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Art in the Age of Myopia: Terrence Malick?s The New World

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Terrence Malick's The New World / Courtesy of New Line Cinema

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Art in the Age of Myopia: Terrence Malick’s The New World
How Critics Have Missed the Boat

The New World
Directed by Terrence Malick

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

Great works, when they next-to-never come, are always accompanied by giggles. In the time that I've been watching movies seriously — whatever that means — I've managed to work out that adage, along with a couple others: pop culture-riffing kiddie CGI is the anti-art; and engaging daffiness always trumps precision — as near to a White Elephant vs. Termite as my polemics are likely to spawn. I've found empirical evidence to corroborate the giggling thing. Zola's The Masterpiece (there's that word!) contains a scene beautifully summarizing the invariable reaction to Something New: art-wracked painter Claude Lantier submits his revolutionary canvas to the Academy-counterpoint 'Salon des Refusés' and, wandering the exhibition to see his painting hung, finally locates it by following the sound of “laughter growing louder and louder, mounting like a tide.” The crowd's reaction is a thinly disguised retelling of the reception that met Manet's Déjuener sur l'herbe, but it could be the scene of any historical pivot-point when, before an audience of self-defined connoisseurs, an artist has sweated to expand the way that we see, think, and feel. And somebody just laughed.

Which bring us to Terrence Malick's The New World, the fourth film in thirty-odd years from the resolutely obscure — both in public persona and work — director, and an epochal American piece of art. A measure of how good Malick's movie is: a few years from now, when those of us who love it are re-watching it and wrestling with it, we will literally not be able to imagine that it once played on thousands of screens, that it once was writ large simultaneously in Cary, North Carolina, and Middletown, Ohio, and Durango, Colorado. It will seem as large and faraway as the Cretaceous Era. Of course there'll be walkouts and audible “What the fucks” during its short time on the screen. Putting aside the faux-populism that we film writers seem especially inclined to feign, the fact is that the vast majority of Americans (or, better yet, humans) remain insensate, if not openly hostile, to the concept of deliberate, difficult art. So that's to be expected.

More disheartening is to see a certain cache of movie writers come swarming out to greet Malick's latest as an exercise in how arch and unimpressed they can act in the face of a work that — whatever one's opinion of its qualities — shouldn't be denied its singularity. An American history written in intimate, undistilled emotion; an attentive, tonally precise work with blockbuster-big outer margins — trying to place it in the context of contemporary American cinema is like hanging a J.M.W. Turner canvas in a coffee shop art show.

For The New World's detractors, then, the first step in diffusing Malick's accomplishment is to strip it of that specialness. And so Stephanie Zacharek, writing at Salon.com, offers the following chestnut to drag Malick down to the lowest possible aesthetic denominator: “[It's] like a Tony Scott movie on quaaludes: Words and pictures are matched up in counterintuitive ways, and although the cutting is much slower than in Scott's hyperactive showboating, it makes just about as much sense.” Even more baffling: Dave Kehr's blog manages to tie together the “music video” cutting in The New World and Domino — I feel like I'm taking crazy pills! Zacharek can be a great read when she's taking the time to find little niches of pleasure in unpretentious entertainments that aren't quite swinging for the fence, and she's a not-bad writer when her Pauline Kael impression is in check (most embarrassing is when, aping her idol's slangy style, Zacharek borrows Pauline's actual slang: “high muckity-muck” or ”bamboozled.” Is this 1935?). But her New World review gives full rein to her laziest tendencies; there's just something about Texas Transcendentalist Malick that brings out the blithe, “over it” undergrad in his detractors.

The Village Voice's J. Hoberman gives the filmmaker an equally unceremonious dust-off, sure to drop a snide reference to the Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas's “daily regimen of chaste nuzzling,” the giggly implication being, I suppose, that somehow Malick's movie is false and flowery for withholding on the sight of Captain Smith screwing his “squaw.” The New World's pretense toward greatness (and everything about the movie — its decades-in-the-making inception, its bigger-than-big title, and yes, J., the Wagner, feels like a grab for greatness) brings out the zeal for deflation in critics, ready to pop it with a roll of their eyes. Leonard Cline, in his wonderful pulper The Dark Chamber, probably put it best: “There is nothing in the world more devastating and unanswerable than a sneer.”

Malick's art deserves better. His filmography comes closer than any I know to deserving that lovely label generally reserved for French film of the Thirties: Poetic Realism. He's absolutely rigorous with his period detail (none of his four films has had a contemporary setting), shoots with natural light, and has a tendency to spend screen time on odd bits of quotidian fuss, but the slack of his pacing, the steady carpeting of half-hypnotized voice-over, and the soft stagger of his digressive cutting sets his movies off, floating. And for at least a handful of cineastes in my generation, the 1998 release of his The Thin Red Line, in the wake of the orgiastic attention granted Saving Private Ryan, was more than a serendipitous marketing move by 20th Century Fox; it was the presentation of the option of an alternative cinema, almost completely divorced from the amorphous Hollywood tradition. Looking past the cacophony of Red Line's celebrity cameos (“Is that… Jared Leto?”), those who were wide-to-receive found an avatar in Malick, that rare artist using his medium to explore uncharted territory.

The New World is Malick's movie about exploration — clear from its opening credits, in which waterways branch and spread across a parchment map — though it approaches its amorphous theme from an ever-drifting vantage. And though the movie's subject, the romance between Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) in the fresh-founded Jamestown Colony of 1607, does hinge on discovery in the most literal “Land ho!” sense, there's an awe of things first-seen that carries into its intimate moments as well. Kilcher's performance as Pocahontas is a splendidly worked-through invention; she's developed a new physical vocabulary for the Princess — fresh, fleet, and playful — that makes a lost civilization tactile, like the sound of a dead language (and thanks to UNC Charlotte linguist Blair Rudes, a reasonable facsimile of Virginia Algonquian is heard once more).

Or consider the singular broke-backed structure of this “rapturous and romantic” “historical epic” (sure, the pull-quote praise can be just as reductive as the pans). Has on-screen amour ever grown with a quiet, organic hum like Pocahontas' second love, for middle-class farmer and solid, stolid citizen John Rolfe (a humble, perfectly pitched Christian Bale)? When brooding Capt. Smith -- nearly a figure from a harlequin novel jacket, ready to wrench a bodice — disappears with guilty ambition into the white north, effaced, quiet Rolfe just grows into the foreground, and discovering him as his bride does is a sweet, solemn joy.

What any critic who goes after Malick's meandering cut-aways (Todd McCarthy in Variety: “There is also a feeling of pictorial repetition...in the reliance on nature shots; more than once, one is made to recall the old saw about how, if a scene isn't cutting together, you cut to a seagull flying overhead.”) profoundly does not get is that these details don't exist at the expense of character or narrative — that telling the story of these two civilizations, and of their people, takes its emotional heft from environment. Nothing speaks more deeply of the contrast between the settlers and the Naturals (as the Europeans call the members of the Powhatan tribe) than John Smith's first view of the Jamestown settlement — a wasteland of pestilent puddles traversed by a skeletal dog, lorded over by a squatting cannon — after having lived on the lush banks of the Chickahominy River with Pocahontas's people. The foreigners have discovered paradise but, through force of civilized habit, are living in a trough; the contrast is as crushing as the jump from celebratory “let's go swimming” island life to the sweltering guts of a troop carrier in The Thin Red Line. Most miraculous is that The New World, despite a population of nasty, snaggle-toothed settlers who contrast rather badly to the handsome native populace, never becomes anything as simple as a screed on the superior Noble Savage. If it were, how could we explain the film's last chapters where Pocahontas, along with other Powhatan tribe emissaries, crosses the Atlantic and discovers a New World of her own?

Stephen Hunter, in a nearly-unreadable chunk of snark for The Washington Post, cries “easy” at a scene where a displaced tribesman wanders through the geometric French-style garden of an English estate “cruelly cut into box hedges, perverted into something monstrous and different.” The only thing easy about this scene, one of the movie's richest and strangest, is the way Hunter approaches it; far from an impressionistic nightmare, it's a strange, quiet, laconic interlude, a detour I could watch a dozen times, in rapture, without “getting it.” Hunter's simpleminded reading of The New World as a simpleminded, lopsided essay in racial comparison is even more baffling when he expounds upon Malick's alleged visual preference for Native architecture — “the interior of a tribal lodge is filmed as if it's a cathedral bathed in radiant light through a stained-glass window” while failing to note a counterpoint scene on Pocahontas' voyage to England which takes place in a cathedral bathed in radiant light through a stained-glass window! Give this man another Pulitzer!

What's so disarming, in fact, about The New World's England, as opposed to The New World's Virginia, is just how equal-if-different their beauty is. We could be forgiven for anticipating the Powhatan Princess in some tavern, surrounded by sloshing mugs and red-faced, thick-armed sailors playing grab-ass — we're used to a dumber breed of movie. Instead we get rich, dusky moments in the royal court; Pocahontas's face, in wonderment, craning out of her carriage; that extraterrestrial garden; and that same luminous sense of seeing everything, by proxy, for the first time, which makes the film's first passages glow.

If there's a grand irony in the critical reception of The New World, it is this: the film deals with a people who, arriving in undiscovered country, fleeing strictures at home, recreate the virgin land in the image of those strictures. And critics, feeble from a steady diet of trash, receive this very new manner of movie with the same blasé one might think would be reserved for James Mangold. Zacharek insists: “the story is essentially as straight as a pine tree.” No, it's not. The cardinal sin of The New World is taking a cue in structure from Wagner's “Das Rheingold,” the film's sort-of theme: it doesn't have the good sense to satisfactorily resolve itself — it just rises, and rises and rises.

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