dissipate. Compounding this slippage is the sheer number of characters that the viewer must keep track of. And Malick takes the opportunity provided by this white noise of characterization to deflate Hollywood star power, tossing in roles for John Travolta and George Clooney that hardly even last long enough to register. Nolte’s performance, however, is unforgettable. He brings such a gung-ho bravado to Gordon Tall that fits right in with the John Waynes of the era in which the film is set. That he was largely snubbed for Supporting Actor accolades stands as one of the historically great awards season injustices.

It’s worth noting in a discussion of this film that nostalgia originated in the 17th Century as a medical term used to describe a range of behaviors in Swiss soldiers pining for home. The Thin Red Line digs into this etymology and raises questions about how we should approach loss and longing. Is an awareness of historical significance a destructive practice in its own right? What is our responsibility in maintaining a vision of a bygone America? Does nature play a role in how we treat each other and ourselves? The film and its characters remain enigmatically engaged with these questions throughout, and train an unblinking gaze on our participation in revisiting historical trauma. Despite the fact that Witt claims “people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it,” I don’t believe I’ll be forgetting him anytime soon.