Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More Malick!

The e-mail from a friend brightened a busy week. All it contained was a single link, but that link served as a portal to fantastic news: Terrence Malick’s The New World is being released on DVD in an extended cut with “30 minutes of never-before-seen footage and extended scenes.” Yeah!

Truth be told, it’s probably more like 15 minutes of never-before-seen footage with 15 more minutes that have been mostly unseen. The 135-minute theatrical release of The New World was Malick’s sliced-and-diced version of his 150-minute original cut, which had a very limited run before Malick pulled it to make changes. If what I read on the Internet is true (and that’s a dangerous assumption), Malick’s preferred version is the 135-minute cut – which is to suggest that he voluntarily compressed the movie to improve it, not merely to appease cranky studio execs. Still, especially in the midst of one of the worst movie years in memory, it’s impossible to restrain my excitement for more Malick, superfluous though the ‘more’ might be.

The reality, of course, is that extended cuts of films – be they saucy “unrated” editions or geeky Lucasesque pixelpaloozas – rarely improve upon the original. And I’ll bet the norm will hold true for this repackaged version of The New World. But at the same time, Malick more than most filmmakers has a style that lends well to expansion. The New World has a plot, yes, but more than that it’s a meditation. Thirty more minutes of The New World means a half-hour more spent basking in the Zen of Malick’s cinematic poetry, as articulated by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. That’s the positive way of looking at it. The flipside is to say that if you find Malick wandering and boring at 135 minutes, you’d probably feel the same at 100 minutes or even 30. His style speaks to you, or it doesn’t.

It certainly speaks to me. I believe that The New World is among the top 10 films I’ve seen in the past decade and that The Thin Red Line is there, too. My initial reaction to The New World was to see all the ways it resembled The Thin Red Line, but with passing time and repeated viewings I’m able to enjoy it in isolation. Now, as then, I find the film’s greatest strength – beyond the luscious visuals – to be the performance of Q’orianka Kilcher, who hasn’t appeared in a film since (though according to IMDb, she’s attached to three other projects). If the 30 new minutes include 30 seconds of Kilcher, the extended cut will be worth watching.

Now comes the waiting: The extended cut is due in stores October 14.

My original pre-blog review of The New World appears below.

The New World
In a perfect world, when we went to see a Terrence Malick film, tickets would be embossed with gold foil. At the theater, formalwear would be required, with a coat-check service offered at the door, and a small orchestra seated near the screen to play us to our seats. Hors d’oeuvres would be served instead of popcorn, with snacking limited to the lobby. And when the lights went down in the theater, the patrons in the audience would shut up.

In short, it would be an event – by the most momentous definition of the word. Screenings would be held in lofty regard not just because – with only four films released since 1973 – seeing a Malick creation is in and of itself a rare experience worthy of ceremonial splendor, but also because time and again his films are so singularly magnificent. The pomp and circumstance would be the respect Malick’s filmmaking so richly deserves. And it does.

With his latest effort, a symphonic epic about love and discovery, Malick proves once again that he is a filmmaker without peers. The New World, a hauntingly beautiful Pocahontas-and-John Smith yarn, isn’t a perfect film. It isn’t even Malick’s best film, and there are many times when it simply reminds us of other Malick projects to come before it. But The New World is like nothing else we saw at the theater in 2005. Or in 2004, for that matter. To find something remotely like it you’d have to keep turning back the calendar to 1998, when Malick released his previous film, The Thin Red Line.

Of its three familial predecessors, it’s that film that The New World most closely resembles. In fact, the opening acts of Malick’s last two pictures are similar almost to the point of self parody: from the underwater shots of natives swimming, to the forest view of otherworldly ships approaching the shore, to the colliding of two distinctly different societies and the inner ruminating of an outcast searching for a utopian place of peace and harmony within an alien world of chaos and confusion. Both The New World and The Thin Red Line rely heavily on the requisite Malick internal monologues – in this movie, they replace dialogue almost entirely – and there are portions when the voice-over narration of Colin Farrell’s John Smith is so akin to that of Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt that they could be interchanged with little to no effect on our understanding of their characters or their stories.

But don’t get the impression that The New World is the tired exercise of a director who’s run out of ideas. It’s far from that. Here, Malick takes the Chickahaminia River to places of the heart that he’d never explored previously. But he does so with a storytelling style that’s uniquely his own. No other filmmaker today works in images and emotions as dramatically as Malick. His characters speak not thoughts but moods. And their words are pure poetry, just like Malick’s camerawork.

Acting as official cinematographer in this movie is Emmanuel Lubezki, but the visuals are unquestionably Malick’s. As always, the natural landscapes are presented so spectacularly that we can practically hear the trees growing and smell the forest floor. It’s for this reason that a Malick film isn’t to be seen, it’s to be experienced. So, if what you’re looking for is a simple assault on the eyes, go see King Kong. But if you want to be immersed in a world that computers have no hope of duplicating, Malick is your director, and this is your film.

The story goes the way you remember it: Smith, wandering through the Virginia wilderness in 1607, is attacked and captured by a Native American tribe that looks to execute their prisoner in a lavish ritual. At the last moment, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) throws her body over Smith’s and pleads for him to be spared. As the most favored of Chief Powhatan’s many daughters, Pocahontas’ request is granted under the condition she continues to spend time with Smith, so as to learn his motives and that of the 102 other white men who are busy establishing Jamestown nearby.

Early conversation is limited. Smith and Pocahontas (who’s never called by that name in this film), begin by going over some basic words: sky, sun and wind. But notice how this arrangement differs from the translation scenes we usually get in the white man-and-Indians movies: here it’s the Native American who is driving the lessons. Pocahontas is the one eager to learn. Smith is equally enthusiastic – he’s respectful of the “naturals” and their customs – but mostly for different reasons. He’s wonderstruck by Pocahontas’ beauty and verve.

Can we blame him? Kilcher, who was all of 14 when this film was shot, is positively radiant. The camera loves her. She’s assigned the task of playing a young woman who stood head and shoulders above the others in her tribe, who was so celebrated that she was captured by soldiers at Jamestown to keep Powhatan from attacking, who eventually traveled to London and was received with royal honor by the king and queen of England. In short, Kilcher was assigned to play a woman who was dynamic, and she succeeds in every way, despite having little English dialogue. Her performance is a gift.

The rest of the movie is well-acted, too. Ferrell is perfectly cast as Smith, a rogue captain who so infuriated his fellow Virginia Company seamen en route to the New World that he arrived in shackles and was set to be executed, until it was realized that his charisma was too valuable to be wasted. The movie drags when Pocahontas isn’t on screen, but Ferrell expertly employs a look of enchantment in his scenes opposite Kilcher. Same goes for Christian Bale as John Rolfe, the tobacco farmer who weds Pocahontas and fathers a child with her after she’s converted to Christianity and takes the name Rebecca.

Even after they’re married, Pocahontas keeps parts of herself hidden, Rolfe notes in one of his voice-overs, yet incredibly we never doubt her emotions. There’s youthful whimsy when we first meet her, galloping through waist-high grass with her brother. There’s longing and heartbreak in her scenes with Smith. There’s loneliness when held in Jamestown. There’s joy when she becomes a mother. And, lastly, there’s marvel, when she ends up in London, a place that might as well be another planet. And what a fantastic segment that is! There have been countless alien-encounter movies, but few films better illustrate what it means to lay your eyes on the unimaginable.

In its heart, The New World is Pocahontas’ story. The “New World” is the one that arrives from the east and climbs up the banks and into her universe. As a complete film, it lacks the depth of The Thin Red Line, and it could use some editing. Malick loses sight of his story when he spends too much time following Smith’s exploits trying to keep Jamestown alive. But it’s foolish to get too frustrated with a roundabout path when the surroundings are so phenomenal. And Malick guarantees the latter. His movies are art, cinematic poetry. They show all that film can be, and what few other movies ever become.


Mark said...

What a nice review. Thanks for digging it up for us. I remember liking this movie when it came out, and "Thin Red Line" too, but haven't seen either in a long time. Both are good ones to add to the queue.

And especially welcome in this horrible movie year, as you said. I thought I'd hit rock bottom with "The Happening," but then we watched "Zohan" this afternoon while waiting for Michelle's car to be serviced. That might have been even more painful. And then we snuck in for a few minutes of "Hulk," but by that point I was too depressed and we gave up.

I find myself looking forward to "Batman" and "Tropic Thunder."

Fox said...

If pressed to pick the best film of the new millenium, I would choose *The New World*.

Craig said...

Well, I'm looking forward to the extended New World, despite thinking the previous version only okay. I liked the opening and a few other scenes, but it lost me for stretches. Seeing it on the big screen probably would have made a difference. I can't say I'm a Malick-head, but I really liked The Thin Red Line, so there you go.

I generally agree that extended versions of films tend to not add anything but length. Except for Ridley Scott. When I saw the extended (+ 20 minute) version of Gladiator, I couldn't believe how much better it was. And the longer Kingdom of Heaven, while certainly no masterpiece, flows beautifully. His longer movies have a way of feeling shorter; his images need room to breathe.