The appeal of movies such as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life is generated predominantly by their serious concern with the matter of transcendence. Transcendence is commonly conceived of in terms of there being a transcendent realm, a part of reality said to be beyond the physicality ordinarily referred to as nature. Accordingly, the transcendent tends to be thought of as non-natural, supra-natural, super-natural – in essence, other-worldly. However, these are metaphysical descriptions which reveal next to nothing whatsoever about the transcendent itself, its characteristics, its qualities. Metaphysical descriptions fail in particular to reveal anything about whether and how the transcendent is at all relevant to lives being lived. Even attributing to the transcendent a metaphysical immanence (a not-physically-identifiable presence within the natural and, hence, a this-worldly aspect) does nothing to depict the relevance of the transcendent, even if it does suffice intellectually as providing an ultimate ground or foundation for (thinking about) all aspects of reality.
The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life utilize this-worldly settings to evoke the sense – the experience – of a need for some sort of transcendence, a need for the individual to reach beyond the condition and the context of his or her own self in order to bring something new and better into the world, to take the world beyond itself, to have both the person’s own self and the world transcend. In both of these movies, it is the transcendent quality called grace upon which focus is set eventually.
This grace is a loving regard for the being of persons; this grace precedes any merit that a person might earn; it is, therefore, a love which occurs despite the character of a person and in active hope that the person will proceed beyond the condition of his or her current self. Grace is, therefore, an active quality, an always transcendent act, one forever concerned with transcending and transcendence. But, this is not the primarily metaphysical rendering of grace so often encountered in religious scholarship. Instead, these movies are concerned with how grace (and transcendent qualities in general) can be effected within the contexts of this-worldliness.
To this end the movies provide situations mired in the sort of this-worldliness that seems so remote from the transcendent as to almost exclude even the possibility of anything transcendent being at all relevant to the here and now, only to then indicate that the transcendent can most certainly be effected even in the midst of the worst ways of this world. However, because of the very nature of this-worldly being, effecting the transcendent cannot help but depend upon some preparatory conditioning for recognizing and becoming aware of the very characteristics which are part of the transcendent. Most important to this preparation – more important than musings about the metaphysics of the transcendent – is investigation into and explication of the characteristics or qualities of the transcendent, even if the transcendent and its characteristics remain only partially expressible.
(Continued in Part 2)