Saturday, April 16, 2011

God's Favorite Director

"That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth." 
 -Deuteronomy  11:21 

The Thin Red Line was Terrence Malick’s third film.  He had made one very good film (Badlands) and one masterpiece (Days of Heaven). Then he went away. 

For twenty years.

So when The Thin Red Line was announced, fans were excited.  Famous actors far and wide salivated over working with him.

But a Malick film will never earn Cameron type money. Or in this case, Spielberg.

The film was often looked at as “that other World War II movie” that came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan. Both strong films, Ryan has the much more conventional script and style. The Thin Red Line seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Somewhat appropriately, it was nominated for 7 Oscars, but took home none.

But as seems to happen with Malick, the reputation of the film gets better and better as time passes.

Martin Scorsese dubbed it the greatest film made in the 90s.

"The greatest contemporary war film I've seen." Gene Siskel (1)

Critic Dan Schneider even mentions Ryan in his review, as they seem for better or worse linked.

“While both films were released in the same year, and cover the same war, the qualitative difference is immense. Saving Private Ryan wallows in stereotypes and clich├ęd characters, while The Thin Red Line cores into even its most marginal characters- sometimes with merely a shot of the actor looking at another actor.” (2)

I won’t go that far, because I liked Saving Private Ryan.  But upon leaving the theater after watching The Thin Red Line, I immediately looked for the next showing, to see if I had enough time to watch it again. For a paced, over two and a half hour war film, some probably find that crazy. But it was a war film done unlike any other I had seen.

I have watched it 7 or 8 times since, and always find things in it I did not notice previously.

The opening sets the tone of man struggling with nature. The soldiers seem to fight against nature as much as the Japanese.

Nature struggles with itself.

We see a crocodile slither into the water. Then these lines:

“What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”

Not your typical “war film” opening. And so the film paces itself along. With extensive voice-overs that often sound like poetry from the minds of the soldiers.

“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?”

“I'm dying. Slow as a tree.”

Martin Scorsese: “The Thin Red Line works very differently from most films; as you watch it you wonder, what is narrative in movies? Is it everything? And if so, is there only one way to handle it?"

"Its almost like an endless picture. There’s no beginning and no end.”  (3)

Malick is not your typical director; if there is such a thing. He attended both Harvard and Oxford, and taught Philosophy at MIT. (4)  He has shown interest in multiple religions.  He is said to know the Bible extensively. 

The plot for Days of Heaven, is very similar to the Book of Ruth.

He is reclusive to the point that JD Salinger would have been impressed.  He does not want his own signature on almost anything, which can make contracts a bit difficult.  The contracts he does agree to, prevent his likeness from being used to promote his films.  A big magazine article on the film could only find one current picture of him to put in their piece. As it turned out, the picture they found was not him at all but actually of a producer.  (5)

Imagine a major magazine unsure what Spielberg looked like.

But for his quirks, Malick is a true original.  

No Director seems more in love with God's creation.

With, The Thin Red Line, there is not one gun shot fired until well over 40 minutes in.

And when the boats hit the beach and the soldiers storm it, it is the complete opposite of that famous scene at D-Day.

There is nobody there. No enemy is fighting back. The place looks beautiful. Why would we fight a war here? Maybe the enemy had the same idea.

Of course the enemy is waiting. The officers were wrong about when to expect them. Things are upside down. Pointed out by a soldier who says, “they got fish that live in trees here.”

Nick Nolte represents those officers that stay away from the real combat, while ordering others to be brave and tough and keep going.

In a brilliantly acted scene, Nolte (Lt. Col Tall) orders Elias Koteas (Capt Staros) to attack the enemy. Staros refuses, believing it is a no win suicide mission.  Nolte’s performance is nearly all rage and bravado. But here you see him trying desperately to contain his anger at what he has just heard.

When Tall finds Staros later on that day, the situation has changed.  According to Staros, “just in the last 5 minutes.”

So who was correct? Tall relieves Staros of his command, and with a wicked use of psychology, tells Staros he will make sure he receives the Silver Star.

“Might as well have the purple heart too.”


“Because of that scratch on your face.  And because of those cuts on your hands.”

The voice-overs often blend to a point where you are unsure who is speaking. This was purposeful. Sometimes the person speaking is not even the person shown on screen.

I believe the reasoning is mentioned in a voice-over by Witt: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of, all faces are the same man.”

This is a paraphrase of a passage in Steinbeck’s, The Grapes Of Wrath.  (5)

It’s an idea mentioned again at the end of the film. 
To that end, Malick does something I had rarely seen in war film to that point, much less a World War II film.

He makes us sympathetic to the enemy. And yet not in an Anti-American way.

When our guys win an important skirmish, we see a Japanese soldier weeping and embracing his fallen friend, just as we had seen earlier from our main characters.

An American soldier speaks cruelly to a dying Japanese soldier. The soldier is responding, but unless you speak Japanese, you have no idea what he is saying. Translated, he states, “You will die too someday.” (6)

And we get one very powerful voice-over from a dead Japanese face.

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too.”

There are strong performances throughout the film. But the conscience of the film is Private Witt, played by Jim Caviezel (The Passion of The Christ).
Witt seems to enjoy life too much to have a career military.  When the film opens, he is AWOL, on an island playing with the native children and flirting with one of the native women.  He swims in the ocean and soaks in all of his surrounding world.

There are moments when Caviezel is just looking around at people.  But it is precisely how he is looking that embodies Witt.

It is a great performance that is almost like one from a silent film actor at times.

You know what he is thinking or feeling without the need for him saying anything.   

Jim Caviezel:   There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, “Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying.” I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.” (7)

A fellow soldier accidentally kills himself by pulling his grenade incorrectly.  As he lays screaming and dying, it is only Witt that calms him down at all.

"You're gonna be all right. Even if you die. You didn't let your brother down."

Witt's biggest relationship is with Penn's, Welsh.  The counterpoints of personality in these characters was also being shown by the two men off camera.  Malick saw this and used it.

Penn recalls of his scenes with Caviezel: “I think some of it was just there, you know, between Jim and I. We were very different people, and I think that he could speak to this in some ways better than I could, because he’s got a… he’s a person of a particular faith. I think that we were not wildly far off of who each character was anyways. A lot of it was just there.”

Jim Caviezel:  Terry said to me, “What do you think of Sean Penn?” I said, “He’s like a rock. One day you can go up and talk to him, and there’s some days he doesn’t know who you are. That’s Sean Penn.” When we were shooting that scene, Terry says, “Tell him that, tell him what you told me.”

"On many days Sean and I would go out and run and work out together, and I kind of talked to him a lot about where I came from, my faith, and so on. Once Penn asked me, ‘What makes you tick?’”

“Do you really want to know?”


“Jesus Christ.”

“When I came on the set, Penn [as Welsh] said “You still seeing the big ole’ light?” I think I said, “I still see a spark in you. I know he’s in you, I know there’s something going on.” (8)

This dialogue from actual conversations plays out in the last scene Witt and Welsh have together in the film.   

The relationship between Welsh and Witt worked so well, that other ones had to be shelved.  They just weren't as important.

One of these was between Welsh and Fife, played by Adrien Brody (The Pianist).  Brody would see his once leading role relegated to almost nothing.

While this could have been devastating to his career, Malick would suggest using him to future directors.  A work reference from Terrence Malick goes a long way.

One point of contention for Malick and the studio was that they required him to cast big name stars.  They knew every star in Hollywood would work on the project for nothing.  On this point they would not budge. 

So Malick cast stars as higher ranking officers; to give them a sense of importance.  But his stars were the unknown actors playing the low ranked soldiers. While you see George Clooney's name on the poster, he only shows up at the end, and for about 1 minute.

Other actors who shot scenes never to even make the final cut included Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Martin Sheen, Bill Pullman, Viggo Mortenson and Mickey Rourke.

But one actor that did make the cut was John Dee Smith.  Smith only has two credits according to IMBD.  As Private Train in The Thin Red Line and an episode of E.R. a year later.

Smith was only supposed to be on set for a brief time.  And in that brief time, he kept missing his mark and had to apologize to Malick.

But Malick liked him.  He invited him to dinner that night.

John Dee Smith:  "There we talked about life, about how I came out of poverty and my parents were killed and onward until I went to college before being cast in The Thin Red Line. Terry told me of his own faith and of his life in Texas. I ended up staying on the set and he used me for scenes where he could draw from my personal experiences and use it as dialogue."

It is Smith's voice (often wrongly credited) we hear in the final voice-over.

"Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, 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.”

Train has a tattoo on his arm that reads 1 John 4:4.  It is the most subtle of details.  But something Malick chose to be in the film.

1 John 4:4:  "You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world."

If Malick chooses big themes for his films, he probably comes by that way of thinking honestly. 

He experienced his share of tragedy early on in life.  Maybe it is why he was drawn to John Dee Smith.

Malick was the oldest of three boys.  The middle son was in a bad automobile accident, in which his young wife was killed and he was severely burned.

His youngest brother, Larry, loved the guitar.  So much so that he went to Spain to study with his hero, guitar virtuoso Segovia.  In 1968 Larry was so upset for his lack of progress at the art form he loved, that he broke both of his hands.

Their father went to Spain out of concern.  When he arrived, Larry had already killed himself.

Malick's ex wife believes he always had a strong sense of guilt for his brother's death.  (10)

Interestingly, the Witt character feels responsible for the death of his father.  But this is never really mentioned in the movie.

Malick's intensity for art seems like something he shared with his brother. 

The Tree of Life, Malick's 5th film, will be released later this year.  It is a film he has been working on for some time.  Long before The Thin Red Line.  Sean Penn is again in the cynics role, and the film might be looked at as a bit of a companion piece. 

As it was written in a version long ago, Malick dramatizes the origins of life.  And he wanted to do it in a way nobody had seen it done before.

"In one version, the story began with a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils and out again."  (11)

Love him or hate him, Malick is an original voice who does his best to make his films. 

And if this time his reach finally exceeds his grasp, well that reach will no doubt be pretty commendable.



1. "All Things Shining"  by Stuart Egon

2.  "DVD Review of The Thin Red Line" by Dan Schneider

3.  "Ebert and Scorsese:  Best Films of the 90s"

4.  "Movies That Make You Think" by Jugu Abraham October 2, 2009

5.  "The Runaway Genuis" by Peter Biskind  Vanity Fair  August 1999

6.  "The Thin Red Shrine" by

7.  "Pacific Hell Among Days Of Heaven.  Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line.'" by Paul Maher   October 1, 2010

8.  "Pacific Hell Among Days Of Heaven. Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line.'" by Paul Maher October 1, 2010

9.  "Pacific Hell Among Days Of Heaven. Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line.'" by Paul Maher October 1, 2010

10.  "The Runaway Genuis" by Peter Biskind  Vanity Fair  August 1999

11.  "The Runaway Genuis" by Peter Biskind Vanity Fair August 1999

Friday, January 21, 2011

Try The Veal

Lance is going down.


Now probably not to the level of prison time or anything crazy. Most caught steroid users or dopers don’t experience that. It is more a public embarrassment than anything.

Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire are still rich.  Alex Rodriquez still dates famous actress after famous actress.  They still live in very nice homes. They can still be retired by 40 years old or younger.

For the most part, nobody must give their money back. In football, you can be suspended for steroids and still win rookie of the year or other awards.

Your fans will even still defend you despite your head size increasing after age 35.

With all the positives you figure people have weighed the risks and decided its worth it.

And when they are caught.  Wow.  The excuses sure are entertaining.

There is some sort of code to NEVER admit wrongdoing when caught. If we believed every athlete ever caught cheating in this fashion, then there are a lot of very unfortunate situations going on. I just hope that Lance comes up with an equally interesting story.

When police found EPO and other performance enhancers in the home of Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian cyclist claimed the drugs were intended for his anemic dog.

Bulgarian tennis player Sesil Karatancheva blamed a positive steroid test on being pregnant. (That seems wrong on a few levels)

After testing positive for strychnine, Dutch cyclist Adri van der Poel said the reason was he ate a pigeon pie made from juiced up racing pigeons trained by his father- in- law.

Is no sport clean?

Petr Korda failed a test at Wimbledon. He said it was from veal he ate that must have been drugged up on steroids.

If you pay attention to tennis players, you will notice there is a lot of veal being eaten.

German runner Dieter Bauuman said he failed a test because someone spiked his toothpaste.

“But my teeth have never felt stronger. I eat corn on cob in 3 second.”

My favorite of all time is cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who said his blood came back tainted because he has two different types of blood coursing through his veins.

How? He was a twin and he claims his "vanishing twin" that he absorbed in utero is the reason for many of his failed blood tests.

Of course if the twin was a juicer, would not he have been the one to absorb Tyler? Just wondering.

American skeleton rider Zach Lund blamed a positive test for a banned stimulant being in his baldness cure medication.

Bobsled rider Lenny Paul blamed a flunked test on a plate of spaghetti Bolognese.

Lenny’s trainer: “Lenny just eat the broccoli.”

Lenny: “Nah. Im gonna have the Bolognese. Ive trained hard all my life. How could this hurt me now?”

Sprinter Dennis Mitchell said his false test was from drinking 5 bottles of beer and then having sex with his wife the night before.

The “Im not a cheater Im just a stud defense” has never been successfully used. But never is a long time.

So I want something good Lance. Hey Rafael, I want a good excuse why your arms change size a day later.

The bar has been set high.

But you guys are the very best.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Learn How To Play The Game; It's Easy

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."  -Rahm Emanuel

As soon as I heard I knew. Every tragedy must be political. That this tragedy was on a congresswoman, what hope did we have?

Oh, can we not just mourn for our country without blaming people who had nothing to do with it? 

Sarah Palin might as well have pulled the trigger. She was targeting after all, democrats she felt needed to be replaced in congress. Sounds radical from someone in politics doesn't it?

We see a picture with cross hairs in AZ and we know that she must have actually pulled the trigger. Not this Jared guy, he is just a patsy.

Hey, we can all play this stupid offensive game! DailyKos had an entry 2 days before the shooting titled, My CongressWOMAN voted against Nancy Pelosi and is now DEAD to me!

Well quite obviously this is the shooter, or at the very least who inspired the shooter.

He is a right wing nut job so if you vote Republican you are partly to blame!

How quick did this sentiment take? Of course, we also have him described as a "left wing pothead" by a classmate. Hmm...well maybe he did not vote for straight line "tea party." But I sure as heck hope he did!

Wait, he burned an American flag in that video he made. That doesn't quite sound like Palin does it? But he hates this administration, so obviously this is Republicans' fault. If we had only kept Congress this would have never happened!

I need to read some movie reviews. Get my mind off all this. Wonder what Roger Ebert is saying on Twitter.

"The Tucson massacre stirs memory of the rightist murder that inspired Talk Radio."    -Roger Ebert

Wow, different way to suggest a film. OK.

"These 'incidents' aren't 'isolated.' They're 'clustered' around the American Right Wing."  -Roger Ebert

Maybe I'll see what has been celebrities write. That should be safe.

"Somebody make Palin apologize to Giffords' husband."
-George Lazenby

Do we have to continually play a preschool game of "gotcha" when anything bad happens?

I have yet to hear one person mention that the federal judge that was killed was a Republican.  If Republicans had been more with it, maybe they would be winning the "use tragedy to our political advantage game." 

Maybe they forgot the latest rules.  Remember, Ft. Hood was not terrorism.

So this must not be either.

Let us all define terrorism when it suits our political purpose. So who did all this? The guy who ran against her in the election, Jesse Kelly?

"I would bet my house that it will come out that some disgruntled former Jesse Kelly right-wing supporters did this," (Daily KOS "My CongressWoman is Now DEAD To Me..." writer)

When will this good will for the most famous victim turn?  After all she wasn't so opposed to guns.  She owns one.  She even posed for a picture with one in Afghanistan.

Loughner appears to be an atheist or at least very anti religious, when do we start blaming atheists?

The most accurate description of the killer is probably by a classmate that "he was on another planet." 

In September, officials from his community college sent campus police officers to Loughner's home, where he lives with his parents.  They presented a letter stating he could not return without a mental health professional's written assurance that his presence at college would "not present a danger to himself or others."

He seemed more interested in mind control and proper grammar than Health Care.

But if we ever figure out who the man voted for, start impeachment proceedings on that person right away if they are still in office.

"Shooting of Jewish Congresswoman Giffords is Not Just a "Tragedy"--It's Part of a Right Wing Assault on Government and the Liberals & Progressives Who Support It."   -Rabbi Michael Lerner

Remember:  It is only vitriolic rhetoric when someone else says it.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Anyway, we delivered the bomb."

"If you were injured, you were in trouble, because sharks go after blood. I was fortunate not to have any serious injuries. You’d hear somebody scream, and you’d know the sharks had got him.”
 -USS Indianapolis Survivor Woody James

Steven Spielberg has made tributes to many people in his films before. (Amistad, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan)

But maybe his greatest and most lasting tribute was from a 4 minute scene that was not in the script. 

Spielberg, for all his immense talent, lucked out in some ways with his breakout film, Jaws.  The film was very difficult to make, running over budget and Spielberg thought he might never work again.  So he probably never felt lucky.  But chaos sometimes helps create a masterpiece, as is evidenced in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

We were supposed to see the shark.

What works so well in Jaws, is the tension that builds up because we so seldom see the shark.  We saw so little of it because the mechanical sharks almost never worked.  The shark is seen throughout the original script, but they were forced to rewrite out of necessity.

The iconic Jaws theme music composed by John Williams; Spielberg did not much like.  He was not convinced it would work.

But where Spielberg really shines as a director in Jaws, beyond the water level camera work he was forced into, was the famous Indianapolis Monologue Scene.  It is the best scene in the film.  It is not in the original book, but Spielberg recognized the Quint character needed to explain his motivation.

Actor Robert Shaw wrote parts of it himself, and all of the main actors gave ideas to screenwriter Carl Gottlieb to flush out.  Shaw performed the scene the first time drunk.  Then he came back and did it again sober the next day.  The second day is what they used.

Quint´s U.S.S. Indianapolis Speech - Jaws

This film, which became the most successful of all time during its run, told a generation a story they did not know.

The USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.  They were returning from delivering much of the bomb, "little boy" that would be dropped on Hiroshima.

Most of Quint's speech is accurate.  The exact date is all he really got wrong.  The ship went down in just 12 minutes.  The mission was so top secret; nobody was even going to look for them until a week later.  A distress signal was indeed sent out but it was taken as a bluff by the Japanese to flush out more American ships.  It was therefore ignored.

Having to wait 5 days to be rescued, 879 men would die in total.  There were only 316 survivors.  Though you might argue less.

Commanding Officer Charles McVay survived.  Despite numerous mistakes by people for what happened and why it took so long for anyone to know, McVay was made the scapegoat.  He had only recently been awarded the Silver Star for a previous battle.

He was court martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag."  This despite the Japanese Commanding Officer who shot the torpedoes saying it would not have mattered, or the dispute whether the elements were appropriate for such tactics. 

McVay had also requested a Destroyer escort during this time but was denied.

Throughout the following years McVay would receive letters and phone calls from relatives of deceased Indianapolis crew members, blaming him for the tragedy.

In 1968, McVay was found on his back lawn.  He had shot himself with his Navy issued revolver.  He had been holding a toy sailor in his left hand.  It was given to him by his father when he was a boy.

Despite talks, a high budget Hollywood film has yet to be made about the Indianapolis.  I almost hope this continues to be the case.  I think that one scene in Jaws, might be the best tribute possible.

Survivors loved the tribute from that scene. 

Sometimes film can get a tragedy just right and do it honor.  Other times it seems like a slap in the face.  (Pearl Harbor)

In 2000, Congress passed a resolution stating McVay's record would now indicate he was exonerated for the Indianapolis tragedy.

The Navy would soon after release a statement saying he was without fault.

The formal conviction still stands on his service record, as no court martial has ever been erased.

"I would not have hesitated to serve under him again. His treatment by the Navy was unforgivable and shameful."
-Florian Stamm, one of the USS Indianapolis survivors.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


"She's someone that has been the prima ballerina; has been the star. She is now of an age where they're going to replace her."

-Winona Ryder, describing her role in Black Swan.

Winona Ryder was once the it girl. For quite a long stretch she was the actress everyone wanted in their film to give it that indie street cred and yet critics and studios loved her too. She could do little wrong.

Then she got caught shoplifting. It has taken Hollywood a long time to forgive. With all the many sins of actors and actresses; did the punishment fit the crime?

Literally you could argue it did not, as over 5000 other people who committed the same crime received the option of a no contest/misdemeanor charge. Ryder was instead charged with 4 felonies.

Career wise, she had a 4 year hiatus where she worked very little. Seems some by choice and some not.   She would later admit she has suffered from depression for some time.

I always admired Ryder for not being more screwed up actually. To put her upbringing in some context consider this:

Ryder and her family grew up in a hippie commune called Rainbow, to a Buddhist mother and atheist father.  Her first exposure to movies was watching them on a screen in a barn. This was rare enough as there was generally no electricity on the 300 acres they shared with 7 other families.

Ryder's godfather was LSD guru Timothy Leary.

She made her film debut at age 15 in Lucas, and by 17 was famous, having starred in Beetlejuice.

Natalie Portman's first starring role was at the age of just 12. She starred in The Professional as a young girl who's family is murdered. She is pseudo adopted by a professional hit man. The role was understandably controversial for such a young girl. The whole film depended on her acting ability and she pulled it off.

She too had a 4 year period of working very little, as she attended Harvard and graduated with a degree in psychology.

Now Portman is starring in Black Swan. She stars as a young ballerina obsessed with becoming the prima ballerina in her company. She does, and the dancer she replaces is portrayed by Ryder.