Craig Wright on Malick's “The New World”
I came home last night feeling empty, watched Terrence Malick's “The New World,” and got up two-plus hours later mesmerized. This was my second viewing — the first was at the Lagoon Theater three years ago — and back then I wasn't overly impressed. But “The Thin Red Line” means so much to me I wanted to try it again, and for whatever reason this time it took.
It's almost a silent film, isn't it? There's very little dialogue and I'm a dialogue man. Just images, voiceovers, music, glory. Its beginning shares a lot with the beginning of “Thin Red Line,” and parts of it almost fit into the grooves dug by “Dances with Wolves,” which is why, I believe, so many people (and maybe me) had a problem with it. But it doesn't slip into those grooves. Capt. John Smith is tempted but doesn't go over — even as he wonders why he doesn't go over. It's a moment with which I thoroughly identified. Why stay here when my heart and happiness is somewhere else? The only answer, really, is momentum. And then suddenly it's too late.
Three years ago I had a breakfast conversation about “The New World” with my friend Craig Wright, a playwright, head writer for “Six Feet Under” and creator of “Dirty Sexy Money,” and I was so blown away by what he said I encouraged him to write it all down and I would get it in print. I forgot the first law of Lundegaard: I can't sell shit. After numerous attempts it went nowhere. It's been sitting on my desktop all this time. So here it is. It's nice to finally get it out in the world, new or not, world or not.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, or GO SEE “THE NEW WORLD”
By Craig Wright
Near the end of “The New World,” there is a ravishing sequence in which the camera chases Pocahontas through a manicured garden somewhere in England. Having met the King and Queen and then, far more importantly, having reconfirmed her affections with her husband John Rolfe after bidding a touchingly brief farewell to her handsome but faithless ex-paramour John Smith, she is found playing hide-and-seek in a garden with her and Rolfe’s young son, during the brief time that was supposed to directly precede the family’s return to America. As she and the laughing boy race past the meticulously well-managed hedges, however, Rolfe (in voice-over) tells his son, in a letter meant to be read in years to come, how his mother died unexpectedly only weeks later, without ever returning to America. As Rolfe commends his dead wife’s love and hopes to the grown son she’ll never know, the boy vanishes from the sequence and the accelerating camera chases Pocahontas alone past the carefully-tended topiary as the sweeping strains of the Overture from “Das Rheingold” (a piece of music used only once before in the movie, when the two cultures, English and Powhatan, first glimpsed each other through the trees) rise and rise.
The feeling one gets as all these meanings are so carefully gathered up and thrown at the sky is nothing short of ecstatic. This brief glorious sequence of pursuit through greenery has a complicated provenance, however, that, once explicated, may make it even more appealing to viewers unwilling to be moved by mere majesty.
Near the end of Malick’s previous film, “The Thin Red Line,” there is an equally pivotal sequence of pursuit through a verdant world. In that scene, Witt, the visionary pacifist caught in a world of bloody conflict (played by Jim Caviezel), is chased through the jungle by a group of Japanese soldiers whose attention he has diverted in order to buy his trapped compatriots time to escape. Both of Malick’s two other films, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” also ended with similar chase scenes. In “Badlands,” Martin Sheen played “Kit,” an amoral serial killer who was ultimately pursued into the woods by the law, a law with whom we were able to sympathize due to the cold and chillingly random nature of Kit’s crimes. In “Days of Heaven,” Richard Gere’s character “Bill” met his end in the heart of green nature as well, and again at the hands of law enforcement officials, but in that film the murder he’d committed was in self-defense, and our sympathies, as he was shot down by his thoroughly unpleasant-looking nemesis, were with him. Malick’s protagonist had evolved from sadistic animal to confused Everyman. He was one of us.
Witt, however, as he runs through the jungle at the end of “The Thin Red Line,” self-consciously sacrificing his own life to save the lives of others, isn’t one of us. He’s better. The setting is the same as ever – wild green nature – and the basic conflict is the same – it’s a scene of pursuit – but the moral content of the story Malick is telling has now risen considerably. He’s no longer dispassionately watching and, in the case of “Badlands,” aestheticizing random violence, nor is he compassionately recounting the bloody outcome of a mythic misunderstanding, as he did in “Days of Heaven.” In the closing moments of “The Thin Red Line” he’s saying, “This is how we should be. Placed as we are, against our will, in a world of unavoidable violence, we should, when it becomes necessary, give ourselves up to death in place of others. This is what it means to be a human being. It is in the freedom and the will to choose our own annihilation for the sake of others that our humanity resides.” In “The Thin Red Line,” Malick goes out on a limb and unapologetically advocates for a moral ideal, and in doing so, he – Terrence Malick, the filmmaker – becomes one of us. Even when we grant that human morality is only a fragile parenthesis within a much larger, amoral natural world, to see this moral development in Malick’s protagonists from one work to the next, to glimpse the vector of his deepest ethical concerns arcing upward through his oeuvre, is inspiring.
So how does the sequence of pursuit through greenery with which Malick brings “The New World” to its stunning conclusion relate to these earlier scenes? Unlike Kit and Bill, Pocahontas has committed no crime: she’s not being pursued by the law. Is she then, like Witt in “The Thin Red Line,” self-consciously giving herself up for the sake of others? No way. Are we really willing to assume that Terrence Malick would sell us, for ten bucks a pop, a vision of noble savagery, personified in a beautiful young woman, willingly sacrificed on the altar of Progress? No. In the closing moments of “The New World,” Pocahontas is neither fleeing justice or creating it in some cinematic hieroglyph of an historical suicide mission.
She is running for pleasure – pleasure and play – into a new world that is manicured and managed but still brilliantly, beautifully green. She is chased into that world, in the name of love, by her son, who vanishes from the screen and is immediately replaced by us, the modern viewers whose deepest roots still run all the way back to her experience and beyond. Malick and his camera chase his heroine into a new world beyond crime, beyond justice, beyond sacrifice and beyond the need for it, into a world of Life caught up in the adventure of coming to know and experience Itself in all its variety. Critics who characterize “The New World” as a naive binary discourse between an innocent natural realm of noble savages and a hideous realm of acculturated conquerors with English accents miss the point. The finely-tuned greenery into which Malick’s heroine finally rushes isn’t a natural world ruined by culture. It is an obviously constructed environment where nature and culture coexist peacefully – not without effort, certainly, but without sadism and cruelty. That carefully-crafted garden into which Pocahontas rushes, as real and artificial as the medium of film itself, is the true pattern of Malick’s “real” New World, a place where the pain and beauty of change find themselves in a peaceful if not completely painless balance.
As the leaping theme of “Das Rheingold” reminds us in those last few precious seconds, “The New World” was discovered by both the English and the Powhatans the moment they met, and is rediscovered every day, in all its messy, sometimes bloody complexity, by anyone willing to open their eyes to a world full of beauty and difference and see it.
Robert Frost said, of poetry, “You have to hold something back, for pressure.” So too, Malick ends his latest masterpiece with a similar sense of restraint. The breathless, racing, heart-filling acceleration suddenly stops without warning and is replaced – like that! — by the almost-perfect stillness of ancient trees. They are seen from the ground, far far below, from the humble human point of view that doesn’t know why it was born or why it has to die, that looks helplessly, wonder-fully up at the silent world that somehow, in its wordlessness, says everything. With that in mind, I will resist the triumphalism my enthusiasm thinks it requires, and stop here: see “The New World.”