The Gospel Coalition recently posted a review of Tree of Life that makes some interesting claims toward the end. I have emphasized the words that caught my attention:

 “Recently, philosophers have begun asking the question of whether or not film has/will become a new form of thought itself.”

“If these analyses turn out to be apt, then The Tree of Life may well be remembered as a turning point in the importance of how we think about film itself.”

“As film increasingly presents people with opportunities to replicate certain aspects of religious experience, we must pause to reflect upon the growing reality of “theater as temple.”

All these qualifiers imply that there is something happening now in cinema that is unlike anything that has happened in the past, and that Tree of Life could be a touchstone for this emerging theoretical quality. I think it is great that Tree of Life is generating conversation about transcendence and cinema among people that normally don’t talk about transcendence and cinema. Films come along every few years that generate similar echoes. (Remember that plastic bag?) But it is a mistake to think this is all something new, when in terms of film theory and history, this religious quality of cinema is actually something quite old, fundamental, and theoretically integral to the medium.

The problem with these claims is that they are a result of thinking theoretically about film without reference to the prior history of the medium – which is a curious mistake to make amidst a review of a Malick film. Malick’s films teach us that theory divorced from particularity is not necessarily untenable, but it is unhelpful. In his films we consider the flight of a maniac, the ruddy Boaz glow of harvest, the inchoate murmur of battle, the cosmic coherence of maternal dignity. Along the way we learn nifty Heideggerian things about time, nature, and history. Until Tree of Life, they did so through specific events and contexts. The borders of his cinema have been constructed by Starkweather’s flight, the Great Depression, or the early settlement of America.

In this way Malick informs us that we need to learn how to think in fundamentally poetic ways. In fact, we must learn to think about ourselves this way if we are to survive this constant rush we call the world. But we have to do it specifically. We have to do it in the context of where we actually are – we have to learn how to dwell in our history. The Tree of Life makes this even clearer, thinking about life in the most specific, the most historic chamber of our personal experience:  the family unit.

Taking our cue from Malick, we can’t think about film and what film means without reference to the long history of conversation about cinema. We can’t divorce our understanding of the way film loops and weaves itself around our collective cultural imagination from the very history of its formation as the seventh art, as an innovation in art and storytelling that from its very inception served as modernism’s keenest self-expression.

So don’t think of this quality of transcendence we perceive in Malick’s cinema (and our response to it) as something new. Think of it as something old. Think of it as something that has been abiding within the medium since its earliest flicker. Think of it as the thing that has always made festivals tick, academics hover, and nations muzzle their auteurs. Think of it as the reason Nina cries while watching The Passion of Joan of Arcin Godard’s Vivre sa vie. Or why Percy wrote The Moviegoer. Thinking of this quality as something new is to misunderstand why cinema is such an important form of art to consider and embrace.

The a-historical theorizing in this Gospel Coalition review is duplicated in a few us/them distinctions made throughout the piece:

“For secular audiences, the content borders on offensive given the work’s explicit theism and anomalous ending (e.g. is this an evocation of the afterlife or not?). The general line of attack for them has been: “Malick has taken on the meaning of life, but we remain very piously unconvinced by what we perceive as his ‘answers.’”

“In such a world, we have no choice but to repair to the foolishness of preaching, return to what Luther called the “poor tokens of the Word of God alone” . . . and hope at the end of the day that Terrence Malick is on our side.”

The first suggestion is simply not true. The second is mistaken. Truth can, does, and always has lived in both cinema and preaching. There are lines to be drawn, of course. Just not in these places.