The Thin Red Line (1998) – 4
Transcendence, Glory, Creation
The Thin Red Line (1998). Written and directed Terrence Malick. Starring James Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Elias Koteas. 170 mins; rated R. Metacritic: 78%; Rotten Tomatoes: 79%.
Pictures worth a thousand words? Sometimes maybe, especially when mixed with music. And then, perhaps, if done well, such can skin the soul alive, so to speak, alerting it to the faint tremors of Presence rife throughout what usually seems an opaque and constantly brutal world. These tremors do perhaps amount to what the late Peter Berger a few decades ago labelled “signals of transcendence,” though I am perhaps slightly altering what Berger meant by the term. Scripture makes clear, as does dear John Calvin and his theological heirs, that the created world manifests a fulsome beauty from which we should take succor and for which we should offer constant abundant manifold praise and thanksgiving.*
For some it is a dire short-coming that plagues and limits the soul, not to mention the appeal of the contemporary church. The incomprehensible fact of “aliveness,” meaning the essential central recognition of the inescapable reality (miracle of miracles) of individual personal consciousness. And along with that comes, seemingly, an enormous thirst for celebration, glaringly evident in earth’s music from countless folk tunes worldwide to sonatas and oratorios. And so we seek endlessly for “the valley of love and delight” wondrously evoked in the Shaker folk hymn “Simple Gifts.” In such, and countless other places, we find an antidote of sorts to the “still, sad music of humanity” (“Tintern Abbey”). Even amid suffering and sorrow, we turn to music, though it be dirge or lament, forms that struggle to plumb and console the soul’s writhing.
No one melds so well image and sound to address deepest humanness (soul) better than auteur Terence Malick, a fellow who extra-ordinarily deploys the pictorial and musical to address the inmost parts of the human creature. In numerous wordless revelatory montages in The Tree of Life (2011), he repeatedly strives to evoke a divine presence that mysteriously inheres in all things, even in evolutionary process. The Tree of Life, indeed. The best example of this comes in the opening sequence of Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Malick’s camera fastens on a jungle glade where the sun pours in. The camera approaches an enormous tree and tilts upward to look straight into the shafts of life that pour through the jungle canopy. And he just watches and listens, or rather we do, to Gabriel Fauré’s “In Paradisum” from his Requiem (final version 1900), the effect is well, transcendent, for lack of a better term.
Perhaps to cue the proper response to what viewers have already witnessed, Malick’s camera seamlessly slides to watch boys swimming underwater and then a fellow paddling a dugout canoe on calm seas, a constant smile of delight and amazement upon his face. And still Fauré’s music plays, underscoring and clarifying the psycho-emotional substance (and also spiritual, though that’s a word that should be banned) of the fellow’s (and our) delight in his world.
And so swims the film’s central character, Witt, reveling in “glory,” as the film calls it. The overwhelming resplendent world persists even amid destruction and death. This “glory” shines still, a kind of abiding miracle and presence amid the commonplace, an emblem, surely, of and for divine love and hope for the whole of creation. Miracle lies in fact that we (or the many selves of me) are and the surprise that there is anything at all, let alone of world of such splendor, a fundamental ground upon which we live and to which we pay scant attention.
This posture perhaps provides an antidote of sorts to a shortcoming these days majorly afflicting the faithful many, and that is the seemingly unquenchable thirst for spectacular signs or movements of God, ones that not so much confirm the reality of God but entertain while they support the rightness and blessedness of one’s own experience and beliefs, thus making belief egoistic rather than the opposite. Presently this reflex simply burgeons, taking over pulpits and masses, whether in the “health and wealth” scams or in a politicized messianism that scorns the Gospel’s central and pretty unmissable and unassailable moral demands.** And all of this flourishes in spite of Jesus’ own scathing indictment of the demand for signs (Matthew 16:4). Below our feet, all around, and in our eyes and ears (and as well in touch, taste, and smell), if we but deploy them, lies sufficient glory and succor. The constant plenitudes within life itself, especially for the overwhelming numbers of North Americans, can perhaps combat the radical skewing of the Gospel by contemporary political evangelicalism. A posture of adoration and deepest gratitude for the gift of life itself can awaken the numb and chasten the craven.
*This emphasis is very much a part of the American Reformed tradition, dating to its origins in American Puritanism. The sort of awareness of the splendor of the world moved centuries worth of Puritans, especially those in the Connecticut River Valley, a strain of Calvinism that at once gave rise to America’s Hudson River School of painters and what we now call “environmentalism.” See Mark Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
**A particularly eloquent and timely expression of this view is Fr. James Martin, editor of America, “How Can You Be a Christian Without Caring for the Poor?” The Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2017. Internet: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-martin-throwaway-holy-family-20171221-story.html