New World, TheReviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 12/23/05 17:39:17
“You take an artifact and bury it in the sand for a thousand years and it becomes priceless.” That’s paraphrasing an infamous French archaeologist right there, but it holds true for any period of wanton waiting. How many nights did film lovers lay awake wondering when Terrence Malick (resume all of two films) would return to the cinema? Star Wars fans didn’t have to wait as long as this collective did. When he ended his twenty-year hiatus he came with The Thin Red Line, wildly overpraised as the answer to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (released in the same year, but still a solid half-movie with the striking visuals that Malick specialized in. It’s rambling second half may have been the result of a six-hour original cut that needed to be trimmed in half to satisfy a theatrical running time. Or maybe it was something more trivial. Could it be that Malick is just an overvalued Fotomat employee whose legend grew over decades after making only two respected films and then walking away? Legendary critic Pauline Kael said that “when the director dies, he becomes a photographer.” If that’s the case, Malick has been dead for over 30 years.Malick’s film begins as they all seem to – with water, soon followed by wind. Like The Thin Red Line, an untouched land populated by the peace of a tribal existence is about to be invaded by the crude “man” looking to make it their own. The foundation of Jamestown is a legendary moment in the history books clouded by the fable of John Smith and Pocahontas. Malick punctuates the arrival of the English ships with Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”, whose opening is the operatic equivalent of someone falling asleep on an organ’s keys and is a fitting metaphor of things to come as we wonder when the one-note torture will end.
The first act of business for the arriving settlers is to hang John Smith (Colin Farrell) for treason for mutinously speaking out of turn on board. (For all we know he suggested Rex Grossman should be starting over Kyle Orton for the Bears.) Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) spares his life only to give him a different kind of death sentence, leading an expedition into the land of the “naturals.” When Smith is captured, he is spared again by the tribal king’s young daughter (Q’orianka Kilcher) whose name escapes me, just as it does the film.
You can spin this act of kindness anyway you want, but since there’s no suggestion that death rules this land and she saves him to start a new trend, it comes off as nothing more than teenage hormones taking a shine to this brooding, veral outsider. Their relationship is tender, presented in the jump-cut style that directors love to use when they haven’t really written a scene or have a desire to craft a film directly from coverage. Jump isn’t the appropriate term to describe a Malick film. It certainly does leap from one moment to the next but because there is no craftsmanship whatsoever on the narrative level, high drama and emotions are replaced with a highlight reel composed of middles without any beginnings or ends. Between the Smith-wanna-poke-a-hontas relationship, the seditious behavior back in Jamestown and the fear of the naturals that their kindness may be turned against them, a story as vast of The New World should serve as more than just a footnote in American history and a stain on the art of storytelling for all eternity.
It’s time for Malick fans to have a serious gut-check and compare notes on precisely what they are praising. How often do we read of films with unnecessary narration, treating the audience as dummies with needless exposition and inner monologues that have scholars screaming “don’t say it, show it.” Malick plays both sides, showing everything with minimalist dialogue, characterization and narrative and then using not one but multiple narrators all jockeying for position over whose story this really is. There’s no reason it can’t be about Smith, Hontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) who shows up nearly two hours in to take over monologuing duties. As written by Malick though, the more we hear their inner thoughts the more distant we become to who they are and what drives their course of action. To say Ferrell is lost as John Smith is understandable since all he gets to do is look into the distance and seem generally baffled at what’s going on around him. Even Bale, one of the most dynamic actors working today, is reduced to stiff romantic pining and like Ferrell’s Smith is devoid of any substantiated emotion. Kilcher, by contrast, comes off better because she’s a newcomer unsaddled with the baggage of solid work.
What may be the most telling anecdote ever about the misshapen allegiance of Malick’s supporters is that at the screening I attended in Chicago, about halfway through the film one of the theater speakers blew. It took nearly 15 minutes for anyone to identify this because everyone honestly felt it a stylistic choice made by the director. Bad sound! That’s what they were convinced of – that such an artist was he that he would intentionally muddle the sounds of a battle sequence and the ensuing dialogue to make his great work of art about the seminal founding and collapse of the modern Eden. If it were any more obtuse, The New World would be a flipbook where the moving picture was obscured by a thumb drawn over the stick figures.Yet Malick continues to get a pass as the directorial God who has still only made FOUR FILMS! He is the Seinfeld speed myth (“I choose not to run”) of absence and fonder hearts. Strike his name off the credits and you will find a different tone from those following the laws of criticism that have wisely propped up generations of filmmakers from Scorsese-to-P.T. Anderson, Spielberg-to-Jackson and Kubrick-to-Cronenberg. Hits and misfires for all of them, but none with the singular audacity to alienate the non-existent limits of the filmmaker and storyteller which stretches the limits of our patience like Mr. Fantastic reaching for Neptune. If Malick wants to continue this course of action then I suggest he give Philip Glass a call and he can Fantasia any collection of images he wants. IMAX them for all I care in a porno theater and let his admirers pleasure themselves to the sounds of ambient noises until there’s a slip-n-slide so forceful in the aisles that they bump their heads and begin hearing their own inner monologues telling them that Malick was a bad choice. Or if he wants to tell a story – then he can tell it to a director or a screenwriter who knows a little something about filmmaking and leave us the option of staying home to watch somebody else’s home movies.
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