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Harry Marvels At THE NEW WORLD!!!

My God.

I’ve just returned from another world. THE NEW WORLD isn’t a film, it is a portal to time and a place and peoples that just no longer exist. The visual clarity and composition, the faces, costumes and make up, the sounds – both musical and alive… this was more than 24 frames a second… You could swear the air was cleaner, that the scent of pine hung in the air, that innocence still existed.

For the nearly three hours that I sat in that theater – the seats, the walls, my own breathing, the stillness of the air – it all just evaporated. My mind was busy dissecting, storing and absorbing the imagery and the performances. The cumulative effect of the film is like sitting in a lotus position for 3 hours at top of a temple in China. You come away from the experience renewed. It is a transcendent experience.

There’s no irony or cynicism at work. No forced or ham-fisted moments. In fact the only distraction at all in the film is that you recognize Bale, Farrell, Studi and Plummer. Not that they ever really speak or anything. The film is mostly about two cultures observing one another. First from the point of view of two tribes, then from the point of view of a man and a woman.

Have you ever traveled somewhere without a tour guide, off the beaten path… just embedding yourself in an alien culture? Finding a place with no English – and no language you know? Personally – it’s my favorite type of situation. I’ve done in Prague and in Beijing and as a child in that Mayan village that my parents and I stayed at outside Palenque. It’s magical. Communication breaks down to hand signs and body language. I remember in China – finding a restaurant on my computer that I wanted to try – but I couldn’t begin to tell a Chinese cabbie where I wanted to go – so I copied all the Chinese characters off the site – and then took a copy of my hotel stationary – so that I could find my way back… but, once there – I was just flying blind. No conception of what I was ordering. That’s a modern level of culture shock… this. This is something entirely different.

We begin the film in “the new world” – the title, to me refers to three levels of world discovery in this film. First there’s the obvious – NEW WORLD – that is the AMERICA that John Smith and the others are landing upon. Second – there’s the change that these settlers represent and how everything that was the New World would be changing into yet another New World. And Third – there’s Pocahontas and Opechancanough’s journey to England – a truly new world from their perspective.

Let’s deal with them in order.

THE NEW WORLD – A Pristine America. This is the greatest Indian portrayal that I have ever seen in my 34 years of watching Indians in cinema. There’s an amazing physicality and artistry here that I’ve only ever seen captured in “savage” or “primal man” in the paintings of Frank Frazetta. It’s… well it is what it is. It is. It is simply something to watch and see and be amazed with. Indians in cinema are traditionally shown in one of two extremes. Psychotic killers of white women. And the still, motionless noble wooden Indian with sage advice. Here, Malick’s Indians are simply… Alive. Expressive. One with nature. Violent when need be, but that is not at all the state they wish to be in. The scenes of John Smith in their “city” is blissful. The Indian games – essentially the same ones I played in OA. The high weeds game that Pocahontas and her brother play is actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. And quite magical.

THE NEW WORLD – America With Settlers Settling. If you know your history and you’ve ever wondered about those earliest days of colonial desperation and survival – this is haunting. That very first wave were made up, not so much of settlers and agriculturally minded folks – but of criminal / indentured soldiers that didn’t have a clue about how to survive in the wilds. They didn’t have a good sense of hunting, planting… just basic survival. The lust for gold keeping them from doing something simple like… DIG A WELL. Looking at this part of the film is just brutal. The children – a tortured existence – very much the scavenger rats of humanity. Amazing.

THE NEW WORLD – Europe as seen through Native American Eyes. Here you have a twofold layer of discovery. From Pocahontas’ perspective – England represents a wonderland of sights and accomplishments and culture. It’s something she adapts to and takes to, like a fish to water. However, Wes Studi’s Opechancanough – who is sent with her to “kill as many white faces as possible” and report back to his chief… well, the look on his face as he sees what is coming. There’s a window in the chief’s hut that was essentially their great spirit style window made up of stretched dried animal skins – made to look a bit like a haunted eye. In this “new world” Opechancanough stands before one of the great stained glass chapel windows – and the colored light on his face shows awe & horror – it is only at this moment that he understands the fate of his people and the “power” of their God. In many ways – this is the single most powerful image and performance I’ve seen on film this year. Absolutely brilliant.

Calling Malick’s films cinematic poetry is almost trite by now. It certainly is a tired expression. This is most definitely a narrative tale about the transformation of Pocahontas from a young Indian princess into a modern, at the time, lady and her relationships with John Smith and John Rolfe. It is certainly not a traditional narrative as most of us have come to know them. The film has a dreamlike sensation to it, much like RUSSIAN ARK – a film I loved some years ago.

Malick understands the power of silence. So many films – with their 8 channels or more of sound to fill, fill them. Making overpowering concussive assaults on one’s senses. Here – Malick dials back the noise. He gives you chirps and tweets and the moaning of trees in the wind, the rustling of leaves and the natural roar of a growing storm. Have you ever heard a shotgun go off in the woods – far away. It’s almost a poof of sound followed by nature’s reaction. He gets that.

James Horner turns in his best score in ages. It is his first score that doesn’t sound like his score. It is quite abstract and stirring. There’s moments during montages of nature where it builds to impossible levels before the ecstasy of calm. Really can’t say enough about it. A great score.

In fact – across the board – the film is just exquisite. I recommend this film to anyone that has sat still in the wild for a few hours and not missed technology or the hum of civilization. This is a film for those of us that want to take a vacation from the here and now and contemplate all that modern man has sacrificed for the wonders of a PSP. This is a celebration of the beginnings of this country and the power of what America once meant to those who first came here from Europe, to those that were already here – and what it means to us today.

This is a brilliant film. Absolutely stunning.

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