Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The New World

Terence Malick seems to exist in sort of a timewarp. Because he didn't do any films between 1978 and 1998, he seems to have missed the fall that most of the 70s new Hollywood filmmakers took during the 80s. So, he never had a One From the Heart, New York, New York, Heaven's Gate, The Sorcerer, etc. What that means is that unlike the good, but rather passionless films you'll see today from Scorsese today, Malick is still making bold, incredible films. The New World is a stunning piece of cinema that more than any other film gives me a real sense of knowing what it would be like for the both the European explorers arriving in America and the natives who were already there. Much like Fellini used a sci-fi template for studying the past in Satyricon, The New World feels almost like an alien invasion story, a clash of two completely different cultures, struggling to find a way to work together.

The first really notable thing about this movie is how gorgeous it is. Watching a film like King Kong, all the visuals that should be stunning feel compromised by shoddy greenscreen work and the knowledge that it isn't real. That may be a bit ridiculous, it's all just light projected on a screen, but at the same time, there's something that feels so real about this movie. It's difficult to imagine that there's fifty people standing behind the camera, that our world exists behind the camera seems impossible because the film so thoroughly inhabits this past world. It's like Malick not only went on location to a different space, it's like he went on location in a different time. No greenscreen here, no CGI, or if there is, it's not noticable, and that's part of what makes the film so successful. You're completely immersed in this world.

The film has very little dialogue, it's almost all visuals, music and voiceover. The score is by James Horner, who's previous work isn't particuarly notable, but here, he takes it to another level. The score reminds me a bit of Koyaanisqatsi, in the way that it feels like a substantial piece of music on its own, not just something to disappear into the film.

The voiceover isn't about conveying narrative information, it's designed to waft over you, creating a mood, and in that respect it's very successful. It reminds me of Wong Kar-Wai's stuff in the way that the voiceovers on their own aren't particularly significant, but combined with the visuals and music, they're very powerful, creating a world to drift through. It also allows the film to keep the characters true. While he's in the Natives' camp, Smith wouldn't really be able to talk to someone about his feelings for Pocohontas, so the voiceover tells us instead.

My favorite part of the film was when Smith and Pocohontas were together in the camp. All of Malick's stuff is about the corruption of edenic existences, and in this case, the Eden is amazing. The connection between them is purely emotional and through the fantastic cinematography and editing, the viewer is completely drawn into the their world. In these fleeting moments, we get a sense of a perfect world, a fusion of two cultures, even as we're aware of the impending destruction of the peace between races. For the rest of the film, you want them to return to this edenic existence, this perfect love. I like the fact that rather going with a blanket condemnation of European colonization, Malick instead makes his points through this relationship, thus we feel the point rather than merely hear it.

One of the major things that makes those scenes so effective is Q'Orianka Kilcher's performance. This is her first major role, but she completely owns the screen, in a way I haven't seen since Faye Wong's work in 2046. Right from the opening frames, you can sense an energy about her, the joy she takes in her freedom. Watching her running through the fields or staring out into a rainstorm, she conveys the experience that she is feeling directly to the viewer, so it's like you're there with her, caught up in her world. As the film proceeds, we watch her changing, losing the fire and becoming more practical, ultimately bidding farewell to the old ways when she lets Smith go and instead chooses the practicality of Rolfe.

You could read the entire film as an allegory of what happened to the Americas, the gradual change over of cultures eventually leading to a rejection of the devotion to nature that used to define the continent, instead it is remade in the image of the old world. It also works on the personal level, it's difficult watching Pocohontas have to compromise the identity she had, but she is one of only two characters in the film who can cross the boundary between worlds. At the beginning of the film, Smith crosses from the European world to the natural world, but he ultimately has to return. Pocohontas crosses from the native world to the European and recognizes that assimilating into their world is the only way for her to survive. That's ultimately why she chooses Rolfe over Smith, he's the safe choice, the one who's always been loyal to her and can protect her.

I thought the final moments where she's running through the hedge garden with her son were incredibly powerful, watching someone who'd once run through the real wilderness now trapped in this artificial, modulated version of nature. However, in the end she finds that the spirit, life, is still present in her son, who has the same enthusiasm for existence that she once had. In him, she sees the purity she was searching for earlier in the film.

This is a long film, but because it isn't so much a narrative movie as an atmosphere, a world you travel to, so just existing there is interesting. I've heard that Malick was contemplating cutting 10-20 minutes, but I would strongly advise against that. I checked my watch at one point in the film and was shocked to find that I was 2:15 into the film, I thought it was no more than 1:30. I could see why someone would find it slow paced, but I think it's elegaic and glorious. It reminds me a lot of Wong Kar-Wai in that way, every frame is such a gorgeous combination of content, visual and music that it's always enjoyable.

So, definitely check this film out. It's very rich thematically, but more importantly it's an enveloping film experience, one I'm looking forward to having again.

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