Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Sacrifice (1986) A Film by Andrei Tarkovsky

The Sacrifice is the unusual brainchild of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, two of my favorite filmmakers, and as such there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be one of the greatest films ever made. Granted, Bergman never touched the project. It’s just that his influence rubbed off on Tarkovsky so saliently – the Swedish location, the Swedish cast peopled by Bergman regulars, the penetrating family drama – that it feels as if the two were co-directing. In actuality, Bergman’s piercing psychological investigation via earthbound drama is often in competition with Tarkovsky’s unpsychological, spiritual mysticism, resulting in a film that is split in half by the two sensibilities, never confidently blending them. Yet even this tension produces something of great interest, because while Tarkovsky lacks the tact and fluidity of Bergman drama, this ineptitude only amplifies the onslaught of poetic soul-searching that the film settles into, intensifying it in contrast to the comparatively stale talkiness of the first half. Though not his most accomplished work, like all of Tarkovsky's films, The Sacrifice's bold mystery and haunting imagery only grows in the mind after its completion.

There's also a good chance that this fissure in the film's structure is indebted to Tarkovsky's thematic position that there's a drastic disconnect in the world between humanity's material and spiritual development. Early on, the film's main character, Alexander (Erland Josephson), a retired actor and philosophy professor, muses openly to his deaf-mute son (Tommy Kjellqvist) about this very idea that modern mankind has abandoned any sense of spirituality to become smitten with all forms of material ownership. If not for the beautiful languid pace of the camera as Alexander speaks, roving through the skinny trees and tall grass swaying in a light breeze, the scene would smack of didacticism, existing as a rather pat summation of the film's concerns. The same goes for the rest of the first half as well, as Tarkovsky stages banal philosophical discussions among Alexander's family that are salvaged by the striking choreography of bodies, the way his camera manages to effortlessly glide into grand compositions. In their rote intellectualism and directness, Alexander's conversations with his friend Otto (Allan Edwall), his estranged wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), and the rest of their acquaintances are never entirely believable. But when news of a nuclear holocaust surfaces on the television, the family grows convincingly solemn, with the exception of Fleetwood, who hams up a crying fit before thankfully being put out by Otto with a powerful sedative.

Fortunately, the film witnesses a sudden injection of life at this point, even though it ultimately grows quieter, stiller, and more threatening. Alexander makes a bargain with God - in a scene shot from an omniscient aerial perspective by Tarkovsky and regular Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist - that if he and his family surrender the totality of their material existence, the nuclear warfare will not occur. Only a character with the kind of all-consuming religious faith that Alexander possesses could argue for such a seemingly hasty and absurd pact, and only a director as gracious and believing as Tarkovsky could bring such dedication and compassion to the presentation of his spiritual pursuit. The Sacrifice cycles through dreams, hallucinations, and real events to depict a complex firsthand understanding of Alexander's spiritual predicament. In the film's eeriest scene, Alexander wakes up in a quiet, black and white space where, after Tarkovsky scans the ground for relics of the past in one of his familiar touches, the coming of a strong wind represents a jolting obstruction to the peaceful dream. The camera then tracks sideways through the house's hallways, glimpsing in the background a nude body skipping away in slow motion, birds taking hesitant flight around her. Color gradually saturates the frame, and miraculously the shot transitions back into reality.

But is there any certainty of this? There's a line in the film about reality being malleable, ever-shifting, and basically an illusion, and this is made concrete by Tarkovsky's tricky approach. He's consistently swapping film stocks, playing with perspective, confusing spatial understandings, interrupting any notion of linear time, making it unclear what a stable basis of physical or temporal reality is. Even before Alexander's pact, Tarkovsky rather noticeably invites harsh distortions to the natural color palette, layering a reddish-brown or greenish filter over the primarily gray interiors of the seaside home. After the news has struck, the family maid, known around the countryside as a witch, is standing outside the house in a patch of tall trees. While looking towards the vicinity of the camera, she calls softly to Alexander, after which the camera slowly dollies in, seemingly predicting his movement. But then Alexander emerges from the right side of the frame; we're not the only ones thrown off, for the woman turns in slight surprise too. Later, Otto and Alexander stare through a window at the sacrificial icon painting that graces the screen during the film's credits. Tarkovsky employs a classic shot-reverse-shot structure with tight close-ups of the painting and the faces of the two men, but once Otto walks out of the frame and Alexander motions forward towards the painting, he is revealed not to be standing right in front of it, as the intimate shots would suggest, but instead across the room from it, a good ten feet away. All of these mutations to traditional film grammar subtly jostle the viewer out of their comfort zone, creating sequences that never quite luxuriate in an accurate approximation of the world but rather approach an abstract, hallucinatory zone.

That Tarkovsky retains belief in Alexander and doesn't resort to smug snickering even when he is sneaking around his family, rummaging through their things, and ultimately burning their house down when he immerses himself fully in his spiritual convictions in the explosive climax is a testament to the deep spiritual connection he has to his artwork. The Sacrifice is not afraid to risk absurdity itself in the radical nature of its structure - long slabs of real time combined with elusive, dreamlike montage - or in the extremity of its content, making it, and its creator, analogous to the central figure, a man doggedly tied to religious piety and opposed to modernistic tendencies. Somehow, the film's most wayward ideas, spawned from lofty concepts about the limits of faith and reason, like the virtual reprise of a scene of levitation in Mirror or the ten-minute-long house-burning sequence, a combination of cinematic grandiosity and improvisational vérité, work in the context of Tarkovsky's consuming seriousness. And of course, this shouldn't devalue the sheer craftsmanship at work, such as the beautiful contours in the bifurcated design or the rich ambiance in the interplay between Bach, obscure Japanese bamboo flutist Watazumido-Shuso, and the subdued natural sounds. Thus, in all its contradictions and minor missteps, The Sacrifice emerges as an essential Tarkovsky work, a film so devoted to its esoteric spiritual themes that it becomes a kind of Bible of its own.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Santa Sangre (1989) A Film by Alejandro Jodorowsky

For all its admittedly surreal flourishes and bonkers left-turns, Santa Sangre is actually provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky's least anarchic film (if we take his disowned The Rainbow Thief out of the picture), for within its hysterical madness there is a traceable, if lopsided, psychosexual transformation, a personal coming-of-age odyssey that makes just enough sense when placed within Freudian and Jungian tenets. Because of this, it's also his most satisfying and complete work, rarely falling victim to overlong displays of wild debauchery. His chaos-stuffed 1973 hit The Holy Mountain still remains my favorite, if only for the dazzling nature of its imagery, but as narrative, as (dare I say) drama, Santa Sangre delights and confounds in equal measure. This is not to suggest, of course, that the film is the least bit conventional in its wayward approach to storytelling. Rather, it strands itself from plausible reality at every turn, depicting the turbulent upbringing and post-traumatic complexes of Fenix (Adan and Axel Jodorowsky, the director's sons) - the son of a heinous ringmaster named Orgo (Guy Stockwell) and an overbearing sacrilegious fanatic/trapeze performer named Goncha (Blanca Guerra) - with elliptical verve and inscrutable diversions.

Starting with an image of a barbaric grown-up Fenix hidden away in an asylum, the film quickly and unexpectedly gestures backward to tell the story of the Circo del Gringo, the family's lurid circus that is essentially Fellini magnified and made extra grotesque. There Orgo, plump and drooling, flings knives at a woman (Thelma Tixou) covered head-to-toe with tattooes, a dangerous spectacle made erotic by the woman's histrionic expressions of sexual pleasure every time a soaring knife shimmies between her upper thighs or beside her lip. Meanwhile, Goncha struggles to maintain her Santa Sangre (translated as "Holy Blood") sanctuary, where her and a mass of supporters are convinced that the pool of red paint in the middle of the room is actually the blood of the cult's patron saint, a young girl whose arms were cut off by her two brothers before her death. Fenix is caught within an oppressive marital tension between Orgo and Goncha caused by Orgo's routine sexual finagling with the tattooed woman while also harboring feelings of romantic attraction to the tattooed woman's deaf-mute daughter Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia), a circus performer whose physical ailments and genuinely human demeanor throughout make her the film's truly innocent sympathetic figure. But Fenix and Alma, in an affecting scene underscored by Jodorowsky's iconic compositions, are drawn apart indefinitely after Goncha, in a fit of rage, pours acid on the genitalia of the tattooed woman and Orgo, who responds by promptly cutting off her arms.

Santa Sangre's character conflicts operate in such a way throughout. Although the motivations behind the actions are more or less clear, the punishments enacted stretch any inkling of reason or verisimilitude. Certainly an acid attack is not the cleanliest or most reliable form of murder, and certainly Orgo's violent outbreak is a bit over-the-top in its execution, but Jodorowsky deliberately makes it so in order to align Goncha's traumas with that of her saint's, to give the film the fanatical religious and mystical thrust that all his film's incorporate and subsequently deconstruct. Furthermore, it's quite simply because Jodorowsky revels in the terrain of baroque overstatement; when his characters are angry, they get very angry, and the same goes for sensations of happiness, sexual excitement, and horror. All these elemental emotions are in feisty competition in Jodorowsky's work, making them rather turbulent experiences that are difficult to engage with emotionally. But Santa Sangre includes exalted occasions when the kaleidoscopic tone collage comes to a steady halt, leaving in its wake scenes of rich emotional poetry, such as the harrowing devastation of Goncha after her Church is bulldozed and Fenix comforts her, or the plaintive and inevitable farewell of Fenix and Alma, which feels like a missed opportunity until the two reunite later in an equally lovely scene of romantic swooning. For all his cinematic nihilism, Jodorowsky is unusually sensitive in his depiction of these perversely relatable scenes by visually matching the respective emotions, like when his camera swoops under and spins around Fenix and Alma during their uplifting kiss.

By the time Fenix is older, the raunchy traumas of circus life prove to have made an indelible mark on his psyche. Living in a nuthouse with mentally disabled, cocaine-snorting inmates and a guard who treats him like a child, Fenix is all of a sudden called upon by his mother in the alley adjacent to his cell. The subsequent shot of the two of them trotting wearily into a cloud of smoke at the end of the street is a succinct visualization of the foreboding experiences ahead for Fenix under the false promise of motherly support. Goncha enlists her son as her sidekick in a peculiar theatrical show in which he stands behind her and acts out the movements indicated by her words with his arms, which are squeezed through her costume to suggest one person. It grows increasingly disturbing when the goings-on at the theater start to mirror the circus, with Fenix, perhaps against his own conscious will, enacting on a voluptuous fellow performer his father's sexualized knife routine. The moment Goncha has any sneaking suspicion of her son being attracted to a woman (likely indebted to her husband's consistent infidelity), she begins living vicariously through him, ordering his hands to stab and murder the various females. Gorily, theater and life coexist, and in the process Fenix's oedipal complex is strengthened.

The film's batty final act is somewhat unbalanced in its trajectory (quite literally when Jodorowsky's camera starts careening from one dutch tilt to another in the climax), and it contains a few too many subplots from left field (Fenix's admiration of James Whale's 1933 film The Invisible Man is a particular head-scratcher), but it all coalesces into an awesomely zany fit of Gothic horror not unlike the work of Italian directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Whether the presence of producer Claudio Argento (Dario's younger brother) rubbed off on him or whether Jodorowsky earnestly sees shocking horror as the natural conclusion of a man's motherly dependence is a curiosity better left ambiguous, because the finale's loopy, ugly, claustrophobic, and ultimately sublime beauty makes up for the rest of the film's often clumsy discursiveness. When the newly anointed grown-up versions of Fenix and Alma (Sabrina Dennison) wander outside the crime scene into police headlights and are forced to raise their hands to the sky, it's bracing and almost mysterious how effectively the metaphor of letting go of the past and regaining one's identity works. Santa Sangre is one big elaborate allegory for these themes, and it's a miracle that despite its seemingly outlandish countenance it has such conviction behind its sentiments.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Visual Guide to the Credit Sequence of Robert Altman's The Player

Like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, a film self-consciously referenced a number of times throughout, Robert Altman's The Player lays all of its thematic preoccupations and metafictional wizardy bare in its opening credit sequence, a several-minute long, expertly choreographed tracking shot around a fictional Hollywood studio lot. Just as he's acknowledging the classical, novel tendency for a film to boast one spectacular, technically overwhelming shot amidst an otherwise traditional mise-en-scene, Altman's also proving to offer his film's most vital gifts there, shoving the keys to understanding the picture down the audience's collective throat before it has even formally started. This is not to say that the film proper is without its substance, but only that its substance is a mere expansion of what is telegraphed in this marvelous credit sequence. Altman does not load his Hollywood satire with any new inquiries once its thriller plot has begun, but rather elucidates and makes palatable the concerns he has already addressed so succinctly. In a word, the credit sequence of The Player is the very core of the film, a triumphant, self-contained short film in its own right that says about as much as needs to be said from a cynic's standpoint about the current money-hungry state of the Hollywood movie business.

The first thing we see is a uniquely implicit clue towards the film's metafictional nature, its self-reflexive commentary on movies and the movie business. First revealing what is presumably the background of a movie set with a clapper detailing the production specs of The Player itself held up in front of it, the camera then pulls back to place this image inside the frame of an office door within which everyday business dealings are occurring. This is when we see the standard, expected text overlay "A Robert Altman Film", even when we've already seen Altman's name sketched on the clapper. This duplication of stimuli suggests that both the film proper and the film(s) within a film (or rather, the deeply self-conscious thriller plot) are overseen by Altman, that there is nothing that gets by the director, the ultimate designer.

After the camera completes its graceful exit from the office entrance, it swoops into the air to reveal the entire studio parking lot. A sound-stage in the background relays the studio's cheeky, vague motto ("MOVIES: Now more than ever!"), which forever looms over the industry professionals like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. It's a perplexing credo given the fact that the majority opinion among the staff seems to be that the Golden Age was ultimately the era of creative prosperity (so why are more necessary?), and also because if movies are needed in the present more than ever, this implies that the quantity of movies must skyrocket, in turn suggesting that the quality of movies must plummet.

Altman is quick to introduce his classicist figure, a well-dressed man so enamored with the magic of Hitchcock and Welles and so disenchanted by the pitfalls of modern filmmaking practices that he becomes a caricature of regressive thinkers and a foil to the characters at the opposite end of the spectrum, the ignorant, productive studio execs who will do anything to make a quick buck from more and more product regardless of its artistic merit. These types of individuals, Altman suggests, are as much a part of the spiritual vacuum of Hollywood as the dumbfounded forward-thinkers, both stubborn in their refusal to gather a comprehensive understanding of film culture. Furthermore, the man's entire dialogue cleverly comments on Altman's own method; the anger towards MTV-style hyperactivity and the celebration of the virtuosic tendencies of Touch of Evil both mirror Altman's extended take.

The shot alternates between frenetic movement outdoors to static peeks inside, capturing the hullabaloo of anticipation and activity surrounding the offices and the relative repose of the script pitches, where eager screenwriters spit out summaries of their spec screenplays to generally disinterested execs. A recurring tendency among the wannabes is to claim sweeping parallels with older successes, as if to imply that their ideas will offer as much commercial dependability. Funnily enough, the producers regularly seem to buy into it, failing, at least publicly, to acknowledge the vapidity of their claims. In a telling touch, Altman places classic film posters in the backgrounds of these shots as a reminder of the treasures of the past, seemingly ignored when juxtaposed against the mindless commercialization of the present (as portrayed in this film).

Altman zeroes in on a postcard dropped by the mailboy in a minor accident: "Your Hollywood is dead," it reads. Though these recurring cards prove to spring from a tangible source within the actual narrative, it's tempting to call them transmissions from outside of the film, that is to say, from Altman.

More evidence of the hapless linkage to previously profitable efforts - the perpetual recyclability of Hollywood.

The suave classical Hollywood figure returns, but this time Altman's using his dialogue as a vehicle for his own veiled, wink-wink self-critique, as if he's acknowledging that up until this point The Player's "story [is]n't any good", like Hitchcock's Rope, but that it sure can offer technical spectacle. So while Altman is railing against the industry he must submit to, he's also turning the camera inward, suggesting that rather than being consumed by his own perceived genius, he's genuinely self-effacing. The film is just that throughout, a carefully modulated balance between a rigorous metafictional satire and the self-conscious realization of a thoughtful director stepping violently on his own turf.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) A Film by Stephen Spielberg

(This is a belated contribution to the Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine and Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies. I tend to always fall behind on these things, but, hey, I've been away for a week and a half.)

During the pivotal “Flesh Fair” sequence of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. a human makes a remark about the film’s central character, the robot boy David (Haley Joel Osment): “they say originality without purpose is a white elephant.” Well-read cinephiles will recognize this as a paraphrase of the words of seminal American critic Manny Farber, who discussed the superiority of "termite art" (economical, raw, B-grade work) to "white elephant art" (overwrought, condescending, slick studio product masquerading as original work with grand statements). Because the line arrives in a scene that is likely the closest the director ever came to provocative self-referentiality (artificiality is destroyed willy-nilly, analogous to Spielberg's perceived destruction of his own commercialized artifice), and because David "survives" beyond the initial threats of extermination, it can be inferred that Spielberg is consciously attempting to position A.I. in opposition to the so-called "white elephant art", to make a case for his film as something greater than sheer invention and spectacle. It's a rather interesting bit of self-assurance for a film that constantly seems to be at odds with itself, committing equally to both sappy Hollywood sentimentality and penetrating inquiries into the nature and future of the human race, commercialism, and the all-consuming desire for love.

Frankly, A.I. possesses qualities of the termite and the elephant: on the one hand, there is the haphazard, messy presentation in service of a scatterbrained script that bursts with potentially intriguing ideas, and on the other, there is the superficial slickness, the empty-headed spectacle, and the ultimately watered-down substance. The tension makes for an experience that is profoundly aggravating during the fact and somewhat of a growing curiosity after. The aggravation met its pinnacle for me in the much-discussed "double ending" of the film, in which Spielberg almost concludes with a succinct and affecting summation of the film's thematic preoccupations only to burst into an outrageously didactic and less satisfying coda. One of the most revelatory images in all of Spielberg's career is that of David in his sunken futuristic cargo staring straight ahead at a glowing blue fairy while trapped inside a Coney Island Ferris wheel. Not only is it visually thrilling but it also presents a rather penetrating and accurate insight into the state of the human race: we are constantly looking ahead to our goals, believing in the unreachable, and even if we are trapped in a fundamental way, unable to fully enlighten ourselves, it doesn't make the experience of searching any less fulfilling. Never mind Spielberg's irksome tendency to dilute the simple power of his images in this scene (David's stuffed bear sidekick's reiteration of "we're trapped") and in the scene directly prior (William Hurt's spelling out of this very philosophy) - this is thoughtful filmmaking at a blockbuster level.

But, just as Spielberg's omniscient camera is performing a grandiose movement away from the spectacle, gradually dwarfing the protagonist as his themes suggest, a cloying narration intrudes, immediately suffocating what was otherwise a pretty magical moment. The voice presenting the information is of the most sappy and sentimental variety, and although one could argue this as an extension and reflection of David's fascination with a childhood narrative (his search for his mother is structured around Pinocchio's quest to be a real boy), it's nonetheless an incoherent and tonally disjunctive element, coming across as gently destructive to the mood instead of thematically satisfying. What follows is even more problematic: an extensive wish fulfillment sequence that is - with its soft lighting and decidedly artificial sets - stylized less like the dreamy reintegration of motherly love it is clearly intended to be and more like a creepy, phony commercial overemphasizing the Oedipal complex. It's a deeply bizarre denouement (complete with voyeuristic Mecha robots) whose last narrated line - "and for the first time in his life, he went to that place where dreams are born" - is among the vaguest, most superficial and faux-philosophical pieces of bullshit I've ever heard.

These are the kinds of ping pong matches the film endures between its great and abysmal moments throughout, a never-ending sense of contradiction that tears at the heart of the material even as it enriches it in rare instances. The film's in great need of an emotional shift after its drawn-out first act in which David gets acquainted with and is ultimately abandoned by his first "family", a married couple grieving about the cryogenic freezing of their seemingly incurable son (Jake Thomas), yet it still manages to feel jolting when the tragic, harrowing, and, quite frankly, overacted separation of David and his "mother" Monica (Frances O'Connor) suddenly transitions into the hysterical introductory sequences of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a charismatic and thoroughly sentient Mecha working with more sexualized mojo than anyone in his over-saturated field. A.I.'s jarring shifts in style and tone contribute to the overall episodic quality of the film, and more often than not feel slapdash rather than fluid and assured, attributable to the kind of false "renewal" of viewer interest Spielberg seems to think he has to indulge in to maintain a wide audience.

Perhaps this is all inevitable given the dual authorial nature of the project. Half the time one senses Spielberg dutifully paying homage to Stanley Kubrick - who conceived the initial story idea before his death - with some of the darkest and most cerebral scenes he's ever shot (the scene that strands David at the bottom of the pool while a group of people try to resuscitate a human, or the moment when David realizes in his creator's office that he's just one in a mass of commercially duplicated figurines) and the other half of the time Spielberg spends watering down his chilly implications with cutesy subplots and juvenile spectacle (the cartoon Robin Williams thing is the most gratuitous standout). To lazily proclaim that A.I. makes a daring statement about what it means to be human is disingenuous, because it doesn't fully engage with its own philosophical insights, doesn't naturally gyrate between darkness and optimism. It almost has a lot to say, but because Spielberg doesn't seem fully convinced, it has a tendency to fall back into phoniness. Yet at the same time, a sloppy, ambitious, half-realized A.I. is more intriguing than the standard Hollywood fare, and in its own way occupies an uncharted middle ground between the termite and the elephant.

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.