****/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Q'Orianka Kilcher
written and directed by Terrence Malick
by Walter Chaw Terrence Malick opens The New World with "come spirit, help us," invoking the muse before embarking on a spoken history part rapturous, part hallucinogenic, all speculative, reverent, and sanctified hearsay. Malick is the post-modern American epic poet of the division ploughed through the middle of America, telling our history with one voice, painting it in golden shades of romance and poesy. It's the only viable approach to the Captain John Smith/Pocahontas story in a minefield of debris strewn by not only our Western genre tradition, but also our newer guilt at how American Indians have been (and continue to be) portrayed in our culture: the most bestial, savage notions of the Natural have come around to their personification as an unsullied, Edenic embodiment of an impossibly harmonious nature. It's an organic progression from bigotry to paternalism, and Malick charts these dangerous waters with the audacity of an artist well and truly in the centre of his craft. He makes the doomed love between Smith and the much younger Pocahontas function as a metaphor for the decimation of the Native American population--and in so doing suggests the possibility that all human interaction can be analyzed along the lines of love and misunderstanding. Routinely described as inscrutable or remote, Malick's The New World presents history as something as simple as two people who come together, fall in love, and betray one another because their cultures are too different, too intolerant, to coexist with one another. It's history as a progression of human tragedy.
Capt. Smith (Colin Farrell) is what he most likely was: an inarticulate, ignorant, brutal soldier chosen to be one of the councilmen for the newly-founded Jamestown settlement in the still-unconquered "new world." Abducted by a local tribe of "Naturals" (and hence, the British are the "unnaturals") during a scouting mission, he's brought into the centre of something that reveals itself to him as ritual (really, every movement of the Naturals is played as ritual in the film) and finds, in one of dozens of parallel images, Smith prostrate on the ground as a man walks above him, suspended on reeds. The function and interplay of symbol and image in The New World is of primary importance because the dialogue serves mainly as counterpoint to the depth of those images--to remind that there are things in the world common enough that they don't need expression and, moreover, are inexpressible through language. It's a fascinating conceit, this sticky idea (shared by King Kong) that the complexities of the world are held in the walnut shell of Keats's beauty is truth and truth, beauty. It appears, in fact, that this equation is what Malick's been working to illuminate his entire career.
The New World opens with Smith in the hold of his ship, in chains, reaching for the sunlight, an image mirrored by our first glimpse of Pocahontas (fifteen-year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher) as she plays in a field of Days of Heaven grain with her brother and sways with the wind. The idea of Smith in chains speaks of a certain Henry Jamesian cant where England, the "old world," is represented by a stodgy, unimaginative Brit while the United States becomes a young, inexperienced girl doomed to be seduced by the inevitable pull of experience. This idea of knowledge as the primary corruptor is echoed in Capt. Newport's (Christopher Plummer) declaration towards the end that "Eden is around us still," with Eve's fall (Pocahontas, never called such during the film, is baptized--then corseted--after being rejected by her people for warning Smith of an attack) echoed in what we know to be the history of the Native Americans and the Britons' colonial interests alike. When Pocahontas spends the rest of her days in England, something of a curiosity for display in a room full of caged raccoons and eagles (her tribesman, Opechancanough (Wes Studi), accompanies her and, in a wonderful moment, examines some of His Majesty's carefully tended topiary), there is of course the problem with the English desire for constraining nature--but it's a more fruitful line to relate the progress of this history to something so simple as a girl led astray by the best intentions of an older, wearier soul. The obvious comparison suggested here is to Alfred Hitchcock's two films with Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie), in both cases her character made, through the overpowering romantic attentions of men with advantages (illicit knowledge) held over her, the bird in the gilded cage, or the jagarundi in the glass case.
The picture isn't hermetic, though--it's not jealous of its mysteries. Academically, a knowledge of history, film or American, beyond the basics of white man vs. red, is not a prerequisite for enjoyment of The New World. It's really just about inevitability: the "manifest destiny" mentioned by the settlers more than once is the star of the film, and appreciating it takes nothing more than giving yourself over to the belief that the world is a simple place as full of horror and grieving as it is of wonder and light. Malick's obsession with nature as the first testament to man speaks to me now of a kind of eternity that stretches back into nothing and is invisibly intertwined, at every moment, in the affairs of Man as Greek Chorus or mirror. It seems strange, especially once you've seen the film, that it's taken Malick this long to deal in detail with aboriginal peoples and the idea that has grown around their popular representation that they are extensions and manifestations of the natural world. He's found it worthwhile to wonder that the broadest strokes of Noble Savage Syndrome reflect a natural human tendency to revert to the natural to valorize cultures (objects) that are ambiguous by their nature. Consider that "all natural" is a selling point for food when not all things that are natural are terribly wise to eat.
The picture debates two natures: not English vs. Indian--though that's also of some interest--but rather the thornier conflict between our faith-based at odds with our experiential (scientific) natures as stereotyped onto these respective cultures. Amazingly reductive to say that the picture is racist (again, see King Kong), more accurate to see it as a response to decades of racial deconstruction and reconstitution in political and intellectual circles of discourse--an attempt to return the conversation to something so simple as why we begin to believe what we do and, conversely, how we begin to lose faith. In that sense, The New World, without sacrificing the idea that it uses its doomed love affair as the blueprint for human experience in a mortal world, implies that the new world of its title is one we enter when we leave the unchallenged beliefs of our childhood behind, swallowed bit-by-bit by serpents bearing fruits of experience and knowledge. Originally published: January 20, 2006.
by Bill Chambers New Line shepherds the 135-minute theatrical cut of The New World to DVD in an imperfect 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Contrast is immaculate and there's a three-dimensional depth to the image that impresses, but traces of DVNR impede fine detail, some banding intrudes on the underwater photography, and the movie frankly looks colorized at times. (Cinnamon flesh tones have become a disturbing trend in this era of the digital intermediate.) Conversely, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is irreproachable; equalized for home-theatre playback, the track immerses the viewer from the opening frames--and is sometimes a bit too much like a high-end relaxation tape for its own good, soothing the viewer past a trancelike state into light snoozing. (Never fear: if the rolling thunder doesn't wake you up, the cannon blasts will.) Though I watched the film a second time with the subtitles activated to better parse its aural tapestry, both the dialogue and narration sound clear and resonant.
Supplementing the disc is a B-roll-heavy 59-minute documentary by Austin Lynch simply titled "Making The New World", which studiously avoids crossing paths with reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick. To Lynch's credit, I got caught up in the piece enough that I stopped scanning the frame for his visage after a while. Besides, each member of the production team is so forthcoming about their role in realizing Malick's vision as to virtually nullify his absence. (Indeed, afterwards I fretted over whether Malick's alchemy had been too demystified for me.) The most illuminating comments come from production designer Jack Fisk, DP Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, actors Christian Bale and August Schellenberg, and the various Indian chiefs brought on board to help keep the filmmakers honest. Together, they paint a puckish portrait of the auteur, from Bale's discovery that Malick would often shoot him surreptitiously--at last justifying his Method posturing between takes--to Chief Stephen R. Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe revealing that "Terry" (always "Terry") told him to consider the title ironic after Adkins expressed his displeasure with a 5,000-year-old civilization being Eurocentrically referred to as "new." Malick in fact emerges as the anti-Kubrick, entrusting Chivo with key scenes and refusing to see blueprints of sets before they're built, lest he spoil the surprise. Cuing up on startup, a block of previews for The Thing About My Folks, Ushpizin, Syriana, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Notorious Bettie Page, A Prairie Home Companion, and some western ephemera round out the disc alongside teaser and theatrical trailers for The New World (in 5.1 and anamorphic widescreen). Originally published: April 24, 2006.