Friday, December 12, 2008

Mother, now I know where you live.

The New World is bookended by quiet, immersive nature sounds that begin before the first image (running water enveloping the frame) and continue after the last (light peering through trees). We don't begin this story so much as join it in progress - the tragic romance between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) as a microcosm of a world that, director Terrence Malick reminds us, began and will go on long after the movie (and our time) is over. The movie's title is bitterly, beautifully ironic, with the movie's point of view belonging not to Smith but to Pocahontas, sharing her perception of this world without beginnings or endings - out of time, eternal. This could be florid, pretentious stuff in the wrong hands, but Malick is one of the cinema's few poets and, I suspect, incapable of making a bad movie; at turns meditative, hallucinatory and plain breathtaking, The New World is one of the rare films that touches the infinite.

The prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold (like Malick's film, a work that anticipates the end of gods) announces the arrival of English colonists, led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), to what will become known as Jamestown (though the film largely avoids names and other historical cataloguing). The meeting between Europeans and "naturals" is rescued from paternalistic cliche by Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki's vibrant, immersive images (particuarly astounding on the big screen), which lend our country an otherwordly quality that allows us to see the narrative through fresh eyes. Focusing on the brief, fleeting romance between Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell), The New World both revises and honors the affair's status as a myth of Paradise Lost. The film is steeped in metaphor, using a language of images to explicate the film's meaning in place of conventional dramaturgy. Words are of secondary importance here; the dialogue is largely sparse and functional, and the use of voiceover, as in all of Malick's films, is not meant to explain but to show the gap between what the characters say and what they mean. By decontextualizing Smith and Pocahontas (who is never referred to by name), focusing instead on their fleeting intimacy, Malick paradoxically says worlds about the nature of diaspora.

The production design (by the great Jack Fisk) and careful recreation of Algonquin culture reveal a strong commitment to authenticity, but it would be inaccurate to say that Malick is striving for realism. Malick is after a poetic, romantic truth, his camera constantly darting and weaving around his actors like a silent, disembodied observer. The performers rise to the occasion admirably - Farrell is underrated for his willingness to find vulnerability in his action-man persona, and Christian Bale, as John Rolfe, excels at playing an uncomplicated, genuinely good man (harder than it seems). But the movie belongs to Kilcher, a then-14-year-old acting novice who is completely believable as she navigates her character's journey through first love, separation, banishment, heartbreak, migration and transcendence. Thanks to Kilcher, Pocahontas is at once a personification of Malick's ideals of purity and oneness with the world and a typical lovestruck kid. With The Thin Red Line, Malick seemed to have lost interest in the individual, observing his characters from such a distance that they became a collective, hard to distinguish from the foliage. Pocahontas is a return to his more humanistic '70s work; a direct descendant of Badlands' Holly and Days of Heaven's Linda, she's an innocent who (like the film itself) gives life to the world she inhabits.

The marketing for The New World sold the film as something it wasn't - the above poster is going for sweeping romance, while the horrible DVD cover tries to make it look like an action movie (though the one battle scene demonstrates that Malick could make a great action movie if he wanted to). The result was that the film was hated by people for what it isn't and overlooked by people who would appreciate it for what it is, and it promptly bombed. And there's no question that Malick's esoteric approach to storytelling is too much for most people - almost everyone I've shown the film has nodded off, citing either the deliberate pace (which affords every moment the same importance) or half-complaining that it's "too rich." But I don't think The New World is inaccessible, or even a primarily intellectual experience; I showed the movie last Thanksgiving to a group of mentally challenged people that I work with, and most were engaged, curious, and asking questions (this doesn't happen when we show Firehouse Dog). Perhaps The New World works best when it's less analyzed than experienced; if you let it wash over you, the film's aesthetic and emotional power is indelible. It'd be nice if Malick was more prolific (though with Tree of Life coming out next year, perhaps he's picking up the pace), but when each of his films give us enough to experience and discuss for decades, it's hard to complain.


Electronic Pussy Sucker said...

Wonderful review, my love.

Anonymous said...

I think Bemis touches on something vital (and not immediately obvious) here: yes, it does feel like we join the film in progress. This journey started a long time ago and we just happen to come in at a time when some 17th century characters are picked up by the the journey's flow.

The stages of Pocahonta's journey (as described by Bemis), from first love to wretched disappointment and eventually to transcendence are, of course, the stages of everyone's life as described in the ancient religious literature of many cultures, including our own.

The art of Terrence Malick is that while staying close to the social details and particulars of these people he is still able to use his medium to create a vibrant mirror where we recognize, and feel, our own yearning for transcendence here in the 21st century.

Thanks Bemis - that was some food for thought.

Note: This Youtube video is a must if you like the film -


drewbacca said...

One of my favorite films of 2005 easily. It's definitely one that requires a certain amount of patience for the more A.D.D. of us.

A lot of it could depend on mood. This isn't something I just want to pop in the DVD player on Tuesday night after work with some pizza and beer. This requires a lazy Sunday afternoon with absolutely nothing to do and the cell phone switched to "off."

Fab film though. Q'orianka Kilcher most certainly deserves more work.

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