the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, November 02, 2013

New World (2005)

American New World

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 Guerinca. The Thin Red Line show’s 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. Vollman 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, emprisonment, 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 – its just that our fore-fathers were, for lack of a better term, the bottom of the barrel. These were in the words of Ross Perot – the people working the third shift at the Dairy Queen. In such an enviroment 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. One senses that their lives in England were less then a bed of roses. 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 was being established. 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 Camareo asking the driver “who are you?”.

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 than actual aboriginal people. 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 frolick 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 Powtans 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 Potans without the Potwans themselves. The father-chief and Pochat are plot devices to further the narrative of Jamestown.  John Smith’s world is grimly real whereas the Potwans “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 there senses and she then 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 pre-lapsarian (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 was successful inspite 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 are too raw & bloodthristy to be the usual World War II heroes… and yet there is a hallow of innocence surrounding these warriors.

Malick is, at heart, a Texan. This part of the country tends to root for the guys in black hats. Malick has a soft-spot for Cain. Abel was a favored son we are a nation of Cain’s. We the hard-luck second sons busting our asses to do good and seem pretty. 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. On the surface this is a film about a group of marauders who invade and pillage and for good measure trumpet the daughter of the rival king in front of their own. These victims trusted the invaders and were repaid with annihilation. Pocas constant refrain to Capt. Smith is “Who are you?”. The Captain might not know the answer, but he knows enough to know that it isn’t pretty. Malick knows that in Smith’s ambivalence and quest to rise above his station lies the heart of the American experience. We are desperate castaways striving to be better. We’ll kill our brother to get there but what choice do we have? The meek shall inherit the earth – but by that time – who cares? We live in the here and now. We live in a world of conquerors and by God we’ll conquer. We’re not refined as our European cousins. We’re not saintly as our Native American brothers. We’re Americans – ugly, guilty but at the same time mesmerizing and innocent.

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