Arts & Events

Aestheticism and Existential Crisis: "Thin Red Line" and "Darjeeling Limited"

Wednesday October 20, 2010 - 02:41:00 PM

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan soaked up most of the cinematic spotlight in 1998. And though that film's opening sequence, depicting the chaos, horror, bravery and bloodshed of the storming of the beach at Normandy, was a stunning, emotional tour de force, the rest of the film unfortunately slipped into Spielberg's usual stew of simplistic, populist plotlines and heavy-handed emotionalism, not to mention an overpowering dose of John Williams' melodramatic orchestration. It may have made for a decent evening's entertainment, but fell far short of its goal of transforming the drama and history of World War II into a piece of artwork for the ages.  

Terrence Malick, on the other hand, did just that, with his stirring, poetic three-hour epic, The Thin Red Line. It received its share of attention and accolades that year, earning a spot alongside Ryan in the Academy Awards' Best Picture category, though neither took the top prize, the two World War II films losing out, in yet another bewildering Oscar outcome, to the charming but slight Shakespeare in Love.  

The Thin Red Line delves deep and comes up with a powerful, ethereal experience, a meditation on man and violence. Adapted from James Jones' 1962 novel about the battle for Guadalcanal, Malick's film balances tense battle scenes with poetic interior monologues that examine and reveal the lives and emotions of soldiers on the front lines. John Toll's lush photography renders the film at once realistic and dreamlike, grounding the viewer with the ever-present dangers of war while summoning the unreality of the inner narratives of those involved, the soldiers who simultaneously take part and stand apart, charging through the underbrush while observing themselves as though from above. 

Criterion has released a new two-disc edition of the film on DVD with a director- and cinematographer-approved transfer of the film. Bonus features include a commentary track by cinematographer John Toll, production designer Jack Fisk, and producer Grant Hill; interviews with editors, writers and members of the ensemble cast; outtakes and World War II newsreels; and an essay by film critic David Sterritt. 

As directors go, Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson may appear to be worlds apart, but they are united in their painstaking aestheticism. Anderson, with a series of comedies that inspired a nearly cult-like following, nearly single-handedly set the mold for a new brand of independent film. And if the approach has become tedious and cliche by this point, Anderson can hardly be blamed for the lesser talents that have aped his style in a glut of second-rate knock-offs. In fact, these pale imitations have only confirmed his talents.  

But still his films have always left something to be desired. For all his visual and narrative flair, the question remains as to whether Anderson has what it takes to reach the first tier of directors, or whether his brand of well-crafted white-bread neurotic comedies, backed by catchy pop soundtracks, merely renders him a next-generation John Hughes, turning out trivial entertainments for teenagers and twenty-somethings. 

Anderson appeared to strive for something more with The Darjeeling Limited. While the film at first seemed to seek the same tone as Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling took a left turn toward the starkly dramatic. But it's an open question as to whether Anderson is pursuing a more serious approach to his work, or seeking to create a new and unique blend of existential self-examination and minimalist humor. However, Darjeeling achieves neither the breezy wit and charm of his comedies, nor the depth and power of a great drama. Nor does it make for a wholly successful or satisfying hybrid. 

It does, however, provide strong evidence that none of the above is beyond Anderson's grasp. It may require him to sacrifice a bit of preciousness and pomp, to shed a few of the surface pretensions and affectations that have worked so well for him thus far, but with a little guidance from Malick and other aestheticians who have managed to merge style with substance — Yasujiro Ozu chief among them — Anderson may yet succeed in striking a truly resonant chord. 

Criteron's two-disc edition includes a behind-the-scenes documentary; a discussion between Anderson and James Ivory about the soundtrack; audition footage; deleted and alternate scenes; and an essay by Richard Brody. 


The Thin Red Line (1998). 171 minutes. DVD and Blu-Ray, $29.95 / $39.95. 

The Darjeeling Limited (2007). 91 minutes. DVD and Blu-Ray, $29.95 / $39.95.