I don’t feel that one can film philosophy. —Terrence Malick1
Terrence Malick’s fourth feature, The New World (2004), is a costume drama about Pocahontas, Captain John Smith and the Jamestown colony.2 On its release it divided reviewers and earned mediocre receipts; some of Malick’s former admirers have been downright dismissive.3 Although one goal of this paper is simply to make a case for The New World, its concerns are larger than the single film. For Malick has, in recent years, emerged as a key point of reference for a burgeoning, post-Theory philosophical criticism; he is, for example, one of only three directors to receive a monographic chapter in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film (2009).4 Disagreement about one of his films, therefore, provides an opportunity to clarify the commitments and aversions of a dynamic field of inquiry. That his fifth film, The Tree of Life, has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes while provoking sharply divided reactions amongst critics only adds urgency to the question.
Malick’s relation to academic discourse has always been complex. He began his adult life as a student of Martin Heidegger and Stanley Cavell, a Rhodes scholar under Gilbert Ryle, a translator of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes, and, while still in his mid-20’s, a replacement for Hubert Dreyfus in the philosophy department at MIT.5 But he threw it all over to become a filmmaker. However one construes this change, it should certainly give pause to commentators. It seems clear that, to this director, film can do things that professional philosophy cannot—which means that any attempt to recoup his work for the academy risks nothing short of travesty.
Many in the professoriate, however, have simply assumed that Malick’s œuvre must be susceptible of exegesis in philosophical terms.6 A good example is a much-reprinted essay by Simon Critchley on The Thin Red Line (1998), in some ways a manifesto of recent work in the film-as-philosophy genre. Tellingly, Critchley focuses on plot, dialogue and the movie’s adaptation of a novel; he discusses only one camera movement and one shot, the latter of interest for its purported symbolic meaning (a coconut = Life). Despite his essay’s many merits, it is hard to avoid the sense that, in this case, redeeming film for philosophy means reducing it to its most comfortably “literary” elements. That such reductivism runs exactly counter to Critchley’s stated intent only makes the outcome more striking.
Another popular view of Malick, meanwhile, would have him as a post-Sixties mystic, trafficking in the ineffable through parabolic narratives and gorgeous shots of Nature. Robert Silberman speaks for many in praising Malick’s “mystical, poetic strain and his powerful sense of romantic longing.”7 Cinematography is particularly prominent in these accounts, which are pervasive in the media and on the blogs. To be sure, Malick the poetic visionary would not necessarily be inconsistent with Malick the philosophe manqué. As the Tractatus puts it, “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”8
Of course, it is by no means clear what, if anything, to make of Wittgenstein’s lines—which would make a “Tractarian” Malick seem a particularly hopeless proposition.9 But this difficulty only points to a larger problem. What exactly are these ineffable truths for which Malick is allegedly “longing,” but that he cannot put into words? Answers will hardly be forthcoming. The very premise is insidious: that there exists some special critical language into which films ought in principle to be translatable, such that any one that resists such translation may be said to express “longing,” or to be in the business of “manifestation.” As though there were some better way to describe these ideas or feelings than the film itself.
In short, the idea of Malick as a mystic, swapping philosophical discourse for a mythopoesis in which things “make themselves manifest,” is the symmetrical counterpart to a reductive method that sees him as a purveyor of philosophical profundity in narrative form, a sort of modern-day Voltaire. And here we get to the crux.
Although the emerging philosophical criticism has the potential to make good some of the promises (and redeem some of the failures) of High Theory, it can never do so if it simply quarries movies for exemplary narratives susceptible of moral evaluation, or for illustrations of arguments elaborated in canonical texts—still less, if it conflates movies with screenplays.10 If this is hardly news, still Malick’s fate is instructive.11 He may be the most academically-credentialed director in Hollywood history, and has come to function as a “best case” for the film-and-philosophy genre. Yet it is merely tendentious to assume that the director’s pedigree should guarantee the accessibility of his films to academic philosophy; after all, Malick quit the field. Acknowledging that fact entails getting beyond thematics and taking seriously the look and sound of his films—which has proved surprisingly difficult, as Critchley can attest. Conversely, an invocation of mysticism would amount to a cop-out, suggesting the existence of some determinate content that cannot be named—and so justifying the gnawing suspicion of certain critics (like Pauline Kael, David Thomson, and Dave Kehr) that Malick is, in the end, a bullshit artist.12
Fortunately, Malick himself might offer some instruction on how to approach his movies. He writes:
They are not strictly arguments or descriptions, one suspects, but are designed to make such procedures, and the proper application of them, possible. They assume that we have learned where to look for their relevances … and that, insofar as we have, we necessarily share his purposes and need not depend on his arguments.13
This passage comes from Malick’s one published piece of academic prose, the “Translator’s Introduction” to The Essence of Reasons; he is talking about Heidegger, not himself. That fact, however, only makes it more appealing to set these lines alongside Malick’s directorial work. For, in these lines, we see Malick himself trying to describe an alternative to the standard devices of American philosophy. The passage thus suggests a possible way to connect his two careers non-reductively.
It doesn’t get us far—nor should it. But it’s a start. Malick’s movies, let us imagine, may not be “arguments or descriptions,” but they might help us to see what makes such procedures possible; they may not be illustrations of Heidegger (or Wittgenstein, or Cavell, or Thoreau) but, so to speak, companions to them. In this light, the question of whether his films are or are not philosophy, are or are not mystical, loses its power to distract. Instead, the question becomes where to look for Malick’s own “relevances,” that we might “share his purposes.” A good place to start might be in a movie theater, with eyes on the screen. What does The New World look like?
To answer this question is to talk about technique, something that philosophical commentaries tend assiduously to avoid. But in Malick’s case it is essential. The director does not give interviews—the film should speak for itself—but his crew has no such scruples and the trade publications are full of information, useful guides to the eyes.
For example, the cinematographer on The New World, Emanuel Lubezki, reports that he and Malick adopted a restrictive working procedure that they called their “dogma,” in joking reference to Lars von Trier’s Dogme95. “This was our set of rules,” says Lubezki, “but like many dogmas it has some contradictions.”14
We wanted to avoid lighting, dollies, tripods, cranes, high-speed work, long lenses, filters and CGI [computer generated imagery]. … We didn’t want any “postcards,” pretty shots of sunsets. … The most important article for Terry [Malick] was “Article E—E for exception!” We could break any rule, and indeed we broke them all, but we had these guiding ideas.15
The rules did not represent self-imposed limitations so much as a matrix within which certain effects would become possible.16 “Dogma” in this sense does duty for a theoretical paradigm, while the humor of the term relieves some of the gravitas that can attach to Malick’s work. Theory, here, is subject to light irony and realized in and through the techniques that, in aggregate, comprise the film’s style.
In particular, Malick and Lubezki made a special effort to combine three elements: a widescreen format, natural lighting and deep focus.17 This combination posed a technical challenge. A widescreen format tends to diminish the available depth of field, as does the wide aperture required for low-light shooting. The diminished depth of field, in turn, makes deep focus a problem. The team obtained a special lens from Panavision that helped resolve the difficulty, but even so it was not always possible to keep foreground, middle distance and distant background in focus simultaneously.18 But Malick was determined to stage in depth: in The New World, backgrounds are full of incident even when they are not in crisp focus. [Fig. 2] To energize these deep, wide, full shots, the team favored long camera movements (handheld or with a Steadicam) and long movements of actors toward or away from a stationary camera.
Natural lighting was also important. The New World contains few of the “magic hour” dawn/sunset shots that characterized Malick’s earlier work in Badlands and Days of Heaven (1978). Instead, the light source is consistently behind the figures. There may have been some technical advantages to backlighting—it gets as much light as possible to the camera, while its uniformity makes it easier to combine material from multiple shoots—but the chief visible effect is to separate figures from their backgrounds. Since Malick and Lubezki used no other lights at all, it was necessary to overexpose the film in order to prevent figures in the foreground from showing up as mere silhouettes.19 The result was a blank, white sky through much of the film (e.g, Fig. 2). The figures stand out against this screen.
In other respects the film’s palette is earthy, mostly browns and greens and blacks. The goal seems to have been to avoid any hue that would draw the eye or signal importance. “Bright was the special enemy,” says the costume designer, Jacqueline West. “So, no primary colors.”20 It is a non-hierarchical color scheme, in that there are no obvious chromatic cues to tell you what is important in any given shot; no eyecatching reds, for example. These rich earth tones contrast with the overexposed skies, and the juxtaposition of a white heaven with a dark earth is one of the most distinctive, and slightly unsettling, elements of The New World.
Lastly, compositions are often, but not always, offset (see, again, Fig. 2). Malick did not storyboard each shot, but he did lay down some basic principles of selection. “Terry likes the eccentric frame,” notes Richard Chew, the editor.
Nothing can be right on. In editing, he was always telling us not to use too perfectly framed shots. He wanted to be on a shoulder or see part of the face or cut the face in half. Or he’d like being behind the person. One of his favorite angles is over the shoulder to relate distance and relationship between two characters.21
Instead of a single, central focus to each frame—a hallmark of younger Americans like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonez—Malick composes his shots to emphasize internal relations. When they do appear, centered shots are jarring (an effect emphasized by a wide angle lens), as when a wild-eyed Puritan rants into the camera. [Fig. 14a] Most of the time what matters is not an individual figure, but the dramatic and spatial relationships between that figure and others in the same frame. Chew’s way of putting it, “to relate…relationship,” nicely captures the self-reflexive element of this practice.
In sum, Malick pursued a consistent set of onscreen effects, even in the absence of storyboards. His “dogma” yields internally differentiated shots in which relations between elements are the major sources of visual interest.22 Figures inhabit broad, deep spaces from which they are nonetheless clearly distinct; within these spaces, even a protagonist is but one element out of several. In any given shot, an earthy lower half will tend to contrast with a blank white upper; color, like composition, will tend to homogenize the actors while accentuating their relations to their surroundings (all of these features are on display in Fig. 2). In this film, a disjunctive relation of figures to their surroundings is the paramount visual fact, the enabling condition of everything that transpires.
Reverting to Malick’s vocabulary: surely there are the film’s “relevances,” if it has any. But what are its “purposes”? Technical description alone leaves the film’s dogma unmotivated, even capricious. Sharing the purposes entails looking at how, in the event, the rules issue in a dramatic narrative.
When The New World begins, the year is 1607, the place Virginia. English ships arrive, to the astonishment of the indigenous people. As the Jamestown colony struggles to establish itself, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), idealistic and headstrong, is sent on an expedition to the local chieftain. Suspicious, the chief orders Smith’s execution, but his daughter Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) pleads successfully for his life. Smith and the princess fall in love and spend an idyllic season in the woods. Ultimately, however, Smith returns to Jamestown, where he seizes command. Pocahontas helps the Englishmen through a tough winter, but when fighting breaks out between the colonists and her own people, her father banishes her and she winds up at Jamestown as a hostage. Smith, however, abandons her to go in search of the Northwest Passage, instructing the English to tell Pocahontas that he is dead. Isolated in Jamestown, the princess falls into despair. She is rescued by John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who loves her but keeps her in the dark about Smith. Baptized under the name Rebecca, the Princess marries Rolfe and they have a child. They are summoned to England to meet King James, passing through an outlandish-looking London. Even before they leave Virginia, however, the Princess learns that Smith’s death was a lie. She encounters him again in the garden of an English estate. Smith renews his ardor but, without rancor, the princess breaks with him, embraces the companionship of Rolfe and, in the English garden, plays with her young son in a scene of great tenderness. She dies immediately thereafter. Rolfe and the boy set sail for America, and the film closes with shots of the streams and forests of the New World. The story is tolerably faithful to the historical record, but no more than that; this is myth, not history, a new version of an old tale.
That, at any rate, is one way to describe the film’s narrative. Others are available. For instance, an increasing complexity in the combination of basic elements—wide screen, deep focus, backlighting, eye-level camera, offset compositions and a contrast of earth and sky—itself constitutes a narrative arc.23 Malick lays out themes and then develops them, almost in the manner of a Classical composer. To relate in detail how he does so would make for tedious reading, but since—as I hope to show—the opening ten minutes function as a prelude to the entire work, it will be useful to give them sustained attention. Following this exposition, further developments and recapitulations become possible. The challenge will be to see how these two descriptions—in terms of dramatic action and technique—might relate to one another onscreen. Much of what follows is a simple description of these relations, in all their astonishing complexity and thoroughness—which is not the same thing as “formal analysis.”
The First Ten Minutes
In the film’s opening sequences, Malick assembles the materials from which he will build The New World. Even before the titles, the film opens with a shot of trees and sky reflected in still water, with the song of cicadas in the soundtrack. [Fig. 1] Picture and voice, two constitutive elements of Hollywood cinema, appear here in archetypical form.24 Then, like a third theme, movement enters: the camera heads slowly toward shore. Even in the absence of actors and dialogue, this camera movement is sufficient to produce a narrative, however rudimentary: we are landing. But we never actually reach the shore, nor is it specified whose point of view, if anyone’s, this is.
A girl’s voice says:
Come, Spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother, we your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.25
This invocation announces at least three things. First, that the movie we are about to see is a song, or a singing drama. Second, that it is an epic, with a “Spirit” doing duty for a Muse. With nice economy, Malick invokes epic tradition by narrating a traditional invocation—as if the novelty of this film should consist in its way of acknowledging its debt to, and difference from, its antecedents. Third, that this song, or film, is to be seen as though in the first person plural (“help us sing the story of our land”). Who is this “we,” and who is speaking for whom, and by what right?26 Eventually it will become clear that the voice belongs to Pocahontas, but at the film’s opening the claim to community remains indeterminate. The “we” that sings might even include the audience; “our land” should refer to America, but at this point in The New World it is not settled who can claim ownership of it. We no more arrive at a specification of the “we” than the camera makes landfall.27
Although it precedes the title credits, the invocation is part of the dramatic action, spoken by a character, not a poet or a chorus. Just so, the sheer vagueness of the “we” underscores that America is not a nation-state, but not quite a “nation of immigrants” either, so that nobody is excluded in advance from its commonwealth. So far from simply offering a national epic, therefore, the film puts epic up for discussion.
From these elements—picture, sound, movement, speech—the film builds a visual language. Immediately following the invocation is a title sequence that lists cast and crew while narrating the history of early Virginia through CGI animations of seventeenth century prints.28 [Fig. 3a-d; Clip I] A blank map of Virginia fills in magically, as bits of clip art seem to float before it; we also see seventeenth-century prints of ships crossing the sea, and colonists battling Indians. Diegetic sound, creaking timbers and wind and birdcalls, helps to suture the sequence into the stream of the film. Before the titles are over the Vorspiel to Wagner’s Das Rheingold starts to rumble on the soundtrack. A print of a sunfish gives way to an underwater shot of the same species, and the movie is launched.
Following immediately upon the opening shot of mirroring water, the title sequence provides the medium of cinema with a capsule history. Credited to Kyle Cooper, it combines an archaic form of mechanical reproduction—prints—with a futuristic one—CGI. Two facts cement the connection between these technical flourishes and cinema itself: first, that the title sequence, like the movie as a whole, narrates the settlement of Virginia; second, that the printed pictures match so strikingly with the filmed ones. The first connection shows that the title sequence is providing historical context for the onscreen narrative to follow; the second, that it is providing historical context for the medium of film as well. One difference between map and film as forms of representation is between a schematic overview and immersion; Malick allegorizes the switch by immersing us in a stream to start his film.
Clip 1: Title Sequence to Prelude. Duration: 1’ 27”.
The presence of Das Rheingold on the soundtrack develops this theme. Historically, Wagnerian Gesammtkunstwerk was another antecedent to cinema, even as Wagner’s explicit aspiration in the Ring was to provide a national epic for the Germans.29 So music-drama represents another historical resource, much like printmaking. Malick could scarcely be more explicit in this comparison. He has already told us that his film is a song. Soon after the Vorspiel strikes up, however, the underwater shot of the sunfish—the very shot that connects the film to early modern print technology—tilts to reveal three Rhinemaidens, or rather three Powhatan girls, swimming in the depths of the River Rhine, that is, the River James. [Fig. 4; Clip I] This allusion to the Ring is the first of many in The New World—a topic to which we shall return.
But the relationship is complex. Within the context of Das Rheingold, the Vorspiel likewise assembles the constitutive elements of the drama to follow. That is, the function of this music for Wagner is analogous to its function for Malick. Famously, the monotonous Eflat major of the Vorspiel will develop into a triad, which will split into increasingly swift arpeggios until, at the climax, the cries of the three Rhinemaidens take over, and words enter the domain of music. This exposition and elaboration of first principles is part of what makes Wagner modern. Malick’s use of the Vorspiel to accompany his own, parallel articulation of a filmic system is therefore doubly significant. Even as he historicizes the conditions of possibility of his medium and his narrative, he also historicizes the quintessentially modern impulse to clarify and specify those conditions of possibility in the first place. Malick is historicizing not just his medium, not just his epic aspiration, but his own historicizing gesture as well. At issue, in short, is not just history or technology but the conditions that must be in place for the history of a medium to become visible as such.
After the opening invocation there is no dialogue for nearly ten minutes. With Wagner’s arpeggios looping on the soundtrack, the camera rises from the river’s depths, first with underwater shots looking through the surface tension to the princess and others on dry land. [Fig. 5; Clip I] The ultra-low vantage point is conspicuous—they are flashy shots—but it corresponds to the point of view of nobody in particular: on offer is not dramatic characterization or POV, but the simple fact that the camera is situated, that it takes a point of view (another point to which we shall return). The limpid medium of rippling water, bending light and so distorting the world that it registers, is as frank a statement as one could want of the role of lenses in any movie, not least one shot in anamorphic widescreen. Not for the last time, Malick makes the camera’s constitutive enframing of what it registers—the fact that without a frame there is no photographic picture at all—inescapable. Of course, this is standard modernist stuff. But that is no criticism, insofar as the film has demonstrated willingness to historicize its own modernism, its own historicism.
And so it goes, step by step. We rise from the depths into a pair of matching shots. The first looks down at the waves and tilts up to show the English ships, the next looks up at a ship’s rigging and tilts down to show the crew: down, up…up, down. [see the end of Clip I] Such tilts take the place of traditional establishing shots throughout The New World.30 Where an establishing shot gives an overview of a location and then cuts to the action itself, these “establishing tilts” keep the camera in the thick of things while establishing continuity between action and environment—and, in so doing, drawing attention to everything the camera leaves out, the way a mobile frame necessarily occludes or crops.
From these elements—picture, diegetic sound, music, lensing, camera angle, camera movement—the film charts a course to a version of “continuity style.”31 A montage of busy English and astonished Indians gives way to waving green grass against a line of trees.32 [Clip II] The wide-angle lens bows the horizon sharply; the shot seems calculated to dramatize the distortion.33 An English soldier enters the frame from the bottom left; walking away from the camera, his body cropped by tall grass, he proceeds to the right edge of the frame and seems to rebound off it, changing course back into the center of the visual field. More soldiers enter from the lower corners, first one and then the other. It is a shot in which almost nothing happens except a declaration of the literal shape of the screen and the constitutive role of the lens.
Clip II: Lenses, edges, corners, frames. Duration: 20”.
§5. The Social Contract
Now, at last, Malick has everything in place: the basic technical elements of Hollywood film, the resources of historicism, and the building blocks of style. Gusting wind drowns out Wagner, there is a cutaway to tossing grass, a drumroll, and we enter a world of over-the-shoulder, shot/reverse-shot dialogue. In Das Rheingold, the arpeggios of the Vorspiel end with the Rhinemaidens bursting into song, language emerging from the depths of music. In The New World, at the identical musical climax, Malick includes no song and yet the film enters into language all the same—literally, in the sense that dialogue appears, and figuratively, in the sense that the medium is now capable of articulating his version of music-drama.
History and the claim to community remain very much at issue. Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) is admonishing John Smith,
Now remember, Smith, you come to these shores in chains. You’re under a cloud, which will darken considerably if I hear any more of your mutinous remarks. Is that understood?
Smith, his head in a noose, nods once, and is freed from his shackles. The reference to Rousseau has been widely remarked. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains: so is America the place to renew the social contract? Smith’s coerced, voiceless assent hardly instills hope, and in fact the remainder of the film will show the poverty of such pieties. Political conversation is yet to be achieved.
It took the whole introductory sequence even to get to this point, at which the question of community and contracts could acquire cogency. The implication is that Rousseau’s problem emerges immediately once a filmic world, its apparatus and its grammar, have come into place and up for discussion. So by detailing the architecture of that world in its historical dimension, Malick shows the enabling condition not just of his medium, but of his own interrogation of it (the historical antecedent being Wagner); not just of a community, but of its theorization (the historical antecedent being Rousseau). And he stages the question: how can such a world be habitable, which is to say, how can it give its inhabitants a voice and a hearing, when they are bound and silent?
The World on Film
One point of the preceding description was simply to show how Malick operates, where to “look for his relevances.” Throughout this film, everything that transpires onscreen or in the soundtrack is at least potentially of the highest significance. More specifically, there is at any given moment in The New World a reciprocal relation between the narrative of discovery on the one hand, and the declaration of the film’s own possibilities on the other. The former recounts the attainment of new truths about entities in the world, like Virginia or London, maize or mirrors. The latter reveals the truth of the medium in the broadest possible sense, truth about the (filmic) world itself—about what has to be in place even to speak of a diegesis, a diegetic world, narrative time, and so on.
Clearly, the world in this latter sense is something other than place (like, say, Virginia).34 In this light it seems fair to ask: what should we make of the fact that worldhood is a central concern of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes, the very essay that Malick translated in his previous career? Probably nothing at all; at this stage in particular, to invoke Heidegger would be little more than crass.35 Malick’s own glosses, however, seem more promising, if only insofar as any author’s statements might have purchase on his or her works. “The world,” writes Malick,
is not the “totality of things” but that in terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes. What leads Heidegger to offer the definition is not obvious, but it may well be related to explaining why we must, and no less how we can, share certain notions about the measure and purpose and validity of things. And presumably it is important to have that explanation because sometimes we do not, or do not seem to, share such notions.36
Malick then goes on to distinguish this understanding of “world” as the condition of possibility of meaningfulness from a mere subjectivism or worldview, what he calls an “interpretation”: “Instead of an interpretation, the ‘world’ is meant to be that which can keep us from seeing, or force us to see, that what we have is one.”37 In this regard, he remarks, it has much in common with Wittgenstein’s term, “form of life.”
Here the risk of reductivism is acute. In adducing this passage, my claim is not that The New World can be decoded as a gloss on the Heideggerian conception of worldhood; Heidegger should be so lucky.38 It is, rather, that Malick’s own distinction between the world as a place and the world as the constitution of a human form of life, between “‘the totality of things’” and “that in terms of which we understand them,” might help to clarify the relation of narrative thematics to cinematic technique in his film. But the test of this passage’s relevance will not be the circumstance of its authorship but the extent to which it helps us to see the film. It is, in this regard, analogous to the testimony of Malick’s crew: a guide to the eyes.
Malick’s “dogmatic” technique, his “relating of relations,” might be described as a way of articulating two understandings of the world, hence two approaches to it.39 Within the diegesis, characters discover new worlds, understood as places like Virginia and England, and they discover (or turn a blind eye to) their own “worldliness” in encounters with new forms of life and the formation of new affective attachments. To show these discoveries and encounters, and to detail their stakes in the characters’ lives, takes up most of the film’s running time: we see them sharing, and failing to share, “certain notions about the measure and purpose and validity of things,” along with the various pathologies—aggression, exploitation, mystification—that attend these failures. Throughout, Malick’s relational style illuminates the way in which a world on film comes to be at all, even as the presence of Wagner and Rousseau shows the historical determination of that genesis and the political and ethical stakes of the enterprise. In this way, the film’s narrative of empirical exploration is itself an exploration of the grounds of world-making both onscreen and off.
Much of the film’s artistry consists in the patience and thoroughness with which it relates these relations. To show how this is the case takes some doing. I am not sure if the description that follows will convert anyone to the film who hasn’t already seen it; but part of my point is that Malick’s movies demand a certain attentiveness, for which neither philosophy nor ineffability can substitute.
One avenue of development is in the use of sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic. For example, one of Malick’s best-known stylistic devices is the establishment of an ironic relationship between voice-over and onscreen action.40 Examples abound from The New World, as when Smith states his utopian dreams (“None shall eat up carelessly what his friends got worthily, or steal that which virtue has stored up. Men shall not make each other their spoil.”) over shots of the English looting a Native village; or when Rolfe says that the desolate Pocahontas “seemed barely to notice the others about her,” over a shot of the Princess looking sidelong at gawkers. The critical literature tends to describe such ironies as subjectivizing devices, bringing out a particular character’s point of view.41 Yet, while true enough, that is only half the story; the other half is that the technique renders inescapable the world’s separateness from any character. The relation of world to voice is disjunctive, such that the former is the function of no subjectivity, even as the latter presses upon us particular ways of inhabiting that world. The result might best be understood as the antithesis of a POV shot; what we see is not how things appear to any character.
Less widely remarked is a symmetrical counterpart to this dissociation of picture from voice: Malick’s use of music to cast the events onscreen in a particular mood. Two highly recognizable pieces of music recur through The New World: the aforementioned Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, and a solo/tutti passage from the Adagio of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 (A major, K. 488). These fragments appear at highly charged moments in the film: Wagner marks the film’s beginning, its end, and key transitions; Mozart enters at moments of particular emotion for the characters, often associated with architectural scaffolds, as if to emphasize its role in articulating the narrative. [Fig. 6] But the music is also part of what establishes the importance, and the affective charge, of a given scene in the first place—so that is not always obvious what the first appearance of Mozart or Wagner has in common with the second beyond a general pathos.
It might be tempting to say that Wagner and Mozart color the scenes in question, but music does not function here as some non-representational system running parallel to the imagery onscreen. Picture and soundtrack come to us together, and the repetition of the identical musical passages in different situations makes this holism conspicuous. Malick always introduces the music a few heartbeats into a shot: the music starts up just after the cut, with the result that its power to shape everything we see, and conversely the power of the picture to shape what we hear, becomes inescapably obvious. It is as though Malick were coolly demonstrating that under certain conditions, the world will come to us this way, and under other conditions it will come to us that way; one and the same musical passage can sound different at different moments, one and the same shot can look different under different conditions. The world (on film) comes to us under a mood, and there is no world (on film) that is not “moody” in this sense.42
In short, Malick is “relating relationships” once again. As we have seen, the “dogmatic” shooting technique produced internally differentiated shots in which relations between elements were major sources of visual interest. Music and voiceover work to similar effect: they render conspicuous the lineaments—the cuts and splices and mixes—that make up a world on film in its specific affect.
Mise-en-scène and Action (Frames and Metrics)
This relational thematic also organizes the mise-en-scène and the dramatic action. The opening sequence provides some examples, such as Fig. 5, in which water dramatizes the fact of the camera lens, or Clip II, in which a soldier seems to ricochet off the edge of the screen. Similar devices abound throughout the film. Certain types of shot recur through The New World—and, for that matter, in Malick’s other films as well.43 Many emphasize framing: shots through windows and doors [Fig. 7a-d]; shots of figures in tall grass, which crops them at half length [Clip II], or weaving their way between tree-trunks; and a continual recurrence of architectural frameworks, cages, stocks, and half-built dwellings, which emphasize framing as an ongoing structuring of the habitable world.44 [Figs. 6, 8a–d] Other shots seem to literalize the principle of relationality, notably close-ups of hands clasped across the length of the screen—various iterations of which appear at least six times in The New World, and also in The Thin Red Line. [Fig. 9a–f]
Such motifs might be understood as symbols, but not in any simple sense. For they really do organize the shots in which they appear; Malick encourages a certain plodding literalism. Without in any way denying, for instance, the meaningfulness of the handclasp as a narrative device and even as an emblem of Malick’s relational style, it is equally important that the motif literally bisects the screen with a shallow arc or a chevron. The motif arranges what we see onscreen into a pattern. Just so, the architectural frames tend to appear at dramatically significant moments: when Smith decides that his forest idyll was a dream, there is half-built church in the background [Fig. 8b]; when Pocahontas first doubts him, there is a framework watchtower; when she learns that he was alive all along, there its the skeleton of a cottage; etcetera. [Fig. 8c] The symbolism is obvious, but by the same token the grids really do segment and regularize the shots in question. It would be a perfectly literal description to say that they structure the world as it appears onscreen.
Structuring and framing are integral to the dramatic action as well. The English impose metrics on both time and space, taking soundings of the James River, marking off tracts of land and even, at one point, fighting over whether the date is the 15th or the 17th of October (at which point Smith, newly returned from the forest, says to himself, “Damnation is like this”). Initiation into this way of life is part of Pocahontas’ formation as an Englishwoman. “What is a day? What is an hour?” she asks; “An hour is sixty minutes,” answers Rolfe, taking her very literally indeed. The English also dig frantically for gold, plunder the Indians and generally treat the New World as a standing resource in need of effective management: “This place will serve,” says Captain Newport soon after their arrival. Their instrumental outlook goes hand in hand with the establishment of metrics. It is practically a literalization of Malick’s earlier formulation of worldhood as “the measure and purpose and validity of things.”
The Native peoples have their own ways of dividing up the world and representing it. The English turn trees into palisades, but the Indians turn them into dwellings; the trunks of the forest can structure a shot just as well as a ship’s rigging; the English have mirrors and print technology, but the Indians make wood statues and perform mimetic dances; it is an Indian who sells Pocahontas for a kettle, and Rolfe who rescues her from isolation. Smith idealizes the Indians, and Newport refers to them contemptuously as “Naturals,” but their all-too-human behavior belies such fantasies; Powhatan’s people put a noose around Smith’s neck just as Newport did, and their village has its share of shots framed in windows and doors, its share of stark architectural frames. Nature is not a given in this film and its denizens are not Noble Savages, Rousseau notwithstanding.
In short, Malick’s mise-en-scène “relates relations” both literally and thematically, the first by articulating the shot, the second by suggesting the activities of framing and constructing. As if by extension, both Colonists and Powhatans find ways to enframe and articulate their worlds; such activities take up a small but significant part of the onscreen narrative. This is the world that the characters inhabit.
Character and Camerawork
Malick, however, never suggests that this mise-en-scène, or these articulating actions, express the inner states of the characters. If anything, The New World is an anti-psychological and anti-cognitivist film.45 Malick does not cast characters’ actions and utterances as externalizations of inner affects or intentions or psychic forces at all. Instead he uses two techniques to de-psychologizing his characters: he blocks or attenuates traditional means of focalizing the camera’s gaze as POV, and he uses allusion to alienate characters from the words they use.
We can begin with camera and POV. Since Malick and Lubezki eschewed dollies and cranes, the mobile shots in The New World tend to be either handheld or Steadicam. An oft-touted virtue of the Steadicam is that it allows the camera to become an “additional character,” invisible yet present in the midst of things.46 In Malick’s case, however, it is often unclear whether a given shot does or does not correspond to a character’s point of view. In one particularly spectacular instance, Malick confounds the basic device of the eyeline match, whereby a character looks and the next shot reveals what he or she is looking at. [Clip III] As John Smith walks through an Indian village in search of Pocahontas, we see his questing face. Cut to a long, forward-moving handheld shot: this should be Smith’s point of view. But then Smith himself emerges from behind a building and crosses our field of vision. It was not Smith’s view, after all; it was nobody’s view, or that of the phantom “additional character.” In moments like these, technique and persona disengage; the viewer’s expectations are cultivated in order to be frustrated.
Clip III: Confounding POV and eyeline match. Duration: 16”.
But Malick is rarely so showy. A shot can begin literally in midstream, the camera moving slowly up a river as if from the viewpoint of someone in the bows of a boat—only to have the boat itself enter from screen left. Or he can riff through multiple kinds of camera movement in montage. In quick succession, we can get a handheld camera that suggests POV, and one that does not; a Steadicam shot that is focalized, and one that is not; a low camera angle that suggests an embodied character’s point of view, and one that does not; and so on. To be sure, contemporary cinema imposes no requirement that a film be particularly consistent about such things, and, as Gilberto Perez insists, a POV shot is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish the narrative point of view of a character.47 Yet Malick’s juxtapositions are so pervasive as to be conspicuous, even jarring. By consistently asserting and confounding the basic devices of narrative focalization, they render obtrusive the various ways in which camerawork and sound produce a diegetic world. The result is a clarification of the principle of combination itself, of the narrative rules by which characters come into being.
These ways of relating characters to camera movement bear comparison with the principles of shot composition and editing that emerged in the first few minutes of the film. As argued earlier, each shot of The New World is an internally articulate whole, the enabling conditions of which are frankly acknowledged in the apparatus of cinema, in history, and in the essential fact of the human body. The presentation of character develops the same principle (a bit like the way the arpeggios in the Rheingold prelude develop the opening Eflat major). If ever a center of consciousness should determine our perspective and perceptions, it is always presented as a function of the techniques on which Malick has founded The New World—such that Malick’s characters are all, so to speak, creatures of the larger world they inhabit.
Character and Words
Malick’s second de-psychologizing device is specific to the screenplay: he alienates his characters from their own words by appropriating their dialogue from earlier sources.48 These allusions come in two types. The first involves primary source material. A good deal of the speech associated with the Jamestown colony derives from seventeenth-century documents.49 For example, when Smith ruminates over the possibilities of the New World the script combines a line from Gerrard Winstanley, the radical Leveller (“The blessings of the earth shall become common for all”) with an extended passage from Smith’s own Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Southern Isles.50 Quotations of this sort can be seen as gestures toward authenticity, like getting period dress just so.
But the second kind of allusion has the opposite effect. In these cases, characters mouth words that have no historical bearing on the plot. Pocahontas’ opening invocation, for instance, comes from a poem by Vachel Lindsay, “Our Mother Pocahontas”—of Pocahontas herself, Lindsay writes, “We are her fields of corn…We rise from out the soul of her….” When Capt. Smith describes his first sight of the Princess, he quite literally speaks of her as a character in a fairy tale, paraphrasing the first line of “The Frog-King, or Iron Henry,” by the Brothers Grimm.51 When the Princess is in reverie over Smith, she recites a poem by Sappho.52 And so on, with Virgil, Montaigne, Thomas Campion, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickens, Whitman and Hart Crane all making verbal cameos (there may be some I have missed).53 A significant proportion of the film’s dialogue comes at second hand in this manner.
These allusions may flatter the audience and elevate the general tone; they may inflect scenes, as when Pocahontas becomes a fairy-tale princess. But they also render characters curiously shallow: even their most heartfelt utterances, their most confessional soliloquies, are often as not in the public domain. It is tempting to call it a Godardian device—and, as with Godard, nobody can be expected to catch all the allusions, at any rate without a search engine and lots of patience. What matters, therefore, must be the general fact of allusiveness, more than any particular instance of it; the general fact that these characters speak words that are not their own and yet are all the more meaningful for that.
In this respect, the borrowed words simply render conspicuous the basic condition of a genre picture. The New World is, after all, a costume drama, with the requisite heartthrob, ingénue, battles, escapes, pageantry, tacky costumes, swelling Germanic music and inconsistent accents; it is not any more savvy in its manipulation of these resources than, say, Pirates of the Caribbean. But Malick acknowledges the salient fact of genre—that the characters are not autonomous, that they are in some sense fated to act as they do, subject to rules they cannot articulate—without ever sliding into knowingness. If Godard aspires to escape characterization entirely, to film what he calls “statues that speak,” while a franchise like Pirates trades in winks and nudges, Malick still wants the affective involvement of traditional dramatis personae even as he hollows them out.54
Of course, that is not how it appears to Pocahontas et al. For the lovers in the film, each means the world to the other, such that losing the other is losing everything.55 This much is clear from Pocahontas’ breakdown following the departure of John Smith: her loss is total. When she re-locates herself with Rolfe it is specified as a re-grounding: she sinks into muddy soil and he lifts her up and sets her down on terra firma. Smith for his part could not be more explicit: he calls Pocahontas “My true light, my America,” which means that her loss is that of the New World itself.
The characters voice these passions in terms readily susceptible of highbrow exegesis. Smith employs the classic vocabulary of skepticism, first characterizing his idyll in the woods as a dream come true (“Real, what I thought a dream”), then justifying his betrayal of Pocahontas in the same terms (“It was a dream, now I am awake”), and at last realizing the inadequacy of the terms (“I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest; I see now that it’s the only truth”).56 Pocahontas seems more exercised by other minds, gazing at Smith and wondering things like “Who is this man?” and “Can love lie?” or reconciling with Rolfe by affirming, “You are the man I thought you were, and more.” She meets Smith while frolicking with a youth in the grass, each pretending to be a deer to the other. [Fig. 10] So if Pocahontas addresses the world as a “Spirit” or, let’s say, ein Geist, Smith imagines another mind as a world, specifically a new one (“My America”). For both, significantly, their doubts present as erotic desire. Doubt, that is, is experienced as a perceived lack, which in turn powers their romance, so that their courtship consists of flirtatious games and coquetries. [Fig. 11] But Smith goes on to try to map the physical world (to find the Northwest Passage), as though the New World really were a place after all, while the Princess, abandoned, has to re-establish her relations with others.
It might seem the most natural thing in the world to describe Malick’s dogmatic technique in terms of these characters and their motivations. One might want to say, for instance, that the style “expresses” the characters’ mental states, like doubt or wonder. On this view, Smith’s sense of being in a dream might be “expressed” in, among other things, those disjunctive eyeline matches, such that his position in and perspective on the world might take concrete form in a surprising bit of editing. But this inference seems unwarranted. After all, we know Smith only in and through the broader cinematic world in which he appears—and, crucially, Malick has expended no little ingenuity to make this “worldly” determination conspicuous. So far from reaffirming romantic subjectivity, that is, The New World shows the condition of being in a world, understood as the open field of assignment relations that comprise a human form of life. In its “dogmatic” technique, its shot composition and framing and focus, in its editing and mise-en-scène and music and soundtrack, in the words the characters utter, the actions they perform and the sentiments they harbor, the film shows worldhood as an essential condition of the filmed narrative, determined historically and technically by the resources of the medium in the broadest sense. No thematic criticism could ever see this aspect.
New and Old: Wagner
But there is more to it than that. The dramatic action of the film consists in the collision of different worlds, the English and the Indian, exemplified in Pocahontas, Smith and Rolfe, a relation that can be described in cultural, economic, affective and erotic terms. What would a new world be like, how if at all can one form of life, one world, be attuned to another?
“Is the idea of a new world intelligible to mere philosophy?” asks Stanley Cavell.57 He goes on to identify this question with Emerson, for whom the possibility of thinking a radically new world, a radically new order of understanding, comes down to the possibility of a conversion of the self in its relation to words. “[I]f the world is to be new, then what creates what we call the world—our experience and our categories (“notions” Emerson says sometimes; let us say our every word)—must be new, that is to say, repronounced, renounced.”58 This might involve, say, quitting your teaching job back East and lighting out for the territory in California. For Cavell, however, it involves a renovation of literary form, the genres in which words are cast.
Emerson’s [version of Kant’s] schematism, let me call it, requires a form or genre that synthesizes or transcendentalizes the genres of the conversion narrative, of the slave narrative, and of the narrative of exploration and discovery. For Emerson, the forms that subsume—undertake—subjects under a concept (the world under a genre) become the conditions of experience, for his time.59
Emerson identifies the possibility of this newness with America itself, yet it is integral to what Cavell terms his perfectionism that this turn should never be encompassed, the New World never be attained: “I am ready to die out of nature, and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.”60
What Cavell calls “mere philosophy” has limited resources compared to movies. The New World casts this matter in and through the question of its own newness, its own transcendentalization of “the narrative of exploration and discovery.” We have already seen that its characters often speak with old or borrowed words. This fact then formed the basis of three claims. First, that it puts an obligation on viewers even as it flatters them, that it is one route of access into a sustained relation with the film. Second, that Malick, like Godard, gives language priority over psychology and expression: the self is not a point of origin. Third, that the borrowings acknowledge the condition of a genre picture. But the fact of allusion will not be confined to such talking points, because allusion turns out to organize the entire plot.
Across the running time of The New World, Malick establishes a series of loose but unmistakable analogies between his film and Wagner’s Ring. The opening sequence announced this fact, with three “Rhinemaidens” swimming in the James River to the music of Das Rheingold. [Fig. 4; Clip I] This echo is only the first of many. A few moments later, Smith emerges crouching from a dark hidey-hole below decks and reaches up toward gleaming light, just as, at the beginning of Wagner’s music-drama, the dwarf Alberich crawls out from under a rock and reaches up toward the bright Rhinegold. [Fig. 12] Later, Smith will play Siegmund to Pocahontas’ Brunnhilde and Powhatan’s Wotan: like the Valkyrie, Pocahontas will save the hero by hurling herself between him and her royal father. In Die Walküre, Wotan condemns Brunnhilde to sleep behind a wall of fire; Powhatan exiles his daughter, and as he pronounces her doom Malick shows her asleep on a bed of fiery red leaves (a shot with no dramatic rationale, existing solely to nail down the allusion). [Fig. 13] Later, Smith has become Siegfried, renouncing the love of Brunnhilde/Pocahontas for the lure of adventure to the Rhine, or in his case the Northwest Passage. Believing him dead she in turn marries the unheroic and less-than-forthright Gunther, that is Rolfe, and travels to the royal court of the Gibichungs, that is the English. There she encounters Siegfried again, or rather Smith, but refuses to be swayed by his protestations and dies soon after.61
This is an extremely dangerous game, especially for a film that purports to renovate the idea of a national epic. Malick’s aspiration has to be measured against Wagner’s own, and its catastrophic consequences in Germany. Which means that the catastrophe in Germany has to be measured against the prior catastrophe in America, specifically the genocide of the native population, the origins of which Malick is narrating. Yet the fact that the question of community has been at issue since the film’s beginning—in the indeterminacy of the “we” in opening invocation, and in the ironic allusion to Rousseau—establishes a difference between the probing of nationhood in The New World and the nationalism of the Ring. The possibility of a debased or false renewal is raised and rejected near the end of the film, when Smith tries, too late, to win back the Princess by claiming to be a new man: “I seems as if I was speaking to you for the first time,” he says, which elicits something of a sneer from the Princess; newness here is the shoddiest of alibis. Insofar as the film itself seems to make a bid for renewal, the implication is that there exists an analogy between the invocation of Wagner and the invocation of America as the location of the new: either one of these invocations brings down such weight that it can seem unsayable, yet to evade the analogy would, it seems, be to evade one’s own historical conditions.
It is therefore significant that the film does not end with Valhalla going up in flames, à la Götterdammerung. Pocahontas dies, but not the death of Brunnhilde, riding into the pyre. She dies in bed, with her weeping husband (not her lover) by her side, leaving a child behind; as her acousmatic voice began the film, so her silence ends it. Is it coincidence that, in its scenario and its silence, this is the death of the great anti-Wagnerian heroine, the dénouement of the great anti-Wagnerian opera: the death, that is, of Debussy’s Mélisande? As though the death scene were a release from Wagnerism, or rather from the implication that film is condemned to Wagnerism, condemned to its past, as America itself might be condemned.
We might say that The New World represents a renewed attempt at what Thoreau, in Walden, called “repeopling the woods”—no less than an effort to refound the country. As with Thoreau, that ambition is literally epic—and more than a little skeptical of academic philosophizing.62 To that end it proceeds by way of the Old—reflections, prints, music-dramas, costume-dramas, romances, epics—and, more specifically, by old approaches to the New. Although this procedure might leave Malick open to a charge of conservatism, the Old is not an end in itself but a necessary condition of renewal. Not conservation but renovation, not the faithful recounting of an historical narrative but the reshaping of one, is the project.
Conversion of the Gaze
We are now, at last, in a position to see what is at stake in Malick’s elaboration of style and technique into a Hollywood genre picture—and, by extension, to assess his openness to academic philosophy. The New World is not just a narrative of exploration and discovery, but also one of conversion. During its course both Smith and Pocahontas undergo ceremonies of rebirth: the former after Powhatan spares his life, the latter in her baptism under the name Rebecca. Neither ceremony has much effect; Smith reverts to his former ways, and “Rebecca” continues to pray to a Mother Spirit even after she becomes a Protestant. Matching POV shots of a Puritan fanatic and an Indian priestess—each tightly framed, facing the camera with palms forward, threatening—rule out any sentimentalization of either Christian or Native American spirituality. [Fig. 14a-b] What might seem to be needed is some sort of inner rebirth, a “true” conversion, and yet the whole film has militated against any simple myth of the inner. The language of spirituality seems inapt—yet more hawking of ineffability—yet I hope to show that the final minutes of the film do narrate a conversion and, moreover, that they do so in order to effect a similar conversion in viewers.
Characteristically Malick figures conversion in and through movements external to the characters. The plot itself describes a circle, a literal conversio or turning-about, from Virginia to England and back. But, as we know, the world in this film is not a place, and movement across the Atlantic is not the real issue. Near the film’s end, Pocahontas asks Smith if he ever found his Indies (the way she talks, they could be Marvell’s Bermudas); he replies that he may have sailed past them. For him the volte-face does not quite succeed, but for Pocahontas, hence for at least some viewers, the film’s final moments visibly and audibly return to earlier ones, visibly and audibly effect the conversion of the Old World into the New. To see how this is the case requires a final return to details.
After parting with Smith, the Princess wanders the English garden as she did the Virginia woods. She reconciles with Rolfe and reaffirms her marriage to him. With the romantic storyline at an end, the Vorspiel strikes up—announcing that this is a new beginning, or rather a new iteration of an old beginning. Now the Princess is playing chase with her son amidst the hedges, a pure image of happiness and its pursuit. [Fig. 15] But the game terminates with the child casting about for his mother, who has vanished. Rolfe’s voice describes her death at Gravesend in Kent, and we see her deathbed in a convex mirror. Now a series of cross-cuts renders the narrative sequence obscure: past and present interfuse, both within the diegesis and between the diegetic world and the present day. The child searches the garden for his mother (so was the deathbed scene proleptic? But it was cast as Rolfe’s recollection); the deathbed reappears, empty (does it await Pocahontas or has she already died?); an anonymous Powhatan dashes out of the English manor house.63 Pocahontas runs and dances alone in the garden, presumably while her son looks for her but also, just possibly, after her death, as a spirit. She splashes water on her head, a self-baptism. Her grave appears, not freshly dug but overgrown with centuries of weeds, as it might look today if its location were known; like the film itself, it is a memorial in the here-and-now. Rolfe and the child set sail for Virginia, in a harbor scene that could have been painted by Claude Lorrain. The final shots are of the trees and brooks of the New World. [Fig. 16; for the full sequence, see Clip IV]
Clip IV: Finale. Duration: 4’ 09”.
We have seen all this before, and heard it too. Wagner’s music is one of the oldest things in the film; it signals that everything is beginning again. The garden setting matches the wilderness—even the cicadas are chirping once more on the soundtrack—and the pursuit of mother and child transfigures the love-games that Pocahontas played earlier, first with a Powhatan youth and then with Smith. [Figs. 10–11] The difference is between a chase that mimes the hermeneutics of desire, and one that instantiates a different sort of coexistence. The pursuits in the forest were flirtations, toying with the absent or a perceived lack—“romantic longing,” indeed. Although yielding pleasure, the pursuit of Smith brought endless questions (“Who is this man?”), utopian fantasies (“My America”) and ultimately abandonment. The pursuit in the garden, by contrast, has nothing of coyness. Neither mother nor child is, or is pretending to be, absent to the other as they run amidst the hedges; they could hardly be more present, both to each other and to us. Hence the game begins with an embrace, not a withdrawal, and it ends with an abandonment of a different kind: the mother’s abandonment of the child in death, which is not a breach of faith as per Smith, so much as the attainment of a limit.
The camera is restless. Sometimes it accompanies mother and child, sometimes it holds still, sometimes it takes a POV, sometimes not; often it will seem to follow the figures, pursuing them after its own fashion. Such participation establishes an affinity between game and movie. After all, showing and hiding, sudden occlusion (as by a hedge, or the edge of a screen) and sudden appearance (as around a corner, or in a panning shot), are constitutive elements both of a game of chase and of a cinematic world. Onscreen, that is, the whole world is shown and hidden, occluded by edges and revealed by movement. We have already seen Malick making these facts conspicuous with his use of “establishing tilts,” tall grass, and so on, but now these technical procedures find narrative thematization. Of course, that is not how it seems to the characters within that world, even when they seem to bounce off the edge of the frame, or crop their own faces from another’s view. We see the limits they live.
These limits are not mere formalities. Part of the brilliance of the cross-cutting at this moment is its indication of what can be at stake in an everyday pursuit—the way that, particularly for a child, a game of chase can hold real terrors. Playing hide-and-seek, the boy really does lose his mother: we see him casting about, and then she is gone for good. Which is to say that one way to account for the considerable affective power of this sequence is to recognize the affinity it establishes between the game, the constitutive limitation of a world on film (which the film has so painstakingly set forth), and the equally constitutive limitation of death. That this revelation should come under a mood that can only be called joyful, that it is joyful exactly insofar as it goes some way to salvage some of the most compromised music in the Western canon, and one of the most compromised myths in American history, is a measure of the film’s audacity.
It is here that the movie leaves us. In these final minutes, neither game nor film offers anything to decipher, anymore than the characters do to one another; metaphysical dilemmas like “Who is this man?”, colonial fantasies like “My America!” and virtuous questions like, “What is the relation of this film’s thematic of worldhood to Martin Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes?”—all are set aside in the eupathic play of mother and child in which the New World returns transfigured. There is no dialogue in the film’s final moments, ultimately no human presence at all.64 Having confounded narrative sequence, Malick picks up the pace of the editing, so there is simply no time for the audience to be quite sure what is happening. [Clip IV] One shot of the New World forests is in Steadicam speeding through the trees, a POV of nobody; others are strongly centered with recessive lines, producing an oscillation of perspectival rush and flat pattern. In the last shot of the film [Fig. 16], the internally disjunctive composition attains an extreme: the trees comprise a two-dimensional lattice even as they recede toward a white sky, so that what we see has two aspects, flat and deep. The Wagner cuts abruptly and instead of words there are just “forest murmurs.”
The whole film is preparation for this ending, in which the intelligibility of a New World simply ceases to be a question, because a myth of newness—perhaps the American myth—has been renounced. No photograph, no film, can ever lay claim to radical newness thus conceived, anymore than mere philosophy can render intelligible the absolutely new. Malick’s film stages various hungers for that that sort of newness, everyday yearnings to know the ineffable—political, erotic, operatic, cinematic, philosophical—that is taken to lie on the far side of things. In staging them, the film shows their attraction and their danger, for both historical actors (Smith, Pocahontas, Rolfe) and contemporary ones (“us,” or “we”). I have tried to suggest that some of the current critical orthodoxies about Terrence Malick might exemplify such yearnings. But it simply doesn’t matter if this film has a cogent relation to Heidegger, Emerson or Cavell, or whether it should or should not count as “philosophy,” any more than it is coherent to assert that it delivers any particular ineffable wisdom. Such interpretative pseudo-problems instantiate the very affliction that the film works to treat, proposing a relation of knowledge that is simply inapt. To recur to Malick’s own words, “there is no more sense in speaking of an interpretation when, instead of an interpretation, the ‘world’ is meant to be that which can keep us from seeing, or force us to see, that what we have is one.”65
To help us to see in this way, the film narrates the constitution of a world—that which establishes “measure and purpose and validity in our schemes”—on film and off. Lenses, color, lighting, editing, staging, camera movement, mise-en-scène, motifs, soundtrack, script, plot, allusions—all cohere in this regard. Insofar as it has guided viewers to see, literally to see, these relevances, the film’s final shots can abandon both Romantic yearning and philosophical profundity—and not just as exegetical tools, but as ways of seeing. This is not, I admit (or rather: I insist), a thesis.
https://www.editorsguild.com/Magazine.cfm?ArticleID=382 (accessed July 2010).↑