Other people direct movies. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals. The New World is my new religion, easily the most pictorially innovative and moving American studio release I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve been a professional movie critic. To appreciate it requires viewers to abandon narrative filmmaking conventions they’re comfortable with (perhaps even spoiled by) and learn a new language, a primordial language of pictures that largely bypasses narrative cinema’s persistent theatrical influence and plugs into the rhythms of thought.
Where even the greatest of Malick’s American contemporaries (Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese) are content to wring minute variations on established strutures and techniques—mainstream filmmaking techniques—Malick has devoted himself since 1973 to creating a new language, one that fuses nonlinear, overtly omniscent filmmaking techniques favored by silent masters (D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance), Hiroshima Mon Amour, the French New Wave and 1960s Italian art cinema and experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage.
With rare exceptions—notably Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, easily the most abstract film he’s ever made, a work that is to his filmography as The Birds is to Alfred Hitchcock’s—even the directors we think of as unique and innovative tend to stick with established genres and play by (or with) established rules. Malick, in contrast, has dedicated himself to discovering and perfecting a new genre, practically a one-man genre, the epic naturalist fable. In the service of that new genre, he’s created his own syntax, indeed his own language, one that must be engaged with, decoded and learned. It truly does represent an attempt to see the past through contemporary eyes, to identify and even honor timeless, universal drives, without pretending that people from other decades and centuries were just like us.
Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World are not strictly narrative. They are musical and mathematical. They are symphonies in pictures. One can no more judge them by the standards of mainstream commercial narrative—basically, Syd Field’s three act structure—than one can judge Cubism by standards of perspective laid out during the Renaissance.
Hiroshima Mon Amour director Alain Resnais’ defense of French New Wave techniques also describes Malick’s modernist version of history and personal remembrance. “A classic film,” Resnais said, “…cannot translate the real rhythm of modern life. Modern life is fragmented, everyone feels that. Painting, as well as literature, bears witness to it, so why should the cinema not do so as well, instead of clinging to the traditional linear narrative?”
Which is not to say Malick’s films exist mainly to subvert commercial storytelling norms. They’re too (deliberately) cosmic and willfully naïve for that. Besides, I don’t think Malick gives a damn about what anybody else is doing. His films don’t so much break rules as fail to recognize their supposed importance. But that’s not to say that Malick is just fooling around, that there’s no rhyme or reason to what he does. Even a cursory examination of Malick’s four films puts the lie to the notion that they’re messy, that Malick is just glomming a succession of pretty pictures together and papering the seams with narration. The interplay of word and image is more complex, more deliberate, more tense than any in the history of English language cinema; Malick’s startling, at times confounding vocabulary represents the full flowering of a cinema grammar experiment that has been going on since Hiroshima gave movies permission to jump from past to present, from an event to its recollection, as fast as the mind itself.
Released 32 years apart, and separated by long period of rumination that caused successive generations of critics to mock Malick as a hippie-dippy recluse, a dilettante, a potsmoking slacker, all four films are tightly packed and intricately assembled. And they are astonishingly consistent in rhythm, tone and color. They flow into each other as one dream flows into another. All four deliberately, provocatively and playfully blur the line between present-tense narrative and retrospective remembrance. They remind us of the difference between life and a story, between personal experience and history, between our presumption of centrality and the cold hard truth that the earth doesn’t give a damn about us, that it would, to paraphrase George Carlin, have no compunction about sloughing us off like fleas. If there is, in fact, a God, He probably views us as Malick does, with a mix of empathy and distance.
Here is my review of The New World, originally published in New York Press Dec. 22, 2005. In a future post, I will attempt to defend this masterpiece against its growing legion of detractors, many of whom try to pass off their own obstinance and aesthetic timidity as common sense, and demand prose in place of poetry.
A GENIUS VIEW OF JAMESTOWN
Malick’s triumphant new film.
The title of Terrence Malick’s The New World discloses the secret of its greatness. From start to finish, in dialogue and music, in every shot and cut, Malick’s masterpiece dedicates itself to discovering, exploring and cherishing all that is new: new lands, new loves, new battles; new feelings, new thoughts, new rhythms; new ways of thinking about history and culture, experience and memory; new ways of seeing and feeling. Refining and perfecting techniques Malick first explored in 1973’s Badlands, The New World fuses classical Hollywood production values (including CinemaScope photography and an eclectic symphonic score) with a documentary approach to narrative, characterization and editing. The result is a powerfully modern style that could be called epic naturalism, a style that appreciates the physicality of existence—the moment-to-moment visceral intensity cherished by Walt Whitman—while acknowledging human life’s impermanence, then further acknowledging that the life of a person, a nation or even a species is insignificant compared to the life of the earth.
In service of this unfashionably transcendental vision of life, Malick merges images and music with a silent filmmaker’s muscular grace. The immediacy of Malick’s shooting and editing style (he improvises entire scenes and subplots on the fly, and sends second unit cameramen to pop off shots of anything they deem beautiful, and finds the movie in the editing much as a reporter finds a story in his notes) pushes against the film’s lofty, contemplative elements: the swelling classical score (Wagner, Mozart, James Horner), the ruminative multiple voice-overs. The resultant aesthetic tension jostles us into new ways of seeing. Watching The New World, we are at once dislocated and free, experiencing the shock of the new while recollecting it in tranquility (or speculating on how we will remember it). Malick’s characters pore over their lives as if words will fix their feelings; sometimes a random, lonely word will puncture a reverie or a moment of intense violence (a word like “mother,” for instance, or “wonder”). But words, Malick realizes, fix nothing because nothing is fixed; there is no past or present, no differences or similarities, except those we choose to mark. In Malick’s films, memory becomes history (or anecdote); thoughts and feelings become images, and images become music, and everything becomes new.
The New World rediscovers cinema’s kinship to music by creating a symphony of images, an ambition made plain in the film’s astonishing opening section, which depicts the English explorers’ arrival at what would later become Jamestown. Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick’s squad of editors build up to the meeting by picking off individual documentary-like moments: the ship coming out of the distance and sighting land, the Native Americans spotting the ship and swarming toward the forested bluffs and the rocky shore to get a better look, the English wading onto the land and into the grassy meadows, the whites and the natives meeting each other for the first time, each speaking a foreign tongue to the other, touching garments and staring in fearful amazement.
Each culture has its audience surrogate. For the English, it’s disreputable soldier/explorer John Smith (sad-eyed Colin Farrell, finally delivering on his leading man promise), who arrives at the New World locked in a shipboard holding cell, and for the Powhatan tribe, it’s 15-year-old princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, whose ray-of-sunshine naturalism is just right). There are other significant characters: the princess’ tough but decent father, Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and his brother Opechancanough (Wes Studi); the English have their visionary businessman leader, Capt. Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) and the irascible Edward Wingfield (David Thewlis). But in this ecstatic opening section—a set piece as staggeringly detailed yet intimate as the mass gatherings in The Leopard, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter—no man or woman’s mere existence is privileged over anyone else’s. In fact, the sequence—indeed the entire film—is not about individuals, nor exclusively cultures. It’s about disconnected fragments of the same species fusing like lovers to create something new.
In The New World, form mirrors function mirrors feeling: we watch the awful push-pull of the English and Powhatan cultures, the establishment of a fort and the planting of corn, the mingling and friendship that becomes violence, then war; we see John Smith and Pocahontas cling to each other, lying in the meadow, brushing each other’s skin, playing like kids, fleeing their cultures and hiding in a secret world. The Native Americans are more attuned to nature, but Malick doesn’t deem the English morally inferior because of it, he just finds their angry sense of entitlement mildly funny. This isn’t just a war between cultures; it’s a mating dance followed by an inevitable (arguably forced) wedding. Late in the film, when a now-assimilated Pocahontas visits England with her husband (Christian Bale, whose decency and expressiveness equal Farrell’s) and her uncle Opechancanough, the cultural positions are reversed, and the Native Americans wander an alien (but not necessarily more advanced) landscape. Here, too, Malick expresses cultural truths in understated shots: for instance, Opechancanough touching the skirts of huge shrubs trimmed into a bell shapes, while exploring a sculpted garden whose very existence testifies to the West’s need to conquer (rather than coexist with) nature.
Tellingly, both the opening and the equally powerful and even more moving, mirror-image finale are scored to the opening section of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, “Thus, We Begin in the Greenish Twilight of the Rhine,” a tide of brass and strings that rises and rises, then falls, then rises again. This declares Malick’s intent to tell a mythic or operatic story about John Smith and Pocahontas (who were never lovers in real life), and use that story as springboard for a poetic and musical exploration of how love does and does not transcend individual experience. Malick makes John Smith and Pocahontas—and their nations, and their lands, and their historical epoch—seem truly small, as exposed to the elements as the battered characters in Theo Angelopoulos’ brilliant, temperamentally similar The Weeping Meadow. Malick’s symphonic filmmaking bears them aloft and sweeps them along. Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz’s description of Wagner’s Ring cycle could double as a description of Malick’s four masterpieces, The New World in particular: “…a huge symphonic poem to which singing and stage action had been added. The orchestra provides a stream of music that carries the words being sung and reflects the psychological states of the various characters.” Paradoxically and wonderfully, Malick’s approach bonds us to the characters even more deeply by stressing their fundamental kinship to every other person, and this underlines their fragility, their mortality, all the more. Smith’s aching tenderness and Pocahontas’ guileless affection are as pure as flowers and as easily crushed.
By presenting every character’s experience through the same cosmic, free-associative prism, Malick ascribes equal emotional significance to each individual’s life, a masterstroke that’s not just exciting but inspiring. Tributaries of individual experience merge to create a river of collective feeling that sweeps you along as Malick’s heroes are swept along, in rapture. It is as if Malick is dreaming for all of us—a presumption as recklessly innocent and beautiful as Stephen Daedalus’ promise in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Daedalus, like the rest of us, was never quite capable of realizing this ambition. Malick is on his way.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the creator of The House Next Door.