It has been a long time (three years in fact!) since I have posted any comments on this blog referring to Terrence Malick’s filmography.

Regular long term readers of IASP may recall that there was a time when Malick’s films were a magnificent obsession here at IASP. There are thirty-one posts in the Terrence Malick section of this blog, probably something over 15,000 words.

My admiration for Malick and particularly his masterpiece “The Tree of Life” was recently reignited by an extensive reading of Malick’s film given by Jonathan A. Anderson at Biola University.

Mr. Anderson has watched Malick’s film carefully. His detailed observations will enrich the viewer’s appreciation for “The Tree of Life”, whether or not one agrees with all of Anderson’s conclusions.

Jonathan Anderson has been Associate Professor of Art at Biola University; La Mirada, CA since 2006. His biography states that as an artist he has been

Focusing on the figure-ground relationship in painting, his artworks explore the capacities and limitations of representation and have been featured in group and solo exhibitions throughout the United States. Anderson’s research and writing focuses on modern and contemporary art with a particular interest in exploring its relations to religion and theology. … He has contributed to various books and journals, and most recently is the coauthor with theologian William Dyrness of the book Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (IVP Academic, 2016).

His lecture on Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is worth listening to whether or not one is a seasoned fan of Terrence Malick’s films. Anderson offers considerable assistance to help the viewer enter into Malick’s admittedly difficult film and gain access to some of the riches of this Malick treasure.

In his presentation, Professor Anderson navigates the potentially troubling dichotomy in the film between nature and grace. Anderson says,

It’s important to notice that at the beginning of the film we get the way of nature and the way of grace. But these are ways; Malick is not distinguishing between a realm of nature and a realm of grace. These are two different ways of human life. The way of nature is essentially the will to power; it’s the way of trying to control beings, to control the world, exerting power over creation.

The way of grace on the other hand is the way of love. It is a way of receiving being, rather than trying to control it. It manifests itself in playfulness, gratitude and self-sacrifice…. The way of grace is actually attuned to nature. The way of grace receives nature attentively in an attuned way and with thankfulness. Whereas the way of nature actually ignores the natural world.

It is important in viewing Malick’s film to guard against the tendency to demonize Mr. O’Brien (“the way of nature”) and romanticize Mrs. O’Brien (“the way of grace”). Both are necessary. It is a question of balance between the spontaneity and freedom embodied in Mrs. O’Brien and the order and discipline of her husband. The way of grace and the way of nature are not opposed to each other; they are partners in the full flowering of the human condition. The ego is a poor master, but a good servant.

One of the reasons we tend to try to collapse this tension is that holding it is so painful. When I shared Mr. Anderson’s thoughts, with my wife Heather, she responded with this beautiful, wise and sensitive comment, shared with her permission:

when I think of “The Tree of Life”, it heightens my yearning for connection with what is true, what is real which also feels like a deep ache because it is so rare to experience this, particularly in relationship. But I experience this in of both watching and studying the film.  Malick struggles with this apparent dichotomy in life, the intersection of the coarseness (fear, anxiety, control, power) of life with that place of tenderness and vulnerability. The film communicates that rare quality of connection with something so delicate and so excruciatingly tender, a quality we so often completely miss in life’s daily transactions – a place that seems to also a evoke a great sadness.

I have previously reflected on this tension here:

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