“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at it’s best and least corrupted, it’s gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.'” – J.R.R Tolkein.
“It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.” – C.S Lewis.
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.” – a line from American Beauty.
Terrence Malick is regarded as one of the world’s greatest living directors. He is the anti-Spielberg, suffusing his films with unspoken themes that play on your brain with all the yearning of riddle. He isn’t obvious or up front, in his films or in his life. Perhaps that’s a function of his story. He is a Rhodes scholar, an Oxford and Harvard trained philosopher and surely the smartest man in Hollywood. He is also a man of great hidden sadness, with a personal tragedy at the core of his life that I will not repeat (he is an exceedingly private man who does not enjoy having his life cast out amongst the shallow rapids of public speculation).
So what exactly is Terrence Malick on about?
Well many things. One of which, I think, is this –
Nature mixes two contrasting extremes into one heartbreaking world. The cosmos is stunning, triumphant, incredible, and something within it has gone deeply, deeply wrong. It is a bursting symphony with every second note played out of tune. It is a fallen empire, a castle of former glory. Something within it is waiting for restoration.
I think that’s part of what he’s saying, as the bullets fly and men fall, to a backdrop of dappled light and gorgeous, flowing, pure blue water, in The Thin Red Line. I think that’s some of his message, as a grieving mother remembers her son by voice, as the viewer is soaked in the splendor of the multi-billion year origin of the universe, depicted step by cosmic step, in The Tree of Life.
I think he’s saying, look around you, this universe, this world of ours, it is a fallen empire. We live in paradise lost.
Malick would, of course, have full license to say all this, being a religious man.
A naturalistic man would not agree. He would not agree that there was a former glory. He believes that mankind has always been compromised, flawed, partly broken. He does not believe that humanity has ever been perfect, living in happiness and harmony.
The naturalistic man also does not believe in a future restoration. He does not believe that humanity will ever fully loosen its bonds of egoism. Aside from some transhumanist fantasy, or some technological singularity, he does not believe that we will ever be flawless beings without the constant weight of insufficiency.
The natural man, in short, believes that human kind has always been, and will always be, much as it is now – a race of imperfect beings in an imperfect world.
Malick, by contrast, would I believe quite agree with Lewis’s contention that nothing is quite yet in its proper form. He would agree that there is an ancient glory waiting to be unleashed. He would see the suffering of this world as a devastating, temporary aberration. He would agree with Sam, that ‘it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.’
Malick isn’t a preacher. He leaves you with two options, paradise lost, or mediocrity evolved.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
– Revelations 21. The second last chapter of the bible.