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Review: The New World

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The New World

The New World’s sociological and emotional heft is encased in a swirl of hallucinatory images. This is a fitting description given that Terrence Malick approaches the story of John Smith and Pocahontas as if it were a specimen of lost time trapped in amber. He turns the fossil in his hands, reflecting the light of the sun through the resinous shell of history and onto his characters from many remarkable, expressive angles, illuminating the tragedy of John Smith and Pocahontas’s impossible love through the horrible conquest of the Powhatan tribe’s paradise and the sad spectacle of Pocahontas’s conversion into an English woman. The purpose of this lyrical experiment is an attempt to regain lost time—to substantiate the lore of John Smith and Pocahontas with profound, adult feeling. It takes back the story Disney hijacked and infantilized in 1995’s Pocahontas.

A lesser filmmaker might have used shallow dramatic busywork and a thousand unnecessary words to communicate the same sense of moral and social consequence a single forlorn image from The New World conveys. Malick’s vernacular is predicated on transcendental impulses and a liberal use of ellipses. This is why many critics and audiences have a hard time with his films: Like Terence Davies, he’s a poet working in a medium whose audience is unused to unconventional expressions of thought and emotion. Malick’s lyrical style befits the The New World’s long-storied context, and the beauty of the film is how he uses the reverie of his cinematic language to radiate the collective sensation of a half-remembered dream. This is the way this great filmmaker intimately connects us to the past—through the language of the soul and imagination.

Malick tells a better story through the subversive cartographic title sequence that opens the The New World than your average historical drama divulges during its entire running time. The maps Malick uses not only provide the story with geographical specificity but they also vibrantly portend the colonization of the new world and its inevitable spiritual destitution. This expressionistic artifice whets our appetite for the tour de force of sight and sound epitomized by the film’s opening minutes, during which the 100-plus aristocrats of the London Virginia Company arrive in America and settle in Jamestown. As the Englishmen make their way nervously through the chest-high grass surrounding their new colony, Malick’s images—combined with the alternately menacing and enchanting sweep of James Horner’s score—evoke a weighty sense of danger and discovery.

Great poet that he is, Malick has a gift for parallelism and an affinity for romantic motifs. John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in America a prisoner. Chained deep inside the ship’s hull, he uses his hands to catch falling drops of water and reach for the warmth of the sun that shines in the distant sky. This image of imprisonment at once contrasts and corresponds with the equally mythic vision of Pocahontas (a remarkable Q’Orianka Kilcher) swaying her arms in the wind toward the heavens. John Smith and Pocahontas find each other as if by chance; it’s not exactly love at first sight but Malick’s stunning shifts in register impart the intense feeling of history being set in irrevocable motion when they catch glimpses of each other in the warm summer wilderness. “Eden lies about us still,” says Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) late in the film, a fitting allusion given that Malick plays the love story between his main characters as the rapturous birth of a nation, if not the world.

Malick may or may not have waited an eternity for a bird to strategically soar across one of his compositions, but you never question the organic aura The New World exudes. Malick’s camera is so connected to his environment it’s as if the nature of the film is responsible for directing the action; this is most instructive in the major battle scene between the Powhatan tribe and the Jamestown settlers when the flight of a lone bird seemingly launches both camps into battle. The abandon with which Malick gives himself to the world shames the calculated, unfeeling aesthetic of Theo Angelopoulos’s fatuous The Weeping Meadow, which weeps only for its own besotted sense of seriousness, while the unease of John Smith and Pocahontas’s impossible love affair—which Farrell and Kilcher beautifully carry out as performance art—shows-off the banality of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.

The exquisiteness of The New World and how it reveals itself to its audience is flabbergasting—like a heretofore unknown cave painting impeccably preserved except for a few spots here and there eroded by time and nature. It’s this purity of presentation and spirit that gives the film its universal attraction. With minimal dialogue and dramatic fuss, Malick examines the lifestyle and traditions of the Powhatan people on an elemental level, using visual and aural rhythms that feel as if they’ve been cued to the beat of the human heart—none of that blue-corn-moon Disney bullshit the director responds to when a broken Pocahontas asks, “Why does the earth have colors?” Some may scoff at the film’s sudden tonal shifts, but these leaps in time (and faith) are profoundly in sync with the story’s turmoil. Malick never loses sight of the story’s history but his daring montage still leaves some things to the imagination, like the process by which the hungry British men of the original Jamestown colony went mad and how the Native Americans came to trust their new neighbors enough to trade with them.

The New World certainly calls attention to itself—any work of art this commanding always does—but it does so without arrogance about its design. It doesn’t belabor historical accuracy the way Master and Commander does, which is not to say the film’s details are arbitrary. Along with every other component—from the cinematography and score to the many fine performances—the film’s attention to historical detail is just one composite of a Zen-like mise-en-scène bursting at the seams with emotion and inquisitions about idealism and a world being remade in the image of another. It’s this serene, intuitive conviction for truth that annoys some critics (fans of Titanic no doubt), who confuse Malick’s generosity for pretense. Seriously, is there a more expressive and succinct illustration of Pocahontas’s estrangement from her people—and the end of the new world as they knew it—than the images scattered throughout the film of birds moving further and further away from the girl’s sightline? The birds retreat as she retreats into the gilded cage held ajar by the British.

Malick equates the union and separation of John Smith and Pocahontas to two worlds drawing near, grinding together, and subsequently pulling apart. In this way, The New World’s epic scale has equal room for humanist compassion and breathtaking action. Banished from her tribe for cavorting with John Smith, Pocahontas goes to live in the Jamestown colony, where she marries the widowed John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and bears him a son. The film begins to lose some of its elasticity around this point, but that’s only fitting given the restrictive social vice that ensnares the girl. Arriving in England, she is a stranger in a strange land, but while her displacement may be devastating, a reverential Malick conveys through the film’s breathtaking final minutes a sense of divine reconnection through death. The English may have exorcised her freedom but not her spirit. It’s an appropriate sentiment for a film that also refuses to shake itself loose from the confines of our memories.

Cast: Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, Ben Chaplin, Jamie Harris, Joe Inscoe, Eddie Marsan, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Greyeyes, Jason Aaron Baca, Jonathan Pryce, Kalani Queypo, Jeremy Radin, Will Wallace, Noah Taylor, Irene Bedard Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 150 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2005 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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