The Thin Red Line: Film and Nonduality. A Review by Berit Ellingsen
The kind of narratives that first leap to mind when thinking about film and nonduality, would be the biographical presentation of a specific teacher, his/her life teaching. The second type of story to communicate nonduality on film, would be the chronicle of a person’s discovery of nonduality and the impact this made on life. However, a movie could also be nondual in form without having nonduality as direct content or story line.
The camera and film in particular, may be especially well suited to express nonduality in form because of the visual nature of film and the representation of an all inclusive gaze that imoves through the environment which film affords.
In order to let the camera gaze speak for itself as much as possible, the movie presenting nonduality in form might need to have a low degree of visual subjectivity. Visual subjectivity in film is created by keeping the point of view of the movie to one or a few characters. This character is the initiator and actor of the events in the movie and the events are seen from his/her point of view only, often interchanged by many close ups of the central character, in order to convey subjectivity. A low degree of visual subjectivity would be created by doing the opposite; by having a character who mainly remains an observer to what is happening in the story, by having a lot of characters and no central character as the narrative viewpoint of the story. A number of films, among them “Grand Canyon” by Lawrence Kasdan and “Short Cuts” by Robert Altman use the latter technique to tell a story about a large group of characters, reflecting the multitudes of personal stories which can be found in large cities and in certain environments, but neither of these films can be said to express nonduality in content or in form.
Few movies display a low degree of subjectivity and fewer can be said to have nonduality as part of the story line. The best example of nonduality and film I can think of is the 1998 WW2 drama “The Thin Red Line” directed by Terrence Malick. (More info on “The Thin Red Line”. Images and a short excerpt from the script can be found here).
“The Thin Red Line” is centered around the fighting of US troops in 1942 to take Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during WW2. The build up to the invasion and the ensuing battles are followed through the eyes of several characters, some of them unnamed, some of whom we only see for a few seconds before they’re killed in the fighting. The voiceover, one storyteller’s voice, switches between the characters, allowing each to speak their mind about the battles and the time before the war. The voiceover creates the impression that the characters’ sentiments do not differ that much from each other and that their experiences, both before and during the war, are quite similar; ie the voiceover doesn’t convey a high degree of subjectivity.
Although “The Thin Red Line” has close ups of faces and hands and after a while centers on a few characters that are important for carrying the storyline forward, the movie also has a lot of long shots, showing the environment surrounding the characters in a neutral way, with a marked lack of visual tension. This kind of observing and neutral cinematography is unusual for war movies, where the visual expression is usually focused on creating a tense experience by presenting the events as seen from the point of view of one or a few characters, with whom the audience can strongly identify . Thus, many viewers were confused about “The Thin Red Line”, in particular the long shots showing the soldiers’ natural surroundings and the interchanging voice overs, finding them hard to understand and even superfluous for a war movie. Some commented that it looked as if the film crew were trying to make a nature film instead of a movie about an event in WW2. My interpretation of those shots is that they depict the surroundings being neutral to the characters’ warring, yet constantly being there as the unblinking and all inclusive Presence.
Maybe the best example of this visual indication of Presence is a scene where one character, Sgt. Welsh (played by Sean Penn) finds the grave of Pvt. Witt, a man who had previously told him he “saw a spark in everyone”. Sgt. Welsh looks at the grave of his dead subordinate and yells: “Where’s your spark now?” As a reply, the camera retracts from the character into a long shot (a shot seen from a distance) of the character and the area behind and around him. This shot could of course be interpreted to mean that the spark Witt saw in everyone isn’t to be found anywhere at all, but this doesn’t conform with other parts of the story. Instead, I take the long shot to mean the opposite, that the spark Witt mentioned is to be found everywhere, surrounding the grave and the character and including everything and everyone.
The ending shots of the movie can be seen to express nonduality in form and content as well. The battle for Gualdalcanal is over and the various characters we have been following throughout the movie prepare to board ships that will either take them home, for those who have served their time, or further into the South Pacific, towards Japan, for those whose service time isn’t yet over. The camera retracts to a long shot of different characters boarding the ship but doesn’t stay with any of them. The characters’ voice over sounds, but the voices do not seem to represent one particular character, instead it seems as if the different characters are speaking independently of which character is shown on screen. One character voices the words: “Who were you that I lived with, walked with? The brother, the friend? Strife and love, darkness and light–are they the workings of one mind, features of the same face? Oh my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” Other quotes communicate similar ideas about a shared existence: “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of. All faces are the same man, one big self. Everyone looking for salvation by himself. Each like a coal drawn from the fire.”
Not too many movies present or suggest nonduality by form or by content, and in that light, “The Thin Red Line” isn’t only a very well made (and realistic) movie with an interesting and captivating story and a superb cinematography, but also a unique experiment in visual storytelling and communication. I don’t know whether “The Thin Red Line” was meant to depict nonduality at all, or whether the nondual “message” comes from the viewer only, but I nevertheless recommend the movie for viewing and your own judgement and enjoyment.
I look forward to seeing The Thin Red Line. Many years ago, I saw Short Cuts and had a brief awakening experience of bliss during a scene about halfway through the film. I thought this was very odd and unexpected at the time, because the content of Altman’s film could hardly be said to be happy. What made be feel such joy was the experience he conveyed of inter-subjectivity, of some deep connection between the characters that they did not see themselves. I don’t know if Altman meant to convey this, but I felt it on a very deep level. You’ve just reminded me of this, so thank you very much.