This week at the Wellington Film Society: Terrence Malick.
Revisiting The New World at Film Society on Monday evening confirmed—as if there was ever any doubt—Terrence Malick’s mastery of sight and sound in the cinematic form. Recapturing the 17th Century founding of Jamestown, Virginia, from the vantage point of English explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the Native American Pocahontas (an enchanting Q’orianka Kilcher), it remains every bit the Malick creation: both as an expansion of The Thin Red Line’s poetic intimacy through the frame of a big Hollywood canvas, in which the synergy of soundscape, image montage, musical composition, and spoken word is at its most concentrated; and in the unmoored approach to storytelling first heralded in Days of Heaven, a movie that runs parallel to The New World as a dramatic triangle. Indeed, just as Farrell’s brooding masculinity is a match for Richard Gere’s petulant pretty boy persona, the casting of Christian Bale as the tobacco farmer (and Pocahontas’s eventual husband) John Rolfe is a repetition of the Sam Shepard role, where the similarly gaunt actor also played a farmer in need of a wife. Reoccurring gestures and themes aside, though, a holy trinity The New World does not form, and what is evident in repeat viewings of the film is how Malick’s transcendental vision has begun to spill over the edge. If Days of Heaven is the ideal Malick picture, sublime in every sense of the word, and as a humanist statement, The Thin Red Line his masterpiece, then The New World is an ephemeral epic only to the naked eye, and for the first time in his oeuvre, could be seen as wavering from the essence of his cinema: that is to say, the transient quality by which his films live or die.
In an essay accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release of Days of Heaven, Adrian Martin discusses the “constant motion” of the film, as well as the harmonious arrangement of moods and textures that make up Malick’s aesthetic, where “nothing is ever insisted upon or lingered on.” It may be difficult to pinpoint exactly, given the awe Malick’s cosmic mise-en-scène is able to inspire, but The New World comes close to tipping this balance, if not displacing the miraculous order of things. Whether it be in the shot of a forest canopy, a line of pensive narration, the din of a man’s ramblings (yes, that’s John Savage losing his mind again), or a verse of James Horner’s majestic score, many of the film’s visual and aural elements feel overextended, dwelled upon, almost forced out into the open in a manner that draws attention itself. And though not overflowing into self-parody—a near misstep that the upcoming Tree of Life may not be so fortunate to avoid, judging by its vaguely portentous trailer—it seems a fair assessment of The New World to regard it as a Malick film intermittently off key, or at least one that doesn’t quite reach the summit of its director’s famously unfocused, yet creatively fruitful shooting and editing process.
“Off key” Malick, mind you, is still ten times more invigorating than first-rate David Lean, and while The New World may not possess the richness or profundities of The Thin Red Line—a film genuinely haunted by language, human strife, and the savage contrast between creation and destruction—it’s easily as impassioned as anything the director has devoted himself too. (New Line Cinema also shared his enthusiasm, admirably coughing up a US$30 million budget with rarely afforded creative control.) And even when the film does lose its bearings, its singular style and tone is impossibly breathtaking, more so on the big screen where its naturalist splendor is fully evoked. (Significantly, through Emmauel Lubezki’s cinematography and the production design of the redoubtable Jack Fisk.) Perfection in the scheme of things The New World may not represent, as an illustration of purity and totality in cinema, it is surpassed only by the Terrence Malick films that precede it.
Beyond those formal virtues is a worryingly conservative treatment of the subject matter, and some have argued that there’s no excuse for perpetuating the white myth of genocide and colonialism, absolved in movies like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar from the perspective of an empathetic man who comes to adopt the way of the natives while perceiving his own civilization’s ills. What is consistent, and thus redeeming about Malick’s film, however, is the eschewing of historical specificity, partly by way of its fragmented editing, in which mythology takes precedence over reality. It is a different kind of veracity, one the film arrives at by being the most “emotionally upfront” in Malick’s oeuvre, as my colleague Brannavan Gnanalingam pointed out after the screening. In savouring the rapture of its beguiled lovers, a sense of discovery courses throughout: in the break of daylight, the shock of gunpowder, the astonished gaze of disparate cultures. It concludes with Pocahontas entering her own “New World”, stepping foot onto the docks of London and holding court with King James—perhaps the most exquisite sequence in the film. Whatever Malick’s movies end up resembling, they always close on the promise of something new and enigmatic; a rebirth if you will, which is precisely why we return to his films, The New World included, for even the greatest weaknesses are outweighed by the faintest of revelations.