Saturday, August 11, 2012

The New World

THE NEW WORLD                A-                   
USA  (135 mi)  2005  ‘Scope  d:  Terrence Malick      

Why does the earth have colors?

The film is extraordinary as simply a montage of images, but falls a little flat in the endless stream of voiceovers spoken so softly that much of it is unintelligible, always sounding like drab poetry where words over-inflate the significance of the moment, which is clearly captured in the images.  The details are completely missing in this film, so as a historical record of Jamestown in the 1600’s, it’s hard to follow just what’s going on, as this is a glimpse before history was written, which calmly observes, but does not judge.  But as an expression of discovery, of man’s quest to the new world, where the discovery was as big a surprise to the natives as for the English settlers, where these dreamy images exquisitely reveal the mixture of delight and rapture, but also the pure horror and fear at being at the mercy of an unknown species of human beings.  Also, the film does reveal the combination of human reactions to the unknown, the hatred and derision, the holier than thou, we are civilized and they are savages, where we’re better off killing them all, but also the over idealization, turning natives into something like pure innocence, always childlike in their curiosity, where Malick seems to overindulge his creation of an oversensitized Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) who remains nameless, yet completely in harmony with nature, who later becomes the pet of the white people, renamed Rebecca, something people can rave about and adore and talk about as if she can’t even hear what they’re saying, in their eyes always a savage, forever seen as not being white, yet she’s somehow capable of transcending that label, seen here as almost Christ-like in her sacrifice, her sorrow, and her sensitivity and empathy for others. 

Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, some on 65mm, using no artificial lighting, using hand-stitched costumes for the Indians with materials available at the time, constructing a fort with wood available only in the forests of the Chickihominy River in Virginia just a few miles from the actual settlement.  As the ships arrive on the shore to the floating, swirling strings of Wagner’s “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold The New World - Vorspiel - YouTube (3:59), where the natives stare at them from behind the trees, in awe, as if in a state of wonder, the film is magnificent spectacle.  As a document of the horrendous underplanning of the settlers, who are never seen even attempting to hunt or fish, this is poetic license.  Instead, they argue and haggle over power, even flat out murder one another after they begin falling victim to pestilence and disease.  The picture of the first settlers, whose ugliness is beyond description, is something out of the Middle Ages, perhaps inspired by Chaucer, horrid creatures riddled with disease, with sickly marks on their faces and bad teeth, where everyone’s out for themselves without a plan in the world.  Colin Farrell, as Captain John Smith, always looking in perfect health despite the straggling conditions of the others, is seen here as something of a troublemaker.  Whoever’s in command is seen as a tyrant, an overbearing, power mad military boss who is quick to claim mutiny whenever anyone disagrees, which only spreads the thought amongst the stragglers.  There was never any moment when they sat down and talked about their plight, or attempted to decide together what to do.  Instead, it was a dictatorial rule by intimidation and force, which led to disastrous results, living in a cesspool of mud and defecation, as there was no common goal.  Compare this to the first journey to the village of the natives, where Smith nearly gets his head taken off as an outsider, who strikes fear into the hearts of the natives who think these settlers will attempt to drive them off their land.  But the well organized, cooperative and peaceful native village is a spawning ground for hope, both for the young Pocahontas, the Chief’s favorite daughter, as she was so much more inquisitive than the rest, and for Smith himself, whose life was spared, so he was brimming with a feeling of gratitude.  Their near wordless first meeting is dreamy and overly sensual without ever drifting into sexuality or poor taste, the camera gazing at their every move as we hear the slowly developing Adagio movement of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto a New World - YouTube (4:27), which we hear again several times later in the film, but to less effect.  Of interest, Pocahontas is learning words of English, seen gently rhapsodizing upon discovering the expression for wind, but Smith has no such interest in learning her language. 

Malick has an interesting sequence of betrayals, one right after another, which one might conclude was the basis for cultural change and evolution, as one would have to rise to replace the void and overcome what was lost in their lives.  The natives agree to spare Smith’s life in return for the settlers agreeing to leave in the spring and return to England across the seas.  Meanwhile, Pocahontas makes her legendary journey bringing food and clothing for the settler’s first harsh winter, where they would likely have otherwise starved, where she is called a Princess, like a spirit of goodness and salvation, but afterwards, the settlers continue to turn on one another.  For the natives as well, when they see the settlers renege on their agreement, there is a sense of betrayal and hostility breaks out.  The film turns into absolute chaos, a prolonged scene of distrust, war and death, which makes little sense, as the film never provides compelling grounds for such a reaction, it springs out of nowhere.  Only when Smith is stripped of his power, and Pocahontas is seen as a traitor herself, betraying her own people in favor of helping Smith survive the winter, ultimately banished by her own father, does Pocahontas wander into the hands of the settlers, captured in an attempt to avoid Indian attack, and Europeanized, becoming something of a household pet, looked upon with amusement and a healthy dose of civilized superiority, then all but ignored.  She remains near wordless and quiet, but horribly confused when the natives are indeed driven from their land, their village burned, then Smith disappears, leaving instructions to tell her he’s dead.  Her reactions are always noble and dignified, always portrayed in the highest spirit, while those around her seem driven by their own self-interests.  At this point, the film leaves one with a wearying sense of low-mindedness, futility and dread. 

Eventually, Christian Bale arrives as a new commander, {AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)!!!}, a man who is attracted to the sorrow and loss of Pocahontas, seen now by the settlers as "someone finished, broken, lost," but as he’s also lost his wife and daughter, together they quietly make a new pair, eventually leading them both to England where she is showed off to the court as an example of a “civilized” savage, perhaps justification for their mission to the new world.  Meanwhile, Smith is seen philandering with Inuits off the coast of Newfoundland, where raging waves represent his staggeringly lost state of mind, because if he was searching for the Indian passage, he wasn’t remotely close.  Somehow, the story of the natives all but disappears, and is merged into only one image, a bathed and clothed Pocahontas who walks in leather shoes with heels, who curtsies to the King of England, and is showed off like a prized specimen, almost like King Kong without a cage, enveloped in scenes from England that are near wordless, but vivid and powerful.  Pocahontas, despite her poor language skills to help her find her way through another culture, where again the swirling music of Wagner returns, it’s clear she has sacrificed her innate self, undergone huge upheavals, only then can she find herself in a new world.  The moving images capture her innate grace while continuing to dwell upon her as a marvel, as a rare thing of beauty, a stranger in a strange land who can somehow fathom her higher calling, a spiritual bridge, a first witness to the land of both Whitman and Shakespeare:  “Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land...”

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