Sunday, September 20, 2009
“I thought it was dream... what we knew in the forest. It's the only truth.”
-Captain John Smith
Why didn't I sense it before? Why didn’t I see what is so plainly the lifeblood and success of THE NEW WORLD… that it is a story written on the truth of a dream, one that leaves the trace of soil and breath upon the acres of our skin, that wets with its rains, soaks into the heart, and then warms with beat of its rays, saying "I will find joy in all I see." Never has a film so entered into me as though through my fingertips, so subverted my orientation as though a transposition, by its wholeness and grace and movement. I am transformed by the wistful yet rejoicing remembrance, the poem of textures, of senses, of thoughts, and of conflicts that is THE NEW WORLD.
THE NEW WORLD is a history (more explicitly a history of the Jamestown settlement and the initial tenuous exchanges between Settlers and Indians) as told through the mechanism of remembrance, what one might call a multifarious as-it-is-happening sense-memory; that of John Smith (Farell), Pocahontas (Kilcher), and Rohn Rolfe (Bale), in their experiences of one another and of their lives during this irrevocable epoch, imbued with apt distraction, curiosity, subjectivity, and introspection. THE NEW WORLD is a dream that addresses the amorphousness and poetry of its own nature, both in its spontaneous construction, visual juxtapositions, the constant interjections of natural imagery and landscape, as well as through monologue and through physical action that gain life in their overlapping. John Smith reflects upon the moments shared between himself and Pocahontas after living in her tribe for two seasons, saying “If only I could go down that river. To love her in the wild, forget the name of Smith. I should tell her. Tell her what? It was just a dream. I am now awake…There is only this, all else is unreal.” He makes a severe suggestion here; one that posits the "present" and the "pragmatic"- having to maintain the Johnstown settlement and its people - as the definitive reality, as opposed to a confluence of past, present, and future, of experience, perception, memory. He does this as a mode of emotional self-preservation though, to protect his fragile heart from the sting of separation from Pocahontas, the simplicity she embodied and expressed to him, the pain of loss he suffers from his encounter with the "natural," and the relinquishment of a state "pure experience" that was allowed in his relationship to nature and the linguistic tactility forged between he and Pocahontas.
“I don't know where or when, just that it happened. I have tried all day to recapture the feeling. There was a scent of trees. I was the world, the world was me. A landscape is like a face.” (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Jean-luc Godard)
A subjective and existential modality laced with historicity, Malick’s film is not stringently historical. This is not to say that THE NEW WORLD is not an exceptionally researched and accurately designed film, particularly on the account of the Algonquin Indian’s representations, of Jamestown’s construction and its squalid degeneration, and the lifestyles enacted by both groups. But what Mallick aspires to, what makes this film the exception and the work of art that it is, more than a text-book accuracy, is the existential and spiritual themes that brim and flourish in the world we are exposed to, in the alternate clashing and coalescing of cultural anatomies, and in the cascade of questions, conscience, and prose that snare the wind like spores inside the mind, setting fly a felt stream-of-consciousness with the voices of John Smith, Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and on occasion others. And in this binary focus of a tactile history and its subjective experience, Mallick weds the polarities of the utmost external, with that of the utmost internal. History becomes diegesis, and emotion becomes something manifest.
“As the story is developed from something out of history; something that's been told over and over again, and told incorrectly in some peoples’ eyes, the most important thing…is to bring the body language of Indian people into this. To speak a language of memory… and remembering that we tell the story our own way, through our bodies.” Such is at the very core of ones experience of THE NEW WORLD, and also something embodied by settler and Indian alike, both steeped deeply in their circumstances. (Raul Trujillo; Tomocomo, Choreographer) Pocahontas varies this notion. She speaks to herself, “Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land.” And ‘sing’ she does, though not as the word commonly denotes. She sings on all levels; out loud but mostly inside her own heart, and through a private language of gestures, of natural evocations; pantomime that airs on the side of veneration and communion rather than mimic, of nature. She sings every time she touches her hand to a blade of wind, the roughness of a tree’s bark, or swims in cool waters. Even her analogies all sing a kinship with the natural world. “You flow through me, like a river,” she says of John Smith. “He is like a tree. He shelters me. I lie in his shade,” she relates of John Rolfe.
In its sensuously ponderous method, Malick’s film expresses thus: that the “new world” is in fact bifurcated, that beyond the discovery of a new land to settle by the English and the subsequent shock of alarm sent through Indian life, it is the mutual rediscovery of “home.” The frontier is also the process of ‘loss’ and ‘reclamation,’ within and without the body. It is the settlement of Jamestown, the fleeting integration of John Smith into Indian society, and the integration of Pocahontas into settler society, and then her journey to England itself. The “new world” is all these things, and it is also not. What it is, most profoundly, more than a mere adjustment of attitude, is Pocahontas’s rediscovery of her own sense of life, and a sense of how to once again “find joy in all she sees,” purely and fully. To be able to say, roaming a vast garden of unnatural design, chasing her sun and feeling the dew in the air, “mother [earth], now I know where you live.”
For some, for those who see not borders, who build not walls, this “frontier” is a constant condition, a state that exists at the intersection of soul and earth, of man and men, of tactility and ethereality. For them, such as the Algonquin people, there is no separation… that is to say, until one is explained what a ‘wall’ is, until someone stands behind one and touches it and knows their distinction from what is on the other side… and then once changed, they understand all things in terms of walls, and places them into the abstract so that they can proliferate the symbolical damage that is the worser side of their intentionality. John Smith says of the Algonquin, “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession. Real, what I thought a dream.” These will be taught to them, as we know.
“We often try to analyze the meaning of words but are too easily led astray. One must admit that there's nothing simpler than taking things for granted.” (2 or 3 Things I know About Her: Godard)
More than anything else, we take for granted that we will be understood, or that our words, once spoken, gain some importance despite their innocuity, or the arbitrary basis of their make. “The phenomenon of ‘automatic pilot’ is universal, and a common feature of our experiences. The formulaic call and response of the salutations between human beings ("how are you" ... "I'm fine, and you?"), usually chanted out of some unspoken compunction, is but one example. When done many times over, it looses a potential connection to any real, inward emotion from which one might be motivated to utter this formula, and does not reveal or express any actual relationship between the two interlocutors; rather, this chant merely serves to further a simulacrum of human connection.” (Mike Cifone)
But some conditions breath life back into our discourses. In college I had a Japanese friend. She was an exchange student, and native of Japan. What was so exciting about our exchanges with one another, more than the exhilaration of a tactile cultural crossroads, is how her “handicap” with the English language inversely challenged my own aptitude towards it. With her own linguistic sidestepping, she offered me a reactivation of the spoken word. In our conversations, I began to reduce my expressions, sometimes to a kind of relational poetry, in order to communicate ideas, feelings, and concepts of art and culture and emotionality. And even in what might have been the most banal topics, there was a vitality, a newness, a spark in the manner of how aware I was of each word, and of its placement, and of the breadth of its potentiality. This is a reality addressed not only in the intimate communion between John Smith and Pocahontas in the wild, but also between settlers and coping with their shattered expectations of “The New World,” in John Rolfe’s acquiescence to Pocahontas’s quietude and trepidation, and between Pocahontas and the friction of life behind walls; the wall of a dress, of shoes that make walking difficult, the wall of an imposed faith, of all the things that impede her experience of nature, her mother. All of these confrontations present individuals and groups alike with a challenge against their prescribed modalities, make them question themselves as much as they question what newly surrounds them, and forces them, by degrees, into adaptation.
“What is language?” “The house that man lives in.” (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her)
“If all we have created up till now are mere words...” (Eros + Massacre: Yoshida Kiju)