Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Thematic Dialectic of "The Thin Red Line" and "Saving Private Ryan"

1. The Comparison
I love both Malick’s “Thin Red Line,” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” though for vastly differing reasons.
“Saving Private Ryan” is often compared to “The Thin Red Line.” It makes sense to do so, because the two films are widely recognized as offering opposing themes (the heroism of war vs. the existential meaninglessness of war) and are seen by every stripe of critic and by audiences alike as being dialectical opposites--one being a classically cut propaganda film in the mainstream Hollywood tradition of Audie Murphy apologist patriotism ("Private Ryan") and the other being a typical 'art house' film in the expressionistically edited tradition of the independent auteur, protesting Capitalism as the ultimate source of war, ala "Apocolypse Now" ("Red Line"). One powerful cliche of opposition attached to these directors implies that where the venerable Terrence Malick is profoundly adult, even antique in his cinematic and narrative sensibilities, Steven Spielberg is the eternal adolescent, forever revising the mythos and fairy dust of Walt Disney. Another cliche is the opposition of 'Left' and 'Right', which would have us see Spielberg as conservative and Malick as progressive.
I would argue however that, as both directors are, both films are more complex than that as cinematic artifacts, and that the (admittedly) opposing themes of these two works are played against each film's own cliches, and that the two films do so in a similar way (in other words, Propagandist Spielberg is more than a propagandist with "Private Ryan" because his conception of the film strains the confines of its own propaganda, while Terrence Malick the inveterate auteur is concerned with more than the cliches of anti war movies, since his conception of "Red Line" means to pass through and transcend the parochialism of 'social protest' as a conceptual model, in order to achieve something far larger, darker, and more disturbing in scope.
That is exactly why my reasons for loving both films are vastly differing.
I won’t seek to 'validate' my love of “Ryan,” because I am a rational man, and thus I admit that extant critiques of Spielberg's self indulgence and sentimentality are quite justified. Instead, I will talk of the cinematic and narrative details of “Thin Red Line” as the Gothic artwork it really is, and in that way throw light upon the existential darkness that lurks at the heart of "Private Ryan."
For you see, the old dragon Terrence Malick is not just remorselessly adult in his sensibilities, he’s downright antediluvian. His vision, as is first and most decisively displayed in “Badlands” (1973), is in fact reptilian. He truly does, as critics argue, show us the unspeakable beauty of the natural world in his films, and thus the images of American troops despoiling the beauty of 'paradise' while ravaging the society of 'the native,' a theme that figures so prominently in "Red Line" (the very beginning of "Red Line" displays a breath taking scope of the unspoiled Nature of Guadalcanal, similar to the more civilized but just as expansive American vistas displayed in "Badlands".) The theme is there. It is rightfully invoked by those critics. However, I argue that Malick is not trying per se to 'portray' that 'beauty', because he is like Nature itself: indifferent, and merely specular. He is not ‘displaying’ for us the natural world’s beauty, but is in fact displaying for us the world itself. And in fact I wonder now if it is even ‘for us’ he does this.
“Natural world” implies that there is something or some place else besides that world. There is not any other place, as far as Malick’s art is concerned. There is only our own pathetic, tragic misconception that we somehow stand against Nature, or that we are surrounded by it, overwhelmed by it, run up its hills to attack the Japanese, cross its oceans to find some new world, or race through its badlands on killing sprees. When we think we are stalking the enemy through its tropical forests a bushman or two will pass by us, going the other way, completely unconcerned with the ‘greatest generation’ or its ‘clash of nations’ to ‘save democracy’ or even to establish the primacy of real estate.
In Malick’s films we are led to believe that we sometimes stop to contemplate Nature. No. "We" do not contemplate an Other, "It" because It is us and we are It. That we have an identity apart from It, that there is in fact a such thing as a human race or ‘civilization,’ a God, Hope, Love, are all just plot points in a story we tell ourselves, such as the story Private Bell tells himself--that his wife loves him. She doesn’t. It turns out that she is not the idealized angel he imagines her to be, but is a shallow, selfish, trivial woman who cannot sustain her love for her husband when a more handsome, or just more available soldier on leave (with rank!) comes along. Bell discovers the truth in a typically Malickian way: reality intrudes upon his fantasy in the form of a “Dear Bell” letter from home.
Here I will pause to offer apologies to film critic, Gareth Higgens of "The Film Talk ( where I have frequently published film analysis: sorry, Gareth, but you are dead wrong in your analysis of Malick as a visionary using "The Thin Red Line" to show us the majesty of Nature; you are committing the same mistake Bell does, if you think that “Red Line” ‘shows us’ a more pure, primitive world of native bliss and of natural grandeur. No. The 'Nature' of "Thin Red Line" portrayed as a yawning, inhuman void of indifference. The antediluvianMalickian face of Nature, if not of Malick himself (his own sort of cameo!).
Nature is an alien intelechy, as the late philosopher Terrence McKenna used to argue, that neither opposes nor punishes us because the more frightening truth is that it IS us. We are of Nature, are extrusions like fractals, of that larger, violently abnevolent consciousness ('abnevolence' meaning neither benign nor malignant, but null), and we kill and wound ourselves and one another because everything in Nature just does behave that way, at least upon closer inspection.
What we suppose to be the more benign evidence of this truth of the nullity of what we construct to be or that which we name 'Nature' can be seen in our scrutiny of fractals: when one closely scrutinizes a bunched head of broccoli one notices that the head looks to be one big broccoli stalk; likewise when one scrutinizes a single stalk of broccoli it reveals itself to be a thing composed of smaller images of broccoli stalks, and likewise each tiny stalk-like thing appears to be composed of even smaller stalks. Broccoli is composed of smaller broccolis--a startling recognition usually, for those who first make this discovery, as when a high school math instructor uses broccoli to exemplify to students the nature of a fractal. This is a simple, natural example of fractal composition.
But there is also more malignant evidence of the truth of the nullity of Nature. In a far more fetishistic manner than Malick, fellow director David Lynch represents the horror of antediluvian Nature in his typically surrealistic way in the unsettling opening sequence of “Blue Velvet” (1986) in which a man has a heart attack and collapses on his lawn, at which point the camera (or a virtual camera) proceeds to zoom downward to impossibly small focus, increasing our intensity of scrutiny, penetrating the lovely green plushness of the grass to focus upon a teeming world of violently hungry insect life beneath our notice. The mask of beauty is stripped away to reveal the chaos of conflict, and of course, the centrality of death, ensconced within the constructed, human abstractions we name Life, Beauty, Courage, Love, Youth, and within the heart of that primary construct we have named "Nature."
In the frontispiece of Malick's poetic screenplay for "Thin Red Line" Private Witt ruminates on the mystery of suffering, in a typically diluvian (biblically spiritualist manner). Witt is in fact a bona fide manichaean: he sees the world and his place in it as a register of absolute dualist oppositions between evil and good, pain and pleasure, God and The Devil. This penchant for seeing, glorifying and of course poeticizing these binary oppositions is Wit's metier, and the soaring lyricism of Malick's screenplay is at its most moving in the opening passages of the arresting and unique recitation structure:

"What's this war in the heart of nature ?
Why does nature vie with itself?
The land contend with the sea?
ls there an avenging power in nature?
Not one power, but two?
l remember my mother when she was dying.
Looked all shrunk up and gray.
l asked her if she was afraid.
She just shook her head.
l was afraid to touch the death l seen in her.
I heard people talk about immortality,
but I ain't seen it.
l wondered how it'd be when l died.
What it'd be like to know that this breath now
was the last one you was ever gonna draw.
l just hope l can meet it the same way she did.
With the same... calm."

As for the bucolic nativist Nirvana depicted at the Beginning of “Red Line”? It turns out that this tableau is all in Witt’s imagination. Like Witt, Bell labors under a misaprehension that the war, and specifically the assault on the island ("The Rock" as the allied armies are calling it) is slowly undoing (or rapidly undoing in some cases among these men). Witt's fantasy of redemptive love is stripped from him when he returns to his AWOL getaway to see his native lover and discovers not the heavenly Melanesian choral songs sung by the Choir of All Saints of Honiara, but discovers instead dirty children, savage wild dogs fighting over un-named dead meat, conflict, and grinding poverty. The truth. His former bliss was doomed to be exposed as fantasy even before Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) had rudely awakened him by taking him into custody and punished him for being AWOL. It was doomed by the war itself, which is the McGuffin that drives Malick's narrative; it is his excuse to do exactly what dear Gareth Higgins is taken in by: to disillusion Gareth, Witt, Bell, and ourselves.
As always happens in Malick’s films (as when several of the victims butchered by Kitt (Martin Sheen) in “Badlands” (1973) are lulled by his euphoric behavior only to suddenly find themselves at the receiving end of his psychotic brutality) the characters of “Thin Red Line” are awakened over and over again to the folly of their own sleepy assumptions (“Real estate. It’s all about real estate”).
So too are we, the audience, awakened after being lulled. Some critics are missing the point, but Staros (Elias Koteas), for all his ethical ire in seeking to protect his men, “All my sons,” he bathetically thinks of them, is actually quite easily bought off by Colonel Tall’s offer of a comfortable posting back home with career starting military decorations. This is not to say that Staros' more genuine heroism (which conflicts with Tall's flamboyant, Masculinist, cowboy heroism) is not genuine. In Malick's narratives, unlike David Lynch's, there is room for the redemptive human trait of sincerity. Staros demonstrates a courage that Tall lacks for all his fearless swagger upon the battlefield. Tall's greatest fear, the source of his ultimate domestication to the will of power, is his terror of the disapproval of the command structure he serves. tanding beside the general aboard ship before landing on "The Rock" Tall ruminates upon his own hangdoggedness: "The closer to Ceasar," he muses, "The greater the fear." The true message being shaped by Malickian means is shown in a perfectly acted, perfectly written and filmed passage set on the island that centers on the moment when Staros defies Tall by overtly and openly disobeying Tall's direct order to send his men to their deaths in a frontal assault on the hill held by the Japanese. At that moment, Tall's facial expression undergoes a sea change. Nick Nolte, whom I've long suspected of possessing mostly unused reserves of talent as a method actor, manifests a succession of emotions that race across Tall's face. Tall displays shock, outrage, and flaring anger that immediately decays into a fixed mask of fear. He instantly recognizes the full meaning of Staros' defiance. This is the breakdown of military, corporate, and masculine authority that Tall himself has for so long despised and yet has doggishly devoted his life and energies to. Horribly, Staros is bought off in the end, and his professing his love for "all his sons" rings as hollow as can be as he exits the theater of war, the only character left unscathed by the assay upon The Rock, headed back home for rewards, for a life perhaps in politics, for the adjutant's corps as a lawyer.
Do you doubt my reading of these two characters and of the ultimately sour meaning Malick assigns them in his narrative? Watch the sequences featuring Tall and Staros, all of them, over again without your thumb in your mouth. Watch the scene in which Staros guiltily rebuffs the hero worship and gratitude of his men, who do not know what a cushy gift Staros has been given. When they offer to continue his protestations by objecting to his decommission, he hastily douses the idea. He has something now to lose.
Tall himself, masterfully imbued by Nick Nolte with the feverish desperation of men a little older than me (I see them all the time–soon I’ll be them) who are facing the oblivion of ending unaccomplished, unheralded, and unrewarded for their self-abnegation and their sacrifices to the male social order (“The closer you are to Caesar...”) is not without astonishing intestinal courage as he strides across the battlefield shouting, slapping the men’s helmets with a riding crop, barking encouragement, never deigning even to flinch at near mortar bursts). His bravura and bravery in his element is of the kind we’d expect to see in a combat officer, and we can’t help but be impressed. Unlike General Quintard (John Travolta, who is Tall's Caesar) Tall comes ashore, Tall squats in the field beside his radioman to give orders under threat, and Tall strides right to the front line to stand ‘tall’ under fire. You feel for him. He’s obviously deserving of the accolades he’s been denied.
But the truth of Tall’s ultimate ruthlessness and his inhumanity (of his warrior's soul, a soul of suffering, death, violence, and havoc) is searingly mirrored in the far more laconic and more business-like courage of his jr officer, Captain Gaff, a character acted with an unsettlingly callow, quiet gravitas by John Cusack. Gaff is a warrior of equal decisiveness and temper to Tall. He is at first glance clearly the competent, no-nonsense technician that every young man well launched and clear headed must be if he is to wait out the prolonged decomposition and death of the less deserving older generation that is hesitant to pass the baton. Gaff is dressed in the tellingly neat expeditionary force combat uniform of a veteran who has obviously fought many battles under Tall. He is the clean-up man. He, like Tall, seeks accolades, and he’s young enough to know he’ll get them. He slavishly volunteers to do Tall’s will without any of the existential hesitations Staros feels, and without the element of desperation or fear that haunts Tall.
Gaff is as objective and blank faced as the Darhma-Samsara he represents. He executes his orders with neither passion nor prejudice. Yet Gaff betrays a moment of unmasked contempt for Tall in a fleeting glance when Tall extravagantly promises him, exorbitantly speaking, The Congressional Medal of Honor for his performance leading the mission to attack a machine gun nest. It is an embarrassingly effusive display of affection on Tall's part, for Gaff obviously knows how good a soldier he is, and does not desire or require Tall's acknowledgement of the fact. It is clear in his contempt-laden glance that Gaff sees Tall the way all sons see fathers who stand between them and patriarchy’s imprimatur: geez, why isn’t Dad dead yet?? The Buick should be mine by now. Dammit. And furthermore the worldliness, the Samsara of Gaff, is not of a type that is ruthless (appropriately, his redeeming trait is Darhma mind, the Buddha mind). Neither is Gaff merely a Citta being mired in the Samsara of seeking, striving, and desire; he is not just a corporate functionary though in every outward sense he appears and behaves as if to be. Where Staros betrays himself to be just what Tall has cynically called him, a thinker rather than a doer, a lawyer who interprets reality rather than acting upon it, Gaff as played by Cusack is a being with unseen depths. Only in fleeting moments are the depths both good and ill, displayed. The moment of betrayal of contempt for aging Tall is balanced by moments (during the mission he takes a handful of men on to attack the machine gun nest) in which Gaff betrays sincere compassion for those men whom he is leading in the attack. As I have said, there is always room in Malick's narratives (unlike Lynch's narratives) for the redemptive grace of sincerity, and of compassion, and of actual, rather than simply intestinal, courage.
Gaff is thus a character who neatly resolves and folds into one whole the oppositions between the sufferings Tall (a Dukkha Being trapped in the suffering hell world of his own Dukkha-Samsara) and the high mindedness of Staros (a Citta Being trapped in the world of mind only who doesn't account for the reality of the crushing suchness of Samsara). Gaff, we can see, does not hesitate to lead his men into danger where Staros agonized over the idea of their possible deaths. Gaff leads them with courageous compassion for their well being where Tall can only see them as expendable resources for the fulfillment of his own desire for glory performed before the eyes of the generals. Meaningfully, Gaff inquires about water for the men to quench their thirst and fatigue. Tall's response is to hesitate, frustrated that he should be expected by his 'son' to slow the forward progress of the now wildly successful assault by waiting for water to come forward from station far in back of their position.
Gaff is a man of the real (corporate) world, a man of courage, a restrained man of great depths, a man of action, and a man of compassion, who does what he must, feels no need to defy authority, yet feels no need to grovel before it either. He is as close to actually possessing the serenity that Witt and Bell pretend to as any other character in the film, and in fact as no other character in the film is, given Staros' ultimate co-optation and surrender to the purity of moral certainty that comes with having chosen to completely escape the dirty realities of Samsara--possessing a moral certainty that will never have to be tested or found lacking since it has led to his exiting the world altogether.
Perhaps Staros has simply gone to the reward of his own Karma: another life, free of suffering or having to witness suffering. If so, the Samsara, the world of suchness, still exists, and somebody still lives there--every one of the soldiers Staros has left behind, all his 'sons'. Gaff is the healing of the rift between The Written Tao of the lawyer's interpretation, and the Living Tao of the warrior's rash action.
Nick Nolte in fact has been one of the actors who’ve worked with Malick who have been uttering a discourse about Malick that contrasts quite sharply with the characaturing talk of critics about ‘beauty’, ‘Nature’. and the ‘idiosyncrasies’ of a director who makes movies every twenty years and shoots a million feet of film to cut and can only 100,000. Nolte, interviewed by Charlie Rose in December, 1998 painted a portrait of Malick as a genius, an oblique hierophant lost in his own contemplations of trees and of insects while hundreds of actors roved across the jungle in costume breaking into improvised jabbering, hour long takes of ranting at the sky, and un-choreographed mass battle shots. All to be ordered, and given meaning, Nolte assured Rose, in the editing that the actors, producers, and studio would never see or control, to be done at Malick’s pleasure. Can anyone say “Auteur”?
Like Kubrick, Malick is clearly unconcerned with the idea that people are anything more than captives in the skinner box of Nature; Malick and Kubrick both being directors of the type who toy with their inventions and their obsessions (“Eyes Wide Shut” would seem to be a film about amoral urbanity, but is in fact more concerned with the “Nature” of corruption, death, and sexuality, as the worm within the bud of the polite cosmopolity).
Nolte clues us in on how strangely abstracted from the Sapient universe Crocodile Malick can be.
Don’t take me however, for what I am not trying to say here; as in Kubrick, whose heart and soul are of a stellar coldness like the void surrounding the ship in 2001, Malick’s vision is simply indifferent, not negative, judgmental, or cruel. Nothing in Kubrick or Malick is good or bad, but thinking makes it so: if we think about it, there are plenty of examples of true nobility, many moving and quite visually exquisite shots, moments, and sequences in “Thin Red Line”: Witt’s truly unselfish sacrifice for the men, Gaff’s taciturn dignity in the face of pointless violence, the boyishly foolish self sacrifice of Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) who throws himself onto a hand grenade to save his platoon, and the ultimate and only true father figure in the film, Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), who sincerely seeks to protect and to enlighten Witt about the error of his dreams.
Even Witt who says “I seen another world”, admits to a sneaking suspicion: “Sometimes, I think, it was just my imagination.” Penn delivers the lines that are the most certain key to understanding Malick’s overarching theme when he says to Witt, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.” Penn’s character, BECAUSE he is the one character without dreams or noble pretensions, is the one character who can actually be brave without being callus, and can be merciful without having to sell out as a result.
Finally, there is the visually breath-taking, Hans Zimmer scored, long charge up the hill, some of it deftly steadycam-shot from first person point of view–a sequence beginning with “Eos Rhodo Doktylos,” (‘rosey fingered dawn’) and ending with the heart rending images of pathos that is the sacking of the Japanese fire camp at the hilltop, overthrown by American soldiers. The compassion Witt shows to a traumatized Japanese enemy by tenderly holding his hands is all the more poignant because Malick makes certain to contrast it to the horrific image of an American soldier taunting a dying Japanese, and searching amongst the corpses with a pair of pliers to pull teeth from the copses for souvenirs. In fact, Malick is of the relentlessly revelatory nature as a director to always dig deeper into his motifs even past the most horrid or haunted recognition achieved to an even deeper, more resonant horror, an even more pathos-laden recognition: the very same callous soldier who has taunted the suffering and the dying, and who has mutilated corpses seeking human teeth, is shown in a later shot sitting in the drenching rain, a rain that cannot wash him clean of his sins, weeping and casting his prized teeth aside, obviously tortured by the implications and the burden (the Karma) of his own war crimes. What a director, this Malick, to so deftly penetrate to the very center of a theme and make us see far past the point of hackneyed cliche and easy interpretation.
This is classic Terrence Malick both in image and in narrative, both of which yield Malick’s reptilian theme: we are food for the Gods, for the vultures, and for each other. Thence comes whatever nobility we can muster, because only in such a huge context of indifference (the natural world, of which we are a creation) can nobility, or the yearning for it at least, really matter, or really ever come into being! It is the paradox of great literature, of Greek drama, and of Shakespeare. In short, Malick like a handful of other similar autuers, Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, and The Coens among them, forces the genre of film into the realm of adult concerns, of its much older parent, literature.
To end where I began, I think although I disparaged it back in 1998 when it was released, the saving grace of “Private Ryan,” which won me over after repeated viewings, was not its simplistic message of VFW fantasies of patriotic sacrifice, or the hygienic, small town morality of Captain Miller, but rather the ironic death of Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) whose child-like enthusiasm in trying to save a little French girl is rewarded by death at the strike of a sniper’s bullet.
Spielberg is nothing if not derivative, and he recycles all our boyhood dreams, gotten from movies such as “The Longest Day” (1962), and the heroic stories our fathers, grandfathers and uncles told us. One of which was the long march off the beaches on D-Day into the interior of Europe, where our grandfathers did just what Caparzo stupidly sought to do: rescued the victims.
My grandfather’s generation was not dubbed “the greatest generation” without cause, however cynically that cognomen might have been bestowed by hack TIME magazine writers and PBS documentary geeks who weren’t present at Omaha Beach.
Somebody landed on those beaches alright, and somebody took out those machine gun emplacements under a hellish hail of fire, and somebody lived through that, and through Anzio and the Battle of the Bulge, and all the rest in order to liberate Auschwitz and Treblinka and take home broken hearts that yes, most of them seldom spoke of to us.
Maybe it takes a Spielberg to combine all the rousing war films of fifty years into a gestalt in which the simple heroism of a Captain Miller is allowed to show in the reticence of his dialogue that reminds us of our grandfathers and in the shots of his tremoring hand rather than in his alacrity at killing an enemy.
I agree with Jet Loe, Gareth Higgins' partner on The Film Talk: we are in history, and it has not ended yet, even though I did, we all did, imagine in the early 90′s that Jesus Jones’ song, “Right here, right now” was the true soundtrack for the felling of the Berlin Wall. We actually thought we were “watching the world wake up from history.” What I want to TRY to believe anyway, is that the common difference between “Ryan” and “Red Line” is the differing portrayals of the same idea: we ARE history. We can never wake up from what is tangible and real, and the only dream worth having is depicted the in shot of departure from the battlefield near the end of Malick’s vision as the island recedes and the men who’ve survived breath easy at last.
It is the dream of the end of violence.

2. 'Saving Private Ryan': the Slippery, Visual Power of Cinema
Before we blithely dismiss “Saving Private Ryan” for its pop cultural simplicity and bathos or for its overweening sentimentality and shameless patriotism, let’s do pay proper respect to those aspects of the film (the visual narrative, the moments of mise-en-scene, and effortless visual poetics) that do work.
“Ryan” is the work of Steven Spielberg, remember, and Spielberg’s forte is steel trap virtuosity in the construction of a visually primal, visually narrative cinema, often as a willing forward of the great Italian cinema traditions–ordinary unimportant characters after war, or poignant if overblown semi-buccolic characters whose hyper-emotive lives MEAN something to us even as the masterful visual dynamism of any Spielberg film you wanna name drives us and his overly simplistic fairy tale plots relentlessly forward, forward, forward. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is, in Spielberg fashion, an ordinary, most likely suburban, teacher–The Everyman mytholized historically by the ancient Greek figure of the hoplyte–the original citizen soldier who saved Hellenic democracy from the Achaemenid Persians–those very first Nazi invaders.
This is a simple conceit, that Miller is an ordinary English teacher, a citizen soldier who teaches poetry, coaches football, and digs Edith Piaf (probably, he is faculty advisor to the senior French club). Miller is unassuming but courageous in his taciturn acceptance of his duty, and this makes him poignant. This is all visually screwed down tight in both the understated movie acting method of Tom Hanks (veteran of both TV and film comedic acting's body techniques) and the nuanced directorial style of Spielberg, his derectorial control of classical Hollywood style echoing Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado” and John Ford’s “The Searchers”. In that respect "Saving Private Ryan" is not just a war movie but can be seen as an instance, visually and narratively, of the classic repressed male genre of the old Hollywood western. The visual sequences of Miller subtly falling apart psychologically (his displaying the shakes in one hand and only in that one hand is a bellweather of inner turmoil in contrast to his outward calm) are, I’m sorry, but I have to say it, moving.
Under Spielberg’s steely control, Hanks imbues Miller with a loose, repressed horror that Miller must nevertheless keep screwed down tight if he is to do his duty as a platoon leader and an officer, a soldier fighting for democracy. Miller’s initial disorientation upon debarking onto the beach and suffering the shock of a charge exploding beside him, underscores from the start his humanity and vulnerability while also underscoring his simple courage: he recovers, he crawls out of the shallows,  and charges up the beach to the foot of the cliffs that were to be the graveyard of hundreds upon hundreds of men landed on Omaha. The sequence is as primal and as sincerely acted and shot as some of Jimmy Stewart’s own invisible acting and John Ford’s invisible though stone-fisted direction.

Visual art can create a profound emotional verisimilitude, is the lesson taught by Ford and his westerns, by a host of American mythopoetic auteurs' works (Howard Hawks, John Huston, Robert Wise), and also by the entire film noire movement. There may be something we could call a guaranteed-to-fail narrative strategy for novels, but visionary cinema proves that visual power can bend narrative to its own purposes--any narrative at all.  Spielberg as a cinematic auteur is one of our most gifted visual artists in some of the same persistently mystifying ways as were many modern American painters such as Grant Wood
Wind from the Sea
American Gothic

Christina's World
("American Gothic"), Edward Hopper ("Nighthawks"), and Andrew Wyeth ("Christina's World" and "Wind from the Sea"). Where the paintings that made these American artists famous somehow mysteriously transcend the often mundane subjects they present, their cinematic colleagues too, somehow can transcend the details of narrative, of even mundane or bathetic narrative (Spielberg plots, John Ford settings, Cohen Brothers (and Hitchcock) studies in close-up of the uncanniness of faces, and Huston's cliche film noire mise-en-scenes are often neither noble nor edifying, yet these directors' visual treatments can achieve affects than can resonate at a pitch that can be somehow galvanic:
The Man Who Wasn't There

Spielberg's  visual power arises from a potent combination: Sharply drawn and poignant characters seeking to or merely yearning to escape, and a masterful visual narrative that seizes you and holds you despite an often mawkish fairy tale plot, dramtic situation, and tone.
Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

We are seduced by the spectacle of  1977's "Close Enclounters" protagonist, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his obsessive sculpting of the rock tower he has seen in his dreams. We completely believe the crisis he suffers as his sanity crumbles, and we feel it happening to him not just as the narrative and simple plot suggest--as a stigma sent by extra terrestrial psionics, but as the visual mise-en-scene commands us to: a simple, apparently simplistic shot from "Close Encounters" displays the sheer bursting forth of depths of meaning concealed by a Walt Disney high key surface: bathed in sunlight, Roy and his companion in rebellion are two delighted children who've quixotically followed their obsession to find the prize they sought, and the high key, high color saturation, the blue skies at their backs, the smiles on their faces seem almost Max Fleischer-like; a moment of joy, a mise-en-scene devoid of shadow:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Yet, the mark of Spielberg's actual essential aesthetic is visually appended to this particular shot: at the moment of their greatest joy, as you will notice, that is barbed wire the two stand in front of (behind). It might be so clearly obvious as to be lost to the casual popular gaze, the very gaze that popular theatrical Hollywood film invites. It is so plain in Spielberg as to perhaps escape notice. Certain of Spielberg's happy tableaus often bear the mark of distortion, of duplicity: this is suburban existence as a contradiction of joyful light and utter despair at imprisonment, enslavement. Suburb as prison. Even the bathos of blue skies, of sunny middle class consciousness is merely life in a bright concentration camp. It's a contradiction rampant in Spielberg's mise en scenes, an overt denunciation of the very joyfulness that seems at first gaze to be the matter at hand of particular shots, sequences, and scenes.

Quentin Tarrentino's deliberate marring of  the cold, Teutonic beauty of a Darryl Hannah is a similar case in point:
Kill Bill 
Film, at least classically cut, mainstream theatrical Hollywood film, has a necessary narrative component but is a visual medium, as the ascendancy of the American cinematic revolutionaries, the 'Brat Pack' trinity (Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola) reiterated for Post WWII American cinema (this trinity of 70's auteurs merely pushed forward the earlier revelations of forties, fifties, and sixties world cinema--De Sica, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Bertolucci, and Fellini).

Why do we care about Roy? Because Steven Spielberg wants us to, and whatever an auteur wants, an auteure gets, as Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, Truffaut, and Von Stroheim, even D.W. Griffith have proven decisively: masterful directors have taken mundane, obscure, or flawed, even morally suspect ("Birth of a Nation") narrative material and made that material riveting and memorable by the use of their visual powers. In "Close Encounters" Spielberg may indeed be offering us a vapid, soap opera of 70's suburban inertia as an obvious stand-in for his own childhood's 1950's inertia, but as an auteur's conceit it works every bit as much as it works again in his 1982 release, "E.T. the Extraterrestial" (Elliott, who discovers the ET, is about 10 years old in the film, released in 1977; Spielberg would have been about ten years old in 1957, living in Haddon Township, a suburb of Camden, NJ).  The sheer visual claustrophobia of suburban interior shots both in "Close Encounters" and in "ET" (many of those shots meaningfully low angle), affectively anchors the dominant themes of both films: domesticity as dehumanizing authoritarianism. Roy's wife Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr) is his prison gaurd and inquisitor, stridently rubuking his every urge to seek or to express an authentic self, rjecting out of hand any attempt he makes to communicate to her the largeness of his feelings that threaten to burst the small lifespace they have created together in their bourgeois tract-home life. Roys children are simply stupified by his strange, unmanly, unfatherly, and un-American behavior.

Thus Roy is forced into acts of creativity--drawing, and finally sculpting, and what can only be called terraforming what he sees in his head, destroying his home in the process. These domestically disturbing sequences are explored visually more than narratively, and Spielberg's mise-en-scene is pitch perfect for the carefully elicited sterility of a spiritually cluttered and spritually crushing suburban home Roy consigns to havok and then is driven from like an old testament prophet whose head is on fire with God’s unwanted visions. By the time Roy is ecstatically, desperately clamoring up and down the foothills around the “Devil’s Tower” his euphoria, about to become literal rapture and ascendance to ‘the heavens’, is breathtakingly captured (at least on the big screen, with now high angle shots and terra cotta color scheme) by the sweep of exterior shots of Wyoming big sky and desert; a thoroughly clear rejection of the illusions of Roy's former suburban entombment, and a perfect expanse within which to situate the epically huge special effects of fleets of UFOs (gee, the world, the universe really IS a damn big place out beyond the shop-and-go!)
Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose son has been taken by the aliens and who is thus as driven to rebellion as Roy, joins him in his quest to escape, becoming the proxy for his wife, but she literally is Lot’s wife: her own drive to escape suburban stupor is not quite strong enough. She stops, she looks back. She is turned to a pillar of sleeping salt. This motif of suburban spiritual stultification and sudden, ecstatic, tragic, or even violent release is represented again and again in Spielberg’s oeuvre as narrative but predominantly as image: “ET” gives us Elliott (Henry Thomas), Spiel himself as a child of course, who yearns for and receives, a transcendent adventure that frees him mind, body, and spirit from the torpor of his suburban childhood (intoxicated by his psychic link to the ET, Elliott breaks his school's dissection frogs out of their captivity in a visually wonderful scene that narrativizes the primal Spielberg theme of capture and release).
Likewise, “Jaws” gives us the Spielbergian character of Martin Brody, new police chief of jerkwater Amity, whose lug of a life is transformed and made mythic by the sudden irruption of the Id force in the form of an absurdly, unbelievably, and thus clearly MYTHICALLY large, killer shark. The shark is not a shark at all (couldn't be--it's far too big to be taken as anything but the allegory it clearly is; it is the Untergeist, the force of chaos that is both adventure and danger out beyond the shop-and-go.
Finally, in the suburban works, there was Spiel’s very first feature, “Duel in the Desert” in which the humdrum life of a traveling salesman (the everyman without a war to go to) is transformed in a nasty and terrifying way by a psychotic truck driver seeking to kill him, out beyond the bounds of civilized traffic law. It is the subject of war, however, that gives us these themes in their fullest, most mature form in Spielberg's ouvre. One of Spielberg’s more unsettling works, with the pat Hollywood nostalgia and mythos of World War Two as backdrop, sets up a startling collision between childhood fantasy and adult violence: “Empire of the Sun,” a war film, yet also a childhood fantasy become fever dream. Almost sadistically, Spielberg sets up a grande guignol of childhood innocence butchered though desperately held onto by little Jamie Graham (an equally little Christian Bale, before the bat mobile and the rubber suit). This film in some ways foreshadows the similarly Grimm Brothers ugliness of innocence trounced that will be “AI,” but it also anticipates Spielberg’s ‘adult’ set pieces made mature by war. The three of Spiel’s more critically acclaimed films, “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Munich,” are those ‘adult’ films that deal with death, violence, horror, evil, and the ugliness of the world that lies out beyond the shop-and-go.
World War Two, in typical Spielbergian nostalgia, is the backdrop of all three films, though one of the triptych (“Ryan”) is the standard action adventure (I swear, I felt the homage to “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Big Red One” like a shot of vodka when Ted Danson as Captain Hamill comes skipping down the stairs of that bombed out villa after saving Hanks’s ass!).
“Schindler,” of course is darker, as a holocaust narrative that doesn’t spare the horror of meaningless cruelty and systematic genocide that was the more deracinating and more haunting European version of the boyishly boisterous American mythology of WWII (after all, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however startling and frightening it may have been to a sleeping American population, was never followed by invasion of the continental United States or even by an airwar over American cities; the American war experience then, cannot be reasonably compared to the Russian 'rattenkreig' experience of the siege of Leningrad, the British experience of the 'blitzkreig' bombing of London, or the French  experience of viscious pacification and abuse under ccupation).
Spielberg's “Munich” (2005) is an altogether inexplicable because unexpected foray on Spielberg's part into the darkest, most disturbing reality of WWII’s aftermath: a covert, geopolitical dogfighting that went on between nations and states uneasily divided and unjustly occupied following Potsdam. On the surface "Munich" seems to be, some say, a self-hating attack on the legitimacy of Israel. Others say it is a courageous critique of Zionism. It is neither.
I think it is something far more ambitious: a meditation on the disease that is meaningless violence, which cannot be cured or contained by the drawing up of new borders, the laying out of occupation zones, walls and annexations (all the things that were the dehumanizing, destructive busywork of the Cold War). The violence spills over the container of armistice, erupts at Munich, at Sabra, at Shatilla, and taking root in the hearts and minds of succeeding post war generations, perpetuates itself not as war any longer but as something more sinister, more unjustifiable, something worse: as routine.
Avner’s disquiet at his own quotidian, sanitized, ‘official’ duties as an assassin seeking revenge for an entire people (!!), slowly rises up as a distant echo to take on a keener and keener pitch. Again, Spielbergian firmness of direction and mythic visual strength is punctuated by a finely understated portrayal by Eric Bana of a character whom we care for immediately (his wife is pregnant). Bana acts out Avner’s increasing sense of moral disgust, delineated by a series of claustrophobic interiors, confined group meals and banal dormitory environments (are these men in Europe to murder Black Septemberist terrorists or are they in grad school??). A rivetingly pathetic scene in which Avner participates in the murder of a young woman who is herself an assassin is filmed as a deceptively, horrifically intimate interior, with all the personal clutter and personal possessions of the victim’s home surrounding and accusing the killers. The scene brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous insight–that evil (and violence) is banal.
Avner is the post war version of Captain Miller, no longer heroic, no longer in uniform, no longer certain that violence has either purity or purpose. Patriotism no longer justifies violence. Rather than patriotism, Avner is now thinking of family and of a future without violence (his wife has had a baby). To the accompaniment of progressively darker mise en scenes and progressively more claustrophobic sets, until finally Avner finds himself literally driven into a closet in fear, Avner’s unease in the end reaches a blaring crescendo of guilt, fear, and panic, causing him to ex-patriate. Friend and foe become one. Even the self is no longer recognizable to itself–for such are the wages of violence.
Spielberg is that rare artist, like Paul McCartney, I suppose, who is both maudlin and profound. Which just goes to show you, film is a dialectical medium, and “Saving Private Ryan” (and by extension then Spielberg) has it’s virtues as well as cliches.
3. In Summa, The Question of "Nature" and Malick's Vision
Either the human mind is merely an extension of the natural intelechy (as I believe Terrence Malick’s cinema implies or assumes and Terrence McKenna's philosophy claims), or, “Nature” itself is not there at all, but is a potentiality wave of the sort theorized by Shroedinger (of cat fame), and is created by our own consciousness out of quantum nothingness, as indeed, all matter seems to be–merely reflective of our own conscious thought. Terrence McKenna can be found with a google search. String Theory, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Malick’s weird to the point of astonishment ‘interview scene’ between Kit and his captors at the climax of “Badlands” can all be found likewise--on YouTube or some such. Kit unsettlingly reveals himself to be not there, spiritually speaking. He is a construct of the society that thought him, that thinks him, and brings him into being by the questioning they enact over him, filling him with the joy of being, which he would otherwise not possess. This is why he kills. It is an act of self creation for him. How much sadder a comment on the human condition could there possibly be in a cinematic art form (other than perhaps the sad fat police officer played by a dissipated Orson Welles in "A Touch of Evil"?)
Malick’s body of work has an overarching point that is strange, but clear. Man is his own reason for being and evil is not imposed upon us from without any more than love is radiated from a godhead. We create the universe and everything in it, including our selves.
The rest is silence.