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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: The Thin Red Line

Bookended with cameo appearances—each has one scene—by John Travolta near the opening and George Clooney near the end, Terence Malick’s 1998 WWII feature, The Thin Red Line, about the taking of Guadalcanal, is filled with actors who were moderately well known at the time of the production and actors who have since gone on to become quite famous, including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John Savage, Jared Leto and John C. Reilly.  It is clear looking back now, however, that Nick Nolte owns the movie.  His character, a passed over colonel who has stuck it out to be in a war, is not very likeable, which is why he was probably ignored amid the backhanded praises that it is an ‘ensemble’ film, but you fear for the man in almost every scene, that he might pop a vein.  He’s harsh, he’s pushy, he has an ugly haircut, and he’s out of place, surrounded by youngsters (Travolta plays his C.O.), but in every microscopic opening he gets, Nolte imbues his character with a deep humanity.  It would be so easy to take the character over the top—and many actors could probably do nothing else in the circumstances—but Nolte is as restrained and measured as his character is heated and maniacal, and the more often you see the film the more you suspect that it will end up being the actor’s crowning achievement.

The inclusion of Clooney and Travolta is essentially a distraction imposed by the studio.  It also, probably, turned people away, because those are the two actors in the cast that general audiences would have come to see—nobody in his right mind goes to see a movie only because Sean Penn is in it—and would have been disappointed by their limited screen time.  Running 171 minutes, the film is one of Malick’s handful of masterpieces—four movies in three decades, with a fifth to appear shortly—and blends the excitement, confusion and nihilism of war with careful reflections on the value of existence.  There are several points in the narrative where the film cheats to get past a tough spot (basically jumping ahead and not worrying about how characters solve various battle dilemmas), but once you come to accept that shortcoming, the rest is true glory.  It is, however, a film that depends desperately on the quality of its presentation to convey, most powerfully, its conflict between the horrors of war and the beauties of cinema, and rising to that occasion is the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.  20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the film on DVD initially.  It was a fabulous DVD, but the BD is a great deal better.  Presented in DTS, the film’s highly detailed audio mix is not only all-encompassing, it is designed to be amplified, so that you can raise it to a higher volume level than you do other films without encountering distortion.  The movie is intended to be an immersive experience—it says as much in its opening shots—and the louder and better the audio delivery is, the less aware you are of anything outside the film.  The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  

The picture is a slight but distinctive improvement over Fox’s DVD.  On the DVD, the colors are a bit lighter, contrasts are less detailed and the image isn’t quite as sharp.  Fox had also released a DTS DVD, without the one extra feature, an excellent music sampler, that the standard DVD had.  The picture transfer is the same.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on the standard DVD is somewhat mushy.  The sound on the DTS DVD is sharper, but it still has a very weak rear-channel presence.  The DTS track on the BD blows them both away.

The BD has a 35-minute segment from 1999, after the production was finished, containing interviews with several of the cast members.  Their various imitations of Malick during their recollections of events create a unique composite portrait of the director that will have to suffice in the absence of any direct depiction of him at work.  There is another 18-minute retrospective interview from 2010 with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who shares some great screen test footage, and tantalizing images of now famous actors who didn’t make the grade.  Another 27-minute retrospective interview with editors Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber from 2010 goes over Malick’s very challenging filmmaking process, coaxing his vision out of the enormous amount of footage that he shot.  They also reveal that during the process, Malick never, ever watched the film in full from beginning to end, as he preferred to look at and work on just portions of it at a time.  There is a very nice 16-minute retrospective interview with composer Hans Zimmer, who describes the collaborative and creative process he had with Malick in great detail, and uses his insider’s viewer to discus the dynamics of the film’s themes.  Shifting gears, there is a good 19-minute interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones, who talks about her father’s background, his war experiences, and his life as an expatriate writer.

Included as well are 13 minutes of deleted scenes.  Most have slight tonality problems, presenting characters too negatively, but there is one terrific scene with Clooney that might have had to go to maintain the balance of his star presence.  A 7-minute montage of production stills (including photos of some of the elaborate crane set ups) are accompanied by a recording of a Melanesian Choir that was featured more extensively in the DVD’s sampler.  There are 15 minutes of original newsreels about the battles for Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands chain, and a trailer.

The film is also accompanied by an excellent commentary track featuring producer Grant Hill, production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer John Toll.  They identify where each sequence, and sometimes each cut, was shot—the three major locations were Queensland Australia, Guadalcanal itself, and California—and explain how the light, which was rarely supplemented with artificial illumination, was captured.  Both Toll and Hill compare working with Malick to working with Carole Ballard, and all three describe Malick’s methods as a director. 

“Terry was shooting and he said, ‘Cut,’ and suddenly Wardrobe and Hair and everybody ran in to make touchups, and he was so frustrated that I believe that was the last time he ever said, ‘Cut.’   Now he just shoots until he hears that flap of the film in the camera.”

“Terry had never done a film on this scale before.  That’s where sort of the frustration came in at times.  If you have five hundred people halfway up the mountain and for some reason, a technical reason or some performance reason, you have to stop and re-set, it’s 40 minutes by the time everybody is back to original positions, which was part of the reason Terry just decided to let them run out, because he figured maybe he’d get something in the last half of the roll.”

“Filmmaking is all about taking very limited amounts of film and piecing it all together and coming up with a sequence, and sometimes the more of those pieces you have to work with, the better off you are.”

“There are a lot of small pieces in this film that come from the ‘run up’ and the ‘run out’ of the reels.”

Hill also explains that unlike normal film productions, where each day’s shooting is planned down to the smallest detail, there was a controlled but fuzzier approach to the day’s work when Malick was involved.  “It wasn’t something that I was able to get a clear idea of just from reading the script because Terry said, he uses the script as a guide.  So eventually what we did is put all of the major sequences, in a sense, into individual boxes, as they were reflected in the schedule, and they became, in a sense, like sort of ‘playboxes.’  If a sequence had 10 days in the schedule, the understanding was that we’d support pretty much whatever we could do within that 10 days to do that sequence in terms of providing time and resources and whatever, but at the end of that time, what we walked away with would be the component pieces to make that sequence work.  It worked, I think, very well, and it worked, I think, very well for Terry.  It gave him freedom to shoot the sequences in a way that worked for him, but at the same time, it gave him the necessary breaks and the necessary time allocation that would keep him all the time within the overall schedule that we’d made, which was something that he was very keen to do, and in fact in the end he shot the movie in the number of days that he said he would be able to.”

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One Response to “DVD Geek: The Thin Red Line”

  1. I don’t know, but I think MJ is better even though I love Justin.

The Ultimate DVD Geek

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon