Sunday, July 15, 2007

Film Nerd: "The New World"


One of the best things about blogging is writing on topics you want to write about, when you want to write about them.

For example, this take on Terrence Malick’s “The New World” is pure pleasure, because the film is so lovely and because the scribe loves Terrence Malick’s films.

If you don’t know (and it’s okay if you don’t) Malick has done two classics, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.” His 1999 epic, “The Thin Red Line” is just as artful and riveting as the prior two, but it seemed to pass without much-ado.

Since the earlier “classics” were made before his time, the highway scribe is not sure there was much-ado about them, either. There was little-ado about “The New World” despite its obviously sizeable budget and the marquis name of Colin whatever his name is...the Irish guy.

That’s what’s so great about Malick: He somehow gets big money to do films only a few people will care about; the few, the proud...the poets!

Yes, there is more than a little that is self-conscious and pretentious about Malick’s films. They scream to be considered great “art.”

And they deliver.

Just so you know, here in Los Angeles/Hollywood, “Days of Heaven” is very popular amongst working thespians of all ages and classes and, as such, held up for special derision by agents and other elements of the film-merchant class.

And that’s because Malick is a pain in their ass with his four lousy films in thirty years and the prickly insinuation to romantics that such topics and treatment are appropriate to the business of shows, or show business.

In his “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” Gordon Lightfoot sings about a time in the new world, “When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.”

highwayscribery hoped “The New World” would somehow capture that time and sense of things, because if Malick couldn’t, nobody else would.

In “The New World,” the director mostly succeeds and that’s because in most of his films nature is not an object of subjugation by the characters traipsing all over it, but an equal protagonist.

Nature lurked in “Days of Heaven” where tiny creatures crawled in holes beneath the feet of the flawed characters, and others took to the sky and destroyed an entire prairie world inhabited by Malick the screenwriter’s losers.

So, in a time where people are only sprinkled across the continent like so much apple seed, and those with the deepest roots seem more a part of the landscape than dominators of it, Malick’s eye for animal spirits great and small is a boon to his efforts.

Nonetheless, the director’s script is largely waylaid by his choice of actress to the play the role of Pocahontas; the Indian princess who fell in love with Captain John Smith and later married into English aristocracy through another guy named John Rolfe (played by Christian Bale).

To say 15-year old Q’orianka Kilcher steals the show is to overlook the fact she steals the whole story.

Sure the troubles of the scurvy sailors and mercenaries who settle Jamestown in Virginia are interesting enough; the weird and blind conviction they possess, their mistrust of one another, their complete freak-out at being in such a strange and wild place.

Still it is a hard to focus on them when Kilcher is running about barefoot, playing a mid-Atlantic forest sprite, regal and childish, earthy yet modern, stern but soft, rendering countless other shadings of emotion that seem to come from some place beyond the “actress” in her.

Her body movements and gestures as Indian princess, while predictable and obvious, are invested with such genuine spirit it’s hard to forget you’re not really looking at Pocahontas, because you don’t want to.

She makes suspension of belief a kind of necessary narcotic.

Her turn as Indian ends broken-heartedly enough (for Pocahontas and ourselves) when the English fit her for shoes and her spirit gains an unhealthy weight. Even so, as the film makes a “costumer” turn, Kilcher moves easily from evoking the “natural” spirit (as the colonists call the Indians), to a perfect model girl for cool and old clothes.

You will accuse the scribe with having lost the story for the girl and you would be right. the scribe would tell you that film is very much the business of the pretty girl; that years ago when he schlepped his indie creation from festival to festival it was a marvel to see how every striving movie team showed up and shopped their girl...how the sale was all about the poster, which was all about the feminine face that graced it.

Malick’s familiar touches are there beneath Kilcher’s shimmering personality, framing and exalting her: the lyric voice-overs, the meandering storyline, and hard-to-discern dialogue.

He’s a visual film guy. Exactly what people are saying is incidental because you get the drift and Malick loves leaving you with nothing more than the drift.

Always has.

His power lies in sequences such as that wherein the Indian emissary, sent by Pocahontas’ father to check out England, walks through the stately gardens and architectural marvels of the old world so different from his own.

Always understated. The natural doesn’t need to (over)react before what he sees, because somehow you are him and understand fully. When Pocahontas dies, Malick delivers a haunting touch -- an Indian spirit astride a throne in one of the English palaces suddenly abandons it -- and Pocohantas, still dressed as an English lady bounds by the river bank, a Indian dryad once more...

...Closing her own circle: new in the old world; old in the new.

1 comment:

Joe Bender said...

Steve,

It's your friend who is thoroughly incapable of corresponding by any method (electronic or otherwise) and thereby staying in touch. But your blog is in my favorites, so I do occasionally drop by to check in on you. Since I am doing some serious procrastinating this morning and I loved "The New World" and I see that you've taken up the "Sport of Kings", I thought now would be an appropriate time to give you a shout out... "Yo, what's up motherfucker!"

On the topic of surfing, visit http://www.jebender.net and click on the photo at the top of the page for photos of a surf trip to Tonga that Ian and I took February 2006. Going to Sri Lanka in September on another surf junket.

Also, I live a block away from a popular beginners spot, so if you ever have the urge to visit NorCal...

Keep it up my brother!