Sunday, November 26, 2006

The New World: Redefining Cinematic Language

To celebrate thanksgiving, I rewatched Terence Malick's The New World. I saw the film last New Year's Eve and loved it. I was really disappointed to see the film get critically savaged, but thankfully a small online cult of admirers has risen up, and I think future viewers will rank the film right alongside Malick's 70s work. I think it's easily his best movie, and also one of the greatest films of all time.

The thing I love about the film is the way it thoroughly immerses you in a world. Most films are designed to tell a story, and they use a language that was codified in the classical Hollywood era. Films may be paced faster and less narratively cohesive than they were then, but it's still the same basic structures, shot/reverse shot dialogue, and all style and technique designed to move the narrative forward. It's like this is what film must do, and you very rarely see films that manage to tell a story in a totally different way. The New World is one of them.

Days of Heaven was Malick's first masterpiece, a film that was revolutionary in its focus on visual storytelling. There's very little dialogue in his work, rather, he uses music and voiceover to convey meaning. He's at his best when working with very simple stories, one of the reasons The Thin Red Line is his weakest film is that there's too many characters and events, no chance to just get lost in the emotion of the moment. In The New World, the story is a simple cultural myth, and that means most of the basic work is done for him. Doing a straight adaptation of the Pocohontas story would be horribly misguided because we already know what will happen. To try to build tension in traditional ways just wouldn't work. Because we already know what happens, Malick chooses to focus on immersing us in the world, and making us feel what these characters felt at the time.

In doing so, Malick helps to pioneer a new time of filmmaking that has emerged in the past ten years or so. I think the originator is Wong Kar-Wai, a director whose mid 90s work uses incredibly over the top stylistic techniques to construct uniquely emotional moments. I think Fallen Angels is the most beautifully shot movie of all time because not only are the shots well composed and aesthetically pleasing, each frame illuminates the characters' emotions. The best moments in film are almost always about a fusion of visual and music, and virtually every moment in The New World is just that, a visual narrative with musical accompaniment designed to create an emotional reaction. This is his goal with every moment of the movie, to make you feel. The voiceovers aren't so much about conveying information, it's a spell designed to immerse you in the world the characters are experiencing.

As the film opens, Pocohontas says "Come spirit, let me sing the story of this world," invoking a mystical storytelling power to help create a reality. This is very much in line with what Alan Moore or David Lynch talk about, the idea that the storyteller is a vessel through which some the collective unconscious expresses itself. The editing of the film makes you feel that you're being taken on a kind of hallucinatory journey, experiencing many years of history in a state of reverie. It uses dreamlogic or drug logic, moments stringing together outside of time, rising and falling like music.

The best example of this is near the beginning of the film, after Smith is spared. We experience the essence of his relationship with Pocohontas through a series of perfectly chosen moments. What makes it different than a typical montage is the way the characters seem to step outside of time. The events are arranged into a beautiful pattern of rising emotion, culminating in the unbelievable shot in which the camera rotates around Pocohontas, lightning crashing on the shores behind her. To watch the sequence is like experiencing a compressed dose of pure love, the sequence is a dream of a world that could be, and we spend the rest of the film wanting to return to this pure state.

We finally return there at the end of the film, when Pocohontas comes to terms with the loss of the life she had. The film is largely concerned with growing up, and in her son, she sees the same sense of wonder that she once had. Running through the garden, she rediscovers the passion, culminating in the fantastic scene where she cartwheels across the grass in her formal dress. With the music swelling, we experience her death not as sadness, but as passage, a return to whence she came, and it is good. The editing returns us to that moment we thought lost.

A lot of complaints about The New World claim that it was all style, no substance. In cinema, style is the substance. No other medium can so thoroughly affect your perception and immerse you in a completely different world. This film made me feel like I was there at the birth of contemporary America, and through it, I understood the conflicting emotions they felt at the time. That is a more substantial experience than comes from passive engagement with a traditional narrative. Most films are concerned with making you feel for the characters. This film makes you feel exactly what the characters are feeling, and I think that's a more valuable endeavor.

There are moments in this movie that are among the most beautiful in cinema history. They are beautiful not only from an aesthetic point of view, it is also an emotional beauty. Q'orianka Kilcher in particular conveys such pure joy, it doesn't feel like acting at all, she is completely in that moment. Seeing her joy is infectious.

So, I feel like this film is creating a new cinematic language, one that relies on visuals not words as the foundation point. Film was at first inspired by theater, and then by novels, but in recent years we've seen movies that are not governed by traditional scripts, rather they're governed by the possibilities of visual connection. This film, Wong Kar-Wai's work, Miami Vice and David Lynch's Inland Empire all function in this respect, neglecting traditional, outmoded forms of characater development, preferring instead to focus on putting you in a world and making you feel that way. This film has images so powerful, they touch something primal. It is one of the greatest films of all time, and a critical moment in the evolution of this new cinematic language.

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