The Site of Nature: Exteriority and Overexposure in The Thin Red Line
“Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature)
There is a sense in which it could be said that the natural world is beyond language. The looming precipice of contradiction or nonsense in such a claim (the saying of the unsayable, as it were) can be averted, perhaps altogether spanned, by attending to the romantic spirit still singing within the following batch of readymade expressions with nature as their object: “Home of the animal,” “Mother to the primitive,” “Source of wonder,” “Enemy and victim of culture,” “Eden on the horizon or around the bend, and no pearly gates,” and so on. There is equally a sense, and it is also sometimes said, that works of art, their nature, are irreducible to our language, blocking rather than inviting any urge to express our expressions. A few testimonial remarks and exclamations from philosophers and patrons alike, and which speak to the metaphysical potency of this romantic conception of art, might run like this: “Art is the sensible presentation of the idea,” “This doesn’t make sense… but I like it,” “The work of art works by itself,” and “Look, don’t think!” Here are two general ideas that, taken together, may appear to have little to do with each other, minding their own business as they sulk in the depths of human finitude. But, venturing along their respective paths of self-imposed circularity and ivory tower obscurity, they are brought face-to-face and illuminate each other through an unexpected point of convergence. The meeting place is the medium of the moving image, where art is sufficiently artless and nature a touch artificial and silence a form of socializing.
The main thread I wish to extract as fuel for what follows is that art and nature are united in their conflict with language, which is to say they resist their position within the realm of human understanding, or reposition themselves outside it when such understanding gets underway in our language. In this picture art and nature are separate processes or vehicles that trigger transcendence (the former aesthetically and the latter empirically), turning language on its head or back into silence; and if we take it seriously enough my initial hypothesis may yield the following question, to be used as a kind of compass: how to speak (for we do, after all, speak) of the artistic presentation and thematization of nature at its most non-artistic? In other words how can we speak the silence, otherness, non-humanness, as-it-is resonance of the natural world, as it appears in space and time for all to see and hear, as a fundamental aspect of the work of art, and at the crossroads between how it appears in representation and its presence as an appearance in excess of representation, that is, on film? And again, how can we speak of the myriad forms of emergence, persistence, manipulation and outright transformation of recorded nature within what I will call a techno-poetics of human perception and expression, that is, in film – within the art of film? I am asking “how” rather than “what” to speak because, at least in this case, while inhabiting this picture, knowledge will be dependent upon the learning of a certain language or bravery of language. I am ultimately searching for a way to speak about this “spoken speechlessness of nature” (inextricably rooted, I believe, to the original silence and mortal clock of cinematic ontology) so as to comprehend this most omnipresent, elemental, photogenic, and occasionally mythic screen “character.” The task as I see it involves walking the line between the coarse materiality and metaphysical ineffability of nature, and through the medium of the moving image to untangle the knot of our simultaneous contentment and disappointment with its mere presence, near and far from the stories it surrounds and underlies, here as an experience of beauty and there as one of terror.
Of course, cinema as an art does not imitate nature even if a part of its very own nature is to draw on it directly. However cinema and nature have, if you will, a natural affinity: the core principle of the camera is to accept what it sees by measuring time and space, taking the world “as it is” in complete indifference to its use-value and unaffected by our various habits and biases and blindnesses. In so doing it calls out to the nature of things and affirms “the real” – upholding, monumentalizing, and to a certain extent commemorating the gravity of particulars amidst an ether of widespread generality and ideology. In a less well-known piece of apocrypha from the early history of film, it is held that the spectators of a turn-of-the-century Lumière short, A Baby’s Meal (1895), responded with a passive or contemplative astonishment towards the accidental, inconspicuous, and virtually meaningless presence of nature: trees blowing in the wind, branches swaying, leaves rustling, nothing more. Deep in the distant background and off to the side of an ordinary domestic scene featuring a couple, a baby, and afternoon tea out on the terrace, this glimpse of nature stood out and shone like the sun, in marked contrast to the notorious black train speeding towards the camera in a film believed by many to set a course for the haptic pleasures of affect and escapism [Image 1].
The brand new and spectacular appearance of the long-awaited moving image, which had declared itself so dramatically, even violently, with the Lumière brother’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), must have been experienced on its own terms, as it were, and as a kind of natural phenomenon in itself, call it the natural as rendered by the technological, such that those soft focus trees were thrown into sharp relief by the short simple portrait of a young family of three unaccustomed to the “democracy” of the moving image in which the world is nothing like the stage and where there are other things of interest besides them [Image 2]. The end result, perhaps an aesthetic moral, is that nature trumps narrative in the perception of these viewers of early cinema, and it does so despite the fact that the subject of the staged slice of life is practically all-encompassing here. What is it about this equally mundane piece of nature, common and stripped of color, that made it emerge from the background so strikingly, eclipsing the carefully positioned figures, the subtle family dynamics, the still-life spread of objects, and even the film itself on display for the first time? To elaborate upon the possibility of a technological description of the natural world, I suggest that we look for the exotic allure within the seamless and uninhibited representation of nature through the primal automatism of cinema, for this is an unprecedented if not miraculous transposition of the “non-humanness” of nature so craved by human consciousness, captured and preserved paradoxically by human means.
With enviable ease the camera machine records and the moving picture projects, like writing on the wall, that which is habitually passed over by humans. What this suggests, perhaps above all, is that we are not necessarily the master of this or any technology we invent. By extending our senses, lacing and isolating them by turns, we often compensate or find fault with our physical and psychological limitations, developing artificial solutions to problems that are in fact unique to us. One way of “reading” the advent and popularity of the motion picture camera is to say that the surge and strain of sensitivity besetting human experience – the possibility of a heightened, indiscriminate and infallible attentiveness to the most ordinary and extraneous of details overlooked by even the most all-embracing of poets – is as if mechanically assured or promised by the new medium. For without this superior doubling and cleansing of consciousness, if you will, only in rare moments of supreme lucidity and preternatural calm can we actually attend to the “poetry of the world” or “being-as-such” or “life as seen by a single unblinking eye.” A question for us, over one-hundred years later, is not whether movies have lost their powers of revelation (say through a widespread desensitization of pure sensitivity), but rather to what extent cinema’s conditions of revelation are, or can be, purely mechanical, or if they must be synchronized and made agreeable with the human condition in some way, to resist and perhaps overcome the tendency for consciousness to filter out and ultimately “instrumentalize” the world through reason. My preliminary response is that our encounter with the presence of the world onscreen through an image of the world as opposed to an experience of the world – presences that so rarely appear, if at all, amidst our daily lives – in all likelihood depends on a complex interplay of aesthetics and accident, factoring in whatever skepticism one bears over the rhetorical claims and seductions of the image.
At first glance and with no examples just yet, three modes or senses of nature seem possible in film, and I will describe them starting from the most basic: the representation of the presence of the natural world – earth and sky, light and dark, life in all its perceptible forms – projected before us as it was before the camera, existing in space and transpiring through time, “nature” as that which exists for itself or just is; the immanent and surrounding and emergent conditions of nature as constituting an immemorial, potentially infinite process of rhythmic persistence or flow, coming to pass (or calling out) suggestively, evocatively, and in varying degrees of friction as a neutral indifference towards the hermetic motives and machinations of human affairs (particularly within cultures conducted in separation from nature or contempt of nature); and finally, the hermeneutic assimilation or “digestion” of nature into language, metaphor and myth, which are as specific to human nature as to nature itself – a romantic-scientific process of “semiosis” that historicizes nature (naturally) and in certain cases animates it (unnaturally). The war film The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, USA, 1998) investigates the subject of nature using all three of these modes – luminous presence, indifferent persistence, human nature’s anti-naturalism – and I would say the outcome of this ambition is both provocatively startling and exasperatingly paradoxical. Yet as a means of organizing its triptych of approaches into a meaningful whole, Malick emphasizes a branch of the third mode – a poetic, confessional and obsessively questioning voice over – to unify or ground them into the film as we have it, a productively philosophical or at least a genuinely meditative film. This memorable, moving, and occasionally cryptic order of voices stands out, rises and falls, in an unguarded and deeply probing philosophical manner, spanning the great divide between the remoteness of objective reality (what one voice refers to as “the war at the heart of nature”) and the solipsism of subjective interiority (what another describes as “the coal drawn from the fire” of humanity’s “one big self”), pulling the farthest reaches of the “outside” into the deepest depths of the “inside,” forming a circle of sense known as insight. This complex series of relationships between the various positions of nature in the film weaves a “tapestry” (for lack of a better word) from the perpetual strife between language and the world (links and loose ends) – a strife rooted in the nature of the human and thus a fundamental aspect of what we call “the human condition.” (A strife more original than, say, light and dark, for it concerns “light and dark,” concerns the existence of such words for such things and for such beings as humans are: susceptible to gross extremes in our conceptual, linguistic and evaluative dealings with the grey zones of the everyday.)
My understanding of nature in narrative film, especially as it functions in the multiple, interweaving and exemplary registers of The Thin Red Line, is undoubtedly spurred by the sense in which it is presented “pro-filmically,” that is, precisely in terms of its presence and prior to any attempt at its characterization. Before nature can be characterized as a fact of life to be acknowledged or denied, undergone or overthrown, it must be presented in such a way where it can “present itself” by being provided with a physical space in which to appear – a compositional clearing, as it were, with ample room for the familiarly non-human and unconventional within a culture increasingly blinded by its redundant anthropocentrism. And with such clearings forged and in full effect, nature does indeed make an appearance, a grand appearance, in the narrative structure alongside more conventional or generic elements which can strike us as contrived or perhaps even counterfeit by comparison. What I call an appearance on the stage of a clearing is the condition for an act of emergence or interruption from beyond the limits of both character psychology and cultural worldview; and it is something, I believe, that narrative structures in general do not quite know what to do with and hence cannot contain or can almost contain. Elements of nature, as I have already suggested, tend to stand in opposition to narrative elements insofar as “the appearance,” admitted on its own terms, will show no sign of concern or support for “what happens” except in the form of a necessary foundation, abiding without ever deferring to what the narrative creates and deems important for its overall sense of internal coherency. So in the event that nature is brought to bear by way of a character’s attraction or repulsion or dependency or deflection, or by way of the director’s or cinematographer’s or screenwriter’s or actor’s investment (for that which exceeds the man-made nature of fiction as well as fact), the elements of interest are in theory brought to the narrative from somewhere outside the narrative, as if the narrative structure rested on foundations or conditions of possibility that have not been structured and are fundamentally recalcitrant to the very structure they support (as earth is to concrete). But since there can be nothing physically or literally outside the text proper that is still a property, however inscrutable, of the text itself, these appearances appear, I want to say, not from the outside but rather as the outside – as an “outsideness” by which, for example, the background and foreground planes change position or the implicit is transformed into the explicit without any cost to its pervasiveness. A significant metaphysical consequence of an instance of outsideness, pictorial or otherwise, is that it leaves an impression of “the given” to reign self-sufficient and dominate like an atmosphere; for the myth of the given is still, according to cinema, a myth with moorings.
In light of what I have said thus far, I feel I must restate my initial skepticism: What can possibly be said about the significance of nature’s grand appearance and encircling recurrence in this film if it owes its sheer power of presence to being sufficient unto itself? One answer, which is only the start of an answer, is that this realism of nature onscreen leads us away from the tacit question “What is happening?” to the thoughtful if silent realization “It happens.” Stanley Cavell in his work on American or “post-Pollack” abstract painting and Shakespearean tragedy might describe such an inner calibration of consciousness in ethical terms, specifically as a transformative leap from knowledge to acknowledgment (Cavell 1979: 110; 1999: 493). But this shift in perspective that I am referring to is also a reorientation of spectatorial posturing via disorientation, gaining more clarity in relation to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s theory of the sublime (even though it is problematically restricted to the avant garde) – a theory which revolves around an inexplicable aesthetic event or epiphany whose occurrence is strange and estranging for drawing attention to the fact of its own happening in “the now.” Ostensibly struck by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s razor remarks on the mystical from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Lyotard writes of this primordial temporality in a manner where everything hangs on the substitution of a single word or breath between words: “That it happens ‘precedes’, so to speak, the question pertaining to what happens” (Lyotard 2008: 454, my emphasis). The great event (call it mystical for the sake of a name, as long as we remember that the “it happens” happens before anything at all can be named) provokes the elusive question, ceaselessly resonating, of the phenomenon of being itself (the Being of beings as Heidegger calls “it”): Did that just happen? It happens?
Nature as it pertains to the moving image requires that we hold in view the twin appearances or faces of the metaphysical that are often mistaken as being identical: “objectivity” and “exteriority.” The organic specificity and contingent fluidity of the natural world on the one hand and our distance or alienation from what we call “nature” on the other – a phenomenological distance, by no means a corporeal one, that transforms what we perceive into a cypher for what can no longer be touched, a distance that turns out to be absolutely essential for an appearance (foreign yet facing) to break through the structure of consciousness or at least startle the authority of consciousness. Such cinematic instances or “dawnings,” it seems to me, will not fall squarely into the category of the natural world nor any ready-made conceptual category. And while they may be structurally anomalous or even destructively vertiginous, these events (when they happen, if they happen) are far from reducible to fixed references or cutaways or digressions to a so-called objective reality, a feat made possible by the medium’s photographic indexicality and the fragmentary powers of montage to bracket a part from the symbolic continuity of the whole. Rather the emphasis I wish to give is ultimately on the process through which viewers process (or leave completely unprocessed) threshold moments of intense and immeasurable profusion from “beyond,” in other words from the limit where our consciousness of the image becomes the image’s “consciousness” of the world. In awakening us from the autopilot stupor of habitual movie consciousness, this phenomenology of film (where the objective world is enlivened with the oncoming dynamism of its radical exteriority) will yield phenomena that weigh heavily in their monadic singularity and in their weight may resonate profoundly as parts of the whole in which they are lodged, like meteorites. But all the same this weight is easily cast off or overlooked by the brevity and incommensurability (or utter foreignness) of the “It happens” within a cultural context determined in so many ways (aesthetically, cognitively, hermeneutically, even philosophically) by the “What is happening?” Quite simply the “It happens” is so ephemeral, comes and goes so quickly – like an honest greeting immediately upended by the pressing agendas of ritualized conversation – that it is difficult to register as mattering or even belonging to the film as a whole. Of great importance for us as a measure for what matters or what can matter, then, is the capacity for film to simultaneously describe and embody the arc of human experience, presenting us with characters that can undergo the “It happens” even while they are pitted against the question “What is happening?” They may appear calm or struck or dumbfounded or indifferent or enlightened by what they experience, consumed by a single feeling or splayed across a shifting mood… and yet, within the facing light of an authentic and always unexpected exposure, they are as children doing what I will call “a first.”
In The Thin Red Line I am suggesting that this exposure is to nature: nature as from without and from within, and the fullest exposure coming from without as if from beyond the limits of human nature (our petty and peculiar lot). The “within” and the “without,” as it were, of human nature’s wrestling reflectiveness towards nature itself, in all its “allness,” constitute a double exposure that confounds the self, unhinges it, and in some cases completely annihilates it (the self no longer recognizing itself, new yet far from improved). In the film the human tie to nature, which prevails to some degree as long as we are or still call ourselves “human,” is either felt to be precarious (in need of reinforcement) or held under suspicion (in need of permanent severing) or believed to be absolute (in need of practical realization) – but all these various and competing “ties” to nature are, above all, direct exposures to being in nature, regardless of the disposition or philosophy of the individual beings on the subject of nature versus culture or human nature versus animal nature. To fight a war on behalf of one’s country entails being uprooted from one’s culture and displaced into the uncanny zone between cultures; this is nature. To retreat to nature, return to it, wake up past its threshold, drenched in its humid heart and liquid interaction of life, is to be overwhelmed by the sublime harshness of nature as yet unmastered. The world-home, supportive earth and sheltering sky, is for the privilege of none (the top of the food chain is not a penthouse), so much so that the creatures who dwell there must build homes. Insofar as our sense of exposure pertains to the sheer impact of what we call “the elements,” let us imagine light streaming in (again from without and from within) through the tiniest aperture of a small single simple being, and burning a hole or setting aflame rather than forming a perfectly recognizable and manageable impression of the world outside, as though the entire world were concentrated into a single pointed ray and entered us as its rightful place. Throwing our concepts, squaring us to the earth, bristling the oxygen in our veins, and scrambling our rote sense of what the world is like, as if to bypass or perhaps “asphyxiate” the screen-filter of consciousness; or if consciousness is a cage, rattling it.
The word “exposure” when applied to the medium of film also has an appropriate double meaning that shouldn’t be overlooked. First the recording of images on film or by digital means depends on a technical process of exposure, one that is based upon very specific standards of visibility inherited from Western perspective and perfected by mechanical reproduction. An image can be overexposed or underexposed, too bright or too dark, but done correctly (that is, in adherence to the optics of visual transcription, be it through celluloid registration or digital encoding) the right amount of light will expose the materiality of the medium beyond recognition albeit for the sake of recognition – into an image of the world laid bare, stripped of value, the world as we find it again when we find it within ourselves to face our finitude and acknowledge our inescapable “situatedness” here and now. This is a reading of the basic mechanical or automatic aspect of cinematic exposure. Now as for what I call the “psychology of exposure,” on the one hand it appears to flow naturally from the ontological conditions of the primary level of exposure, as if mirroring or rather anthropomorphizing the fragility, sensitivity and metamorphic dependency of the medium of film upon the searing yet sustaining luminousness of the outside. And yet there is a significant difference between the two types of exposure, one that will prove to be decisive for my understanding of The Thin Red Line: filmmakers and characters and spectators alike are vulnerable when they are impressionable, and in this sense “to be exposed” is always to risk overexposure. For when the human is impressed on film or by way of film, he or she is at the mercy of innumerable degrees of pleasure and pain, a complete inversion of subjectivity into a physiognomic privacy – and this is to be held in contrast with the disembodied and lifeless camera whose “eye” is without flesh and blood. Furthermore the organic contingent, so to speak, will be subject to transfiguring and potentially life-threatening (over)exposures from a medium for which the act of exposure is nothing more than a fact, an indifferent mechanical necessity (even though in drawing such a line we may be guilty of the anthropocentric bias regarding the “painlessness” of inorganic life). In the end the situation is one where psychological exposures proliferate within a medium based solely on the principle of exposure, but the thing that strikes me as common if not identical between these exposures is the sense of passivity: the camera records nothing less than the world as a whole, and in this world we may see nothing whatsoever if we have seen too much. Finally, given the uninhibited intensity of this passivity on both fronts, the source of the exposure must remain relatively unaffected by its undergoing reception. The moment of supreme contact yields a marked disfiguration that cannot be undone, be it on film or skin – the tattoo is permanent and we are born with it and there is no going back on this constitutive overexposure without speculating about a past life.
As a film about war The Thin Red Line is rife with such exposures that engrave the materiality of mind and matter alike: men killing men; men witnessing the killing of men by men; men and women in synchronized longing, haunting one another by the brutality of absence; people looking at the world, at their kind and at their others, as if for the first time, finding everything and nothing to live for; and last but not least, fear of the two deaths – the unimaginable death to come (gently rapping) and the all-too-real death itself (barging through the door). The unlucky soldiers are indiscriminately blinded by the sight of death and unhinged, one by one, by the reality of their own mortality (mere inches away from the prospect or complete futility of immortality); and depending on the person behind the uniform, they are repulsed or perplexed or enlightened by the power of nature whose death captures all – captures life by knitting its discrete forms into a sacrificial togetherness. Long stretches of the film are composed entirely of these intense successions of psychological exposures, and not just traumatic exposures but revelatory ones as well, resonating most palpably and perhaps poetically in the facial, bodily, and gestural transformation of human identity (a transformation to the core, as it were, that has a domino-effect upon everything one says and does) [Images 3, 4, 5, 6]. Some exposures reach such feverish boiling points that certain characters are no longer recognizable by the actors who play them, which can only mean that these actors have managed to expose themselves (methodically? successfully?) to the sufferings of their characters; and sometimes as soon as a character is introduced we are hard pressed to distinguish him amidst the ferocious pack of fear and trembling known as Charlie Company. We simply cannot identify with characters, at least not in any conventional way, whose identities are in transit or coming apart at the seams. It is as if we come to know these characters at their most unknowable, for as infantry or “front line” soldiers they stand at a critical juncture in which their sense of self dangles on the precipice of the most violent experience of mortality imaginable [Images 7, 8].
Together these exposures and overexposures as I have described and catalogued them expose the film’s own gaze, dislodging its unidirectional fixations and disorienting its hawk-eyed view of the story world, causing it to “lose track” of its itinerary by forgetting the names of characters, wandering about the jungle full of thought, and spanning the great distances between the human, animal, and natural spheres of existence with a single cut – and going so far as to acknowledge us, the audience, who are exposed in turn. Everything meshes into a sonorous and sinewy enactment of the brute entropic chaos of war whose terrors and traumas are steeped in the primordial brew of a higher, perhaps redemptive truth. However the substance of this “truth” (for lack of words, not better words) is not lying in wait as explanation or reward, discoverable through the trial and error of experience. Rather this truth, if it’s not to become mere compensation, is absorbed or endured over time and made clearer through a forfeit of reason verging on faith, making it impossible to track, grasp and report without breaking down the universe a la Descartes.
Now in a film where the fighting soldiers encounter nature as frequently and fervently as the film itself seems to do, there is an important distinction to be made (whether or not the film explicitly or even implicitly makes it, and whether or not such distinctions are conceivably clear-cut when it comes to movies) between nature as perceived by men shadowed by their own untimely mortality and nature as it is sought from behind the transparent “shield” of the camera, through the invulnerable omniscience of the film’s protected (though hardly guarded) gaze. Committed to being inside the fiery midst of hell-on-earth battle, the film also summons the necessary composure to fully attend to the plight of the soldiers (a seemingly impossible task) by taking responsibility for the parallel experiences of both sides. While the war may be narrated from the point of view of the Americans, once the Japanese are revealed behind their weapons and camouflage the film loses all sense of a victor, as if each item in the rising death-toll bore a soul powerful enough to tip the scale of justice off its legs. This is an ethically overwhelmed gaze, and sometimes it just does not know where to turn when confronted by excessive pain, monotone shock, man-made suffering, artillery, and the abrupt descent into death’s unknown (what Sergeant Welsh, played by Sean Penn, refers to simply as “madness”) except by deflecting, towards the very opposite, what we call turning away in horror and disgust. And what it finds in its search for relief, redemption, skyward supplication, is “the natural world,” which is presented as being what it is, spoken of as dying in order to live, and mythologized as the ineffable irreconcilable saving-power perhaps to the point of ecstatic glorification [Image 9]. And yet, while there appears to be two distinct angles of nature at work, one connected to the soldiers and the other to the perspective of the film, cutting many of its images in half, nature itself or rather the “character” of nature is always in close proximity to the soldiers (albeit often as an unreachable paradise, tainted or transformed by those outstretched hands) – people for whom death is an always lurking and likely possibility. It is through them, their shock and longing, peace and distress, love and hate, clarity and compunction, amidst the regrettable yet inimitable grip of war, that the film is able to experience nature up close and as a sight for sore eyes, begging for signs that this war and possibly war itself is in fact absolutely natural and therefore cosmically justified (even if the law which governs it is not for us to know and smacks of lawlessness). On top of that the uncanny nearness of nature is amplified by the soliloquy-like voiceovers of the soldiers, which taken together filter it through a collective consciousness or unconsciousness and into a cacophony of unanswerable questions and questionable answers, both of which are inescapably stifled or foiled by the metaphysical limits of human language. All this leads me to believe that the gaze of the film is not only unequivocally identified with the soldiers in perceptual solidarity, but shoots images instead of bullets.
Sunlight through the trees, a crocodile in a swamp, rosy-fingered dawn, a wounded bird, a face in the earth… nature is everywhere in the film. It opens and closes with images of nature and these images and sounds are woven seamlessly, ceaselessly throughout. Perhaps this is to be expected since the entire film is set in nature, and according to the opening and closing lines of voiceover – the rhetorical question “What’s this war at the heart of nature?” and the sincere faith-filled declaration “All things shining” – it could very well directly concern nature. And sure enough as the film unfolds in tandem with the “progress” of the American soldiers, who land on the island of Guadalcanal, advance through the jungle, reach the hill and win the battle against the Japanese, it gradually becomes apparent to everyone that nature, hovering in the background of the linear and calculated military enterprise, is in fact deeply imbricated within the collective horizon of the soldiers rather than romantically or nostalgically cast away beyond such a horizon, for example in some sort of transcendental essence like the soul or material substrate like brute physical law. For these soldiers the fear of death becomes a confrontation with death, and it is at this threshold of complete physical and psychological disarmament, what I’m calling the eventfulness of an exposure, that nature appears, collapsing the distance from life that comes with the absence of any awareness or acknowledgment of death. The place where soldiers kill and are killed is not referred to as “the front lines” for nothing. It is there, literally and figuratively as befits imaginary lines, call them borders, where the faces of men (characters and actors) are exposed, sometimes beyond recognition (actors become characters and characters become interchangeable), in light of three-dimensional experiences associated with the words “fear,” “pain,” “trauma,” “hope,” “hate,” “anxiety” and “compassion.” And the nature they see is not the nature we see, for we see (and hear) while they, I want to say, are seen (and heard) – analogues of the very images in which they appear (and disappear) [Images 10, 11]. In other words they are not in the position, basically our position, to experience nature safely (aesthetically) from behind the barrier of a camera or screen or body or consciousness – a position fundamental to most conceptions of nature, perhaps bearing upon the conditions of the very idea of nature itself. So unlike us, the viewers, empowered by a distance, however slight, that is undoubtedly peculiar to if not perfected by the voyeuristic dimension of film, pointedly analyzed by Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed as engendering a condition of viewing the world unseen (Cavell 1979: 101).
After the opening section of The Thin Red Line, featuring two AWOL soldiers living in fairytale harmony with Melanesian villagers who are, in fact, naturally attuned to nature, Malick shifts over to an American warship where we first learn of the “false harmony” from which they have fled – a rigid chain of command and hierarchy of power that seems to recede endlessly in all directions like one of Kafka’s infinite regresses. On the deck Colonel Tall (played by Nick Nolte) is preparing to carry out the obliteration of the Japanese position atop a series of hills, and he is instructed by his commanding officer, General Quintard (played by John Travolta), to do so “without mercy.” The General reminds him that the Admiral (played by nobody – a hopelessly high-up and hence utterly offscreen figure) will be watching the entire battle from afar, intimidating him further with the political and perhaps moral truth “There’s always someone watching, like a hawk.” With this threat Tall visibly loses his tree-like uprightness, wobbling into skeptical self-consciousness at the thought of being watched and evaluated every step of the way by an authority eager to replace him if he fails to act in the interest of the war; a strategic and unhesitating sacrifice of the men who fight it is deemed the only acceptable method. The analogy of the hawk resonates with the notion that those who have power over others are in the position where they can see without being seen, remaining all but invisible, and compared to those whose lives are actually on the line they are perhaps invincible as well. But if the Admiral is a hawk then Colonel Tall is an eagle or owl or fox with his fair share of authority and control over those directly beneath him. When the fight for the hill ensues, Tall will station himself significantly behind the platoons where the canons are, and from there gains a clear view (a wide shot) of the entire battlefield through a pair of binoculars. Of particular interest to him is the next link in the chain, a Captain Staros (played by Elias Koteas) to whom he delivers his strict military orders by phone once the fighting commences. Admirals observe the progress of colonels and colonels observe the progress of captains and captains observe the progress of privates with whom the chain of command comes to an abrupt end, breaking off like a precipice and opening onto a front line where relations of power and perceptual logistics dissolve into a chaos of confrontations beyond the reaches of military organization [Images 12, 13, 14, 15].
Those “in” power, isolated and ensconced, can look on passively – and ironically quite powerlessly – through binoculars and communicate indirectly through telephone, but in the process they distance themselves from the reality of death (the most difficult yet elusive of all realities) and into a position we as viewers more or less find ourselves regarding everything we see and hear. Staros, however, represents an interesting case in that he genuinely carries the burden of responsibility for the welfare of his men, carries it deep within his soul, far away from the codes of morality, rendering his position in the chain of command that much more precarious, even torturous: he must witness head-on the deaths he orders from just outside the reaches of death, just far enough back from the front line where he is protected from the brunt of enemy fire. This “arm’s length” position exposes him less to the possibility of his own death than to the responsibility for the lives of others who, upon his command, albeit reluctant command, find themselves “cast by an external force into the mouth of a death machine” (Silverman 2003: 327). In the world of this film, which is above all the world of war (no matter how beautiful the background), the more powerful someone is the less visible they are, the more isolated they become, visible only to themselves, and the more estranged they are from nature – both the natural world and their own human nature. Those with power exceeding their measure “play roles they never conceived” (confessed by Tall via interior monologue). Humans have power over nature and nature has power over humans – there is something almost symbiotic about this back-and-forth tugging of power at this vast scale – but in directing the war rather than fighting it, upper rung figures like Tall and to a lesser extent Staros are cut off from the real war, the war at the heart of nature, and suffer for it, paying the price of spiritual desolation (Tall) and spiritual desperation (Staros) [Images 16, 17]. The Admiral is so completely removed from the film’s sense of reality that he is not even represented as a human being at all, but rather as some sort of god-like overseer for the Americans who appear as tiny chess-size pieces that move within a finite range and according to plan. The price for such a high degree of alienation is bound to be total, and the irony here is that his power in the war makes him extraneous to the real war and irrelevant to the metaphysical stakes of The Thin Red Line, especially on the question whether such a person can harbor the “one big soul that everyone is a part of.” (I can imagine his interior monologue opening with the obscene, vacuous and laughable remark “What a beautiful day for a battle…” Self-addressed and self-congratulating, sullied by cold-hearted wit and a counterfeit romanticism as equally inflating stands of internal showmanship.)
After a maelstrom of consternation and strenuous soul-searching over Colonel Tall’s decision to launch a deadly frontal assault on the hill occupied by the Japanese, the company faces the long-awaited and spitefully dreaded moment of first blood—the living proof that the war, World War Two as it is written in the headlines and history books, is their war. As they hesitantly ascend, lurching through the tall parched grass, Lieutenant Whyte (played by Jared Leto) abruptly signals for everyone in his command to lay low, transforming a hill swarmed with soldiers into a vacant untrodden landscape. Crouched beneath the grass in seamless camouflage, he confidently orders two soldiers lying on the ground about ten yards ahead to blow their cover, so to speak, and venture up the hill and into the unknown – like two space probes sent to explore a foreign and dangerous land, fated never to return, sacrificed for the sake of knowledge, or like two toes dipped into freezing cold water so the body may gauge the threat of exposure and flee if need be. Whyte, a soldier with relatively little or minor power in the grand scheme of the American side, now finds himself tucked behind the front line, observing the outcome of his decision with unspeakable intensity and trepidation. And Staros, who finds himself stationed behind the entire platoon directing the attack on behalf of Tall, observes the suspenseful scene through binoculars, a device that indicates his inability, from this position, to see it with his own eyes. In this sense he sees it precisely as a “scene,” the one we too are watching as nothing more than a scene; and for both him and us to be able to monitor, alter focus, and even relish the dynamics of this unfolding horror has the consequence, it seems to me, of limiting any significant transgression of distance, physical and psychological, so well-maintained by the abstraction of sight from the body that bears it. (To see unseen is to dwell in the sterile world of the subject, inhabiting a condition of abstraction from the self.) However such distances and schemes of surveillance are, like our technologies and systems of belief, never as full-proof as they seem, for the two soldiers dispatched by Whyte are suddenly shot and killed without warning. They are seen perishing from the point of view of Staros looking through these glasses, and almost in that very same moment, as a reflex of his agitated and cumbersome humanity, he quickly removes them from his face in a gesture of disbelief that “the show” is happening and isn’t just a movie or nightmare or practice drill. Malick then returns to the close-up of Whyte who witnesses the whole “punctus” incident with his two naked eyes; he blinks, rather his eyes blink, and he shakes his head, rather his head shakes – he is a turtle without a shell. He can barely sustain the triple impact of the sight of death, the closeness of his own death, and the responsibility he now bears for the two soldiers who died on a whim.
With the stable, somewhat scripted viewing positions of Staros and Whyte instantly uprooted, shot through and shattered by the all-too-real sight of death, nature makes its first major appearance in the film, or rather the war, and dramatically influences the course of events. A gust of wind (an evolved and exaggerated version of the background breeze from A Baby’s Meal) stirs the grass where the two bodies lay dead, and the clouds part releasing a wave of light over the entire area where the American soldiers have attempted to conceal themselves [Images 18, 19, 20]. Revealed indiscriminately by the light, this seemingly sinister interjection of nature affects all the soldiers equally and in one fell swoop, causing a literal explosion of violence and bloodshed from the opposing forces. It rips the links in the chain of command, exposing everyone to dwell on the same level of extreme vulnerability and mutual flame-fragile mortality. What begins as a sublime event or even a sign of grace or guardianship from above – light breaking through clouds and illuminating a grassy hill – turns the soldiers in, as it were, making them asymmetrically visible to the enemy. They are thrown out into the open where there is no longer any place to hide from death: a “thrownness” that repeats the pain and price of being born, an “openness” where human beings are exposed as the mortal creatures they are (dangerous above all to themselves) and measured insignificant in the light of an unfathomable whole (call it the truth of our fate on this earth, this “rock” as Sergeant Welsh calls it). The dark side of this light from above, streaming down all golden, exudes heavenly pathos and hellish malevolence. One is tempted to say that Good and Evil are at war and that this war is the very heart of nature whose blood courses through all living beings, but it is not clear which is which, not clear there is a non-interchangeable “either/or” to be had. The light redeems and condemns simultaneously – a paradox which blooms into the contingency of nature that gives even godlessness a face, a tear, and a laugh.
In war “the front line” is where the opposing sides meet for the first time and for the last time. The bitter irony of hands outstretched unto strangers is that here they go for the throat when they’re not holding guns and grenades. Fighting to kill, both the Americans and the Japanese are past the point of no return. Borders are in motion. There is no time or space left for negotiations; kill or be killed, the law of the jungle, becomes the human law once again. Most of the shots of nature in The Thin Red Line are quite fittingly taken near, from, or slightly past this precarious albeit fictional and negotiable “line,” call it the moving border. And I believe this explains why the great majority of them are in close-up – fleeting, jagged, out of place or placeless. (The paradisiacal vision with the two AWOL American soldiers participating in the natural ways of the Melanesians contains not a single shot of nature, for the idea is that they are living amongst those who are at one with nature, who still live there, and can now remember how great it used to be – as if the reality of this fantasy, a collective nostalgia for the lost childhood of the West, had no obstacles or side effects whatsoever.)
In the wake of battle where survivors find out that they have become murderers and the moving lines come to a standstill and act as a shroud, the human other on the other side and the otherness of nature abounding everywhere exchange a faint secret of a perhaps ancient compatibility, crystallizing at last in the shot of the face of a dead Japanese soldier buried in the dark, dry, bombed-out ground, the face perfectly flush with the surface of the earth. Private Witt (played by Jim Caviezel), one of the AWOL soldiers now permanently reinstated, stands above the face as if paying his respects to the deceased in an open casket, gazes down stiffly and intently, calmly and with extreme concentration [Images 21, 22]. For such a contemplative soul susceptible to poignant bouts of wonder and reverie, this earth-face of the enemy is the longest he looks at anything (except the Japanese soldier pleading with him to surrender at gunpoint, though perhaps his gaze here is turned or overturned completely inward by the dawning of his own immanent death), and it is, I think, one of the longest shots of “nature” in the film, without a doubt the heaviest and most complex. The smoke from battle and trees ablaze wafts in and out in spurts, concealing and revealing the face by turns – a moving expression of the young man’s half-shut or vaguely open eyes. Not an image of the natural world nor a close-up of a dead person’s face, this sublime and dreamlike aberration combines both in a deeply haunting and profound, puzzling way. I want to say that it enacts the “discordia concors” of metaphysical poetry, with far-reaching implications to the braiding of the military’s chain of command and also philosophy’s Great Chain of Being. When Malick follows this image with a stark low-angle close-up of Witt’s probing gaze, looking like he is trying to peer beneath the stony lids of the soldier’s infinitely inward eyes, we can comprehend if not share his paralyzing obsession with the face and the futility of turning away satisfied with having properly seen it. I think many of us viewers (for Witt, too, is a viewer with aesthetic consciousness) find ourselves staring just as hard and in vain. It is hard “to see” as in hard “to accept,” let alone decipher a viable meaning – the difficulty of seeing matched by the impossibility of not being able to look away.
This is what we and Witt see and can’t see, but since seeing may point without describing anything and act as a securing of subject-object relations casting shadows over the other senses, what do all of us hear here? Of equal importance and perhaps the more challenging in significance is the emergence of voiceover at this profuse juncture, adding additional layers to an already overburdened image. This voice without body, like Witt’s body without voice and the solider’s face without face, injects another “gaze” with provisional ties to the metaphysical interiors of the two present figures (the soldier from beyond the world; Witt from beyond the limits of the world as drawn by language). Now if we listen carefully to the voice without ascribing it solely to what we see, we will “see” that it does not belong to the soldier’s spirit interrupted or to Witt’s awe of conscience but rather to Staros’ questioning mode of prayer – the softhearted captain who arguably has the hardest time coping, crumbling under the weight of lives lost for the greater good of victory, so much so that he accepts his irrational dismissal from Tall as the only safe road back to civilized justice. As a spiritual surrogate for the dead solider, pouring out judgment day type questions overtop or on behalf of the stoic earth-face image, questions such as “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this?”, he is being singled out, called upon, summoned from a literal army of ambitious voice poets. The absolute silence of the dead and the living’s thinking of the dead, call it the dead’s silencing of the clamor of the living, appoints the language and timbre of Staros as its ghostly representative, as if only a man banished from the war on the grounds that “nature is cruel” is eligible to pronounce judgment on human nature’s share in that cruelty. And as for Witt’s role in all this, since he is the only one who lives and breathes yet cannot speak, perhaps Staros, the ghostly representative of the earth-face, demonstrates Witt’s great metaphysical hypothesis of humanity’s “one big soul” at a time when that hypothesis is confronted with its greatest test: the enemy, the dead, the disappearance of the spark. Normally Witt is more than capable of thinking about what he experiences and expressing himself in philosophical poetry, and throughout the film his character is quick to find patterns of meaning within all manner of diversity and discord – but now he appears too overwhelmed by the harsh realization that the Tower of Babel is home only to the graveyard. Like a baobab devil tree it descends below the earth where, as another voice puts it over an earlier image of a dying bird, “Death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him.”
Staros’ voiceover inflecting the earth-face, filling the gap or perhaps diffusing the tension between Witt’s reflective face and the dead soldier’s recalcitrant facelessness and unbridled return to nature, ends with the painful and reluctantly rhetorical question: “Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?” The object of his address here (and it’s doubtful there’s only one) is fraught with much ambiguity, for this “you” and its unrequited love of the truth seems to perfectly fit the film’s tragic search for beauty in terror, order in chaos, peace in war. But even if we were to restrict our focus to this scene alone, both Staros and Witt in their “unconditional love” are strong candidates for receiving rather than asking such a question. The skeptical on-the-fence nihilism of Sergeant Welsh, who asks Witt in person “What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?”, could be aimed square at the logic of these two men as nothing more than wish-fulfillment, for example on the point that the good life entitles one to positive compensations or in the very least the absence of punishment. So I want to consider the possibility, however far-fetched, that the dead soldier, who suffers no more, may be the only one in a position to truly ask it, and that the Staros-Witt amalgam knows this. In representing their fate that only fortune can keep death at bay, the dead soldier is a representative of (transcendental) justice granted to the victims of injustice; for to kill another human being, as everybody knows, especially when on the defense, is to break the social contract at every joint even if the motivation and ultimate goal is to protect one’s country and idea of humanity. Another possibility which interests me is that Staros, in asking these questions, manifests the skeptical side or undercurrent of Witt’s fervent romanticism: the voice that Witt hears as his own quiet yet irrepressible self-questioning—perhaps a processing of Welsh’s voice and the secret magnetizing the animosity of their intellectual friendship – while engrossed in the bottomless, vertiginous, inscrutable depths of nature, the other, and death: the three faces of the earth-face.
The whole film up to this point (roughly the halfway point) has been pressing towards this moment where Witt (the human open to otherness) encounters the “absolutely other” (the dead enemy soldier) in the form of nature (the life of death), now visible now invisible through the smoky waves of vicious combat—a metaphor, perhaps, for the porous barriers of consciousness and the staggered stress of skepticism. On top of the hill, under the sky and in the broad afternoon light, in the naked aftermath of war and on the other side of the front line, Witt throws himself into his attentive gaze with the entirety of his consciousness, without blinking, completely exposed to the paradox of the death of life (the soldier’s death mask) and the life of death (nature’s persistence thanks to death). He stares as if into a deep dark well, straight through his imaginary reflection, and we are reminded of the film’s staring opening image of a crocodile dropping down into a murky swamp, shutting one of its eyes just before it touches the water. It is followed by the film’s first of many unanswered and unanswerable questions stated in voiceover, the question as far as Malick and myself are concerned: “What’s this war at the heart of nature?” [Image 23].
What this war “is” has quite a lot to do with where it is, and location is never just a simple matter of geography or psycho-geography. The heart of nature beats at the crossroads of human nature and the natural world, and since it is human nature to take dominion over the natural world (the crocodile, possibly the very same one, is later captured by the American soldiers), the war is at the heart of what it is to be human – and our blood is part poison. Nature is located – sited – at the line separating self and other, life and death, humanity and animality… where it blurs the line. Such lines disappear the moment they are crossed, and I would like to conclude by stating that to live as a human being – one foot in nature and the other in culture, so to speak – is precisely to cross them. Fundamentally thin, lines are the work of willful hands, the index finger of the mind, better known as the tongue: drawn in the sand and erased by the waves.
Trevor Mowchun is a Ph.D student in the Humanities program at Concordia University, Montreal. His most recent projects are on “time narratives” (with an extensive reading of Jacques Tati’s Play Time), the concept of experience in the cinema of Stan Brakhage, and a monograph on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. He has also just completed his first feature film entitled World to Come.
Further reading: “The Malick Illusion:Perceptual segmentation in The Thin Red Line” by Luis Antunes Rocha.
Cavell, Stanley (1979), The World Viewed, enlarged edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
___ (1999) The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy, New York: Oxford University Press.
Diamond, Cora (2008) “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” in Philosophy and Animal Life, New York: Columbia University Press.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1981) “Nature,” in Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley (eds.), The Portable Emerson, New York: Penguin Books USA Inc.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois (2008) “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” in Clive Cazeaux (ed.), The Continental Aesthetics Reader, London and New York: Routledge.
Silverman, Kaja (2003) “All Things Shining,” in David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (eds.), Loss: The Politics of Mourning, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2003) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London and New York: Routledge.