On Souls, Prayer, and Film

Precious little is known about director Terrence Malick. He was born in 1943 in the Midwest and studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. He has directed only five movies in 38 years, but they have received widespread acclaim. He is known for being a recluse, but is apparently amiable and even charming. And with a new film, The Tree of Life, reaching theaters this month, Malick’s ghost has been thrust once more into the spotlight.

His films are unique. Poetry, music, and imagery are seamlessly bound—the pinnacle of the emotional power of the medium of film. Roger Ebert, after endorsing the Tree of Life, wisely says, “Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer.”

After watching Malick’s war epic, The Thin Red Line, I felt indeed as if I had just witnessed a prayer. The poetry will long be with me, as will the look of raw hope in Jim Caviezel’s eyes. This is something that very few books and movies can do, which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty good of both. At random, note Casino Royale; it had everything you could want in a Bond film: wit, action, love, etc. Yet, it was by all accounts, a fleeting glimpse of good entertainment. As for the plot and the dialogue, those will be quickly forgotten.

Sometimes, though, souls need more than just entertainment. We need something to believe in, something to hold on to in times of darkness and Light. Mr. Malick unabashedly offers a prayer for the soul in his films, and for this he deserves praise. It is not an easy thing to do in today’s world, to look cynicism in the eye and tell it that we are creatures of light and Love.

He does so in The Thin Red Line, which is certainly no conventional war movie. It was released in the same year as Saving Private Ryan, and is often compared to it, which is rather unfortunate. War movies, perhaps unintentionally, often gratify war. There is nothing gratifying about it in the Line, however. Rather, it is the prayer of different characters, most of them soldiers. Narrated poems and prayers make known their doubts and fears.

Sean Penn has this to say to an AWOL soldier:

“What difference do you think you can make…one single man in all this madness? If you die, it is going to be for nothing. There is not some other world out there where everything is gonna be alright if you die. There’s just this one. Just this rock.”

Caviezel’s character is meant to answer this charge. He seeks immortality, another world. In that way, it has something to say to all of us, something for each to ponder.

As does The Tree of Life, the story of a boy in Midwest America. It has so far received mixed reviews. At Cannes, where the film won the Palme d’Or, it was both booed and cheered. Deeply personal, it is nonetheless universal in the way it treats “the loss of innocence as an eternal part of the human condition”. He must choose between the ways of his father and his mother as he learns to navigate his world. He is searching for an Eden in a fallen world. Everyone, without fail, knows of the imperfections of family life. We know what it is to grow up in a world and to lose our innocence to it. We know what it is to lose the spark of wonderment we held when young.

Like the Line, the Tree of Life doesn’t have a well-defined plot, which can be maddening to conventional movie-goers. I have just finished Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in which McCarthy’s prose grants small glances into a degenerate life, not necessarily in chronological order. The effect is profound, allowing the reader to stop and feel, to reflect and to remember. For perhaps, at the end our lives, although lived chronologically and in our own “boxes of space and time,” we will be best understood as a sum total of the thoughts we had, the love we felt, the emotions that passed through us. And these are often irrelevant to the reason and order we seek to impose upon ourselves in our mediums of art and in our present lives.

All of this to say: go see one of Mr. Malick’s films.

(Links: New York Times article, Roger Ebert Blog)

The Politics of Fear

I stumbled across this quote recently from Edward Murrow, referring to Senator McCarthy, that has relevance in today’s era of fear and politics:

“We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.”