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Cinema of Compassion

Amelie Hastie


[W]hat is the good of film experience?

                                                                   -- Siegfried Kracauer (1)


Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them. And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.

                                                                   -- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (2)



1. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 285.



2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1981), pp. 46-47.  

Think of the repeated image of the landscape of war in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998): the waving green grass that remains on the hills as soldiers rush forward to their deaths. In one long sequence that oscillates between the peaceful changing light on the hill and the harrowing deaths of men who cross it, we cut to a soldier hidden in the blades as he catches his breath. ‘Calm down, calm down, calm down, calm down’, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) mechanically entreats, and we cut to men rushing through the grass, killed one after the other. We return, again and again, to these images of the green hills – so much so that, upon its insistence, the grass seems infinite, endless. Though definitively ephemeral in its individual strands that surround the gasping soldier, its masses together invoke a state of permanence, mooring us in the earth.


Because of the image of this landscape’s insistence on life, we are in turn violently unmoored by the soldiers’ frantic movement across it. This contrast, these opposing rhythms, form an exhortation that the film continuously extends. There is the grass waving on the hills. And there come the bodies of soldiers, charging forward into their deaths. Thus, the cyclical permanence of the natural world juts against the transience of human life. And together, as in Lily Briscoe’s narration above, these ‘separate incidents’ of life ‘become curled and whole like a wave’. In watching the soldiers run forward on the hill, whether en masse in an ascent, or as they are each hit by gunfire with their bodies flung forward and back, I experience the sensation that she here describes: the wave of images bears me up with it and throws me down with it, ‘there, with a dash on the beach’. And in this dash, borne of the clash between the natural world and the transient human bodies rushing through it, comes the potential for our own magnified perception – our meditation on being – and, in that, an invitation to feel with what we see.


In attempting to define what she means by ‘moments of being’ (as opposed to the ‘cotton wool’ of ‘non-being’), Virginia Woolf tells a story of a fight with her brother as a child: ‘We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness’. (3) She goes on to describe another instance: ‘I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower’. (4) These stories appeal to me not just for their revelation of the complexity of feeling in and of themselves, but also in the connections between the revelations: the young Virginia’s refusal to inflict pain on her brother seems a result of her recognition of their shared rootedness (‘another person’), not merely as siblings but as people together in the world (‘part earth; part flower’). This is the shared rootedness which film also has the potential to show us. Siegfried Kracauer would call this phenomenon an element of film’s endlessness, its capacity to record and reveal the ‘flow of life’. As he writes, ‘it is as if the medium were animated by the chimerical desire to establish the continuum of physical existence’. (5) He later notes film’s ‘affinities’ with photography and, in turn, the world it records:




3. Virginia Woolf (ed. Jeanne Schulkind), ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Moments of Being (New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1985), p. 71.  

4. Ibid., p. 71.  



5. Kracauer, p. 63


  Due to the continuous influx of the psychophysical correspondences thus aroused, they suggest a reality which may fittingly be called ‘life’. This term as used here denotes a kind of life which is still intimately connected, as if by an umbilical cord, with the material phenomena from which its emotional and intellectual contents emerge. Now films tend to capture physical existence in its endlessness. (6)  



6. Ibid., p. 71.

I consider these possibilities of rootedness and of the extension of life – its ‘endlessness’ – through a series of images from three contemporary films. My choice of films and images is somewhat arbitrary, grounded in this context in which they come together; but they represent broader trends in contemporary independent and global cinema that invite us to pause and reflect on connections between our natural world and our social relations in it – what Kracauer terms ‘psychophysical correspondences’. The visual movement between the natural and social worlds in these films inherently suggests a shared rootedness both between them and between us as social beings, all the while enabling us to feel and then to understand a rhythm of being.




This rhythm of being is rooted in film’s ability to record and reveal movement: Malick’s waving grass, the soldier’s running bodies. And both a sense of this rootedness and its unmooring comes again and again in the soldiers’ encounters with the natural world. Early in The Thin Red Line, as a private waits on the hill for further battle, he runs his fingers across a leaf attached to a blade of grass and observes it folding into itself, seemingly refusing the violence that surrounds it, instead finding a protective shell in and of itself. As Kracauer repeatedly suggests, movement is itself indicative of being. In the case of this leaf of grass, even the slightest movement recorded and projected is evidence of a life force, or even a visual manifestation of breath. Indeed, film’s revelation of the world is what Gaston Bachelard, after Baudelaire, would say is ‘vast’. Vast is a declaration of immensity, the immensity of possibility. This possibility is evident in our vocalisation of the word itself. As he writes, ‘The word vast, then, is a vocable of breath. It is placed on our breathing, which must be slow and calm’. (7) The calm transmitted through the word, as in Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondences’, is ‘infinite’. Bachelard continues: ‘With it, we take infinity into our lungs, and through it, we breathe cosmically, far from human anguish’. (8)


I love an image that makes me conscious of my own breath, whether it comes in a gasp, a steady rhythm, or a moment in which my breath literally stops. Our own breathing with the image is part of film’s (chimerical) animation of the life before us. (9) Indeed, its quality of movement – and therefore its demonstration of life itself – animates even the inanimate, as we take in the images on the screen. Woolf also described this phenomenon, possible in our very acts of perception and attention, again, in To the Lighthouse. Here Mrs Ramsay considers the world before her, looking out at the lighthouse:






7. Gaston Bachelard (trans. Maria Jolas), The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 196. Earlier, he writes: ‘Here we discover that immensity in the intimate domain is intensity, an intensity of being, the intensity of a being evolving in a vast perspective of intimate immensity’, p. 193.  

8. Ibid., p. 197.  

9. Editors' Note: See Ross Gibson, ‘The Searchers – Dismantled’, Rouge, no. 7 (2005),

  It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; that they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. (10)  


10. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, pp. 63-4.

It is not simply that film captures an animated world, a world in motion; film animates. It animates the inanimate: the still, the unmoving, the concrete. It reveals that which is already moving as an animated body. And it animates us as we watch.




Now think of the ocean in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002): the film opens with an image purely of the water. The camera does not move. The water simply moves before us. We are both grounded and unmoored by this image. We do not know where we are; but we know we are with the water. Soon we move from the surface of the water to a place under the water, within the water, and a young girl’s voice rises out of the image: In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader.


This sense of waiting is an entreaty – to be filled up, to be loved, to be led. In the film, this is a moment in which we are entreated to look and listen. We are invited to feel with the image before us. So, in response to the emptiness – or the immensity – of the moving water, we are next placed immediately in another scene: a hospital, a woman in labour, her husband at her side. The camera – an inanimate thing – is unsteady. In its movement, it reveals the urgency of this scene of birth, of imminent death. It begins in slow motion without synchronous sound; as the tempo increases, sound comes into being with the mother’s cries in pain. Her husband wraps his hand around her head, caressing her hair; the doctor’s hand then moves her hair away from her face as well. The young girl’s voice returns to direct us, to hold us first in this scene and then as we move between it and the ocean and back again: And he came on the back of the whale, a man to lead the people, our ancestor. Paikea. But now we were waiting for the firstborn of the new generation … for the boy who would be chief. As we return to the scene of labour, the wife’s condition becomes increasingly urgent, and the husband looks startled, bereft, helpless nearly to the point of being absent from the scene (and in a cut to his face filling the frame alone, he is in a sense absent from her). She does not look at him or at the doctor. Finally we see nothing but the mother’s face in extreme close-up; now the camera takes the place of those hands that moments before caressed her. It moves towards her, without actually touching her. Its absence – at least its lack of touch – is our absence; we can only witness her last breaths as she utters her child’s name: ‘Paikea. Paikea’. In response to her entreaty, the child’s face appears as the mirror opposite to its mother: her mouth is open as if to cry but instead is just starting to take breath. This image is vast in its immensity and its intimacy of being. Watching it, my own breath stops, stutters. The girl’s voice returns as the camera moves from the child’s mouth to its eye, opening wide: There was no gladness when I was born. My twin brother died and took our mother with him.


And this is the story of the film, its rhythms: an emptiness that needs to be filled.




In Rhythmanalysis – a meditation on rhythms and patterns in space, of time, of thought – Henri Lefebvre describes the alternating movement between pleasure and pain:


  Pleasure and joy demand a re-commencement. They await it; yet it escapes. Pain returns. It repeats itself, since the repetition of pleasure gives rise to pain(s). However, joy and pleasure have a presence, whereas pain results from an absence (that of a function, an organ, a person, an object, a being). Joy and pleasure are, they are being; not so suffering. (11)   11. Henri Lefebvre (trans. Stuart Elden), Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 12.

Pain is most evident in the loss and thus the absence of life. Certainly, that is the case as Whale Rider opens. But, at the same time, pain and absence are enacted together in the presence of Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes). She does not exist as the thing that her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) wanted; she is a reminder of that which is not there (a boy, a future male leader). This pain of absence is inscribed on her body before us: in her tears, for instance, as she asks her father, ‘Why doesn’t he want me?’; or as she recites a speech in honour of her grandfather Koro who is, at that moment, absent from the space of the audience.


Yet her grandfather is also there before us, in the scene which alternates with Paikea’s speech. In fact, the sequence begins with Koro hearing the cry of the whales, then shifts to a children’s dance performance, Paikea front and center. In her speech that follows, Paikea tells us the story of her ancestors and the contemporary expectations: ‘But I was not the leader my grandfather was expecting, and by being born I broke the line back to the ancient ones, but it wasn’t anybody’s fault. It just happened’. And she is answered by her grandfather on the beach, who looks at an immensity of trapped whales between sand and water and asks: ‘Who is to blame?’ We return to Paikea, as if to answer his question, but she says, ‘We can learn that if the knowledge is given to everyone, then we can have lots of leaders, so that everyone will be strong, not just the ones that have been chosen. Because sometimes, even if you’re the leader and you need to be strong, you can get tired...’ Crying, she finishes her speech, ending with the ancestor Paikea’s chant. Certainly these alternating scenes, with their alternating dialogue, are rhythms as well, ones which – as a call and response – demand a return to Paikea’s imagination of the future. In these scenes and those that follow, pain repeats itself, and then joy re-commences.




Repetition in Whale Rider invokes difference; for Lefebvre, such alterity is essential to rhythm. In this way, ‘rhythm implies a certain memory’; it ‘preserves both the measure that initiates the process and the recommencement of this process with modifications, therefore with its multiplicity and plurality’. (12) This is the rhythm, too, of The Thin Red Line, especially the daydreams of Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin) of his wife Marty (Miranda Otto) back home; his memories become our own, in their repetition across the film. His reveries begin before the soldiers embark from their ship and continue as they land and climb the hill. His third reverie comes amidst an ascent. As the US troops seem to be in a holding pattern on the grassy hill below a substantial Japanese rampart, a soldier suddenly appears in a crazed frenzy, having lost a dozen men. Refusing to be touched, he escapes the group he enters into and appears alone in a medium close-up, centre screen. Taking a handful of the earth, he slowly drops it before him, muttering, ‘Dirt. We’re all just dirt’. Following this desperate moment, Jack is ordered to climb the hill alone to gauge the enemy’s position. He looks towards us; with a cut, he moves sideways, from right to left, across the screen; with another cut, he moves from the centre forward, his back to us; and with another, he emerges in the grass, moving towards us again. Into his movement across the grassy hill comes an image of Jack’s back to us, his wife’s head buried in his neck and shoulders, as they glide in an embrace. The cuts in this scene are similarly directional to those of Jack’s manoeuvres on the hill: their hands and faces crawl across the screen, towards and away from each other’s bodies. Then from a shot of a curtain waving away from an open window, we cut to another scene: Jack’s wife beckons him to follow her into the ocean, her voice-over asynchronously calling him, ‘Come out, come out where I am’. And here again we cut to an imperceptible body moving impossibly fast through the grass. With one more cut, Jack faces us again, and our view shifts to what he sees on the hill.



12. Lefebvre, p. 79.







His reconnaissance complete (he has spied five guns in a Japanese bunker), the film pauses again, almost exactly midway. A series of images of soldiers at semi-rest ensues: first we see Witt (Jim Caviezel), the near-central figure in a film that largely refuses such character-driven mooring, in conversation with Sgt Welsh (Sean Penn), who insists that, in spite of what he might believe, Witt has ‘only this world’. Next we see another soldier erupting on a hillside, challenging his own imminent death (is it the one who held the dirt in his hands, moments before?). And then we cut to Jack, lying in the grass. His head against the ground, we might envision Woolf’s flower (‘part earth; part flower’), as if Jack himself were bred of the earth. And in this connection to the natural world begins another reverie which seems a recommencement of the last one. His own voice now beckons his wife across time and space: ‘We. We together. One being’. He grasps her from behind. Their bodies move like the rhythm of breath itself, fluttering towards one another and away, his hands near breasts, heart, lungs, the very site of her breathing; with the refusal of contact a kiss would bring, they sustain an infinite state of desire. Together they are suspended in a rhythm of intimate being – held together at the forearms and below the waists yet simultaneously leaning away from one another. In fact, in that movement of leaning away is their very suspension together. The space between and around them is immensity, the intimacy of their being. Jack exhorts: ‘Flow together like water, ‘til I can’t tell you from me’. We leave them for a moment, returning not to the battlefield but the sky above it, until Jack whispers, ‘I drink you. Now, now’, and we see his wife in the bath, her back to us, Jack’s hand caressing her. ‘Now’ returns us to the grassy hill again, to be followed by a shot of Staros, wearily eating his dinner from a can, looking upwards at the moon, as his own voice-over whispers, ‘You’re my light, my guide’, itself a return to his earlier prayer: ‘Let me not betray you, let me not betray my men’.



Perhaps the problem with love, whether Jack’s for his wife or Staros’ for his soldiers, is that it illuminates an emptiness waiting to be filled: an entreaty. (It is an entreaty vocalised in the repetition of words uttered by Jack and his wife: ‘come out, come out’, ‘we, we’, ‘now, now’. And it is another kind of entreaty in the echo of the soldier’s announcement of ‘dirt, dirt’ or Staros’ ‘my light, my guide’.) The sensation of loving someone or something responds to that entreaty and, in its insistence, our bodies feel fuller – of breath, of blood, of that which moves through us. The Thin Red Line, like Whale Rider, makes visible this emptiness, and the hope of it being filled. But our returns to the possibility of fulfillment are a recommencement of both sadness and satisfaction, and this is the rhythm of desire. As such, we feel, with the film, the register of an inseparability of being with the world.




Film theory rooted in the 1970s and since, developed through psychoanalytic and ideological analysis in particular, enabled us to see the processes of identification designed by classical Hollywood film. Based therefore in questions of power – the spectator’s unconscious sense of power in relation to the image and the cinematic apparatus’ power over the spectator – this theoretical approach, still relevant today, locks us in a struggle with the image. Films like The Thin Red Line or Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) offer other possibilities.


Unlocked from the inflexibility of classical continuity style, these films explore the experience of perception itself. In so doing, they enable a different identity: not with the film (or its apparatus) but in relation to it and its images. In Theory of Film, Kracauer suggests that film ‘aims at transforming the agitated witness into the conscious observer’. (13) In linking together the natural and social worlds, enabling a psychophysical correspondence, these new instances of cinematic realism suggest something other than a model of control over our agitation. That is, in our emerging consciousness, we might recognise and enact a spectatorship based instead on a model of compassion. This is a compassion not just for characters (although that may be part of it), but also simply for being in the world.

  13. Kracauer, p. 58.  

Like Whale Rider and The Thin Red Line, Winter’s Bone is an entreaty, if not an outright demand, for such compassion. In it, teenager Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) attempts to locate her errant, meth-cooking father in order to save her family’s house. The law cannot help her; that is the very structure that has threatened to foreclose on her home and kick her family out if her Dad does not resurface. Her mother is emotionally lost, so protection of the younger brother and sister is left to Ree. The film moves with her as she crosses through the desolate space of the Ozarks in order to find evidence of her father’s life or death. At the house of her Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), she sits with him at his kitchen table as he tends to his gun, nonchalantly using it to scratch his head before setting it down on the Lazy Susan, which he then spins about as if playing a child’s game. He stands up and takes a spin around the table himself. Ree asks if he knows where her father is; he tells her it is her father’s business if he does not want to be found. She pleads, matter-of-factly, ‘Listen’. And, in response, he whirls towards her and grabs her by the neck. In the span of barely twenty seconds, the film cuts eleven times, situating Teardrop over Ree in an act of terrifying violence. These cuts, with each shot in extreme close-up, quicken the violence. Ultimately the camera lands on his hands at the back of her head, her blonde hair slipping through his fingers just after he utters ‘No’. In this rapid series of images, Teardrop’s movement and the film’s editing of it together create a complex web, a multi-directional force which repeatedly reveals Ree at his mercy, seemingly under him from six different angles. As he finally moves away from his helpless niece, he stands for a second in the middle of the room, amidst a surprising ray of light – the smoke from his cigarette blowing upwards and away. A moment later, Ree is outside again in the empty landscape, with the desolation of the open space a welcome relief from the cluttered and violent interior of the preceding scene.



In ‘The Dialectics of Outside and Inside’, the final chapter of The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes a ‘mixture of being and nothingness’, and the threat of our banishment from ‘the realm of possibility’. About this mixture – between inside and outside – Bachelard asks: ‘In this drama of intimate geometry, where should one live?’ (14) Granik’s film, like Malick’s and Caro’s, is itself a form of ‘intimate geometry’. We live between the images before us, caught in the interstitial spaces between Teardrop’s violent movements towards Ree. As he holds her blonde hair in his hand, that space between his fingers is another emptiness that demands to be filled. And, in this moment, we can imagine an alternative response to her uncle’s ‘No’, perhaps the help that she needs. In effect, we drop our hands as Woolf describes doing as she fought her brother. Is that not the ‘good of film experience’?


Certainly such imaginative possibilities also exist between the characters of The Thin Red Line and the landscape they inhabit: the fingers that glide along the leaves of grass, the hands that grasp and let go of the dirt they hold, Witt’s sharing of his water with a leaf by the stream. In the midst of a horrifying raid on a Japanese camp two-thirds through the film, an American soldier’s voice (which one?) (15) asks: ‘This great evil – where did it come from? ... What sea, what root did it grow from? ... Does it help the grass to grow and the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?’ In seeming response, we see an American soldier, Dale (Arie Verveen), threaten a dying Japanese prisoner (Kengo Hasuo), calmly announcing, ‘I will sink my teeth into your liver’. A few minutes later, the voice-over returns: ‘War don’t ennoble men. It turns ‘em into dogs. Poisons the soul’. We see again the threatening soldier, now alone in the frame, holding the teeth he had taken as a spoil of battle; after a quick flashback to the earlier scene and the Japanese soldier’s entreaty, he tosses the teeth onto the ground and begins to sob. Rain pours over him; he grips his upper arms as if he could hold himself, comfort his own undulating body while he cries. Dirt, leaves, rain: these are like the inanimate things Woolf suggests ‘one leant to’ and thus ‘felt they expressed one; felt they became one; that they knew one, in a sense were one’. (16) Such expression exists as these natural elements of the world come into contact with the soldiers’ bodies, together creating another intimate geometry. We inhabit this space, too, attempting to fill the voids that the visual and aural webs inherently and endlessly design.



14. Bachelard, p. 218.


15. Editors' Note: For the best and clearest discussion of the ambiguities and problems involved in attributing voice-overs to specific characters in the film, see Jeremy Millington, ‘Critical Voices: Points of View In and On The Thin Red Line’, CineAction, no. 81 (2010), pp. 28-38.  

16. In ‘The Cinema Seen from Etna’, Jean Epstein writes: ‘One of the greatest powers of cinema is its animism. On screen, nature is never inanimate. Objects take on airs. Trees gesticulate. Mountains, just like Etna, convey meanings … The grass in the meadow is a smiling, feminine genie. Anemones full of rhythm and personality evolve with the majesty of planets’. Epstein (trans. Stuart Leibman), ‘The Cinema Seen from Etna’, in Sarah Keller & Jason N. Paul (eds), Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), pp. 289-90.

Staring at the moving images, locked in our seats, do we sense the emptiness between our bodies and the screen? (Do we sense the same between the image and the words with which we attempt to do it justice?) Our potential love for the image is the entreaty to fill these empty spaces. Nearly inanimate before the images ourselves, we are in turn moved by the film – say, by a young girl’s cries for love and justice, a soldier’s cries in the rain. We may feel now, now that those images, as Woolf describes above, ‘felt they expressed one; felt they became one; they they know one, in a sense were one’. Together with the image and with the world before us, we are suffering and joy, stillness and movement.


The author offers thanks to Geoff Sanborn and Claudia Steinberg for reading drafts of this essay and for their suggestions for its rhythms; to Nate Brennan for his conversation with me about Malick, and his questions which helped form the end of this essay; to Girish Shambu for the welcoming opportunity to write this piece in the first place; and to the members of my ‘Cinema and Everyday Life’ class in the spring of 2013 at Amherst College, who read these texts and watched these films with me and who, in their own endless intelligence, sustained me for those four months of our work together.


from Issue 4: Walks


© Amelie Hastie and LOLA August 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.