Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Spirit of Eden

As Cannes finally midwives The Tree of Life, I am reminded again how remarkably whole Terrence Malick’s oeuvre feels, seemingly complete after only a handful of features, yet always ready to welcome a new member to the family. His films, so emotionally accessible yet narratively confounding on first look, reveal upon further viewings a stunning philosophical clarity. It’s all the more astonishing given that this kind of singular reach for the ineffable is generally associated with the medium’s infamous control freaks. Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Scorsese never hid their hand on the till, hewing away at their privately torturous masterpieces before unveiling their monoliths for the apes to dance around. Malick’s cinema, by comparison, always seems to drift in from some hazy birth chamber on its way to somewhere definitively Else, moving horizontally rather than vertically. His faith in images and sound, using cinema’s basic technical properties to convey thought, emotion, personality, and event, makes him a vital figure in total cinema, film as a self-contained art form with its own ineffable language. Yet he never untethers himself from human experience, using his distinct art to sink deeper into subjectivity, even as his movies grow more fragmented in their editing and cinematography and his subjects grow so vast as to appear untamable. Tree of Life was, of course, inevitable from the title on down, but he’s been traveling this road all along.

All of Malick’s features thus far (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) center on rebirth. An old life is hinted at, only to be swallowed up in some new paradise. As with Claire Denis’s aptly named L’Intrus, the new images “intrude” on receptive minds, reducing them to awed rubble—and Malick is after his audience in this regard as much as his characters. To accuse the director of naïve stargazing, as many have, misses the flipside of these blazing visions: the rot at the core of escapism, manifested in the blur of barely-seen (but blisteringly felt) violence that slices into his movies. Rapture is followed by rupture, and there’s a hint of self-critique in Malick’s work, as if simply by photographing these hidden places, he himself is tracing their doom. On one of my many plunges back into The New World, I put on Talk Talk’s alternately calm and shattering Spirit of Eden: not only an uncannily appropriate soundtrack, but also a fitting alternate title for the film itself.

The Eden story is the guiding myth at the core of all of Malick’s work, as the Gospels are to Scorsese and Peter Pan is to Spielberg. Yet people understand Raging Bull and E.T. almost innately, so primordial is their pull; why do even those who appreciate the intense beauty of Malick’s films so often end up confused by them? (I include myself here—I know I love The Thin Red Line, but I’ve yet to be able to properly explain why.) Part of the problem with “getting” Malick, one of cinema’s definitive acquired tastes, is the question of perspective: to whom do these films belong? Whose story are they telling, really? Again, Malick never insists upon his own artistry in the fashion of so many past and present masters; yet his protagonists are broken vessels, feeling their way through unfamiliar landscapes and dilemmas, rarely showing us more than a gesture or a flicker of the eye. Both authorship and identification (whatever those fluid words end up meaning in context) are stymied by these intimate epics, homesick diary entries that end up containing the universe. (Tree of Life looks to have made this duality literal.) Is Eden ultimately about God, or Adam and Eve? Or something else entirely?

Malick’s twist on the Genesis legacy is his positioning of Eden, not as a beginning, but as a transition. The characters only wish it was a beginning. These are self-created Edens, oases that must inevitably fall. As such, the colonial mythology of Jamestown, John Smith and Pocahontas—the origin fable of the great cracked vessel of modernity, the perilously self-created Eden that is the United States—was a perfect fit. As long as we’re on the national question: another cause of the confusion that greets Malick’s features may be that his politics are subsumed by the imagery, yet undeniably present, humming beneath the surface. Malick’s take on colonialism isn’t a rapacious, condemning hell, but just another sorrowful tale of a false fresh start. Ultimately, Malick’s interpretation of his country’s roots cuts deeper than (if not as savagely as) There Will Be Blood, an equally demanding volcano of a movie that nevertheless keeps its gaze squarely fixed on its fiery scarecrow of a protagonist. The New World moves with impossible grace through the seduced (and seducing) Captain/President/exile John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the submissive (and dominant) Princess/gentlewoman Pocahontas/Rebecca (Q’Orianka Kilcher). As that last clusterfuck of a sentence might indicate, power and identity are too fluid to exert any kind of control over The New World, which may partly explain the mass polite shrug that greeted the film’s release. There is simply no handrail: the movie never stops moving.

Of course, having Christian Bale play a loving, impossibly reserved farmer (probably his best work outside Empire of the Sun) couldn’t have helped the miserable box office returns. But such is Malick’s complex relationship to Hollywood: it’s when he dances close to something like traditional narration that his unique priorities are thrown into stark relief. The casting of bona fide movie stars Farrell and Bale to essentially act with their eyes (while rightly ceding more and more ground to Kilcher, a previously unknown teenager who gives the performance of the decade) is a classic example, as is James Horner’s ecstatic, snapping score that never actually resolves. Malick, however, is always as much micro as macro, and The New World most clearly shows its hand in a single moment, repeated.


Cap’n Smith returns from his revelatory life in the forest to find Jamestown a wrecked hell, dilapidated and gray, its people starving while they dig for nonexistent gold. These rapidly edited shots of desperation and greed may have struck the sort of critic who sneered at Farrell and Kilcher shyly chasing each other through the woods as a more correct presentation of colonial history. Smith tearfully agrees (“It was a dream, now I am awake”), but Malick doesn’t, and shoots and edits his interpretation accordingly.

The overarching concept of The New World—that of civilizations in contact, in ways both loving and violent—is a familiar one, and in most versions, the political tumult that awaits Smith in Jamestown takes center stage. Think of the royal houses jockeying for position in Dune, or more recently, the gone-native bro taking on the corporate military in Avatar. White dudes struggle over the fate of the Other and the frontier world itself. Obviously, this focus oversimplifies and detracts from other voices—while humankind’s instincts towards peace and war are the subject of much agonized debate in Avatar, the native Nav’i shift from “Every death is a tragedy” to “Blow the fuck out of those gunships” with nary a moment’s reflection on their part or the film’s. More broadly speaking, however, granting these power plays control over fate reduces narration to a breathless blow-by-blow, with no opportunity for reflection on context: what’s happening outside the frame?

I can only imagine audiences ready for bloody, self-important catharsis after 45 minutes of montages of trees must’ve been permanently put off the film by the tone Malick takes toward the struggle for control in Jamestown, which approaches outright mockery. And why shouldn’t it be, given what an unsustainable wreck the town has become? What are they fighting for? I recall the reason my father gave for leaving academia: “Everyone was so petty, yet the stakes were so low,” an apt caption for The New World’s middle hour. Smith is threatened with execution for treason by a local blowhard, who is immediately shot by another. The dull-eyed men clumsily elect Smith as their new leader. All of this is conveyed in wide, slow, circular takes, eschewing the close-ups and low-angle shots traditionally used to grant dramatic urgency or individual primacy to this type of confrontation. The men speak over each other, reducing monologues to a dull, discontented murmur. The period clothing, forefronted in a film like Marie Antoinette, is shown up as so much pompous pageantry, meaning little and less against the emphasized backdrop of devastated Jamestown. (In this regard, Malick is working in a similar milieu to Kubrick, specifically Barry Lyndon.) In all this motion, there’s no pretension of justice being done—Malick’s Steadicam swings symmetrically from the gun that shot down the blowhard to Smith’s sword pointed at the killer’s throat. I could find names for these men, as they have historical equivalents, but as you can guess by this point, it doesn’t much matter. Malick’s focus is clearly elsewhere.

President Smith is put to work disciplining men who stabbed one another over a disagreement on the date, but he doesn’t hold the tenuous office for long. The asshole that shot the blowhard to save Smith’s life tears Smith down in turn. The mob that elected the Captain turns on him. We catch a glimpse of Farrell (on the right) borne down by the weight of his people as his replacement cackles, “You’re no longer in command, Smithy!”

A couple more images flit by. And then again, accompanied by a new shot:

“You’re no longer in command, Smithy!”

The New World is edited like no other blockbuster. Malick is famous for assembling his films in the editing booth (the 95-minute Days of Heaven spent two painstaking years there) and for both discarding dialogue scenes and instructing actors to silently act out sections of the script, an order that Farrell especially seems to have taken to with a will. The New World approaches history like a time-lapse photograph, addressing the massive changes in places and people from some stable (though not removed) vantage point. Sequences like the one above, though utterly antithetical to the familiar expository arc exemplified (superbly) by the Lord of the Rings adaptations, are commonplace in The New World. Again and again, shots convey glimpses of place and event, edited together to give a rushing sense of time stretched and then collapsed, as if the sheer beauty of the images within has seduced the very fabric of the film.

Appropriately, then, the crushing ugliness of Jamestown is instead conveyed through the expansive long takes such as the one that sweeps Smith to power. The sequence above is a break in the pattern, and calls attention to itself as such.

A reluctant leader brought down by the desperate mob while his rival cackles and gives him a pet name: a shot that wouldn’t feel too out of place in Disney’s take on this legend. Yet by repeating this atypical moment, Malick exposes not only its stupidity, but also its smallness. What might’ve been the big string-sweeping introduction to the explosive third act in another movie is here plucked out of the stream of images and given a wry shake of the head. It’s not an inciting peak, it’s a moment like any other in the vast body plan of history, swept back up as soon as it’s exposed. A tree in a forest. This is a transcendence-minded appropriation of Soviet montage cinema, treating even the breaking points as simply elements of an irreducible whole. The New World is all breaking points, but none of them can claim independent agency, and so the film never ages. I always remember the beauty, but relatively few of the thousands of images, and so it feels new each time.

Whose viewpoint are we being given access to in this sequence? Perhaps the same question: if not any of the principal humans (including Malick), who’s really in charge of The New World? Kilcher, Farrell, and Bale all get meditative voiceovers, but nature itself is the narrator here. The green world is alive and overflowing in every frame, dominating (as in Days of Heaven) the film’s groundbreaking soundscapes, present even in loud, urban London—witness the indelible sequence in which Opechancanough (Wes Studi), having made the cross-Atlantic journey “to see this God they speak so much about,” marvels at a topiary garden. But again, The New World never ascends to Olympian heights on us, as the film’s long tracking shots regard humans with a mixture of adoring bemusement and horrified sympathy. The film begins with Kilcher offering a prayer to the entity she calls Mother, and the natural world as represented here looks upon us as wayward children—European and Native American as combative siblings, capable of both piercing insight and terrible error, both elements of growing up. That repeated moment could be an embarrassing snapshot in a photo album, returned to with fondness when the kids have grown up and left Eden. Weren’t we silly, thinking our little struggles meant so much? But that doesn’t make us stupid, it just makes us us.

In the film’s radical, cut-and-paste refraction of the big-budget Hollywood epic, Malick argues that history itself breaks down at these flashpoints—the meeting of civilizations leaves humans (and their movies) literally without language, and we have to begin anew. The New World is historically inaccurate in the same way that Guernica is spatially inaccurate, and Malick’s masterpiece is worthy of mention alongside Picasso’s. The film doesn’t elide or distort history, it reflects upon and transcends it, less concerned with nailing down what was and more curious about what it meant and means. It’s the cinematic proof of Thoreau’s world-preserving wildness, Whitman’s hopeful green stuff, and Carlin’s big electron. As the latter might say: just shut up for a second and listen to the fucker hum.

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