- The Thin Red Line
There is a certain reticence about the films of Terrence Malick that inspires critical assessment. For philosophers in particular, the invitation to engage with Malick's work is enhanced by his training in philosophy and by the enigmatic commentary that his films produce. Relatedly, there is the crucial task of reckoning with his films as films, or in other words, in terms of the specifically cinematic forms that Malick's philosophizing takes. Stepping up to these challenges is a new collection of essays focused upon The Thin Red Line, which seeks to 'locate the film in philosophical space.' But what characterizes this volume is a special self-consciousness about its project, foregrounding not only the philosophical issues that The Thin Red Line illuminates but also the need to think through such issues in medium-specific ways. Thus, from the outset, the success of the collection depends upon its ability to harmonize its commitments to both film and philosophy, appealing to readers in either discipline.
Simon Critchley's opening essay is a familiar text, having appeared online (Film-Philosophy, 2002) and in Critchley's study of Wallace Stevens (2005). Here it serves as an articulating framework for the materials that follow, enumerating the kinds of interpretive difficulties ('hermeneutic banana skins') that Malick's films engender. Among [End Page 287] these, Critchley strongly cautions against readings that reduce the film to a philosophical pretext, recommending instead an approach that confronts the 'cinematic Sache.' Given this directive, it's surprising that so much of Critchley's discussion dwells upon the non-cinematic features of The Thin Red Line, such as the film's literary sources and dialogue. Additionally, where the discussion focuses upon filmic technique, the details sometimes go awry: describing the climactic moments before Witt's death, the camera's forward movement is twice called - incorrectly - a 'zoom.' These are small matters, to be sure, but set against Critchley's critique of scholarly inattentiveness, such lapses are striking.
David Davies's essay provides an excellent overview of received responses to the film, marking points of contact and disagreement among them. Like Critchley, Davies wishes to highlight the cinematic terms of The Thin Red Line, particularly as these constitute the film's 'tactile vision.' This is a compelling approach to Malick's film that speaks to the embodied experience it generates for viewers. On this point, however, it's curious that Davies should finally characterize the film's techniques as 'painterly,' diminishing his own case for medium-specific analysis.
Amy Coplan's contribution brings balance to the equation, applying a cognitive approach to Malick's film as well as a specialized film vocabulary. Indeed, the author's detailed descriptions of the film's technical prerogatives will interest readers seeking such background information. But as a shoring up of the film's cinematic identity, Coplan's assessment of The Thin Red Line seems oddly disconnected, producing a picture of the film's operations that viewers may not recognize. The difficulty here is not that the author's discussion is too technical, but that it overstates the film's difference from conventional film practice. While The Thin Red Line certainly makes demands on viewers, calling for nuanced interpretation, it simply does not generate the kinds of confusions that Coplan indicates. It is, after all, a rather lucid account of the taking of a hill: we do not need to deny its intelligibility as a work to make persuasive claims for its affective and sensual force.
Hubert Dreyfus and Camilo Salazar Prince propose a Heideggerian reading of the film that discloses the existential breakdowns that must be 'lived through' in Malick's work. Although the authors are silent on the question of the film's status as film, it is intriguing to consider whether their arguments might be fruitfully extended to ask, for instance, how the film's world (and its collapse) is rendered via cinematic structures.
Finally, Iain Macdonald examines Malick's most recent production, The New World (2005). In a Nietzschean reading of the film, Macdonald proposes that we look beyond its...