What do artists do?

Today I came across this article on Slate discussing the method by which Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was filmed and edited. I can’t say it surprised me, exactly, since The Thin Red Line is sort of a mess, I suppose. But it was a film that touched me very deeply in an extremely negative and shocking way.

My mother had been a big Malick fan from way back (the only kind of Malick fan there was at the time, since his last film was made in 1978), and she was super-excited about his new movie. She went to see it when it first came out, and brought me with her to see it again when I was home on break from college. She came to regret it.

I started crying about halfway through the movie, and didn’t stop for four hours after it was over. We tried to wait for me to stop before leaving the theater, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t drive, because I couldn’t see straight. Mom pulled over when she spotted a liquor store and went in to buy beer. It’s the first time I remember getting drunk in front of my mother. I was 19.

Something dramatic happened while I was drunk that night; my sister-in-law and a friend of my brother’s tried to raid my house to steal some stuff, and while she tried to fend them off, my mom was also trying to keep them from seeing me, drunk and crying on the couch. I was inconsolable. Mom kept saying, over and over, how sorry she was that she’d done this to me. She just thought it was a good movie.

I don’t remember much about the movie itself, except that there were a lot of odd voice-overs and shots of grass and birds. But I do remember how I felt, and I can’t remember anything else in my life making me that upset, at least not since I was a little child. It got to me. It may have changed me. I haven’t been able to watch a violent movie without turning away since then. Since then, I just tell people who want me to see this or that potentially traumatic film, “No, thank you. I’m sensitive.” I tell them it’s because of violent episodes in my own life, which really happened, but they happened long after I stopped being able to go to traumatic movies.

It’s possible that I’m just sensitive. But in high school, I was the sort who watched Reservoir Dogs without blinking, and read all of Irvine Welsh’s novels. The Thin Red Line was the first thing I’d ever encountered that made me feel hollowed out, or–better–harrowed. It was harrowing. There was something about it that hypnotized me completely. I can feel that feeling coming a mile off now and I turn the other way.

So now there is this article saying something about Malick’s method:

According to one of The Thin Red Line‘s three editors, Billy Weber, Malick saw a full version of the film exactly once: a five-hour work print assembled during the 18-month-long post-production process, and screened for him under some duress. (“We forced him to watch,” Weber says in an interview.) Otherwise, Malick edited by watching one reel at a time, with the sound off, while listening to a Green Day CD. If he missed any dialogue, it stayed in; if he didn’t, it would likely be supplanted by music or voiceover.

More is available at the link. So this is how even life-changing sausage gets made?

3 responses to “What do artists do?”

  1. Stella says:

    He owes you big time.

  2. Do you know what it was about TRL? (I haven’t seen it.) Have any other war movies had that effect — is the effect associated with some class of movies or just with particular instances?

  3. A White Bear says:

    I don’t really know. I think it was aesthetic overload, plus violence? The New World upset me too, but not quite as much.

    Probably the closest reaction I’ve had to that was Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Malick is clearly a Tarkovsky fan, so that makes sense. I guess both of them made me feel like I understood death in some new and horrible way.