Monday, April 17, 2006

Terrence Malick and The New World

Even in blasé, been-there-seen-that Hollywood, a new film by Terrence Malick is an event. The man is one of the genuine auteurs of American cinema, a director whose reputation in cult circles is arguably greater than that of the other, more prolific, more widely known directors who emerged around the same time, in the early 1970s: Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and so on.

Much of this has to do with Malick’s Salinger-like reclusiveness and limited output: between 1973 and now, he has directed just four feature-length movies, and there was a gap of nearly 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Being reclusive and making films sporadically (rather than having a regular output) doesn’t automatically make you a great artist, but it does suggest that there is a strong purity of purpose in your work; that it flows more from internal compulsions than from, say, the constraints imposed by the studio system, or financial dictates. This is borne out by Malick’s oeuvre. Even a casual viewing of his films (though they aren’t quite conducive to casual viewing!) reveals a very individual style and a powerful, distinct vision of the relationship between human beings and their environment.

The most striking quality about his work is his interest in nature as a whole – as a single entity, with man just one very small cog in the giant machinery. This doesn’t mean that Malick’s films are like National Geographic documentaries – they are feature films, with narrative structures, and built around human stories – but no other director I know is as skilled at creating visual poetry out of the various elements of the natural world: plants, animals, insects, fire, water. Watching most films made by other directors, you feel that they are concerned principally with the human drama (as we, the audience, quite naturally are) – that they don’t much care what’s going on in the background. Even when there’s a lingering shot of a landscape, it usually performs the function of visual relief, or punctuation between scenes, before we return to the main narrative. But watching Malick’s films, you get the (sometimes eerie) sense that he has a special prism of his own: that he’s detached enough to look at members of his own species no differently from the way he looks at the individual trees in a forest, or the individual leaves on a tree, or the blades of grass in a meadow.

And yet, this apparent undermining of the human element doesn’t mean that his movies are clinical or emotionless. Quite the contrary, they have a very particular, heightened emotional quotient – in his best scenes, it’s possible for a viewer to appreciate drama on many different levels, not just the human one. A good example of this was The Thin Red Line, one of the most widely discussed (also among the most widely appreciated, and most widely criticised) films of recent years – ostensibly a war movie, but one that was far less concerned with military strategising and the minutiae of battles than with the interior feelings of the protagonists and their relationship with the terrain they struggled through. It was classified as an “anti-heroic” war film (by critics who made a point of contrasting it with Spielberg’s more conventional war movie Saving Private Ryan, released the same year) – but it was really a film that stood back and coolly showed us how insignificant our conflicts are when set against the larger picture. And it did so without trying to make an obvious moral point.

Malick’s particular brand of filmmaking – his use of interior monologues, for instance, and the long, languid scenes full of nature shots – is fraught with danger: it can easily tip over into self-indulgence, and my admiration for him notwithstanding I was disappointed by his latest film The New World, which I saw yesterday. This is, very briefly, the story of the first English settlers arriving at Jamestown in 1607 and their encounters with the native tribes who have been living in this “new world” for centuries; of the love and empathy that grows between the mutineer John Smith and a young native princess; of the complications that arise from conflicts, both between the settlers and the natives and among the settlers themselves; of Smith’s eventual decision to return to England and the development of a new, more mature relationship between the native girl and another settler, John Rolfe.

Many of the early scenes in this film are very beautiful in the classic Malick style: the initial tentativeness of both the English settlers and the natives, distrust tempered by the desire to trust; a tribal warrior tapping curiously at the armour worn by a settler, almost as if he is trying to work out if this strange creature is really made of flesh and blood underneath, just like himself. And the familiar depiction of nature as sentient and knowing: when two characters wade about on the sea shore, the sound of the waves roaring and the water lapping against their feet seems heightened; it’s almost like a refrain set against their conversation. Other sights and sounds are similarly accentuated: the chirruping of insects, the rustling of blades of grass, a shot of migrating birds in formation, the violence of trees being chopped down by the settlers.

But beautiful though these scenes are, The New World eventually sinks into tedium. The interior monologues don’t have the same effect that they did in The Thin Red Line, partly because the characters don’t carry much weight. Colin Farrell’s performance as John Smith is especially problematic. He’s surprisingly good in a couple of the early scenes, but the bulk of his performance is built on a single puppy-eyed expression that combines bewilderment with vulnerability: it’s like he’s stuck in a phone booth all over again, with an unseen psychopath pointing a gun at him. Christian Bale is nondescript, fine actors like Christopher Plummer and David Thewliss don’t have much to do and the best performer on view, the 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher as the tribal princess, can’t salvage the film single-handed.

And yet, even when a Malick film doesn’t work, it can be just as interesting as the successes of many other directors. Watching The New World, I kept thinking how many other directors, given this story to work with, would have belaboured the point about the tragedies that can result from the differences between people; perhaps placed the conflicts between the settlers and the Indians in the larger context of America's violent history. Malick is not very concerned with all this. He is of course concerned in an immediate sense with his protagonists, their thoughts and feelings; but for him the larger picture is much larger than the history of the US or even perhaps the history of humankind.

Also, paradoxically, watching this director work for years on a project only to produce an unsatisfying film at the end of it makes me even more respectful of his approach to his art. A Spielberg can make a turkey one year and then redeem himself the next with a film that is a commercial success (or a critical success, since he swings both ways). A director like Malick doesn’t have that bulwark. He can only trust his instincts, carry on working at the pace he is comfortable with, unmindful of the world outside, and hope that something of his vision actually makes it to the final film and is appreciated, at least by a few. It must be a lonely feeling.

(More on Malick in this post I wrote a long time ago, mainly about his first film Badlands, but also on other elements of his directorial style.)


  1. Thin Red Line is the best film I have ever seen. If I could say anything about Malick I would say his style is emersonian at the base but doesn't condescend to hippie BS. I haven't seen the new world yet but I heard the score and it wasn't as amazing as zimmer's work on TRL so I knew something was up.
    I missed both this film and Kong in theaters and now it seems as if I didn't miss much.

  2. He is of course concerned in an immediate sense with his protagonists, their thoughts and feelings; but for him the larger picture is much larger than the history of the US or even perhaps the history of humankind.

    it is interesting that you say this because when i had seen the film, i had found it very apolitical and ahistorical which I found troubling given the subject of the film. my problem was, if indeed Malick was interested in "visual poetry", transcendalist views about man and nature etc etc then why choose this subject?

    my other problem, though relatively minor, was what one reviewer called the "daily regimen of chaste nuzzling" between the hero and the heroine. I mean, i understand she is a jailbait and you can't show sex but all those monologues and touching and nuzzling just got on my nerves after a while....for godsake they are not puppies!!!!

    but having said all this, i think this is one of those cases where style triumphs completely over substance and content.

    if ou haven't read this...

    about the new world cult,hoberman,72427,20.html
    also check out this and the sidebar of the blog

  3. If indeed Malick was interested in "visual poetry", transcendalist views about man and nature etc etc then why choose this subject?

    Alok, what subject would you have him choose? The key lies in the treatment, not in the choice of subject. And when you say "I found it very apolitical and ahistorical", that's exactly the point I'm trying to make too - he isn't putting the settlers vs Indians story in a historical context. If you come to this film with textbook expectations, you're bound to be puzzled by it.

    Am with you on the chaste nuzzling - thought that was pretentious. maybe he was trying too hard to make the point that their relationship isn't a mainly physical one but Something More Profound and Symbolic.

  4. Haven't seen the film but remembering the TRL it could be said that perhaps he was utilizing the courtly love style where you know you talk about rose petals and lotuses and feathers and such. Even in TRL the scenes with bell and his wife weren't erotic but exuded passion more than sexual lust, even though bell himself said in so many words that his relationship with his wife was nothing but physical, but at least in his thoughts, when he was away from her his thoughts of her weren't erotic and were dreams and hopes of something more than just sex. He was trying to find "those blue shores" and yet in the end his naivete was shattered when he gets the letter after he has conquered all (after the big climactic attack on the final japanese camp).
    We may find that to be chaste nuzzling, and perhaps in the hands of some student filmmaker people would just walk out or find it pretentious. Regardless I can't give a final judgement since I haven't seen the film yet.
    Speaking of chaste nuzzling, has anyone seen the film Divine Intervention where the israeli protagonist and his palestinian girlfriend meet at a border crossing and all they do is rub hands.

  5. Apparently a 3 hour version is due soon on DVD. It includes 20 min. cut from the original release. Perhaps I made the right decision after all.
    Now if only malick-ji would release the 6 hour version of TRL, complete with Hans Zimmer's uncut 4 hour score, with options for Billy Bob Thornton's 3 hour voiceover and other actors who were cut out of the theatrical release.
    Forget the New World, the Thin Red Line is more worthy of cult status.

  6. "Forget the New World, the Thin Red Line is more worthy of cult status."

    Anangbhai, it already has a considerable cult status. What cave have you been hiding in? :)

  7. Being reclusive and making films sporadically (rather than having a regular output) doesn’t automatically make you a great artist, but it does suggest that there is a strong purity of purpose in your work

    I prefer to believe that it only means you're lazy. Else I'd be one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

  8. ...that he’s detached enough to look at members of his own species no differently from the way he looks at the individual trees in a forest, or the individual leaves on a tree, or the blades of grass in a meadow.
    Interesting that you should mention this, because one of my most memorable shots from TTRL is the one in which one of the soldiers loses his head during a particularly intense enemy battery and it is interspersed with a beautiful shot of grass undulating in the wind on a picture perfect hilltop (where the fighting is taking place). A very powerful anti-war statement, but thankfully you don't have the director lecturing you from a pulpit.

  9. Gosh, I remember that scene! It psyched me out.

  10. 'The thin red line' is beautiful. Re the new one, all I have to say is that Colin Farrell seems to have a special talent for doing damage to directorial reputations. Someone take him far far away.

  11. i find your posts entertaining but your choice of font and color is apalling. after reading a particular post, tears were rolling down my cheeks - partly due to the humor and partly due to the awful green,white,grey,arial (did you use condense-space effect or something?) eye-burner.

    trust me, YOU don't need a gaudy color scheme to 'stand-out' your blog.


  12. I dont know why, but as I reached the end of ur post I felt that a certain class of human beings have this errie tendency of praising an underdog. While the rest of public in general praises say Sachin we would like to praise say Kumble a little more. while doing so, I think we may be taking risk of undermining Sachin's accomplished.May be unknowingly.. Spielberg has his own dimension of success, his own measuring cylinder. Malick has his own. or should I say we have a reciprocating measuring cylinder to gauge their performance...

  13. Last Anon: all true, but I hope you didn't get the impression that I'm praising Mallick by pulling down Spielberg? Rest assured, I can appreciate the achievements of both men (as I can both Kumble and Sachin). That said, for obvious reasons, praise directed at an underdog (who doesn't get talked about much) is more valued than praise directed at someone who has more than enough of it already.

  14. Sorry to be replying so late....

    Anyway... yes. I must admit I got an impression that u were a little biased about mallick.heartenin to know that u are not. besides I havent watched any of Mallick's films. I would definitely give it a try. The cover of New world definitlely looks a strong image.
    I hope it is not an interplay of lot of colours just for the heck of it. Anyway thats too much of judgement beffore actually watchin it. Get back to u when I get hold of the movies. Sorry to be posting as Anonymous(I does become irritating). I forgot my username and password (vaguely remember them.but they aint right)

  15. I watched The Thin Red Line quite as accident, the Lakshya DVD was coded for a different region (Yes, I guess I am DVD-ically challenged), I was supposed to pick “The Color Red” and somehow I picked up the “The Thin Red Line.” Had I had any idea that it was a war movie I would have never picked it up; but it is one of my best accidents. Quite interestingly for such a slow movie, it is very very gripping. I ended up revisiting the movie 7 times.

    Hence I decided that I will not read about any of the TM’s movies before watching them. I am reading your blog after trying to watch The New World. It might have been that I expected too much, or I shouldn’t have tried watching it on a Friday evening, when I was too exhausted to contemplate on the metaphysical. In any case I could not sit thru the movie.

    My luck with other TM’s movies has, unfortunately, not been better. I tried watching Days of Heaven, and while it had a Premchand kind of an air to it (I quite enjoy the short stories by Premchand), my DVD failed during a significant death by the river (in case anybody reading this, hasn't watched the movie), and I could not see what happens next.

    I think I still have Badlands left, and I have kept it for a rainy day, hoping that neither the DVD, nor the day of the week, nor the director will fail me!

    Thanks for the review. My thoughts exactly. :)