Firstly, there’s all the potential clichés of films about discovery, the West, and the colonial Eden of American dreams. If you saw The New World trailer with Indian natives, European tall ships and fighting colonialists, especially after those Columbus films of several years back, and the entire cliché-catalogue of cowboys & injuns or films that go up the river, then you’d be prepared to sigh dispiritedly. But this is the pure, honest opposite of that cliché and drivel. It completely eschews any prejudiced POV or familiar fare.
Sure it’s about the meeting of two worlds, and that from a more philosophical POV — which is not to say it’s a heavy thought-piece or pedantic in any way. Because poetic on every front, it’s also intellectually neutral. And yet — it’s more spiritual than philosophical; and it’s spiritual because it’s elemental (are you with me?): from the start, the three prime elements are covered: water, air (light, wind) and earth. And in the latter Malick usually films grasslands and trees. He is the ultimate director of grasslands, of nature moving greenly.
But it’s two films really, or two narrative essences at work concurrently: there’s the spiritual film and there’s the half-familiar love story of Pocahontas. The former informs the emotive force of the latter, because in my mind it’s the stronger. And the whole is also about that two-world duality.
As two worlds meeting, it’s heavily slanted to the natives/naturals in the first half, and in the second it tilts to the Europeans. First the naturals are shown as wise, sufficient and living sustainably, peaceable, gentle and clean (but again, all this without overt force or heavy statement); and the Brits are shown as smelly, arrogant, superstitious and morally dirty. Later this order changes somewhat; the British way becomes a glamorous ideal of its own. Which Indian chief was it that said ‘they (the colonists) will ultimately become like us, and we more like them’? — this two-way exchange seems to centre the film (with retrospect conscience) whilst keeping the respectful duality of both camps.
When Smith returns to the despairing fort after his first foray with the naturals, one’s tempted to underline the paranoia and hungry desperation of the colonists that settled America, to say this was how they forged their idea of The West, the New World: in the dirt, like cruel animals.
As spiritual-poetic film primarily — so rich in editing nuance and sufficiency of detail, glances, nature, birds in motion — it also reverses the traditional arc of Schrader’s take on transcendentalist cinema (which might be worth reviewing in an American context) in that it begins with the transcendence or absolution. Smith in his ship’s hold/cage laughs at the sighting of land (seen thru his little frame), at the light and the drops of water he receives unto his hands. Spiritually ripe for the new world, so to say; an elemental connection. In a subtle detail, when one of the other settlers trundles ashore and tastes the river water, he spits it out contemptuously.
The key moment of landing is devoid of typical cine-symbolism and image-momentousness, and so open, sustained and free with its pacing of narrative time (much being covered though subtle cuts), that it’s wholly suggestive of the two world-views approaching and blending, because freed up in perceived time. It implies a new world between them, an idealised dream born of the two, a parallel moment. It’s a strangely gentle cinematic movement, buoyed by optimism and innate momentum.
What cements the moment brilliantly is the Wagner drone piece (the Rheingold prelude*) — a moment of musical dawn unrolling at three key stages of the film. The drone is like the beginning of the universe, the affective beginning of wonder, the nascent swell of beauty. Under its spell the whole first act becomes a return to nature, spiritually fused.
This is what a work of beauty is… a compound poetry of joyous image and sound and immersive wholeness, seeming perfectly formed, yet with a depth-backing of subtle tragedy. The compound meaning of the film suggests a new world of the heart (this sounds like a literary theme); a film about the experience of time, a moment of potential between two worlds, addressed to the receiving heart, expansive. A moment that perceives and feels the suspended balance. It’s uplifting and emotive not by story alone, nor by technical means in harmony with the characterisation — it’s magic gestalt and unity; it’s poetic transcendence of means by unfolding cinema. It’s a statement of poetry through mise en scene and pace.
Malick’s magic lies in his grace with narrative continuity… the idea and thread of the movie doesn’t lie outside it contextually, or implied by montage (vis. temporally suggestive edits), but within it. He is an essentialist filmmaker, working from the heart, and hence philosophical.
Look at Farrell’s face and gestures in the first seduction of P via (elemental) words; his wary looks aside, the whites of his eyes. To render via character, as a director, what it must have felt like bodily, mentally, at this junction of two worlds, through attraction, is quite something. That to me is the secret romance of the film, the moving core grounding the love story, as opposed to the love tragedy and failure-of-heart informing the other, spiritual side of the film.
Poetry, heart, unity and time. What do you take away from it? That it’s wise to perceive life and living as moments in time; and that Art can be the poetic series of such moments.
Some more tropes
There’s a vague parallel with Godard’s techniques from his essayistic period: snippets of thought and dialogue are sprinkled over a free time-continuity and instinctive narrative movement. It’s also free by a whiff of an improvised sensibility; you can feel it wasn’t rigorously planned by scene and shot, by overt intent. And yet it still feels like an American production because it moves, it has that yankee mobility.
The film is observational/meditative in style, sufficient in visuals and subtle symbolic keys: the feather, the touch, the address to mother nature (and the question: Where is the spirit?). It’s free youth at play in nature, to the nostalgic modern European sons yearning for innocence and essential purity. The romance of that dream — but the measure of its success: this romantic ideal isn’t pierced or deflated by retrospective knowledge of the real and future events of colonisation. Knowing the majority of Indians were ultimately turfed by greedy settlers doesn’t affect it. The film is a contained bubble.
“What voice is this that speaks within me, guides me towards the best?”
“We shall build a true commonwealth [where] men shall not make each other their spoil”
— and the film somewhat achieves it, that vision, by poetic means. It’s still the old idealism of the colonial venture of America, but it’s neutral, contained.
Notice how the European POV is always framed, enclosed or shot through apertures and windows, doors. The naturals are shot in the open, with clear horizons, and addressing that openness.
There’s a measure of obscenity when the unnamed P is hoisted into European dress-shoes and habit (and, ironically, soap)… how corny and hypocritical the Christian guff sounds compared with native openness to nature — I guess this is one of the few heavy-handed oppositions of the film.
Note the funereal abstraction of the English gardens; the simultaneous hiding from the child in the maze (in death) and absolution by way of recognising nature everywhere (in or by way of the heart? — again, this is a loose-time edit under Wagner). One thinks of Lawrence and his acutely religious experience of nature and reconciliation with death… of approaching death or suggesting it artistically through indirect perspicacity and open narrative time, like the slight phasing of consciousness in the moment… The film as moment about that moment, stretched wide.
But in all, the detail, the pacing is rich and softly suggestive… that more is revealed every time, with underlying consistency. For instance, the only humanitarian acts are done by natives,.
My one regret is not seeing it on the wide screen.
* From the Wikipedia:
Das Rheingold begins with a 136-bar unmodulating prelude based on the chord of E flat major that is meant to represent the eternal unchanging motions of the River Rhine. It is considered the best known drone piece in the concert repertory, lasting approximately four minutes.