Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In The Heart of The Heart of My Bookshelf, Volume V

Well, my Puddlers, the big week is upon us. I hope you enjoyed the Updike and Springsteen post that was put up yesterday. Tomorrow I will be posting my podcast with Chandrahas Choudhury in preparation for the Puddles of Myself First Ever Fiction Reading this Thursday evening at 8:00 PM.  Lots of stuff going on, so please try to keep up.

However, today is Tuesday, and that means we take another journey with Alex Ramsdell.  Mr. Ramsdell's column will not be up next week (for all you devotees) due to the holiday.  In fact, next week will be a slow week overall except for the posting of the recording of Thursday's reading.  So, you can use that as your catch up time.

Now, however, I leave you with Mr. Ramsdell:

The Malick Touch: Death in The Thin Red Line

Alex Ramsdell

Terrence Malick is known for making beautiful films that pay attention to the human aspects of experiencing the world (point-of-view, horizon, fascination with nature).  Before becoming a filmmaker, he wrote a graduate thesis on Martin Heidegger’s existential work, Being and Time, and began a course of study in philosophy of world, and soon after became a filmmaker.  Badlands came out in 1973, Days of Heaven in 1978, and after a 20 year hiatus, during which he wrote journalism and occasionally filled in for pre-eminent Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfus at UC Davis, he released The Thin Red Line.  This last film is striking in comparison with the other two, because of its mature elaboration on previous themes, but it is striking even more so as a response to classic war cinema. Malick encloses the violent confusion of war in a landscape of sublime beauty not for the sake of juxtaposition but for exploring the nature of man when he encounters the blunt reality of his own death.  In Malick's war, the mood is not one of dread, menace, or perversity, but a kind of collective emotional literacy as a way of interpreting mortality.  Each moment is an effort to conserve the lives of one’s brothers.  The inter-subjective apprehension that colors the Battle of Guadalcanal becomes most apparent when the C-Company (Charlie Company) nears Guadalcanal in a fleet of cargo ships and prepares to storm the Japanese.  Below the deck, the ship is teeming with men of various ranks, all visibly agitated, milling about in extreme anticipation, but expressing it in distinctly personal ways.  Some shave their faces clean, others sit stone-faced, others express it all too openly, and yet others react with disgust at the openness of their comrades. 

When the men storm onto the beach they find it deserted.  Half-relieved and yet still visibly nervous, they ascend through a series of enormously grassy hills until they are ambushed in one of the most frightening and human cataclysms that I’ve ever seen in a film.  The Japanese have secured a position atop these hills from which they can see every tactically confused move the US soldiers make and proceed to mow down half of the regiment, but we witness this from the position of the various clusters of soldiers who crouch in mortal fear in the grass, unable to see, interrupted by screaming and explosions, deliberating whether to charge through to secure a better position or to wait, knowing that death is imminent.  The focus of attention in scenes like these is what separates Malick’s portrayal of the logic of war from something like Full Metal Jacket.  Rather than inter-company conflict preceding extra-company conflict, there is an unceasing attention being paid to the necessity of brotherhood in the face of human limits. Mortality becomes something that is seen in the expression of another, a gestural indication of the worst consequence.

Death pervades the film, but Malick’s engagement with it extends from a distinctly Heideggerian conception of death as the inaccessible absence that founds the state of living.  To understand death existentially is to acknowledge, as Derrida does in engaging with Hediegger’s conception of death, that: "It is on this side…that the oppositions between here [life] and there [death]…can be distinguished" (Derrida, Aporias, p. 52).  That is to say, all that one can know of death originates in life, a state that is phenomenally rooted in experience and is decidedly not death. A soldier, played by Woody Harrelson, accidentally explodes his legs by pulling the pin from his grenade.  His life leaves him in a three part procession: he first realizes that he would no longer be the same man for his wife, then that "he can't fuck", and finally he starts to shiver uncontrollably and in his last moments he remarks only that he is extremely cold.  Then we see Witt, his comrade, and our main character, witnessing this man's death.  The camera cuts from a dying (and so still living) face to the living face of the man in whom the death is inscribed.  And so the film imbues death with actual and historical importance as an impression upon the living, from which all testimony, speech, narrative of death comes. 

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