Tag Archives: Tree of Life

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

IMG_0596

In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Yet for Christians, Friday and Sunday are equally crucial. The horror of death and the beauty of resurrection are both essential. The tension of Saturday, between death and life, loss and victory, suffering and healing, is where we live. We are mortal, decaying, sin-sick creatures. Yet our redemption is secure in the resurrected Christ; we will be made new.

Art is a gift that God gives us to help us cope with Saturday life. In Real Presences, Jewish literary critic George Steiner wrote about this “Saturday” approach to art: “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

In the face of the unspeakable horrors of Friday, “even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless,” wrote Steiner. But likewise “In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The arts are fundamentally “Sabbatarian,” argues Steiner. “They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Indeed, the arts are fundamentally about navigating the inherent restlessness of human existence–a grasping after shalom, equilibrium and peace in the midst of a chaotic, tortured and lamentable world.

For Christians who make art, the temptation is often to move too quickly to Sunday. Thomas Kinkade is the easiest example; but we see it as well in the predominantly cheerful genre of worship music and the notoriously saccharine positivity of evangelical-made movies (e.g. Fireproof, God’s Not Dead). Christian films do an injustice to the gospel when they present a kumbaya world where all believers are happy and life is a nicely wrapped package with a heavenly bow on top. Certainly hope is central and the resurrection is a paradigm-shifting lynchpin for those who follow Christ. But so is the cross. The humility, the pain, the shame and the struggle of Christ on the cross is not to be shunned or avoided by Christians; it’s to be embraced and imitated. And what a beautiful thing that is.

A Jesus who suffered is a Jesus we can know, because if we know anything in this world, it’s suffering.

I like how poet Christian Wiman describes his faith in My Bright Abyss:

“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

Jesus was not a powermonger who established a religion with a sword; he established it by being shamed on a cross. He was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The best Christian art is right there with Jesus.

“Lord, why? …Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me.”  (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life)

“What did I do to deserve this? … How? God of Elijah. How?”  (Sufjan Stevens, “Drawn to the Blood”)

Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell is an album that embodies a Saturday aesthetic.

On one hand the album seems to be decidedly “Friday” oriented, fixated as it is on the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who died of cancer in 2012. Yet the album isn’t named only after Carrie. It is also about Lowell, Sufjan’s stepfather who become one of his most valued friends (these days Lowell runs Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty).

We see the tension of Saturday both in the album’s title and in its individual songs, which speak of Friday–death, blood, drugs, vampires, driving off a cliff–but give hints of Sunday in its pastoral reminiscences of childhood in Oregon and associated bursts of love, wonder and hope. In “Carrie and Lowell” Sufjan sings of a “season of hope (after the flood).” In “The Only Thing,” Sufjan suggests that God and faith (“signs and wonders… blind faith, God’s grace”) keep him going in the midst of despair. In “Fourth of July” a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother focuses on the heavens: birds of various sorts, fireworks, stars, the moon.

There is a sense in the record that Sufjan, like Christian Wiman, resonates with the idea that in Christ, “God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.” In his song “John My Beloved” Sufjan identifies with the bittersweet emotions John (“the beloved disciple”) must have felt as his intimate friendship with Jesus mixed with the reality of being separated by death. Yet even as he seeks comfort in Christ (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”) he also makes no claim that faith is the solution to all pain. The song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is all about Friday, skeptical as it is that the “shadow of the cross” brings meaning to the previous song’s “shadow of me” musings.

And yet the album’s closing song ends with an eschatological nod to Sunday. “My Blue Bucket of Gold” uses the imagery of a fabled Oregon gold mine to channel the pain and longings of the album toward a search for something higher, something heavenly: “Search for things to extol… Lord, touch me with lightning.”

Oh that more of our art would hold Friday and Sunday in such elegant tension, helping us through the fog of this liminal, Saturday space; the heartache and hope of the “now and not yet.”

Advertisements

Boyhood

boyhood

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

-From “Fern Hill” (Dylan Thomas)

“In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers… Time cannot vanish without a trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

-Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

I think it was Kierkegaard who said that while life is lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. Certainly most art proves the truth of this statement. While life presses on breathlessly and leaves nary a moment for sense-making, artists are the ones who press pause and rewind, arranging the pieces, plot-points and colors for us in such a way that the full (or fuller) picture is seen. Most artists spend a good amount of their career (if not the whole of it) exploring their own histories, searching their lived past and re-creating it or reckoning with it in a manner that proves at the very least personally therapeutic and at best profound and transcendent for wider audiences.

Terrence Malick’s films are good examples of this. His recent films (To the Wonder and The Tree of Life) have been intensely, almost indulgently personal; yet they capture essences of things, “universes in grains of sands” so to speak, in beautiful ways. The latter film is Malick’s exploration of his own Texas boyhood, standing in for all boyhoods and, at times, for all of life period.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does a similar thing, narrating a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story while at the same time evoking the universal. In both cases (Malick’s Life and Linklater’s Boyhood) the most resonant and transcendent moments arise from the most mundane and yet sharply perceived bits of minutia. These films are not metaphysically robust because they wax philosophical (though both do, at times) but because they pay attention to the little moments: hosing grass off the bottom of one’s foot on a summer day, reading Harry Potter books to children before bed, etc. Both films succeed because they focus less on a traditional plot structure than an episodic tableaux: capturing the overall picture and mood, impressionistically, through select scenes, glimpses, reminiscences of childhood. Given the huge amount of history to work with, and in both cases a huge amount of film from which to edit, both Malick and Linklater distill emotions and truth expertly from the mound of  “time” they have to work with. In this way they epitomize what Tarkovsky says is the essence of the film director’s work: “sculpting in time.”

Linklater, perhaps even more than Malick, has been particularly fascinated with cinema as “sculptor of time.” How can the moving image help us understand and appreciate the complexity of time? In films like his Before trilogy and now Boyhood, Linklater takes up the question in remarkable ways. These films don’t merely re-create times past (as most films do, including Malick’s) but rather document time as it passes. For Linklater, time itself is quite literally the biggest star in his movies. Sometimes this requires immense patience. His Before series has required the investment of Linklater and the series’ two actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) over the course of twenty years. Similarly, Boyhood required yearly commitments from its actors since 2002. But the results are profound. Part of what makes Boyhood and the Before series so significant (and I believe they will only rise in significance in decades to come) is that they evoke the passage of timeindeed, aging and growing up–without the magic of makeup or CGI but simply through turning on a camera after periods of time have gone by. Michael Apted’s astonishing Up series also does this.

Another way Linklater focuses in on the curiosity of time is by shooting in real-time. Several sequences in the Before series unfold in uninterrupted single takes and all of them occupy merely a few hours in their characters’ lives. Linklater’s 2001 film Tape unfolds entirely in real-time. His 1991 classic Slacker takes place entirely in one day in Austin. Linklater recognizes the powerful documentary aspect of film in that it can capture slices of life (or slices of time) like very little else can. Like a photographed image, a film transports us to another place and time. But a moving image can arguably immerse us in those long lost “sand between the fingers” moments more fully, capturing the unfolding in time aspect of life in a way static images cannot.

A third way Linklater’s films reflect on time is by having his characters wonder aloud about it. In the Before series, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are always talking philosophically about time, musing about lost time on the Left Banke of Paris, quoting W.H. Auden in Vienna (“O let not Time deceive you”) or pondering impermanence as they watch the sun set in Greece. Characters in Slacker and Waking Life (2001) are similarly fascinating by time. The latter film’s discussion of André Bazin, cinema and “holy moments” seems particularly salient for Linklater himself, as the transcendent potential in capturing spontaneous existence seems to motivate much of his filmmaking.

Certainly Boyhood has its fair share of what may be called “holy moments.” It has a lot of tragic moments as well, to be sure, as does Malick’s Tree of Life. But both films favor the charged goodness of life’s “holy moments” as fortuitously recorded by the camera. Where the holiness Malick sees in cinematic moments speaks to something Other and transcendent, however, Linklater’s “holiness” inheres in the moments themselves. For him, the very act of capturing moments through a camera, thereby arresting the otherwise painfully indifferent onward march of time, is where transcendence is found. It’s worth noting that Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the “boy” of Boyhood, finds himself drawn to photography as the one consistent source of meaning in his life. In a life where no house, no father figure, no friend stays around for very long, Mason clings to the “pause” power of a photograph to stop time and preserve a fleeting moment for a bit longer.

This is exactly the power of cinema on display in Boyhood, and it’s why the film is such an magnificent achievement. As specific as it is to this one boy and his coming of age story (from age 7 to 18), and as relatively intimate and mundane as its storytelling may be, the film nevertheless feels epic and existentially resonant.

As I reflected on the film I thought of my experience a few weeks ago in Scotland, exploring the streets and hills in Motherwell, where my grandfather spent his boyhood–when he was “young and easy in the mercy of his means,” as Dylan Thomas would say. I thought of how inaccessible the reality of his childhood is to us now, apart from a few photographs and passed-down, half-forgotten memories. But then my own boyhood is the same way. More photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and my memories of it are still clear. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually my descendants will render my life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all.

The power of poetry like that of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” or films like Linklater’s Boyhood, is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. This is the power of narrative generally.

I’ve often wondered if in heaven we will have infinite access to re-constituted past: a sort of “on-demand, all you can watch” pass to travel back and watch any moment in history unfold, whether our own childhood or that of Christ. Perhaps eternity will bring all time and history into wholly manageable perspective. Perhaps Marilynne Robinson is right when she speculates, in Gilead, that “In eternity this world will be like Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

Maybe so. But in the meantime, I’m thankful that God created us to be creative, so that Homers and Linklaters and Malicks can help us bridge the gaps in our experience and grab hold of time even as it slips away.

The Divine Guide in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:2-4)

“…also, on either side of the river, the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:2)

It’s been a year since The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and then opened in theaters. I wrote a review when the film came out but have since had the luxury of many repeat viewings and lots of conversations about it. There are numerous aspects of the film that have grown in interest for me as I’ve spent more time with it. Among other things, my belief that the film is fundamentally a deeply Christian, liturgical work has only increased.

Some people I talk to liken the film to a sacred masterwork on the level of Handel. Even critics like Roger Ebert see the film in this religious light. Ebert–who recently added Life to his all time top 10 list–called the film “a prayer.” And even if Life as a whole cannot be read as a prayer, certainly prayer is a central motif. The prayer candle is an image that connects past and present in the film, for example. And Jack (portrayed at times by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken) is constantly heard in voiceover talking to what we assume to be God: “Brother; Mother: it was they that led me to your door.” “When did you first touch my heart?” “Where were you? You let a boy die.” “How did you come to me? In what shape? In what disguise?”

So also is Jack’s mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain): “Lord, why?” “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Answer me.”

The film begins with Job 38:4 (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and ends with 15 minutes of Berlioz’ “Requiem,” the “Agnus Dei” section: Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. / Thou, O God, art praised in Zion and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. … Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.

These are the words (translated from Latin) that we hear a choir sing over the film’s final minutes, as images of catharsis and renewal fill the screen: reunions, resurrections, rising women in wedding dresses, a defeated jester’s mask, sunsets, sunflowers, the apparent destruction of earth, and hands lifted in unison, upward to the heavens.

Among the many questions prompted by a close viewing of this finale sequence–and indeed, the whole film–is the identity and meaning of the mystery woman seen with Jessica Chastain’s older and younger self in the “Amen” sequence. She shows up in part (usually just her hands) and in full on a number of occasions throughout the film–especially at the beginning of Jack’s life and in the film’s final fifteen minutes.

How are we to interpret this figure? I think it’s clear that she’s not meant to be taken as a literal human character in the story; she only appears in the dreamier sequences, has no lines and is never seen for longer than a few seconds at a time. We barely glimpse her face at all (until the “Amen” sequence). Who is she?

One clue can be found in the credits, where she’s listed as “Guide,” portrayed by an actress by the name of Jessica Fuselier (side note: there’s absolutely nothing on the Internet about anyone named “Jessica Fuselier,” which adds to the “Oh, so Malick” mystery).

It’s my contention that this “Guide”–this female figure, always clad in light colored dress, always “around” and a figure of comfort and care–is intended by Malick to be a sort of embodied symbol of the Holy Spirit. I could be totally wrong, and knowing Malick it’s probably nothing as direct as that, but given the film’s overtly Christian ambience I think it’s a fair reading. Here’s my reasoning.

I. “When did you first touch my heart?”

“Guide” is one of the functional roles of the Holy Spirit as seen in Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Christ into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), and Romans 8:14 tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”

In the film, the “Guide” leads Sean Penn’s character through the wilderness, ultimately through a “gate” signaling some sort of spiritual breakthrough or coming to faith. The Guide also leads little children through a gate in a forest, along a riverbed, gently signaling for them to follow her. This sequence–set to the music of Respighi’s “Suite No. 3”–begins with Jack’s voiceover: “You spoke to me through her; you spoke to me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you–believed in you” (as we see a dove-like bird flying in a sun-filled sky, and then trees, and then more skies). “When did you first touch my heart?”

From there we see a montage of Jack’s parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) falling in love and his mother giving birth to him. Interspersed are oblique images of the Guide–clad in a white gown–pointing the way through a gate, then whispering something to a child (toddler Jack) whilst holding a candle, showing the child a tiny little book, guiding a group of children through a forest, followed by a shot of toddler Jack swimming through a door of an underwater house and then a shot of a woman in a wedding dress swimming upwards in a similar fashion (a shot repeated in the final moments of the film). This sequence is a lot to digest, to say the least. But the impression we get in terms of the Guide is that she is a benevolent force that, even from the moment of birth, is there to guide Jack and lead him in the way of light and truth.

The Holy Spirit, we are told in John 16:13, “will guide you into all the truth” and will “declare to you the things that are to come.” The “Helper, the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus in John 14:26, “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit–the third person of the Holy Trinity–is thus identified as an advocate, a helper, a guide toward the truth (John 15:26). But it also serves as comforter and interceder, helping us in our weakness, “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought… the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). We see this aspect of the Spirit in Life in a brief shot of a woman’s hand hovering over Jack’s head and chest (0:57:44) as in voiceover we hear him pray: “Help me not to sass my dad, help me not to get dogs in fights, help me be thankful for everything I’ve got, help me not to tell lies.” Later we see those same hands gently giving Jack a drink from what looks like a communion cup and sprinkling water on his forehead as if in baptism (1:12:55), evoking another biblical association of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).

Another scriptural motif pertaining to the Holy Spirit is that of resurrecting power, as seen in Romans 8:10-11: “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit give life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” We see images of this with the Guide in the film’s climactic Requiem scene–as she is seen extending her hand to what looks like someone in a grave, who appears to have risen from the dead (2:05:23). Moments later, we see a bride in a wedding dress lying down as if asleep, and then standing upright, resurrected and alive (2:05:40).

A few seconds later, the Guide is depicted as a being to be worshipped: On the beach, older Jack (Penn) bows at her feet (2:06:20). We then see her embrace and cradle the head of the boy with burn scars on his head (2:06:35). The last time we see her is in the “Amen” finale to the Requiem prayer, where we see her surrounding Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) in a state of sun-bathed harmony and peace, helping her lift up her hands as if in praise.

Revelation 22 should be a guiding text in our interpretation of Life’s eschatological climax, if only because it depicts the restored Eden and its “tree of life” (vs. 2). Verse 17 seems particularly interesting if read with the images of the “Amen” sequence in mind. The verse reads: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” It’s a call directed to Christ–the bridegroom–to return to earth and reign in the New Jerusalem with his people. Given the “bridal” imagery that we see in cryptic snippets throughout the film (appearing to be Jessica Chastain), perhaps in that final “Amen” sequence she represents the “Bride” of verse 17 and the Guide represents the Spirit. Certainly the “bride” imagery has eschatological connotations, as does the Spirit’s resurrecting the dead, both of which we see in Life’s final moments.

II. “Always you were calling me.”

Even though the total screen time of the Guide in Life is only a few minutes, the presence of the Holy Spirit if felt throughout–the film’s opening and closing with the mysterious, God-like wispy flame should suggest as much.

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is to convict the unbeliever about sin (John 16:7-8) and catalyze the process of renewing faith (Titus 3:5). We see this in the arc of Jack–who comes to a convicted place about his sin and recognizes that God was behind it. Following the episode where he shoots his brother’s finger with a BB gun and then asks him for forgiveness, Jack wonders–as the camera pulls upwards in a God-like point of view–“What was it that you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”

The Holy Spirit also serves to help us in our battle with sin (“the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” Gal 5:17), which we see in Jack’s Romans 7-esque inner turmoil about his own nature (“What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate”). It is that humbled conviction that leads Jack in the next scene to seek reconciliation with the brother he has wronged.

We see a similar thing happen to Jack’s father a few scenes later, as he too recognizes the faults of his nature: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

A close listen to this sequence will reveal that the quiet piano score we hear is actually a melodic quotation of the Respighi excerpt from the “When did you first touch my heart?” sequence of Jack’s birth and the Guide leading the children. We should take note of the aural parallel here between that early sequence (Edenic in its beauty and innocence) and this sequence (both Jack and his father recognizing their flawed nature–“I’m as bad as you are”–and accepting the way of grace). No music is arbitrarily chosen in a Malick film, and this Respighi melody seems to embody the theme of grace in the film. The way of “nature,” on the other hand, is represented in the mournful melodies of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa,” which we hear during the universe creation sequence (as Mrs. O’Brien asks God the “Why?” questions of suffering) and then, in subtler piano quotation, during Jack’s “I do what I hate” sequence of sin and guilt.

The triumph of grace over the despair of nature in the film doesn’t happen by accident. As we see through a close read, the Guide is present throughout the film–embodied but also implicit and unseen–helping these characters in their spiritual journeys and guiding them through grief, sin, and the constant battle with their errant impulses and prideful nature.

Considered in the broader context of the film, the nearness and presence of a benevolent guiding force represents the immanence against which the “where are you?” perceptions of a distant God are juxtaposed. The film’s 20 minute creation sequence–sandwiched as it is between one Texas family’s intimate pains on one hand (a son’s death) and joys on the other (a son’s birth)–establishes the bigness of the universe and the smallness of man. It’s a massive, cold, ruthless universe, magnificent and beautiful in its ambivalence toward the individual life (one dinosaur spares another, but in the next scene nature–or God?–destroys them all by hurling an asteroid to earth). And yet the pastoral adventures of Jack’s youth and spiritual epiphany that follows do not bear out this dire assessment.

Rather, Jack’s life is guided by God at every turn–even if he doesn’t recognize it.

In some ways the Guide can help us make sense of the film’s real understanding of “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Nature assumes that we are all on our own–that we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, wandering purposeless (Sean Penn in a desert, perhaps) in a hostile creation. That “way” is self-interested and, given the eventuality of mortality, ultimately aimless. We are all going to suffer the same extinction as the dinosaurs, so what is our telos? Lacrimosa dies illa indeed.

Grace, however, inserts a telos into the story by offering up an alternate “way” that rebuffs self interest (“grace doesn’t try to please itself”) and directs our attention to the Divine Other from which hope and purpose derives. The “Guide” is the helper, the voice of conviction, the spiritual awakening helping us to desire the way of grace–which is the way of humility, of relinquishing our grasp on our own natural way, of, finally, giving up our insistent hold on that which we believe to be our rightful property or path.

“I give him to you,” says Mrs. O’Brien in the film’s final line. “I give you my son.”

She’s discovered the way of grace.

“I’m nothing,” says Mr. O’Brien.

He’s discovered it too.

Jack also sees that he’s been guided all the time (“I see it was you; always you were calling me”), that he’s been watched over and led to faith by a divine Guide, out of the dry desert of sin, stubbornness and pride and into the lush, Edenic landscape of oceans, waterfalls and the river of life.

III. “The great river that never runs dry.”

This is not a new idea for Malick. His other films have explored it too–this notion of giving up one’s insistent, natural urge to “please oneself” and humbly accepting a path that–though directed by Another–ultimately leads to a place more pristine and satisfying than we could have found for ourselves. It’s the arc of Pocahontas in The New World: her Eden is destroyed by the depravity of man and yet cannot be regained on her own merits; she must relinquish control and trust the Divine direction (“Mother,” to whom she prays), even if it isn’t what she’d imagined for her life (e.g. John Rolfe instead of John Smith).

Likewise for Private Witt in The Thin Red Line: his Paradise is lost early in the film, and his attempts to regain it midway through only serve to reinforce how grave is the “war in the heart of nature” and how deeply red is the stain of sin. He too opts for the way of grace, in faith moving forward in the unknowable fog, ready and willing to go wherever he is guided (even unto death).

In The Tree of Life, Jack too finds his Paradise/innocence lost (“How do I get back where they are?”), and wrestles with his inability to overcome the misguided desires of his nature (nearly quoting Romans 7:15: “I do what I hate…”). Jack’s lament for innocence lost and reflections on his own depravity echo the inner monologues of The Thin Red Line: “This great evil: where’s it come from? … Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”

For Jack and for Witt–and for any of us–one of the problems of evil is that we so rarely see it as our problem. We must see that the fallenness of nature touches us all, and that the way of grace is likewise available to all as a redemptive alternative. It’s only when we humble ourselves and recognize the extent of our brokenness that we can begin to heal.

We must loosen our grip, cede our control and broaden our horizons to include the possibility that we were not made for our own glory, but for Another’s. Look at the beauty around us–look at the wonder! Malick’s films beckon us to pay closer attention to the majesty and complexity of creation (in the ground, in the sky, in our neighbor) than we do ourselves.

In Life, Malick offers us a liberating vision of a way of living that draws us out of our own “my road or the high road!” autonomy and into a path of humility in which we are subject to a Director other than our self–a Director whose intentions for us may include loss, suffering, and challenges we’d never choose. It’s a subversive vision in a culture where individual happiness is the chief goal and the means to that end is each individual’s assertion of their absolute right to freedom of choice, freedom of identity, freedom to determine one’s path independently of any other.

Malick’s early films–Badlands (1972) and Days of Heaven (1978)–centered upon iconic, lone ranger figures of American solidarity, blazing their trails westward and subject to no one but themselves. Martin Sheen’s James Dean-esque outlaw, Kit, in Badlands is unapologetic in his refusal to have his course set by anything other than his own (sometimes homicidal) whims and slapdash fancies. Richard Gere’s Bill in Days of Heaven has more of a conscience than Kit but is no less resistant to having his absolute autonomy compromised. Neither Kit nor Bill really know what they want, and their paths are resultantly schizophrenic and (literally) all over the map. Bill hops on a train to Texas wheatfields one minute and flies off with a circus act the next. Kit–his equally aimless girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) in tow–is on the open road to nowhere, wandering aimlessly in a barren western landscape not unlike the desert of Sean Penn’s wanderings in Life. In the end, Kit and Bill meet lonely, sad ends–their insistent, prideful autonomy having failed to locate whatever specter of Eden plagued their restless hearts.

With Malick’s later films–The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and now The Tree of Life (2011)–however, the autonomous individual protagonist becomes much more reliant on others. In Line, Witt can still be read as a Thoreau-esque individualist, a canoeing wanderer searching for truth on his own–and yet he’s very much aware of and attentive to the Other, a divine “spark” he feels in the air and sees in the eyes of others. It’s not just about him; he’s willing to be shown things by others, by God, by the glory around him (“all things shining…”). In World, Pocahontas shares Witt’s hyper-observational awe and humble curiosity about the world around her. She’s wide-eyed and enraptured by the beauty around her–even when it’s harsh and alien (the Jamestown colony, her trip to England). Even when she’s wronged, when her people are driven out of their lands, she reacts with humility. Like a tree whose branch breaks off but continues to grow, she adapts and moves on in faith.

The New World opens with a voiceover prologue from Pocahontas in which she says, “Come, Spirit–help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother… we rise from out of the soul of you.” These lines are accompanied by Edenic images of a river–reflecting the sky, the trees, the clouds–and then an image of Pocahontas on the beach, lifting up her hands to the heavens as if in praise (quite reminiscent, in fact, of Jessica Chastain’s “Amen” motions of praise at the end of Life). Throughout the film Pocahontas wonders about the presence of “Mother”–“Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Give me a sign”–in a manner not dissimilar from Chastain’s ponderings near the beginning of Life. Pocahontas prays to Mother: “How should I seek you? Show me your face. You, the great river that never runs dry.” (Side note: the actress who plays Mother in World–Irene Bedard–was the voice Pocahontas in Disney’s animated version, and also has a 5-second cameo in Life, where she’s credited as “Messenger.” See 0:17:32 in Life for her brief, cryptic appearance, caressing R.L. through a window curtain and kissing his face).

Though Pocahontas is unaware of Christ at this point, I believe that “Mother”–the deity to whom she prays–represents the echoes of Eden and the pangs of lost communion between creatures and Creator that every human feels (the sensus divinitatis, as Calvin might say). It’s interesting that she describes this deity as “the great river that never runs dry,” which brings to mind the River of Life in Revelation 22–the passage that also mentions the “Tree of Life” (vs. 2) in its description of the renewed creation and restored communion between God and man. Indeed, it’s also interesting that at the end of World, after Pocahontas comes to a peace (“Mother, now I know where you live)” the film ends with an image of a river, and then a tree in the final shot. Could it be read as a Revelation 22-esque “Eden restored” in the same way as Tree of Life’s finale?

Each of Malick’s films is in some sense about the specter of Paradise Lost and the felt breach of communion between God and man (on account of sin). Each film evokes that longing for an eschatological recovery of that wholeness, that Rev. 21 moment when God will once again dwell in physical presence with his people. But before that day comes, in between the Gen. 1 and Rev. 22 “trees of life,” God’s presence is also made available to us, by grace, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Because of what happened on another tree (the cross of Christ), God’s presence is given to us through the Holy Spirit: a guide, a helper, an advocate, a spirit of resurrection within our own feeble frames.

It’s a Spirit that Malick’s Life makes explicit through an embodied character, but also implicit as an unseen divine presence, calling characters to faith, to worship, to humility and to love. It’s a Spirit that is with us throughout our journeys (“guide us to the end of time…”) if we are open to being led.

Come, Holy Spirit. Guide us.

Best Films of 2011

Perhaps I’m biased (see my #1 pick and they entire month of May in my blog archive), but 2011 was a banner year for cinema. The Tree of Life is one thing, but there was a lot more going on this year to make a cinephile like me excited. There was a lot of artful doomsday (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Tree of Life, Another Earth), some great homages to early, classic and Spielbergian cinema (Hugo, The Artist, War Horse, Super 8), and some truly exceptional films about faith (Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, The Way, The Mill & the Cross, Tree of Life). There was so much good cinema that my “best of” list actually includes three different top tens: the best 10, the second best 10, and then 10 honorable mentions. Many of them are available now on Netflix Instant, while a few of them have yet to release in most parts of the country. However you can, I hope you get a chance to see them!

10) Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (T. Sean Durkin): An astonishing, accomplished debut from director T. Sean Durkin, Martha gives the audience more respect than any other film this year. There are a lot of gaps we, the audience, must fill in. But far from a head-scratching frustration, this subtle insinuation and refusal to spoon-feed is one the film’s most thrilling qualities.

9) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay): By far the scariest film of the year. Not jump-in-your-seat type scary, but horribly unsettling dread and tension scary. Tilda Swinton plays a mother in a worst-nightmare-for-any-parent scenario, as she deals with an evil teenage son, Kevin, who commits a massacre at his high school. But the scariest parts of the film are the things we don’t see and the questions that go unanswered: where does the evil of a kid like Kevin come from? What do parents do wrong to lead to this?

8) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt): One of the most original and haunting westerns I’ve ever seen. Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, observational style (see Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy) is perfectly suited to this period costume drama set in the 1840s on the Oregon Trail. And Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as the centerpiece heroine. Like Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, this film is intentionally ambiguous and invites the interpretations of an active audience, which is something I always applaud.

7) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols): A jittery, tense, unsettled film for the unsettled world in which we live, Take Shelter is about the fears and anxieties of a modern-day working class man who simply wants to protect his wife and daughter from all manner of peril. Featuring stunning performances by Michael Shannon as a good-at-heart man (possibly) losing his mind and Jessica Chastain as his longsuffering wife, Shelter builds and builds to a finale that will leave you speechless.

6) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius): One would have reason to approach this film skeptically. A silent film? Really? But what at first glance appears to just be a stunt or gimmick is quickly found to be something remarkably beautiful, charming, nostalgic and yet new. It’s an homage to Hollywood, to storytelling within the bounds of technological limitations; but it’s also about pride, love, adaptation, and the fickleness of fame. Go see it. You won’t find a more pleasant surprise at the movies this year.

5) Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami): Certified Copy is essentially Before Sunset in Italy, which is good because Sunset is one of my all time favorite films. Filmed in glorious Tuscany, featuring the sublime Juliette Binoche, and riffing on notions of originality, inspiration, and cinema itself, Copy is a wonderfully complex modernist experiment in the style of Alain Resnais, and yet it flows breezily and romantically, never too pushy with its philosophical or theoretical notions. Academics should watch this film and take note: academic inquiry doesn’t have to be convoluted, dry and inert. It can be as simple and beautiful as walking and talking in lovely Italian sunlight.

4) Poetry (Lee Chang-dong): It’s a tragedy that only about 30 people saw this masterpiece when it opened in theaters early in 2011. From the masterful Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), Poetry is a film befitting its title if ever a film was. It’s about poetry literally, in that the protagonist–an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (Jeong-hie Yun)–is taking poetry classes; but the film itself is poetry: a delicate, quietly observant film that is unsentimental and yet profoundly moving, especially after it’s sat with you for a bit.

3) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in a world that is beautiful, dynamic, and frequently hostile. At once entirely timely (it deals with terrorism and Christian-Muslim relations) and timeless, Gods is a film I’ll come back to in years to come–for inspiration, encouragement, and instruction for my own journey of faith.

2) Melancholia (Lars von Trier): Though often, and rightly, contrasted with Tree of Life (both films juxtapose the cosmic and intimate, and depict earth’s demise), Melancholia stands on its own two feet as one of the year’s most masterful films. More than just the antithesis of Tree of Life, Lars von Trier’s gorgeous apocalyptic vision contains some of the most striking imagery and sequences you’ll see this year. It may be bleak, nihilistic, and (insert depressing synonym here), but Melancholia is above all authentic. It’s Lars von Trier speaking his auteurist mind and bombarding us with sound (Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), image (a planet colliding with earth, Kirsten Dunst unhappy in a wedding dress), and mood (sadness, dread) to astonishingly powerful effect.

1) The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick): What can I say about this film that I haven’t already said? It met and exceeded all my expectations and instantly took a place on my list of all time favorites. Critics are right to be universally heralding this as the best film of 2011. It’s one of the best films of all time. It’s a film with the kind of scope, ambition and excellence that we just don’t see anymore. It’s a film that goes after big questions (the biggest) and attempts to be all-encompassing (God, life, death, sin, redemption, creation, apocalypse, everything else in between), but does so as much or more through the inherent strengths of the cinematic form as through traditional narrative exposition. It’s a film that shows us the world in a grain of sand, so to speak. It blows open the possibilities of the medium, or rather–at times–perfects the medium to such an extent that it looks foreign to us, like something altogether new. Malick achieves something with Life that can rarely be claimed by a filmmaker or artist of any kind: He’s given us something that we’ve truly never seen before, and yet something that will undoubtedly endure.

The Next Ten: 11) Hugo 12) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 13) Midnight in Paris 14) The Way 15) The Descendants 16) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 17) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 18) Bellflower 19) Another Earth 20) Warrior

Honorable Mention: Coriolanus, The Mill and the Cross, Contagion, Moneyball, The Trip, Hanna, Drive, War Horse, Higher Ground, Margin Call

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.

10 Transcendent Moments in “Life”

It’s been about a week since The Tree of Life came out on DVD/Blu-Ray, which means lovers of the film like me can watch, re-watch, dissect and pause to our heart’s content. As I’ve reflected on the film (I think I’ve seen it about 8 times now), I’m no less awestruck by its beauty now than I was in the beginning. It’s a film overflowing with the sublime, the transcendent, the holy. I’ve heard others call it a worshipful experience and I certainly concur.

The following are the scenes that get me the most, each time I watch Life. They are, in my opinion, the 10 most transcendent sequences of the film. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Jessica Chastain’s opening voiceover sequence (1:55-4:17). “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace…” These words from “mother” launch the gorgeous opening monologue of the film, set against images of childhood, cows, sunflowers, waterfalls, swinging from trees, and accompanied by the haunting and foreshadowing voices of Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle.”

Creation of the universe (19:45- 23:45). Following the death of her middle son, Jessica Chastain closes her eyes in grief and prays: “Lord… Why? … Where were you? … Did you know? … Who are we to you? … Answer me.” This prayer is beautifully, painfully juxtaposed with images of the birth of the universe: swirling purple gases, turquoise nebulae, celestial stained glass. Witnessing these awe-inspiring cosmic beginnings is like having a window into God’s creative process. And set to the mournful, operatic music of Preisner’s “Life: Lacrimosa,” it’s downright worshipful.

“Life of my life” (34:40-36:00). Immediately after the dinosaur scene, and as a transition out of the “history of creation” sequence, Chastain’s voiceover resumes: “Life of my life… I search for you… My hope … My child.” This is accompanied by Berlioz’ “Requiem” and magisterial images of Saturn, Jupiter, and an asteroid on a collision course with earth, bringing death to the dinosaurs and an ice age to the planet.

“When did you first touch my heart?” (37:10-39:10). Part of the beauty of this scene is that it follows the grandeur of the universe’s birth with something just as glorious: the birth of love, and the birth of a human baby. In this sequence, set to the achingly beautiful music of Respinghi, we see mother and father falling in love (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), followed by what might be the most powerful, abstract cinematic depiction of a human birth ever. The baby’s birth is intercut with images of children being led through a forest by a woman in white (we see her at various points in the film… I take her as some sort of Holy Spirit figure), and a little boy swimming upwards through a submerged house (a motif we see a few other times in the film… Watch carefully at the end).

The boys growing up (47:00-50:10). Set to the stirring, full-of-life music of Smetana’s “Moldau,” this sequence, which starts with mother pointing to the sky and saying “that’s where God lives,” manages to capture so much truth and vitality–of life, of boyhood, of growing up–in a brief montage of the boys being boys: playing in the grass, playing with hoses/sprinklers, lighting sparklers, jumping on the bed, kicking the can, climbing trees, running in fields, putting grasshoppers down shirts, throwing balls up on the roof, playing tag, and then being called in for dinner at dusk. There’s so much youthful exuberance packed in to this three minute sequence, and it stirs the soul.

Jack’s prayer (57:55-58:55). The Tree of Life is in many ways a string of prayers. Roger Ebert says that the whole film is a form of a prayer. One of my favorite prayer scenes is when Jack sits down at his bed and proceeds to pray a genuine prayer full of petitions (“Help me not to sass my dad… Help me to be thankful for everything we’ve got… Help me not to tell lies”) but also full of questions/whispers that are more rhetorical: “Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” All of this is set against a lovely piano rendition of Francois Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mistérieuses.”

Repentance & Grace (1:49:00-1:56:10). Following the extensive “fall of man” sequence, in which we see Jack discovering his own depravity (culminating in the BB gun incident with his brother), the tone shifts as Jack  seems to adopt a repentant heart (“What I want to do I can’t do; I do what I hate.”) and seeks forgiveness from his brother. Notice the score here: a slow, subtle piano quotation of the operatic Preisner theme from the birth of the universe sequence. Then there’s the amazing reconciliation scene between Jack and his brother (“You can hit me if you want… I’m sorry. You’re my brother.”), followed by a scene of Jack showing kindness to the burned boy he and his friends had previously shunned.

In the Garden (1:53:30-1:56:10). Part two of the grace/redemption catharsis begins when Jack joins his father in the garden. No words are spoken, but a new understanding is reached. Immediately following is Brad Pitt’s own moment of being humbled and brought to repentance. He loses he job and we hear his first (and only) voiceover of the film: “I’m nothing… Look at the beauty around us… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” The sequence climaxes with one of the film’s central voiceover expressions from Jack: “Father… Mother… Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The music in this sequence is quite deliberate: A subtle piano rendition of the Respinghi theme from the film’s birth scenes earlier, perhaps to help define these moments as experiences  of “rebirth” for Jack and his father.

“The only way to be happy is to love” (1:58:30-2:01:30). In the final moments of the 1950s section of the film we watch the O’Briens as they pack up and move out of their Waco, TX home, to the music of Berlioz’ “Domine Jesu Christe” (from the Requiem). We see Jack somberly walk out of the street of his childhood one last time, then as the car drives away and the house grows smaller in the distance, mother leaves us with one last voiceover: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good to them… Wonder… Hope.” “Hope” is last word from mother in the film.

The end (2:03:00-the end). “Guide us to the end of time…” What can I say? Set to the “Agnus Dei” section of Berlioz’ Requiem, the final 15 minutes or so of the film are absolutely sublime… a montage of sight, sound, hope & belief.

Should Cinema be Slow and Boring?

In recent weeks, several prominent film critics have engaged in a lively back-and-forth about the question of “slow and boring” cinema. Hearkening back to the famous Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris debates of the 60s-70s, this latest debate revives some of the classic, ongoing tensions in cinema, and raises fundamental questions about about the movies are for, and how we should watch them.

It started with Dan Kois’ piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which he basically said that he was sick of suffering through boring, artsy films, even though he knew they were good for him. Even though he still engages in what he calls “aspirational viewing” (giving artsy films a shot, hoping to connect with them in spite of their difficulties), Kois notes that he would rather not pretend to like certain films just to demonstrate refined taste:

Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies. Or perhaps I just lack the youthful exuberance that led me to believe I could rewire my brain through repeated exposure to Antonioni. Part of me mourns the sophisticated cineaste I might never become; part of me is grateful for all the time I’ll save now that I am a bit more choosy about the aspirational viewing in which I engage.

This post was then responded to with a one-two punch from the Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, in a piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring.”

Dargis unleashed her missive with a particularly large heaping of ire aimed at mindless Hollywood blockbusters such as the universally panned Hangover 2. She writes:

“As I get older,” Mr. Kois concludes, “I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me.” Happily for him, movie theaters offer a cornucopia of junk food.

For instance: “The Hangover Part II,” which I find boring, raked in $137.4 million over the five-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape, having opened on an estimated 17 percent of American screens. Filled with gags and characters recycled from the first “Hangover,” the sequel is grindingly repetitive and features scene after similar scene of characters staring at one another stupidly, flailing about wildly and asking what happened. This is the boring that Andy Warhol, who liked boring, found, well, boring.

For his part, Scott responded not only to Kois, but also to critics like Time’s Richard Schickel, who hated Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, decrying its “twaddling pretenses,” and calling Malick “an inept filmmaker.”

Scott responded:

In Mr. Schickel’s argument, “pretentious” functions, like “boring” elsewhere, as an accusation that it is almost impossible to refute, since it is a subjective hunch masquerading as a description. Manohla, you had some reservations about “The Tree of Life,” but your dispatch on it from Cannes emphasized its self-evident and disarming sincerity. Sincerity is the opposite of pretentiousness, and while it is certainly possible to be puzzled or annoyed by Mr. Malick’s philosophical tendencies or unmoved by the images he composes or the story he tells, I don’t think there is any pretending involved.

At Salon.com, critic Andrew O’Hehir takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach, though he sides with “team boredom” in the end:

Suffice it to say they’re both right and both wrong and that, thankfully, hardly anyone holds those positions in their purest form. Pop culture can be a tremendously liberating collective experience, and can also be a tool and an example of totalitarianism. What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them — and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.

What about works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode? They’ll almost certainly be out there somewhere, for the audience of flagellants like me who want to seek them out, but that’s hardly the point. Even if you take the most dystopian possible view, as I often do, and see a culture that has tried to build a massive edifice to keep boredom out, a Maginot Line or Berlin Wall of permanent entertainment — well, then reflect on what happened to the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall. Boredom is like the ants’ nest underneath your picnic, or the mass of hungry zombies outside the mall. Do what you will, you can’t keep it out.

Though complex and multifaceted, I think what this debate boils down to is a question of the merits of “escapism” and the proper posture one should have towards consuming cultural items like films. If a film demands more than intellectual passivity from its audience, should we rise to the occasion and “aspire” (as Kois puts it) to get the film? Or is it our right and prerogative, as an audience, to demand that films speak to us on our level, give us what we want for a few hours (escapism), and then send us on our merry way?

Of course, beneath these questions is the complicated history and nature of the cinematic medium. Historically it’s been a popular form of diversion, more “mass entertainment” than other artistic forms. But in spite of its populist roots, there is no question that cinema has proven, from even its earliest days, that it is indeed an art form–capable of exploring, exposing, moving, and challenging audiences as effectively (or , sometimes, even more) than novels, paintings, or plays. Thus, I think we can excuse from the outset the notion that film is somehow destined, or properly meant, to solely be diversion. Film has proven itself adept at artistic achievement, and we should thus proceed in this conversation as if film is on the same level as the “high arts,” because it is–or can be.

The issue here is bigger than just film. It’s about how we consume anything, and how we look at the world. Do we really believe in the power of art to edify our lives? Are there things left to discover or learn about the world through art? Or is it merely something pleasing from which we can partake as means of reprieve or escape?

It would be easy to accuse Kois and Schickel of being lazy–just not looking hard enough or caring to exert energy in “getting” a difficult, slow or boring film. But I think it has more to do with cynicism than laziness. Sadly, our world is ever more cynical and skeptical, doubtful that anything mediated is truly true, or good, or new. We’re understandably reluctant to trust in anything mediated to us, because we’ve seen everything, we think. What could a movie possibly add that we haven’t learned from first-hand experience? It’s almost as if, in a world of over-mediated, what-can-we-trust incredulity, our physical and first-hand experience is all we can believe in.

We are also skeptical about meaning. Is it even there? Grand, ambitious attempts at meaning making are foolishness in a postmodern world (this is evident in Schickel’s insinuation that great film directors only touch on the “big questions” as an aside to the more important narrative entertainment). We’re dubious that pondering, probing, or discovering meaning in life is possible, or even desirable. Thus, why exert energy trying to figure out the nuances of what some other dude (especially some annoyingly esoteric, obtuse artist like Terrence Malick) thinks about the mysteries of existence? Just give me something I can laugh out, immerse myself in, or be amused by.

This sort of cynicism understandably makes any sort of sincere, complex or difficult art terribly arduous to endure. When we are closed off to the possibility that art can actually teach us things, or make our lives better, or reveal truth to us, then of course it becomes a chore and a bore to sit through. Kois’s “aspirational viewing” is admirable, but it seems like what he’s “aspiring” to is more a sort of in-the-know literacy than an actual discovery of beauty and truth. In the end, Kois seems to resent films that set their own terms, confront or challenge us, or suggest that we have things to learn about ourselves and our world. Escapist films are just so much more palatable.

The thing is, “escapism” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s all in how we understand what escapism means. Yes, film and other arts are great at escapism in the sense that they show us exotic worlds, take us out of our comfort zones and allow us to see and experience wonders we might otherwise never behold. But when escapism is sought after merely because it temporarily nulls the boredom, void, denial, or fear we have in confronting the world right in front of us, escapism becomes an abuse (in the same way we might abuse alcohol or some other drug). In the latter case, escapism is a selfish, lazy, quick-fix thing we use to soothe ourselves. We don’t care what the cultural text in question has to say; only what it does for us. The better approach to escapism is when we cede our control, letting the film take us where it wants to go and opening ourselves up to what it has to show us. In this, we see new scenery, new places, new perspectives. We “escape” the mundane. But we also see the mundane anew, recognizing–if we are willing to actively search–mysteries and curiosities about ourselves and our world that film and other arts are uncannily skilled at revealing.