The New World (2005)
Dir. Terrence Malick
One cannot with a clear conscience cast an eye backward or forward into a colonial history and resist feeling horrified, and an artist dealing in history should undo the anesthetizing effect of its make-pretend inevitability- to do something with that sense of horror. Whether this means humanising and thus validating outrage, suggesting alternatives, or just shaking progress narratives comes down to what a work requires of its audience. In The New World we are thrown into a shapeshifting vision of the past that variously heightens and betrays its subject matter. Malick avoids the historiography that we might expect from an intelligent artist- this is not an untold story, this is not a new angle, this is not even a ‘true’ recreation of events, these are all moments and figures from collective myths that we are asked to dream again.
Kilcher, Bale, and Farrell all play archetypes and play them well, and Malick treats their emotions seriously rather than using specificities to make us believe in them. Bale is too Good, Farrell is all crying eyes, Kilcher is too much an angel, but we’re there. The setting never explicitly looks back and revises itself either, so it is to the director’s credit that The New World comes to feel like a new wound in spite of itself. In something like William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, the artist-historian is pushed toward the future but desperately clambers back to find moments and relics and counterarguments to dismiss the feeling that any of this was meant to be; that there was never another way. Vollmann makes history present through compressing events and aftermath through an urgent and mangled language that causes our hearts to race, but Malick’s approach seems almost simplistic- rather than picturing all time ‘now’ he pretends to transport us to another time altogether, making us remember, re-witness what we think we know.
We see a closeup of a person looking at something/someone, and in the next cut expect to see an eyeline match, but instead we jump over the shoulder of someone else looking at that original person who has their back turned to us both. Did their eyes ever meet or were they always engaged in other things. Or is this another day altogether? It doesn’t matter. The most breathtaking shot in the film is one that is never repeated and is almost embarrassedly understated- the middle of Pocahontas’ forehead to the parting in her hair, that unromantic area that you adore in someone when you love them and when it’s kissed you tingle and shrug and go red smiling. Watching a film about a contentious and grim subject that nevertheless gasps for air just to fill its lungs highlights how dire a place the director was in when he made the vampiric Knight of Cups. Sometimes The New World’s fat spirit is too much to handle- the title cards should grate or embarrass the flow of the work, but instead they give us room to breathe. Some things do stop time, or rather slow it and rearrange it like rocks jutting out of a stream- I’ve never liked or disliked Malick’s writing, but Kilcher delivers lines with this disappointed fear that makes them heartbreakingly stilted. They’re too straightforward, even artless, to be stylised, but she delivers them that way any way. Malick’s not being clever and neither is she, which makes some of the exchanges so unusually painful:
“I suppose I’m happy”
“Married? You said you did not know the meaning of the word exactly.”
“But I am”
“Did you find your Indies, John?”
The New World’s theatrical cut might be straightforward. Malick’s fluid-through-fragmentation impressionism gives a breathless quality to the advertised subject matter: love, period, encounter. We see Pocahontas’ act of faith bind her to John which keeps the invaders fed which leads, Malick knows we know, to centuries of genocide culminating in reservations and pipeline disputes and Thanksgiving celebrations. There is a great amount of pain in this, but through the theatrical cut we’re asked not to judge this original sin, because the sin’s name was love. Next to the more cerebral extended cut it seems that the theatrical might have been achieved through hacking away at data- a prosaic explanation for what might be one of the great love stories, but which results in an almost completely different work. The extended cut is all but dispersed, decentralised, meaning that the sounds, cuts, images all charge themselves and never in the service of linear storytelling- it’s form, not style (or form and style). Rather than abundant broken strokes, the extended cut takes the form of water through a more rigorous film language. The recurring, almost obsessive images of lakes and rivers make it known- it’s all subjectivities and experiences that dance and flutter and fold into one another, always the same and different, back and forth forever. The theatrical landscape is a sort of Eden for Smith’s Adam and Pocahontas’ Eve, but extended it is given its own memories, moods, and facets of character.
If the film’s narrative was non-linear it’d be unimaginative, because this is part of the film’s secret- whatever the blurb says and whatever people praise, it’s not about the subject matter or even the images. The whole power’s in the edit. Its relentlessly discontinuous editing makes for a hallucinatory overlapping present that is more complicated, less manipulative than the simple shuffling of events. It’s quieter that way, and able to mimic different ways of timekeeping, different ways of piecing a film or a life together. This makes the lesson where Pocahontas learns to tell colonial time more of a clear turning point in the film- hearing the fluidity of experience conceptualised as static ordered numbers ushers in a drab procession through further disenchantment, right to the grave. If there is one thing the theatrical cut does better here, it turns this final act into something that can only be described as a free-fall, and one of the best free-falls in all of art. The extended cut is at this point still emotional of course, but it feels considered where the theatrical has the floor fall out from beneath us. If there’s truth in the more conceptually strong extended cut it is that this story is just one that can be found in a sea of unsettled accounts and causes and connections, voices yelling and crying. But then if that theatrical free-fall works it’s because it lets go, submitting itself and us directly to the yelling and crying.
The truly obvious radical work is for someone else, and it’s tempting to call The New World evasive or even humanistic for its absence of explicit outrage, but there is this oblique anger in it that would be bubbling beneath the surface were it not so elemental. The film does not try to conceal the fact that the arrival is violence, that the trust of the invaders is a tragic mistake, and that their/our ‘civilisation’ is a disease, but Malick forgoes an assumed universal Native American perspective to advocate the landscape as an agent and observer. The quasi ethnography of the first act doesn’t pretend to hold any communicable information, nor does it assume the perspective of those present necessarily. And yet there the film is, shapeshifting until it becomes something else. The subject dealt with directly should be painful, and dealt with cartoonishly should be propaganda, and dealt with aesthetically should be insensitive. How again does it feel like a new wound? How does it hurt more and hurt different every time we sit down and watch it? Days of Heaven was shot from the perspective of a vengeful landscape calling forth the apocalypse, but the thoughts and feelings of The New World are harder to pin down. These people never meant well, they never meant to leave, they were always gonna spread like a disease, and The New World suggests that the landscape always knew because it remembers like a river.