The New World

The New World (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Terrence Malick
viewed: 02/14/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said, daddy oh don’t you dare
“He gives me fever
“With his kisses
“Fever when he holds me tight
“Fever, I’m his missus
“So, daddy, won’t you treat him right”

Terrence Malick is rightfully considered an important director, despite the fact that he only has now four feature films to his thirty-plus years of industry experience. Badlands (1973) is an amazing film. Days of Heaven (1978) is quite stunning even though it features a fairly questionable cast. The Thin Red Line (1998), which I saw on its initial release, I found pretty stunning, as well.

Malick’s new film, The New World bears a lot of his stylistic and narrative character, which is unlike anyone else working in the relative mainstream of American film-making. Malick often shoots entirely in natural light and has an amazing eye for the natural landscapes, both flora and fauna. In thinking back about The Thin Red Line, often my head is primarily filled with the images of the north Australian jungle. And here again, the Virginia river land that the native people inhabit is amazingly photographed and bears so heavily on the subject matter. This tough, beautiful “new world” is seen through many sets of eyes, the natives, the English settlers, Malick’s, and the audience, both as the past and the present.

It strikes me what a significant story this is to tell, the initial meetings with a civilization that will be eventually decimated. The landing of an ignorant, though not intentionally evil, civilization. The story for the modern audience is one loaded with foreknowledge (assuming that one’s understanding of history is at least basic.) And it’s not surprising that the narrative of Captain Smith and Pocahontas (though she is never referred to by that name until the credits roll) is a striking human story that resonates throughout our changing perspectives on the history.

I am guessing, though I do not know, that this story is trying to adhere to the better knowledge that is currently available on the subject. From Pocahontas’ perspective, which this film might well have at its core, the move from the natural forest and encampments to the rough-hewn buildings and forts of the newcomers, she moves ultimately to England and the vast evolution of architecture and the management of nature. In the English gardens, the trees are all cut and lined in uniform rows and the hedges are shaped. The landscape is tamed. The churches huge and ornate. Pocahontas moves from very sexy little outfits of animal hides to the corseted heaviness of the period’s European couture.

Q’Orianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, is stunning. Malick and his camera adore her. She represents the beauty and humanity of the native culture, and perhaps more deeply than that the conflict between her culture and that of the European settlers as she is excommunicated from her father’s tribe and is assimilated by the English.

There is a lot here, so much so, that I am not really getting my head around it. I think that the film addresses a lot and that this is a monumental subject. The film has a somewhat stream-of-consciousness about it, with voice-overs from each of the main characters, internalizing moments, experiences, views. The narrative is ultimately fairly straightforward but is delivered in a loose-knit way that feels that it is not attempting at being definitive, but perhaps more personal and open.

It’s an honest endeavor, and there are admirable and beautiful things about it, but I think that the film is a bit of a mixed bag ultimately. I think in many ways it’s an ambitious subject, approached on a more human level, somewhat visceral, though I am not sure that it’s 100% successful. I don’t know what to fault for it, since I think much of it was quite strong. I don’t know. Maybe time will tell.

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