The New World
Two immediately striking details about The New World: firstly, the character played by Q’orianka Kilcher is named Pocahontas, for the first and only time, in the final credits. Before that, 79 minutes in, there is an explicit barring of the utterance of this indigenous name, when Mary (Janine Duvitski), who is about to speak the name (“My name’s Mary, and yours, I believe, is …”), is interrupted: “She says it’s not her name anymore. She hasn’t got a name” – to which the kindly woman replies, “How unfortunate. Well, we shall have to give you one!”
What defines this central female character across the film, then, is not the essence of a single, original, true name, but a succession of names. So, from start to end, writer-director Terrence Malick structures the film around a displacement of – and investigation into – personal identity, and the typical cinematic means of signalling and characterising that identity.
An even subtler example of this process occurs in relation to John Smith (Colin Farrell). For the first 20 minutes of the shortest (and for a long time, the most generally available) version of the film, (1) Smith does not “come together” as an ordinary filmic subject – as, quite simply, an individual who can be unambiguously identified via the act of opening his mouth and speaking lines of dialogue. Over and over, when addressed, he merely grunts, or laughs. The first few times that we hear his inner voice on the soundtrack, we are thus unable to compare it, or ground it, in relation to any instance of this character talking aloud. And the editing and sound mixing – which form a truly complex weave of elements through the entire film – constantly create detours, enigmas, misdirections that derail the standard attributions or reinforcements of identity within scenes: other characters call his name, address him or talk about him, look or point in his direction, but there are no reverse-shots to clearly, cleanly close off the articulation. And the same goes for the character’s potential point-of-view shots which – in a manner we know well from Malick’s previous films – tend to wander off from a purely individual function in order to embrace a more external, even cosmic, vantage point.
One of the worst habits of film commentary amounts to an ultra-conventional congealing of all the different levels that create a cinematic character into a single, coherent, univocal, common-sense personhood – with every imaginable metamorphosis of that character, every structuring contribution made by the multi-levels of cinematic artifice, and every spacing or complication in relation made possible by the actor’s performance, thinned out into a banal, psychologistic humanism. (2) Such an approach brutally short-changes the work of Malick – although some of his actors offer a better sense of how to approach this dimension of his œuvre, as when Sam Shepard (in the 2002 documentary Rosy-Fingered Dawn) describes his role as The Farmer in Days of Heaven (1978) as one of playing a ghost, someone immaterial. But what is the problem with assuming Malick’s characters to be more-or-less conventional screen presences, with experiences and thoughts, drives and agendas – as we rightly assume of around 90% of the films we see from week to week? What we miss, through the imposition of such a grid, is everything that is ambiguous, halting and above all constantly changing in Malick’s constitution of his characters.
These characters are (far) less three-dimensional people (so-called) than they are cinematic figures – perpetually drawn, withdrawn and redrawn, created and devoured, in the play of contour and shadow, light and colour, rhythm and montage, image and sound. And this is not merely a formal demonstration of a general cinematic principle; it goes directly to the heart of Malick’s most profound philosophical propositions. Instead of grasping this flux, we project retrospectively the coherence that has accumulated (in case of The New World, precariously and fitfully) by the end of the film back into its first, most tentative and mysterious steps (Kilcher is Pocahontas); or/and we come in with too much pre-knowledge fed by trailers and press kits, spots on E! Entertainment and items in Premiere, already filling in, from the world go, the plot’s moves and the character’s identities (ergo, Farrell is Smith).
I have argued elsewhere that what makes Malick’s characters so ghostly is sense that they scarcely seem to belong inside the stories that carry them along, past such momentous events of murder, migration, invasion, industry. Figures of history, or myth, or both (as is the case with Pocahontas), they never assume the grandeur that their names and identities have been granted by the passage of time and mass communication. Malick shows them in the uncertain, twilight, becoming state before such a congealing of identity. This congealing is a historic development that, frequently, they do not live long enough to see – since, from Starkweather/Kit in Badlands (1973) to Pocahontas, via the soldiers at Guadalcanal, Malick is clearly drawn to the tragic-romantic aura of heroes and heroines who die young. But one of the elements that marks The New World as a distinctive departure in his career is that, for the first time, it is a woman who takes this charged, quasi-sacrificial role – and who therefore becomes the cosmic centre of the film.
Studies of a director’s career often impose a tidy evolutionary trajectory upon precarious production opportunities that are, in reality, far more chaotic and contingent, at the mercy of the industry’s odd sense of timing. As is the case with many filmmakers, Malick’s filmography – the feature works he has managed to realise by the end of 2005 – is informed by many projects that he has imagined, scripted, worked up to various levels, and still could conceivably make if given the chance (for, as with Stanley Kubrick, one senses that, for Malick, no project is ever altogether dead – The New World itself is a script dating back a quarter-century). Looked at this way, the decision to address the story of Pocahontas is not such a departure for Malick as it might seem. In particular, The New World bears the traces of his project for a German-language film about psychoanalysis, The English-Speaker, for which he auditioned actors in Austria in the mid ‘90s. Although it is perilous to extrapolate too much from accounts of Malick’s script drafts – which tend to be mere springboards for the films that are actually, finally made at the end of a long and elaborate creative process – it is nonetheless clear that The New World is, at some level, a displacement or transformation of many core elements in The English-Speaker.
Like Anna O. – the fictively renamed subject of a famous therapeutic case discussed by Freud and led by his colleague, Josef Breuer – Pocahontas comes to us as a figure of popular myth (that mythic quality signalled, in the first instance, by the telegrammatic brevity of their names). Relatively little is actually known about either woman; what we have, largely, are the extrapolations and projections woven upon their shadowy outlines by successive waves of storytellers, whether psychoanalysts, historians, novelists, poets or filmmakers – most of them male. (In Anna’s case, Malick does have at his disposal the myth’s epilogue or sequel: the re-creation of this figure as the real Bertha Pappenheim who, as Jacques Lacan reminded us, “is one of the great names in the world of social welfare in Germany”.) (3) Malick’s approach to the legends of these women is to take them on, precisely, as legends, not at all to demystify them as Robert Altman did in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976); in fact, he imaginatively expands the fictional share that has attached itself to these characters, picturing the dreams that Anna relates to Breuer, and luxuriating in the possibility of a romance between Pocahontas and Smith to a degree that would make even the Disney Corporation blush.
Both of these female characters, Anna and Pocahontas, undergo massive, dramatic changes in their identity – and both, strikingly, become “English-speakers” in a disconcertingly strange and sudden fashion. (Pochontas’ rapid assimilation of the English language is a deliberate unreality which many initial viewers and reviewers of the film found it hard to get past.) And both characters, ultimately, allow Malick a way to enter into and interrogate the highly charged, mythic-spiritual figure of the Earth Mother, cosmic carer and nurturer (Pocahontas as dying mother, Anna’s final metamorphosis into a Mother Teresa-style worker for the sick and the poor) – just as his male characters allow a channelling and renegotiation of the crucified Christ figure.
Any diligent researcher into Malick’s creative process quickly realises that any text or document, fictional or non-fictional, that can be consulted – on Fugate and Starkweather, Guadalcanal, Anna O., etc – has not only been previously well-read and digested by Malick, but also (and this is the creative part) somehow absorbed, incorporated, woven into the surface texture or deep structure of his film on that subject. This gives his work a palpable depth or volume that is rare in world cinema – comparable only to Kubrick, Carl Dreyer, Víctor Erice and a very few other filmmakers (perhaps what unites this imaginary family is the amount of time these directors usually had to wait before realising, in their lifetimes, a relatively small number of major projects). In Malick’s case, even if his approach to the material adopts an overall line, orientation or agenda, the wealth of research creates subterranean echoes of other, neighbouring interpretations of the subject at hand. In Badlands, for instance, what normally forms the centre of every telling of the Starkweather & Fugate case (as in the telemovie Murder in the Heartland [Robert Markowitz, 1993]) – the mystery of how complicit Fugate was or was not in the “murderous spree” – is utterly displaced, even (many viewers might conclude) entirely disregarded; yet, the more one looks at the film, the more one sees and hears odd images, gestures, pauses and silences that hint at what Brian Henderson once tantalisingly described as a “larger pattern of evasions, suppressions and silences”. (4)
The New World exhibits a similar comprehensive weave of studied references – and the same pay-off of subterranean richness. Only two examples of this vast process must here suffice. The first relates to Malick’s use of artistic sources – pre-existing versions of the Pocahontas legend, some grandiloquently ambitious in their intent. As if in response to those who (not always kindly) compare Malick’s aesthetic to that of silent cinema, The New World kicks off with a fleeting citation-rewriting (his freedom with source material rivals, in a different register, that of Jean-Luc Godard – but aren’t both of them collage artists in a peculiarly modern vein?) of a poem by that great on-the-spot theorist of silent film, Vachel Lindsay. (5) Where Pocahontas, over the opening pre-credit images, intones, “You are our mother / We, your field of corn / We rise – from out of the soul of you”, Lindsay’s “Our Mother Pocahontas” – which itself begins from the citation of a meditative passage by Carl Sandburg on “Pocahontas’ body” in its English tomb – contains the line, “We rise from out of the soul of her”; there is a great deal of imagery from the rest of the poem (“Held in native wonderland / While the sun’s rays kissed her hand”) which seems to find its correspondence in Malick’s film.
In a more general way, the passion and anger animating Vachel’s projection onto Pocahontas – he successively “renounces” his white American civilisation’s “Saxon blood”, “Teuton pride”, “Norse and Slavic boasts”, “Italian dreams” and “Celtic feuds” in order to be reborn as her descendant – resonate throughout The New World. Yet let us not elide the small but significant difference entailed in this particular citation-rewriting, which is important as the fact that the many questions uttered throughout The Thin Red Line (1998), taken as thundering pronouncements by antipathetic commentators, remain just that, unanswered questions (as in the Charles Ives musical piece, “The Unanswered Question”, sampled during that film). To Lindsay, Pocahontas is the holy Mother figure; but to Pocahontas herself, in Malick’s re-vision, this Mother is something or someone else – the “spirit” whom she invokes in order to “sing the story of our land” – and therefore precisely not her; she is not the mythic centre of the cosmos, more like its ephemeral vessel.
Another sort of example involves the use of historical documents. In an erudite discussion of the film, Pierre-Yves Pétillon, a French specialist in American culture, describes his sense that Malick simultaneously dramatises quite different interpretations of the scant, elliptical historical traces of Pocahontas’ life. (6) For example, was Smith really rescued from certain, imminent death by the impetuous intervention of Pocahontas? It is easy to read Malick’s version of the event in this way – but perhaps this is a too-easy capitulation to myth, and more precisely to a myth as told and viewed through white, Western eyes. Pétillon raises the cross-cultural debate among historians – a debate we must assume Malick knows well – that what happened to Smith (even if he did not understand it properly himself) was the performance of a pretend execution, a kind of rebirth ritual signalling the adoption of an outsider or foreigner into the tribe; in this scenario, the girl’s actions would have been a premeditated part of the spectacle. And there is much to Malick’s highly theatrical mise en scène in this sequence that supports this contrary reading: the elaborate construction of the dwelling that allows such dramatic lighting (it is one of the few emotionally warm interiors in any Malick film), the choreography of the bodies, the ambiguous facial reactions and gestures of the chief of the tribe …
More generally, Pétillon poses a range of interpretations of the subsequent relationship between Smith and Pocahontas that tallies well with Malick’s increasingly radical mode of storytelling, fraught with mystery and suggestiveness: either nothing (or nothing much) happened, and Smith fantasised it as an immortal story to be forever told; or something (perhaps many things) happened, but Smith discreetly withheld an account of the whole truth from his various memoirs. The fantasy that accompanies (and often precedes) a relationship, and the secrecy that follows it, posthumously: this is a familiar dialectic in Malick’s cinema, where the basic facts of any event – whether an intimate relationship, an act of killing, a military manœuvre or a collective historical incident – are frequently, deliberately obscured.
Yet it is the complex nature of a special event – the event of falling in love – which is at the heart of The New World. Intimate relationships between men and women figure in all of the films he has directed to date (far less so in those he has co-produced, such as Endurance  and Undertow ) – but, as a love story, this is his least inhibited, his most rapturous (although any explicit depiction of sexual relations is, as usual for this rather tactful director, omitted). This constitutes something strikingly new in his work: beyond the largely alienated or affectless union of Kit and Holly in Badlands, the periods of lyrical rapture allowed his characters are either furtive (Days of Heaven) or brutally ephemeral (the flashbacks in The Thin Red Line); either way, a harsh reality-principle imposes itself as the victor in the game of passing time.
It is an intriguing and instructive exercise to draw out the panorama of depictions of love in Malick’s films. Badlands is entirely anti-romantic from the outset: the love that Kit and Holly for each other is purely a matter of alienated fantasy-projection – mutually felt (which is why it can minimally function as romantic love, as coupledom), but quick to disintegrate. In The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven, love is like quicksilver: it moves through people, and then moves on. Love’s attraction suddenly shifts, leaving the abandoned party devastated. The films present this shift in amorous attachment as simply another hard fact of the cosmos, like death or the passing seasons: “She loved the farmer” is all that can be concluded, with naïve yet infinite wisdom, by Linda Manz as the child-onlooker-narrator in Days of Heaven; while the dumped soldier in The Thin Red Line staggers, the whole natural and human world moving around him, as he reads the kiss-off note from his ex-lover, far away.
The New World widens the picture on Malick’s perception of love. Love is more than a mutual intoxication; it is (to use the terms of philosopher Alain Badiou) a full-blown event to which its participants must strive to be faithful. (7) This is not fidelity of a moral, religious or social order; rather it is a testament to the transformative, even Utopian power of this emotional entanglement. In The New World, the love of Pocahontas and John Smith is, of course, an emblem of the reconciliation of vastly different cultures, indigenous and settler – something that the film shows without ever explicitly spelling it out. As such, it smacks of what Stendhal called crystallisation: pure projection of a desired Otherness (which can happen in two simultaneous directions, from both parties!). It would have been easy to overload and overdetermine this crystallising aspect of the film – the Utopian dream of racial union crushed by social pressures – but Malick avoids it by demanding (as Pocahontas herself demands) that the intimate participants be faithful to the event of love. Smith is here, once again, brother to Breuer in The English-Speaker: in that story (which hinges on the ambiguity of psychoanalytic transference as a basis for – even a definition of – love, a relation that Hitchcock frequently dramatised in both explicit and displaced terms), it is the man who fails the event of love (through fear, obligation, compromise … ), reneges on its contract, and turns away from its Utopian, world-changing potentiality.
Malick’s work is in fact haunted by characters who bail on love – Miranda Otto in The Thin Red Line (the closest to The New World in this regard, since we are shown the montage of rapturous union between the lovers), even (to take a perverse logic internal to the film) Holly in Badlands. But when it is a man who fails love – men enmeshed with the progress of history or civilisation, like Breuer and Smith – there is a significance that strikes at the core of a Western Symbolic Order, with its codes of rationality, discernment and stable identity.
Being faithful to the event of love implies taking a huge gamble – trusting that the mutual fantasy-projection element inherent in this relationship (the Other as the sole possible saviour, as the figure of the New World in all its exotic delight of difference) can survive across into time and reality, inventing in its wake an appropriately transformed social arrangement. The New World is constructed on a constant, painful see-saw between these stark options of reality and dream – where it is asserted, variously, that the dream can replace reality, or overcome it, or change it (“Real – what I thought a dream”) – which is, in another register of 20th century lyricism, the great Surrealist creed of the Marvellous, of permanent revolution; or, by contrast, that the dream is ephemeral, illusory, that it falls away and reality rushes in once more (“It was a dream – now I am awake”). It all leads to the great, immensely sad dialogue couplet (part of a mise en scène and shot découpage that rigorously insists on the separate worlds now inhabited by the characters) in which Smith’s passion for exploration, for opening new vistas on the maps of his culture, becomes – in its very failure – a metaphor for his failure to remain strong and faithful to the love-event: Pocahontas asks, “Did you find your Indies, John? You shall”, and Smith replies, “I may have sailed past them”.
As I write, The New World still feels like a new film, a young film – and my piece thus takes the form of notes, of approaches, because the rush to judgement so typical of contemporary film criticism (more than ever, in the Internet age) seems particularly ill-equipped to take the measure of Malick’s achievement here. We do well to remember that no Malick film has ever been received unanimously well at the moment of its initial release. Key critics and major publications have always had massive reservations on first seeing Malick’s work: re-read Jump Cut on Badlands, Sight and Sound on The Thin Red Line – and Cahiers du cinéma on The New World. In fact, some of the same critiques have circulated, almost verbatim, since 1973: Malick cannot tell a story coherently; you cannot care about the characters; he over-invests in his own status as an auteur-artist; his films are too pretty and too vague; they express a phony, nostalgic innocence for a simpler time; they are ideologically naive, even reactionary; they are formless and meandering in their structures – both undercooked (in the scripting) and overcooked (in post-production). Pauline Kael said of Days of Heaven “The film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it”, (8) and her acolytes have been happy to recycle the terms of that abuse of Malick’s work beyond her death.
But even some of the world’s finest and most progressive critics safeguard their skeptical reservations, as when Jonathan Rosenbaum muses: “When he resorts to some of the exquisite visual syntax of F.W. Murnau's silent cinema, as he did in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, does that mean he also wants us to revert to a 1920s understanding of what these films are about? And if not, how, exactly, does his understanding go beyond the 1920s?” (9) But I remain unconvinced that Malick wants us to adhere to a “1920s understanding” – whatever that would be – any more than other admirers of silent cinema, such as F.J. Ossang or Sharunas Bartas, do when they recreate certain vintage filmic styles for their own present-day ends. It seems clear, given the weaving of so many texts of all kinds from the historic period and since the period, that Malick is not in the business of boxing-in our interpretation in such a conservative manner.
Where The Thin Red Line accumulated its cult reputation quite rapidly (it is, by far, the most written-about Malick film), and was widely considered a masterpiece within two or three years (judging by the many canon polls on the Internet), The New World has experienced a boringly inevitable backlash. The 20-year wait for the former massaged widespread excitement and goodwill, but the (only!) seven-year interval before the latter has invited, bizarrely enough, a jaundiced, seen-it-all-before disenchantment, as if Malick filmed too soon. As well, a curious note of technological savvy had entered, in the interim, the consciousness of many critics: The New World was taken by some (including such normally astute commentators as Thierry Jousse and Dave Kehr) as the worst embodiment of that modern phenomenon known as the AVID film – edited (and perpetually re-edited) on digital computers, which (according to these commentators) encourages maximum freeform sloppiness in the filming, and results in the lack of a strong, overall rhythm or structure in the global montage. (10) Of course, the film also attracted immediate champions (including critic Matt Zoller Seitz and filmmaker Wim Wenders), but their assertions of love were polemically fuelled – and perhaps skewed – by the general indifference they heroically hurled themselves against. (11)
Within the first year of its after-life, however, sensitive revaluations of The New World began to appear – including two, rigorously argued, in Cahiers itself by two critics relatively new to the magazine, Cyril Béghin and Stéphane Delorme, both influenced by the school of figural analysis that emerged in France during the 1990s. (12) They articulate the central aspect upon which subject and form are married in the film: the type of ceaseless montage I described at the beginning of the piece, a swirl of fragments that create a lyric swirl of perpetually metamorphosing identities – on the condition that the process of metamorphosis can either fulfil itself, or become tragically stalled, on the basis of whether the individual subject stays true to the love-event that is taking him or her apart.
There are risks, as well as rewards, in the aesthetic path that Malick appears – especially in light of The Thin Red Line and The New World – to now be on. Placing so much store on a certain kind of on-location improvisation – less of story line or dialogue than of gesture, of expressive action – and leaving the filming wide open in its options with a view to exploiting all-over discontinuity in post-production, creates rich possibilities for a radical, decentred montage structure; but it also places unfamiliar and heavy demands on his actors, and on his own impulsive inspiration at the moment of filming the gesture of an actor’s body in natural space. Like many viewers, my feeling on first viewing the film was that the choreographic work with Kilcher, and the gestures of love between her and Farrell, was far more inspired than the sometimes schematic presentation of the British colonisers in their foaming, decrepit anger (although this makes logical, systematic sense: the colonisers are too much themselves, too static, too fixed in their social roles).
Yet I firmly believe – and time has proven this true of Malick’s previous films – that one needs to suspend conventional, normative judgements of what works and what does not in The New World. For what is truly experimental in it – its polyphonic weave of image and sound, its exploration of a philosophy of love, its subtle evocation of the weave of and breakdown between cultures – is far more difficult to grasp, and far more open to cinema’s future, than what seems (perhaps deceptively) familiar.
Writing ten years after the appearance of Badlands, Brian Henderson began his discussion of the film by attempting to bracket off all those distortions introduced by what he termed “polemical dispute”: defensiveness, anger, dismissal, over-investment. The appearance of subsequent Malick movies, according to Henderson, merely “further complicated” the emotional murk on this battlefield. “This is not a favourable background for the serious criticism of any work”, concluded Henderson, “still less for that open-ended exploration which a new and unstudied work invites”. (13)
Actually, pondering Henderson’s sage advice, it strikes me that love of a Malick film is rather like love in a Malick film – especially The New World. The element of fantasy-investment – the haste to enshrine the film, secure it a place within a precariously shifting cultural history – is an unavoidable drama, hard to separate one’s “better self” from. This drama leads, inevitably, to both an inner experience of intense euphoria and a kind of aphasia that can only speak its name in the ineffable language of love – a sort of lyric dance around what is unspeakable in the work, beyond words, beyond rationalisation, a pure potential or possibility which registers as a kind of Utopia.
At the same, staying faithful to the profound event of each Malick film (like each Carl Dreyer or Víctor Erice film) imposes on the lover the obligation to say more, to speak clearly, to move from assertion to analysis and thus, somehow, ground in reality the verifiable concrete materiality of the work – without snuffing out the feeling that it prompted within oneself in the first place. Malick’s films take time, in every sense: they carve out a sense of time beyond everyday reality as well as everyday cinema, and they require a long, slow intimacy – successive periods of appreciation, description, critique and revaluation. Every Malick film still beckons, to those of us who love them, as something “new and unstudied”, an experience demanding its witnesses and its testament.
There are three versions of The New World:
the general international release version of 135 minutes; a 150 minute version
briefly circulated at the start of its public life (at the 2006 Berlinale and
as a screener to achieve eligibility for Oscar nomination) and then withdrawn;
and a definitive 172 minute “director’s cut” (although all three were cut by
the director!). All versions subsequently became available on the Criterion
Blu-ray edition of 2016, with precedence there given to the third. back
See Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms
of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (London: British Film Institute,
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental
Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 157. back
Brian Henderson, “Exploring Badlands”, Wide Angle, Vol. 5 No. 4 (1983), p.
Pierre-Yves Pétillon, “Trajectoires à propos du Nouveau Monde de Terrence Malick”, Panic, no. 3 (2006), pp. 88-101. 2018 postscript: This remarkable piece remains sadly unknown in the
vast English-language annals of Malick criticism and scholarship. back
See Alain Badiou with Nicolas Truong, In
Praise of Love (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2012). back
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (London: Zenith, 1982), p. 137. back
See Thierry Jousse, “Munich, Malick
et la politique des auteurs”, Panic, no.
3 (2006), pp. 25-27; Kehr’s remarks (“Malick as Messiah”) are no longer online
at his webpage. 2018 postscript:
undoubtedly the most reprehensible instance of Malick backlash from a noted
critic to have emerged in the past decade – and even before the extremities of Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017)! – is Robert
Koehler, “What the Hell Happened with Terrence Malick?”, Cineaste, Vol. 38 No. 4 (2013), pp. 4-9. back
Cyril Béghin, “Princesse montage”, Cahiers
du cinéma, no. 617 (November 2006), pp. 95-96; Stéphane Delorme, “Un
lyrisme élégiaque”, Cahiers du cinéma,
no. 619 (January 2007), pp. 86-88. back
Henderson, “Exploring Badlands”, p.
© Adrian Martin April 2007