The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick | 2hr 50min

Violent imagery does not always go hand in hand with the stream-of-consciousness editing and lyrical, whispered voiceovers we associate with Terrence Malick, but it is exactly upon this jarring contrast which The Thin Red Line hinges its condemnation of war as an ugly stain on the natural world. To call it an aberration wouldn’t quite be correct though. This brutality is just as much in humans as it is in the wild plants and creatures of the South Pacific islands where Private Witt and his Infantry Division have been stationed. When his superior, Captain Staros, is relieved from duty following a refusal of orders to lead men into a suicide mission, the gruff Lieutenant Commander Tall reprimands him, comparing his own unforgiving ideology to their lush, untamed environment.

“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the trees, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”

But this is no Werner Herzog film, cowering beneath the monstrous overgrowth of rainforests and gazing with terror at churning, brown rapids. Malick’s reverent adoration of nature is the driving power behind his extraordinarily beautiful cinematography, and it is consistently evident that his style of shooting is far from perfectionistic. His camera remains largely improvisational as he captures natural light softly diffused across oceans and rolling, grassy fields, letting the beauty of his locations emerge organically and capturing those special moments whenever they choose to arise.

It goes without saying that any of Malick’s finest films are landmarks of natural lighting, but it is worth pointing out here just how beautifully it diffuses across oceans and hillsides.

With an abundance of coverage to draw from and a script that relies heavily on voiceover, Malick grants himself the freedom to play with the rhythms of his editing, stringing together images through long dissolves, montages, and cutaways that provoke a deep sensitivity to the film’s poetic musings. The nourishing beauty of the natural scenery gracefully arises in a small trickle of water in a stream, a breeze rippling through a cluster of leaves, and owls, bats, and lizards passing glances at our characters marching by, but Malick also spares the time for a baby bird crawling from its egg, badly wounded from the war unfolding around it. It is one thing to shoot the desolate destruction of an entire village, with the verdant greens of the landscape being washed out by the grey smoke hanging in the air, but his eyes rarely wander from the tiny devastations of the environment for too long, echoing the trauma of humanity’s ruthless conquest across macro and micro representations of life. In the thick of battle, Malick’s editing moves far more briskly, following in the school of Sergei Eisenstein with some shots last a mere couple of frames, and yet the way his camera glides also imbues the visual style with an elegance that can never quite be wiped out by even the most ruthless displays of cruelty.

Desolation wreaked across these villages, smoke filling the air in these heartbreaking images.
Malick employs cutaways with symbolic care, referring to these tiny creatures as representations of innocent witnesses and victims.

Most significantly, it is the recurring low angle regarding the light filtering through the dark imprints of forest canopies which sets up a stunning symbolic conflict between nature, signified by trees, and grace, as represented by the gentle sunrays. This motif reverberates all through the film, as even when days come to an end, Malick still emphasises the presence of a moon shining down upon the soldiers like a constant blessing. Immediately after the death of one young man, we cut away to three large, decaying leaves hanging from a branch, perforated with tiny holes through which the sunlight strains, framed as if we are glimpsing the heavens to which his soul is heading. With such incredibly impressionistic imagery opening us up to Malick’s contemplations, the film develops into a delicate meditation, drifting between sincere sentiments led by his own transcendental wonder.

Jaw-dropping photography also becomes a robust formal motif here, weaving these shots of sunlight and trees all through the film.

These affecting expressions of spirituality are similarly integral to the narrative’s grounding in Christian archetypes, threaded through the depiction of Guadalcanal, the island Witt has run away to, as an Eden-like paradise. In this small, idyllic corner of the Pacific untouched by war, there is no pain or suffering to be found, and Malick’s camera relishes diving beneath the ocean waves to watch the children play and the sunlight refracting through its surface. The next time Witt returns to this island, the dynamic has shifted drastically. With the introduction of human conflict, there is little peace to be found in the day-to-day interactions between locals, who now turn against each other and eye off Witt like an unwelcome stranger. Sin has crept into this paradise, and with this seal broken, there is no turning back.

War represented here quite literally as a stain on the environment, with half the hillside drained of its colour.

Malick’s allegory is built out further in the reflective voiceovers of his ensemble, passing through characters like a shared prayer for answers, wrestling with their own purpose and conflicted ideals. If war is a process of spiritual corruption, then there must be some source through which it infects the minds of the innocent, and from there it is only a short leap to draw parallels to the Christian concept of original sin.

“This great evil, where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What sees, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night?”

Almost as if in direct response to Witt’s ruminations, Malick cuts to Private Dale taking sadistic pleasure in the slow torture and murder of a Japanese soldier.

“I’m going to sink my teeth into your liver.”

Meanwhile, Private Bell dreams of his wife back home, and just as Witt ponders the origins of sin, so too does he carry similar introspections.

“Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.”

None of these deliberations have straightforward answers, but it is very much evident that there is something inherent in humans giving birth to both the best and worst of everything they face. If the earth is nature and the heavens are grace, then to Malick, we are caught in between, presented with a moral struggle. The justification felt by the men of The Thin Red Line in taking the lives of others amounts to little in the face of this divine reckoning, as in one almost surreal sequence that sees Witt discover the half-buried face of a fallen Japanese soldier, a new voiceover is born, belonging to the deceased.

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you lived goodness? Truth?”

Deeply spiritual yet melancholy imagery, as Malick gives voice to the deceased speaking from the other side.

As Witt wanders a burning village of Japanese men and women being rounded up and dehumanised, the sound design fades away to be replaced by the horns of Hans Zimmer’s swelling, sombre score, ringing through the air like a mournful eulogy for the countless lives lost at the hands of fellow humans. For some, like Sergeant Welsh, it is simple enough to reason one’s involvement in this carnage. The shrewd pessimism that Sean Penn carries as the voice of despair is set up well against Jim Caviezel’s gentle, softspoken Witt, whose blue eyes do not so much pierce the camera as they inspire a sense of wonder, constantly looking just past the lens is if awed by something we cannot see or comprehend.

A strong performance from Sean Penn, setting his character up as the voice of despair whose heart may be swayed.

In Witt’s early recollections of his mother’s peaceful manner in her final days of life, he likens her graceful exit to a form of immortality he longs to discover, and it is this which motivates him all through The Thin Red Line to uncover whatever secret provides this key to this “calm”. Whether it is through the connection he feels to the natural world, or his selfless sacrifice which lets others live on in his place, we can see in the last few seconds that awed expression once again pass over his face, not unlike the mystical lights caught in Marie Falconetti’s eyes in The Passion of Joan of Arc. That calm has arrived, and along with it comes the motif of heavenly sunlight through trees, as well as a fleeting return to Guadalcanal where Witt now swims in the water with the children.

Jim Caviezel’s awed gaze – simply haunting.
Malick’s camera is organic and intuitive, letting his actors play in the waves while he sits just below and watches them in these stunning shots.

Immortality manifests metaphorically in this imagery, but it is also present in his legacy, as we see something change in Welsh upon the sacrifice of his comrade. Having witnessed true selflessness, the constraints, malice, and lies of the military are more apparent to him now. With a single sacrifice changing the hearts and minds of the living, Malick frames Witt as Christ-like figure, and he conclusively reveals the primary advantage that spiritual grace holds over the ruthless carnage of the natural world. Just as the sunlight will persist long after the forest trees have rotted away, there is an eternality to humanity’s selfless compassion and sacrifice within The Thin Red Line, persisting long after our violent quests for total domination have faded into the depths of history.

Few people shoot natural scenery like Malick, whether his camera is up close focusing on tiny details, or basking in these picturesque establishing shots.

The Thin Red Line is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson | 1hr 33min

There may not be a single Wes Anderson character more suited to the director’s mannered, self-assured affect than Max Fischer. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given how much of the ambitious underachiever is based off a younger adolescent Anderson, both being meticulously focused in their passionate endeavours, and perhaps a little misguided in their intentions. Bottle Rocket was where it all started for him as a comedic filmmaker, but Rushmore marks his first major breakthrough success as a genteel stylist setting up artificial barriers and then breaking through them to find the sensitivity inside his lonely, deadpan characters.

With its noticeably minimalist budget compared to his later films, Anderson’s roots in the 1990s American wave of independent cinema are abundantly clear. His artistic voice is pure and idiosyncratic, dedicated to the organised style and form that so clearly belongs to an off-beat world just slightly adjacent to our own. That so much of Rushmore is shot on location at a real school makes this feat even more surprising, as even with this element of realism there is still a curated symmetry and neatness to Max’s life. His camera almost never moves in curves or diagonals, but rather dollies in straight lines across his frame and towards his subjects, maintaining the air of civil decorum that Max holds about him.

One of Wes Anderson’s greatest characters, up there with Monsieur Gustave and Royal Tenenbaum. Max Fischer is an underachieving perfectionist, dreaming of being adored and respected by his peers, and is naturally based off a younger version of Anderson himself.

Also integral to Rushmore’s visual style is the self-conscious, theatrical blocking that seems to take its humanistic drama and force it into the artificial shape that Max so desires it to conform to. Though he does not yet fully understand the emotions and principles of adulthood, he at least believes he does, and so there is a humorous overcompensation in his sophisticated presentation that continues to manifest within Anderson’s methodical staging of characters in lines and geometric patterns, much like the stage plays that Max directs. Such a distinguished manner continues to define Rushmore right down to the chapter breaks marking the months of the school year, opening curtains to formally introduce new stages of Max’s coming-of-age journey and closing at its end.

Max’s love of theatre is crucial to Rushmore’s form. Curtains open up to each new month of the school year like chapters, and close at the end of the film.
Close-ups and fourth wall breaks – very French New Wave.

Jason Schwartzman carries a self-assured yet purposefully stilted conduct in his performance that matches Anderson’s own fastidiousness, and yet in both the acting and direction, the artifice is always very carefully applied, refraining from impinging on an otherwise realistic emotional arc. He is a teenage boy who carries business cards and goes about executing elaborately vengeful plots on those who have done him wrong, but he is also suffering deeply from the wounds left behind by his mother’s death. There may even be something a little Freudian about the way he transfers those unresolved feelings upon a schoolteacher, and when he discovers that she has lost her husband, he sees the absence as a gap waiting for him to fill.

“So we both have dead people in our families.”

Anderson is doing The Graduate in this shot, except with Bill Murray – drowning in isolation.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Max and Anderson is the maturity the latter displays in understanding those other, slightly less eccentric people in his life. The isolating shot of Bill Murray’s disenchanted businessman, Herman Blume, within a cold, blue pool evokes a similar image from The Graduate, revealing a loneliness within him that is at least equal to Max’s. Perhaps the most obvious reference to the Mike Nichols film though comes in Anderson’s narrative study of a boy’s lust after an older woman, escaping from the narrowed perspective of adolescence and enticing the notion that adults don’t necessarily have life figured out either.

Montages of superbly blocked compositions and Anderson’s iconic overhead shots. This is his second film, and he already possesses a fully developed artistic voice.

In that sense, there is a recognition that “coming-of-age” is not a thing that happens once and is then left behind. Anderson’s vivacious style of editing and visual comedy is drenched in the jubilant energy of youth, underscoring much of Rushmore with the songs of John Lennon, Cat Stevens, The Who, and The Rolling Stones among other British bands from the Swinging Sixties. He especially leans heavily on montages that do more than simply bridge gaps in time, but rather develop character in sequences that flash through immaculately constructed tableaux of Max’s various social clubs and vengeance-driven exploits. Even Anderson’s visual gags serve a similar purpose, using a shot as brilliantly simple as Max dressed in a fencing outfit being overrun by basketball players in the gym to let us know everything about his place in the school.

One of the best crafters of visual gags currently working. The lineage stretches back to silent comedians such as Buster Keaton who would set his camera back in wide shots and create a world that only exists within the boundaries of each frame – Anderson is doing exactly the same here.

It is in the Vietnam War-inspired play that Max stages in the final act of Rushmore that we see perhaps the most acutely captured vision of Anderson as a young storyteller, creating extravagant dioramas complete with pyrotechnics and clearly artificial designs to bring his own eccentric artistic expressions to life. Together, both embrace the transitory affectations of young adulthood, and yet as they look towards the future where they might meet grown versions of themselves, they also acknowledge those bizarre characteristics that are intrinsic to their identities. For the juvenile creative types, middle-aged cynics, and grieving widows of Rushmore, there is no point shirking one’s most honest nature – just an understanding of how it can mature into something more mindful and compassionate with time.

Without the highly stylised production design that would define his later films, Anderson instead shoots on location and picks out these marvellously symmetrical structures to shoot against. Fantastic mise-en-scène as character.
A gorgeous finale, tying off the film with one of its many slow-motion sequences.

Rushmore is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Coen Brothers | 1hr 57min

The eccentric worlds of Coen Brothers films aren’t often built by epic establishing shots or detailed production design, though they do revel in these on occasion. Their settings usually come together through the uniquely American idiosyncrasies of their characters, the dark humour of their screenplays, and, especially as we see here in The Big Lebowski, their thorough understanding of how genre conventions can be flipped, bent, twisted, and discarded with altogether. Initially considered a disappointment hot off the success of Fargo, The Big Lebowski was subject to complaints of jumbled, convoluted plotting which, if anything, puts it in good company with the pulpy detective novels and films that it takes so much inspiration from. 
  
In the rich lineage of directors who bring to life their own artistic takes on Los Angeles-based neo-noirs, the Coens look favourable next to those such as Robert Altman and Roman Polanski who trod similar ground before them. Their vision of the sunny Californian city is one of contradictions, where slackers co-exist with businessmen, war veterans, artists, and young families, all of whom have some role to play in the crime and corruption which escalate from the smallest, most ridiculous misunderstandings.

Career best performances from both Jeff Bridges and John Goodman – plus we get one of the best movie characters of the 1990s in The Dude.

Jeffrey Lebowski, more colloquially known as The Dude, isn’t immune to this. Though his breezy attitude keeps him cool in extreme situations, it also makes him an easy target for manipulation by those pulling the strings. Bunny, the missing wife of a wealthy philanthropist also named Jeffrey Lebowski, seems to have been kidnapped by a gang of German nihilists, and with the promise that he might be able to return to his peaceful life of bowling if he sorts all this out, the Dude searches for answers, trying desperately to keep up with the pointless, conflicting demands thrust upon him. Virtually everyone, from porn industry kingpin Jackie Treehorn to postmodern artist Maude, has some stakes in the matter of Bunny’s disappearance – but really, no one here knows what they are doing. It is simply much easier for them to pin their confusion and failures on the guy who openly wears his bewilderment on his sleeve. 
  
The Dude himself is a masterstroke of creative characterisation from the Coens. Where one might expect to find an intelligent, relentless, hardboiled detective dressed in a sharp suit and fedora, we instead find the opposite – a bearded man dressed in sandals, baggy shorts, and a robe, stuck in the hippie movement that has long since grown out of fashion. Jeff Bridges delivers his lines with all the nonchalance and hilariously lax timing of a man who sees the wild, intense world running around him, and cares very little for it. After a violent threat from a bowling opponent, his only response is a short pause and a quiet “Jesus…”, a comically far cry from whatever sharp witticism private investigator Philip Marlowe might have retorted with. 

Sloppy, lazy, comfortable. An instantly recognisable look.

As a veteran stuck in his glory days of the Vietnam War, John Goodman’s Walter also makes for an explosive, comedic counterpoint to the Dude’s untroubled attitude. Though they have opposing approaches to almost every complication they come up against, both recognise each other as misfits in a culture that has moved on without them. With nothing else out there for either one, their responses to tough, unresolvable situations end in agreement on one course of action.   

“Fuck it Dude, let’s go bowling.” 

This entire dream sequence may be the zenith of the film’s artistic achievement. Funny, surreal, and visually inventive.

The Coen Brothers’ films aren’t often recognised for their sumptuous imagery, and yet they take The Big Lebowski a step further than its noir predecessors in literalising the Hollywood dream through surreal, wandering interludes. One Busby Berkeley dream sequence rendered in black, white, red, and gold is a magnificent reflection of the Dude’s subconscious working its way through the mystery at hand, his bizarre relationship with Maude, and of course, bowling. Outside these hallucinations, slow-motion shots of objects, lights, and people floating across pitch black backgrounds are threaded through the Dude’s reluctant investigation, continuing to lift the plot out of reality and into a weightless realm – a visual representation of his own light passage through otherwise dark situations. In a world where these deceitful, seedy environments are as inescapable as they are erratic, the Dude’s carefree lifestyle is ultimately the only constant which we can depend upon.

A surreal motif of objects and people floating through black spaces.

The Big Lebowski is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Run Lola Run (1998)

Tom Tykwer | 1hr 21min

To watch the German thriller Run Lola Run is to sit through three separate heart attacks, each one divided by a brief moment of respite allowing us to catch our breath before throwing us right back into the state of panic we came from. It is a showcase of remarkable rapid-fire editing, energetic camerawork, and vivid colours, but just as compelling as Tom Twyker’s vivacious style is his segmented formal structure, repeating Lola’s effort to find and deliver 100,000 Deutschmarks to her boyfriend, Manni, in a unified triptych of timelines. To call this a meditation on any level would be wrong, and yet the poise and thoughtfulness with which Tykwer attacks questions of fatalism and free will in this onslaught of deadlines is on the same level as any slow-burn arthouse film.

Lola herself might as well be an action video game character with her distinctive look of bright red hair, tank top, and expression of obstinate grit – a fitting image for a woman at the centre of a narrative which itself mirrors video game mechanics. Presented with a singular goal, a pressing time limit, and a pathway loaded with endless opportunities to dramatically shift the course of events, Lola finds herself a free agent in a world can be manipulated by playing to its own internal rules. Should she fail, she simply respawns in a Groundhog Day-like rebirth, presented with the chance to not just affect her own future, but those of the people she bumps into along the way.

Right from the opening phone call, Tykwer throws at us a barrage of angles and shots in quick succession.
Then as each timeline resets, Tykwer flits between the falling bag and telephone in marvellous match cuts.

Paired with Lola’s race against time is a confronting sensory overload, beating us into submission at the feet of a relentless, ticking clock. It doesn’t take great leaps of the imagination to see why Edgar Wright has listed this among his top 40 films, or the significant influence it has had on his own creative, kinetic style. Run Lola Run is certainly among the best edited films of the 1990s, with its match cuts smoothly stitching together leaps between each segment, its constant restlessness in finding off-kilter angles to approach simple actions, and its synchronicity with the pulsing, electronic score that barely ever lets up. But even within its quick, sharp bursts of images, Tykwer’s camera is almost never static, as it circles, tracks, and dollies in on characters, impatiently pushing them to action. The three-pronged structure goes beyond a repetition of narrative events, but it is also the repetition of such audacious artistic choices as these which ground the film’s recklessly fast pace in a sense of familiarity. A long take through Lola’s apartment each time she leaves, a brief animated interlude as she makes her way out onto the street, a three-way split screen as she nears her destination – this is evidently a film that is built upon on its remarkable form as much as its blazing visual bravura.

Superb form in the repetition of shots, including this split-screen each time the deadline arrives.

It takes a performance as emphatically physical as the one which Franka Potente delivers here to match such dynamic direction. While she thrusts her body forward through space, her eyes remain keenly focused on the road ahead. Then, in moments of utter desperation, Lola lets out a supernaturally loud, glass-shattering scream, reverberating on a frequency which seems to bend the chaos of the universe to her will. At times it might seem like Lola’s influence is unlimited – after all, this is a woman who we have seen alter the course of a woman’s life with a single bump, sending her down paths of crime, wealth, and religion – but all it takes is a slight variation set in motion from an outside source to dispel that illusion of total control. In one powerful, form-breaking moment, Tykwer’s universe springs forth from its image as a neutral, mechanical contraption, and the presence of some deeper driving force emerges. There is indeed a logical consistency to the fatalism and free will in his effervescently metaphysical world, and yet just as Lola moulds it to her design, there is similarly an independent, enigmatic sentience present guiding her and everyone else along a path that only ever makes sense when we come to its end.

Canted angles, slow-motion, dissolves, match cuts, speedy tracking shots – Tykwer throws a lot at us fast, but the rhythmic pacing keeps it all together, marking Run Lola Run as a major achievement of editing and camerawork.

Run Lola Run is currently available to stream on SBS On Demand.