The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The New World

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article As some other critics have humbly noted, it is very difficult to know what to write critically about The New World. It is very very tempting, in fact, to not even try - to say merely “you just have to see it to understand it”. Yet I am never one to stay silent on things that I have felt strongly about - so here is my attempt.

The elements of the film that most immediately stunned me were mainly stylistic. From pretty well the first shot-and-music combination, we know we are watching something very unusual - even by Malick’s standards. Within the first few minutes, through the use of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheinhold’ - and many bold editing decisions - we have already glided through different locations, different times, different people’s perceptions as fluidly as if in a dream. Instantly we are expertly transported into this other world of filmmaking and storytelling that fits so well with the film’s opening themes of discovery and wonder. Anyone wandering into the cinema expecting a familiar epic style (and they could be forgiven for doing so, given the frighteningly mundane trailer) will immediately sense that there is something amiss. Far from being the conventional Hollywood historical telling I had foolishly feared it might be, this is in fact Malick’s most formally complex work yet. Indeed, when thinking of the film, it is this combination of swelling sound and silent image that comes first and foremost to mind, making me remember The New World as more of a sensory experience than a film. (On a side-note: it is unjust, but of course entirely predictable, that the film has missed out on the big Oscar nominations - particularly for Malick’s direction; the Academy has simply proved yet again that it is afraid of true artistic innovation.)

I have always greatly admired Malick’s work, but until now have never felt a particularly strong connection with it. Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) are beautiful and ethereal meditations that simultaneously exalt the human condition and make it seem painfully unimportant, yet their grand visual themes about nature and humanity finally felt somehow at odds with their simple narratives. The Thin Red Line (1998) is stunning, and certainly earns its philosophical subtexts more easily, yet I found it slightly too detached and dispersed to fully move me (though I can now imagine that another viewing might very well change that opinion). With The New World it feels as if Malick has finally found the ideal subject matter for his thematic and stylistic obsessions.

Where better to contemplate man and his place within the natural world than in a place and at a historical moment when mankind and ‘nature’ were thrown into such violent contrast, and man’s noble intentions for the cultivation of nature so perverted? When Malick films the Powhatan tribe in their picturesque forest home, on the verge of being destroyed by the expansion of European rational thought, it feels like the logical end-point to his entire career. This is the tree-house refuge of Badlands, the cornfields of Days of Heaven, the jungle of the The Thin Red Line taken to their extreme: this is the point at which man believed he had finally understood nature and was therefore justified in treating it however he wished. This could be white men colonising land and indigenous cultures anywhere: it is simply the story of modern ‘progress’.

It might seem surprising then that a film with such a seemingly revisionist aim would cling to the myths of the Pocahontas story - i.e: Pocahontas (who was 11 at the time) and John Smith being lovers. Historians and cultural critics must have been champing at the bit to see what such an intelligent director would do when let loose on this Disney-fied piece of history: surely he would mercilessly tear it to pieces?

Yet it is a powerful story, and I would suggest that the fact that it is a myth is perhaps one of the main reasons Malick was so drawn to it and chose (largely) not to tamper with it. As a filmmaker, Malick deals in lost innocence and lost utopias; quite apart from the imminent massacre of the original inhabitants of the ‘old world’ that hangs over the film like a shroud, the other innocence being immediately lost here is the ideal of a ‘New World’. Historically, the Pocahontas myth has played a part in the continuation of this ideal: it considerably softens the history of violence waged against the Native Americans, relegating it to a mute background against which a beautiful, Euro-centric Romeo and Juliet-esque love affair can be played out.

What Malick has done to the story, however, is to largely drain it of its melodramatic personal significance for Smith and Pocahontas, making it instead into something of a representation of the larger history of the America that was to follow them. We are not treated to crashing cymbals at the moments they kiss (we barely see them romantically entangled at all), or to tormented scenes of their suffering when they are apart: the film is much more detached from their ‘love’ than this. Choosing to portray this myth at all within a film whose avant-garde tendencies do not lend themselves to its telling forces this (supposedly) central story to appear out of place, and encourages us to question it. As such, we are made to observe that it is in fact more Smith’s idealistic love for the concept of this new land that drives his relationship with Pocahontas, not necessarily a love for her. Similarly, on her part it is Smith’s status as a strange outsider that appeals to her.

Why present the myth at all? Because myth-making is one of the founding constructs on which America will be built, and this is a film that is all about America.

Indeed, the clue is in the title: this film is not Pocahontas; rather it is about the construction - not the discovery - of the New World. For we must not forget that the Pocahontas story does not end with the doomed love affair: it ends after the Native American princess - the ultimate representation of her people - has married one of America’s first true Capitalists, the tobacco farmer John Rolfe (here Christian Bale), and given birth to one of the first true Americans. When we see this half-Native American, half-English child playing hide and seek in the perfectly manicured gardens of England towards the end of the film, we experience the sharp shock of realising that the construction of an American identity has begun. With the four hundred years of hindsight that Malick undoubtedly encourages us to bring to this image, we understand that the point of the film is to stand as a lament, not for the death of a fictional love affair, nor even for the death of the ‘old world’, but for the Utopian possibilities of the ‘new’.

This Alternate Take was published on February 21, 2006.

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