A Letter from Stanley Cavell (2001)


Introduction (April 2023): Around the year 2000, the Australian art critic/philosopher Rex Butler & I imagined editing a book together about the relation between Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) and the cinema. (Several such tomes, in various languages, have appeared in subsequent decades.) While the idea lasted, it involved both of us separately contacting Cavell, to see if we could engage him in an ongoing email dialogue. Rex’s effort in this direction resulted in a discussion of Cavell’s work on film comedy and melodrama (see here). For my part – since I was also working, at the time, on a book (still unfinished today) on Terrence Malick – I decided to ask his opinion of The Thin Red Line (1998). This is the sole response I received from Cavell; I print it verbatim because (as Rex remarked in his introductory note) “as with everything he writes, it gives one an insight into his unique tone of voice, his intellectual curiosity and his generosity as a human being”.

Dear Adrian Martin,

I’m glad you tried again; your former note did not reach me. I am grateful to you for reviving the exchange with Rex Butler which I enjoyed beginning and then let get swamped by other commitments and distractions. And of course it makes me happy to imagine the sort of volume you and Rex Butler are planning in response to my work on film. I would love to know details.

I wonder if I can be of help with The Thin Red Line. I am ashamed to say I have seen it just once, and rueful that I have never myself found the way over the years to writing at any length about Malick’s achievement. But if you were interested in the tiny moments I have addressed to Malick’s work, maybe I can provide some additional spur for you concerning the new film. It means that I will have to risk mostly banalities – since I don´t know your specific interests, and I don’t like talking about objects I care about unless I have something very specific that sets me off. Maybe you could inspire more help from me if you told me a bit about what you are doing. I certainly need, and sharply want, to see the film again, and perhaps need some occasion (such as your request) to get around to it.

Not that I have hung back because I was less impressed by it than by his first two films [i.e., Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)]. It is rather that, as with those, it is so clear that more is going on that demands study – for all the immediacy of the images – that you (or I) don’t dare get into it until I have time to stay with it. But I won’t make excuses. It’s you who are doing the work and if anything I say in an improvised moment prompts a word you wouldn’t otherwise have said, I am content.

With Malick you can never go wrong in pressing metaphysical aspirations as far as they will go. And since this film declares its philosophical ambitions in its voices, you can never go wrong in being as specifically attentive to what they say as you can bring into your thoughts about the film. I think one might tell from the sense of thought under pressure in his films – as if the desire to think as a human being is everywhere at once called forth from the world and silenced by it – that Malick spends his time as a philosopher, in the company (if only in his head) of thinkers, or of sentences as if a thinker had forged them, as if film might retrieve the sense of the world and of words in it that escape us every moment, as if we no longer have time for ourselves.

My abject confession here is that, while the narrative voices are so clearly an inspiration of the film (and so ache to be compared with the young women’s narrative voices in the earlier films), I not only at this distance would not trust myself to refer to a line, but I could not (who could on one viewing?) keep track of who is speaking/thinking. Nor have I gone back to James Jones’s novel, which indeed I never finished reading when it came out (some greeted it with more interest than From Here to Eternity). But Malick would be capable of wringing poetry out of, or seeing poetry frozen in, tracts of writing that others would pass by without a nod. And, before all, he would go for intellectual accuracy (or respond to the accuracy of the words, judging whether the speaker or thinker of them is up to them).

About the immediacy of visual declaration. I feel here, as with the other two films, that so much beauty is meant to place its own demand. It seemed to me that I have never seen nature wear this particular visage. In part it is a function of, let’s say, the animism of nature that Malick is brave enough to want and to wait for, as when the soldiers fall dead into tall grass and Malick stays in the moment until the grass responds, in the wind and clouds and sun, by altering its aspect, brightening with grief. But the sheer strangeness of these outbursts of nature goes beyond Malick’s having found “locations” that are unfamiliar (hard as that is to do at this stage of voracious, insatiable, indiscriminate cameras). It is a matter of how he makes you think again about what philosophers used to call man’s place in nature (on the whole, philosophers don’t think much about nature any longer – Heidegger, Malick’s master, does), say about whether war is a natural or a cultural event, hence whether the human is a natural or cultural event. Rilke famously says, “Beauty is but the beginning of terror”. It is as if Malick asks whether we have any longer the capacity to be terrified at what we do. Does the imagination of paradise enliven or deaden us to the world?

And so on. I envy you your plan for the Malick book. I so much wish I had the script [i.e., of The Thin Red Line]. I wonder if you could arrange to publish the script, with an introduction (comparing it with the novel, etc.)? Given Malick’s attention to words – the very fact that he makes them sometimes hard to hear seems to me a way of emphasizing their importance, important enough for their hearing to be fought for – could make that an invaluable accompaniment to your book.

I must stop and take my miserable cold back to bed.

With all good wishes,

Stanley Cavell


© Archive of Adrian Martin 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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