NOTE: This doesn't feel complete, but I'm tired of working on it, and there's probably something that's hopefully worthwhile in here somewhere, so here it is.
The announcement of a longer cut of Terrence Malick’s The New World offers an excellent opportunity to look back at that remarkable 2005 film and say … what the heck was that again? It was a film that tested audiences and critics alike. Yet it’s a deeply reasoned act of genius, and among the best films of the decade, if you dedicate a few minutes and a few brain cells to its understanding.
The film possesses many of Malick’s consistent areas of musing –mythology, nature, memory, paradises of the mind, the failure of language, subversion of the Western, and references to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The scenes in which Pocahontas moves through London touching previously unknown animals and people? Heidegger. When being taught Western concepts, she asks, “What is time?” Heidgger. There are great essays out there on this relationship.
But I want to talk about the film briefly as a document of America. Many of the seventies masters primarily were making visions of their homeland. Think Scorsese. Despite his powerful intellectual airiness, it is sometimes missed that Malick does so, as well. And in re-imagining Pocahontas, John Smith, John Rolfe and the Jamestown mythology, he produces a great American film and a great film about America.
The New World dramatizes two visions of America and places them in the lap of the earliest settlers, two views of America that, it is positied have carried through to the modern day. The original Jamestown settlers are portrayed as coming to the New World with an expectation of enrichment, purification, and transcendence. They will escape their tenuous position in the European social constellation. They will make a model society. They will achieve fortune and spiritual resuscitation. They will move beyond the bounds of their known world as renewed and better men. Essentially, the men treat the New World not as a place but as a tentpole revival. The naïve pursuit of this powerful vision, however noble, will leave them blind to the violence they eventually will use to achieve it.
The implications of appreciating this viewpoint are rich during a much misunderstood passage and voiceover. Smith leads a group of men up river to try to regain peace with the natives. As the boat slips quietly up the James River. Farell’s voice reads passages from Smith’s real-life journal. The lines pledge to build a better society, a paradise of brotherhood, of spiritual and economic renewal in this new land. This sequence has been taken by many mistaken critics as a sign of Malick’s alleged roses-and-daisies naivete. But I think those critics are failing to notice the irony, as the utopian wonder is never consistent with the brutalities that surround them.
The idea of America as renewal, it should be pointed out, has echoes in film made in the early seventies, at the time The New World was first bouncing around Malick’s head. That film was Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Lost in the Amazon, the conquistador Aguirre gets lost in a delusion of power, as he tries to declare his own empire. Aguirre, too, has applied a European vision of renewal to the New World. He sees the liberation of distance from the crown as an opportunity to transcend his station in European life. His dedication to this dancing vision will likewise lead to violence in the name of achieving it.
Unlike Aguirre, John Smith is a lover, not a fighter. Still he participates in one clear allusion to Aguirre, fighting a circle of natives in full armor in a dense wilderness. I think that scene indicates a relationship between Aguirre and the nice-guy Aguirre, Smith.
In fact, I think if there were a subtitle to The New World, it would be “Yes, Werner, but … : So what Is the” but?” The “but” arrives in the form of John Rolfe (a brilliant Christian Bale), a farmer who several years later comes to the New World to grow tobacco. He doesn’t have grand dreams of personal transformation. He works the land. He hopes to marry, gain wealth, and raise a family. He courts the heartbroken Pocahontas, who has been left by Smith and told that he is dead. Rolfe’s kindness awakens her, enough to marry and have children, but his affection fails to excite her. She still carries a flame for Smith. Remember this, we’ll come back to it later.
The New World is what I like to call a Rosetta Stone film. By that, I mean that coming to a solid understanding of this film allows you to go back and translate moments in the director’s other films, suggesting ways to solve areas of confusion and thereby giving the director a fresher and deeper understanding. Barry Lyndon is the Rosetta film for Stanley Kubrick. For Malick, The New World adds light to one of the central Malick questions. I like to describe this dilemma in terms of The Thin Red Line. Is Malick more Witt or Welsh? Is his attitude more that of the dreamy transcendental soldier Witt, or the materialistic, practical sergeant, whose admiration for Witt’s innocence is met with a hard-earned skepticism about its viability in a cruel world? Until The New World, I would have said that Malick was more Witt. After it, I’m certain it’s Welsh.
So let’s re-visit the trip upriver with Farell reading from Smith’s idealistic diary. The Witt interpretation, as refracted through the perspective of disapproving Malick critics, is, “There goes Malick again. Portraying the world as a beautiful, natural, idealistic paradise that will eventually crumble. He’s probably going to match it with a goopily innocent love story. Is he really that much of a naïve flake?” (Obviously, there is a more optimistic and admiring version of that interpretation, but I thought I would use the detractor’s perspective for effect.) The Welsh interpretation: “Malick is using an ironic device. He’s underscoring the naïve mythologizing of the New World. He definitely loves filming nature, and he might admire the character’s innocence on some level, the same way that Welsh talks about Witt being “like a magician to me.” But he’s also shaking his head at it. In the end he sees the impracticality of maintaining such a view in the real world. He also will suggest that pursuit of such a naïve mythology of one’s surroundings can lead to violence and a breakdown of the innocent’s myth of harmony.”
I want to talk now, finally, about Pocahontas. In doing so, I want to draw comparisons to Holly, the heroine of Malick’s Midwestern killing spree debut Badlands. The films were conceived around the same time, and I think the comparison is informative. Both young women are in their early to mid teens, dealing with the arrival of love in less than ideal circumstances. Both young women deal with their funky first love by mythologizing the situation. In her journals that make up the film’s voiceover narrative, Holly describes the murder spree romance in the only lingo she knows – imagining the adventures of Kit and Holly as the stars of fifties pop-culture magazines (Malick achieves the effect with an ironic distance.). She re-creates the facts as mythology in an effort to deal with the turmoil. In her voiceovers, Pocahontas similarly mythologizes love as a gift from her deity, and she will apply this interpretation to Smith, treating not just as a boyfriend, but as a Heaven-sent object of transcendence from her station.
But the thing about Holly is that she’s growing and getting wiser throughout the spree. Her diary entries become increasingly desperate and realistic. It leads to one of the great (and funniest) epiphanies in film, “I swore right there and then that never again would I go tagging along with the hell-bent type, no matter how much in love with him I was.” It’s at this point that we know she has exited the myth and started to deal with the reality. Then comes the final voice-over that no one remembers. As the feds fly Kit to the law, and as we see the small plane floating through the clouds, Holly describes what happens to her in the future. She goes to court, gets off relatively lightly, serves her time and then ….. she leaves prison and marries the son of her lawyer. I place a lot of emphasis on that last detail.
Why? Because it suggests that Holly has moved on from a naïve, wild-eyed, mythologized vision of love to a practical version that might not be as exciting but gets done the job of living happily and productively. That’s mirrored in the final choice of Pochontas, when she must choose between her mythologized love for Smith versus her practical marriage to Rolfe. She too will elect to be happy with the practical rather than try to recapture the thrill of the myth.
So finally, on to America. Here’s my theory. Malick is offering up two rival visions of America. There’s America the Mythological, the City on a Hill version, in which American greatness is loudly defined through myths of spiritual and ideological renewal and activism. Then there’s America the Practical, the Yeoman Farmer version, in which American greatness is achieved subtly, unspokenly, by waking up, plowing the fields, milking the cows, intermarrying, and raising children. While both strands still exist, I think what Malick is saying is that America the Myth is more visible but less powerful than America, the Practical, and that American greatness is achieved not ideologically, but through the subtle, practical transcendence of living everyday. Thus, I don’t see Malick as the hippy-dippy flower child of the American cinema. Instead, I see his depictions of innocence as at least partially skeptical.