The Tree of Life’s Invitation To Grace

Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos.

Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos. While some people find Malick’s work to be tedious, and inscrutable, I find The Tree of Life to be a compelling, if imperfect, examination of the deepest questions of life and relationships.

Malick introduces his thematic conflict of Grace vs. Nature in the persons of Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. They are parents to three boys, growing up in the 1950s in small-town Texas. The film closely follows the life of the oldest, Jack, played beautifully by newcomer Hunter McCracken and, in middle age, by Sean Penn.

“There are two ways through life; the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” With these words, Jack’s mother introduces her invitation to live in grace. She is a playful, warm, loving presence in the boys’ life. Contrasting this is Jack’s father’s point-of-view, that of Nature; “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” He is a man consumed by frustration and disappointment. He is driven to fight for every scrap of ground, every rung on the ladder of success. And his mission is to instill his values in the lives of his boys, dismissing the way of grace espoused by their mother.

The unexpected death of R.L., the middle son, at age 19 sets the conflict in motion. This moment in time is explored briefly in the beginning of the film but the majority of the film is told in flashback to the sometimes idyllic, sometimes tempestuous childhood of Jack and his brothers. Older Jack (Sean Penn) is introduced as he attempts, now in middle age, to deal with the conflict and unresolved guilt from his childhood. Jack’s journey as a boy and as an adult is explained by Jack himself, “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

Malick’s brings this world to life in his typically lyric, evocative storytelling style. He makes liberal use of jump-cuts and repetition, and a floating, fluid camera. Long periods pass without dialogue, allowing the actors and their subtle expressions to convey what is happening. This style has its detractors and certainly demands more from an audience. However, I never found myself lost to the story, even when Malick inserts a lengthy montage, ambitiously taking us all the way back to the Big Bang (flashback-of-all-flashbacks!) Malick’s use of recurring images and sounds, the ocean, doorways, trees and light, contrasting modern steel architecture, create a beautiful visual and aural tapestry that invites multiple viewings.

Of course, a film that risks much and challenges its audience is bound to fall short at moments and have its detractors. The Creation Montage is one major aside that seems a bit long for its intended story purpose. I also questioned the passivity of the Protagonist, Jack. As a youth he is very active in boyish ways but seems compelled to act in ways that escalate into actual cruelty to his younger brother–the way of nature. Interestingly, he paraphrases St. Paul’s observation from the 7th chapter of Romans about doing the very thing he doesn’t want to do. As the adult Jack, Sean Penn spends most of the film looking tired and pensive. He never makes a decisive step to address the conflict.

On more reflection, I am oddly comforted that Jack is never forced to act, as an adult, in order to find forgiveness and grace. He is drawn to it by his mother and brother. They open a door and invite him to step through. Isn’t this really what grace is all about? Normally we say that a Protagonist must act, must choose, must risk. Malick seems to be saying, “No, grace can come to us in other ways.” This is truly Grace – unmerited favor rather than self-saving action. It’s not typical Hollywood, and it is a compelling message for us.

Open Your Eyes To Other Cultures This Christmas

In the holiday season, it’s easy to become focused on ourselves and our own small worlds. If you’re looking for an eye-opening view of another of God’s diverse cultures, you owe it to yourself to watch this video clip and check out “The Enemy God” on DVD.

In the holiday season, it’s easy to become focused on ourselves and our own small worlds. If you’re looking for an eye-opening view of another of God’s diverse cultures, you owe it to yourself to watch this video clip and check out “The Enemy God” on DVD.

Storytelling: a Dying Art? Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi

I continue to hammer into my students’ minds the idea that the story is the most important thing, even in a visual/technological artform like cinema.

I continue to hammer into my students’ minds the idea that the story is the most important thing, even in a visual/technological artform like cinema. I have always appreciated Barbara Nicolosi’s thoughts about screenwriting (didn’t know she was Catholic.)

In a very real sense, we need stories to teach us how to live. We enjoy the lessons because stories delight us with their artistry.

From Patheos.com — Storytelling: a Dying Art? Talking with Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi.

It Is Time To Let Justice Roll

It is time for the Church to reclaim the place of prophetic voice in the midst of our unraveling society. As the wealthiest of folk step on and abuse the poorest in our nation by co-opting our government supposedly for, of and by the people through the voice and influence of the almighty dollar, we, the Church, must reclaim our prophetic voice. We must not stop doing the necessary and much needed work of charity, but we much push on, risking ourselves, risking ridicule, risking our places of privilege, and reclaim the biblical and prophetic voice of justice. Without justice, charity falls short. Biblically speaking, they are a matched set. It is time to let justice roll.

via It Is Time To Let Justice Roll –.

Security

Following Jesus will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger.

I read this quote this morning and it really connected with a short film I am preparing to shoot in July. The story concerns Jacob, a young man who lives an unseen life in the midst of the crowded city. When he stumbles upon a businessman, bleeding in an alley, he must decide whether he can take the risk to help.

Whether we live in the inner city or the suburbs, we must constantly ask for the strength to extend ourselves for others. It goes against our natural inclinations. As Scott Bader-Saye says,

“Following Jesus will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good. But in a culture of fear, we find such risks all the more difficult since our natural inclinations lead us to close in on ourselves when we face danger. How can we maintain the posture of the open hand toward a world that scares us?”

Classical Music As An Immersive Experience

Valor Symphonics wants to break down the invisible wall between the performers and audience, creating an immersive experience that goes beyond passively listening to the music.

Valor Symphonics - RedefinedThere is a new youth orchestra in town. My daughter is a growing young musician, so we checked out an informational meeting. I was blown away by the vision they have for Valor Symphonics here in the South Metro Denver area. Their goal is nothing less than redefining what it means to bring classical music to the community. They want to break down the invisible wall between the performers and audience, creating an immersive experience that goes beyond passively listening to the music. Here’s how they describe some of what they envision.

Classical orchestral music is at the core of what we do, yet we recognize that classical music is struggling to maintain momentum in our culture. We are about regaining that momentum. We plan to passionately and creatively infuse classical music with contemporary sound, story, media, staging and lighting, aspiring to redefine the classical experience in an interactive way people will love!

In my previous life as a media producer in Southern California, I was involved in youth conference events where we tried crazy things to make the event interactive with 10,000 teenagers. That was before computers could do much live, but we were all about making the event a participatory experience with a bit of a story. So I was excited to talk with the folks who are developing Valor Symphonics; they are not just music people, but include dance and film and technology creatives who are all looking at how to reignite the experience of music for concertgoers. I can’t wait to see where this goes (especially, of course, if my daughter gets a chair. Here’s hoping.)