The New World: Dwelling in Malick’s New World

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

—Charles Olson

When The New World was released in 2005, it was only the third film Terrence Malick had produced since his premiere with Badlands in 1973, with a two-decade gap between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998). These periods of silence not only generated anticipation for each new film, they also caused speculation about the shape of the career of a director who many, including myself, felt was emerging as the strongest voice in American cinema. The Thin Red Line, with its multiplicity of viewpoints and war setting, had diverged so sharply from the quieter, single-character focus of Malick’s first two films that the direction his filmmaking was taking seemed unclear. Seven years later, The New World clarified the shape of his vision and initiated a period of increased productivity for the filmmaker. This pivotal work refined the transformations The Thin Red Line had introduced, focusing again on a crucial historical event and continuing with his new multivoice approach, while simultaneously forging links to his earlier films, particularly with the centrality of a young female character. And with The New World, he moved his career-long exploration of American space, of how we dwell in and share this land, into questions of both personal destiny and humankind’s place within the universe.

Malick does not let us forget the horror of history: the gradual genocide of the Powhatan natives of Virginia began soon after the founding of Jamestown in 1607. The New World shows the beginning of this destruction, but Malick’s title offers more than bitter irony. The film unfolds as a Blakean epic, both personal and historical, of the journey from innocence to experience. Rather than enacting a melodrama of innocence betrayed, Malick portrays the history of the new land and his protagonist, the daughter of the Powhatan chief—referred to only as “the princess” in the film but identified as Pocahontas in the credits—as both tragic and transformative. Initial dreams of love and harmony vanish through betrayal and the madness of violence; but simultaneously, new possibilities emerge. Malick sees experience as not simple disillusionment but a reshaping of nature through an imagination that has been tested by loss and sustained by memory.

Malick’s fans and detractors agree on the unique marks of his style: the highly aesthetic quality of his images, especially of nature; his consistent use of voice-over narration; and the looseness of his narrative form. I believe beauty, difficult as it may be to define, holds a key to Malick’s style, but one that evades our immediate grasp. Beauty in Malick’s work involves more than pleasing visual compositions. I have heard intelligent viewers dismiss his films as “too pretty.” Admittedly, his often breathtaking images may conceal the radical nature of his filmmaking, since in the modern era, serious art often prefers the discordant or the everyday, and avoids the comfort that “lovely images” seem to offer. But rather than reassuring, Malick’s images inspire the awe associated with the sublime, which the Romantics defined as the beauty that springs from terror. If we probe them, they deeply unsettle us.

Malick’s landscapes, for instance, often reveal an essential alienation between his characters and the world they live in. In Badlands, the vast spaces of the American plains counterpoint the sordid story of a crime and murder spree carried out by disaffected youths. Malick invites us to question how the openness and freedom of this landscape interact with the characters’ lack of empathy with their victims, or with their narrow understanding of their own emotions. In his films, the glory of nature creates not a lyrical mood but dissonance: the lush South Seas jungles and the carnage of modern warfare in The Thin Red Line, or the sunsets that gild the backbreaking labor in the wheat fields of Days of Heaven. Can Malick characters experience the beauty he places them in?

This disconnect between characters and landscape dominates Malick’s two earliest films, where the narrators, Holly and Linda, respectively, witness the events around them with an incomprehension and wonder that often keep them from taking action. Beginning with The Thin Red Line, however, Malick’s characters begin to openly acknowledge the enigma the landscape poses. In that film, Private Witt not only attempts to figure out his relation to the battle he is immersed in but strives to understand the role of war deep within the structure of the universe. Even more explicitly, the voice-overs of Pocahontas, Captain John Smith, and tobacco planter John Rolfe in The New World question the nature of the worlds they find themselves in. Pocahontas resembles Holly and Linda, as a young woman thrown into a world of violent transformation, and, like them, she regards this world with intense curiosity. But her thoughts have a new deeply questioning and more mature tone. This increased emphasis on interrogating the meaning of things transforms the role of voice-over narration in Malick’s later films.

Holly’s voice-over in Badlands recalls film noirs, where characters narrate fateful events in retrospect. But more than an anguished confession, Holly’s narration presents a pastiche of phrases from “true confession” magazines of the 1950s. Through this mesh of clichés, we discover her inability to see her situation outside of the ready-made plots she has consumed. This limited perception renders her plight even more poignant. The disparity between a character’s spoken account and the events we see continues in Days of Heaven, albeit with an increase in curiosity on the part of the young witness. An adult affair of passion and betrayal is narrated by Linda, a preadolescent girl, who, although knowing beyond her years, cannot grasp all that she sees. Her narration expresses her awe at the passion of this adult world, as well as her pragmatic attempt to find a way to survive within it.

This gap between human comprehension and the beauty and violence of the world underscores the ambivalent role that the image plays in Malick’s work. His filmmaking captures a cinematic vision that may lie beyond ordinary human perception; something characters perceive only intermittently and must struggle to comprehend. This conflict between seeing and understanding becomes more than a question of individual point of view. And from The Thin Red Line on, Malick’s voice-over diffuses; rather than presenting a single character’s account of events, it selectively “tunes in” to the interior monologues of a number of characters. These interwoven voices fashion a diverse tapestry of questions that express human awe and incomprehension at the order and disorder of the cosmos.

Recurringly, these voices question some unnamed entity about the nature of things. The New World asks, “Who are you?”; The Tree of Life (2011), “Where are you?”; and To the Wonder (2012), “Where am I?” Often, as in The New World, these questions address a lover. But they also interrogate the world and the forces that run through it (in The Thin Red Line, a voice-over asks: “Who are you, that lives in all these many forms?”). Malick’s images also pose questions, often as visual paradoxes. Many of his most powerful (and sublime) ones show the destructive forces of nature—fire especially. Destruction does not oppose beauty; it is often its cause. As a voice-over in The Thin Red Line says, nature seems to be at war with itself. The sequence of creation that opens The Tree of Life teems with violent energy as much as with sustaining growth. The way of nature may be beautiful, but it is also terrifying. If Malick’s frequent image of sunlight filtering through foliage promises grace or harmony, it remains distant from the world that human beings dwell in.

Beginning with The New World, Malick’s storytelling has become increasingly elliptical, creating gaps in time, space, and motivation that the viewer must negotiate. As his use of voice-over has shifted away from recounting the story, Malick’s editing has also become more concerned with the looser processes of observation and speculation. He often ignores the protocols of classical editing. Most Hollywood films build their stories out of scenes, dramatic blocks of continuous space and time. As David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson show in their magisterial The Classical Hollywood Cinema, classical editing divides up and then reassembles space to articulate a story. In a typical classical scene, a wide-angle long shot establishes the space in which an action and dialogue will take place. Successive shots dissect this space into closer views from different angles, emphasizing dramatic moments (a cut as a character asks a question or reacts to something said; close-ups enlarging objects or stressing actions of significance). The shifts in angle or camera distance follow the flow of dialogue and action. The rules of classical editing maintain the continuity of dramatic space and time over the cuts, minimizing and concealing gaps.

Malick has fashioned his own alternative to continuity editing, and The New World represents his mastery of this form. Shots rarely interlock seamlessly; the editing does not systematically maintain a coherent space or continuous time. Instead, shots remain relatively independent, as gaps in time or a shift in location often occurs between them. Scenes that do play within a unity of space and time include jump cuts in action or camera positions that fracture the scene. Shots cluster together around an action or theme, rather than fitting into predetermined patterns, so that, more than a succession of unified dramatic blocks of time and space, Malick crafts series of shots whose temporal and spatial relation remains looser, an inquisitive vision. Curiosity, more than drama, drives The New World, a searching regard that opens itself to the world and its mysteries, unsure of what it will find. Characters observe more than they do things. Searching camera movements embody and propel this exploration, sometimes following a character but often setting off on their own, beckoning characters or viewers beyond the frame to a new discovery.

Appearing before the credits, the first shot of The New World initiates this game of hide-and-seek with us. Undulating water reflects a deep blue sky, clouds that catch the sunlight, and towering treetops. This first image inverts the world and wavers unsteadily as it reveals a space outside its frame, which we are invited to imagine. But Malick withholds a direct view of this new world from us. The image itself transforms as a mass of aquatic plants moves through the frame just beneath the water. For a moment, we are unsure if the camera is moving or the water flowing, and if the mottled mass is another reflection or something lurking beneath the surface. Instead of resolving our questions, Malick cuts away.

A young woman appears, shot from below and framed so that her face remains concealed. On the soundtrack, we hear the invocation of a spirit, also unseen—perhaps invisible. In this two-shot sequence, Malick introduces the film’s location and its main character, but obliquely, emphasizing their mysterious quality. These images remain incomplete but richly evocative. Our curiosity aroused, we are invited to speculate about how they fit together. But rather than firmly grounding us, the next shots (after the credits) submerge us below the surface of the water. As we gaze through this liquid medium at the grace of young women swimming, we become increasingly aware of the light that shines into the depths from above. The camera eventually looks up through the rippling medium toward the surface, glimpsing Powhatans on the shore, men on rocks who point offscreen. The following shot skims swiftly over the surface of the sea, then rises, revealing English ships at anchor. Malick gives us this dramatic incident in a curious manner, not focusing exclusively on the essential narrative event of the natives’ discovery of alien invaders but dwelling on the element of water and what it does to vision.

While classical editing breaks up space to dramatize a story, The New World foregrounds space and place over personal drama. Master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera movement, depth of field, and use of available light respect the integrity of location and atmosphere. In fact, The New World was shot mainly on location, and when sets were constructed, as the historical nature of the film demanded, production designer Jack Fisk created a fully realized environment rather then the three-walled sets of a Hollywood soundstage. Malick tells this story of the clash of cultures through contrasting environments more than dialogue or character conflicts. The openness to nature of the Powhatan village starkly opposes the confined and filthy James Fort.

But as intense as this conflict of spaces may be, the portrayal of London during Pocahontas’s visit allows Malick to transcend a simplistic plot of nature despoiled by corrupt civilization. The spaces of London’s busy streets, university courtyards, and royal court generate a wonder in Pocahontas that recalls Smith’s wide-eyed exploration of the new world of Virginia. As Pocahontas races with her son through the sculpted hedges of a British formal garden, this manicured nature may subdue the wildness Virginia offered. But, like Pocahontas’s own recognition of the limits of her youthful romance with John Smith and her gradual acceptance of her husband’s love, this cultured space may indicate that, while something has been lost, something else has been gained.

The New World tells a tragic story: a loss of promise, the end of a dream of a return to a golden age. But the film includes two complementary voyages of discovery: not only that of the English to Virginia but also that of the Virginian Pocahontas to England. The environment of London in the era of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and John Dee may offer some compensation for the horror wrought by imperialism. If the New World became the site of genocide rather than a new Garden of Eden, Malick nonetheless finds value in the confluence of technology and art that Heidegger calls by the Greek term techné. Acknowledging the betrayals and exploitation that founded our modern world, Malick’s cinema also understands that true tragedy forbids simple nostalgia for a lost world.

Malick’s cinema dwells on space, both the historical and geographic space that has been central to the American experience and the cinematic space created through editing and camera movement. The American landscape struck the first visitors to this continent with awe and a sense of possibility, a reaction that (as Malick makes especially clear in To the Wonder) often leads to reckless exploitation. The New World shows that the first impulse of European settlers in America was to enclose space rather than to dwell in its openness. As much as Malick understands this impulse as tragic, he envisions more than a return to nature as a response. In his treatment of the Native peoples’ agriculture, villages, religious rites, and games, Malick portrays a canny and resourceful culture that has fashioned a way to live within its environment. His ideal of a new world is perhaps best embodied in the phrase Heidegger took from the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin: “Poetically man dwells.” Poetry, like patterns of culture or the complex technology of architecture—or the techniques of cinema—belongs to techné. Maturity and experience may find in art, architecture, landscaping, and cinema the possibility of founding a human world within natural space. Through the uniquely spatial and visual language of cinema, Malick searches for a way technology can envision a space of dwelling—a task he recognizes will not always be pretty, but may be sublime.

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