23.2.10

Critchley on Nature in Terrence Malick

Simon Critchley discusses one of the pervasive themes in the director's work
Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' (1998)

From an essay on American war film The Thin Red Line, Simon Critchley's explores themes of nature in  the work of filmmaker Terrence Malick:
Why do I claim that calm is the key to Malick's art? To try and tease this out, I would like to turn to the theme of nature, whose massive presence is the constant backdrop to Malick's movies. If calm in the face of mortality is the frame for the human drama of The Thin Red Line, then nature is the frame for this frame, a power that at times completely overshadows the human drama.

The Thin Red Line opens with the image of a huge crocodile slowly submerging into a weed-covered pond -- the crocodile who makes a brief return appearance towards the end of the film, when he is shown captured by some men from Charlie company, who prod it abstractedly with a stick. Against images of jungle trees densely wrapped in suffocating vines, we hear the first words of the movie, presumably spoken by Witt,

'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.' [...]
Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' (1998)
Obviously, the war in the heart of nature has a double meaning, suggesting both a war internal to nature, and the human war that is being fought out amid such immense natural beauty. These two meanings are brought together later in the film by Colonel Tall, when he is in the process of dismissing Starros from his commission and justifying the brutality of war,

'Look at this jungle, look at those vines, the way they twine around the tress, swallowing everything. Nature is cruel, Starros.'

Images of trees wrapped in vines punctuate The Thin Red Line, together with countless images of birds, in particular owls and parrots. These images are combined with the almost constant presence of natural sounds, of birdsong, of the wind in the Kunai grass, of animals moving in the undergrowth and the sound of water, both waves lapping on the beach and the flowing of the river.

Nature might be viewed as a kind of *fatum* for Malick, an ineluctable power, a warring force that both frames human war but is utterly indifferent to human purposes and intentions. This beautiful indifference of nature can be linked to the depiction of nature elsewhere in Malick's work. For example, Badlands is teeming with natural sounds and images: with birds, dogs, flowing water, the vast flatness of South Dakota, and the badlands of Montana, with its mountains in the distance -- and always remaining in the distance. Days of Heaven is also heavily marked with natural sounds and exquisitely photographed images, with flowing river water, the wind moving in fields of ripening wheat and silhouetted human figures working in vast fields. Nature also possesses here an avenging power, when a plague of locusts descend on the fields and Sam Shepherd sets fire to an entire wheat-crop -- Nature is indeed cruel. [...]
Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' (1998)
Although it is difficult not to grant that nature is playing a symbolic role for Malick, his is not an animistic conception of nature, of the kind that one finds lamented in Coleridge's 1802 'Dejection: An Ode': 'Oh Lady! We receive but what we give/And in our life alone does nature live'. Rather, in my opinion, nature's indifference to human purposes follows on from a broadly naturalistic conception of nature. Things are not enchanted in Malick's universe, they simply *are*, and we are things too. They are remote from us and continue on regardless of our strivings. This is what is suggested by the Wallace Stevens poem cited in epigraph to this essay. A soldier falls in battle, but his death does not invite pomp or transient glory. Rather, death has an absolute character, which Stevens likens to a moment in autumn when the wind stops. Yet, when the wind stops, above in the high heavens the clouds continue on their course, 'nevertheless,/In their direction'. What is central to Malick, I think, is this 'neverthelessness' of nature, of the fact that human death is absorbed into the relentlessness of nature, the eternal war in nature into which the death of a soldier is indifferently ingested. That's where Witt's spark lies.

There is a calm at the heart of Malick's art, a calmness to his cinematic eye, a calmness that is also communicated by his films, that becomes the mood of his audience. As Charlie company leave Guadalcanal and are taken back to their ship on a landing craft, we hear the final voiceover from Witt, this time from beyond the grave,

'Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you made, all things shining.' [...]
Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line' (1998)
In each of his movies, one has the sense of things simply being looked at, just being what they are -- trees, water, birds, dogs, crocodiles, or whatever. Things simply are, and are not moulded to a human purpose. We watch things shining calmly, being as they are, in all the intricate evasions of 'as'. The camera can be pointed at those things to try and capture some grain or affluence of their reality. The closing shot of The Thin Red Line presents the viewer with a coconut fallen onto the beach, against which a little water laps, and out of which has sprouted a long green shoot, connoting life, one imagines. The coconut simply is, it merely lies there remote from us and our intentions. This suggests to me Stevens's final poem, 'The Palm at the End of the Mind', the palm that simply persists regardless of the makings of 'human meaning'. Stevens concludes: 'The palm stands on the edge of space. The wind moves slowly in its branches'. In my fancy at least, I see Malick concurring with this sentiment. [Read the essay]

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