Monday, May 07, 2007

At the gates of Eden

Back in town and - thankfully, after two awful weeks on Flintstones-era dial-up - back up on a working DSL connection ...

There's much about the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in the news these days, including Queen Elizabeth's recent visit. And by coincidence this weekend I finally saw Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD, a slightly fact/slightly fiction retelling of the first days at Jamestown and the love affair between Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher).

Malick is a filmmaker who divides audiences into two camps. You're either mesmerized by his films or bored to tears. I fall solidly into the former. I've seen THE THIN RED LINE half a dozen times, and could watch it a half dozen more. If I decide to watch five minutes and no more, I end up surfacing an hour later, only vaguely aware of how much time has passed. You don't watch Malick's films, you climb inside them - or not, depending on your tolerance for multiple voiceovers and endless shots of waving grass and monkeys chattering in trees.

For some reason, however, I'd never seen THE NEW WORLD until now, put off perhaps by the mixed reviews and the fluctuating running times (the DVD contains Malick's shorter, tighter 135-minute cut, as opposed to the 150-minute premiere cut). I should have known better. It's a masterpiece.

All of Malick's films are, in one way or another, about the expulsion from Eden, and THE NEW WORLD is perhaps the ultimate realization of that theme. It's also the most moving of Malick's films. While its historical canvas is an epic one, its central tale is simple, compact and universal. Where does love live? How does it grow - or die? Released from chains when his ship reaches the strip of land that will become Jamestown, Smith learns to connect with both the natural world around him, and the true, pure heart of an Indian princess, whom he eventually abandons. It would be merely storybook cliche, if Malick and his actors didn't make it all feel so achingly real.

Smith's story is played against - and echoes - the larger historical context. The settlers dig for gold rather than plant corn, and ultimately starve as the result. Smith finds the love that makes him whole and then leaves her to pursue rumored passages to other seas. But when does the quest end? At what point does one recognize the riches around them? Or find that what they've been seeking has in fact been there for the nurturing all along? To quote Emerson, whose work resounds in Malick's films, "To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven."

In a heartbreaking scene late in the film, Smith and Pocahontas - now known by her English name of Rebecca - are reunited a final time in England. In the interim, she has married a farmer, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and given birth to a son. "Did you find your Indies, John?" she asks. The look in Farrell's eyes - longing, regret, pain - says it all, but the next line drives it home. "I may have sailed past them" he admits.

I could go on, but much more cogent and in-depth discussions can be found in the vicinity of here.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

We thought it brilliant too, but the people we went with thought it a colossal bore and Malick full of himself. Were we watching the same movie?