Moriarty Explores Malick's THE NEW WORLD And Journeys To Ridley Scott's KINGDOM OF HEAVEN... Twice!!
Published at: Dec. 31, 2005, 2:30 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I’ve been wrestling with how to write about Terrence Malick’s gorgeous meditation on the birth of America for nearly a week now. In the meantime, I’ve been watching three or four movies a day, getting ready for the end of the year and just enjoying the holidays, and in doing so, a question came up that I desperately need answered.
When did “epic” become a dirty word?
Is it just me, or are people complaining about the length of movies more than ever before? Anything over two hours seems to be automatically suspect, which confuses me. Personally, I’m always up for something sprawling that I can get lost in, something that gives me more for my money. I don’t go see films so I can fill some pre-allotted hole in my schedule. I go hoping to have an experience. I hope to be affected. If that takes an hour or two hours or three hours or more, what do I care? As long as it’s good, as long as it’s interesting, as long as something is happening, I’m a happy man. I’ve never seen such a collective bunch of crybaby horseshit as this Christmas, even from “professional” critics, and two different films serve as examples of what happens when running time becomes an arbitrary function of too much attention.
Thursday morning, I met a buddy over at the Laemmle’s Fairfax, where we saw KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. What’s playing there (and only there) for the next week is Ridley Scott’s 3-hour-and-10-minute director’s cut, nearly an hour longer than what was released to theaters in May. This exclusive little two-week run isn’t just a secret. Secrets are better publicized than this. No, I’d call this a non-event, a joke of a release. Fox could not have done any less to promote the film’s return to the bigscreen, and they couldn’t have found a worse theater in Los Angeles to book it into, either. If I were Ridley Scott, I’d be equally pleased and pissed about this: pleased because people have the opportunity to see his version of the film finally, and pissed because absolutely no one will.
One wonders why Fox even went through the motions of this re-release if they were going to do such a half-assed job about it. If they did it as a favor to Ridley, they didn’t really do him a favor. This is the cut they should have released the first time, anyway, and handling it like this, they’re sending the message that they don’t care if anyone sees it or not. It already failed, so they’re done with it, even if that failure was because of their own spinelessness and not because of the film. Now, I didn’t see the film in the theater in May precisely because someone close to the film on the studio side warned me that the cut in theaters wasn’t the film. He told me to wait. Finally, having decided to see it on Thursday morning, I watched the DVD of the theatrical cut on Wednesday night. It’s an interesting almost, a beautifully-made film that’s obviously missing giant chunks of character development and plot. Eva Green’s Sibylla is the character most adversely affected, and she barely registers in the theatrical cut. It looks like Fox told the director to leave in anything expensive, so the battle scenes are all pretty much intact, but everything else was fair game to get hacked up. The film’s so beautiful that I’d still say it was worth seeing in this truncated form, but it’s impossible to judge whether or not there’s anything to it.
Seeing the director’s cut, on the other hand, I find myself deeply impressed by what Ridley Scott did. This is not just another riff on GLADIATOR. This is not him returning to something he’d already done. Instead, working from a wonderful script by William Monahan, Ridley Scott made a film about how we are all haunted by our personal visions of paradise, and what it is that we will do in pursuit of that paradise. He made a film about the roots of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East that manages to avoid being a shrill political screed because it’s always kept personal. It’s always about characters, not a message. At three hours, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN feels positively brief, and that’s because everything in it seems important, key to our understanding of what’s going on, crucial to the development of the characters. It’s strange how the shorter version feels longer because you’re never given the opportunity to connect with what you’re watching. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN touches on issues of country, religion, loyalty, honor, and more, but it never makes the mistake of becoming a film “about” those things. It’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment, and further proof that Ridley Scott is one of our best storytellers.
The differences begin with the first scene. In the theatrical cut, we get a quick reference to how they’re burying a suicide, and someone steals a cross. In the director’s cut, this scene establishes so much more information about the specific time the film is set in, about what happened leading up to the suicide, and about the priest and the gravedigger themselves. Much of the film is like this, scenes that are expanded to give them room to breathe. There are entire subplots that were cut, which we’ll discuss below, but it’s the texturing that I find fascinating. I’m not even sure how they could make some of these cuts, or how they justified them. It seems like such arbitrary decision-making. For example, did you realize that the priest at the beginning is actually the brother of Balian (Orlando Bloom)? Their relationship is much more complicated and unpleasant in this version, and we learn that Balian is in jail following his wife’s death, thanks to his brother’s claim that he is possessed by the devil. We also learn that Balian was an engineer before he became a blacksmith, that he built war machines when he was part of an army, and he’s released from prison because the local lord needs Balian’s help. So much more work is put into the establishment of Balian’s character that by the time we actually meet him in the film now, we have a sense of who he is. Another character that benefits greatly from this cut is Godfrey, played by Liam Neeson. There’s so much more of him in the first thirty minutes. For example, the lord that Balian works for? Turns out, he’s Neeson’s brother, and when Godfrey shows up in the village, he’s coming home. There’s an entire scene that takes place at the castle where it’s clear that his absence made it possible for his brother to take over, something that his brother doesn’t want to see change. Since Godfrey has no heir, if he dies, then his new lands also become the property of the brother, something that makes more sense of the battle scenes involving Neeson and his group of soldiers. When Neeson goes to talk to Balian the first time, he stops at the door to the smith’s shop, looking out at a particular spot. He flashes back to when he was younger, to when he was with Balian’s mother, and that one moment says all we need to know about the particular paradise that Godfrey seeks and that he knows he’ll never find again. It explains so much about why he would want to come and make amends and reach out to Balian. He’s looking for absolution, and he figures he can find it this way, and the film shows us instead of just telling us.
Absolution... forgiveness... it’s a big theme in this version of the film, as is the search for a home, a place where you can make your own paradise. Jerusalem is the most obvious example of this, and I find that Monahan’s script adeptly manages to address the issue of why one spot is worth all the blood that’s been spilt over it without picking anyone as the winner of the argument. There’s a strange, dreamy sequence when Balian first gets to Jerusalem, where he wants to go to the place where Christ was crucified, and he’s surprised by what the spot looks like now. Later, as he speaks to his forces as they prepare to defend the city, he asks who has claim on these holy spots. “What is most holy? The wall? The mosque? The sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim. And everyone has claim.” How can you place one person’s faith over another in terms of importance? How can you tell someone that their vision of heaven is less than your own? These fundamental differences seem insurmountable, and I like that this movie isn’t about the single most pivotal battle ever fought for this particular piece of land. Instead, it’s one in a long line of moments where the land traded hands from one person to another, from one religion to another. The end of the film reminds us of just how impermanent ownership of any city or country is, as Richard the Lionheart shows up, prepared to mount a new crusade to win the city back.
As I mentioned above, the character who got most damaged in the theatrical cut was Sibylla, played by Evan Green, best known as That Insanely Hot Girl From THE DREAMERS. She was pretty much useless in the theatrical release. She slept with Orlando, dissed her husband Guy (Marton Csokas) a few times, and then appeared to lose her mind for no reason during the last third of the film. Would it surprise you to learn that she had a son in the film? And that he was a major character, seeing as how he was supposed to inherit the throne after the death of King Baldwin (Edward Norton, channeling Marlon Brando in his masked role)? In fact, he does inherit the throne, and then gradually, a nasty surprise is unveiled, and when Sibylla loses her mind, it’s for a reason. She’s forced to make a choice that pretty much destroys her, and it’s quite affecting when you actually see it play out. As I understand it, Green totally shut out Fox when they asked her to help publicize the film this summer, and I can see why. They ruined her role, and only now is it possible to understand how good her work in the film is.
Mainly, though, it’s Ridley Scott and William Monahan who should be most upset about what happened to this film. Monahan took a fairly small piece of history, invented a story that expertly wove a character into a real situation in a way that enlightened this time and also comments on why we’re still seeing the same bloody battles being fought over that same piece of land now, and he made it all very human, something you can relate to. Ridley Scott took everything he’d done on BLACK HAWK DOWN and GLADIATOR and then stepped it up a notch, and in doing so, he made a better movie than his Oscar-winning smash hit. All the hard work that they did, along with their entire who’s who of talented technical collaborators, turned out to be for nothing, though, because someone looked at the running time and panicked. Someone lost their fucking nerve, and they figured all that mattered was getting the battle scenes into the theater, that no one would care about anything else. And, yes, the battles here are masterful, some of the best ever committed to film. The reason they’re so great is because of the way they genuinely illustrate character and strategy and military accomplishment, rather than just mayhem and noise and fury and a nice software package, as with so many other big movies in the last few years. These are very specific battles, and the way the last hour of the film plays out, we see how Balian and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) engage each other across the battlefield, and how Saladin begins to respect and even like this foe, admiring his military mind. Because Balian was an engineer, something we only learn in this version of the film, it makes perfect sense that he’d be able to figure out how to best defend the city and how to counteract the weaponry that Saladin brings to use against them. In both GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN, Ridley Scott was learning how to shoot battle on a personal level and on a massive scale, and in this film, he puts it all together, everything he’s been building towards. There’s a sense in this film that you are in the middle of the battle, arrows racing by you on all sides, fire falling from the sky and smashing the city to pieces. It’s remarkable, and you can easily see where the big bucks were spent on the film.
But it only matters because of all the texture that’s been put back. It only pays off if we invest in the people that are involved in those battles. And that brings us back to Fox, and their insanely bad choice to chop this movie to pieces the first time around.
Here’s what makes me laugh, and what makes me crazy at the same time. Last Friday, when they dumped this onto the one screen without spending a single dollar to advertise it, this is the comment that they made to The Hollywood Reporter: “’With his new director's cut, Ridley Scott has brought an exciting new dimension to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN,’ Fox president of domestic distribution Bruce Snyder said. ‘We're delighted to bring this new version of the film to the big screen, where it belongs.’” Ummmm... no. No you’re not, you lying asshole. You’re not delighted. That comment is the kind of smarmy Hollywood two-faced bullshit that Robert Altman roasted in THE PLAYER, and it never fails to amaze me how people just keep doing it, year after year, and no one ever calls them on it. If Fox was genuinely excited to be releasing this longer cut, the first thing they would have done is find a theater that people would actually go to. No one goes to the Laemmle’s Fairfax. I repeat... no one goes there. Ever. For anything. This place has closed and re-opened so many times, and it’s been repurposed so many different ways that most people genuinely don’t know the theater is there. It was a dollar house for a while for third-run stuff, and now it’s the place where Laemmles books all the films that they figure won’t even make minimal bank if they show at the slightly-nicer Sunset 5. This is the theater where arthouse films go to die. And then the idea of releasing it on one screen on the same day that the other studios are all opening their big guns like MUNICH pretty much guaranteed that no one would notice KINGDOM OF HEAVEN was playing. You couldn’t wait a month and try to get a nice screen at the Arclight or the Grove? This is either a contractual burn-off that you begrudge him, so you intentionally booked it into a dive, or you’re doing this hoping to placate Ridley Scott, figuring he doesn’t know anything about theaters in LA, hoping this “gesture” will be enough that he won’t remember down the road how badly you fucked him on this movie.
If you really loved the film, you would have released this version the first time around. Cutting it did not make it any more commercial, and if anything, it crippled the film. Cutting it may have earned you one extra showing a day, but what good is that if you have to destroy the integrity of a film to make it fit that running time, that arbitrary slot?
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got New Line’s treatment of Terrence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD. I spoke to someone at the company last week, and he told me that Malick hasn’t been pressured at all to recut his film. He just decided that he wasn’t totally happy, even after they had mastered the Academy Award screener DVDs and even after it had screened for the press and even after it was already open in theaters. Malick’s been working on a new shorter cut of the film that he showed to New Line executives yesterday or today. Now the decision will be made, based on their reactions, about which version Malick’s going to use for the national expansion of the limited release in January. Ultimately, final cut belongs to Malick. If he decides to go back to his long cut, then that’s his choice, and if it’s the shorter version that rolls out, then I guess that is technically the “director’s cut,” approved by him. I loved the film when I saw it, but I can easily understand how he might further refine the film or even emphasize something in a way that significantly alters the meaning of the movie.
I’ve found that it’s impossible to explain to someone who doesn’t enjoy Malick’s films why you do enjoy Malick’s films. I find them profound... moving. They are experiential. It’s pretty much pure cinema. I think he starts with the most conventional of intentions. I read the script for THE THIN RED LINE, the draft that got the greenlight from Fox. It was a faithful, traditional adaptation of the James Jones novel, well-written but hardly groundbreaking. I read it about the same time I read SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and it seemed like Malick was the one making the old-fashioned war movie, while Spielberg would be the one taking all the risks. What finally played in theaters in the fall of ’98 bore little or no resemblance to the script I read, and that’s one of the reasons I was so blown away by my first viewing in the theater. It just seemed amazing to me, what he’d done, how he’d trusted himself to discover this movie in the editing room. I can’t imagine what it must have seemed like on that set, the miles and miles of footage he had to shoot to be able to build a film like the one he finally built. I’m willing to bet that the script Malick says he first wrote back in the ‘70s for THE NEW WORLD was pretty much a conventional dramatic retelling of the story of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Jamestown settlement.
The film that I saw in the New Line screening room about a week ago, the same version that’s still playing theaters in Los Angeles at the moment, plays like a fever dream of the Pocahontas legend, a troubling, haunting poem of innocence tainted. From the very first frame, it refuses to make it easy for you. It’s disorienting. The camera slowly makes its way downriver, gazing at the reflective surface and the patterns of the trees as they go by. Only when the first few droplets of rain send ripples across the image do we realize what we’re seeing, where we are. The only sounds come from the unspoiled forest all around us. Near the end of the film, we find ourselves back on that same river, moving down it again, but despite the fact that it hasn’t changed externally, the message is sent loud and clear. This paradise, this Eden, is gone forever, and these quiet moments will never be the same again.
In a way, though, all of Malick’s films are about paradise lost, a desire to return to innocence. Think of the interlude in BADLANDS where Kit and Holly set up house in the middle of the woods, living off the land, playing at marriage for a time, almost like kids, sure that the sheer force of their dream can keep the real world away. Think of the longing in DAYS OF HEAVEN, the world that Linda and Bill build for a time with Abby before jealousy brings everything down around them. Think of the time that Witt spends with the natives in THE THIN RED LINE, running from the war. There’s no doubt that this new film is of a piece with his others, and it makes sense that he’s been trying to make it for 30 years. It’s transcendent art, gorgeous and sad and hypnotic, and despite the presence of some big-name movie stars, this is hardly the sort of film that becomes a cross-over mainstream hit. Malick hasn’t changed at all as a filmmaker, and you should already have some idea about where you’ll stand on this one based on your reactions to his other films. I love his work. He makes movies that are more like meditations, prayers, totally immersive experiences. The story of Pocahontas and John Smith has been told before in many ways, but Malick is interested in making you feel what it must have been like for both sides as these two radically different worlds collide. It’s that approach which distinguishes his work, and if you open yourself to it, you may find yourself as overwhelmed by the humanity of his vision as I was.
The first thing that Malick did right in putting the film together was the discovery of Q’Orianka Kilcher. The idea that she was born in 1990 is sort of mind-boggling, because she’s an ethereal beauty, a force of nature in the movie and a perfectly credible object of desire. From the opening of the movie to the very conclusion, it’s her film. I know that New Line’s selling the film like it’s a romance... I’ve seen the poster. And some critics are even expressing disappointment because they feel like Malick makes choices that betray that romance. But that’s not the point of the film, and you can only judge the movie, not the marketing. This is not a romance; it’s a seduction. It’s about the way the Western world seduced Pocahontas, a symbol of the innocence of the native Americans, and then eventually betrayed and destroyed her.
She’s never actually called Pocahontas in the film. It’s an interesting move, and it’s fitting considering how Malick seems to discard anything like typical exposition in the film. The film opens in 1607, as three ships financed by the London Virginia Company arrive at land near the James River, setting up the beginning of what would become Jamestown. We see the natives in the woods, called “naturals” in this film, as they watch the large ships slowly move up the river. Onboard those ships, the English prepare for the landing, thankful to finally be getting off the water. When we meet John Smith, he’s chained below for some infraction during the trip, some offense against Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer). He’s given a fresh start once they reach land, the condition being that he is the one who is supposed to try to make some sort of contact with the naturals, pushing inland to see where they are and how they’re living.
When Smith leaves, he’s in charge of a group of men, but they’re separated quickly, and when Smith finally does make contact, he’s all by himself. It’s harrowing, and there’s the potential for violence all the way up to the moment where he’s dragged in front of the leader of the naturals. Just as they’re about to kill him, Pocahontas throws herself on him to stop them, the iconic moment that has been the cornerstone of the Smith myth. This leads to Smith’s acceptance into the tribe for a time, with the understanding that in the spring, he will guarantee that the white men leave the country and never return. Smith agrees, and he promptly loses himself in the embrace of this strange community.
I think I commented on how engrossing I find Malick’s technique when I wrote about THE THIN RED LINE. He’s created a unique POV for his films, a sort of God’s-Eye perspective that allows him to float through a movie, dipping into various characters’ inner thoughts, so we get a glimpse of who they really are and what they’re feeling and thinking. No one person serves as narrator. No one person could be called the protagonist. At various points, we find ourselves looking out through the eyes of many different characters. Smith’s time with the naturals totally reminds me of the start of THE THIN RED LINE, where Caviezel had gone AWOL. Smith falls in love with Pocahontas, no question, but it’s not pervy and sexual. Instead, he’s drawn to the connection she has with the land, the way she fits into her community, and her open simplicity, her absolute honesty. He realizes that there are no lies in this culture, something which seems to rock him profoundly. By the time he finally goes back to the fort at Johnstown, we see it through changed eyes, just as Smith does, and it’s vile, off-putting, miserable. Smith’s perspective on his own men has been totally changed, poisoned by a taste of this perfect life. The winter proves to be harder than anyone expected, and with Newport gone back to England for supplies, there are constant power struggles, a type of madness setting in among the men. It’s a film of comparisons and contrasts. By de-emphasizing conventional dramatic exchanges, we have to accept that the environment itself and the way these men interact with it is the way we are given dramatic information. It’s sort of like what Gus Van Sant’s been aiming for with his three recent environmental films, GERRY, ELEPHANT, and LAST DAYS. There’s a real purity to this sort of storytelling that I admire and that I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do. You have to be able to make your set feel like a real place, like you’ve opened a window in time and traveled to this moment you’re depicting.
Eventually, the movie takes some left turns that have confounded some people. John Smith doesn’t turn out to be the hero of this particular story. In fact, he just sort of disappears and leaves behind a pathetic lie for Pocahontas. She is forced to pick up and carve a new life for herself in the wake of his disappearance, disgraced in the eyes of her own people. She’s eventually sold to the Johnstown settlement as a safeguard to make sure they won’t be attacked by the naturals anymore.
The quirks of this sort of storytelling include the almost perverse notion of introducing Christian Bale, the second billed actor in the film, well over an hour into the movie. He’s John Rolfe, a genuinely decent man who becomes a husband to Pocahontas, who has changed her name now to Rebecca. She’s turned European, taught to dress and speak and act like a proper English woman. I read those scenes as tragedy, but Rebecca approaches each new step in her life with that same sort of open curiosity, even if it is marked with sadness. Rolfe is patient with her, attentive to her, devoted in a way that Smith never could have been. He takes her to England, and there’s a sequence here where she meets the King (played in an almost subliminal cameo by Jonathan Pryce) that creates a fascinating echo. Early on, when John Smith is presented to King Powhatan (August Schellenberg), the ritual is so insane, so overwhelming, that it’s like Smith’s been taken to another planet. Seen through the eyes of Rebecca, the reception in this English king’s court is just as strange, just as ritualistic and bizarre. Malick isn’t looking on either one of these worlds as evil, but he is making a point about what happens when they intersect. It’s a viral thing, and you could say that’s what Rebecca finally succumbs to in the film, the creeping reality of what America will become. Her role in this is historical, but hardly heroic. Malick tries to demystify these characters, to middling success. He can’t help but romanticize this story in his own way. He sticks close to the record as we know it, but this sort of art is interpretive by nature. This isn’t history; it’s a dream of history. It’s someone wondering how they would have fit into this time and place, where everything we know today was being created, carved out of an land incrementally lost by a people too trusting to realize their loss until it was too late.
James Horner’s score in the film is very good, but he makes awesome, mind-boggling use of a couple of classical pieces. Wagner’s prelude to DAS RHEINGOLD has never been better married to any imagery, and the way this performance builds to an almost physical assault on the soundtrack left me shaken, exhilarated. There’s a Mozart piece for piano that also serves as a sort of recurring theme in the film, a beautiful choice. Emmanuel Lubezki is, simply put, the best cinematographer working today. He’s worked with some great collaborators in the last few years, and it all culminates with this incredible painting of light.
I’m happy with this film the way it is. I’m perfectly willing to give it a try at a shorter running time, too, if that’s what Malick prefers. I’m not dogmatic about “longer is better,” but I am starting to believe that studios who force a filmmaker to gut his own work have a lot to answer for, and no one to blame for failure but themselves. Working with a filmmaker to find the ideal running time should take precedence over meeting some release date you set before you started shooting. If studios wonder why they haven’t been connecting with audiences this year (whether or not you believe in a box-office slump, this has definitely been a year where mainstream filmgoers fell out of love with the movies to some extent), they need to start with admitting that they have no idea what people want. That’s why they hire filmmakers. They need to work on making sure that they’ve got great finished films, and then market the movie you know you’ve made. I said in my KING KONG review that I wish Jackson had pushed it to summer ’06 so he could keep tweaking it. That first hour would look totally different. I’m sure of it. He would have eventually chopped Jimmy (Jamie Bell), and no one would have ever missed him. Running times are tricky things, and in an age where it seems like every movie comes out “UNRATED AND UNCUT,” audiences are even growing cynical about terms like “director’s cut.” Maybe it’s DVD that has changed the way people are willing to sit in a theater. All they really want on the bigscreen is the coming attractions, the shortest version possible, with the understanding that DVD can hold all the extra stuff if you ever feel like looking at it. Executives can’t think like that. It’s rotten, and it’s just one more way you ruin your relationships with filmmakers. You hire a great storyteller like Ridley Scott, then at some point, you need to have faith in him to tell that story. He did, and you didn’t have the balls to release his film. It’s a damn shame, and you would do well to look at how New Line’s treating Malick.
Anyway, that’s probably the last thing you’ll hear from me in 2005. It’s been a fantastic year, and as we enter 2006, the tenth year of Ain’t It Cool News, we’re going to make this site better than it’s ever been. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you in the new year. Until then...