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DVD: The New World

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Terrence Malick, The New World, Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Q'orianka Kilcher (released on May 9, 2006)
A friend recommended a recent release, The New World, to me, which I had somehow managed to miss entirely during its theatrical release. I have been watching it repeatedly since it came from Netflix, and I continue to be hypnotized by it. There are few movies I can think of that are more visually beautiful; indeed it was nominated for an Oscar this year, which it did not win, Best Achievement in Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki. Its manner of storytelling, with a minimum of dialogue, is so refreshing. The movie that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, Capote, is similar in style, a slow narrative unfolding in carefully measured rhythms.

The basic story is so familiar that it's hard to believe that Terrence Malick could have found such a fresh approach to it. Colin Farrell is Captain John Smith, of the Jamestown Colony, and newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher is, yes, Pocahontas. Don't worry: you will not recognize any of the previous incarnations in this version. The friend who recommended this movie did so, I think, because of the incredibly beautiful and fascinating portrayal of the Algonquin tribe and Powhatan. This friend was very interested in my visit to the Cahokia Mounds last summer, and we are both interested in Native American history and legend, most of which is so poorly understood by most Americans. Although the movie's goal is to make a more historically accurate version of the story, its basic premise, that Pocahontas intervened to save John Smith's life and that they were lovers, is a falsehood.

That being said, the movie has many interesting historically accurate details. Pocahontas did marry another English colonist, John Rolfe, and she was baptized under the name of Rebecca. With her husband, she did visit England, where she was treated with great honor as an American princess. In the movie, she receives a private audience with King James, something that apparently did not happen. I was interested to read, however, that she did meet the king at the Whitehall Palace Banqueting House, during a masque by Ben Jonson, The Vision of Delight. In the movie, what Pocahontas wears to meet the king is obviously based on the actual engraving of Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe, made during her visit to England in 1616, the only known actual portrait of her.

Terrence Malick, The New WorldThe film hooked me right from the beginning, with the first of many closeups of water running, or just the lazy movement of a water's surface, something that gives me a lot of pleasure looking at while fishing. As the camera moves down the James River with the colonists' ship, we hear the massive unfolding of a colossal E-flat chord, the iconic opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold. We have already written about another recent attempt to merge Wagner's Ring cycle with American history and Native American mythology, but The New World is a much more harmonious if less complete result. This music is the most memorable in the movie (James Horner's original score sounds pretty much like every other score he has written), reappearing later and always representing the unspoiled America, which is the perfect transatlantic transposition of Wagner's Rhine. This is what that "American Ring cycle" could have been but was not quite (but may still be). Two worlds clash. Greed. Power.

To soften the shame of how the American tribes were treated in the United States, students are often told that the Native Americans were nomads, that they did not feel a sense of ownership of the land. I do not recall ever being told as a child that there were not only many permanent or semipermanent structures but huge cities like Cahokia or vast artworks like the Great Serpentine Mound, almost all of them mercilessly wiped out by the advance of the Europeans. This film has the most beautiful, realistic, and seductive portrayal of American Indians since Black Robe (and, in South America, The Mission), made with great care and in consultation with modern tribes and historians. The Algonquin fought the Jamestown colonists from the moment that they arrived, although they also helped the English, probably more than they should have.

Here are several pages of stills from the movie. If I were thinking of buying this DVD, I would probably wait. This first release has a lengthy documentary on the making of the film, but I was disappointed to find that it has no commentary track. Yes, I am that much of a nerd that I actually listen to director's DVD commentaries, even though Mrs. Ionarts mocks me mercilessly every time she catches me at it. There may another release in the future that will have more features. Rent from Netflix for now.


Agent Bones said...

Nice write up of the movie, Mr. Downey, I might actually rent the flick in the near future.

One quick note, not to quibble too much, but I think that many of the larger Native American cities (especially in North America) were wiped out because of the diseases that the Europeans brought that they had no resistance to. In many cases those diseases were transmitted through the very extensive trade networks among the Native Americans, so that the damage was done to those cities before any Europeans ever set eyes upon them.

Still, the essential point is obviously correct, the coming of the Europeans destroyed entire civilizations that we know far too little about.

I'm glad I found your blog again, it is a pleasure to read.

Doug Pierce

Charles T. Downey said...

Hi, Doug! Thanks for the comment. There is the added wrinkle that the English colonization was later than the earlier contacts made by the Spanish and Portuguese, too. Much damage had certainly already been done, to be sure. We'll be in Michigan next month: hope to see you then!

Agent Bones said...

Hey Chuck, you're welcome.

This is an amazing blows me away every time I check it out.

Definitely drop me an e-mail or a call when you know when you might be available, it would cool to get together, even if just for an evening. Same old rildon e-mail.

A really great book on how the Europeans colonized the Americas so relatively easy is Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. Of course the book addresses far more than that, but I found this subject really interesting.

Anyway, if you want to check out a far less serious blog, you can check out the blog of my undead FBI agent shown in the first comment!

See ya next month, hopefully!