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The best American film of 2019, A Hidden Life, was little seen, and nominated for nothing. Why be surprised? Or assume that our pictures deserve awards any more than the clouds and the trees? Try to understand how movies may aspire to a culture that regards Oscars, eager audiences, and fame as relics of our childhood. The ponderous gravity of The Irishman and its reiterated gangster fantasy, the smug evasiveness of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, were signs that old movie habits were defunct. Parasite was no better or worse than cute opportunism. It was a wow without an echo. Whereas A Hidden Life was like a desert, known about in theory but ignored or avoided. I use that term advisedly, for Malick is a student who knows deserts are not dull or empty. They are places that can grow the tree of life as well as any forest. Simply in asking, what is hidden here?, Terrence Malick was leading us to ponder, What should a movie be?
He had never volunteered for conventional schemes of ranking. His creative personality can seem masked or obscure, but his reticence is portentous too, and it belongs to no one else. Had he really taught philosophy at M.I.T. while doing a draft for Dirty Harry? Please say yes: we so want our auteurs to be outlaws. His self-effacement, his famous “elusiveness,” was often seen as genius. Yet some early admirers felt he had “gone away” in the twenty-first century, or migrated beyond common reach. People regarded his private and idiosyncratic work as egotism, no matter how beautiful it might be. Some were disinclined even to try A Hidden Life after the inert monuments that had preceded it. But it was — I say it again — the best American film of 2019, a masterpiece, and it invited us to try and place Malick, and to ponder if our “map” was part of the problem. To put it mildly, A Hidden Life does not seem American (or even Austrian, where it was set and filmed). It is occurring in cultural memory as a sign of what we might have been.
There was never a pressing reason to make up our minds about Malick. He was casual, yet lofty; he might be an artist instead of a regular American moviemaker in an age when it was reckoned that tough pros (like Hawks and Hitchcock) made the best pictures. Thus he began with two unwaveringly idiosyncratic films — Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978. He took in their awed reception and then stopped dead for twenty years, and let his reputation become an enigma. Did he really prefer not to appear with his movies, or give helpful interviews, so that he could be free to pursue ornithology and insect life? Was he unpersuaded by careerist plans, or cleaning up in the manner of Spielberg or Lucas? In never winning an Oscar, he has made that statuette seem a stooge.
It has always been hard to work out his intentions. Going on the titles, Badlands could be a perilous vacation, while Days of Heaven might promise transcendence. In the first, across the empty spaces of the Dakotas and Montana, Kit Carruthers found his daft halcyon moment of aimlessness while being taken for James Dean, while in the latter, in its gathering of rueful magic hours, we encountered a broken family where a guy was shot dead, his girl was thinking of being a hooker to survive, and the kid sister was left alone with her mannered poetry (like Emily Dickinson voiced by Bonnie Parker). In its locusts and fire, and a screwdriver thrust in the farmer’s fragile chest, Days of Heaven spoke to the ordeal of frontier people in 1916 going mad, skimming stones at entropy, or posing for the pictures in Wisconsin Death Trip (published by Michael Lesy in the year Badlands opened). The two films together said that America was an inadvertently gorgeous place full of terrors.
Those early films were filled with love and zest for drab characters buried in the hinterland yet nursing some elemental wonder. But decades later, in 2012, To the Wonder felt like a crushing title for a film that had lost touch with ordinary poetry. Its women were models fleeing from Vogue. Whereas Sissy Spacek as Holly in Badlands (twenty-four yet doing fourteen without strain or condescension) was somehow routine as well as brilliant. Her unwitting insights hovered at the brink of pretension, but any doubt we had was lost in captivation for this orphan who packed vivid party dresses for her violent spree into emptiness. This was after Kit had shot her father dead, not just because dad didn’t approve of a garbage collector outlaw going with his Holly, but because he hadn’t the patience to listen to the rambling solo that was so folksy and menacing — “Oh, I’ve got some things to say,” Kit promised. “Guess I’m lucky that way.”
And Holly did feel wonder for this vagrant actor. It was there in the flat adoration that Spacek offered him. She slapped his face for killing Dad, but then went along with him, too matter of fact to pause over spelling out love, but utterly transported by this signal for young getaway. Badlands was akin to Bonnie and Clyde, but you felt that Kit and Holly were in a marriage they did not know how to express. And they were sustained by Malick’s amused affection. He was close to patronizing his couple, maybe, making them babes in the woods in a surreal frame, but he felt their romance as much as he was moved by sunsets and the childish tree houses that they built. They were savage yet humdrum, and Kit’s killings were as arbitrary or impulsive as his funny chat. Yes, he was psychotic and headed for the electric chair, but the sweet interior desolation of their America understood them and treated them kindly. When Kit was captured at last, the horde of cops, sheriffs, and soldiers recognized that he was a cockeyed hero, the escapee they had dreamed of.
One can love Bonnie and Clyde, but that love story is self-conscious about its lust for fame; it really was the heartfelt cry of Beatty and Dunaway and a generation yearning to be
known. Badlands, by contrast, is so casual or inconsequential, and so appreciative of a wider span of history, the one we call oblivion. It has a notion that vagrancy and lyricism were responses to the heart of it all, the vast stretch of land where badness is as implicit as beauty. Bonnie and Clyde do not notice where they are, but Kit and Holly are specks in an emptiness as infinite as breathing. It’s only now, in retrospect, that the film seems so intoxicated with talk and its futile liberty, when Malick was headed towards a sadder future in which his stunned characters said less and less, and sometimes became so reduced to half-stifled sighs you wished they’d shut up. That early Malick loved loose talk. Compared with the directors of the early 1970s he was like a muttering Bartleby alone in a crew of insistent press-agented Ahabs.
This leaves you wondering how few authentic outsiders American film has permitted.
Malick was thirty-five when Days of Heaven opened, the son of a geologist, born in a small town in Illinois, of Assyrian and Lebanese descent. He graduated from Harvard, and then went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, without getting any degree there. The general estimate is that he was brilliant, as witness his published translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons. But who has read that book, or is in a position to judge the translation? So it’s part of the uncertain myth that includes our wondering over whether Malick has had private money. Or some lack of ordinary need for it. How has he seemed so unprofessional?
He is credited with the script for Pocket Money (1972), a Stuart Rosenberg film with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin that is more odd than striking. But it led to Badlands, for which he had some money from the young producer Edward Pressman, from the computer pioneer Max Palevsky, and from a few people he knew. All of which meant it wasn’t a regular production like other films of 1973 — The Exorcist, Mean Streets, The Sting, American Graffiti, The Way We Were. Caught between two parts of The Godfather, it didn’t seem to hear them or know them. Badlands may have cost $300,000. Warner Brothers bought the picture and released it: it closed the New York Film Festival in 1973, and if it perplexed audiences, there was a sense
that something rare and insolent had passed by. Badlands didn’t care what we felt: suspense and attention were mere horizons in its desert, not luxury hotels. It was an American product, but it had a more hushed European ambition. You could label it a Western if you were ready to agree that Hollywood, born and sited in the West, never knew or cared where it was.
Some tried to see Badlands as a slice of picaresque life. We knew it was derived from a real case, a minor outrage on the remote prairie. In 1957-1958, in Nebraska mostly, the nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather had killed ten people with fourteen-year-old Caril Ann Fugate as his companion. Fugate actually served seventeen years in prison, no matter that in the movie she says she married her lawyer. (That was a prettification or a kind of irony.) And there was more real grounding in the steady assertion that Martin Sheen’s Kit was a lookalike for James Dean and therefore rooted in popular culture. Kit and Holly dance to Mickey and Sylvia singing “Love is Strange,” from 1956.
Strange was only half of it. In 1973, the feeling that sex was at hand on the screen was still pressing. As Kit took off with Holly, it was natural to think they would soon be fucking. Malick allowed an offhand obligation to that craze — $300,000 carried some box office responsibility — but he was too unimpressed or philosophical to get excited about it. Married three times by now, he doesn’t do much sex on screen. “Did it go the way it’s supposed to?” Holly asks Kit about their unseen coupling. “Is that all there is to it? Well, I‘m glad it’s over.” All said without prejudice to their affinity or their being together.
The absent-minded talk meant more than the way Sissy Spacek secured the top button on her dress “afterwards.” After all, her character was fifteen and he was twenty-four. Yet they were both children in Malick’s art. And then, like kids, they lost interest in their adventure, even in sex, the sacrament in so many pictures of the 1970s. The novelty of Badlands was its instinct that life was boring or insignificant. And that was asserted amid a culture where movies had to be exciting, urgent, and “important.”
Malick knew that “importance” was bogus. Or he had his eye on a different order of significance. And other truths and differences were inescapable in his film: that no runaway kids had the temerity or the rhythm for talking the way these two did; that stranger than “Love is Strange” was the way Carl Orff and Erik Satie played in their summer as warnings against “realism.” The people in the film were not just movie charac-ters, they were shapes in a mythology. A similar thing happened in Days of Heaven with its triangle of attractions, where Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard seemed unduly pretty for the Texas Panhandle. Malick had narrative problems on that picture which he solved or settled by summoning the voice of Linda Manz’s kid sister — a laconic, unsentimental, yet dreamy observer of all the melodrama. (The voice was sister to Holly, too.) She was part of the family, but her voiceover let us feel the narrative was already buried in the past, and nothing to fret over. Life itself was being placed as an old movie.
Days of Heaven was extreme in its visualization: it included a plague of locusts, which was an epic of cinematography and weird special effects, involving showers of peanut shells and characters walking backwards. But the quandary of the Brooke Adams character, in love with two men, both unlikely in the long term, was the closest Malick had come to novelistic drama. I still feel for Shepard’s farmer, a rich man at a loss with feelings, though Malick had the sense to save the reticent Shepard from “acting.” Instead he was simply photographed, as gaunt and theoretical as his great house planted on the endless prairie. Just as he was shy of sex, so Malick the director was hesitant over what the world called story.
No great American director has carried himself with such indifference as to whether he was being seen, let alone understood. To see Malick’s work has always been a way of recognizing that the obvious means of doing cinema — appealing stories with likeable actors that move us and make money — was not settled in his mind. I think that is one reason why he stopped for twenty years — just to remain his own man, and not to yield to the habit of eccentric beauty in case it became studied, precious, or crushingly important.
Thus, in 1998, The Thin Red Line seemed to believe in a new kind of authenticity and directness. Wasn’t it “a war movie”? Didn’t it make more money than Malick has ever known? Wasn’t it about killing the enemy, that blessed certainty that films provide for fearful guys? It offered Guadalcanal in 1942, and it came from a James Jones novel, the writer of From Here to Eternity, which for someone of Malick’s age really was the Pacific War, despite being short on combat and going no farther west than Hawaii. The Thin Red Line is the infantry, landing on an island, and reckoning to take its peaks and destroy the enemy. It is a man’s world that male audiences might relax with. There are only fragmentary glimpses of women left at home — a rapturous shot of an occupied dress on a summer swing, something that would become an emblem of happiness in Malick’s work.
But nothing competes with the ferocity of Colonel Tall, played by Nick Nolte in the most intense performance in a Malick picture, as a commander whose orders were abandoned and denied. That is not how war films are supposed to work: no one ever challenged John Wayne at Iwo Jima or Lee Marvin in The Big Red One. But Malick’s thin red line is less conventional or reliable. It finds its example in the wistful instinct to desert on the part of a common soldier, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). For Jones, Witt was an extension of the brave victim Prewitt
whom Montgomery Clift played in From Here to Eternity, but for Malick the lonely private is another version of Bartleby, who gives himself up finally not just in heroism but in almost yielding to hesitation.
Maybe this was once a regular combat picture, to be set beside the work of Sam Fuller or Anthony Mann. But not for long: inscape pushes battle aside for a contemplation of tropical grasses tossing in the wind, insect life, parrots and snakes, intruded on for a moment by war but not really altered by it. Malick has an Emersonian gift for regarding human affairs from the standpoint of nature. It is in the perpetuity of nature that Malick perceives the strangeness, and the humbling, in Earth’s helpless duration. This war prepares us for the bizarre little dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, and the unnerving perspective in which we observe or suffer the earnestness of Sean Penn in that film.
That touches on a fascinating atmosphere attached to Malick and his blithe treatment of stars. In his long absence from the screen, the glowing characters in those first two films seemed to attract actors, as if to say it might be them, too. He seemed as desirable for them as Woody Allen — and sometimes with a similar diminution of felt human reality. He must have been flattered that so many stars wanted to work for him; he may have forgotten how far he had excelled with newcomers or unknowns. Still, I found it disconcerting when John Travolta or George Clooney suddenly turned up in spiffy, tailored glory in The Thin Red Line, and one had the feeling with The Tree of Life that Sean Penn was vexed, as if to say, “Doesn’t Terry know I’m Sean Penn, so that I deserve motivation, pay-off, and some scenes, instead of just wandering around?” Led to believe he was central to The Thin Red Line, Adrien Brody was dismayed to find he had only a few minutes in the finished film.
Was this just an experimenter discovering that his film could remain in eternal post-production? Or was it also a creeping indifference to ordinary human story? Was it an approach that really required novices or new faces? How could big American entertainments function in this way? How was Malick able to command other people’s money on projects that sometimes seemed accidental or random, on productions that had several different cuts and running times? He seemed increasingly indecisive and fond of that uncertainty, as if it were a proof of integrity. Was he making particular films, or had the process of filming and its inquiry become his preoccupation? How improvisational a moviemaker is he? And what were we to make of its end products — or was “the end” a sentimental destination mocked by the unshakable calm of
duration? How could anyone get away with The Thin Red Line costing $90 million and earning back only a touch more? I could make a case for The Thin Red Line as Malick’s best film and the most intellectually probing of them all. But “best” misses so many points. To shoot it, Malick had gone to the jungles of northern Queensland and even the Solomon Islands. The weapons and the uniforms seemed correct, but the hallowed genre of war movie was perched on the lip of aestheticism and absurdity and surrealism.
As a world traveler and a naturalist — his nature films are certainly among his most marvelous achievements — Malick was especially sensitive to terrain. For The New World, in 2005, he went to the real sites, the swampy locations, of early settlement in Virginia. He researched or concocted a language such as the natives might have spoken. His tale of John Smith, Pocohontas, and John Rolfe has many enthusiasts for its attempt to recreate a time so new then and so ancient now. This was also a historical prelude to the wildernesses in Badlands and Days of Heaven. It might even begin to amount to a history of America.
I had worries about the film, and I have never lost them. Its Pocohontas was exquisite and iconic, even if the picture tried to revive her Powhartan language. But the actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, was also part German, part Peruvian, raised in Hawaii, a singer, a dancer, a stunt performer, a princess of modernity, with evident benefit of cosmetics and a gymnasium. Whereas Sissy Spacek in Badlands had a dusty, closed face credible for the look of a kid from Fort Dupree in South Dakota in the 1950s, uneducated, indefatigably unradiant, born bored, more ready for junk food than primetime fiction. That background was what made Holly so absorbing, and it was Kilcher’s emphatic beauty that shifted The New World away from urgency or naturalism. It was as if Angelina Jolie or Joan Crawford were pretending to be the Indian maiden.
In a way, Pocohontas was the first adult female in Malick’s work, but was that a warning sign that maybe he didn’t fathom grown up women once they had got past the wry baby talk that makes the first two films so endearing? The New World did not really have much caring for Native Americans, for women, or for the challenge of Europeans determined to take charge of any viable Virginia. It was a film that opted for the picturesque over history, whereas Badlands and Days of Heaven lived on a wish to inhabit and understand America in the unruly first half of the twentieth century as a wilderness succumbing to sentimentality. But the picturesque has always been a drug in cinema, and it had been lurking there in the magic hours in Days of Heaven.
There was a gap of six years before the pivotal The Tree of Life, perhaps Malick’s most controversial film. Here was a genuinely astonishing picture, ambitious enough to range from intimacy to infinity. In so many ways, it was an eclipsing of most current ideas of what a movie might be. At one level, it was entirely mundane, the portrait of two parents and their three sons in a small town in Texas in the 1950s. For Brad Pitt (a co-producer on the project), the father was a landmark role in which he allowed his iconic status to open up as a blunt, stubborn, unenlightened man of the 50s. Jessica Chastain was the mother, and she was placid but eternal — she was doing her pale-faced best, but surely her part deserved more substance to match not just Pitt but the wondrous vitality of the boys (Hunter McCracken, Finnegan Williams, Michael Koeth, and Tye Sheridan).
All his working life, Malick has excelled with the topic of children at play, and as emerging forces who jostle family order. Don’t forget how in his first two pictures adult actors were asked to play child-like characters. The family scenes in The Tree of Life are captivating and affirming with a power that is all the more remarkable because the subject of the film is the family’s grief at the death of one of these children. The Tree of Life insists that the death of a child is a cosmic event. Not long after the young man’s death is announced, and before the story of the family is told in flashback, there is an unforgettable yet pretentious passage shot with almost terrifying vividness from nature — the bottom of the sea, the fires of a volcano, the reaches of space — accompanied by religious music. With an epigraph from Job, the real subject may be sublimity itself.
No one had ever seen a film quite like it. Reactions were very mixed. The picture won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; it had many rave reviews; it did reasonable business. There were those who felt its perilous edging into pretension and a sweeping universality in which the movie vitality of the family succumbed to the melancholy of grazing dinosaurs who had never been moviegoers. But there were more viewers who recognized an exciting challenge to their assumptions. The Tree of Life prompted a lot of people in the arts and letters to revise their ideas about what a movie might be. Pass over its narrative situation, this was a film to be measured with Mahler’s ruminations on the universe or with the transcendent effects of a room full of Rothkos.
And then Malick seemed to get lost again. He veered away from the moving austerity of Days of Heaven to a toniness more suited to fashion magazines. There was widespread disquiet
about his direction, owing to the modish affectation in To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017). From a great director, these seemed confoundingly hollow films that almost left one nostalgic for the time when Malick worked less.
Ironically, To the Wonder is the one film for which he has owned up to an autobiographical impulse. It grew out of hesitation over his third and fourth wives, presented in the movie as Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams, two unquestioned beauties. McAdams delivers as good a performance as Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven, but there are moments where her character’s frustrations could be interpreted as the actress’ distress over poorly written material. Malick was now running scared of his ear for artful, quirky talk. But the women in To the Wonder are betrayed by the worst example of Malick’s uninterested stars. Ben Affleck is the guy here, allegedly an “environmental inspector.” That gestural job allows some moody depictions of wasteland and some enervated ecstasy over the tides around Mont-Saint-Michel in France. Yet the situation feels the more posed and hollow because of Affleck’s urge to do as little as possible. His hero is without emotional energy; he deserves his two women as little as male models earn their expensive threads in fashion spreads. The film’s clothes are credited to the excellent Jacqueline West, but they adorn a fatuous adoration of affluence.
West was part of Malick’s modern team: the film’s producer was Sarah Green; the engraved photography was by the extraordinary Emmanuel Lubezki; the production design was from Jack Fisk still, who had held that role since Badlands, where he met and then married Sissy Spacek; the aching music was by Hanan Townshend in a glib pastiche of symphonic movie music — it was so much less playful or spirited than the score for Badlands. The only notable crew absentee was Billy Weber, who has been the editor on many Malick pictures. To the Wonder is said to have earned $2.8 million at the box office, and it’s hard to believe it cost less than $20 million. If that sounds like a misbegotten venture, wait till you struggle through it and then wonder what let Malick make another film in the same clouded spirit, Knight of Cups. And then another: Song to Song, the ultimate gallery of beautiful stars, supposedly about the music world of Austin, which came off semi-abstract no matter that Malick had lived there for years.
Any sense of experience and vitality seemed to be ebbing away. Was he experimenting, or improvising, or what? The several loyalists involved, as well as those players who were filmed but then abandoned, might say it was a privilege to be associated with Terry. I long to hear some deflating rejoinders to that from Kit Carruthers. There was a wit once in Malick that had now gone missing. I say this because a great director deserves to be tested by his own standards, which in Malick’s case are uncommonly high. Even with the more adventurous Christian Bale as its forlorn male lead — a jaded movie screenwriter — Knight of Cups is yet more stultifyingly beautiful and Tarot-esque, with a placid harem of women (from Cate Blanchett to Isabel Lucas, from Imogen Poots to Natalie Portman), all so immediately desirable that they do not bother to be awake. Richard Brody said it was “an instant classic,” which only showed how far “instant” and “classic” had become invalid concepts. The film earned a touch over $1 million, and it had disdain for any audience. It was a monument to a preposterous cinephilia and to a talent that seemed in danger of losing itself.
Those are harsh words, but I choose them carefully, after repeated viewings, and in the confidence that Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are true wonders. The Terrence Malick of early 2019, passing seventy-five, was not a sure thing. And then he retired all doubt about his direction and released his fourth great film; and surely four is enough for any pantheon.
Malick had been contemplating A Hidden Life and the historical incident upon which it is based for a few years. In 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was executed in Berlin for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. He was a humble farmer high in the mountains of northern Austria, where he lived with his wife, his three daughters, his sister-in-law, and his mother. They were valued members of a small community and worked endlessly hard to sustain their meager living. They were devout Catholics, and Franz had done his military service without thinking too much about it. His farm and his village are surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty, and Malick lingers long over the fields and the peaks and the clouds in a way that teaches us that even Nazism is ephemeral.
The film has few long speeches in which Jagerstatter spells out his reluctance to honor the Nazi code. He is more instinctive than articulate. He knows the fate he is tempting; he understands the burden that will put upon his wife and children; he appreciates that he could take the oath quietly and then do non-combatant service. It is not that he understands the war fully or the extent of Nazi crimes. He is not a deliberate or reasoned objector. But just as he feels the practical truths in his steep fields and in the lives of his animals, and just as he is utterly loyal to his wife, so he believes that the oath of allegiance will go against his grain. He does not show a moral philosophy so much as a moral sense. He cannot make the compromise with an evasive form of words.
There is no heavy hint in A Hidden Life of addressing how Americans in our era might withhold their own allegiance to a leader. But the film rests on a feeling that such cues are not needed for an alert audience living in the large world. We are living in a time that will have its own Jagerstatters. That is part of the narrative confidence that has not existed in Malick since Days of Heaven. It amounts to an unsettling detachment: he shares the righteousness of Jagerstatter, but he does not make a fuss about his heroism. In the long term of those steep Alps and their infinite grasslands, how much does it matter? Do the cattle on the farm know less, or are they as close to natural destiny as the farmer’s children?
That may sound heretical for so high-minded a picture. And there is no escaping — the final passages are shattering — how Jagerstatter is brutalized and then hung by the Nazi torturers and executioners. The Catholic church would make a saint of him one day, and Malick has taken three hours to tell what happened, but the film has no inkling of saintliness or a cause that could protect it. The farmer’s wife, rendered by Valerie Pachner as sharp and uningratiating, does not need to agree with her man, or even to understand him. People are alike but not the same, even under intense pressure. No one could doubt Malick’s respect for Jagerstatter, and August Diehl is Teutonically tall, blond, and good-looking in the part. But he is not especially thoughtful; his doubts over the oath are more like a limp than a self-consciously upright attitude. Certainly the old Hollywood scheme of a right thing waiting and needing to be done leaves Malick unmoved; he would prefer to be a patient onlooker, a diligent chronicler, attentive and touched, but more rapt than ardent, and still consumed by wonder.
Malick has admitted how often he had got into the habit of working without a script (or a pressing situation), so that he often filmed whatever came into his head. But he seems to have learned how far that liberty had led him astray. So A Hidden Life has as cogent a situation as those in Badlands and Days of Heaven. That does not mean those three films are tidy or complacent about their pieces clicking together. They are all as open to spontaneity and chance as The Thin Red Line. But just as it is trite and misleading to say that The Thin Red Line was a film about war, so A Hidden Life feels what its title claims: the existence of an inwardness that need not be vulgarized by captions or “big scenes.” The film concludes with the famouslast paragraph of Middlemarch, about the profound significance of “hidden lives” and “unvisited tombs.” Yes, this is what a movie, a heartbreaking work, might be for today. As for its relative neglect, just recall the wistful look on the dinosaur faces in The Tree of Life.
We can do our best, we can make beauty and find wisdom, without any prospect of being saved from oblivion.