Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Malick and Life's Meaning

On Sunday, Father Glenn preached about how the narrative of Jesus the Messiah enfolds and gives meaning to each and every human life that has ever and will ever be. In the midst of it, he shifted unexpectedly to a beautiful digression on Terrance Malick and The Tree of Life--how Malick presents the enormity of a planet's annihilation "next to a family like our own," evoking "not just wonder, but as the old philosophers of a previous generation would say, it evokes fear and nausea."

Here's the whole section on Malick:
With his brilliant film The Tree of Life, Terrance Malick explores the manner in which the stories of ordinary people have become part of the story of the cosmos. How could personality possibly emerge from impersonal material? What has this value ladened, self-conscious creature Man to do with the quite unconscious material universe? May it be that somehow God uses human beings to infuse meaning into the universe? Malick is lovingly attentive to the members of an unremarkable family of four, two brothers, a mother, and a father; the O’Briens, who live on everyman’s street, in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. Like all our families the O’Briens grow and sometimes fail to grow into a larger life. The whole story is about the death of one of the sons when he was about 18 year-old and how the grief and sorrow of each member of the family is their attempt to love and honor the dead child and also to understand the meaning of his life and death. 
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The (fiction) writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem,” O’Connor wrote, “is to find that location.” Malick searches the whole universe for that spot and finally locates the intersection of time, place, and eternity by shifting time and place in what we might call the life story of the cosmos. It is a life story that he places before us in the terrible beauty of the birth and evolution of the cosmos as elemental substance is violently sculpted into stars, stellar residue, dark matter, and planets swimming together in a myriad of galaxies in interstellar space. And in particular Malick draws down on this planet’s birth and formation sometimes evoking a sense of awe and sacredness while other scenes of fang and claw are disgusting and without any apparent pity or purpose. Not only does life evolve here but at least one planet, one that looks much like our own, is swept clean of any life by something that looks like a solar tsunami. What could be more devoid of meaning than that? What could be more nihilistic? And that enormity placed next to a family like our own evokes not just wonder, but as the old philosophers of a previous generation would say, it evokes fear and nausea. And because man’s life is but a span, beauty consumes away like a moth, and all of it withers, decays, dies and rots, and all because of that people live in the fear of death their whole life. And yet as we witness this beautiful, but death-dealing cosmological wonder it is the voice of sorrow, the sorrow of one mother whose plea for mercy and absolution begins with her lost son but now is seen to enfold the whole universe.
The whole sermon is very much worth your time.