Why does the cultural and political traffic between the U.S. and Europe so often involve our borrowing the worst features of each other’s systems? Our most advanced thinkers somehow imagine that Europe’s economically top-heavy yet largely undefended social democracies and liberal internationalism are the dernier cri of advanced political thinking while theirs just can’t wait to import our disastrous education system along with the egalitarianism and feminist-inspired political correctness which has done so much to ruin it. Culturally, too, the exchange — though once fruitful on both sides as Europe exported what turned out to be great American film directors like Ernst Lubitsch and American film noir proved hugely influential on the French New Wave — now seems barren at best. It wasn’t long ago when the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes was pretty sure to be a good movie, or at least to be a pretty good movie, whereas now it’s more like the Oscar for Best Picture and thus pretty sure to be a bad movie.
Or like this year’s winner at Cannes, which was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, to be rewarded for its vices, which are an American-style (I’m afraid) elephantiasis of the montage and an absurdly overblown self-conscious artiness. But, like the pursuit of the elusive White Whale of the Great American Novel, that of some would-be ne plus ultra of the cinema such as this can have only deleterious effects on the artistic product. What the movies can actually do well, in other words, is at odds with excessive artistic ambition like Mr. Malick’s. Not only has his career-long case of inert ponderousness continued into his new movie, but he has added to it an even more pseudish metaphysical dimension. In the midst of its evidently autobiographical account of growing up in a small town in Texas in the 1950s, it produces images of what I take to be the birth of the universe and excerpts (reluctantly but necessarily!) of the earth’s evolutionary history.
This is presumably Mr. Malick’s way of attaching what might have been an engaging story for its own sake to ultimate things, but the presence of the latter can only seem arbitrary and distracting. These ultimate things include what appears to be — he does not provide any sort of critical gloss to confirm it — a vision of heaven as a beach with not very happy-looking people milling aimlessly around on it, among whom the now-grown boy from the 1950s segments, played by Sean Penn, finds his father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain), and now-dead brother as they were then. This vision of the hereafter also seems rather arbitrary. Why should their heavenly selves be identical to his memory of them instead of as they were at quite another time of their lives? Perhaps it’s not heaven after all but only a dream taking place inside the head of Sean Penn’s character. And who cares anyway? The people involved already have no substance apart from his memories of them.
The problem with trying to encompass ultimate things within a two-and-a-half-hour film is that the bigger the vision the more you stress its arbitrariness, and the fact that it is only an idiosyncratic take of the filmmaker’s on realities that are vastly more extensive than he can begin to represent with any pretense of realism. Yet it is realism for which the movies were made and which it is always, or nearly always, fatal for them to stray far from. Anyway, Mr. Malick’s magnificent failure got me to thinking about how these ultimate things have been represented in the movies by people with a better sense of the medium’s limitations, and so I chose for the fifth of my annual summer movie series — this year’s like last year’s a co-presentation of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington — the theme of Heaven. All the movies I chose have a modesty of ambition from which Mr. Malick would have done well to learn.
One, it’s true, Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s Stairway to Heaven (also known as A Matter of Life and Death) of 1946, offers us a full-on image of life after death seemingly to rival Mr. Malick’s for ambition. But it has two things that his has not: one is a sense of humor and the absurd, which I regard as essential to treating matters so far beyond our ken, and the other is a realistic framework in terms of which the heavenly scenes can only be seen as a kind of dream vision. It helps that the main character, a wartime RAF pilot played by David Niven, is having a brain operation here on earth while he is ostensibly pleading his case before a heavenly tribunal to be allowed to return to earth and his new-found love for Kim Hunter. In Tree of Life, the other way around, as the visionary stuff is allowed to function as the framework and thus is much too insubstantial to bear the weight of the realistic scenes, which take on some of its dream-like qualities as a result.
All the other films in my series, Heaven Can Wait by Lubitsch from 1943, Between Two Worlds by Edward A. Blatt of 1944, Defending Your Life by Albert Brooks of 1991, and After Life by Hirokazu Kore-Eda of 1998, stop short of ushering us into heaven itself, let alone the divine presence, and instead modestly confine themselves to suggesting it by means of indirection. All, including Stairway to Heaven, also imagine the entrance of the soul into eternity in terms of an encounter, more or less comic, with an apparently earthbound bureaucracy — which, indeed, seems an inescapable image of authority for modern man, whether here below or in the great beyond. The advantage of this universal metaphor is precisely that it brings ultimate things very firmly down to earth and, by anchoring them in the familiar, and the familiarly annoying, create that sense of absurdity that I said earlier was essential to the subject.
NOR IS ABSURDITY at all inconsistent with seriousness of purpose. Another thing that all five films have in common is sexual love which, as the movies’ great subject (along with violence) from their earliest days down to the present, also helps to bring the heavenly down to earth by translating, at least to some extent, an unknown mystery into a more familiar one. It also goes with the grain of the medium and with that of a whole cultural tendency that dates back centuries in the Western tradition and that Philip Larkin summed up in the much misquoted (or partially quoted) lines from “An Arundel Tomb” about how “our almost-instinct” may appear in a moment of such artistic epiphany as his to be “almost true” — namely, that “what will survive of us is love.”
If today, in the world that the movies have done so much to create during the last century, our moral life is centered in and almost co-extensive with our sexual relationships, the question of Judgment, once so interesting to Christian believers, becomes a delicate one, to say the least. Each of the five films treats the question of the Last Judgment differently, but each treats it seriously. To Lubitsch in Heaven Can Wait, sin is extramarital sex, as it was to a certain Victorian sensibility, but the sex is kept almost entirely out of sight and his Everyman hero, played by Don Ameche, is redeemed by a lifelong devotion to his saintly and tolerant wife, played by Gene Tierney. In Between Two Worlds, Judgment falls most heavily on that favorite hate-figure of the Between-Two-Wars, the war profiteer, played by George Coulouris, but it is hinted that even he is not beyond redemption, while an unfaithful wife pretends to be happy to be sentenced to an eternity of solitude.
David Niven’s Judgment Day in Stairway to Heaven is a deliberate parody, as Raymond Massey plays a colonial American prosecutor who hates the British. But heaven proves indulgent, to war heroes at least, and salvation for him is life on earth with his beloved WAC. Albert Brooks’s Everyman in Defending Your Life finds that only cowardice is sin while sex is salvific, but it is more than hinted that, for all the absurdist trial sequences that make this the funniest of the five films, the only Judgment he has to fear is that which he makes on himself. Mr. Kore-Eda’s Japanese specters in After Life are only asked by the heavenly bureaucracy to choose a memory to take with them into eternity and seem to fear no other judgment — until we realize that that choice is itself the Judgment that many of them fear. Such subtlety carries with it a world of insight that must be forever unavailable to Terrence Malick — too busy playing God and judging himself to offer any insight into the Judgment, if any, which awaits us all. That more modest and better-judged movies are able to do so is a vindication of the popular culture, or at least of what it might be once again.