- Stalker (1979): Review Unavailable; 9/10
- Everything You always wanted to know about Sex- but were too Afraid to Ask (1972): Review Unavailable; 7/10
- Sleeper (1973): Review Unavailable; 7/10
If you follow my site you will know that one of the principles I abide by- and this relates very much to film- is to not cloud the vision of a work by ideology, or presenting some kind of political or religious message say. Vision and ideology are two very different things, and it is important to understand this because the reason some films are on this list, and others are not, come down to this distinction. With war films, in particular, it is very common to find propaganda in the form of patriotism- be it in Triumph of the Will or almost any Hollywood war movie- or stereotypical characters. If only directors would learn not to merely use characters like generals do their soldiers. Instead of having them perform a specific role in the plot, have them live and breathe- easier said than done. That is instead of having them react with fear or bravery or some other thing, give them an outlook on life as well as death. In Saving Private Ryan there is only an assortment of simplistic elements; Spielberg has no real vision and no real characters. Americans love heroes, be they super or otherwise, and this is exactly what this flick is- a typical hero flick. Characters need to be something more than marionettes and Saving Private Ryan simply does not understand this. Yes, there are moments which work, where for example there is some comedy preceding an intense action sequence, but this is not exactly great, because while there is a general understanding that people would try to alleviate tension through light-hearted chit-chat, there are no moments that give you an insight to any of the characters as individual human beings. This is the most common trait in both Spielberg’s films, but more relevantly war films, because, among other reasons, there is a tendency for the forces on both sides of the conflict to merge into either of two monoliths bashing heads against one another. Then there is The Thin Red Line, which perhaps is the only non-satirical American war film that avoids all these issues, and which actually had a vision. It is technically 2 films because there is the earlier 1964 version by Andrew Marton (an excellent to near-great film, which shows off Kier Dullea’s significant acting talent) and the Terrence Malick version, which I will be focusing on here. This is a truly great film and I would even go as far as to say that it is a perfect film.
To illustrate The Thin Red Line‘s depth, I will segue into a brief comparison. Speaking of monoliths and Kier Dullea, the film that I honestly think is the most similar in terms of viewing experience to it is actually Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey. We have here 2 prime examples of cinematic poesy, albeit different styles of such. While 2001 leaves much unsaid and uses symbolism to create the Mobius loop of meaning that ties its moments together, The Thin Red Line uses voice over. It may take some time to notice that there is actually a polyphony in the VOs given their similar cadence and propensity to blend into each other, though this was intended by Malick because it conveys the effect of each speaker being permutations of the same mind. This is an important nuance, and yet there are so many nuances of this film which can be explored relating to not what is said, but how it is said. For example, for most of the film, we do not see the Japanese army, only experience their fire, and you must suffer along with the American troops as they combat a faceless enemy. Yet when the Americans storm the Japanese around two thirds in, we see the tables turn, and it is those we were previously rooting for who now seem terrifying. There is one moment in which a Japanese soldier is talking to his American counterpart in his native tongue, and there are no subtitles. Because it is not the words but what they ‘mean‘ if you will, which is relevant. We get drawn in, listening despite the [presumed] language barrier.
We are introduced to the flaws in each side of the battle, and something which The Thin Red Line demonstrates over and over is the weaknesses of the characters. Character flaws are one thing we often hear we should take into consideration when writing. The simplistic reason for this is usually to avoid 1-dimensional Mary Sues (or Gary Stews). We need to leave room for an arc, to allow the character to change for the better by the end of the story. But Malick (since he also wrote the screenplay) installs these perceived weaknesses for a different reason, which is to in fact question where the thin line is between flaw and virtue. In one case Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), orders his troops to take a ridge despite the danger and the enemy control over the position. When Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) refuses to carry out the order we are led to believe this is about showing the error of the glory-seeking Colonel. Indeed there is a candlelit scene in which Staros prays that he will never betray his troops, and it is his mission to preserve as many of them as possible. Tall is reasonable and takes Staros’ refusal seriously, but it turns out that Tall was actually right, and the question later becomes: is the ever loyal captain taking the war seriously enough? And in the end, he takes the offer of a Silver Star and Purple Heart so that Tall can replace him with someone tougher fibred. It is clear the Colonel values bootlicking, as he himself has bootlicked his way to his own position- as evidence a subtly great scene involving him and John Travolta’s General Quintard. So we are led to constantly question good intentions in the face of realism in this way, such as is the case with Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who muses and dwells on his wife, whom he left behind to go to war, and his voice-overs about her are often very moving, adding a redemptive beauty to the quality of his life as a soldier. Here is one of his letters to her, read in the VO:
My Dear Wife,
You get something twisted out of your insides by all this blood, filth, and noise. I want to stay changeless for you, I want to come back to you the man I was before. How do we get to those other shores, to those blue hills? Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it.
I was a prisoner, you set me free.
His wife’s reply:
I’ve met an air force captain. I’ve fallen in love with him. I want a divorce to marry him. I know you can say no but I’m asking you anyway, out of the memory of what we had together. Forgive me, it just got too lonely Jack. We’ll meet again someday. People who’ve been as close as we’ve been always meet again. I have no right to speak to you this way, the habits so strong.
Oh my friend of all these shining years, help me leave you.
One last example I will bring up is the idealism of our main narrator, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). He has seen another world outside of that of the war. In the opening scene, we see the tropical paradise of the island in which he resides, (in stark contrast to the clip directly prior of a Crocodile sinking into a swamp), and we want to believe in this beauty. Again, we want the happy ending as with Private Bell. And Witt Tells his ‘best friend,’ 1st Sergent Edward Welsh (Seann Penn) that he sees a spark in him, despite his lack of belief in such, or any world outside of the cruel one into which we are later introduced. The devastating turning point comes when Witt uses himself as a decoy to buy time for his fellow troops. He ends up surrounded on all sides, and one of the Japanese speaks to him- in words he cannot understand- and proceeds to shout his commands, but Witt does naught but stare on in disbelief in the face of death. He then raises his gun in a futile attempt to defend himself but is killed instantly. Upon Witt’s saying goodbye to this cruel world, we are again shown a brief clip from that other world, that haven of Witt’s now perished soul, before Welsh speaks to his buried corpse, in words he cannot hear- ‘where’s your spark now?’ This is a crushing moment, and it is followed by the final twisting of this Mobius loop of a film in the proceeding two voice-overs:
…only one thing a man can do, find something that’s his. Make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.
from Welsh, &
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.
from Witt beyond the grave. The closing image is of a plant sprouting in the swamp ostensibly into which the crocodile sunk at the beginning. So there is always this interplay between the various dichotomies: loyalty and betrayal; beauty and cruelty; man and nature, which is an aspect I have not even touched upon yet. Nevertheless, the dichotomy which most war films focus upon, that between Us (or more often U.S.) & Them, is not utilized in The Thin Red Line to show their difference, but similarity. In addition to what has already been said on the matter, I will mention a scene where one of our ‘heroes’ accidentally blows his leg off with a grenade, and while what follows is one of the most competently executed death scenes in cinema as a result of this, it serves to illustrate the incompetence of those on both sides of the conflict.
A small homage to the 1964 version is when Private Doll (Dash Mihok) steals a pistol from an officer’s neglected holster, only to have this act of theft reward him later on in taking a bunker, and even saves his life. In the original, the role of the stolen pistol is much more significant, as it is what Kier Dullea’s Private Doll uses in his first encounter with the enemy, which establishes his journey into madness. The focus on different characters, and in some ways a different plot in the 1998 version is interesting, and though I am not sure which is more in line with the novel by James Jones that is their mutual source, I believe Malick makes better choices than Marton in this respect. Certainly, Malick demonstrates a better taste in music and the score by Hans Zimmer is among the most memorable and transcendent I have ever had the privilege of listening to. I guarantee whenever you hear it subsequently upon seeing The Thin Red Line for yourself, you will be hit hard by the feeling it will elicit, as it transports you back to the powerful moments I have described herein. Finally, there is the glorious cinematography, which puts the viewer alongside the soldiers, right in the thick of it. You, in fact, will feel like one of them most of the time. I wonder how much of this is due to the depth of field lens, which makes one feel much less as if they are watching a movie than actually inside the movie. This is yet another way this masterpiece has ‘depth’ so to speak.
Now, despite all of this, some critics did not seem to appreciate all that has been detailed here. One of the most common criticisms can be summed up as: why would soldiers think like this? Surely this is too poetic to be realistic. Unfortunately, the most famous of all critics, Roger Ebert himself was one of those people who lamented thus, and he ended up evaluating the film as good but not great (he thinks Saving Private Ryan is better for some ludicrous reason). A downright silly comment Ebert makes in his review is that Malick didn’t know what he was doing because he apparently couldn’t make up his mind about whether this was meant to be a realistic war move or not. Au Contraire, it is not Malick but Ebert who failed to get what The Thin Red Line was supposed to be about, as he misses the point entirely of what THE THIN RED LINE is! I do not mean what it symbolizes in the 1964 version- that between sanity and madness- but what it symbolizes in the 1998 version specifically- that between the animal and the human being. The dehumanization wrought by the circumstances and actions of our characters in the face of such is held up against the reflections and revelations of the internal mind of those characters. They become poets in a sense, which is perhaps the most richly human thing of all. This is, in other words, the Spark within us.
You may have noticed the drop in frequency in my posts (I know, we all keep track of that sort of thing in other people’s blogs). Well, that’s because I am spending most of my time either reading or writing fiction. Also, I have become far more relaxed in my endeavors to provide daily reviews. That is not to say I won’t deliver in other ways. Where frequency suffers, I will make up for it in length. I have only, thus far, been testing the waters of online criticism, but now I’m really going to dive in with my reviews and analyses. Once or twice a week, expect a nice big meaty post.
I was reading through Infinite Jest earlier today- God knows why since I have plenty of much better material I could spend my time on- but it did irritate at a latent part of my brain long enough afterward for me to want to write this essay here. This little thorn in my side has been nagging at me for a long tie, and now I want to pull it out, as much as it’s gonna hurt. Anti-consumerist novels are the bane of 20th-century fiction, and there is no shortage of their ilk. The longest and most egregious of these is Infinite Jest, which started out as 3000 pages and was cut down to 1000 over the course of the editing process just to make it commercially publishable, because with the amount of paper wasted to print it, it would literally- as well as figuratively- not be worth the paper it was printed on. IJ has been upheld by every institution of literary criticism, and there are many academic types who do nothing but analyze it for a living. There are books and papers on this book and its author. Now, on a personal note, I never had anything against David Foster Wallace. I thought he was pretentious, but all in all, just another introvert who meant well. My quarrel is not with him. It is with his work, and to a greater extent the culture that upholds it and the work of Wallace’s comrades.
IJ is classified as a maximalist novel, and regarding such- long novels- they are rarely good. There are a few, but almost no published writer has written a great novel over the four-figure mark. In that sense, IJ is not unique, but in other ways, it is alone in structure and style. What links it to other fiction is its theme. Structurally, Wallace has commented that it is supposed to be the literary version of a Sierpinski gasket, which is a geometric object that looks like this-
This was said in the context of trying to defend his work from people commenting that it was a random assortment of poorly related scenes, as opposed to an actual plot. I actually think Wallace did put a lot of care into the structure of this book, in the same way, that Franzen puts a lot of care into the plots of his soap operas. The trouble is they both suffer from this. Freedom is wooden, and IJ is overwrought .
The style of IJ is the most dividing part of it in terms of people’s tastes, and it is why it is considered to be a marmite kind of book. The prose is surely bad, but for some reason, this is one aspect of the thing that gets a lot of praise. how should I explain this? Here is an excerpt of the writing:
–and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool- and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and centerless eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop. Doing the Substance now is like attending Black Mass but you still can’t stop, even though the Substance no longer gets you high. You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
it is so on the nose, first of all, that it renders much of the plot of the book obsolete because the whole point thereof was to say exactly this, but to show and not tell it. Now, while I have had my quibble with the show don’t tell cliché, one mustn’t just come right out and state one’s opinions on society in the novel. It is hamfisted and silly, especially when you consider the manner in which Wallace goes about this. Wallace has a habit of realizing the world entirely through sight and sound, with nothing behind the sensory stimuli to add any depth. The characters are all one-dimensional caricatures, which don’t even try to move away from the stereotypes that Wallace used to populate his world. The dialogue is often terrible, with many long and rambling conversations that don’t add anything to the plot and are comically absurd in the postmodernist tradition of Pynchon. And this is another thing, despite Wallace intending to write a dark satire his world is such a bizarre and oversimplified version of the reality that one cannot possibly take it seriously. This is why most of the positive reviews about the book bring up how funny it is, to the author’s confusion and disappointment. It resembles Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in this respect: something that was meant to be a drama but turned out to be little more than a so bad it’s good comedy at best.
The point of the book is to comment on the chthonian realm of middle-class America (the only nation that exists apparently). The torments of this hell are the usual suspects: drug addiction, suicide, depression; the sins are entertainment and living in a capitalist society. Wallace has said in various speeches that even without God, there can be no escaping religion. You have to worship something, so many people turn to celebrities and products and drugs and entertainment to give their lives meaning. I don’t know whether DFW was religious by anyone else’s standards, but everyone was religious by his standards. Aside from the populace of this underworld (not to be confused with the other long anti-consumerist manifesto), the scenery is the primary focus: Wallace will describe the layouts of a building down to the exact blueprints, and the modifications made to said blueprints over the course of construction. He will go out of his way to describe anything and everything, whether or not you asked for it, and whether or not it has any bearing on the overall plot, or more importantly, the development of the characters. It is a wonder, that in the modifications made to the work itself, what must have been in the deleted 2000 pages, considering the amount of utter shit that made it into the final draft?
Concerning the culture that has risen up to promote this book, much of it is the result of academics and their desire to dissect what they deem to be the most complex fiction, to find all the hidden details of it. IJ is not so much complex as it is complicated. There is a difference. Solving a Sherlock Holmes crime is a complicated affair, understanding how to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a complex affair. In one, you must arrange all the elements into one cogent whole, in order to reverse engineer what happened; in the other, there are many layers of elements that must come together in a mutually complementary way. The society of today, and the culture of today’s universities, only ever seem concerned with the former. This is because it is far easier to analyze something of breadth than of depth. It’s not really about exploring the problems [DFW has] with the 1st world, or how to mend them, but about how many convoluted ways he can find to complain about them. This gives Wallace scholars (those actually exist) enough fodder for their dissertations. If anyone can see the irony (another thing DFW has problems with) in all this let me know.
None of the people I have seen recommend Infinite Jest have come up with a single reason it’s any good, apart from that they like it. Many of them enjoy the political message of the thing (not naming people, but there is a guy on YouTube who only rates books based on how much they pander to his political values), and others think the idea of a world in which years are named after products, and there is a titular film that is so entertaining that people will literally watch themselves to death if they even so much as glance at the screen, to be a great premise.
1. Of course, there are also the endnotes of Infinite Jest which some believe (wrongly) to be an analogy to tennis- as the Tennis Academy takes up vast portions of the book for reasons too boring to get into- because the act of bouncing from one cover to another is like that of playing tennis with the author, or whatever. The real reason for these is that said author was just trying to find a way to cram more narrative/backstory in without having to add anything of substance to the plot/characters.
Evgeny Kissin may soon become my absolute favorite pianist. I think there’s only one thing to be said of his fame, and that is, that it is well earned. There are so many forgotten legends of course, and we must always remember them, but sometimes the most mainstream of artists, in a given discipline, is perhaps actually the best. The reason why I say this is to address those of the opinion that the first thing they hear is almost certainly not going to be the best thing they hear, that the reputation of an artist really says nothing of whom it follows, merely the tastes of the lowest common denominator. Well, while this is true 99% of the time, there is always that 1% who earns their status, who lives up to the hype. In this rare case, no matter how far and wide you search for better, what you find is not their replacement, but a new appreciation for why the ‘one with all the fame’ is so famous.
Now, of course, as another world-class pianist, Artur Rubinstein, has said, there is no such thing as the ‘greatest pianist’, it’s all a matter of taste- to this, I agree, in a way. Music does not exist in a vacuum, people must listen to it. Nevertheless, it is certainly helpful to know your own tastes well enough to be persuasive. Not only this but you must also be willing to be persuaded by artists who may move you in ways you do not expect. To criticise is easy, but to really appreciate the musician, you must truly listen, in the deepest sense, to his music. Sometimes it is not a problem with the artist, but a problem with our own ears, which causes us to criticise.
One must grow with the artist, as we do not come pre-packaged with musical taste. It is not entirely innate, and we are not without fault for being tasteless. This is why persuasion is not only possible but also imperative. Before we get to Kissin, let’s name drop a few other pianists who many believe to be in the pantheon of virtuosity. I want to start with Sviatoslav Richter. What made him so magnetic was the sheer energy of his performances- he played the grand piano like Hendrix played the electric guitar. Not only had he soul, he had the most amount of soul I have ever witnessed. Everything he played was entirely unique, and entirely his own. It just felt good to listen to him. What we are often told by music critics is that the modern pianists do not have that same vigor, that same rawness, instead, they are all concerned with technique and how many wrong notes they play. Well, this is interesting because these same types are also of the opinion that modern pianists are too emotional and sentimental, that they have lost their spine. Well, to that all I have to say is, can we perhaps imagine how these critics would treat the legends of the past, were they to be reincarnated today? What would they say of Michelangeli, Backhaus, Gilels, Lhevinne or Gieseking? Those technical perfectionists? Or Cortot, Gould or indeed Richter? Those hopeless romantics whose imposition of their own expressionism was the priority and to whom only second came the composition? I have a feeling that they would be seen as too unorthodox. You know there are composers, and then there are ‘imposers’. Do you not remember the Miser’s touch of Glenn Gould? I mean everything he touched turned to Gould! Okay, I apologize for that, and it is not that I dislike such imposers either. In fact, these pianists, of either flavor, are all among the absolute greats of all time. Each of these artists is a universe unto themselves. But there are modern equivalents, and this is what is ignored by some critics.
The issue which most critics of modern classical music have, however, is really that today there are not only technicians and expressionists, there are also technicians with a soul, and expressionists who know how to play. The modern virtuoso must fuse art and craft, and this is a problem for certain dusty old men who can only see things in black and white. I once read an article where someone was reminiscing about Artur Schnabel and saying how much he thought Evgeny Kissin in comparison is just dull and uninteresting. My goodness, how I disagree! Actually, I find Schnabel to be far less pleasurable to listen to, and this is mainly because there was truly no flare in his interpretations, no vigor. In fact, I think the criticism should really be the opposite way around. Now, I only defend certain of the modern generation of course. Have you ever listened to Seong-Jin Cho? There’s a young talent with a perfect touch and real understanding of musical beauty, and he gives even the grumpiest critic hope for the future. On the other hand, however, there are those such as Lang Lang, whose reputation stems from that section of the piano-loving population with no taste at all. It’s okay to be an imposer, as long as you’re good at it. Lang Lang can express himself, and he can play, but he often ends up just butchering the composition. He is too erratic and impulsive. His energy is there but it does not manifest itself in grandiose ways that elevate the music, it merely makes a mess.
Kissin is actually the master of merging his stellar virtuosity with a truly deep and profound understanding of composition and composer. He lets the piece speak for itself like Claudio Arrau used to do, and in doing so he will charge the music with tremendous density. His secret lies in his ability to listen, to pay attention, and this is what causes us to pay attention to him. This is why he is not only a master of the fast stuff but also of the slow stuff. He is not erratic and impulsive, nor is he rigid. He is measured but not without flare. Lastly, he is prolific. Unlike Zimmerman, whose renderings are truly mythical, but also rarer than a mythical beast, Kissin, being his equal in my mind when it comes to most compositions, is also more than willing to actually sit down in front of an audience, to play- with ease and grace- from his most daunting of repertoires.
I’m not sure what to make of HtRK, only that it bears many parallels with another novel I read the other week, Shantaram, in which a typical white guy becomes enamored with a foreign culture, one in Africa, the other in India. Both also have a similar rating and similar problems. They are both thematically generic and have a relatively blad plot with occasional moments that try to provide substance. A weakness of HtRK is that its moments are filled with bizarre observations by the protagonist, such as:
I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.
-Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
In Shantaram these moments are marinated with every cliché consisting of the words world and heart. Actually, everyone in these novels talks in such platitudes, baring their dense Indian/African speech patterns- which, in the case of HtRK, are borderline bigoted at times. Never mind immersing oneself in other cultures, our authors are prone to whitening them up.
Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.
-Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This is one of those novels that hasn’t earned its reputation, and will surely not become a classic as time passes. But its author believes it to be a masterpiece, and if he hadn’t why else would he have spent 13 years of his life writing its near 1000 pages? Yet in all that, there is only one character I consider even remotely interesting- this is Prabu, Greg’s Indian companion- and that includes Greg himself. The highest part of the novel artistically, albeit lowest emotionally, is a scene in which (spoilers), upon mentioning at every turn of the book his infectious smile, Prabu’s face is destroyed in an accident, and he dies having lost that smile. This moment is handled with great care, and it does a great service to Roberts’ friend. There is nothing like this in Bellow’s story, but neither does it have the low points of pages and pages of blah blah as Shantaram.
A significant issue in either work is how women are treated: there is no female characterization at all and the women- as dull as the male characters are- are as one dimensional as they come. In fact, the love interest of Shantaram is so forgettable that despite featuring in a sizeable chunk of the book, the entire point of her story amounts to- be careful of pretty girls sonny. This is, however, the most interesting female character between the two works.
So yeah: wooden, overrated, and trite, but you may enjoy the respective plots. These are books for teenage boys, and while they don’t quite reach the depth that they could, there is fun to be had, and that’s why I give these two a rating typical of most genre fiction, but not profound literature as they desire to be. In short, they promised more than they could deliver, but they did deliver in some areas. So not failures, just good, solid stories.
Mutual Rating: 5/10