In terms of fashion, the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever is fixed in time and place. Its disco beats, big collar polyester shirts, bellbottoms and platform shoes place it squarely in late 1970’s big-city America. The economic milieu of the film situates it less. The time we’re living in now bears some similarity: young working class people living with their parents skeptical of the future. Beyond purely artistic considerations, which are prodigious (fine performances and cinematic flow, stellar dancing from John Travolta and music), the enduring power of the film comes from universal human characteristics. It is not some peculiarity of 1970’s America that determines characters like those we see in Saturday Night Fever—dancing joyously one moment, plunging into abysses of self-doubt the next. This is the human experience itself.
A memory in the breaking flesh
Moves and quickens into momentary music, and world
Complicates in stubborn refusals to be all bad.
—writes Alfred Corn in the beautiful poem, Accident, in which someone close to the narrator brushes death in an unspecified accident. Coming this close to mortality causes him to see it everywhere: “All fall forward daily into death, to what conclusion?” He is afraid of his own fall, his own “drop into sleep”, but he must and when he does, sleep shows mercy, that “breaking flesh/ moves and quickens into momentary music….”. He wants to communicate this, all of it, including, “the blue of the street lamp, the wrung darkness, the ambulance beacon beating like a heart” to his friend who he tells us, “couldn’t listen to anger or pity”. We can respect the choice of his friend, lying in a hospital bed, possibly dying, yet having no time or need for anger or pity. What shall we say, sitting by her side? “And still,” the poet writes, “experience falls forward into words; falls short of an answer; though everything is well perceived”.
In both poem and film the idea of the eternal question about the half glass of water is translated into things: people and their situations and actions. We see in the film failures, falls and mercies—even moments of grace. Failures of language abound, from domestic arguments to miscommunications (even comical ones, such as the scene about Tony’s rate of pay in the hardware store), to total communication failures like the one resulting in a misguided gangbang. The most tragic communication failure is the unwillingness or inability of anyone at all to listen to Bobby C’s cry for help, resulting in his leap off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We see communication failures of a physical type: misread and misdirected sexual cues and energies, resulting in Annette’s rape and Tony’s near-rape of Stephanie. There are many crises of self-doubt in the film. Apart from those mentioned there are those with an economic basis: Tony’s father is unemployed, the whole gang worry about their future in the job market, Stephanie feels compelled to make decisions she is not proud of, etc. Mercies interrupt these failures and doubts throughout. They of course revolve around the disco and its opportunities for momentary release and escape.
The back and forth motion of this schizoid world shakes like an earthquake during moments of crisis. We see this the night after Tony has violated Stephanie and Bobby C has plunged from the bridge, resulting in a moment of lucidity for Tony without answers yet containing a little seed of hope in the form of a note of grace from Stephanie. She accepts his distraught and heartfelt apology and there, across the bridge in Manhattan—which feels like a giant step—she takes his hand in friendship.
What really makes the conclusion believable, which is to say what gives it depth, is an earlier scene in which Tony and Stephanie sit on a park bench in view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Tony seems to break out of the unformed dyad that he is—widely vacillating between super-confidence as a dancing god and abject insecurity as a man in the world—in an unexamined desire to tell her something he knows about the world outside himself: his knowledge about the bridge. Their shared laughter at the image of a worker falling to his death into unset concrete comes like a little burst of relief: they are alive and well. It works like a charm, and at the very moment he wasn’t even trying. Her kiss is the grace note he needed.
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is also an American story fixed in time and place: the WWII battle at Guadalcanal. And it too is a universal story. Each character in the film confronts death and in death sees unvarnished (de-anthropomorphized) nature. Each character is transfixed by the vision, though there always comes a point to put it into words, and each responds in his own way.
There’s no need to list the failures in The Thin Red Line. War is failure. But what of the war mentioned at the beginning of the film in one of the chorus of voiceover narrations that accompany throughout? “What is this war at the heart of nature?” it asks. Is this a failure, and if so, what kind? These questions, and many others, are human probes into the unknown, fired off at the height of our lucidity, in the face of death. At some point in the film each character is transfixed by this vision and it defines his orientation to himself, his society and his world. It would seem there are almost as many responses as there are people, which justifies the chorus Terrence Malick uses. The thin red line, it would seem, is that very thin, very nebulous line, drawn in blood and falling away as quickly as an ice crystal, that the human crosses from the unexamined human world to the vision of nature beyond human categories and therefore beyond language, yet containing them as it contains everything else. The line is crossed and nature, as it were, becomes chaos for some, cosmos for others.
Short of death humans always fall back on words, and while it may be true that nature is neither cruel nor beautiful, but beyond human categories and indifferent to our concerns, we cannot help but notice how dependent we are on the earth we attempt to tame, and we struggle to maintain poise on that philosophical line.
Some of the most absorbing scenes of the film are encounters between characters after they’ve crossed the line. Two of these pairings are of particular interest: the one between Colonel Tall and Captain Staros, and the one between Private Witt and Sergeant Welsh.
All four characters are drawn in bold strokes, almost representing character types rather than individuals. Colonel Tall is so determined to take the hill that he is willing to risk nearly any sacrifice to win. Captain Staros’s relationship to the men is so priest-like that the Colonel feels he has no choice but to relieve the Captain of command (“Look at this jungle,” the Colonel instructs Staros, gesturing toward vines choking a tree, “Nature is cruel”). Private Witt dances like an aerial artist on his own line, steadfastly refusing the human categories imposed on him. Sergeant Welsh admires Witt but it is unlikely he will ever go AWOL or advance in the ranks; he’s too busy steeling himself in protection of the little spark of soul he has left. Like Tony each man contains his own contradiction. The Colonel’s obsession to win spiritually depletes him. Staros’s spirituality will not allow him to order men to actions that will lead to probable death, when of course that is required of a military commander. Witt cannot dance on that line forever. He too becomes transfixed by death and then must face his own: the only decision that holds dignity is to raise his rifle like the soldier he is, knowing it will be his last act. Welsh believes that, “in this world one man, himself, is nothing” and at the same time, “only one thing a man can do, make an island for himself”. He does not mean a physical island, but an interior one. A consummate soldier, he is nevertheless sickened by the suggestion of a Silver Star for an act of valor, spitting it back in his commander’s face.
These and other players join the chorus of voiceovers. As viewers we add our own. Watching the film with a friend we compare sympathies and antipathies, imagine what our own response to the face of death might be, given similar circumstances, although we can be sure the combinations of ways to witness and face death are infinite. Most of us will probably never truly know how we will meet death until we do. Words will be of no use then, but for now they’re what we fall back on, short of answers.
From our human point of view (and what other can we have?) we might say that nature is cruel because of the senseless random pain it inflicts and the death it imposes on every thing it has brought to life. But we might also say that it is glorious in the transcendent beauty, joy and love it inspires. Glory, we might decide, could have no meaning without the deepest and darkest kind of pain. We might say that nature is all of it all mixed up all at once, like a vine-choked tree in the shining sun after a sudden storm. All things shining, however tenuous the hold. For me such words fall flat like platitudes. I like Alfred Corn’s approach. For me, poetry is the best use of language. But even the best of our words (and acts) come up to meet Nature in her silence, and though everything is well perceived, they, and us with them, fall, always and away, into silence.