The Thin Red Line

My deepest thanks to my friends for covering me while I got some much-needed R&R, but now it’s time to get back to work and take my turn at-bat.

By 1998 my interest in film had taken hold. It had grown by leaps and bounds over the four years prior…going from something that passed the time to something I started to seek out. The latest Tom Cruise blockbuster gave way to films in other languages, films from long before I was born, and films made by people I’d never heard of before. However, as keen as I was to swim in these waters, I wasn’t yet above drowning in them…and one movie made for a particularly rough swim.

The movie arrived in the winter that followed – the early months of 1999. It was then in the run-up to the 71st Academy Awards that I first encountered Terrence Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE. I knew it looked amazing…I knew it was a WWII film set in The Pacific Theatre…and I knew it was up for best picture. That was all I knew. I had no idea who Terrence Malick was, I hadn’t read the James Jones novel, and my film literacy hadn’t yet drifted towards the cerebral selections. Undeterred by what I didn’t know, I ventured out on a cold winter’s night, and sat down in a packed multiplex to soak up the film.

It landed with a thud.

Nearly three hours later, I walked back out into the cold – confused, unaffected, bored, and disappointed. The photographer in me was affected by the beautiful imagery, but that same photographer felt like he’d just watched a glorified nature film. I didn’t see what others saw. I didn’t understand how it could be considered one of the five best pictures of the year. Worst of all, I had visions of the other WWII epic from that year – SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. That film – which I watched in the very same theatre six months prior – had shaken me up and left me to pick up the pieces. THE THIN RED LINE had me very much intact.

Four years later, someone at my work had to do a demo that involved a data projector, and while they were getting their presentation set-up, they used a DVD copy of THE THIN RED LINE to test their settings. I’d put the film pretty deeply out of my mind in the space between, so I had to stand and watch for a moment or two before I knew what I was looking at. At first I thought I was being taken in by the hardware on my co-worker was showing off, but then I realized I was being taken in by the imagery it was showing.

There was no sound to go along with it, so I stood there in this chilly room for a few moments while images of trees, river, birds, fields, and all other manner of flora and fauna just made my mind drift. It was then that my co-worker walked back into the room and I was able to ask him what I was watching. You could colour me shocked when he told me it was the movie I’d previously sworn off.

TRL2

A few months after that encounter with the film, I bought my own copy on DVD and watched it properly for just the second time. This time, I remembered what it was like standing in that empty conference room in the presence of only the imagery and my own thoughts. I disconcerned myself with the story and let everything else wash over me: the sights, the sounds, the thoughts, and the feelings. Despite the fact that I was watching it on the smallest screen yet, this watch gave the film the deepest impact on me personally. I understood – finally – that film can be so many different things. I had spent my early years of film consumption clinging tightly to the hand of the storytellers…now one had finally let go of me and said “You’re good – go where you want”.

Free of expectation and armed with understanding, the film burrowed deeply into my brain. I watched it again and again. A film hung on the simplest narrative slowly started to become about so much more.

My experience with film might have grown in those years leading up to my first watch of THE THIN RED LINE, but the second watch showed me how much more experience in life I had to go. I needed to get knocked around more, open my mind more, meet more people, see more places, and most importantly I had to grow. Only after I did would I see those experiences reflected back to me in a film…only in far more beautiful and moving ways.

The truth is that I wasn’t ready for THE THIN RED LINE.

Others my age were; others even younger than me were. I consider them the lucky ones. Where I was blind, they obviously could see. The wonderful thing though, is that film is art and art is patient. It will let you turn your back to it, but never turn its back to you. It will let you do whatever you need to do until you are ready to accept it on its own terms, and then it still comes at you with as much power and beauty as it did that first time. In this world full of variables in which we live, art is the constant.

I will always be thankful that constant is there in life. After all, so few things are.