Academic journal article Text Matters

At the Margins of the World: The Nature of Limits in Terrence Malick's the Thin Red Line

Academic journal article Text Matters

At the Margins of the World: The Nature of Limits in Terrence Malick's the Thin Red Line

Article excerpt

The Power of Limits

In Terrence Malick's magisterial third feature, The Thin Red Line (1998), an interpretation of James Jones's 1962 novel of that title, there is one especially striking scene. During the Guadalcanal campaign, World War II, an American battalion begins its assault on Hill 210; the fortress is controlled by Japanese soldiers. As Charlie Company makes its ascent amidst the exploding grenades, the war scene is interrupted by shots of the lush natural environment. There is a close-up of a bird chick struggling out of its shell. The newborn creature takes care of itself while the humans, unprotected, hurl themselves towards the treacherous hilltop. A soldier struggling along on his stomach nearly collides with a snake, which has business of its own. The Thin Red Line presents a continual mise-en-scène of natural environments which make their own thresholds with the human world. At first glance, nature may appear to be at the margins of the film's narrative of warfare. However, I shall argue that Malick's inscription of nature at the cinematic margins illuminates this work's central vision.1

By "central vision" I mean the audiovisual construction of the title and theme: there is a thin red line between life and death. Death defines limits and is perpetually at the margin of life. With this in mind, The Thin Red Line invites a dialogue with Jacques Derrida's concept of "margins." In "Tympan" (ix-xxix), the introductory chapter to Margins of Philosophy (1986), Jacques Derrida announces that limits are what make philosophy possible:

Being at the limit: these words do not yet form a proposition, and even less a discourse. But there is enough in them, provided that one plays upon it, to engender almost all the sentences in this book. (x)

In his chapter, Derrida experiments with limits by typographically dividing the page into two. The large chunk of text on the left-hand side carries the more philosophical discourse. This is complemented on the righthand side; its narrow margin is replete with mixed metaphors. Derrida typographically stages a philosophical discourse aware of its limits, placing it directly across from a margin which refuses such limits. From here, Derrida writes in poetic fragments. He introduces the mythological character of Persephone and places her in an environment thick with nature images and ecological metaphors. As the reader progresses, it becomes evident that the margins are indispensable; they may indeed be providing the essay's central thesis.

Malick's cinematic vision of nature forms the marginal "notes" which comprise his film's main theme. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), who possesses most of the poetic voice-overs, wonders whether "all men got one big soul." But such a deep regard for communion comes at a price. What is required is a confrontation with the facts of human finitude. Philosophical, psychoanalytical and artistic responses to human mortality have been richly articulated by Kaja Silverman in her most recent book, Flesh of My Flesh (2009). Her chapter on The Thin Red Line, "All Things Shining," examines this theme by following a host of thinkers from Freud to Heidegger and Romain Rolland to Lou Andreas-Salomé. Silverman's introduction to the book reminds us that Heidegger goes back to the basics of "totality" and his abiding concern for "beings as a whole" (Silverman 11). My aim is to forge a deeper connection between the theme of human finitude and Malick's staging of nature as a force which teaches the power of limits.

To do this I shall engage a three-way dialogue between three works: Derrida's philosophical and poetic exploration of margins, Silverman's Heideggerian and psychoanalytic reading of Malick's aesthetics of finitude and The Thin Red Line. This film explores the margins between nature and the human condition by disabusing the human ego of status and selfinterest. Once shorn away, a "shining" remains. This emanates from what Private Witt conceives to be the "workings of one mind. …

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