I remember once reading about a pundit who criticized William F. Buckley for writing his columns too quickly: “In twenty minutes, flat.”
“Too little time for serious contemplation of difficult subjects,” the writer contended. Buckley countered that drawing upon his knowledge, prejudice, priorities, instinct, etc., that short span left him more than enough time to arrive at correct conclusions on most any matter.
Buckley finished by observing of himself, “’Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?' I couldn’t think of anyone. And I devoted myself to the exercise—twenty minutes, flat.
I now think Buckley had a point. Sometimes too much contemplation of a subject—say, 25 years worth—simply serves to cloud it. Too much navel-gazing at a pet project tricks the mind into thinking every notion, however indulgent, represents some artistic insight waiting to be born.
This certainly seems to be the case with Terrence Malick’s third film in his 32-year career: The New World.
Like every story of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) previously told, the film centers on her relationship with John Smith (Colin Farrel), a sea captain employed to find gold in the Indies. Exploring for locals to trade with, Smith stumbles across the Powhatan tribe near what will become Jamestown. Not sure what to make of the white warrior, the Powhatan chief imprisons Smith and sentences him to death. But before the sentence can be carried out, the chief’s beloved youngest daughter throws herself on Smith’s neck and begs her father for his life.
The rest is history…or at least fantasy.
From there, Smith and Pocahontas gaze at each other in the woods, uttering interminably long and elegiac inner monologues. In between, the camera lingers on rushing streams, scarlet sunsets, waving grass and other sylvan images. A few are arresting in their beauty and placement. Most are about as exciting as a nature program with no narration and no wildlife.
At the risk of over-politicizing, this juxtaposition of nature along with the idealization of tribal existence, which is portrayed as a paradise peopled with noble savages, suggests a notion neither original nor insightful—namely, that there was no death or violence in the New World until the white man brought it there.
Smith describes the “Naturals,” as he calls them, as having no jealousy or sense of possession among them. “They know no slander, envy, or forgiveness,” observes Smith (one can’t help but notice the inclusion of forgiveness, suggesting that acknowledgment of human guilt before God is one cause of the West’s problems, our sense of “possessing things” being the other).
Contrast this to the Jamestown settlement in which, save Smith himself, the most appalling, insectile inhabitants dwell.
Children with rancid boils on their faces rattle on unintelligibly except when they’re uttering lines like “Someone et’ his ‘ands.” [Someone ate his hands.] Dirty, snaggle-toothed wretches wrangle, cheat and posture to usurp Smith’s title as leader. And not a single man, despite having managed to sail halfway across the world, has any notion of how to feed himself short of cannibalism.
Not surprisingly, Smith jumps when his employers present him a chance to explore other shores and other Indian maidens.
The film then fast forwards to the verifiable record of Pocahontas’ life: her marriage to English citizen and tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale). In so doing, The New World finally gives us characters we identify enough with to care about.
Of course, by depicting any of the Indian Princess’ actual life, Malick exposes the opportunity he wasted. We already know the legend of Pocahontas, so why not use his epic to introduce us to the reality?
Today, nearly all historians agree that Smith was not romantically involved with Pocahontas who would have been 10 or 11 when Smith, age 30, encountered the Powhatan tribe. Further, though Smith was known to have a penchant for painting himself in a dashing light, he never claimed to have a physical relationship with her—even after she became a celebrity in England.
Perhaps that’s why sequences involving John Smith and Pocahontas have the feeling of a gauzy dream whereas those with John Rolfe, whom she did marry, touch us with their tender graces.
For the first half, Malick conveys pivotal plot points in passing comments or brief, erratic scene-splicing. Blink, and you’ll miss them. Yet every insubstantial thought drifting through Smith’s head is excruciatingly examined. Maybe this is Malick’s point: to show that, as Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. But even if it is, it still doesn’t make another person’s pretentious reflections entertaining.
Though Rolfe is also given tedious thoughts to intone, his good and honest courtship of Pocahontas, who has by then converted to Christianity, stands in stark contrast to the man who for all practical purposes takes advantage of the affections of a young, innocent girl. We cheer for their love and we cheer for their marriage.
There are brilliant moments of insight and poetry in Malick’s World. But the existential (and frequently pointless) visual meditation on top of narrative rambling in between these moments make The New World seem much longer than its two and a half hours.
Grounded in recognizable storytelling conventions, John Rolfe’s courting of the real woman behind the myth offers a concrete romance we finally feel engaged with. It’s just too bad we have to sit through an hour and a half of a self-involved cad’s inner meanderings before we get there.