Everything I knew about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, I learned from Miss Peggy Lee: "When her daddy tried to kill him,/ She said, 'Daddy, oh, don't you dare./ He gives me fever. ' " (Name that tune.) But now along comes Terrence Malick in The New World to broaden my knowledge with a two-and-a-half-hour history lesson of fact and speculation, revising my mental image mainly by widening the picture frame, reminding me, if I was ever aware, of the Indian maid's marriage to another, John Rolfe, and of her intended sojourn in England which became instead her eternal rest. Malick's account, after all, is not a love story, or not just ("Love -- shall we deny it when it visits us?"), but rather a vision of utopian idealism ("I shall make a new start, a fresh beginning") and the ineluctable progress of America from its native innocence ("They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile or trickery") to its imported corruption ("Lord, they're gone away from You, they have not hearkened to Your voice").
No one could deny that Malick has a vision, or at the very least a favorite shot: a solitary person (usually Colin Farrell, his blue-black eyebrows squirming like indigo snakes to meet in the middle of his forehead) adrift in a sea of tall grass or grain, engulfed by nature, enraptured in a state of childlike wonder, wandering around confusedly as if trying to remember where he might have mislaid his script. Large chunks of the words in a very sparse screenplay have been dubbed onto the soundtrack later, in murmurous, barely audible voice-overs from more than one narrator. (Most, if not all, of the parenthetical quotations above come from these first-person ruminations.) The employment of multiple narrators is of course a modernist storytelling device which Malick seized upon in The Thin Red Line -- an advance on the solo, subliterate female narrators of his Badlands and Days of Heaven -- and it sounds all the more anachronistic, all the more pretentious, in a setting of the early 17th Century than in one of the Second World War. Perhaps his tight hold on that hand- me-down crutch would help to explain how he was able to speed this project to completion a mere seven years after his previous project, in stark contrast to the twenty-year hiatus prior to that one. After all this time, he still has fire on the brain: it wouldn't be a Malick film without a conflagration or two. Some of the water shots are almost worthy of Tarkovsky, though the sunlight strained through treetops -- another favorite Malick shot -- is an art-film cliché, unworthy of anybody. And don't let the budget fool you. (The excellent set of the frontier fort must have cost a mint by itself.) This is a bona fide art film, one whose jump cuts -- very tiny jumps -- cannot juice up its stagnant pace, one whose integrity is declared most clearly in its ineptitude. It's too earnest, it seems to say, to be bothered with entertainment. Malick keeps the Seventies alive like no one else: the dream of rapprochement between commercialism and art, or at any rate the revolutionist scheme of infiltrating the first with the second. That Rip Van Winkle slumber of twenty years, post-Days of Heaven, may have had a lot to do with keeping that dream alive.
For me, the biggest excitement of the film -- the biggest throwback to the Good Old Days, better and older than the Seventies, even -- was the single corporate logo at the start of it: that of New Line. (By comparison, The Matador, not atypically these days, started with five!) From there, however, it was all downhill, nothing precipitous, just an endless, gentle, fifteen-degree grade, a potent stimulant to drowsiness. I have read that Malick has trimmed some seventeen minutes from the running time since I sat through it, not to mention since it opened in select markets for Oscar consideration, thus abridging the history lesson to two hours and a quarter. I can neither confirm these excisions first-hand nor gauge their effect. (Whole scenes of several minutes each? Or just another couple of hundred jump cuts?) A similar tinkering after initial release, and after pre-release press screenings, worked for Kubrick with 2001. Maybe that would account for some of the tempered critical response to the film in 1968. And maybe I should similarly have waited to see The New World till Malick was through tinkering on it. Then again, maybe whatever he took out will get put back anyway for the DVD release. I won't be sitting through it again. No maybe about it.
Transamerica amounts to a conventional road movie and male-bonding movie despite the unconventional natures of the fellow travellers, a druggy street hustler en route to Hollywood for a career in gay porn, and a pre-op transsexual, a week away from his "reassignment" surgery, who his young companion does not at first realize is a man, much less realize is his -- the companion's -- long-lost father. It boasts a flat tire of a script, or anyhow a low-on-air tire (from first-time writer and director Duncan Tucker), but also a fascinating, disorienting performance by Felicity Huffman in a gender-blurring no-man's-land, moving as if she were balancing a jug of water on her head, talking in a tranquilized monotone, stiffening her face into a fragile mask, generally acting like she has a gun at her back, all very understandable for someone who lives in breathless dread of being found out.
Tristan and Isolde gets printed out on screen as Tristan + Isolde, the way a jackknife might put it on a park bench. In it, Kevin Reynolds, the director of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, tries to rescue the legendary lovers from the clutches of Wagner and deliver them to the shopping mall. Deliver them, more exactly, to mushy, muddled action scenes, to dull, gray, lightless photography, to moonfaced, crêpe-flat closeups, to a Johnny Depp manqué (James Franco), a Kate Winslet wisp (Sophia Myles), and a glowering supporting cast of envious no-accounts. It's bearable, nevertheless, just for the story and its modifications. Such is the power of myth.