Learning the Language of Film

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From the film Amelie, 2001

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis encourages us to receive great art rather than use it, seeking to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.”[1] We should refrain from the easier project of reducing a work to a message we might find problematic. Instead, we should seek to approach a work of art with the same level of charity with which we approach people.

Art is a dialogue. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that all beauty compels dialogue: it causes a response in us that we instinctively want to engage and share. This sharing is what an artist does when they create, from choreographers to filmmakers. But, as Lewis argues in his book, we have to become good dialogue partners: we must learn the language of the art form we wish to engage. Lewis characterized readers as either “literary” or “unliterary” in their responsiveness.

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Christianity is Like Life

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Paradise Lost by Gustave Dore

Chesterton on the problem of evil from his book, The Everlasting Man:

“…But if [Christianity] is not a mythology neither is it a philosophy. It is not a philosophy because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture. It is not one of those simplifications which resolve everything into an abstract explanation…It is not a process but a story. It has proportions, of the sort seen in a picture or a story; it has not the regular repetitions of a pattern or a process, but it replaces them by being convincing as a picture or a story is convincing. In other words, it is exactly, as the phrase goes, like life. For indeed it is life.

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Numinous Lost

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Nocturne in Black and Gold, Whistler 1875

C.S. Lewis might remark that our culture’s fascination with horror films arises from the “numinous awe” that “is as old as humanity itself.”[1] In his book, The Problem of Pain, he wrote that “nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits.”[2] He distinguishes this kind of awe from mere fear, too: “When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”[3]

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Malick’s Modern Job: “The Tree of Life”

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 The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.[1]

~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John

More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal.[2] Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph.[3] Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless.  As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”[4]

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