The Whispering Wind: Matt Zoller Seitz on "The New World

by robbiefreeling
July 20, 2010 2:06 AM
1 Comment
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As Terrence Malick’s The New World eases into its climactic movement, its heroine Pocahontas enters the latest (but not last) phase of her journey. Once a Powhatan princess, she became the lover of convict-turned-explorer John Smith; then a diplomat taking pity on Smith’s stubborn, hapless countrymen; then a pariah cast out by her father as a betrayer; then a slowly assimilating Englishwoman and grieving (presumed) widow, deceived into thinking Smith dead; then a ward—and later, lover—of a kind Englishman, John Rolfe; the toast of Rolfe’s mother country; then a contented wife living in a high-ceilinged manor in which she welcomes Smith as her guest.

Now she is about to become, in Rolfe’s words, “but a fond memory” to a son that barely knew her.

Pocahontas’s toddler-aged son runs along a hedgerow amid a flock of sheep. The camera follows like a tagalong ghost. The wind comes up.

The wind signals that the movie is over—that the end is near.

But what follows is a beginning.

Read Matt Zoller Seitz's contribution to the Reverse Shot Sounds Off symposium.

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1 Comment

  • Tony Dayoub | July 21, 2010 12:51 PMReply

    "They’re all components of an aesthetic that leaves final interpretation up to the individual viewer. Do Malick’s characters have free will and moral choice, or are they just being swept along by wind and water? Is it either or neither, or both?"

    Matt, this is the most eloquent expression of the central theme of Malick's work I've yet seen.

    "A lifetime of exposure to traditional film grammar primes us for a shot of the ship headed away from us, its outward direction implying an end. Yet it’s coming towards us. And it is silhouetted against the sky. It’s black, abstracted: a ferryman’s boat."

    This is what I find so enticing about his films. Even a film neophyte can easily follow his films without Malick having to resort to unnecessary exposition. Compare this to INCEPTION (a flawed film I like quite a lot), where Nolan still shows his insecurity in his need to throw everything AND the kitchen sink at the screen to make sure the viewer "gets" it.

    "I’ve seen it written that this figure represents Pocahontas’ soul leaving her body. While this is entirely possible, I like to think that he’s death, that he’d been sitting there for years waiting on Pocahontas; then suddenly he realizes his moment had passed, that he’d missed his chance, and he runs into the garden trying to find her in the maze."

    Brilliant! Not what I would have derived from this scene (we're in agreement the character is figurative, though), but a persuasive case is made for your interpretation.

    THE NEW WORLD is, in my humble opinion, the very best film of the 2000s. I'm gratified to see you return to this film time and again because I think it is often overlooked by the critical community. Great piece!