Tag Archives: Days of Heaven

To the Wonder

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Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder, released last week in select theaters, as well as on demand and on iTunes. It’s a characteristically visceral experience of a film, meaning I STRONGLY suggest you try to see it on the big screen rather than on a computer screen. See here for theater release schedule. 

I have been following Malick’s career with great interest for more than 15 years (basically since I saw The Thin Red Line in 1998), and have written quite a bit about the man and his films. See here, here, here, here and here for a sampling.

So it was with great pleasure that Christianity Today gave me the opportunity to write a lengthy review essay about the film, in which I synthesize the themes and cinematic vision of Malick’s larger body of work by a taking a close look at To the Wonder (which I’ve already seen three times). Below is one section of the review, but if you have a bit of time and you’re a fan of Malick, I’d strongly suggested reading the whole thing.

To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It’s no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil’s own cell phone camera (as they travel by train “to the Wonder”). It’s the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; “All things shining” (The Thin Red Line).

Malick’s camera has a particular gaze. He spends more time than most on almost gratuitous beauty (puffy clouds, swimming turtles, beautiful hands). And his lens lingers on the mundane: empty rooms, walls, appliances, even a laptop displaying a Skype conversation. Everything is interesting to Malick.

Everything except himself. In both To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the actors portraying the adult Malick (Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, respectively) come across as passive observers—quiet, contemplative, almost awkward bystanders in the movie. They are fitting representations of a man who seems far more comfortable paying attention to the world around him than bringing attention to himself.

Much has been made of Malick’s tendency to hire big-name actors for his films, shoot tons of footage, and then leave them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors ultimately cut out completely from To the Wonder. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from the big-ego actor’s point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos.

In this, Malick is suggesting that it’s far more important for us to see well rather than to be well seen. Insofar as cinema has a purpose, it should not be about audiences glorifying actors or actors glorifying themselves, as much as creating an environment of focused vision and contemplation wherein the beauty of this world confronts and perhaps transforms the audience.

The whole of Malick’s oeuvre seems to be a call to put aside our hubris and wake to the Divine all around us. Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life “wanted to be loved because I was great,” but by the end of the film he recognizes that he was foolish for paying no attention to “the glory all around us . . . I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

But when Malick speaks of being awakened to the “glory all around us,” what does he mean? Is it a sort of pantheistic deification of nature? A deistic affirmation of some vague, removed divinity? With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder, I am convinced that he is speaking of “the glory” of the world not in the sense of being the thing to be worshipped but as pointer to the Being to be worshipped, namely the Christian God. To adopt this way of seeing is to engage with external activators of the sensus divinitatis built into our very being—an innate proclivity to suspect God’s existence.

Read the full review at Christianity Today. I’d also suggest you read this fascinating piece on Malick’s filmmaking process for To the Wonder.

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Advent & Malick

Terrence Malick has never made a Christmas film, but I think his films, collectively, have a lot to say to us as we meditate on the meaning of Advent. Before you groan and say, “here McCracken goes about Malick again,” let me explain.

At it’s core, Advent is a season in limbo, in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a season about eschatological longing as much as it is about nostalgic joy for the Incarnation of God as man. It’s about longing for and awaiting the coming kingdom, the restoration of creation to a state of shalom and fully realized glory. A key word is “restoration,” for within the mystery of Advent is a deeply felt longing and remembrance of that original Eden, so long ago lost and yet made possible again in Christ.

In many ways, Advent is about existing in between two paradises. One lost. One still to come. Both are ever present in the believer’s consciousness, as persistent reminders of fallenness intermingle with persistent, grace-filled interjections of hope. And it is here that I think Malick’s cinematic vision has much to offer.

Consider his most recent film, 2011’s Tree of Life, which very literally depicts an original paradise (at least the creation of it) and a eschatological one (which, even if just a reverie or dream, is still very much an eschatological vision of Shalom restored). The Bible begins and ends with the “Tree of Life” (in Eden and in the Revelation 22 New Jerusalem), and in many ways the film echoes this bookended structure, with the middle section being the story of existence–struggling between sin/nature and redemption/grace–writ small in a tiny Texas town. In Tree of Life, Malick’s characters experience that Advent tension between darkness and innocence lost on one hand and a coming reconciliation/restoration of goodness on the other.

Malick’s other films reflect similar themes. In Badlands, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Adam/Eve type characters who “fall” and are banished from Eden, shamed in their fallenness and yet curiously moved by the beauty of life around them, even on the run. Days of Heaven features similar themes of shamed sinners in search of redemptive paradise and a fresh start in the picturesque wheat fields of West Texas. In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel) opens the film in paradise, on tropical beaches and indigo blue waters in Papau New Guinea. But then the reality of sin sets in, and war and death; everything is changed, and yet Witt still sees a spark of glory. The film ends with images of Witt once again in paradise, and the rest of the soldiers on a boat leaving the horrors of Guadalcanal, heading to some new shores of a better world.

Malick’s next film, The New World, picks up that image by opening with colonists on a boat, landing on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia: the New World. But as with Malick’s other films, the Edenic idealism of this “new beginning” paradise is disrupted soon by famine, war, and a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas that doesn’t last. And yet as the film goes on, something keeps pushing Pocahontas on, in spite of great shame and hardship. Glimpses of glory call her forth, giving her reasons to hope; perhaps the best is indeed still to come.

An inherent aching for Eden persists in each of Malick’s films, as each character instinctively strives for a fresh start in the midst of our brokenness. Indeed, I think every human feels this. Time and time again we fail, and yet some animating spirit of good keeps us on track, keeps us striving for the best, between the two trees.

This is what Advent is about: a hope that keeps us going, keeps us exploring, creating, cultivating, loving, making order out of chaos. It’s the lingering instinct of our created purpose; it’s the impact of the Incarnation: the Divine Creator come down to creation to redeem mankind and succeed where Adam failed, providing an example of humanity as it was created to be.

If Easter is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Advent is about the curious thing that happened next. Jesus didn’t stay on earth to rule his kingdom. He ascended unto heaven and left his followers–the church, animated by the Holy Spirit–to carry the torch of kingdom work, to long and ache for Jesus’ promised return but in the meantime to strive to be the humans we were meant to be, to spread the good news, to resist evil, to order creation and bring about flourishing.

Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It’s Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven is the second film from Terrence Malick, and probably his most accessible and aesthetically stunning film.

Heaven follows Bill (Richard Gere), a fugitive from Chicago who tries to make a new life for himself, his little sister (Linda Manz), and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) in the wheat fields of West Texas. Having killed a factory worker, Bill is propelled westward in search of a new start—a redemptive return to Eden.  The trio arrive at a farm and start their blissful new life there as fieldworkers, until the Farmer (Sam Shepherd) falls in love with Abby and an unstable love triangle forms.  From there, the film plays out in the precarious borderlands between love and jealousy, depravity and redemption, and the particularly Malick-ian terrains of grounded earth and infinite sky.

Set in 1916, Heaven has been read by some as being a statement about the onset of modernism and the death of the pastoral myth. Others focus on Heaven’s incredible visual style, aptly suggesting that the film’s Oscar-winning cinematography (much of it shot on 70mm film) is among the most beautiful of all time. Still others interpret the film within the American paradigm of manifest destiny—the ubiquitous images of iconic open spaces (amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty define the typical vista in the film) providing an elegiac photo essay of a country hoped for, but not quite achieved.

The question of just what Terrence Malick intended this film to be is still a mystery (Malick never comments on his work), and critics and essayists have rarely agreed on what this monumental film means. What is generally accepted is that Malick, in each of his four films but especially in Heaven, aims to bring cinema back to its humblest origins, of presenting unmediated reality by focusing our attention on image and sound rather than narrative.  The film shows Malick’s affinity for the silent era in this regard—his understanding of cinema as chiefly a “physical” (not mental) experience that should elicit wonder before any impulse to interpret or understand its meaning.

The director’s background in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (which he studied at Oxford and MIT prior to becoming a filmmaker) becomes evident in such style. Heidegger believed in the early Greek notion that the world should not be experienced as a collection of substances to master and analyze, but as a groundless source of mystery. Heidegger and devotee Malick (he translated some of the German existentialist’s significant works) share the idea that the world reveals itself to us through our moods and emotion, not cognition and rationalism. “Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves,” wrote Heidegger in his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” “Color shines and wants only to shine… when we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone.” Thus, it is easier to grasp Malick’s emphasis on flowing imagery and sensory-heavy cinema—films not as interested in how the world is, but that it is.

While Malick’s first film, 1973’s Badlands, invokes Adam/Eve mythology, Heaven more closely mirrors the Cain/Abel incident. Bill is provoked by a stinging jealousy of Sam Shepherd’s character, the Farmer.  Bill also mirrors Cain in the setting of his murderous attack: the isolated midst of a field.  The parallel continues in that he must leave the ranch (Eden) and hide from the authorities (God), shamed by the recognition that—as he proclaims to Abby—“He knows!”

This delicate shift in man’s internal relationship to evil is symbolically seen in the film’s external images of nature, which contextualize the existential dilemmas of the characters. While dominated by impossibly beautiful nature shots and sounds (blowing wheat, rippling brooks, golden sunsets, grazing bison) the “avenging power” in nature, which will be further explored in The Thin Red Line, is also introduced. The plague of locusts (another biblical reference) on the wheat crop and the subsequent fire in the fields demonstrate the hellish potential in nature—further demonstrative of the precarious balance between depravity and divinity which Malick so poetically explores.  The nature in Heaven envelops you in its transcendent beauty while at the same time exerting an unsettling aura of control: “Often it is an undulating sea of grass or wheat which opens itself up without resistance to human encroachment, yet defeats all attempts at mastery,” wrote Bill Schaffer in Senses of Cinema.

It is man doing battle with himself—trying to overcome nature with will; recognizing that the two can never be separate. Indeed, Malick’s camera frequently frames his characters within—almost at one with—the wheat fields. As the actors walk in and among the golden waves of wheat, the mobile camera flows organically around the scene, grounding the humans in the nature they are threshing. Like in The New World, which uses the upward metaphor of the tree to evoke human perseverance and longing, Heaven equates the being of humanity with the being of wheat: in both there is growth, harvest, resilience and redemption.

There is a deep unsettledness to the film, however—a nagging unease pervading its abundant beauty. An early shot in the film captures it well: as a group of white-clad priests consecrate the fields at sunset, hundreds of observing field hands (cloaked in mourner’s black) stand intermittently throughout the wheat—like charred tree stumps in a devastated, though rejuvenating, forest. Similarly striking images of dark and light abound in the film (black horses dusted by a coat of white snow, for example)—adding to the paradoxical tension of evil invading Eden, sin disturbing innocence, and the precarious balance of good and bad within every living thing. Near the end of the film, Linda Manz sums it up in voiceover: “Nobody’s a perfect person … You got half devil and half angel in you.”

With its emphasis on the duality of nature and by association man, Days of Heaven envelops us in the lack and loss of Paradise. As reflected in its title, heaven is temporal in the film—an all too evanescent state of dwelling. The film thus exudes a palpable Edenic yearning—a longing to recapture our lost wholeness of being. In the meantime, we are stuck in a world where the glory and avenging power in nature are both intensely evident—a troubling paradox in which, Malick infers, ultimate reconciliation can be achieved only in death.

Death, so prevalent in Malick’s films, is the resolution to the knowing guilt of the innate depravity that characterizes our natural existence. But transcendence is possible before that point, if one can make peace with the dualistic battle within nature and self—a battle stemming from the feeling that things are upside down—that our insistent nature is strangely contradictory to the divine spark within. And thus we are constantly asking questions about evil and ontology—where we came from, what’s this evil, and why?

For me, the real value of Malick and a film like Days of Heaven is that it raises these sorts of “big questions,” but not directly or didactically. Rather, the questions tend to flow organically out of the visceral experience of what’s on screen. When I watch Heaven, for example, I feel something in my gut—something about the presence of God through His seeming absence. Something about my own wretchedness and deformed beauty. But however melancholy that may sound, it is films like this that expand and enliven my salvation—channeling truth through beauty and making grace all the more majestic.