In the Blink of an Eye: Terrence Malick, Emotional Communication, and ‘The Thin Red Line’

How one split-second relates the film’s overarching message.

Terrence Malick as a filmic storyteller isn’t preoccupied so much with using narrative to advance his message as he is with visual poesy doing the job instead. What you see in a Malick film is often more important that what you hear, and on occasion the director’s been known to use inserts – non-linear imagery that flashes between frames too fast to be registered by the consciousness – to communicate directly to our emotions, by-passing our rationale and intellect in the process.

Editor “RW” has long been preoccupied with one of these inserts from The Thin Red Line, Malick’s 1998 hallucinatory film about a battle during the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. Though it is rife with action, The Thin Red Line is ultimately a meditation on war, a philosophical treatise played out through a spectrum of dozens of actors and perspectives all melding into a contemplative amalgam on life, death, and pretty much everything in-between. As such, Malick includes lots of imagery to convey his message, one such being a split-second flash of red in the middle of a battle scene. Upon closer inspection, RW discovered this flash wasn’t a splash of blood as expected, but a pair of photograms (pictures produced with photographic material like light-sensitive paper but not a camera) side-by-side depicting red fabric. This, of course, represents a little more than just bloodshed and the immediate consequences of war.

In the following, quite fascinating video, itself a narration-less meditation, RW presents this insert in context as the start of a survey of the use of red imagery in war films and the various connotations it typically takes versus how Malick uses it, which ultimately – as RW puts it in their written intro at the link – is to “militate against not only adversarial reductions of the other, but also against the property-oriented thinking and careerist egoism embodied by the higher-ups in the military system.” That’s a lot for a split-second to say, and it’s perhaps one of the most simultaneously stark and subtle examples of Terrence Malick’s cinematic genius and inimitability.

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