Sunday, January 2, 2011
The New World (2004) A Film by Terrence Malick
That a philosopher could come to cinema and make films that not only revel in the dexterity of their ideas but also swoon in a symphony of earthbound emotion is a fascinating thing, and this dynamic between sensations and concepts seems to owe a great deal to the magic of Terrence Malick’s work. Rarely does a massive production extract its backbone not from storytelling and literature but from pure visual art like The New World does. If Malick’s early films supplemented their iconically simple stories with digressive poeticism, The New World is the first film built almost solely around the director’s trademark sensuality, his penchant for creating visual abstractions within an onslaught of gorgeous imagery. At its most avant-garde, it's a work created virtually without scenes, a prolonged montage analogous to the function of poetry, where impressions are generated in a fleeting manner and ultimately add up to something larger than the sum of the parts. Working in this manner allows Malick to whip up unlikely juxtapositions of images that wouldn’t fit into a traditional dramatic structure, the kind of formula Malick could easily embrace with his material but which he decidedly avoids.
Detractors of Malick's increasing disillusionment with traditional narrative tactics have found his work to be nothing more than a succession of lovely pictures strewn together, arguing that such willy-nilly aesthetic masturbation is disrespectful to the time-worn tales of the British takeover of America and the love story of Pocahontas and John Smith. But what Malick's really doing here, even further than his creation of a deceptively slapdash but essentially brilliant rhythmic construction, is breathe cosmic life into a story that has, historically, always been treated as anything but cosmic, only temporally and culturally specific. Malick's tilting the turbulent saga, viewing it from a universal angle that does not judge, philander, or editorialize. In a word, he's trying to make this story about everything. The film compellingly covers a variety of sociological issues from colonialism to assimilation to tribal faithfulness to the violent clash of civilizations only to consistently pull back and remind us that it's all negligible, that we're all humans, that we'll all eventually die, and that ultimately it is the Earth - the planet that fossilizes our experiences - that survives.
If this sounds like a rather bleak and unfair philosophy of life to cobble a film around, it's actually deeply romantic and generous in Malick's hands (not to mention that if you can't get by this inevitable realization and accept Malick's airy understanding of it, then everything's going to be pretty bleak and unfair anyway). The New World privileges nothing over anything else, treating the whole assembly of elements to the same loving, attentive eye, a notion manifested in the tremendous democracy that has been plastered into the film's construction. In the inaugural meeting of the Native Americans and the British (who approach American land in a glorious opening sequence that alternates between the guileless point of view of the tribesmen and the impetuous approach of British ships), Malick shows their hesitant physical contact in a prolonged moment of documentary-like immediacy. Abruptly after, the voice of John Smith (Colin Farrell) is heard on the soundtrack, reiterating the mysterious awe of these first exotic encounters, which is followed by non-narrative images of the water surrounding the land, trees, birds, and flowing grass. This introduces a universal balancing act Malick is working hard to sustain throughout the film: the separate planes of physical experience, individuality and subjectivity, and nature that run on different tracks throughout the timeline of life. Equal emphasis is given to each, no matter how much these forces are allowed the freedom to inexorably compete with and even contradict each other.
What this sequence also underlines is Malick's commentary on the reductiveness of words in dealing with the intangible mystery of actual experience. Throughout the film, various characters - Smith, Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), and Pocahontas' late English husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale) - contribute reflective voice-overs to Malick's ever-expanding gallery of subjective consciousnesses, ruminating on the state of their romantic, political, and philosophical affairs, but they're continuously trumped by the physical world itself, the complexity and nuance of human expression that cannot be done justice to by words. When Farrell puckers his cheekbone during a hug with Pocahontas, or when Kilcher slowly raises her head up to her husband after informing him that she must return to her other "husband" just before Malick's strategic cut to black, the wealth of unspoken emotions are too complicated to parse out. Malick understands this, but simultaneously he's not including the various subjective voices just to prove them fundamentally "wrong". They're all parts of a larger cosmic whole, and his films necessitate this collision between individual forces and the more monolithic forces of civilizations and nature in order to substantiate their thematic goals. There are even rare and special moments - as when Pocahontas' voice-over mysteriously merges with her diegetic accompaniment - when subjectivity and experience are harmoniously interlocked, suggesting that something intangible can, if only temporarily, make these tracks run parallel.
Malick's incorporating visual codes throughout to further emphasize this democracy of existence. Repeated images abound: majestic tracking shots across the water, the land silhouetted against a pastel sky seemingly at magic hour; hands in various poses and with varying degrees of symbolic import (Malick likes hands as much as Bresson); figures standing within a darkened interior observing the bright outdoors; multiple iterations of water flowing both naturally and in service of rituals; birds darting across the sky in a solitary swoop or in packs, eloquently serving as metaphors for the flight of the individual away from the collective. All of it serves to indicate how objects and settings both change and don't change across time, how they may take on slight external fluctuations but remain spiritually the same. It's also as if there's a codependency of behavior that goes unacknowledged, a fundamental reliance on, say, the raising of one's hands to the sky (which Pocahontas does in ecstatic harmony with nature and John Smith does to reach for the light as a prisoner) or the soaking of one's face in water that transcends cultural associations.
In its soundtrack, The New World also teems with life, refusing to play up one aspect over another and collecting the sonic world in its entirety. Casual viewers often observe how the voices in Malick's films - and this is something he shares with Mann and Kar-Wai - are abnormally "quiet" by the standard of conventional sound editing. Furthermore, words variably come across as garbled or incomplete, comparable to how sentences have a tendency to be mumbled in real life. There seems to be little attempt to polish the edges of the dialogue, and contributing to the near imperceptibility is Malick's heightening of the aural ambience of the space (nature sounds, birdsong) as well as the extra-diegetic components of the soundtrack (music, voice-over). With all these elements playing in tandem, it exudes the sense of multiple consciousnesses (human and otherwise) competing for consideration, a notion that is in sync with the film's themes of geographic and cultural ownership as well as the general turbulence of the plot's progression.
Of course, these are all conscious aesthetic choices by Malick that dictate the distinctive tone of the film; it is not representative of an amateurish inability to decide what to prioritize. And there are indeed ample instances within the film when Malick eases off the panoptic mise-en-scene, treating the audience to rapturous streams of imagery that alleviate the need to be an active viewer and approach a more meditative, observational plane. Consider, for instance, the three occurrences of Wagner's Das Rheingold, “Thus, We Begin in the Greenish Twilight of the Rhine," a triumphant brass and strings piece that is constantly sustaining a level of escalating anticipation, with the violins dipping and rising and never quite reaching the expected catharsis. Each time it plays on the soundtrack it registers a pivotal moment in the story - the arrival of the settlers, the simultaneously growing and rupturing relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas, the new life of an assimilated Pocahontas - and is accompanied by a montage of ecstatic imagery. It suggests a perpetuity of life, which is supported by Malick's womb-like water imagery in the opening shots of the film and his downplaying of events (Pocahontas' death) that would likely be made tragic in another film. After Pocahontas dies, shots of her joyous gallivanting in her royal garden are coupled with images of outstretched trees and flowing streams - the boundless continuation of nature. It's one of the most uplifting endings to a film I've ever seen.
As suggested by the enigmatic appearance of a warrior in tribal paint beside Pocahontas' deathbed in England, no cultural upheaval can remove the permanent impact of one's ancestry. And this is what Malick is getting at, expressively and passionately, with The New World, that there are large, mythic forces that shape the individual and survive beyond their life. It's a transcendent view of the order of the universe, one that does not mock or belittle individual lives but properly places them in their respective contexts. Malick has found a fittingly sublime cinematic expression of this theme. I realize I've done very little plot synopsizing here, if any, but it's only because the film's rewards are decidedly elsewhere, wound up in the magical flow of non-narrative imagery. The New World's one of the most underrated works of popular art from the past decade, and it's packed with invention. There's a great chance this is the only the first in a series of posts about it that will gradually try to unveil its complex, unexpected mystery.