Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Malick (page 1 of 1)

to be a pilgrim

I’ve been teaching The Pilgrim’s Progress, something that always gives me great joy. I find it simply wonderful that so utterly bonkers a book was so omnipresent in English-language culture (and well beyond) for so long. You couldn’t avoid it, whether you loved it — as George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver did, and lamented the sale of the family’s copy: “I thought we should never part with that while we lived” — or found it puzzling, as Huck Finn did when he recalled the books he read as a child: “One was ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, about a man that left his family it didn’t say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.” 

One of the “tough” things about the “statements” is the way they veer from hard-coded allegory to plain realism, sometimes within a given sentence. One minute Moses is the canonical author of the Pentateuch, the next he’s a guy who keeps knocking Hopeful down. But the book is always psychologically realistic, to an extreme degree. No one knew anxiety and terror better than Bunyan did, and when Christian is passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and hears voices whispering blasphemies in his ears, the true horror of the moment is that he thinks he himself is uttering the blasphemies. (The calls are coming from inside the house.) 

It seems likely that the last major cultural figure to acknowledge the power of Bunyan’s book is Terrence Malick, who begins his movie Knight of Cups with a voice declaiming the full title of the book: “The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream; wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.” 

Those words are uttered by John Gielgud, because they are taken from a 1990 performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Bunyan Sequence, which is a work that Vaughan Williams wanted to compose for his whole life, but only got to near his life’s end: it is his final operatic composition. And it’s wonderful. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress is almost always illustrated, and prominent among those illustrations are maps. Here’s a post about those maps. From that post I learned that Garrett Taylor — an artist and animator who has worked for Pixar and on The Wingfeather Saga TV series — has mapped The Pilgrim’s Progress is four prints that you can buy here. I bought them and had them framed and they now adorn a wall of our house. I stop to look at them three or four times a day. 

It would be wrong for me to post the full-resolution images here, but I think I can risk one portion of one image: 

Now, if Mr. Taylor can just convince Pixar to film the whole book…. 

looking ahead

Lately I’ve been posting in How to Think mode — HTT as the tag here calls it: I’ve been writing about various common-all-too-common errors in reasoning and how they might be avoided. But I’m about to change direction for a while. 

When I was a young faculty member at Wheaton College, a college that prides itself on “the integration of faith and learning,” I quickly realized that there was a fundamental mismatch between my knowledge of my academic discipline, which was fairly sophisticated, and my understanding of the Christian faith, which was woefully underdeveloped. I was only 25 years old when I began teaching at Wheaton; I had not grown up in a Christian home and indeed had only been a Christian for around five years; I had a lot to learn. But at least I grasped that point. 

And I was richly blessed in my neighbors, for I worked in the same building with Mark Noll, Roger Lundin, Bob Webber, and Arthur Holmes, among others. I relentlessly peppered them with questions, and especially sought recommendations for books I could read to give me an adequate understanding of the full range of Christian thought. I did not understand that I was asking for something that I couldn’t achieve in a lifetime. Gradually it dawned on me that Christian thinking about the arts and humanities was richer and deeper and more extensive than I could have imagined; and then, also gradually, my scholarship and non-scholarly writing too became more and more informed by and rooted in that great and complex tradition. 

My experience was somewhat like that of the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, who when invited to teach and write about pastoral care could but draw on what little he knew about then-contemporary models of psychological counseling. It was only when he asked himself whether Christians, who had been doing pastoral care for 2000 years, might know a little bit about the subject that he began the great series of books on pastoral theology for which he is best remembered. Like me, Oden discovered that the Christian tradition in his chosen field was more extensive and powerful than he had anticipated, and he drank deeply from the well of that tradition for the rest of his life. 

Well, for me one thing led to another, and I now have one of the longest job titles in the American academy: the Jim and Sharon Harrod Endowed Chair of Christian Thought and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program. The second half of that title I’ve had for a decade now; the first half is new. I am pleased and honored and excited by the prospect of becoming an official advocate for the great Christian tradition that I have been talking about in this post. 

Partly because of this new role, and partly by accident, I am this semester — for the first time, in a teaching career that now exceeds forty years — teaching only Christian writers. (I have had many semesters in which I didn’t teach any Christian writers at all, though usually there’s been a mix.) I am teaching, for Baylor’s Great Texts program, a course called Great Texts in Christian Spirituality; and I am teaching a new course, one I designed to express my chief interests as the new Harrod Chair: The Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century. 

The new course is devoted to exploring the extraordinary outburst of distinctively Christian creativity — in all the arts and humanities — that occurred especially in the first half of the twentieth century, but has continued in certain forms ever since. It is a ridiculously ambitious and indefensibly wide-ranging course, since we will look (sometimes briefly, sometimes in detail) at painting, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, philosophy, and filmmaking. Basically we’ll go from G. K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain to Marilynne Robinson, Arvo Pärt, and Terrence Malick. (Though as it happens, on Day One we’ll discuss Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.) It’s gonna be utterly insane, and also, I think, a lot of fun. I hope to learn much in this first iteration that I can apply when I teach the course again — and I hope to teach it every year, student interest permitting. 

Between that course and the Christian Spirituality one — which will go from the Didache and Maximus Confessor to Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm — I will have on my mind, for the next few months, an vast agglomeration of works in Christian theology, philosophy, and all the arts. There will be a lot to process, and this here blog is where I do much of my processing, so — if you like that kind of thing, then this will be the kind of thing you like. If not … well, sorry about that. 

Unanswered Questions

Over the past few months I’ve occasionally made oblique references to a book I’m working on. That book is tentatively titled Unanswered Questions: The Art of Terrence Malick. It will be an exploration of the whole arc of Malick’s career as a filmmaker, though its structure will not be linear. A linear structure, working chronologically through all the movies, would not be a very Malickian way of doing business, would it? That said, the book will begin with a moment from Malick’s first movie, Badlands (1973) — this moment: 

Badlands this very moment

But it will quickly move on from there to later films, then back to earlier ones … you’ll see when the time comes what my initial perception is, and how it will shape everything that comes later. (One hint: it involves Ralph Waldo Emerson.) 

I won’t be writing about the project here, because that would reduce the likelihood of my eventually placing it with a publisher — and this is a book that I’m genuinely unsure I will be able to place. Books about movies are less common than they used to be, for reasons not totally clear, though some people think that real movie fans are more likely to invest their money in social Blu-Ray editions of their favorites, complete with commentaries and other special features, than in books. And this one will not have a conventional structure, so … well, we’ll see, in time. And this will take time: I won’t be able to finish it until Malick’s next film appears, and I don’t know when that will be. In the meantime, I want to write as much as I can, while remaining aware of the possibility that this great-work-to-come will change my mind about many things.  

In the meantime I will be posting here about movies in general. Watching and thinking about other movies has helped me better to understand Malick, who makes movies unlike anyone else’s — he has his own distinctive cinematic grammar and syntax and vocabulary, and I find that by having a clearer sense of the movie languages he is departing from, I am better able to describe what he’s up to. (I once saw an interview with Christopher Nolan in which he commented that on the basis of a 30-second clip you can with absolute confidence identify a movie as Malick’s — though he went on to say that if you ask him to explain how he recognizes it as Malick he can’t do it. I’m hoping to achieve more explanatory power.)  

Anyway, check out the “movies” tag for more. But probably not much more about Malick.  

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From an essay of mine about Terrence Malick:

In 1978, the year I turned twenty, I was a film buff — a cinephile, a cinéaste. Though this was long before the coming of VHS tapes and Blockbuster, and though I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, my learned nerdiness wasn’t as dramatic an achievement as one might think. Local colleges and universities all had regular film series with cheap or free admission. More important, I took a course at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on film in the sound era, taught by an astonishingly knowledgeable man named Abe Fawal, who chose films less for their fame than for what they could show us about the technical development of the medium. An older friend of mine who moved in Birmingham’s arty circles listened to me wax ecstatic about the class and then asked if I knew that Fawal had been an assistant director of

Lawrence of Arabia

. I did not believe this tale, but later discovered that

it was true


I was sorry to learn, recently, that Abe Fawal died last year at the age of 87. God rest his soul.

As the years have gone by I have been increasingly aware of how remarkable his class was, and how influential it was on my later life. I don’t remember all the movies we watched in that class, but you may get some sense of the range when I tell you that the first one was Gold Diggers of 1933


— and a later one was Carl Dreyer’s Ordet:

2013 05 Dreyer Ordet2

It was just one amazing experience after another, and gave me an exceptionally vivid sense of the sheer variety of filmmaking techniques and styles, of the ways to tell a story in cinema; of the kinds of stories one might tell.

I don’t watch a lot of contemporary films, but in Dr. Fawal’s class I developed a lasting fascination with the history of cinema. It was fed early on by ongoing film series at his alma mater, Birmingham-Southern College, where I saw my first films by Renoir, Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Truffaut, Resnais, Bresson, De Sica, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges … so, so much that still forms my understanding and love of film today. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Dr. Fawal had inaugurated that film series at BSC.

All that said, Dr. Fawal was a modest man, and didn’t show us, or even talk about, Lawrence of Arabia. But that would’ve been a treat.



Tony Tanner, in his great essay on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, comments extensively on the peculiarity of a heroine, Fanny Price, who so rarely does anything. Contrast her to, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet, who marches miles across fields to care for her ill sister Jane, thereby arousing contempt from some — How she muddied her skirts! — and admiration from others — What a lovely flush the exercise brought to her cheeks! Fanny, by contrast, mainly … sits.

It is next to the ebullient Crawfords that we must try to appreciate Fanny’s stillness, quietness, weakness and self-retraction…. It is a way of showing that she is not quite at home in the world, that she cannot compete with its rampant appetitive energies. In Fanny’s case this weakness is also a token of the exhaustion and strain she incurs through her ‘heroism of principle’. In her stillness she is not inactive: on the contrary, she is often holding on strenuously to standards and values which others all around her are thoughtlessly abandoning. Typically she welcomes the ‘tranquillity’ made possible by Mansfield Park at its best. She is content to remain apart, silent, unnoticed, out of the ‘festivities’. Whereas Mary [Crawford] is a distinctly forward woman, always in her element in the arena of society, Fanny is marked by ‘natural shyness’. Indeed, when all the others complain of the dullness which comes over the house after Sir Thomas returns, she defends it, saying, ‘There must be a sort of shyness.’ To appreciate the full implications of this we should bear in mind a late remark of Jane Austen’s: ‘What is become of all the shyness in the world?’ By which she clearly means not a false modesty but a true unassertive reticence of soul. A selflessness; a quietness.

Tanner calls our attention to the ultimate clarification of this trait of Fanny’s in what for my money is the single most brilliantly conceived and executed scene in all of Austen. (And that’s saying a lot.) The characters have taken a day trip to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, and while they all go off exploring, often in pairs, sometimes in pairs that should not be pairs, Fanny finds a pleasant spot and, once more, just sits.

It is here that Fanny desires to sit down and be still, and she does so on a bench which confronts an iron gate which separates the wilderness from the unenclosed spaces of the park beyond. This is one of the most important gestures in the book. Mary, typically, has no taste for stillness. ‘“I must move,” said she, “resting fatigues me”’, and leaving Fanny immobile, she entices Edmund back into the wood. Then Henry Crawford and Maria and Mr Rushworth appear. Maria, always impatient of all restraints and enclosures, wishes to go beyond the gates and into the wider freedom of the park. The gate — perfect image for the rigid restrictions imposed by the conventions of civilised life — is locked. Mr Rushworth goes to fetch the key. Being engaged to Maria, he is in many ways the lawful person to ‘open the gates’ (there is perhaps a reference to virginity here, just as the locked garden represents virginity in medieval paintings). But in his absence, Henry engages in some very persuasive and suggestive double entendre with Maria. The improver of the estate is also the disturber of conventional life. The whole conversation should be looked at carefully; particularly when Maria complains that the iron gate ‘gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship’ and Henry answers, ‘I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.’ Their final adultery also a bypassing of the ‘iron’ codes of society is here prefigured.

Tanner continues,

Again, Fanny is ‘left to her solitude’. And so it goes on. Mr Rushworth appears, upset to find he has been left behind; Julia turns up breathless and angry; Edmund and Mary continue their ‘winding’ walk in the woods. Only Fanny is still, silent, alone; not involved in the confused antics of all the others, who are variously pursuing their own desires and indulging their impulses. When they do all meet up again, one feels that some irreparable damage has been done.

A masterful scene, masterfully exposited by Tanner.

I’ve been thinking of this scene, and Tanner’s account of it, as I have reflected on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. Franz Jägerstätter’s virtue lies almost wholly in stillness, in refraining, in simply maintaining his stability when all around him have lost theirs. They make vows he does not make; they talk emptily, while he keeps his counsel; they serve their Mortall God, which he politely declines to do; in the end, they kill him, while he is killed by them. Such is his passion — passio, passive, suffering. To quote Tanner with a change of pronouns, “In his stillness he is not inactive: on the contrary, he is often holding on strenuously to standards and values which others all around him are thoughtlessly abandoning.”

We are, generally speaking, not impressed. “Stillness, quietness, weakness and self-retraction” — rather negative as virtues go, wouldn’t you say? Not much to get excited about, is there? But maybe Jane Austen and Franz Jägerstätter understood something we don’t — maybe more than one thing — about what it takes not to be blown about by every propagandistic breeze (for so I render ἀνέμῳ τῆς διδασκαλίας), and about the distinctive kind of weakness in which Another’s strength may be made perfect. Christians who are “not quite at home in the world,” and cannot, or will not, “compete with its rampant appetitive energies” may not deserve our contempt. I find myself longing to exhibit something that no one has ever accused me of exhibiting: “true unassertive reticence of soul.”

attention and sympathy

The Richard Brody review of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a reminder of something that’s quite pervasive in criticism, though rarely talked about: the way that a lack of sympathy with a work of art can lead to a lack of attention to it. For instance, Brody says — and he’s not the only critic to have said this – that there aren’t any doubts in the movie, but of course everyone except Franz doubts the wisdom of what he has done. His wife struggles with it, his mother blames his wife for having made him too religious, the people in the village condemn him … and he is not unaffected by these judgments. We don’t know just how affected he is until a moment near the end of the story, when he has the last of his encounters with the last of his questioners, the judge who will pass sentence on him (played with extraordinary power by Bruno Ganz, in his final film role). Franz intuits that this man is different than the others who have interrogated him. All the others have been asking him questions to try to push him in a particular direction, or to fulfill their assigned role, but this judge asks questions because he wants to know their answers. And Franz tells the judge plainly that he simply doesn’t know whether he’s doing the right thing. Even though this is one of the most powerful and affecting scenes in the entire film, Brody manages to miss it.

It’s not the only thing Brody misses. For instance, he says that the Nazis speak German and Franz and his wife Fani speak English. In fact that is incorrect. Most of the movie is in English — for obvious reasons, I trust — but German is used on varying occasions and for varying purposes. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when the imprisoned and beaten and almost despairing Franz prays the Lord’s Prayer – in German. His family also prays in German. In this story German is both the most public and the most private of languages, while English occupies the conversational middle. The strategy is quite complex, but Brody’s lack of sympathy and interest in film disables him from noticing it.

UPDATE: I keep seeing Brody’s claim recycled by other people — it’s kind of astonishing that a criticism of a film can become a demi-meme when it’s flatly false. So, for the record: What does the angry Nazi mayor of St. Radegund speak when he rails against Franz or immigrants or whatever else he rails against? English. What does the elegant pinstripe-suited interrogator of Franz speak? English. What does the judge speak when he asks Franz, “Do you judge me?” English. What does Fani speak when she prays the Lord’s Prayer with her children? German. What does Franz speak when he prays the Lord’s Prayer in his cell at Tegel? German. These are matters of fact, not interpretation. Again: the movie is mainly in English, for obvious reasons, but uses German very occasionally, and when German is used, both decent and nasty people use it.


A. O. Scott on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life:

Franz is not an activist; he isn’t connected to any organized resistance to Hitler, and he expresses his opposition in the most general moral terms. Nazism itself is depicted a bit abstractly, a matter of symbols and attitudes and stock images rather than specifically mobilized hatreds. When the mayor rants about impure races, either he or the screenplay is too decorous to mention Jews.

And this, I suppose, is my own argument with this earnest, gorgeous, at times frustrating film. Or perhaps a confession of my intellectual biases, which at least sometimes give priority to historical and political insight over matters of art and spirit. Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better. First of all, Scott’s humility here is admirable — his sense that A Hidden Life holds some meaning or insight that he can’t quite grasp, but that might be worth grasping. Let me try to illuminate these matters.

Scott is saying, in part, that he knows how to see and interpret a Holocaust film, but this isn’t one. There are no Jews in it. It therefore evades acknowledging what almost all of us now think of as the most central fact about Nazism: its genocide of Europe’s Jews.

There are no Jews in A Hidden Life because in the Hitler era there were no Jews in remote Austrian mountain villages. And yet the ultimate demand of Nazism — its demand for unconditional and unquestioning obedience, as manifested in a spoken oath of loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler — reaches even there. The craving of the totalitarian system for power, its libido dominandi, has no terminus, and its administrative and technocratic resources are such that it can and will find you and order you to bend your knee. So if Scott wants “historical and political insight,” there it is. 


But that’s not where the story of A Hidden Life ends, that’s where it begins. What do you do when you are confronted with that absolute demand for absolute obedience? What do you do when the administrative extensions of Hitler’s will send you a letter that calls you to serve — when your Mortall God, as Hobbes named it, requires your obeisance? Maybe, if you’re a Christian, you’ll hear a voice in your head: “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” And then what? 

Behold, I tell you a great mystery: Some people heed that voice rather than the voice of their Mortall God. A. O. Scott doesn’t get it — “Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better” — but then, who does? St. Paul famously speaks of the mystery of iniquity, but the mystery of courage and integrity may be greater still. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer — who died nearly two years after Franz Jägerstätter, at the hands of the same regime and for the same cause — famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” How is it that some answer that call, even when the death demanded is in no sense metaphorical? This is something that, I think, cannot be explained, though perhaps it can be portrayed. And that is what A Hidden Life seeks to do. 

There’s a good reason, then, why a scene early in the movie presents us with a lengthy meditation by an artist who is restoring the paintings on the walls of a local church. The temptation, he says, is to comfort — to give the people “a comfortable Christ.” Will he ever have the courage to show the people “the true Christ”? He thinks he might. Someday. I see this as a question Terrence Malick puts to himself: Can he, dare he, show us the Passion of a poor Christian who has taken up his cross and followed Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death? Can his imagination stretch from the staggering beauty of the Alpine valley where Franz and his wife Fani had hoped they would be high enough, distant enough, to be safe, to the horrors of Tegel prison and then the guillotine? Can he show us? Perhaps. Can he make us understand? No.  

Hiddenlife4 0

Again, this is a great mystery. But the film holds another one, and this may require still more courage to portray. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The film ends not with Franz’s death, but with Fani’s devastated grief for him; and as she weeps and rails — and tries to learn to face a life raising her children without her beloved husband in a village that has almost unremittingly scorned him and, because of him, has shunned her and her daughters — she takes desperate hold on her own faith. She receives, or by some inexplicable strength of will conjures up, a vision. And this is not merely the usual hope for being reunited with one’s departed loved ones, though it contains that: it is, rather, a vision of the New Creation, the καινὴ κτίσις, the restoration of all that has been defaced, all that has been shattered, by the evil of men. It is, in the closing moments of the film, a confession of trust in the promise of the scarred and wounded King who sits upon the throne he has gained and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” 

2560px Seis St Valentin

two points about A Hidden Life

  1. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a great, great masterpiece, and you must see it. It is his most linear film since The New World — also a masterpiece, and one of the most underrated films ever made, IMO, for reasons explained by John Patterson here — but in the fourteen years since The New World came out Malick has deepened both his vision and his craft. I will have more to say about it, but only after more people have seen it. 
  2. When you see the film — I admit no doubt on this point — and if you sit through the credits, you will see a card titled “Special Thanks” which contains a list of names. One of them is mine. 😉 

It’s been said that The New World doesn’t have fans: it has disciples and partisans and fanatics. I’m one of them, and my fanaticism burns undimmed 30 or more viewings later. The New World is a bottomless movie, almost unspeakably beautiful and formally harmonious. The movie came and went within a month, and its critical reception was characterised for the most part by bafflement, condescension, lazy ridicule and outright hostility. And, less often, by faintly hysterical accolades written too soon and in terms too overheated to convey understanding. I know, I wrote one of them.

John Patterson