15 February 2006

The New World

I, too, thought The New World suffered because of its length, but unlike the various reviewers who thought it was too long, I felt like most of the problems came from it being far too short for all that director-writer Terrence Malick tried to do with it.

The people sitting behind me, who were sighing and groaning and whispering to each other ("This is the worst movie!") clearly didn't agree that the majority of the scenes felt attenuated and that some moments seemed to have been edited with a dull axe. Most of this is clearly part of Malick's style, and is similar to what he has done with his past three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line), but some may also be the result of hasty editing -- originally, the movie was released in a 146-minute version for consideration for the Oscars; it was then re-edited to a 135-minute version for general release (and a 3-hour version has been rumored for the DVD). I simply wanted more, particularly of the moments when the main characters are immersed in an entirely alien culture. I would have even been happy with more scenes of grass blowing in the wind.

But I'm a sucker for Terrence Malick's movies; his attention to sound and image, his sometimes ponderous scenes, his vaguely Heideggerian philosophizing all for some reason create an atmosphere I find both enchanting and thought-provoking. (I can certainly understand how other people find it excruciating, though; on the other hand, I know people who are enchanted by Kiarostami's movies, which bore me to death.)

The New World concerns the first contact of Native Americans with British colonists in Jamestown, particularly the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. Malick isn't much interested in creating a docu-drama, despite careful attention to the details of life in the colony and the life and language of the natives. The colonists are mostly aggressive, obnoxious, arrogant, and stupid, while the natives tend to be inscrutable and animalistic or guileless and innocent. These portrayals are, of course, simplistic in comparison to the actual history, but it often seems that what we see of a particular group is what the other group perceives of them -- we see the natives as they are perceived by the British (particularly John Smith) and vice versa. The movie is intensely subjective (including Malick's trademark whispered voiceovers) and refuses again and again the standard sorts of narrative contextualizing. Characters come and go, seldom with any explanation of who they are or even why they are there or where they came from. Events occur and often we don't know exactly why.

What we do have, though, is a situation common to all of Malick's movies: two people in love, whose passion brings them to a natural Eden that reflects in its peacefulness the joy they have found with their love, and then the Eden is lost or destroyed. Sometimes Malick's characters are self-aware enough to know that their perfect world, their universe of two, is doomed, and that is the case here, at least with John Smith, and some of the most deeply affecting moments of the film come when Smith and Pocahontas (whose name is not said until she is Christened as Rebecca) are most deeply in love and yet also aware of how impossible it is for them to continue their lives outside of their cultures. Smith is at first brought into the native world, and then Pocahontas/Rebecca, exiled because of her compassion for the colonists, enters the world of the British, and ultimately dies in London. What makes a world "new" depends, as does so much in this film, on whose perspective does the defining.

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