DVD Review Of The New World

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/17/06


  Terrence Malick is simply the greatest living American filmmaker. Only Stanley Kubrick was his equal or superior. That’s not to say that Martin Scorsese nor Woody Allen have not made great films, but they’ve both made stinkers in their careers, and neither has had a great film in over a decade (although I’ve heard good things about Allen’s current Match Point). Not only is Malick the best filmmaker in the nation, despite The New World being only his 4th film in the 33 years since his first, Badlands, was released, but he may be the only filmmaker in the world who truly has developed his own cinematic language- apart from a reliance on the written words of a screenplay to carry the bulk of the film’s art and story. He is also the greatest American historian in the cinematic art form. It’s his forté alone.

  Better still, he never condescends in his films. He presents his tales sparely, with cinematography, enough dialogue to convey the scene, and occasional voiceovers that play off the visuals and imagery to leave a poetic dissonance in the viewer’s mind that the mind is forced to fill in the synapse with its own meaning, thus creating narrative from symbols, visuals, and their interplay. It truly is a different and new form of screenwriting; and a great form, one wholly enmeshed in the medium that birthed it. What makes it great are not the words, but their relation to what is on the screen. Simple declarative and/or descriptive sentences, such as Smith’s descriptions of Pocahontas, ‘She exceeded the others not only in beauty and proportion, but in wit and spirit, too,’ or Rolfe’s ideas about her, ‘When first I saw her, she was regarded as someone broken, lost,’ transcend Shakespearean depth in this new medium, and in centuries hence Terrence Malick will get his due as one of the giants of the ‘early’, first century of human cinema.

  The actual meat of this film is the by now almost fabular tale of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and his ‘love’- Pocahontas (although that name is never used in the film)- during the settling of Jamestown by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) and his charges. All the familiar facts are presented- he is captured by her tribe, her father, Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), releases him when she saves him from death. He grows to respect the Indians, returns to Jamestown, abandons her when she is outcast by her father for supposedly betraying her people by feeding the English during the winter, then giving them seeds to grow crops, and she ends up marrying John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a kind widower whose son has also died, taking the Christian name Rebecca, giving him another son, and wowing the English court.

  Except….that as familiar as that tale is, Malick truly makes it all new, right from the film’s opening shots of the Indians, or ‘naturals’- as the Brits call them, watching the English ships sail into their harbor in 1607. Right away, we know we are in Malick country, with sublime shots of the natural world, and belt-level shots of life looking out on it. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does wonders with the most staid objects- trickling streams, sun filtered through forest canopies, flocks of birds delving smoky skies; making them look as alien to us as they must have looked to the English and naturals who first encountered them and each other. This is not re-creation, but neo-experience, and the perceptions of the characters are what count most in this film, more than even the characters. This allows for an ‘über-realism’ that few films attain, yet also for a visual ultra-poesy that few ‘realistic’ films even attempt, much less succeed at. This is one of the keys to the film- Malick’s poetic decision to film things slightly askew, and force the viewer to relate to the percipients of the new world that they were to live, by shifting the balance of the expected. Another good choice Malick made was to film around Jamestown and hire real Native American actors, for the Indians all look like….Indians. No white folk with bad makeup jobs. Pocahontas is played by a first time fourteen year old actress named Q'Orianka Kilcher, who is reputedly half-Peruvian and half-Swiss, yet she has a naturalistic beauty one might expect from the lead of such a tale- not Hollywood beauty, but that of a hardened natural life, like those of the South Seas beauties that Paul Gaugin painted. Not since Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown’s Samantha Morton’s deaf mute character has an actor said more with less. One cannot teach that sort of communicative ability to a person. Kilcher simply is a natural.

  One might think that this film is some PC paean, but Malick is too great an artist to allow for that. Both the English and the naturals are shown at their best, worst, and in between. The Brits are driven, industrious, but crude, and the refuse of that society. This is made plain after Smith returns to the colony from his captivity and finds death and disease have run rampant, and wiseass urchins from the lowest part of London strata are trying to shine him on and find out what he’s been doing while they’ve suffered. The naturals are spiritual but savage in defense of their land. The scenes where they attack Jamestown are brutal and realistic- every bit as much as the battles between Americans and Japanese on Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line. There is no bow to the Rousseauvian Noble Savage, although Smith believes they are akin to that, and states, ‘They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all trickery; they have no jealousy, no sense of possession.’ Malick savors moments, and is one of the few directors not loath to allow long scenes and shots reach their natural state. The score, by James Horner, is also very effective- using classics like Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold.

  Of course, like all of Malick’s three great prior films- Badlands, 1978’s Days Of Heaven, and 1998’s The Thin Red Line- there are none-too-bright detractors and critics who simply cannot or will not even attempt to remove themselves from the force-fed simpleminded Hollywood action blockbuster mindset, and rail that the film is slow, dull, has too many shots of nature, not enough ‘hip’ dialogue, etc. Some dullard named Peter Rainer, from the Christian Science Monitor, wrote:


  The idealization of the Native American existence in The New World, precolonization, is a pleasing fantasy but also timeworn and ahistorical. Surely someone as sophisticated as Malick - who once taught philosophy at MIT and was a Rhodes scholar - understands that he is putting forth a fabrication. 


  I wonder, what film did he see? Certainly not this film, which rips away at stereotypes good and bad. I wonder if he even understands the meaning of half the words he used, cribbed from a thesaurus. But, in a word- Fuck’im!, as well as all the other dullards out there. These are people who are simply beyond help. They know nothing of great art, nor when they are in its presence, believe that Joseph Campbell and George Lucas are ‘deep thinkers’, and Stephen Spielberg’s condescending pabulum is genius. Let them have their junk food. It only means more of the banquet for the truly enlightened.

  Yet, I do not mean that in a snobby, elitist way, for I tire of even the bad critics who misrepresent Malick as some transcendentalist in the Emersonian vein. He is not. Were I to pick a writer whose work his visual art is an analog for, it would not be Ralph Waldo Emerson, nor Henry David Thoreau, but Loren Eiseley- the sublime prosist and naturalist from last century, whose words married the Transcendentalist ideal with the reality of hard science. Too often boobish critics use meaningless terms like ‘tone poem’ or ‘tone poet’ to describe Malick’s films and the man. I’ve seen those words so often that one simply cannot deny that published critics plagiarize not only terms, but bad and clichéd ideas, from each other, never thinking deeply on what is before them, and further contributing to the deliterization and dumbing down of intellectual discourse. Far worse than bad, and often deluded, artists are bad critics, because criticism is far easier, and requires less, so to err there reveals even greater flaws in the psyche and intellect.

  I’ve read that the original screenings of this film ran 150 minutes, to this version’s 135, but a film like this could go on ten minutes, or a thousand and ten, and it would be no more nor less great, for how does one criticize a spume of wonder for its height? Every scene has a surprise, a revelation, and the greatest is when Pocahontas goes to England with Rolfe, and ‘ambassadors’ sent by her father. We see her ‘new world’ with awe, as well, and realize that the film’s title is not only the standard Europeanized meaning of the term, not the English’s new Virginia, but the new world of the Indians, and of Pocahontas, and of the two different types of love she has felt with Smith and Rolfe, as well as his new world after she dies at film’s end, and he writes a letter to his son of his mother. In contrast to the wilds of Virginia, England is lush and green, but ordered, tamed, made to serve mankind. It is geometric and planned, trimmed into ornate styles and straight lines- cones, cultivated designs, and terraced Victory Gardens. The thesis of Jared Diamond’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning tome Guns, Germs, And Steel, has never been more aptly captured than in the dichotomous bookends of the English arrival in Virginia, and the naturals’ return visit to England.
  If film can achieve sheer apports with its art, then Terrence Malick is the lone levitator and magician around. The only minor negative point in this film, and it’s very minor, is that as well-done as the voiceovers are the film might have been better off without them, for some of the poetic statements of Smith, Rolfe, and Pocahontas seem a bit over the heads of their 17th Century low born utterers- unlike those in his earlier films. Of all the films that are getting Oscar buzz- from worthy films like Capote and Shopgirl, to blatantly PC fodder like Brokeback Mountain, this is- easily- the best film that last year produced. Yet, it will only get some cinematography, editing, scoring, or other minor nods.

  There is a ritualistic feel to this film that glues one’s eyes to it, from its sublime opening to its choral ending shot of New World trees reaching sunward, even to its non-standard non-black screen credits at the end. This is not a film, but an experience, and that is not me trying to sound poetic, but really defining the film. See it, then get the DVDs of his earlier films and see that real, great art still exists. Then, if you want to go back to crap after that, I’m sure Spielberg will have another clunker ready in a few months. People like him always do. Yet, it’ll probably be another decade before we get a Malick masterpiece. Sigh.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

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