The new world
Directed by Terrence Malick
The title of Terrence Malick’s The New World discloses the secret of its greatness. From start to finish, in dialogue and music, in every shot and cut, Malick’s masterpiece dedicates itself to discovering, exploring and cherishing all that is new: new lands, new loves, new battles; new feelings, new thoughts, new rhythms; new ways of thinking about history and culture, experience and memory; new ways of seeing and feeling. Refining and perfecting techniques Malick first explored in 1973’s “Badlands,” “The New World” fuses classical Hollywood production values (including CinemaScope photography and an eclectic symphonic score) with a documentary approach to narrative, characterization and editing. The result is a powerfully modern style that could be called epic naturalism, a style that appreciates the physicality of existence—the moment-to-moment visceral intensity cherished by Walt Whitman—while acknowledging human life’s impermanence, then further acknowledging that the life of a person, a nation or even a species is insignificant compared to the life of the earth.
In service of this unfashionably transcendental vision of life, Malick merges images and music with a silent filmmaker’s muscular grace. The immediacy of Malick’s shooting and editing style (he improvises entire scenes and subplots on the fly, and sends second unit cameramen to pop off shots of anything they deem beautiful, and finds the movie in the editing much as a reporter finds a story in his notes) pushes against the film’s lofty, contemplative elements: the swelling classical score (Wagner, Chopin, James Horner), the ruminative multiple voice-overs. The resultant aesthetic tension jostles us into new ways of seeing. Watching The New World, we are at once dislocated and free, experiencing the shock of the new while recollecting it in tranquility (or speculating on how we will remember it). Malick’s characters pore over their lives as if words will fix their feelings; sometimes a random, lonely word will puncture a reverie or a moment of intense violence (a word like “mother,” for instance, or “wonder”). But words, Malick realizes, fix nothing because nothing is fixed; there is no past or present, no differences or similarities, except those we choose to mark. In Malick’s films, memory becomes history (or anecdote); thoughts and feelings become images, and images become music, and everything becomes new.
The New World rediscovers cinema’s kinship to music by creating a symphony of images, an ambition made plain in The New World’s astonishing opening section, which depicts the English explorers’ arrival at what would later become Jamestown. Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick’s squad of editors build up to the meeting by picking off individual documentary-like moments: the ship coming out of the distance and sighting land, the Native Americans spotting the ship and swarming toward the forested bluffs and the rocky shore to get a better look, the English wading onto the land and into the grassy meadows, meeting the whites and the natives meeting each other for the first time, each speaking a foreign tongue to the other, touching garments and staring in fearful amazement.
Each culture has its audience surrogate. For the English, it’s disreputable soldier/explorer John Smith (sad-eyed Colin Farrell, finally delivering on his leading man promise), who arrives at the New World locked in a shipboard holding cell, and for the Powhatan tribe, it’s 15-year old princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, whose ray-of-sunshine naturalism is just right). There are other significant characters: the princess’ tough but decent father, Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and his brother Opechancanough (Wes Studi); the English have their visionary businessman leader, Capt. Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) and the irascible Edward Wingfield (David Thewlis). But in this ecstatic opening section – a set piece as staggeringly detailed yet intimate as the mass gatherings in The Leopard, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter—no man or woman’s mere existence is privileged over anyone else’s. In fact, the sequence—indeed the entire film—is not about individuals, nor exclusively cultures. It’s about disconnected fragments of the same species fusing like lovers to create something new.
In The New World, form mirrors function mirrors feeling: we watch the awful push-pull of the English and Powhatan cultures, the establishment of a fort and the planting of corn, the mingling and friendship that becomes violence, then war; we see John Smith and Pocahontas cling to each other, lying in the meadow, brushing each other’s skin, playing like kids, fleeing their cultures and hiding in a secret world. The Native Americans are more attuned to nature, but Malick doesn’t deem the English morally inferior because of it, he just finds their angry sense of entitlement mildly funny. This isn’t just a war between cultures; it’s a mating dance followed by an inevitable (arguably forced) wedding. Late in the film, when a now-assimilated Pocahontas visits England with her husband (Christian Bale, whose decency and expressiveness equal Farrell’s) and her uncle Opechancanough, the cultural positions are reversed, and the Native Americans wander an alien (but not necessarily more advanced) landscape. Here, too, Malick expresses cultural truths in understated shots: for instance, Opechancanough touching the skirts of huge shrubs trimmed into a bell shapes, while exploring a sculpted garden whose very existence testifies to the West’s need to conquer (rather than coexist with) nature.
Tellingly, both the opening and the equally powerful and even more moving, mirror-image finale are scored to the opening section of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, “Thus, We Begin in the Greenish Twilight of the Rhine,” a tide of brass and strings that rises and rises, then falls, then rises again. This declares Malick’s intent to tell a mythic or operatic story about John Smith and Pocahontas (who were never lovers in real life), and use that story as springboard for a poetic and musical exploration of how love does and does not transcend individual experience. Malick makes John Smith and Pocahontas—and their nations, and their lands, and their historical epoch—seem truly small, as exposed to the elements as the battered characters in Theo Angelopoulos’ brilliant, temperamentally similar The Weeping Meadow. Malick’s symphonic filmmaking bears them aloft and sweeps them along. Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz’s description of Wagner’s Ring cycle could double as a description of Malick’s four masterpieces, The New World in particular: “…a huge symphonic poem to which singing and stage action had been added. The orchestra provides a stream of music that carries the words being sung and reflects the psychological states of the various characters.” Paradoxically and wonderfully, Malick’s approach bonds us to the characters even more deeply by stressing their fundamental kinship to every other person, and this underlines their fragility, their mortality, all the more. Smith’s aching tenderness and Pocahonatas’ guileless affection are as pure as flowers and as easily crushed.
By presenting every character’s experience through the same cosmic, free-associative prism, Malick ascribes equal emotional significance to each individual’s life, a masterstroke that’s not just exciting but inspiring. Tributaries of individual experience merge to create a river of collective feeling and experience that sweeps you along as Malick’s heroes are swept along, in rapture. It is as if Malick is dreaming for all of us—a presumption as recklessly innocent and beautiful as Stephen Daedalus’ promise in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Daedelus, like the rest of us, was never quite capable of realizing this ambition. Malick is on his way.