American Civilization

August 27, 2008

The New World

Filed under: screenings — equiano @ 5:24 pm
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Thursday we’ll be screening The New World (2005) written and directed by Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven), whose deep loathing of the Hollywood system once led him to take a twenty year hiatus from film-making. Malick was trained as a philosopher, concentrating on the work of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, though he did not complete his Ph.D. His remarkable cinematic style and Salinger-ean antipathy for tabloid exposure has made him the object of a virtually cultic following, and of today’s working American directors you’d be hard pressed to find someone more challenging.

TNW is not a documentary but a fiction (feature) film. In other words this is not “history” but “historical drama/romance”. John Smith’s rather extravagant claims that the love of “Pochohantas” (aged 12) saved his life are adopted, though it is not entirely clear that the character in the film, Rebecca (the name by which she was known to the English), is motivated purely by affection.

Film is a medium whose methods of representation are often “invisible” to audiences. We are trained at a very early age to make sense of those “moving pictures” (images that do not, strictly speaking, move at all– “flicker fusion” fools our brains into seeing a rapid succession of images as bodies in motion). When the classical techniques of continuity editing are violated we are usually jarred into acknowledging that film is a construct, a product of artifice that only seems real. 

TNW’s director of photography (deep) Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, etc.) brings his skills to bear on Malick’s distinctive visual sensibility. Pay close attention to the cinematographic aspects of the film, in particular lighting, framing, and camera movement. How do these formal components work to create a sense of three-dimensional space? What impact do they have on our relationship to the characters and the story itself?

Malick went to great lengths to tell his story, asking Native American elders, historians, and botanists for advice on costume, set-design, and even characterization. He obtained a strain of maize present in the coastal regions of 16th century Virginia rather than use present day corn. He hired a professor of linguistics to “rebuild” Virginia Algonquin, which had been dead since roughly 1785. (800 languages were spoken in N. Am. at the time of contact, most of which have ceased to exist. Linguistic legacies in American English, on the other hand, persist: “pecans,” “moccasins,” “raccoon” and “opossum” were all Algonquian words). Yet these painstaking efforts to establish verisimilitude are strangely at odds with the film’s cumulative effect. One of the actors, Christopher Plummer, went so far as to say that Malick envisioned first contact as a kind of dream. 

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