Subject to (Alphabet) availablility
tonight's film screening will be
THE NEW WORLD
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/dec ... nce-malick
This decade hasn't been up to much, movie-wise, but I am more than ever convinced that when every other scrap of celluloid from 2000-2009 has crumbled to dust, one film will remain, like some Ozymandias-like remnant of transient vanished glory in the desert. And that film is The New World, Terrence Malick's American foundation myth, which arrived just as the decade reached its dismal halfway point, in January 2006.
It's been said that The New World doesn't have fans: it has disciples and partisans and fanatics. I'm one of them, and my fanaticism burns undimmed 30 or more viewings later. The New World is a bottomless movie, almost unspeakably beautiful and formally harmonious. The movie came and went within a month, and its critical reception was characterised for the most part by bafflement, condescension, lazy ridicule and outright hostility. And, less often, by faintly hysterical accolades written too soon and in terms too overheated to convey understanding. I know, I wrote one of them.
I was lucky. I saw the movie at 10 in the morning, on 20 minutes' notice. I knew only that it was about Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, and was directed by the man who made Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. I saw it on a screen the size of a warehouse wall, boasting a state-of-the-art sound system that picked out every insect whirr and birdcall, every droplet of falling water, every muted sigh. Having been underwhelmed by The Thin Red Line (upon which critics had – to me inexplicably – drunkenly expended their full arsenal of accolades, having waited 20 agonising years to do so), I found myself soon borne aloft on a symphonic magic carpet ride of the senses and emotions, anchored by a perfomance so instinctive and note-perfect by a teenage non-pro called Q'orianka Kilcher that I almost hope she never acts again. Afterwards I had to be alone for an hour to savour and prolong the almost physical intensity of the feelings that deluged me. It was the only time in my life when I have literally wept tears of exultation.
Suffice it to say, The New World is not, as you may have read, a gooey specimen of incontinent pictorialism; nor "a Tony Scott movie on quaaludes"; nor conceived to accord at any point or in any wise with the three-act, plot-pointed Syd Field-type narrative template that taints modern American cinema. Nor it is some airhead, hippy-dippy eco tone-poem; nor is it a Noble Savage movie about the poisonous effects of the White Man's arrival and the dread Columbian Handshake (although Malick has plenty to say about the worm lodged in the American apple from day one). The extended section showing Pocahontas's visit to England offers her a New World all her own, one no less entrancing to her than Captain Smith's Virginia.
To complete the list of things that The New World is not, it isn't a brother-movie of Black Robe or The Last of the Mohicans. Its siblings are to be found throughout movie history and across all national and stylistic boundaries, from the silents to Jean-Luc Godard, James Benning and Stan Brakhage, or in Winstanley and Barry Lyndon. Its cultural hinterland is made up not just of other movies, but of Buddhism, ethnography and naturalism, Wagner, Mozart and the structural forms of classical music, Malick's enthusiasm for bird-watching, and a helping of Heidegger and Kant. The New World could be called the first western, it could equally be called the last. We know that it was conceived during the Vietnam war (around the time of the American Indian Movement's occupation of the Wounded Knee massacre site, and during the heyday of the great revisionist 70s westerns) and only bore fruit three decades later, as America stumbled into another, similarly pointless and evil neo-colonialist expedition, all of which hums quietly within the movie like an engine. But whatever it is politically, cinematically it offers a tantalising vision of alternative cinema's roads into the future, with its huge $50m budget and total creative freedom afforded its maker.
It may seem like an exaggeration, but with The New World cinema has reached its culmination, its apotheosis. It is both ancient and modern, cinema at its purest and most organic, its simplest and most refined, made with much the same tools as were available in the infancy of the form a century ago to the Lumières, to Griffith and Murnau. Barring a few adjustments for modernity – colour, sound, developments in editing, a hyper-cine-literate audience – it could conceivably have been made 80 years ago (like Murnau and Flaherty's Tabu). This is why, I believe, when all the middlebrow Oscar-dross of our time has eroded away to its constituent molecules of celluloid, The New World will stand tall, isolated and magnificent, like Kubrick's black monolith. Anything else that survives from now till then will by comparison probably resemble 2001's grunting apes. To quote, simultaneously, Godard's Pierrot le Fou and primitivist auteur Sam Fuller – whose 1957 western Run of the Arrow is a sort of thematic inbred bastard cousin of The New World – Malick is seeking "in a word: emotion!"
Malick's mantra for The New World was "natural light, no cranes, no big rigs, handheld". In other words, barebones, stripped-to-the-chassis, organic plein-air film-making. The second unit was despatched to gather beautiful and captivating visual ephemera – including breathtaking images of the film's two lovers before a real lightning storm at sundown, and pennants of ducks quacking their way though the magic-hour's crepuscular golden light – while soundmen taped riotous birdsong, forest murmurs and the hiss and babble of water in motion. And the handheld shots in Virginia are, in fact, just one half of an overarching visual scheme; in bold contrast, the English scenes (where the landscape is sculpted and tamed, where life is governed by rites and rituals as baffling and ornate as those of the Indians), the camera is almost always locked down or running, tamed, on tracks.
And then there is the editing. Malick extrudes his movies from the film-bins in the editing suite, "finding" as much of the movie there as he does on location. I've seen three separate edits (the 150 minute pre-release version that knocked me out, the 135 release cut (25 of those 30 viewings), and the Blu-Ray director's cut of 172 minutes) and all strike distinct and equally wondrous variations on the same themes, yet seem radically different to one another at a gut level. This clearly suggests that Malick's editing has nothing in common with the frame-fucking visual aesthetics of Tony Scott, as has been suggested by more than one fool. In fact, it has more in common with Godard's jump-cuts, which once seemed so radical and disorienting but which have been absorbed and are now part of the common, comprehensible rubric of the form. Far from being meaningless or self-indulgent, there is insight, a mini-revelation, a deepening of meaning, or just a blessed surprise in almost every one of Malick's cuts, which cleave in style to this rich filmic inheritance, whereas Scott is a creature of violent eye-ache, and little else.
The layering of sound also partakes of the full gamut of historical precedent and technical possibility, with Malick inhaling the past then exhaling the future of sound design. Along with Kubrick and Scorsese, he remains an American master of the voiceover. In The New World, the three main characters all share their thoughts with us, often when the speaker is out of shot, in low murmurs and incantatory tones (the voiceovers often sound like silent movie title-cards), until they feel like a unified single voice. Plenty of people hate this about Malick, and resort to the conventional line about voiceovers being the last resort of lazy film-makers. Many also dislike the structure of The New World, which is adapted from Wagner: ascend, ascend, ascend, ascend.
That is how The New World works, on an ever upwardly moving scale towards the climactic moment of release, when the movie ends on a bird skittering out of a tall tree in the edenic forest with a frrrrrp-sound of beating wings – fade to black. If you allow it, if you lower your resistance, The New World is not a movie you simply watch – it is a movie that happens to you, overwhelms you, like the weather, or true love. Malick took his time with this, his one true masterpiece, and so should you. As everything else rots away, it will abide.