Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Terence Malick takes us back to the beginning of America as if back to the beginning of time itself. Water, wind, fire, the sun and the moon, The New World revitalises the first of symbols by pruning away at their pabular metaphorical entanglements. Here they are no more than what they are - life itself.
In Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line similar compositions of sunsets and swaying fields appeared somewhat cool in their glossy impeccability. I think there is a difference between a beautiful view in real life and a beautiful cinematic image; a distinction that is hard to quantify and a skill difficult to master.
The slow sunrise in Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, for example, did not for me have anything like the sheer force of a sunrise outside of the theatre. There is an altogether separate and possibly unconscious mindset when approaching art and the representation of the real. In The New World the beautiful of our world is not only preserved in the transition to the screen but heightened, our senses always pricked to the clanking of sails, the crackle of thunder, the rustling of leaves.
As threadbare as the phrase may be, The New World really is pure cinema. Its images are its heart and they slide with such graceful ease into ours like the oiled hull of a boat through the tide.
Ephemeral and eternal, the title The New World refers to the first steps on American soil, the first shivers of love, the first glimpse of heaven (the tall trees stretching ever upward are like the spires of great Cathedrals) And yet it catches us between the old and the new, at the cusp of transcendence and at the threshold of understanding. It feels like we are slipping in and out of consciousness, sometimes within, sometimes without, sometimes just lost - internal monologues, wordless sequences, moments that seem like meadow-bound dreams and ones that are live and filthy and crawling. 1st, 2nd, 3rd person narratives pass balletically across each other.
Thus The New World is an immersion. It does not want you to pass by on the waters as the English ships, but dive beneath as the natives. Once he is taken captive, captivated by Pocahontas, Smith swims in the ocean.
However, this is not conveyed as a two-dimensional tract on the evils of materialism or a call to return to man's essence as there is no hard and fast dichotomy made between pure-of-heart 'naturals' and English 'invaders'. We see that, through fear and mistrust, both sides jealously guard what is theirs and both sides may turn to violence in defence of it. Captain Smith's dialogue is not ours or the film's. We can see beyond the idea of love and paradise that has so enchanted him and the glimpse of heaven is rapidly revealed to be the distorted face of a mirage.
However, love and openness can bridge any divide, a divide between cultures, the vast Atlantic itself. In the honourable, steadfast and strong John Rolfe 'Rebecca' finds the truth that lies behind the myths of peoples and idealised emotions and sees that is something even deeper and even more powerful:
"Mother, I know where you live".
Words, words, words. Is it ever enough in film criticism to say with humility and awe that something is beautiful and yet not know exactly how or why? Is its beauty any less if its nature is not finally comprehended? Or is it greater still when it is too overwhelming and too ethereal to seize and hold to one's breast?
Posted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett at 17:22