Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 535: 戦場のメリークリスマス Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983)

Imagine my surprise getting halfway through this film only to find out that David Bowie’s character is actually a New Zealander… Well, I believe he’s intended to be English, but you can’t edit out those thick NZ accents that the schoolkids boast and the school’s Auckland setting. Those however, are just brief flashback scenes; the rest of the film deals with prisoners of war during World War II on the island of Java, but shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (meaning there’s actually a pretty strong NZ underpinning to this production). Director Nagisa Oshima has a fine way with the camera, composing artful long takes that reflect the intensely internal emotions each of these characters is dealing with — shame, guilt, remorse, fear and longing. There’s certainly no shortage of scenes depicting ritual seppuku, though the anglo cast also go through their fair share of self-lacerating shame and humiliation, and there’s a balance to the way its constructed. Neither side likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect accorded (whether the Japanese officers speaking English, or Tom Conti’s titular Lawrence speaking Japanese to his friend/captor played by Takeshi Kitano in his first feature film role). Negotiating these wartime relationships is a buried psychosexual charge that is mostly only ever in the background, but is clearly there in the ritualistic forms of embrace and punishment that take place. Basically, there’s a lot to unpack, but Oshima does a fantastic job in making a 1980s film that isn’t hideously dated.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of bonus interviews, including a lengthy piece in which producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto reflect on the making of the film. Its labelled on the disc as “On the location” and while each of them does talk about the Cook Islands setting, the discussion widens out into memories of the process, of Oshima’s style as a director, and of each one’s feelings of being an amateur.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Takeshi Kitano 北野武, Jack Thompson; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 14 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 511: Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006)

I’m not sure is this is the best of Pedro Costa’s three films grouped together as the “Fontainhas trilogy” after the Lisbon slum/shanty town where they take place, but after spending so much time with these characters in this place, its quiet reflectiveness feels the richest, perhaps because of that time spent. Costa too has developed his video aesthetic that he began with In Vanda’s Room, recapturing some of the painterly contrast that was at play in the first of the three (Ossos) but without the conventions of the narrative. The characters are still slouching around going nowhere, interspersed with the tall and elegant elderly man Ventura narrating a letter to someone long gone it seems. and there’s not much in the way of plot to speak of, but it swaps out the crumbling buildings of the previous films for the new apartments built in their place, which have a sort of antiseptic quality, though there’s still plenty enough places for Costa to find his crepuscular shadows. I can’t really explain too much why I like it, but it’s an experience that just needs to sort of wash over you, and at that level I find it rewarding.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Leonardo Simões; Starring Ventura, Vanda Duarte; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and I’m fairly sure I saw it a cinema in London, probably the ICA, back in around 2007, but I don’t have a record of it).

Criterion Sunday 507: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Nick Ray has no shortage of great movies in the 1950s especially but this one feels like his most distilled statement. On the surface it’s a social problem film, about a man addicted to painkillers, but in some ways that just feels like a convenient excuse for Ray to lay out all the ills of conformist 50s domesticity, as James Mason’s underpaid schoolteacher starts letting loose about all the big shibboleths: the stranglehold of the church, the stagnancy of the nuclear family, and in a scene that has scarcely aged in 65 years, the political correctness and cosseting of education. Of course, we’re hardly expected to go along with him, and his single-minded destructiveness about everything around him does lead him down the path of murderous semi-religious incoherence, but along the way the film throws out broadsides against all the institutions that bind society together and leaves everyone’s happiness hanging at the end with a resolution that doesn’t really deep-down seem to resolve anything. Because unlike in a TV sitcom of the kind this film seems to be satirising, when you’ve opened up the very foundational blocks of western culture to question, it’s very hard to pack that Pandora’s box all away and pretend that it’s all happy families once again. There’s a brutality to this film that’s difficult to take at times because it feels so very angry, but it hits the marks it’s going for, I think, in the unhinged melodrama it offers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicholas Ray; Writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (based on The New Yorker article “Ten Feet Tall” by Berton Roueché); Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring James Mason, Barbara Ray, Walter Matthau, Christopher Olsen; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at the NFT, London, Monday 8 December 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 18 February 2022).