Back to the Garden
Photo by Merie Wallace,SMPSP/New Line Productions I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. Its the only truth.
dialogue from The New World
The stars of the new Terrence Malick picture, The New World regular members of his stock company all are tall grass blowing in the wind, sunlight reflected off still waters and crickets chirping at dusk. And no, those arent the names of the Powhatan Indians who populate this story of the 17th-century explorer John Smith, the woman called Pocahontas and America itself in its infancy. Malick is an anomaly the Hollywood director who finds greater stimulation in nature than inside a CG paint box, who prefers green to green screens. And like every movie he has made over the last 32 years (all three of them), this one exudes a rapturous, sensual beauty. Discussing The New World after the screening, a friend proposed that Malicks imagery makes you want to run up and touch the screen. But no, thats not quite right; its more like the images are touching you. It would seem easy to dismiss Malick (as many have) as the maker of pretty pictures, but the beauty in Malicks work is more than skin deep. Its as though were being transported to a place before time began, or at least before we were first cast out of that proverbial garden. Which is precisely the point. No matter their official subjects, Malicks first three movies (Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line) were all mournful paeans to paradises lost, innocences violated and savageries tamed. The New World is no exception, only this time the Eden in question is literally America, and the locust in her wheat field is none other than the imperialist invader. Had Malick made this film in the 1970s, when he originally wrote it, it doubtless would have been seen as some kind of response to a certain misbegotten American military action in the East. Three decades on, the more things change, the more they stay the same. So I wish The New World were better. Certainly, it is not without its glories: The early scenes, in which Smith (Colin Farrell) and the three ships commissioned by the London Virginia Company arrive on the shores of the James River to the stirrings of Wagner on the soundtrack, have a primitivistic intensity; we feel as though we, like Smith (and Malick for that matter), are seeing this land for the first time, each blade of grass distinct from the next, each patch of sky a unique shade of blue. Then the naturals appear in their shimmering brown skins, as exotic to the British as the British are to them. Its intoxicating stuff, not least because, with the exception of a few passages of voice-over narration, hardly a line of dialogue is spoken. The British and the Indians cant speak, of course at least not to each other but its something more than that. Malick seems to have grown fatigued of words, to believe that the deepest feelings in cinema might be expressed some other way. Yet where the best films of Malick and of those directors driven by similar ambitions Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami and Carroll Ballard to name just three strike a delicate balance between the poetic and the prosaic, The New World is a movie less interested in expanding the boundaries of narrative cinema than in forsaking them. Though Ive admired Malicks previous films, Ive never fully bought into the argument having as much to do with the years in which he wasnt making movies as those when he was that hes some kind of genius. If nothing else, The New World offers compelling evidence that Malick himself may have succumbed to the hype. The movie is less a historical drama punctuated by ecstatic landscapes than a stunning landscape film that pauses every once in a while to tell a story. And whenever it does, its as if a giant vacuum comes along and sucks all the life out of the picture. Of course, there were indications as far back as Days of Heaven that he might be a better director of insects than of actors, but The New World is the first of Malicks movies in which the dialogue scenes are completely inert; its as if he cant be bothered. The scenes feel like concessions to the studio, for what Malick really seems to want to do is to make an abstract study of figures and environments, like the films of the experimental filmmakers James Benning and Peter Hutton. If he could, hed just as soon do without things like characters and plot, and The New World would probably be a more successful movie for it. A lot happens in The New World: Smith and a party of his men set out to meet with the feared Powhatan chief (August Schellenberg) and are ambushed en route; those who stay behind to build the colony that will become Jamestown are ravaged by starvation and disease; eventually, more settlers arrive and civilization rears its ugly head. But the only thing Malick shows much interest in is the blossoming relationship between Smith and the daughter of the Powhatan chief, Pocahontas (14-year-old Qorianka Kilcher), who saves Smith from imminent execution and spends most of the movies next hour frolicking with him in the forest and teaching him to paint with all the colors of the wind. The rest of the characters scarcely possess names, let alone personalities, and the movie feels like a particularly cruel betrayal of the actors who have dutifully followed Malick up the river and into the jungle some of whom (like Ben Chaplin, Noah Taylor and Brian F. OByrne) have been reduced to blink-and-youll-miss-them cameos à la Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line, while others (like Christian Bale, who makes a third-act entrance as Pocahontas husband-to-be, John Rolfe) seem utterly bewildered about their purpose in being there. Though the famous romance between Smith and Pocahontas (who was likely no more than 12 years old at the time) is more fiction than fact, its easy to see why Malick has chosen to go in that direction. Malicks Pocahontas is more than just another in his gallery of wide-eyed virginal innocents (including Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven) shes Mother Earth herself, and as played by the extraordinary newcomer Kilcher, she seems the embodiment of all that is pure and good about the natural world. As lissome as the grass itself, she could be Malicks dream woman. And Smith, for all his benevolent intentions, is her despoiler. Just one week on from Peter Jacksons behemoth, this is King Kong all over again, only with the gender roles reversed. Historical fidelity notwithstanding, the scheme of The New World is all too easy to read: that Pocahontas will become a pawn in the increasingly violent territorial battles between the Indians and the British. That she will, like America herself, become domesticated her sun-kissed body bound up in a corset, her bare feet squeezed awkwardly into high heels and paraded before all of England as an exotic offering. That she will die a symbolic death far from her native land. Well before The New Worlds two-and-one-half hours are up, Malicks tree-hugging reveries have become suffocating, no matter the unquestionable tastefulness with which theyre rendered more painterly vistas, more Wagner (and a little Mozart, too), ravishing re-creations of 17th-century London. Surely, only a Philistine could find any fault with this, or believe, perchance, that Malicks famous poetic beauty had turned poetically fatal. THE NEW WORLD | Written and directed by TERRENCE MALICK | Produced by SARAH GREEN | Released by New Line Cinema | At ArcLight and AMC Century 15
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