The Tree of Life: Suffering, Memory and God

July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  Job 38:4,7

These are the verses that open Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, and I thought it fitting to open my reflection on the film with these same verses. These verses are but a small fragment of God’s response to Job when Job inquires as to why he, a righteous man, is suffering. This is the same question that Malick, through his characters, is posing as The Tree of Life hurtles along its unconventional, disjointed narrative. These spiritual questions coupled with the fractured narrative allow Malick to reach a place where he seems to make some conclusions about the nature of God and the world we inhabit and illuminate these conclusions as only a director with the touch of Malick could do.

The main focus of the film is Jack, whose older iteration (Sean Penn) is experiencing somewhat of a crisis in his life as he works in the big city, surrounded by glass and mortar, a sharp contrast from his childhood days in suburban Waco, Texas. This crisis seems to have been set off by the memory of his younger brother who died earlier in life, the circumstances of which Malick never makes clear. The film flits back and forth in Jack’s memory, occasionally dipping into dream states, as he relives the days of his youth in Texas. We see the younger Jack being born and growing up, eventually reaching a kind of stasis around age 12 or 13, where he is played splendidly by Hunter McCracken. The majority of the film takes place at this time, as Jack struggles to become a man, misunderstood and confused by his father (Brad Pitt) and shown grace and faith from his mother (Jessica Chastain).

What sets the film off is the memory of Jack’s brother and his death, a monumental event in the family’s history, one that leaves Jack’s mother devastated. In this state she asks many questions of God, which lead into the film’s most challenging section as Malick shows us the foundations of the world being laid  which directly hearkens back to the film’s opening verses. It is in the background of this magnificent visual and aural display that we must ask ourselves where the suffering of this one family comes into play in the universe. Why does or should God care, if, in fact, there is a God? And if He does care, who are we to ask Him questions when He set in motion the entire universe in all its glory and splendor? But we do ask questions, and we continue to struggle with death and suffering, and Malick struggles along with us.

There is a key scene midway through the film as the family attends church and the priest is giving a sermon about the book of Job, telling the people that suffering will come to them in this life because God doesn’t necessarily protect us from hardship. I saw the film twice and I’m still not sure if his words ring hollow at the sorrow we’ve witnessed or if they make perfect sense compared with the glory we saw at the beginning of the universe. I think Malick wants to make us aware of the suffering so we can see the glory after we have passed through the storm. His films all contain some element of this, whether it is the graphic battles of The Thin Red Line juxtaposed with peaceful sunsets and forest creatures or the raging fire of Days of Heaven combined with the majestic fields of grain. If there was no glory, then suffering wouldn’t matter and without the certainty of things being ravaged and claimed by death the glory might not shine as brightly as it does. Or perhaps it is the hope that one day the glory we see will be allowed to go unchecked by death and suffering that drives Malick’s reluctant, mournful acceptance of suffering in this present time.

One balm for this sorrow, at least in the film, is the presence of memory to bring us back to the happy and sorrowful times of our past. The majority of the film is seen through Jack’s memory, detailing important events in his childhood, skipping from moment to moment with no seeming order or narrative. For some this may be a distraction, but this is exactly what memory is; it is fragments strewn across our minds, something we have very little actual control over, as we remember the good and the bad with equal alacrity. In the specific memories that Malick exploits in the film, many of them probably his own, there is a certain sense of universality, at least in the emotions drawn out by the events. Many times I was surprised as I was caught by a wave of emotion brought on by a specific scene that had no direct correlation to any time in my past but I recognized the emotion that it brought forth.

Memory and the emotions associated with it seem to help older Jack arrive at some peace as the film comes to a close. With a typical Malick deftness, Jack has begun to reconcile the way of the world and the harsh competition of his father and nature with the way of grace and love shown by his mother and also through the glory of nature. The closing shots of the film can only reinforce this thought, but I would not want to spoil them for anyone. Malick certainly knows how to close his films.

So where does suffering and memory leave us in terms of God? Who is God? What is He like? It seems that Malick is content to leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to determining the nature of God. There are moments that leave us astounded at their beauty, and Jack’s mother is clearly a model of living in grace and love that is favored by Malick, as he has shown us in other films. Suffering is something that does not undermine God, but just seems to be part and parcel of the world and nature. In Malick’s world there is both glory and death, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; it’s up to us to love and show grace as we search for the glory.

Glory in The Thin Red Line

August 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

What is “glory”? We often associate it with fame or a person having achieved a specific position or status in life. Limiting glory to only this seems to leave out some of the more impressive definitions that it also embodies such as: “resplendent beauty or magnificence” or “a state of absolute happiness, gratification, contentment, etc.” The only times I normally ever utter the word “glory” is in church when reading the Bible or singing hymns and even doing so I don’t often have a well-rounded definition of what I’m even saying. Recently I watched The Thin Red Line again and was struck by how Terrence Malick seems to grasp this notion that glory is something big and important to how we live. After watching the movie I re-read C.S. Lewis’ great essay “The Weight of Glory” and was struck by the similar emphases brought out by both Lewis and Malick when speaking of “glory”.

For Lewis, glory seems to have two main ideas that play a part in the Christian’s life. The first is, quite literally, having a good fame or report with God and the other is that there is an otherworldly sense of magnificence and splendor that permeates our everyday world. Knowing this, the Christian should seek to magnify it wherever it is found and work on creating it with his life. This glory is, in fact, all around us if we are willing to look for it. It’s in the sunset setting the clouds on fire, the innocence of a small child’s smile and the laughter of good friends. It’s everywhere, in God’s Creation, and shockingly it is even dispersed through sinful humanity at times.

Lewis says this in reference to glory and humanity, “When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather the greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch…We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.” This glory shines through Nature and also shines through us everyday, even though we often fail to see it. There are certain people who manage to see the glory easier than others and Malick is one of these people.

Photo #11

Malick has an eye for glory in all his films, but it seems to be a special focus in The Thin Red Line. His other films (Badlands (72), Days of Heaven (78) and The New World (05)) show us such spectacles of beauty and grace that we can’t help but be jarred into noticing the glory. The Thin Red Line is no different, but instead of just showing us, Malick seems intent on drawing us into an actual conversation about this elusive “glory”. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) often muses about glory fractured by war and how mankind always manages to mask his glory. In many ways he is the main character amidst a star-studded ensemble cast, which makes me believe that Witt’s struggles and thoughts about glory may be the most important of the myriad of points that Malick is seeking to make.

How’d we lose the good that was given to us? Let is slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keeping us from reaching out, touching the glory?“-Private Witt

Why does mankind seem to forfeit his glory so easily, even sometime denying it exists? Perhaps it’s because with an admission that all men have a spark of divine splendor in them it would force us to change how we act. It would change the way we look at other people and the world at large. Lewis says, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Malick tries to force us to see this, giving us glory and horror in his characters, often in the same frame. But he raises the same question: can we still see the glory?

TheThinRedLine-NewLife.jpg image by tomasutpen

Private Train (John Dee Smith) delivers one of the film’s most important lines near its conclusion, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird — and feels the glory — feels something smiling through it.” Malick illustrates the man who sees the glory through Witt and gives him opposition in the form of Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Witt sees the glory and Welsh doesn’t. Welsh has been beat down by the horrors of war and can no longer see the glory that shines through man every once in a while. It’s understandable, but clearly not the way life is best lived.

So the question now remains, how do we become people who see glory instead of death? How do we remind ourselves that there are no ordinary people?

All around us, everyday, there is glory to be seen. God’s Creation, despite its sin-damaged state, is still good. To see the world in this way may require a drastic mentality shift. It’s not easy, but if you look for the good and true, it is there to be found. Lewis and Malick know this and it is evident in their respective work. Nothing is ordinary and glory abounds all around us. Are we people who can see it?

Further Reading:

Brett McCracken’s insightful write-up of The Thin Red Line at The Search.

The Weight of Glory and The Hold Steady at Adventures in Living a Good Story.

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