Unsolicited Advice from a Failed Filmmaker

Editors’ Note: Reflecting on the movies produced by Sherwood Baptist Church, Andy Crouch imagined the scenario where “one or two Christian kids with real talent somewhere in this vast land are going to see these movies, get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them at an early age, move to Los Angeles, work their tails off, dream, fail, and try again . . . and one day make truly great movies.” What would these movies look like? What advice would you give to a Christian screenwriter, director, or producer who wants to make a film with artistic excellence from a Christian worldview? The Gospel Coalition posed these questions to writers, filmmakers, and artists to reflect together about Christianity and film.

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In the summer of 1999 I finally became a Christian filmmaker.

I wrote a screenplay (title: “Other Than War”) about two Marines who serve together in Somalia (on a peacekeeping operation) and San Diego (on recruiting duty). I selected the cast (fellow Marines), the crew (fellow Marines), the locations (Rosarito, Mexico; San Diego), and the caterer (Pizza Hut). But the production hit a snag when, because of “cost overruns,” my executive producer (MasterCard) refused to provide the funding I needed ($2,500) to buy a digital film camera (a Canon GL1).

As a result, I’ve been stuck for the past 13 years in what we in the business call “development limbo.” Having my first film project languishing in the pre-production phase somewhat limits the practical guidance I can provide as a screenwriter/director/producer. But I’m not one to turn down the opportunity to offer unsolicited advice, so I present these six suggestions for my fellow filmmakers.

1. Don’t be ashamed of the “Christian” label.

“We’re a movie made by Christians,” director Steve Taylor said about his new movie Blue Like Jazz, “but we don’t like it tagged as a Christian movie.”

Whatever artists think they are saying with such a claim, they really convey, “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I didn’t allow my Christian attitudes, beliefs, experiences, or ideas to shape my work—my art is indistinguishable from what would be produced by a non-believer.” Is this really what you intend?

Unfortunately, many Christians have convinced themselves that we can approach our vocations with a sense of religious neutrality. But we can’t. Our work either betrays a worldview shaped by Christ or one influenced by the world (or, more likely, a syncretistic mix of the two). Whether we are plumbers, teachers, or mathematicians, our faith ultimately shapes the way we approach and carry out our work.

This is especially true for those whose vocation entails storytelling. We either consciously acknowledge the ways our faith forms our artistic vocations, or we will be willfully blind to how our sinful nature shapes our craft.

When it comes to art, common grace can only carry us so far. Without the redemptive guidance of the Christian faith, our culture-making efforts as Christians will eventually stagnate and atrophy. Our work will become indistinguishable from those who rebel against our Creator.

We Christians are not only set free from our sins but also set free to help carry out God’s redemptive role in creation. In response, we should desire to use our gifts for the glory of God, rather than merely for the advancement of our own exaltation. Why then would we not want our art to be labeled as “Christian”? And why would we Christians want to produce art that cannot be distinguished from those who despise our Redeemer?

2. Don’t imitate Terrence Malick.

Last year one of America’s most overrated directors released one of the most overrated “Christian” films in the history of cinema: Tree of Life. I’ve read dozens of reviews—many by Christian film critics—and the praise for the film tends to be based on three factors: It’s well-acted, it’s pretty, and it isn’t a cheesy Christian film like Fireproof.  Admittedly, all of that is true. Tree of Life contained superb acting, lush cinematography, and is cheesy in a way completely unlike the unfairly maligned Fireproof.

Just as Fireproof was welcomed as a Christian alternative to Hollywood schlock, Tree of Life was embraced as a substitute for Christian kitsch. In many Christian intellectual and artistic circles, admitting that you don’t like Malick’s latest snoozefest is a sure sign that you are a philistine (and probably from somewhere like Tulsa or Omaha).

Even so, Tree of Life is deadly dull—like watching a documentary by a Buddhist who has read the Old Testament. Tree of Life fails as a work of art because it does not meet the minimum required of every competent film: tell a coherent and compelling story.

Unfortunately, critical reception of the film ensures that it will be influential among Christian filmmakers for years to come. As a result, Christian audiences will be subjected to a slew of meandering tone poems rather than treated to vibrant and enthralling narratives.

You can spare your audience such grief and pain by following a simple rule: Don’t be like Malick. Don’t portray God’s creation as boring. Don’t make a film that will only win you kudos with critics too insecure to admit they don’t understand why you included the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park in a remake of The Great Santini. Make a movie for us unwashed masses. Give us a story. Give us a narrative that makes us gasp at its audacity and ask “What is man that you are mindful of him?” rather than “Seriously, what’s up with the dinosaurs?”

3. Sometimes it’s okay for a film to just be a movie.

Not everything needs to be work of art. Sometimes we just need entertainment. (Don’t worry, we’ll still call you an “artist.”)

4. Don’t be knostic.

Over the course of my 42 years I’ve watched roughly 3,000 films. In order to justify my rather indiscriminate viewing habits I became a master of eisegesis—the process of misinterpreting a text by introducing one’s own presuppositions and agendas into the text.

For most of my movie-watching career few films eluded my efforts to read into the script some form of “redemptive” theme. No matter what the filmmakers’ intent in making the film, I had the ability to suss out its hidden, deeply embedded, “Christian” meaning they didn’t even know they had included. I was what Douglas Wilson would call a “knostic,” a person who has a “tendency that attempts to resist Gnosticism while simultaneously falling into something else very much like it.”

Many modern knostics have wanted to learn how to appreciate the arts of narrative. As far as that goes, nothing wrong with it, but whether writing about novels, or movies, or stageplays, they have found “redemptive” or “death and resurrection” themes in all kinds of grimy stories. In other words, an abstract thing, the structure of the story, is mysteriously able to sanctify the actual content of the story. By means of this amazing magic trick, any amount of Tarantino sludge can be made edifying.

Now . . . three cheers for structure, but content matters. Content is determinative.

Content determines whether your film is Christian (i.e., influenced by your Christian worldview) or syncretistic (influenced by a mix of worldviews). As a filmmaker you must make that choice consciously rather than relying on the structure to convey your theme. Consider, for example, the common structural trope of the “Christ-figure.” Any moderately competent director could turn Satan into a Christ-figure. But that wouldn’t give the movie a “redemptive” theme. Don’t expect your audience to do the work of reading into your movie a redemptive theme that you were unwilling to include.

5. Don’t be afraid to make distinctly Christian films.

Gene Veith explains the defining element in Christian art:

All distinctly Christian art must be, in some sense, about the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.

Mere moral lessons, while perhaps commendable, are not enough to be distinctly Christian, since Mormons, Muslims, and ethical humanists could agree with them. And mere optimistic positive messages are not enough and may even be harmful, since they can create the illusion that we can achieve righteousness by our own efforts. Works of meaning and beauty have their own value. But to be explicitly “Christian,” a work needs to be, directly or indirectly, about sin and grace and what Christ has to do with them.

While not all films made by a Christian need to be explicitly Christian, our culture could use more works that are distinctly Christian. If Christians filmmaker won’t make them, who will?

6. If you want to be a Christian filmmaker make a film.

From my experience I’ve found that after about a decade, people become skeptical about your claims to being a filmmaker if you’ve never actually made a film. If you want people to take you seriously as Christian filmmaker, then be a Christian and go make a film. You may fail in your efforts, you may even make a very bad film, but at least you can say you made a film. That’s more than most of us failed filmmakers will ever be able to say.

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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Visa is a producer that might help you get your film made.

    P.S. Great article! Thanks for saving this Philistine from watching Malick’s Tree of Life.

  • Andrew

    Excellent. Your intro is great, but the advice is even better.

    You’ve given word precisely to my feelings on viewing “Tree of Life.” Thank you.

  • http://frightfullypleased.blogspot.com Stephen

    Philistines and others will be watching and discussing THE TREE OF LIFE (as well as Malick’s previous four features) long after copies of FIREPROOF are gathering dust in the clearance bin.

    • Joe Carter

      Maybe so. Fireproof was a low-budget entertainment, while Tree of Life was a big budget “art” film, so it’s unfair to compare the two on the impact they will have.

      But I’m not sure people really will be watching and discussing the Tree of Life for much longer. There simply isn’t enough to the film to make it memorable for people in the future, people who didn’t get caught up in the initial hype about it.

      • NSO

        No offense, but Roger Ebert has already declared THE TREE OF LIFE one of his favorite ten films of all time. It was on nearly every major top ten list Christian or otherwise–and not because of peer pressure. Have you read much about it? I think it’s way off base to say that it’s going to pass away from memory.

        Perhaps it’d be more wise to say that *maybe* you didn’t “get it” as opposed to placing the blame so definitively on the film. Just because a film is non-linear or image-driven doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a narrative. Actually, TREE’s narrative is quite recognizable.

        • Joe Carter

          ***No offense, but Roger Ebert has already declared THE TREE OF LIFE one of his favorite ten films of all time. It was on nearly every major top ten list Christian or otherwise–and not because of peer pressure.***

          While I generally like Ebert, he also included some rather weak movies on his list. So I’m not sure that is really a point in its favor.

          But you are right that a lot of non-Christian reviewers included it on their Top 10 lists. My question, though, is why was that the case when many of those reviewers despise anything to do with Christianity? Could it be that they are seeing something different in the film than most Christian viewers?

          My answer: Yes, I think so. I think the understood that Malick was portraying an animistic universe and that the Christian elements were intended to be culturally relevant to the story (you won’t find many Buddhists living in East Texas in the 1950s) and not meant to be theologically relevant.

          But as Dennis Miller used to say, “Of course, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.”

          • David Berglund

            There is one major flaw with this theory. That is that few (very few) secular critics who read the film in the way you propose. Most were simply miffed by it. Christian audiences, on the other hand, were either A) miffed, or B) saw Malick communicating a profound Biblical message of grace and sovereignty. Again, the purpose of the film does not seem to be to convert unbelievers, but to encourage believers, and in this sense, it works in spades for those who are theologically savvy and ready to interact with the film on Malick’s terms. Not every work of Christian art needs to be relevant and impactful for everyone who views it – that is an impossible task.

            • Truth Unites… and Divides

              David Berglund to Joe Carter: “Again, the purpose of the film does not seem to be to convert unbelievers, but to encourage believers, and in this sense, it works in spades for those who are theologically savvy and ready to interact with the film on Malick’s terms.”

              Joe, you’re a theologically savvy believer. Did the Tree of Life encourage you as a believer since that was its purpose? Were you ready to interact with Malick’s film on his terms, whatever they may be?

          • NSO

            I think you’re perhaps thrown off by the fact that the film isn’t “evangelical” in any sense. There are so many hints outside of the 50’s-cultural context of this film’s directly Christian influence. To suggest that it’s animism dressed up in a culturally-relevant Christianese is a major reach.

            More likely that this “animism” is simply representative of Malick’s portrayal of creation being a kind of language from God–more sacramental than animistic. Unless, of course, you really are that stuck on the dinosaur scene! :)

            Further, I think you’ve missed many of the clues to the film’s Christology: the references to THE IMIITATION OF CHRIST (THIS is what the nature/grace dichotomy is referencing: the chapter from Kempis called “The Voice of Christ.”); the lingering shot on the stain-glass window of Christ right when the priest says, “is there nothing that is deathless?”; the fact that the whole “eternity” sequence at the end of the film when Jack comes to faith/finds home is profoundly Christological if you have the ear for the AGNUS DEI/LUX AETERNA; and all 3 points taken together, but particularly the first, indicate a Colossians 1 Christology that pervades the film. Not to mention some of the imagery in the end of the film: the bride imagery, the stepping through an open door imagery, the rising from the grave imagery. Animistic focus? Or Christian focus?

            Just because the film does not directly state much of what it’s saying doesn’t mean that Christians are just applying to the film what they want to see. It’s a mistake to assume that for such a visual/aural film. Further, part of what makes the film great is what most seems to trouble you: it’s narrative (yes, there is one) is both universal and particular. The O’brien family is particular enough to be interesting, but universal enough (“father,” “mother,” “brother”) that the viewer, if engaged (and not bored, wanting the film to do all of the work for him/her), can bring the particularity of his/her experience to the film’s universal outline (the grace/nature creation/fall lost/home outline). In this way, “Jack’s” memories become a way for us to fill it with ours, too.

            The film’s approach is anthropological; this doesn’t mean that it isn’t Christian, particularly if the film strongly suggests that it’s an existential reality that makes the most sense within a Christian narrative.

            It’s fine to not be a fan of what Malick does. And you’re right in a sense that young christian filmmakers shouldn’t imitate Malick. One should adopt a sensibility that fits for his/her own purposes/talents. But to suggest that Malick is one of the most overrated filmmakers of all time, for the reasons you’ve named? Oy.

            • NSO

              In other words, you presume that the Christian elements are part of the 50’s Texas narrative only, but the entire film is framed by Jack’s being lost/wanting to find his way back to his mother’s/brother’s faith.

  • Shelly

    In regards to the “Christian” label. I don’t think Christian artists are ashamed of the “Christian” label because it tells the audience that their faith has informed the making of the film or whichever art form, it’s because the “Christian” label has now come to be seen as cheesy, as subpar, as mediocre when it comes to the arts.

    i.e. Christian music. Christian books. Christian movies.

    And that is what barrs people from wanting to watch it, read it, hear it, see it, etc…

    It’s like an automatic rating of 2/5 stars for anyone who hears/sees that label.


    • Joe Carter

      ***it’s because the “Christian” label has now come to be seen as cheesy, as subpar, as mediocre when it comes to the arts.***

      True, but those who reject the label seem to imply that “non-Christian” works are not cheesy, subpar, or mediocre. Compare the best of Christian art to the best in non-Christian art (in an area, unlike with film, that has numerous Christian artists) and the Christian works almost always come out ahead.

      • Randy

        I would argue that the best Christian artists are not viewed through the “Christian” label. They are just thought of as artists. The best from any group with a label will not typically be viewed through that label. Many people hear a movie or a band is Christian, and they think that it is for Christians and doesn’t have anything to offer to non-Christians. I think most Christian artists aspire to reach beyond an audience composed entirely of Christians.

      • Scott G.

        For better or for worse, “Christian” music, books, and now movies are coming to refer to a specific Evangelical cultural program that economically rewards mediocrity and has little patience for subtlety. Organizations like the Christian Bookseller’s Association enforce certain rules, and Christian distributors ensure that inferior works can have significant popularity as long as they toe the line. There is, for better or worse, a clearly marked “brand” in American society, called “Christian fiction,” written by Christians for Christians and only made accessible to the general public in a few breakthrough hits like Left Behind. Separating oneself from that “brand” does not indicate that one is separating from a “Christian worldview.”

        Obviously, many great works of Christian art in the past would not succeed in today’s Christian market. John Updike has too much sex; Flannery O’Connor has too much violence; Paradise Lost reinvents Satan’s voice; William Blake’s work is too harshly self-questioning; Doestoevski spends too much time depicting evil (and is far too graphic) before pointing to Christ; Chaucer is too slow to give an orthodox opinion on his highly unorthodox Pilgrims; Renaissance religious painting has far too much nudity. So one can associate with the tradition of Christian art without allying oneself with the CBA and other “Christian” modes of distribution. (Even Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, embraced by Evangelicals, presented itself as a work of religious art by a Christian, but not as an entry in the “Christian movie” genre.)

        Indeed, for certain temperaments, an association with historical Christianity and historical Christian art may draw one away from the “Christian movie” or “Christian book” label.

  • You are not the judge of art

    I think art is all in the eye of the beholder so for you to make a statement like Fireproof is a cheesy film is really narrow minded. Do you have any idea how many lives have been affected and touched through Sherwood Pictures? Do you feel all music categorized as “Christian” is cheesy as well? Making statements like that are really ignorant for you to be the judge of what is defined as “good” or “cool”.

    • Joe Carter

      Don’t read too much into my remark about being “cheesy.” While cheesy usually isn’t good, it does not mean that it overrides the other values of the work. The films of Frank Capra are usually “corny” (hence the oft-used term “Capra-corn” in reference to his films) but I still think he was one of the greatest directors in American cinema.

      As for Fireproof, I liked the film. I too was touched by it. I thought it conveyed genuine emotion rather than as with ToL where you have great actors emoting greatly. But Fireproof was intentionally a “message” film and such movies tend to come off as a bit cheesy.

    • Scott G.

      You are Not:

      I have profoundly mixed feelings about Fireproof. I admit that it can be inspiring and make a difference in people’s lives. I felt that the use of women and men with normal and realistic body types was a LEAP forward in terms of applying Christ’s priorities to the creation of Christian movies. I was glad to see people trying to demonstrate the struggles of Christianity in a contemporary world.

      Yet the ending, to me, did not ring true. When I have struggled with habitual sin, the way out has always been a long and slow trudge, not a near-instant turnaround in all aspects of life. Moreover, I nearly lost my faith in adolescence because of an Evangelical culture that offered simple prayers and decisions as points where all sin would go away and all liberation comes. I had to learn, the hard way, that when Paul talks about the struggles of flesh versus spirit, or when C.S. Lewis talks about the difficulties of the Christian life, these are struggles that true believers go through, and places where God’s grace works slowly in Christians’ lives.

      Fireproof scares me, because it seems to promise quick, easy turnarounds unlike any I have witnessed, and I don’t want people to mistake that for the slow yet powerful work of the Spirit that I have experienced in my life, and the life of others.

  • http://geeksofchrist.wordpress.com Mickey

    #3 is shortsighted and immature.

    What exactly distinguishes “art” from “entertainment” ?
    When this false false distinction is made, I only hear a child groaning about having to go to the museum. Relieving a creator from his/her obligations to hard work and quality does nothing useful. Being entertained is a fine goal for an audience and a fine goal for a creator – but being mindlessly entertained, which I think is suggested by #3, is dangerous.

    It’s dangerous intellectually. It’s dangerous morally.

    • Joe Carter

      ***What exactly distinguishes “art” from “entertainment” ?***

      Well, for one thing, intention. It’s like the difference between work and play. Both are necessary in our lives, but we don’t have to agree—as some people believe—that only work has value and hence we should work even at our play.

      Art, to be art, must have an aesthetic intention that can be missing from entertainment. And that’s okay! It doesn’t have to have that quality.

      • http://geeksofchrist.wordpress.com Mickey

        I think we just disagree on this point.

        While I acknowledge a difference between Tolstoy and a Batman comic, I refuse to view the Batman comic as purely entertainment. I need to be engaged with whatever media I’m exposed to. It’s how I protect myself from bad stories and from bad worldviews.

        Being engaged is also how I best enjoy good stories and good worldviews.

        I write about stories all the time – usually stories that many Christians have maligned, like those found in superhero comics, Doctor Who, and Star Trek (with all its subversive humanism). So many people view these as permissions to hit our brain’s off-switch. I would argue that’s when we’re most susceptible to having our minds changed for us. By viewing these commercial bits of entertainment as art, I’ve discovered a wealth of great stories that can help to illustrate some of the truths of God’s Word. Not only that, but since fans started treating these works as something more, the creators met them and they started treating these works as something more too!

        blah blah…I know this response is probably too long for anyone to read in the context of this article, but I truly believe that paying attention is the best thing we can do with entertainment. It challenges the creators to do better. It refreshes our minds. And it allows us to engage the world around us.

        • Joe Carter

          I’m not sure we disagree—at least not on this point. I certainly don’t mean to imply that entertainment is content that don’t have to engage with.

          The difference to me is sort of the difference between worship in church and riding a roller coaster. Worship has a specific purpose and is intended to affect us in some meaningful way. When we ride a roller coaster, though, we just want to have fun. We don’t expect to be emotionally engaged after the ride is over. I think that is the same with film. Yes, we have to be engaged, but that doesn’t require that we try to suss out a deeper meaning to the experience of watching something intended as pure entertainment.

          • http://geeksofchrist.wordpress.com Mickey

            I reckon I’m more obsessive; sort of a neon John Donne without any talent.

            I did quite enjoy your article, by the way. Sorry to have harped on a single point that I happened to find particularly itchy. You articulated some very serious challenges that I think all Christian artists should confront before touching the brush to the canvas, as it were.

  • Dean P

    Y.A.N.T.J.O.A. All artforms and professions have criteria upon which to base standards on. In other words objective standards upon which good and bad art can be evaluated. Art has both an objective and subjective element built into it. Even the most post-modern de-constructionist would agree with that. Jerram Barrs at Covenant Seminary has a great analysis on how this works. If you click on the link below the essay is in a pdf at the bottom of this short article.

  • Travis Mullen

    I thought this was a great word. The only thing I disagree with is that the motive for not wanting to be called “a Christian film” or a “Christian Filmmaker” is not limitted to the way you described it. I think the reason I would say what Steve Taylor said is because I don’t want my movie to get judged instantly as ‘only for Christians’ which it will to almost all non-Christians. Most unbelieving friends I know don’t listen to “Christian music” or watching anything close to a “christian film”. So that would be the reason I avoid the label, to keep it accessible to the people I most want to influence.

    • Joe Carter

      Oh, I certainly agree that people can have noble motives for not wanting to use “Christian” as label for their artwork. But the problems is that whatever reason they have, they are still feeding into the misperception if something is “Christian” it is inferior and/or not accessible to non-Christians.

      Why not just say, “Yes, the work is Christian because it is an artifact made by a Christian. But here’s why I think non-Christians can appreciate it too. . . “

  • David Berglund

    Your dismissal of The Tree of Life is truly unfortunate, for it is assumes all viewed the film as you did. It is a film with a very strong narrative and thematic structure – just not told in a stereotypical linear fashion. If you attempted to watch the film as a typical movie, you would be lost, but if you understand the film as a visual poem, you will be enthralled with the beauty of God’s creation, the pain of living in a broken world, and the comfort of knowing God’s grace is bigger and more wonderful than we can grasp. I was brought to tears by the film and it brought about humble worship for many weeks to come in meditating on it. The goal of art is to mirror God’s creativity and bring Him glory, and this is done in many ways – not simply by creating populist entertainment.

    • Joe Carter

      You touch on a point that I wish I could have delved into in my article. You say the film should be understood as a “visual poem.” The problem is that film’s are not poems. You can film a poem anymore than you can turn a film into poetry (at least not without losing something essential).

      One of the things that I think Christians can bring to art is the idea of what Francis Schaeffer used to call “form and function.” As applied to art, each type (sculpture, poetry, film, etc) has it’s own form that requires following certain standards and conventions. Those limitations provide the “freedom” that allows the art to be effective. Malick fails because while he loves visuals (and is good at them) he doens’t understand how to structure a narrative. Since film is a narrative presented in visual and aural form, this is a problem.

      Also, I willingly acknowledge that many people took a lot away from the film. But my contention is that they took away what they brought with them. If we were to do a detailed examination of ToL, scene by scene, you’d be hard-pressed to make find many of the things you mention. They may be there individually (pain, beauty, etc.) but they don’t add up to what you think they do.

      What I mean is that while Malick presents a movie in which God is a character, it isn’t the Christian God. As Kevin Collins said in his review:

      “The God represented in the film is not the Christian God, incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ (Christ is in fact strangely absent from the family’s collective and private prayer and gets no mention in the film). Nor is he the God of the Old Testament, who comes not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small voice. This is not the God of Moses, Elijah, and the psalms.

      The god of the Tree of Life is a pre-Judaic force, an impersonal, mute entity manifesting itself through the power of nature, in erupting volcanoes, galactic storms, the Big Bang, and puzzling shots of sharks, dinosaurs, and cellular division. The only still, small voices we hear are the internal mutterings of the central characters in the voiceovers that accompany much of the film’s action. It is an evocative and aesthetically pleasing dramatic device, but there is very little substance in what the characters have to say.”

      • http://nateduffy.blogspot.com Nathan Duffy

        Complete tripe. When people refer to films as ‘visual poetry’, they don’t mean the film is to be read literally in the way that a poem is. It’s to draw a completely valid analogy between certain elements of form between artistic mediums.

        Though, as it relates to ‘The Tree of Life’, proponents of the film do sometimes do it by a disservice by using such language. The film, while elliptical and unorthodox in form, has an utterly sequential, rigorous narrative structure that only the most obtuse viewers miss. Though that doesn’t detract from its ‘poetic’ elements.

        And Collins’ review was comically imperceptive. David Bentley Hart’s response, not to Collins specifically, but to a wide swath of reviewers who found, as you say, a God but not the Christian God, in the film, was entirely correct: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/07/seven-characters-in-search-of-a-nihil-obstat/david-b-hart

        • Joe Carter

          ***David Bentley Hart’s response, not to Collins specifically, but to a wide swath oth reviewers who found, as you say, a God but not the Christian God, in the film, was entirely correct:***

          With all due respect to DBH, that was one of the sloppiest and annoying things he’s ever written (and not just the stuff about ToL). For example he says, “Oh, yes, The Tree of Life is profoundly, if mysteriously, scriptural—with its images of Eden, Cain and Abel, God speaking out of the whirlwind, divine Wisdom dancing at the heart of creation, Christ the man of sorrows, and so on. . .”

          Um, none of that was in the film. The idea that simply having two brothers who quarrel is a “Cain and Abel” motif is they type of thing that DBH would usually scoff at.

      • David Berglund

        As Nathan said, you cannot take the term “visual poem” literally, but must understand it in the context of the medium being used. In this case, Malick builds a symphonic rythm using visual motifs in imagery, editorial pace, thematic chapters, and yes, a broad-scope narrative structure. I can tell you much about the faith journey of the eldest son, his relationship with his parents, his doubts and fears, etc. How could I do this if the film lacks narrative or conflict? (In the end, this immaterial, for your argument is lacking regarding the medium of film as it assumes wrongly that film should only be used to tell narratives. This is extremely short-sighted.)

        The film is the gospel of grace presented in the form of conflict between nature/legalism (the father) and grace/beauty (the mother), and this is the central conflict. As the eldest son reflects on his life (what we actually experience in the film), he comes to faith in recognizing God’s work in and through his creation, his family, and his experiences, even though he sinfully neglected this grace until this point. This is to some extent everyone’s faith story, and in that sense, the film is transcendant and universally relevant.

        Christ is present in the film, by the way, in discussions of God’s grace, in the loving ovations of his mother, and in church iconography. In one scene, for example, a pastor asks who can take away our pain and sin, and Malick answers with an image of Christ in stain-glass, blood flowing from his hands. Furthermore, the God I know and serve, incarnated in Christ, now speaks through His Spirit through subtle whispers in prayer, convictions, and others – as Malick presents in the film.

        • Joe Carter

          Again, I have to say that you are reading something into the film that is simply not there. There is certainly no “gospel of grace” because you can’t have a gospel of grace without Christ.

          Malik’s story is essentially a non-Jewish, non-Christian variation of the Job story. In the main section of the film we see a family dealing with pain and suffering and an inability to truly relate. In the parallel theme, we see Malick presenting a God who creates a world without caring what happens in it. The result is that at the end of the film the characters have to resolve themselves to the fact that they create their own meaning. All of the images (as you mention the Christ in stain-glass) are man-made stories we tell ourselves to feel better. The true God, as Malick shows, has as little concern about humans as he did the dinosaurs.

          • David Berglund

            This is an interesting reading of the film, and I can see how it could come about. Yet, while this is true, you must admit that others will read the film differently. Presuppositions are vital to our worldviews, as they shape how we interpret what we experience. In this sense, the film may leave room for different interpretations, but in some sense, any film ever made does this as well. If a film must be without ambiguity or unanswered questions, then filmmakers seeking to be moral would be forced to pridefully fit God into a box and pretend they have all the answers.

            I agree with Brian Godawa’s post when he states, “Did God give Job the answer to suffering? No. Sorry. Is everyone God killed in order to make David king or Jehu king guilty of capital crimes? Nope. Sorry again. Do we really know for sure what the Nephilim of Genesis 6 are? Really? Or the urim and thummim? Is anybody really foolish enough to say he knows without doubt just what Revelation’s symbols all mean? How about Ezekiel’s visions? God has seen fit to leave a lot of his own Word to us mysterious and ambiguous. We should not be afraid to do so as well in our stories.”

          • Scott G.

            The thing I think you have to account for is the fact that people have reactions to Tree of Life that they don’t have to other movies–not to movies like To End all Wars (which is Christian, artistic, has great acting, and isn’t cliched); not to secular art films; not (or at least to a lesser extent) to other films by Malick.

            Yes, these viewers (myself included) had to provide a lot of thought and imagination in order to make the film work. But for me, the movie was the perfect type to cause me to put imagination into the film. It allowed for a profound meditation on God’s creation, the book of Job, the problem of pain, and the wonders of nature. I didn’t watch it in the same way I watch other movies, but then again I already watch, say, The Lives of Others in a different way from how I watch Star Wars.

            Terrence Malick had to do *something* right to not only have me experience this wonderful combination of thought, worship, and sympathy, but to have others experience it as well. I can argue with you point by point (see the C&PC article, with which I agree), but that is not my point. One goal of a movie, as I see it, is to communicate with an audience. ToL obviously spoke in a dialect you didn’t appreciate. But I don’t think you can condemn it–or call it un-Christian–unless you can say that you are willing to take it on its own terms.

            And yes, those terms are idiosyncratic. I might even say that his film isn’t a “movie,” if by “movie” you mean something engineered from beginning to end to have a predictable-yet-fresh structure and to reward passive engagement as well as (in best cases) thoughtful engagement. There are people I would never advise to see Tree of Life. But that doesn’t mean it is un-profound, or worthless. It just means that it has a specific audience.

  • http://nateduffy.blogspot.com Nathan Duffy

    I was with Joe on point one, but once he attacked Malick I couldn’t take him seriously any more. ‘The Tree of Life’ is positively riveting from start to finish as narrative cinema.

    That said, I agree most Christians shouldn’t aim to be like Malick but for a different reason. Namely, that it’s a quixotic task.

    (And skimming the rest of the piece I suspect I agree with most of his other non-Malick-related points).

    • Joe Carter

      And I’m afraid I can’t take you seriously anymore, Nathan, after you claim that ToL was “riveting from start to finish.” ; )

      (Seriously, whatever else you might say about the film, it is not riveting all the way through.)

      I realize I’m ahead of the curve on this one. Malick is considered a great filmmaker despite never having made a great film. Eventually, enough people will realize the emperor has no clothes and he’ll be relegated to the minor artist that he is.

      • Tyler D.

        Wow, the arrogance of that comment is unreal. Is it not possible that maybe you just don’t get Malick? Why is it that everyone is behind the curve? You haven’t given any substantial reasons for why Malick is a “minor artist”? The guy who wrote, in part, Dirty Harry; directed Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, TOL, etcetera. Which most reputable film critics have all liked quite a bit. Ebert even named the Tree of Life as one of the best movies of all time, and he’s certainly not an idiot. All I’ve heard it is that you think it’s boring, and that it doesn’t portray the Christian God. A lot of people think that old movies, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, are boring, but that doesn’t mean that they are ahead of the curve, it just means that they are wrong.

        For one I don’t think Malick is trying to portray the Chritian God so I don’t see how you can dock points for that. What is your argument for him being a sub-par filmmaker.

        And this is coming from someone who is graduating college tomorrow and going out to California to try to get into writing and directing movies, so this conversation is an important one to have, and I appreciate your blog post. I just don’t understand how you can watch Tree of Life and just write Malick off as a minor artist. I for one would be interested in knowing what directors/movies you do enjoy, that might give some insight into why you disliked TOL so much.

        • Joe Carter

          *** Is it not possible that maybe you just don’t get Malick? Why is it that everyone is behind the curve? ***

          It’s possible. . but I doubt it. I think it’s easy too easy to dismiss criticism about artists by saying that people don’t “get” them. Whether that is true or not does not necessarily negate the criticism.

          Honestly, I think I “get” Malick. I just think he’s (at best) a minor artist—not in the league with the best filmmaker working today, much less comparable to the greats. Let’s consider your list:

          *The guy who wrote, in part, Dirty Harry*

          I assume you meant that tongue-in-cheek. Dirty Harry is not exactly regarded for its screenplay.


          This is indisputably Malick’s best film. And it’s nothing special. But let me explain my methodology:

          I think films should be considered as a stand-along work (unless they are part of a series) and be judged by what they intend to accomplish (Roger Ebert’s criteria) and how they fit into their specific genre (all films fit into a genre). They can also be important for their time and of historical interest but their status as masterworks is diminished because better films on similar themes have emerged (as in the case with Truffaunt’s 400 Blows. Groundbreaking at the time, but most audiences viewing it for the first time now will wonder what the fuss is about.)

          But my most important standard is the Single-Viewer Test: Imagine that you are watching a film without knowing anything about the artist, nor about the film’s reputation or critical reception. You will never talk about this movie with anyone—your reaction is not colored by how other people will feel about how *you* feel about the movie.

          My contention is that if more people watched films using this standard, the ideas about what is considered great cinema would be radically different. I believe this is especially true about Malick’s films. If you are told they they are important and made by a great director, you’ll have a different way of watching the films. If you’re like most people, you’ll want to find what everyone else claims to see so that you aren’t considered a Philistine.

          Watch Badlands using this criteria and it falls apart. It simply isn’t that interesting.

          *Days of Heaven*

          Not bad, but not great.

          *The Thin Red Line*

          Beautifully filmed but painfully dull and shallow.

          ***Which most reputable film critics have all liked quite a bit. ***

          Read most of the reviews for those films and you’ll find that they critics tend to fawn over the visuals. It’s not surprising that critics who watch so many visually dull movies get excited when something beautiful comes along.

          ***Ebert even named the Tree of Life as one of the best movies of all time, and he’s certainly not an idiot.

          I love Ebert but he can make some head-scratchingly bizarre claims about movies. For example, he also thinks Synecdoche, New York is one of the best movies of all times. Care to defend that choice. ; )

          ***All I’ve heard it is that you think it’s boring, and that it doesn’t portray the Christian God. ***

          I think it’s boring for two reasons: (1) Malick doesn’t really know how to tell a compelling story so he doesn’t know how they should be paced, and (2) the idea that an impersonal force rules over the universe and that we humans have to existential choices and create meaning for ourselves is about the most boring story you can tell.

          ***A lot of people think that old movies, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, are boring, but that doesn’t mean that they are ahead of the curve, it just means that they are wrong.***

          You’re absolutely right. I don’t think I’m ahead of the curve on Malik because he makes movies that are not appreciated by the masses. I think I’m ahead of the curve because he has all the same symptoms of other highly praised but overrated directors (like Robert Altman or Woody Allen). If he made films at a faster pace his flaws would be more evident.

          ***What is your argument for him being a sub-par filmmaker.***

          The short answer: Because he loves visuals more than story and because he never really has an interesting story to tell in the first place. (Note: I think Malick is a master craftsman, but a minor artist.)

          ***I for one would be interested in knowing what directors/movies you do enjoy, that might give some insight into why you disliked TOL so much.***

          I’m not sure it would. The problem is not that I don’t enjoy Malick its that I think he’s overrated. I loath the work of Kubrick for many of the same reasons that I don’t like Malick’s films. Yet I understand why Kubrick is a great director, even though I don’t like a single one of the films he’s made.

          I think a better clue would be from what I consider overrated as opposed to underrated. For that you can see here: http://www.firstthings.com/firstthoughts/2009/11/13/100-most-overratedunderrated-films/ That list was intentionally contrarian and skews to the popular, but I think it shows that my heart is with story and characterization.

          • Tyler D.

            Wow thanks for the thorough response. It really helped and I read the article you linked to and agree with a lot of your “picks”. It is clear you have seen a lot of movies and a lot of the “great” movies to be sure.

            I too agree with Roger Ebert’s kind of basic movie analysis (I do still love the 400 Blows). And the thing with TOL is that is feels fresh and new. It is a movie going experience that you won’t soon forget, even if you didn’t like it.

            I guess I agree with your single-viewer test, in a vacuum. But since we can’t and don’t watch movies like that, I’m not sure they can ever be analyzed and critiqued in that manner. To be fair I can see where you are coming from with Malick but I remember watching Days of Heaven, not knowing anything about Malick, and coming away in awe. Obviously my personal experience doe not mean I am right about Malick. But great art provokes, it questions, it changes, it prod and pokes the viewer, and it progresses the medium forward. I think a case can be made for TOL doing just that. It maybe weird and strange, and it may drag at points, but I think it is a wonderful example of a movie that is trying, sometimes too hard, sometimes pretentiously so, but is really truly trying to change the way movies are made and stories are told. And I think it should be honored for that.

            Also I love Synechdoche, NY ;)

            ***I think it’s boring for two reasons: (1) Malick doesn’t really know how to tell a compelling story so he doesn’t know how they should be paced, and (2) the idea that an impersonal force rules over the universe and that we humans have to existential choices and create meaning for ourselves is about the most boring story you can tell.***

            I hear what you’re saying. And as far as (1) goes, I just think Malick knows how to tell a compelling story he just doesn’t rely on a lot of the conventions and lets the story linger longer than is comfortable which I think in his case is fine. In a way he reminds me of Steve McQueen (Hunger & Shame). As far as (2) goes: I disagree entirely, just because we Christians don’t view the world this way, that doesn’t make the story boring. Also I’m not totally convinced that that is what TOL is about… But we can deal with that later.

            Also, maybe Woody Allen has becomes stale but I don’t think he is necessarily overrated. He has made some great moves: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

            ***I’m not sure it would. The problem is not that I don’t enjoy Malick its that I think he’s overrated. I loath the work of Kubrick for many of the same reasons that I don’t like Malick’s films. Yet I understand why Kubrick is a great director, even though I don’t like a single one of the films he’s made.***

            I can appreciate your opinion on Malick and Kubrick. And in some sense I am really interested in hearing about any movie you happen to review. I would disagree on Kubrick just because I find his movies to be fantastic. Of course something like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is loathsome but maybe that’s the point. Also ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘Dr. Strangelove’, ‘The Shining,’ are all notable, maybe not all “great”, but certainly movies that have advanced, inspired, influenced the way we watch and make movies.

            BTW I totally agree that ‘American Beauty’ is vastly overrated. Same with ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Star Wars IV’. I would want to challenge you on ‘Crouching Tiger’ and ‘Chungking Express’ though.

            In the end I can understand your assertion that Malick is overrated, and maybe he is, but I heartily disagree that he is a minor artist at best.

        • Michelle

          Thanks Tyler :)

          Joe, thanks for trying to provide some insights for the Church. I’m sure you have a unique perspective having worked in the industry.
          However, I’m sorry, but I agree with Tyler’s comment that your dismissal sounds arrogant. Why do you write as if you know all the ways a film can work in people’s lives? We can all see art differently, I’m sure you know this..! I don’t think it’s helpful for the Church for you to write a generally opinion based piece as if you were stating facts. Please help the Church practice thoughtful communication by writing with more grace and discretion.

          • Michelle

            P.S. I think freely expressing opinions (i.e. op-eds) is completely fine, but they should be presented as such. This article seems more slated as “a word to the wise” rather than an opinion piece.

            • Melody

              lol But what about the title of the piece? Doesn’t that set the tone?

          • Joe Carter

            ***However, I’m sorry, but I agree with Tyler’s comment that your dismissal sounds arrogant. Why do you write as if you know all the ways a film can work in people’s lives?***

            To me the arrogance comes in me even trying to give advice to Christian filmmakers. Who am I to tell them what they should do? But having committed to writing such an article, the least I can do is not waste people’s time being wishy-washy.

            I believe that if you are going to state an unpopular opinion the least we can do is express it with conviction. I understand that people will disagree and I certainly don’t think I’ll convince everyone (or many people) to change their mind about ToL. But by provoking people to respond in kind, I think they’ll leave with a better understanding of why they like the film.

  • Melody

    Most importantly remember that critics that review your film will still have their own tastes that affect their opinion of your work. Case in point, Joe Carter’s opinion of Malick, someone I can’t defend because I tend to avoid most current Christian films labeled or not. lol

    I still think that a good story that weaves an endearing believer into it would go much farther than trying to make a “Christian” film.

  • Michael

    I disagree with a lot of the article here because I found tree of life a fantastic film; however it’s easy for me to agree to disagree on Malick because I couldn’t stand “The Thin Red Line” or “The New World”. But for some reason…his “non narrative” method that drove me nuts in his other films seemed to work in this one.

    What got me though in this article was…(and with all due respect)…was that God’s creation was portrayed as boring. Really??!! Yes, the sequence was slow, and quiet….but so is sitting for 30 minutes on the edge of the grand canyon. But surely that’s not boring?

    • Joe Carter

      ***What got me though in this article was…(and with all due respect)…was that God’s creation was portrayed as boring. Really??!!***

      I probably should have stated more directly in my article the problem with that scene and with the entire film. The God of ToL is not the Christian God (nor even the God of the Jews before the self-revelation of Christ). The deity in ToL is, as I referred to in an earlier comment, a mute, impersonal force. If we read that scene from within the movie (as opposed to bringing in our own ideas about God) then it is just stuff happening—there is no rhyme or reason because the deity possesses no personal qualities. That is why it is, in the context of the film, boring.

      The real world is, of course, not boring because it was created by our awesome God.

      • David Berglund

        I want to interact with you regarding your argument that the film only presents what you as a viewer bring to it. Why should the film be maligned for this? There are many audiences to reach with a film, and Malick seems to have had believing audiences in mind when making The Tree of Life. Admittedly, the film will be confusing and alienating to non-believers, but so would many sermons that quicken the hearts of believers – does that make such sermons worthless?

        • Joe Carter

          ***I want to interact with you regarding your argument that the film only presents what you as a viewer bring to it. Why should the film be maligned for this?***

          Because viewing film in that way is a relativistic negation of the art form. Art is created by artists. They either embue the work with meaning or meaning is absent from their work. Now, we may be able to find depths in the meaning that the artist was not aware of. But we can’t simply go into it thinking that we can read just about anything we want into it.

          This is similar to the reason I don’t believe in civil religion. We can’t just say that “When you say “God” I mean Jesus, Frank means “Allah”, and John is referring to an impersonal force—yet we all mean the same thing.” The world doesn’t (and can’t) work on such relativism.

          • David Berglund

            So if I am understanding, you are saying the autor’s intent is key to understanding and interacting rightly with a work of art. On this point I agree, but I also believe that film-minded individuals who are theologically savvy can interact with The Tree of Life on Malick’s terms and find great value in it. It is not the responsibility of the artist to make sure as many people as possible will understand their work.

            • Joe Carter

              You’re certainly right that it’s not the responsibility of the artist to make sure as many people as possible will understand their work. In fact, I don’t blame Malick for the fact that so many people are misinterpreting his work. A lot of people seem to see Malick the Catholic and extrapolate that into “Malick is a Christian filmmaker.” If Malick was a Buddhist and ToL was exactly the same, I think we’d see a very different reaction to the film from Christians than we do now.

              But what troubles me, is that many people seem to think they can take an artwork away from an artist. What I mean is that an artist creates the work to mean A and the audience says, “No, I’m going to say it means B instead.” While there may be some value in repurposing art, and giving it a different meaning, we should acknowledge that by doing so we are being disrespectful to them. (Of course some artists may not care. I suspect Malick playfully smirks when he hears audience love the “Christian themes” in his film because he is more interested in them seeing it than “getting” it.)

            • David Berglund

              I find it interesting that you can assert so much about Malick’s intent with such confidence. I have a strong feeling about his intent that is far different from yours, and I have such feelings because of The Tree of Life. The thematic thread of the film, to me, didn’t allow for the reading you are supposing to be his intent. I could give you a frame by frame dissection of the film to defend him, but that is for another time and another place. The important point here is that we have two different readings of the film, and by them have attempted to draw conclusions about the filmmaker. This, to film people, is the basis of the auteur theory, and if you read anything on that subject, you know it is a futile endeavor that is deeply affected by our own presuppositions. We must be comfortable with our own interpretations, for this is, in the end, is all we can truly be confident of, even if we cannot know if Malick would agree.

            • TJ Liong

              Good points all around. I want to pitch in my 2 cents as someone who only saw 1 Malick film (The New World), liked it w/o knowing M. is fr a Christian background, went for ToL, and enjoyed it. I agree that “taking the work away from the artist” (Joe Carter) is out of bounds as a valid way of engaging with a piece of artistic expression. At the same time, I’m definitely with those who affirm that we do, and should, take our considered presuppositions and worldviews into the engagement. As in any act of communication, engagement happens somewhere along the spectrum between what the communicator intends to express, and how the receptor receives it, with a lot more ambiguity when it comes to artistic expression. Sure, some pieces are more explicit. Others are less so (ToL?), and perhaps in these cases it is safe to assume that as receptors, we can enjoy greater interpretative freedom without disrespect to the artist. ToL’s flow was unorthodox and slow, but I did not find it hindered my enjoyment of the film. I don’t know if those who praise it like it for the same reasons I did, so I’m not conscious that I’m joining a sea of Those Giving M More Hype Than He Deserves. What I loved best about it was the depiction of guilt in the eldest son, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)…such small, shameful acts, but devastating nonetheless. Reminded me that there is not one righteous, not even among these children. My reading? Sure. Malick’s intention? Conceivably. I think there was a reference to Rom 7 in the son’s thought speech. For this and enough reasons, I think I, a Christian, was not duped by the filmmaker into reading the depiction of a Christian God (vs. animistic Life Force) in the film. Nor do I think I or the thoughtful Christians who responded in favor of M in this discussion committed the vile error of harnessing his film to the Christian worldview contrary to the artist’s intent. There are enough cues to go on. Unless, of course, as Joe Carter is saying, Malick is a charlatan out to see whether Christians will behave predictably when thrown the right bait. That’s a different issue altogether.

    • David Berglund

      Amen Michael!

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Alright Joe Carter, be honest here:

    If you had to choose… HAD TO…, which would you pick:

    Another viewing of Tree of Life or 2 Hours of Three Stooges slapstick comedy?

    • http://geeksofchrist.wordpress.com Mickey

      There are profound truths to be found in The Three Stooges!

      Consider Curly’s bad plumbing work (in which he traps himself http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-cihHy2RT_K4/TYpQaPsC8cI/AAAAAAAAGDA/YUm6lHrO5Rg/s1600/Curly-plumber.jpg) as a metaphor for Simcha Jacobovici’s increasingly bizarre and impossible claims.

    • Joe Carter

      Honestly, I’d say ToL. I can appreciate its artistry even though I think it fails as art. But having loved The Three Stooges as a kid, I find my patience for such broad slapstick is lacking now that I’m older.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides


        With that answer, you have established yourself as a high-falutin’ cultural elite with little connection to the great unwashed masses.

        Now if you had chosen the 3 Stooges, then you’d have established your certifiable bona fides as a culturally crass Philistine.

        (Tongue in cheek jesting!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/delightmovie Edd

    One of the things that I have to fight regularly is the distinction between a Christian film and the Christian market. The majority of the cast and crew on my recent film were unbelievers and I had to regularly communicate how I am a Christian (and lay out what that meant) and here is how the story we are telling alludes to my worldview, but that what we were making was not the poorly executed propaganda that we see in the work under the label of “Christian Film.” I also had to reference good Christians filmmakers just to assure them Christians can and do make excellent art (from Robert Bresson to Shane Carruth). All of this I had to do this because the market that has been created paints itself as representing all Christian artists.

    • Joe Carter

      That’s a great point. One of the challenges in film is that the work is so collaborative. It is nearly impossible for a writer-director to pull off his or her personal vision in a way that a novelist can. There are just so many elements—from money to the creative talent—that they can’t control.

      • http://www.facebook.com/delightmovie Edd

        I think a big component of directing (like any good leader) is knowing how to let go and allow your cast and crew to do what they do under the guidance of your vision. So I’m not sure I would say “nearly impossible.” It is crazy difficult, though, and you do need to know a little psychology to be good at it (not saying that is me).

        Anyways, one thing I wanted to add is that I want to believe the best about Steve Taylor’s heart and I think what he meant is along the lines of what I said earlier. It sadly just wasn’t communicated clearly or was and cut out in the interview I’ve read.

        That being said, I really did not like BLJ… :)

  • http://www.lifecenterofbrandon.org Ellery

    I would consider 2003’s “The Fighting Temptations” starring Cuba Gooding, Jr and Beyonce a Christian movie.
    Interestingly enough, it was made by MTV films and distributed by Paramount Pictures.
    The cast included Christian artists such as T-Bone and Shirley Caesar.
    And then of course there’s the stuff produced by Tyler Perry. He consistently shows characters repenting and coming back to the Lord.
    Somehow these movies fly low under the Christian radar.

    Also worth a mention is Steve Harvey’s church based stand up routine “Don’t Trip He ain’t Through With Me Yet”. A bit funnier than Malick’s Tree of Life.

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    • http://jeffdlawrence.com Jeff Lawrence

      While I disagree with several points in Carter’s piece, I am glad these things are being discussed.

      Very grateful for Mike Cosper’s thoughts on this.

      I’m now going to watch Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life tonight.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        Let us know what you think about it.

        P.S. I’m a goober philistine. I took my now-wife to see “The English Patient” on Valentine’s Day to show her what a cultured and refined gentleman I am and how I appreciate sophisticated, romantic chick-flicks that are a work of cinematic art.

        Oh my goodness! So durn painful. Worst movie ever to have won the Best Picture award, even worse than American Beauty. Even she hated the movie. I’m still lucky she married me after treating her to that debacle.

        Only good thing to ever come out of it was watching the Seinfeld episode where they lambasted and ridiculed “The English Patient.”

        Give me two hours of high-brow 3 Stooges anyday! Y’all can have your Tree of Life and English Patient cinematic masterpieces. It’s a good trade.

      • Joe Carter

        Please let us know what you think about the film.

  • Joe Greene

    I’ll join with folks like Michael Horton in saying that there is no such thing as a Christian movie, book, diner, car or anything else.

    Good thing to discuss, for sure, but it simply feeds the false dichotomy of secular/Christian that much of evangelicalism has incorrectly embraced.

    Oh, and Tree of Life was fantastic. I had more opportunities to discuss the gospel with friends who are not believers than with any other film.

    • Des Wagner

      **Oh, and Tree of Life was fantastic. I had more opportunities to discuss the gospel with friends who are not believers than with any other film.**

      That’s a really good point Joe. That suggests another way for Christians to assess the value of art (including entertainment, or indeed anything at all): it’s help in spreading the gospel. A Christian film will by itself impart the gospel, yet non-Christian films may provide a golden opportunity for a Christian to speak of the gospel.

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  • http://back2brent.wordpress.com Steve Mitchell

    Thanks for getting a great discussion going. I do disagree with you however on your take with the hesitancy of artist to label their work as “Christian.” I think there is a valid case to be made that we should focus on encouraging Christian artists to pursue their craft… rather than focusing on producing “Christian” art.

    I think the number one reason for not trying to produce “Christian” films is that it is almost impossible to do it well. I agree with you that a good story is the key to a good movie. I really believe that in film, story is king. If your motivation to tell a good story is not your number one objective… a good film becomes a more elusive goal. If your goal is to encourage fathers to be Christian leaders in their homes, or to warn others about the dangers of the internet… than a film may not be your best avenue. While both of those examples are goals that should be applauded, if they trump the goal of telling a good story you are in trouble. Those efforts may be better served in a book, a blog post, or an advertisement. We see examples all the time of films sacrificing story for some other objective (sell toys for example…) and they are quickly seen as bad films.

    I don’t believe that most “Christian” films are panned because they are “Christian” but because they put something other than story as their number one goal.

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  • Matt Blue

    I was an atheist and became a theist after seeing Tree of Life at a local cinema. That very weekend I went to a friends local church and met the Lord Jesus. A film isn’t dull or boring just because the main characters aren’t marines. ToL It is now one of my favourite films, understandably. All the best with your movie career, Joe… but first seek the Kingdom.

    • http://nateduffy.blogspot.com Nathan Duffy

      Matt.. that is a pretty incredible story!

  • Melody

    My son frequently refers to his target audience. Perhaps the problem is thinking that a film is supposed to be well received by all people, especially ourselves.

  • Riley Taylor

    Tree of Life did fail as a “movie”, but more than succeeded as a work of art. As a film maker (who has made films) I was so greatly influenced by that film, I can’t even begin to describe. Kind of like listening to avant garde music and translating what you’ve learned into your own music, which may or may not be more “palatable”.

    One cannot simply say that ToL is better or worse than Fireproof or other overtly Christian films, because everyone will see it a bit differently. However, one should never EVER disregard a film in its entirety. I think Shawshank Redemption was a fantastic movie, but I was more influenced by Eraserhead. Even though Shawshank is by most accounts (and mine) a better film, there were themes, imagery, ideas and conflicts in Eraserhead that I still carry with me all the time (e.g. the scene where he cheats on his wife in his apartment, which is illustrated by them sinking into the mattress).

    I agree more with Mike on this issue, as his views are more challenging to the Christian subculture. I think Joe’s views just do not value art enough for me. I like to think that, whereas a pastor or the Bible communicate the truth, we illustrate the beauty of that truth. Also, Joe, I think your views are better communicated in your comments.

    Great discussion!

  • Josh

    Dear Joe,

    1) The fact that you didn’t understand The Tree of Life hardly makes it “failed art.”
    2) Did you notice the stained glass window of Christ, paired with the sermon saying “there is only one deathless one”?
    3) Did you notice that most of the internal dialogue revolved around how the main character came to God? (First line of the film: “Mother, brother, it was they who led me to Your door.” Or: “When did You first touch my heart?”)
    4) Did you catch the endorsement of a love we hold dear in Christianity (i.e. 1 Cor 13)? Did you notice the contrast of love (“grace”) against a self-directed life (“nature”), articulated within the context of how Jack comes to God?
    5) Did you notice the quotation of Romans 7:15? (“I do what I hate”)
    6) Did you notice the quotation of one of the central spiritual passages in Dostoevky’s The Brothers Karamasov?
    6) Did you notice how the film’s main dichotomy is similar to this chapter from The Imitation of Christ? http://www.ccel.org/ccel/kempis/imitation.THREE.54.html

    What I believe you mean to say is that you were bored, not that it “failed as a work of art.”

    And you might think about suffering a bit more boredom to see if you might understand more on another pass. =) I’ve seen it several times now, and it keeps growing.

    With love!

  • Mark

    What a poor treatment of Malick and his work. Tree of Life is “boring?” Do some research on “the MTV generation” effect – I think you may be able to relate.

    If you prefer Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich films, by all means, avoid work from guys like Malick. But don’t use condescension and false expertise to portray as objective truth what is really just subjective, and quite uneducated, opinion. Malick is a master artist who crafted a complex work with a plot and motifs that aren’t as simple Transformers 4 or Cars 2. You have to have a little psychological insight and empathic ability to begin to approach something like Tree of Life. Unfortunately, most Hollywood projects don’t foster this in contemporary viewers – they actually do the opposite.

    This is what happens when pastors and theologians feel like experts in fields other than their own. Let me guess – you’ve never been to film school? Or worked in the industry? When will they start letting us film professionals critique their Sunday morning sermons, or better yet, get up and preach?

    • Joe Carter

      ***Let me guess – you’ve never been to film school? Or worked in the industry? When will they start letting us film professionals critique their Sunday morning sermons, or better yet, get up and preach?***

      Are you really implying that only people who have been to film school can critique movies? Sheesh.

      Tree of life isn’t just boring because it is slow (and it is definitely slow). It is boring because it is ultimately hollow and contains no story. That works to the film’s advantage, though, since it allows people to fill the gaping hole with whatever emotions they want to feel.

      The people who love the film seem to think Malick is some sort of genius, yet his own actor, Sean Penn, said that “[Malick] himself never managed to explain [what Penn’s purpose is in the film] to me clearly.”

      Also, let’s not pretend that it was universally lauded. It received as many boos as cheers when it premiered at Cannes. And as Sight & Sound said in their review:

      “As you may well have already deduced, Terrence Malick’s new hyper-reverie is an entirely unique launch into the present-moment film-culture ether – an ambitious Rorschach blot that is almost exactly as pretentious and unwittingly absurd as it is inspired, evocative and gorgeous. It often seems to have been deliberately calibrated to divide its viewership into warring camps, to intoxicate the Malickians into awestruck swoons just as it produces scoffings from the sceptics and stupefies the average filmgoer. But that presumes Malick considers a viewership at all – which he may not, and if there are many, many ways to look at The Tree of Life, which seems already to be a film that’s more interesting to argue about than to actually watch, then it’s difficult to shake the sense of it as the spectacle of a man gone deep-sea diving in his own navel.”

      • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

        Whew, nice to know I’m not alone. ;)

        I mostly agree with the people who say TOL is pretentious, boring, etc. Having said that, I was actually quite moved by certain sections. The acting was so good it salvaged the film from being a completely bloated mess. And there were some great touches of imagery. I don’t think it’s a “Christian” movie, and I also saw some feminist propaganda in the whole “way of nature/way of grace” conflict (masculine = bad, feminine = good), but it had its moments. Malick is talented, if overrated.

        Oh, but the whole creation sequence? REDONKULOUS. That’s all I have to say about that.

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  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    Terrance Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ was, in my humble opinion (and many others), one of the best movies in a long time. It’s like saying the book of Psalms isn’t as good as the book of Ruth because it doesn’t follow a traditional plot arc. What’s up with that, yo?! This post is extremely culture-specific and exclusive. Can’t we all just get along and build each other up?

  • Luke Allison

    I’m somewhat flabbergasted by your opinion of Tree of Life. Art is subjective, but I do tend to shape my estimation of a critic based on his taste. To dismiss Tree of Life as “boring” is short-sighted, to say the least.

    I wonder, should Malick have shown some kind of aquatic expanse, and then had a resonant deep voice saying “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”?
    Malick begins with a quotation from Job. Then he shows the death of a son. Then he shows an old woman giving dead, empty Christian platitudes to a grieving mother.
    “Where you were when I laid the foundation of the earth?”Malick attempts to show us.

    Do you have more clarity as to the realities of this life than Malick presented in this film? I wish I could say I do. Maybe if Sean Penn had ended up accepting Christ at the end?

    When a filmmaker attempts to do something beautiful and ambitious, we who claim the image of God should rejoice.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Bunch of ordinary Christians in my small group gathered together in the family living room to watch “Courageous” last Friday night. Wildly varying ages from 3 to 60+, both single and married. We laughed, we cried. The heart-wrenching honesty of the story-telling, the explicit sharing of the Gospel, the declarative honoring of God in this “message” movie touched and moved all of us.

    Not a work of art because it’s crass and blunt, lacking in sophistication compared to the artistic, subtle, and intellectual Tree of Life?

    Okay. Make yourself feel better. Jus’ glad the New Testament was written in Koine Greek.

    P.S. Got a feeling that if I showed the Tree of Life, there’d be a snooze fest along with criticism from the small group for showing that boring movie.

    The Kendricks Brothers short body of work vs. Malicks reputation of cinematic excellence? I’ll take the Kendricks brothers every day of the week.

    Kirk Cameron vs. Christopher Hitchens? Some Christians fawned over Christopher Hitchens when he passed away. Give me the God-fearing, plain-speaking Kirk Cameron any day of the week.

    • Luke Allison

      Ha ha….dude…..
      You could put this response next to “Conservative Evangelical” in a museum 200 years from now.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        You say “Conservative Evangelical” as if it’s a bad word.

        • Luke Allison

          Bad for Christianity, yes.

          • Truth Unites… and Divides

            Luke Allison,

            How are “Conservative Evangelicals” bad for Christianity? Please explain.

            • Luke Allison

              You’ve blatantly admitted that you’ve never seen a film. Then you spend time on a blog trying to disparage it.
              Then you happily claim the position of “ignorant Philistine” and claim to be somehow superior to all those limp-wristed cultured folks out there.

              And here we have Evangelicalism in America illustrated through a movie debate:
              1. I don’t know anything about that
              2. I don’t need to know anything about that, because I know something about THIS (the Bible)
              3. I’m happy in the fact that I don’t know anything about that, because THIS is so much better
              4. Those poor people who know something about that are missing out on THIS. And they kind of suck for it.

              I’ll also point out your name: Truth Unites…..And Divides (oh snap!). Rather than just put your real name down, you identify yourself with a “no-nonsense” position on the subject of “Truth.” So the important thing is “Truth,” not identity or humanity. You’d rather be known on this blog as someone who “tells it like it is” than someone who has a name.

              Which is conservative Evangelicalism in a nutshell: All these humans don’t matter. What matters is my formulation of “truth.” If they don’t like that, they can, (and will, apparently) “go to hell.”

            • Truth Unites… and Divides

              Luke Allison: “Which is conservative Evangelicalism in a nutshell: All these humans don’t matter.”

              Congratulations Luke! You met expectations.

            • Luke Allison

              Aren’t you going to ask me whether I consider myself to be a good person now?

    • David Berglund

      I’m sorry, but I’m having a hard time discerning what you are trying to prove with this response. Every film has a different audience in mind – your small group was the target audience for Courageous, but that film would fail among other audiences just as you propose The Tree of Life would fail with your small group.

      • David L.

        And let’s not forget that the Tree of Life was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Christian Art along the lines of ‘Courageous’ may be for good for small groups, and I’m not criticizing it for reaching it’s demographic… it is what it is. However, art like ‘Tree of Life’ is for BIG groups. When Christians make art at that level they get a platform like the Oscars and a guaranteed seat at the table in the heart of the dragon that is Hollywood. It’s the objectifying of personal preference in these discussions that should be the focus of any criticism.

        • Truth Unites… and Divides

          “And let’s not forget that the Tree of Life was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.”

          Let’s definitely not forget that. So important.

          • David L.

            It could be argued that the Oscar is more important than trolling… even if only slightly. :)

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        David Berglund: “Every film has a different audience in mind”

        Wrong. Not every film. Many films want to have as many people as possible to watch them.

        • David Berglund

          With mainstream film, yes, as many people as possible, but not EVERY person. This is an important distinction. There is no film that is made for every demographic. Some films are made to make as much money as possible by hitting major demographics, and others are made for niche demographics.

          • Truth Unites… and Divides

            David Berglund: “Every film has a different audience in mind”

            Wrong. Not every film. Many films want to have as many people as possible to watch them.

            “With mainstream film, yes, as many people as possible, but not EVERY person. This is an important distinction.”

            No. A distinction without a difference. It’s like saying that God’s Holy Word, the Bible, is a mainstream book that’s created and written for as many people as possible to read it, but not EVERY person.

            What does that even mean: “yes, as many people as possible, but not EVERY person.”

            Sounds like nonsense.

            • David Berglund

              Sorry if I lacked clarity. I will try to explain it using examples to be more clear. Romantic comedies are made to make as much money as possible, but focus mainly on young female audiences. Action movies are made to make as much money as possible, but focus mainly on young male audiences. Mainstream dramas try to make as much money as possible, but filmmakers realize that not everyone is into dramas. They are films made to reach the maximum number of ticket sales, but do not try to entice every person to buy a ticket. They have an audience in mind, and these audiences many times overlap, but no filmmaker supposes he or she can please everyone’s likings. As such, to judge a film based on its popularity with the masses is missing the point.

              This has nothing to do with the authority of Scripture, which is empirically true, but rather with simple tastes and preferences. Where Scripture demands obedience because it makes truth statements, one judges a film on different terms – mainly the skill and craft put into achieving a filmmakers goals. If it poses truths, we judge not the truth of its message, but how well it was delivered. I hope this clarifies my point – let me know if you are still having trouble with it!

            • Truth Unites… and Divides

              David Berglund: “I hope this clarifies my point – let me know if you are still having trouble with it!”

              Will do. These two statements of yours seem a bit incongruous:

              o “As such, to judge a film based on its popularity with the masses is missing the point.”

              o “one judges a film on different terms – mainly the skill and craft put into achieving a filmmakers goals. If it poses truths, we judge not the truth of its message, but how well it was delivered.”

              Are you saying that Malick’s Tree of Life wasn’t created and wasn’t meant for mass viewing? What target audience did he have in mind?

              What was filmmaker Malick’s goals in Tree of Life?

              What did filmmaker Malick say was the truth in “Tree of Life”?

            • David Berglund

              I have answered these questions in previous exchanges with Mr. Carter on this board. If you would like, you can find my answers there.

            • Truth Unites… and Divides

              “I have answered these questions in previous exchanges with Mr. Carter on this board.”

              Indeed. Joe Carter’s arguments are better than yours. At least to me.

              Eg. “Again, I have to say that you [David Berglund] are reading something into the film that is simply not there. There is certainly no “gospel of grace” because you can’t have a gospel of grace without Christ.”

  • steveprost

    I agree with Joe Carter and (for once) Sean Penn, whose actor’s instincts I do trust:

    “In August 2011, Sean Penn gave an interview to the French publication “Le Figaro” in which he was very critical of the movie and Terrence Malick’s direction. Penn said “I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

    • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

      Let’s not leave out the second part to Penn’s statement:

      “But it’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It’s up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved.”

      So, even though Penn had some criticism of the film, he still found it commendable.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    These “Tree of Life” patrons were less than enthused by Terence Malick’s masterpiece:

    Tree of Life Reviewers

  • Dave B

    “Whatever artists think they are saying with such a claim, [referring to Steve Taylor’s claim – “We’re a movie made by Christians, but we don’t like it tagged as a Christian movie.”] they really convey, “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I didn’t allow my Christian attitudes, beliefs, experiences, or ideas to shape my work—my art is indistinguishable from what would be produced by a non-believer.”

    I take Steve Taylor to be saying the precise opposite and believe that this is precisely what we are to be doing as Christians. Do Plummers who are Christians tell their customers the minute they show up at the door “I am a Christian plummer” or do they demonstrate their worldview in their work ethic and attitude? Does a Christian bus driver announce to all his passengers that he is a Christian bus driver and that his bus is a Christian bus? He shows his worldview by how he does his job not by labeling himself up front. That’s what Steve Taylor is saying. And the fact is, Christians go to see “Christian” movies. The world simply assumes its not for them.

  • David L.

    The irony of the ‘Tree of Life’ criticism is that you were trying to make it fit certain “artistic” criteria while it was trying to fit you into that criteria. There are categories of art. ‘Tree of Life’ is in the Impressionistic category, which aims at telling everyone’s story simultaneously, but you have to give it permission to do this.

    It is not enough, strictly in terms of ‘art’, to convey Divine Hope without also conveying despairing longing. Great art communicates both of these, and often simultaneously. Nominal Christian art often leaves out the despair. Or the “sin” in Gene Veith’s “sin and grace” is never portrayed as “dire”. Malick, like Beethoven, can communicate both despair and hope. Malick’s communication of hope was vague, but this is within the confines of the category. This is where the Christian Artist vs. Christian art distinction is appropriate.

    In Christian art specifically, the goal is for clear Divine Hope to take the place of despairing longing; so, the greater and more honest the portrayal of the despair, the greater the impact of a saving Divine Hope. This is where Christian art often fails, it all becomes painted masks. The Great Artist did not bring about Divine Hope apart from human mutilation, gore and sacrifice; metaphorically, do we–in creating Christian art–attempt to do the same?

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    And another thing. Let’s be fair here: we know little about Malick’s theological disposition other than the fact that he studied Hiedegger and Kierkegaard. Maybe he just used biblical imagery because of the beauty that he found in it. Coldplay said “missionaries in a foreign field” in one of their songs, does that make them CCM?

    What makes art “christian” isn’t it’s overtness, it is the trueness of Christianity and the reality of Imago Dei. If Christianity is true, do a degree, everything is Christian art. And if Christianity is not true, nothing (not ever Fireproof) is Christian art.

    “And that’s the double-truth, Ruth!!!”

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      “Let’s be fair here: we know little about Malick’s theological disposition other than the fact that he studied Hiedegger and Kierkegaard.”

      Relatedly, it helps to have seen all of Malick’s films to see how the entire body of his works reveal his growth as a film-maker. Therefore, read this post:

      Huffington Post Tom Kambouris on Malick’s Cinematic Corpus.

  • http://my168project.com Mike Shields

    It’s not clear to me why you haven’t been participating in The 168 Project all these years. Furthermore, there’s DP’s out there with their own camera, looking for a chance to make another film, and it won’t cost you the $2500 you say you need for a woefully out of date camera at this point.

  • Joe

    What’s up with the trash talk? Goodness. How about a little decency?

    Tree of Life was a great film. So was Fireproof. Both for completely different reasons.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      “Tree of Life was a great film.”

      There are some folks who didn’t think so:

      “Let’s remember that this film was booed at Cannes Film Festival. And that people all over the States were walking out of movie theaters halfway through. Let me repeat that. People scheduled time out of their busy schedules, drove to a theatre and forked over hard earned money in tight times and decided their lives would be better off by cutting their losses and walking out.”

      • Joe Greene

        This is some world class trolling going on from someone hiding behind a screen name.

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