the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pochahontas (2007)

Our American Hero

In 1973 Terrence Malick established himself as a great American auteur by writing and directing Badlands – a stunning portrait of a great American invention – the serial killer. In retrospect Mr. Malick, unlike his contemporaries of that era - Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola – never delivered the likes of an ET or Star Wars or a Godfather. In fact he not only failed to deliver a blockbuster – he failed to deliver. Since his stunning debut he has directed three features: Day of Heaven, Thin Red Line and now The New World. Three features in three decades is not what our Puritan work ethic dictates as a “respectable” output. But perhaps Malick, in the tradition of the Founding Fathers, Thoreau, the Western pioneers… is following his manifest destiny.

Let others have a career; Mr. Malick has been strolling through American history – taking in the scenery and drawing his own conclusions. He’s spent half his time in the Heartland (Badlands, Days of Heaven) wresting with desperate lost souls – dying in all the innocent beauty east of Eden. He pondered about our Great War (WW II) and drew a portrait of ambiguous soldiers wrestling with themselves as much as the Japanese. The odd thing is that all these films inhabit the American mythology while tearing at its seams. Badlands is a nightmarish foreshadowing of Lucas’ American Graffiti. Days of Heaven might be viewed as Thomas Hart Benton’s Guernica. The Thin Red Line shows Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation in their hour of darkness or maybe Speilberg’s soldiers having an existential crisis on their mission to save Private Ryan.

Malick has decided to begin at the beginning. The tale of Pocahontas and Capt. Smith is the bedrock of the American experience. Most Anthologies of American Literature begin with Capt. Smith’s tales about the “New World”. Interest in the story has reached beyond academics with the Walt Disney Company producing an animated feature, Pocahontas, within the last decade. Recently William T. Vollmann has dedicated a entire volume of his seven part History of America to Smith’s founding of Jamestown. The element of this story that pulls together academics and patrons of popular culture is the relationship between the swashbuckling Smith and the young Native American princess. That such a relationship existed at the moment of America’s conception vaults the historical into the realm of the mythic. Hollywood couldn’t have given the country a better script of its beginnings.

The “real” Capt. Smith lived through war, starvation, imprisonment, enemy-capture, enslavement… One wonders however, if he would have survived the 21st century American debate about what constitutes fact and fiction in a memoir. The following is the portrait Capt. Smith paints of himself in “The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles”:

“by his own example, good words, and fair promises, set some to mow, others to bind thatch, some to build houses, others to thatch them, himself always bearing the greatest task for his own share, so that in short time he provided most of them lodgings, neglecting any for himself.”

One can feel the other residents of Jamestown flocking to their blogs to refute the wise Captain in the early stages of his book tour. Malick is unconcerned. The director is smart enough to know better but the Smith-myth is central; not the actual history. Malick paints a very realistic portrait of the new Americans despite the fact that the valiant Captain might have taken the same liberties as the author of “A Million Little Pieces”. But in the end isn’t Capt. Smith the great great grandfather of James Frey and Oprah?

Ambition is the driving force in Jamestown. This group will stop at nothing to get ahead. The internecine struggles over rank and authority will be hideously familiar to any modern American office worker. Its not that our distant cousins over in Europe wouldn’t be petty and awful – it’s just that our fore-fathers were, in Ross Perot’s words: the people working the third shift at the Dairy Queen. In such an environment manners and a sense of civility are signs of weakness. This was a group that certainly knew the word “Roanoke” – the nearby colony that two decades earlier disappeared with the 90 men, 17 woman and 9 children never to be heard from again. Yet they willingly made the choice to go on this voyage. Makes you wonder about their lives in the motherland. The Lords of the Manor and the Captains of Industry knew better. Capt. Newport, played by a very blue-blooded Christopher Plummer, was on the first boat back home while Jamestown “took shape”. Given what followed he certainly made the right choice. The new colonists resort to eating their leather belts to stay alive. Maybe Smith was right to implore everyone to stop wasting time digging for gold.

Malick’s harsh portrayal of this world of Joe Shmoes and John Smiths certainly undercuts the primness with which we revere the Founding Father’s fathers. These people weren’t blue blood or even blue collar – they were red-neck through and through. Capt. Smith, however, is a stand-out. He is aware that he is on a journey to, in the great American tradition, re-invent himself. He is our first Bruce Springsteen – a sexy poet repulsed by the grimness of his culture and surroundings but accepting the fact that he is a character in Jungleland. One can hear Capt. Smith rollicking on some boulevard serenading a modern-day Pocahontas with the promise of a new life if she’d just stop listening to her Chief. We can also see the young maiden crying in the back seat of the beat-up Camaro asking the driver “who are you?”.

The unanswered question in this film is: who are the Indians? There is a disturbing asymmetry to The New World. The young Americans are drawn with precision yet the Native Americans remain elusive. Malick no doubt did his homework and the costuming and set designs are outstanding. The backdrop is authentic – but not the people. The “naturals” are more akin to fairies in an expensive production of A Mid Summer Nights Dream rather than actual aboriginals. The initial reaction to Smith is certainly genuine – they want to kill him. Unfortunately for them they make a series of very bad choices. They spare his life and then adopt him as a tribesman and let him frolic with the Chief’s favorite daughter – the prettiest girl in the tribe. The implausibility of the situation is secondary to the super-human genuineness of the natives. Pocahontas and her father seem implausiblely plausible – people make bad choices and pay the price – but the other Natives and their society appear other-worldly. As the good-captain says “they are without jealousy or malice”. Certainly after months of living with the Jamestown crowd “the naturals” – a successful traditional society living in sync with their surroundings – would appear to be super-human. There is a palatable sense of horror when Smith returns to the world of the violent, mean-spirited, petty, desperate gold-diggers. It would have been interesting to Malick had found a way to paint the Powhatans as real – but where would he find a source? These poor people were annihilated. The lack of a record left Malick with all the trappings of the Powhatans without the Powhatans themselves. The father-chief and Pocahontas are plot devices to further the narrative of Jamestown. John Smith’s world is grimly real whereas the Powhatans “are the stuff that dreams are made of”. In this case Capt. Smith is the dreamer.

The New World takes an extended journey to the old world in the second half of the film. The plot takes on a Shakespearian edge: the princess goes to meet the King and Queen of England and is re-united with her lover. They come to their senses and she returns to her true love. The comedy turns tragic, however, when the Princess suddenly dies. The banality of the narrative is beside the point. Shakespeare’s forte was language not story. By the same logic assessing Malick’s in terms of the plot-driven narrative is to be deaf to the visual feast. There is a small sequence where the Native American escorting Pocahontas walks amongst the trees in the formal gardens at one of the English palaces. In a sense this small scene of this traditionally dressed native wandering around the formal hedges and rigid tree-lines is a metaphor for the entire film. This exquisite tableaux is a tile in a cross cultural mosaic painting the birth of America. It’s not about “story” or “romance” but the romance of the myth of our founding. Malick, with his usual flair for excellent acting, photography and craft, has given us another one of his American visions. We are a brutal, savage people who touched a prelapsarian (in our view) world and beat it down to our level. There is always something tragic/heroic in our quest despite our venal actions. Badlands is successful in spite of the loathsome protagonist. The audience is drawn to the killer in Days of Heaven even though he schemed against an innocent man. The soldiers in The Thin Red Line are too uneasy about their brutality to be the usual World War II heroes… and yet there is a hallowed of innocence surrounding these ambiguous warriors.

Malick is, at heart, a Texan. This part of the country tends to root for the guys in black hats. He has a soft-spot for Cain. Abel was a favored son, we are a nation of Cains. We are the second sons busting our asses to make the right sacrifice for the all powerful. We loathe introspection in direct proportion to our love of THE LAW. Rules are made up of isolated facts that create abstractions so we can live with ourselves. Pocahontas’ constant refrain to Capt. Smith is “Who are you?” The Captain might not have an answer, but he shares Cain’s disdain for his brother’s good fortune. Malick knows that in Smith’s quest to rise above his station lies the heart of the American experience and his hideous ambition to be the favored son will lead to his downfall. No matter how hard we Americans will it, the fact remains: God has rejected our offering. God preferred our brother’s sacrifice because it was more than mere fruits of the field – it contained blood. Well if its blood God wants – its blood he’ll get. Fratricide was our answer to God’s rejection – only sending us further into the wilderness. Europe and the Natives have Kings, Queens, Chiefs and Princes whom God looks upon with favor. America has the hardscrabble, hard-luck Capt. Smith. The treason-filled, self-promoter struggling to better himself. One can hear the Captain reflecting on his plight by singing a Bruce Springsteen song about Starkweather, the “hero” of Malick’s first feature:

I saw her standin' on her front lawn just twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died

From the town of Lincoln Nebraska with a sawed off .410 on my lap
Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path

I can't say that I'm sorry for the things that we done
At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun

The jury brought in a guilty verdict and the judge he sentenced me to death
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest

Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor head back
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin' right there on my lap

They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world

Badlands might be seen as a modern day version of what would have happened if Capt. Smith had run away with Pocahontas.


The American curse is to be thoughtful and reflective. The greatest threat to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is those who question “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The tycoon, the worker bee and even the dispossessed are as truly American as mom, the flag and apple pie. But those who step back and question the process are dangerous. They start asking questions about right and wrong. There is no good or bad just THE LAW. If Smith can escape hanging he can go on to become a penultimate Founding Father. If Starkweather gets the chair; well he deserved it. That’s that. That’s the law. That’s what happened. Don’t think too much about it or we’ll suspect you’re a communist or worse yet an artist. Don’t think, just act. Just make the movies and have a career. Malick seems to take the challenge. You want blood? I’ll give you blood. I’ll dress it up and show it off. In reality Starkweather was pigeon-toed, cross-eyed but Malick sees him as a young Charlie Sheen. The real Pocahontas & Capt. Smith could never compete with the sex appeal of Q’Orianka Kilcher and Colin Farrell. But these are merely facts. Bits of history that can be molded in the same fashion as other uncomfortable truths: our beloved land of freedom was founded by a savage group of marauders who invaded, pillaged then annihilated “everything in my path”. Pocahontas visit to the King and Queen is really the ultimate humiliation for a Princess robbed of her culture and whose subjects were already falling under the sword. The institution of slavery took root a little more than a decade of the founding of the colony. But once again these are mere facts. Smith was just another hard-luck soldier trying to have fun amongst all the smoke and bodies. Malick takes it all in and smiles. He strolls through the carnage and studies all the hardworking ill-fated sons of Cain. He’s not going to excuse the mess by becoming another mega-star in the pantheon of the American Entertainment Heroes. He’s sitting down with that ever-expanding group of alienated American thinkers who love this country but loathe all the crassness born of a desire to forget. His job is to entertain.. and entertain he will. Long after Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola have faded from the public consciousness Malick’s band of American anti-heroes will be delighting and horrifying future generations. Somewhere, centuries from now, a young person will look at this body of work and remark: “What a bunch of savages”. And Malick’s spirit will tip his black hat and say “but you gotta love’em”.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Enjoyed reading your insights about movies, culture and the state of the nation. Keep it up.

I had the chance to interview Martin Sheen recently and told him how much I liked BADLANDS. We didn't even get to talk about it much because the conversation turned to politics for a good 45 minutes after our 12 minute interview. Interesting guy.