Deep down I knew I was doing it wrong as I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World from 2005.
My TV screen would have been huge with the measures of the early 80s, but 2011, it looks comparatively tiny and underwhelming, fine for watching news or a simple TV show, but not the standard you need for an optimal Malick experience. I knew that the score and the cinematography probably was a shadow of what it must have been when it was shown in a proper cinema.
Watching it at home also inevitably meant that I was exposed to distractions. I had breaks to refill my coffee mug, answer the phone and to tend to my physical needs whenever they came up. All those things I wouldn’t dream of doing in a theatre.
Reoccurring disruptions is something you don’t wish for any movie, but they’re particularly harmful to this one. It has a fluid, dreamy and hazy narrative, which asks for your full attention and immersion. You really shouldn’t watch it in any other way than one long, beautiful sweep. But I did. I cut it into several pieces.
I’m telling you all this about the circumstances, to put my take on Malick into a context. Maybe this write-up will be a little bit unfair. Maybe I would have reacted differently had I seen it the proper way. It is what it is. At least you can’t say I’m not honest with you.
Pocahontas x 3
The first time I watched the Pocahontas story on screen was in the form of a Disney movie, which I guess I didn’t like very much. I never returned to it once I was sure that my girls were capable to watch it on their own. And I don’t remember a thing from it apart from noticing that the songs were boring.
In my second Pocahontas movie, the princess had suddenly gone blue, tall and moved to outer space. The sailing boats were accordingly replaced with space shuttles. After a start which I found OK (as a vivid online computer game player, I thought the avatar idea as such was pretty nice), the movie went downhill quickly. The final thirty minutes were miserable, containing a tedious, pointless and misplaced chasing sequence, which looked like the leftovers from a Vietnam movie.
Fast forward to this third take on Pocahontas. And to start on the positive side, it was by far the best one of the lot.
A fairy tale
The story of The New World simple and resembles and is more of a fairy tale than an attempt to reconstruct history. In its core, it’s a tale about love with complications. Boy meets girl, love springs up at first sight and grows quickly, they overcome difficulties, but circumstances keep the couple apart. A new love pops up and eventually the girl will face a tricky choice situation. Easy enough.
There’s also a second theme, the story of a paradise lost because of the evil, greedy conquerors from the western civilization who bring violence, death, illness and disaster to the poor, innocent, indigenous people.
Or as John Smith puts it in one of the many voiceovers:
“They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession. Real, what I thought a dream.”
It’s not complicated. While The Tree of Life puzzled and challenged me intellectually, The New World takes the straight road from point A to point B.
Sometimes the story proceeds slowly. Accompanied by classical music we follow the camera on its exploring tours, investigating trees, fields and waters. It reminds a bit of the sceneries in Tree of Life, but without the dinosaurs and galaxies.
Sometimes the story takes sudden leaps, letting months or years pass within seconds.
Not once did I find myself at a loss about what was going on. In one way I suppose this is a good thing, but in another way it was as if a bit of the magic was gone. Something was lacking. A feeling. A tremble. A touch.
I also expect movie characters to show more than one dimension. I want them to feel like real people, being a blend of good and bad, of light and darkness. Mixed and a little bit messed up. I imagine that I learn something about myself as I watch how they struggle with their lives and their conflicting thoughts and emotions.
But Pocahontas isn’t mixed or messed up at all. Just as the Mother in The Tree of Life, she’s playful, so close to the nature that she’s sort of divine. She’s not a real person anymore than those fairy tale Indians and I can’t relate to her and her people. They feel a bit stereotypical, as if they’d been modelled after an article in a very old encyclopedia.
A pretty movie
Another thought I couldn’t get out of my mind was how pretty everything was. Pocahontas was pretty, the Indians were pretty, the landscape was pretty, every single soul apart from the ugly Englishmen were pretty, but if you looked closely enough, I’d say they were pretty too, at least when they were back in England.
All those pretty images. What do they represent? And what am I supposed to do with them? Don’t tell me “shampoo advertising”, because that thought is just rude and I forced it out of my head as soon as it popped up.
While I’m in the section for mixed whining, I have to mention Colin Farrell, playing the part of John Smith, the first guy to fall in love with Pocahontas.
I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he looks the same way throughout the entire film, carrying that typical look-at-the-sad-and-tragic-abandoned puppy-face. I don’t normally have anything against Farrell as an actor, but I don’t think this role was a good fit for him. Q’orianka Kilcher on the other hand was perfect as Pocahontas.
So where do I land in my final verdict over The New World? Obviously I do have some complaints, of which some might have to do with that I watched it “the wrong way”. On the other hand I’m not immune against all the beauty and his efforts to make movie poetry. It’s a good movie for someone like me who like nature photography and bittersweet love stories.
I don’t personally consider Malick a genius, but I can understand and respect that others may feel that way.
And maybe I’ll get fonder of him as I watch more of his works and see the pattern, how they all relate to each other. I’m definitely not done with him yet.
The New World (Terrence Malick, US, 2005) My rating: a weak 4/5