Unsung Masterpeice: The New World
“Always the star was guiding us, leading, drawing me on to the fabled land. There life shall begin. A world we build to our hopes. A land where one might wash his soul pure. Rise to one’s true stature. We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. No need grow poor. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self reliance our virtue.”
John Smith’s words are delivered in voice-over early in the film’s run time, and they comprise an elemental doctrine of the American Creation Myth. In Terrence Malick’s brilliant mosaic of the founding of what we call America, it is a dream hatched from hope and sincerity and drowned by human reality just as quickly as it is conceived, a scenario that has played out numerous times under different circumstances over the course of human history. The director’s fourth feature observes the discovery and creation of new worlds, powerful in their beauty and possibility yet delicate and threatened by the collisions of people with people, people with nature, and individuals with themselves. He chooses to look upon the Jamestown story without any explicit knowledge of what comes after, to furnish a poetic still frame of a hopeful and tragic moment in time, casting his lens on every instance of wonder, savagery, destruction, love, and beauty that he can in order to create one of the most stunning panoramas of humanity that cinema has seen. It is focused and specific and at the same time staggering in its scope. It is heartrendingly personal yet ultimately universal.
Never have the potentialities of human history been touched on so deftly and gracefully as they are here. The film sees a flicker of light at the very center of the hourglass, a truly possible Eden existing at a precise moment of history. We know ourselves that it was not to be, but the film doesn’t give into this inevitability right away. Malick lets his camera drift over the possibility before he documents its demise, and as a result we get a powerful feeling that things did not have to go the way they did, that these chances at peace and a pure level of existence do come about in the onward progression of time. We need only to let them happen. As Malick shows us rivers and ancient trees weaving under and over the human beings trying to make their way in the world, we come to believe that it may be both more complex and more simple than that. There are no pat answers to come, no concrete lesson on why this possible America was not allowed to happen. But the important thing is that we get a sense of the possibility of this moment, in the hope that we may grab onto such potential more tightly when it next comes upon us.
If Malick’s upcoming Tree of Life does indeed plan on scouring the chaotic symbiosis of nature and grace, then he will be traveling in familiar territory. As much as it seeks to understand mankind’s tendency to smother its Edens in their infancy, The New World uplifts with its exploration of just how stubborn love and grace prove to be in the face of Nature. The cosmic insistence on collision may bring two communities together in a manner that inevitably begets conflict, but it also brings together John Smith and Pocahontas, two sensitive beings so complimentary that their love is almost lapsed into by way of natural occurrence. Their mutual wonder in the face of each other is shown in such detail (childlike lessons in language and anatomy, watching lightning strikes from the riverbank together, lying just close enough to touch as they look into the same sky) that it does more to encapsulate the magnetic draw between all humankind than any number of socio-cultural academic lectures. The very human urge toward discovery that brings these two together leads to the friction that will draw them apart, but that aspect of our nature goes hand in hand with our capacity to find beauty and salvation in other members of our species. Much as they do in other Malick work like The Thin Red Line, the light and the dark, creation and destruction, all spring from the same well. One needs the other in order to play its part.
Such a cinematic treatise could easily seem trite or New Age-y, but Malick’s visual and poetic precision builds such a distinct picture that his observations are hard-earned. His name might not come up when thinking about great editing, but Malick is one of the medium’s premier frame cutters, always fascinated by how shots can be strung together in inventive ways in order to arrive at his own truth. If two shots go together best chronologically, then so be it, but if he needs to splice together shots of lovers on the grass, an insect walking on a tree branch, and a bird diving into the water in order to get at that truth, then he will do that as well, and it never feels overwrought or gimmicky. Famous for his use of voice-overs – that strange taboo among many film purists – Malick never shies away from having his characters vocalize exactly how they feel, letting them speak words that sometimes connect to frames many minutes later rather than those in the present. He captures action and dramatic instance as vividly as anyone, but he spreads his pieces out on the table and arranges them so as to find the greatest degree of artistic honesty, not just what looks nice or what keeps momentum going. Such a style may frustrate many casual film viewers, but no one can fault the man for insincerity.
Though the themes, when written, may seem so grand that they lose personal connection – the vision of the natural ideal too naïve and pastoral – The New World skirts the lazy white-man-fantasy that colors lesser works like Dances with Wolves, and it refuses to cast any group as angels or demons. Though John Smith certainly observes the native tribe with an awed sense of the ideal, it is worth noting that the first evidence of their village that we come across is a series of severed heads posted on stakes and hanging from tree branches. The natives do not attack the English for incursions into their land nor even for the killing of some of their people, but more because they represent a new and unpredictable competition, because they will not leave when they are told to. The natives live in a more communal relationship with nature, but they are not immune to the same protective fears and insecurities that plague their new English neighbors. And the English, though brutish and culturally insensitive, act more out of desperation and confusion than any particular malice or hostility. Both sides are the “other” from a certain point of view, thrown together by the migrations inherent to our species, and only Pocahontas possesses the nearly supernatural ability to work within this paradigm with a clairvoyance and genuine affection that never feels false or overly idealized. She is that special wild card in the meeting of two worlds, the kind of person that can keep the embers of hope burning while the universe does its best to snuff out possibility.
Which brings us to a focus on that character, and the performance that helps ground her in the chaos while allowing her to drift through and above it with such honesty and grace. You won’t see it referenced on many lists or even mentioned much just five years later, but the performance of Q’uorina Kilcher as Pocahontas is one of the finest of its generation. It is a portrayal so naturalistic, so instinctive and without strain or conceit that is almost transcends the medium, becoming that rare combination of sharply defined character and profound cinematic thesis. Kilcher’s every movement is the embodiment of, not something so trite as innocence or good-heartedness, though they are there, but of the natural state of humanity that gets pummeled out of most everyone before they reach maturity, if it ever exists in them at all. It is a greater thing than innocence, because it carries with it a fully realized strength. It doesn’t render her inhuman; she is fully capable of pain and of falling prey to ignorance. But it allows her to fulfill the nearly impossible demands that Malick is placing on her in the context of his film. She must personify his Edenic world, brief in its existence just as she was in hers, in all its beauty and complexity. And she must do it without ever letting us forget that she is a real human being. Once Smith has left her under false pretenses to take on new expeditions, the first thing she says to new suitor John Rolfe (Christian Bale) is a single sentence:
“Are you kind?”
After what has come before, it is entirely possible to collapse at the power of those words. And they are very, elementally human.
Indeed, Pocahontas herself helps Malick to find a place for a clear-eyed emotional pragmatism within his work of art. She is a creature of love, general love for people but also very specific romantic love for another. When John Smith leaves her, she allows herself to drift into the embrace of Rolfe, an Englishman of pure intent who truly does love her for who she is. She accompanies him to England, where she encounters her own new world, every bit as strange and wondrous as Virginia first appeared to those sailors as they drifted into the Chesapeake. There John Smith returns to her, and because of our exposure to more traditional Hollywood romantic fare, we almost expect her to fall back into the arms of her original, “true” love. But she does not. She looks upon him, all the joy they shared welling up momentarily in her eyes, and then she moves on, choosing a more pragmatic love that cared for her when no one else would. She does not strike back against Smith for his betrayal of her. She simply lets him leave her world. And in this moment, one of the most devastatingly beautiful stretches of cinema I can remember, we see how the scales tip in Malick’s eyes. John Smith’s yearning for discovery is a powerful one. It is the same human desire for wonder and expansion that drove the English to Virginia, that has driven countless people to new places for the entire span of human history.
But it pales in the face of this one young woman’s desire to love and to be loved by another.
“Did you find your Indies, John?” she asks him.
He looks down before he answers. “I think I sailed right past them.”