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Zettel Film Reviews » The New World – New? New to whom?

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The New World – New? New to whom?

truth will out

truth will out

The New World – Terence Malik

Critical response to this movie beggars belief. If he had just made the dullest movie ever (people walked out of my showing), Malik could be forgiven. But this empty, patronising, sentimentalised farrago of historic lies is scandalously ethnocentrically, totally white European. It perpetuates the worst form of a myth of such indestructible power that it must serve a deep psychological need among Euro-Americans. Malik’s writing and direction makes this play like cod Jane Austen – all prejudice, no pride. We expect crass sentimentality from the Disney Corporation (Pocahantas – 1995) but one might have expected better of Terence Malik.

The New World’ – New to whom? The Euro-centric heart of this misconceived film is signalled even in the title. Without a trace of irony. On a par with the shameful fiction peddled to every European child including me for almost 500 years – that Columbus ‘discovered’ America. The hell he did. The history and culture of the indigenous peoples of North America for 20,000 years BC (before Columbus) ignored before the first portentous frame of this over-wrought, over-long movie hits the screen.

The real life of Matoaka (Pocahantas) has been stolen and mythologised by Euro-Americans into the perfect Indian: mediating, conciliatory, submissively female and apparent convert to Christianity, who for whatever actual reasons eventually lived among white colonists and adopted their dress and culture. “Kill the Indian, and save the man” Capt Richard C Pratt, Founder of the Carlisle School for Indian students, on the education of Native Americans (1875). Artistic truth can transcend the historical but the indigenous peoples of North America still wait in vain for the reality of either to be heard. Despite the ethnically self-serving mythology surrounding Mataoka, there is historical consensus that if this daughter of an Algonquin chief saved mercenary soldier John Smith’s life she was barely 12 when she did so. If this strikes you as significant, check out the history for yourself at www.powhatan.org. and elsewhere on the internet where more balanced views can be found of her abduction and eventual fate as the trophy wife of tobacco planter John Rolfe. I will leave the history to others with this from Thoreau – “history recorded by one who believes his race superior to others, is no history at all.”

Malik directed one of the seminal movies of the 70’s in Badlands (1973) and one of the best war movies in The Thin Red Line (1998). This makes the sheer awfulness of TNW hard to credit. Some of the imagery is even re-cycled from TTRL like the closing shot of the tops of tall trees rooted in the ground yet reaching for the sky. Clunking dialogue is rendered worse by a risibly reverential narration with portentous sentiments far too weighty for the travelogue-pretty but frequently banal images they are intended to enhance. The intention of the images of nature is clear enough: the sense of a pristine wilderness shared by two cultures uncomprehending of one another and with a profoundly different sense of their relationship to that natural world. And this mirrored on a personal level by a tragic love story trapped in the cultural no-mans-land between. This is a serious, interesting and worthwhile subject – so why not tell it establishing its truth through its imaginative artistic authenticity instead of trying to invest it with a crass, false authority based upon blatant historical distortion and downright falsehoods?

Philosophy not history is my area, and it is conceptually that this film is so shallow. Malik’s film actually only shows one culture but under two aspects. And I can only assume he doesn’t realise it. First he shows directly the Christian-based culture of the Euro-American colonists. But then, undermining his whole project, he shows a sentimentalised, patronising Euro-centric distortion of the crucial other half of this dramatically potent equation.

Nothing proves this better than the vapid, submissive, quintessential victim that is his ‘heroine’. Women should be almost as angry at this film as Native Americans. By all accounts Matoaka, the fiercely intelligent independent daughter of a great Algonquin Chief, was used abused and transported to England as a trophy wife. There she died, separated from her people and her culture. Perfect as a base upon which the white man could construct his myth of the perfect Indian – submissive, naïve victim. Matoaka was actually born into a culture that placed respect for women at the heart of its spiritual and earthly values. Women in Native American society could occupy almost any position: from warrior to priest (nota bene Catholics and Anglicans), Their voices were heard and respected in the highest tribal forums several hundred years before European women were even allowed to vote let alone lead prayer.

Deeper still: when Mataoka, in an apparently true incident, brings food from her people to help the starving Europeans survive the implacably hostile winter the suppressed premises speak volumes. First this is seen as distinguishing Mataoka from her people, when in fact her act would have been totally in keeping with her tribe’s attitudes and beliefs – the felt necessity to help through sharing, fellow human beings struggling for survival in a hostile environment. Not said, but implied, it seems to me is the sense of this act being a surprise, i.e. not what you’d expect from such ‘primitive’ people. The whole Christian conceptual framework of such acts – duty, charity, doing something self-consciously ‘good’ in the name of, and in obedience to God etc is missing. Yet the un-self-regarding naturalness of the act, and lack of ‘rewards-in-heaven’ sub-text, enhances its true moral force rather than diminishes it.

This is the true background against which Malik’s film should be judged. His passive, unthreatening heroine is turned from the real 12 year-old who first met John Smith into an ambiguously older woman in order to perpetuate the cliched Mills and Boon fiction of a pretty little princess who falls helplessly in love with the strong, manly adventurer Smith. This has about as much to do with the facts as the Life of Brian has with Christian theology and is about as ethnically authentic as a plate of microwaved Chicken Tikka Marsala.

The indigenous people of North America have been subjected to virtual genocide; their lands looted, stolen and polluted; their culture systematically denigrated, prohibited and ignored; and even in modern times, their civil rights abused and treaties reneged upon in the cause of political expediency and corporate profit. It is hard to imagine any more harm we, the white European peoples could do to them, yet Mr Malik with this self-indulgent, misconceived, world-distributed film has perpetuated the ongoing injustice against this extraordinary, almost miraculously surviving people – the theft of their history itself.

If you want to know the truth – check this out on the many web-sites on the internet. If you want to help, check out the Nihewan Foundation or its Cradleboard Project. If you want to hear an authentic and far more eloquent expression than mine, of the anger and pain of 500 years of shameful exploitation and injustice you can do no better than listen to the music of (Dr) Buffy Sainte Marie, especially perhaps the CD Coincidence and Likely Stories (1996). She wrote and performed the best-known anti-war song of all time – The Universal Soldier. Even here most people in the UK think this powerful song was actually written by Britain’s Donovan, who had a hit with it at about the time Buffy Sainte-Marie’s version and other music was being kept off radio stations in the United States.

In the end I suppose we must judge Malik’s film on its intrinsic artistic merits. For me, it is tedious, dull, poorly written, even in its own historical terms, and prettily but indulgently filmed. It is unfair perhaps to judge the performances given what the actors had to work with but only the excellent Christopher Plummer is remotely credible. As for 16 year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher – let’s hope her charismatic screen presence and natural beauty can be directed towards a more worthwhile project in the future.

(Dr) Buffy Sainte-Marie

(Dr) Buffy Sainte-Marie

Dear Zettel,

I LOVED your review!! Congratulations and thank you. I’ll circulate it.

Traveling. Gotta go.

Buffy Sainte-Marie

(See links aside – Zettel)

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