The New World
scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.
In a Terrence Malick picture, no moment stands alone. Try to isolate ninety seconds from The New World; a host of disconnected images and sounds immediately weave any scene back into the larger tapestry. A character contradicts his earlier thoughts, a line of poetry echoes the past or the future, or images from a European picture book appear in the middle of an Amerindian village. Malick encourages us to look for patterns and evolutions, but he prevents a neat dissection.
I shall bend the rules of this column, therefore, by describing not one, but two scenes. Although both scenes could probably be connected to any other moment in the film, the two vignettes fit together remarkably well. Both are set to music! (This tenuous comparison is more of a dissimilarity, as the first scene is set to “Das Rheingold” by Richard Wagner, whereas the second is set to a somewhat inferior score by James Horner). Twice, the girl—Pocahontas, Rebecca, no name captures her—looks into a mirror, a rather startling parallel for a film that begins in 1607 Virginia. In Malick tradition, she speaks a voice-over; both monologues center around romance and devotion. Most importantly, the scenes are prayers for guidance, appeals to Mother, Great Spirit, God – again, naming a thing circumscribes its power.
The presence of God is no rarity for Malick; The New World begins with an invocation and ends with a benediction, with several other chats with divinity scattered throughout the movie. However, these two prayers are the longest, the richest, and the most introspective (excluding the final scene, which uses both Horner and Wagner). In and of themselves, the two scenes seem to encapsulate everything The New World stands for, though, as per usual, pinning down the truth is a murky and elusive task. For Rebecca, prayer is a questioning, a journal entry, a deepening relationship. Small wonder she sees little distinction between understanding the men in her life and her place in the universe.
Teenage hormones aside, Pocahontas’ spiritual life has explicitly religious concerns. The first scene in question begins with a voice-over by John Smith: “There is only this. All else is unreal.” Immediately, The New World qualifies his words: the line coincides with a shot of natives with arms stretched to the sky and also rebuts Smith’s earlier question, “Who are you, whom I so faintly hear, who urge me ever on?” These contradictions melt into a focus on Pocahontas; she waves her arms about, drops sand into a fire, and finally addresses God. Her questions are not unique (where do you live, show me your face, give me a sign); her worship is corporate (other shots of a worshipping man briefly appear).
Her religion, however, is far from cant. She candidly addresses the issues in her life, primarily her relationship with John Smith. “A god, he seems to me,” she admits, and her words, initially addressed to Mother, appear to shift to the man himself: “oh, to be given to you, you to me.” Although the scene ends with shots of Pocahontas and Smith making love, the entire episode reeks with supernaturalism. In one rain-drenched shot, John appears for only a moment before the girl looks alone into the distance and continues her love-struck ramblings. Lightning flashes in the distance, perhaps only the electrical energies of the earth, and yet, in a subsequent shot, Pocahontas alone fills the vista, gazing at the sky. The girl does not seem concerned with differentiating between man and God, but the distinction is important. Somewhere in between her prayer to Mother and her ode to Smith, she whispers, “What else is life but being near you?” One glance at the man’s guilty, shifting eyes is enough to see that Pocahontas has not placed her trust well.
Much later in the movie, Smith has abandoned and betrayed the girl. Rebecca, after having descended to the level of a soulless automaton, has regained some peace, but it seems a dusty and weak shadow of her former life. Pocahontas has learned to show contempt for others. She wears English clothes, constricting shoes; her hair is tied back neatly. She is now married to John Rolfe, a placid farmer who lacks the recklessness of Smith. For one beautifully literal moment, she stands shrouded in the darkness of her home, looking out upon a tiny rectangle of daylight. The prayer begins again: “Mother, why can I not feel as I should?”
Here, all solace is hard-won, interspersed with images of the girl lying listless and dejected, or shots of an inglorious chicken crossing the threshold (an unhappy parallel to the flocks of birds making their way across her last exuberant prayer). But now, albeit without the strains of Wagner that so elevated a dangerous romance, The New World sees some of its most astonishing moments. Rebecca spontaneously grins as she traverses a muddy field. John Rolfe bears an expression of patient and unconditional love, even after being spurned by his cruel bride. After several minutes spent in a Virginian settlement, a native appears to nod at civilized Pocahontas, an unexpected gesture that somehow negates a young girl covering her tattoos to please John Smith, and foretells the friendly glance of an African as Rebecca wanders the alien streets of London. The camera captures the unfettered joy of a smiling baby, single-handedly proving Bazin’s notion of divinity made incarnate through filmed reality. Of course, the identity of God remains fickle; at times, Rebecca holds a mirror and appears to alter her reality through an act of will alone.
Why, then, should I glorify such uncertain scenes from a long, dense movie? One of the strongest themes of The New World—and of Malick’s work in general—is the clash between subjectivity and objectivity. (For example, John Smith idealizes a native culture that “feels no jealousy,” at exactly the moment we behold a resentful ex-lover of Pocahontas.) Even in the midst of communion, truth eludes us; Pocahontas sees Smith as a god and we interpret a bolt of lightning as a sign from the heavens. All of the characters are caught within their own heads, and we often despair of them ever understanding. But these prayers—the strength upon which Rebecca draws and the means by which she rebuilds her shattered life—speak of an achievable truth, be it supernatural or not. Fortified by simple affirmations like “I will see joy” or “once false, I must not be again,” we witness a changed, truer perspective. This is no small promise, not in a world where history is rewritten and lives forgotten.