Friday, January 16, 2009

Different Versions of Malick's World

One of the challenges of the last chapter of my dissertation, a critical study of Terrence Malick's films and their relation to certain aspects of philosophy, is dealing with the multi-textuality of the director's most recent film, The New World (2005). Although rumors of a six-hour version of The Thin Red Line (1998) have circulated for years, such a film never saw the light of day, and there has never been any discussion of Malick's first two features, Badlands (1973) or Days of Heaven (1978) existing in alternate cuts. But three different versions of Malick's rendering of the John Smith-Pocahontas legend exist, all of them released in a period of just under three years. The first, distributed to qualify the film for Oscar consideration in December of 2005, is a 150 minute cut. This version is now available on an Italian Region 2 DVD, pictured adjacent to this paragraph (which lists its length as 144 minutes, although this discrepancy owes to the fact that PAL uses the slightly faster framerate of 25 fps) and also as a digital download when you purchase a copy of the Region 1 disc of the longest cut (discussed below; this digital copy is actually advertised as the three-hour cut, but it's the Oscar-qualifying cut you actually receive from the download). The second, essentially a shorter cut of this first version, is the most widely seen, having seen wide release in January of 2006, and runs at 135 minutes. Finally, in October of 2008 a third cut of the film was released on DVD in North America: the "extended cut," which, in addition to an extended runtime of 172 minutes, also features chapter titles within the film itself, a change which serves to make the director's experiments in narrative fragmentation even more radical.

Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez has written one of the most passionate and insightful short reviews of the film, and his comments regarding the film suggest the differences between the three versions are negligible. He's right, to an extent. One of the central arguments I'm trying to develop about The New World is that, despite its attention to certain aspects of historical detail, it regards the world it presents on the screen as something like an ongoing dream, mediated, for viewers, not only by centuries of artistic production (the film is rich in allusion - its sources, cataloged by this valuable You Tube video, range from Virgil's Aeneid to the Bible - suggesting immediately that we cannot perceive either Smith or Pocahontas as the unified "characters" or implied persons of classical literature and cinema but rather as mythical figures who we know only through the fragments of the cultures mediating our understanding of who they were) but also, for the characters themselves, by the elusive nature of love and memory. All three versions of the film explore this theme, although with different inflections.

Also equally valid for all three versions is one of Adrian Martin's observations about The New World, developed in his contribution to the second edition of The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America (Wallflower Press, 2008), namely that Pocahontas and John Smith struggle to be faithful to the "event of love" throughout the second half of the story. This is an idea which also resonates within Malick's entire oeuvre, insofar as it echoes the recurring theme of the individual's struggle to reconstruct and understand his or her own past. I would go even further than Martin, however, and say that all three versions of Malick's film make it difficult to tell even when, why, or how the "event of love" happens in The New World. This in part owes to Malick's fragmented narrative (this is perhaps the most discontinuous film in the history of Hollywood) and in part to the film's own carefully developed themes of spectating and dreaming: Jamestown, in The New World, is as much dream as reality as its two central characters are a fictional construct of Malick's. While the film obviously lacks any obvious reference to the cinema (it is the first of the director's three films not to be set in the twentieth century) the consistent manner in which its characters perceive the outer environment of colonial America as a kind of interior projection, or residue of a lost dream, recalls our own situation as spectators of Malick's lush imagery. Note, for example, how the film introduces John Smith (Colin Farrell), not as actor on the stage of world conquest or the protagonist of a linear, cause-and-effect costume epic, but as a viewer, in chains due to his attempt at mutiny prior to the start of the narrative, looking at the arrival of the colonial ships through an opening in his cell:


For lack of time, I'll defer most of the rest of this argument regarding the film's theme of spectating to my actual chapter. Although all three cuts all share certain features, my primary interest in the balance of this post is to contest Gonzalez's idea that all three versions of Malick's film are essentially the same. Key differences, I think, exist across all versions, differences that must be dealt with in any reading of the film which refuses to regard any one of the versions as a single "authoritative cut" (since none exists). Although the major themes I've already mentioned are at play in each cut, major tonal (and thus interpretive) differences occur, I think, in regards to four aspects of the film across its three versions: Smith's status as either complicit in or resistant to the European colonial project; the new world as dream; spoken and written discourse; and the character of John Rolfe (Christian Bale).

Smith's resistance

All of Malick's films have what might be called "fateful structures": stories whose ends are either telegraphed far in advance, or whose thematic focus on the mortality of the central characters puts the viewer in the position of expecting one or more of their deaths. Malick's voice-overs frequently serve to figure characters, then, as resistant to the forces of history. Smith is perhaps the most overdetermined of Malick's characters; a wealth of historical speculation precedes Malick's re-vision of the character, so we come to the film knowing at least certain aspects of Smith's legend, like any schoolboy. All three versions of The New World, however, refrain from giving their viewer the sense that Malick's Smith is cognizant of his salient historical role in the events ongoing around him. Farrell's Smith is uncertain, hesitant, and only quick to action at particular moments (he is more frequently seen in a still, contemplative pose). I've already mentioned his passivity, his role as a viewer rather than an actor in Malick's film, and this continues even after he is released from his chains; throughout, he is figured as simply taking in the sensuous new environment of the new world rather than confidently acting within it:



Nonetheless, each of the three cuts projects a slightly different kind of Smith. In the 150 minute version, Smith, although guilty of mutiny, is figured as ultimately complicit with the European colonial project in rather stark terms; his rebellion is seen as the exception to his character, not the rule. After being released from chains, Malick spends time in each of the film's cuts depicting Smith wandering through the landscape. But in the 150 minute version, his wanderings associate him with an entire culture's encounter with what we now know as Virginia, as Malick pairs Smith's first contact with the wilderness of America (after he is released from his chains) with shots of other individuals, and in one image an entire European family, making their first landing on the shore. In the other two cuts, Malick removes many of the images of other arriving Europeans, narrowing his focus for most of this particular passage on Smith's relative isolation from the other colonialists. In the 172 minute cut, in particular, this isolation is soon felt as an active resistance to the European colonial project, a rather radical re-interpretation (one might just want to say "re-creation") of the Smith figure. This is because Malick adds a brief but crucial passage of dialogue not contained in either of the other two versions. After Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) recommends Smith as the leader of an envoi to open trade negotiations with the Powhatan king (which precipitates his first meeting with Pocahontas), a moment that is present in all three versions, in the 172-minute cut other members of the nascent colony, particularly Wingfield (David Thewlis), suggest that Smith would teach the Indians European forms of warfare and rebel against the colonialists. It's a very brief exchange, but it gives Smith a personal history as rebel that the other two versions of the film lack. Rather than situating him as an colonialist, the 172-minute cut begins by framing him as a potential threat to the colonial project.

This "extended cut" then goes on to provide some evidence to Wingfield's framing of Smith as resistant to that project, for it includes several more minutes of footage of Smith engaging with the Powhatan upon his arrival to their part of the woods. Although this is perhaps just a matter of impressions, I'd argue that we get a more palpable sense of Smith's joy at being a part of the Powhatan clan (no matter how briefly) in the 172-minute cut than we do in the other two versions, which cut to his intimacy with Pocahontas more quickly (thus framing his relationship with her as a relatively asocial one). There is one particularly moving sequence added in the 172-minute cut in which he saves a young boy from drowning. After Smith saves the young boy, he is figured apart from the Powhatan (who move away from Smith to gather around the saved child), an individual viewed apart from their world:


Then, they move back into the frame, as the camera tracks ever so slightly back. They welcome him, in effect, into their society, unifying formerly separated figures in the mise en scene (Smith is no longer an individual viewed apart from the Powhatan; he becomes, at this moment, a part of them):


In both the 132- and 150-minute cuts of the film, Smith and Pocahontas nurture a relationship that is frequently felt to be at odds with their given societies. Because of these additions, however, the 172 minute cut opens up Smith's and Pocahontas's eventual relationship as a social intervention within the Powhatan clan (and within Smith's European lineage as well), even as something of a ritual which welcomes Smith into the fold. In the longer cut, it is only after saving the young boy and proving himself a worthy member of the Powhatan society that Pocahontas and Smith begin their romance; in the shorter versions, their romance is felt more as something apart from the rest of the Powhatan tribe as a whole. Not only does Smith emerge as more resistant to the English colonial project in the longest of the three cuts, then, he emerges in great part as a member of the Powhatan society, his relationship with Pocahontas felt to be a part of a larger welcoming ritual. This throws into relief his return to the struggling English colony, already diseased and ruined, all the more strongly.

The new world as dream

Long passages of the film proceed without dialogue between interlocutors; Malick frequently eschews shot-reaction shot structures in favor of a more open-ended engagement with space. Characters more frequently look at one another, not within the circuit of exchanged gazes, but in ways which figure the other as distant and apart, in another world. Take, for example, the first encounter of Pocahontas and John Smith. Neither one is quite visible to the other; the other exists only as part of a landscape to which the other has not yet learned how to relate:



As the film progresses, then, we get the sense not simply of two individuals or two worlds encountering one another for the first time, but of two different elements of mise-en-scene - separate at first, only observed by the other, but slowly becoming unified. For example, historians have often questioned the validity of John Smith's story about Pocahontas saving Smith from the hands of her father, who wanted to kill him. Many instead believe the Powhatan arranged the saving of Smith as a spectacle and a ritual which would inaugurate Smith as part of the Powhatan society. Malick preserves this sense of spectacle in this sequence which depicts Pocahontas's "saving" of Smith, situating both the Powhatan and Smith as a part of a spectacular mise-en-scene that is finally brought together at the moment in which Pocahontas throws herself onto Smith. He even foregrounds the fact that this ritual, and his filming of it, is an artistic construction, inserting several disorienting jump cuts into the sequence. The "reality" of what we see unfolds along a discursive train that jumps the tracks, so to speak. The sequence as a whole, too, is bound up with theatricality; the Powhatan hut looks like nothing so much as a theater stage, complete with rafters and shafts of light emerging from above:


The fragile unity established between Smith, Pocahontas, and other Powhatan is broken once the Powhatan king sends Smith back to his own colony. As viewers, Malick's discontinuous editing strategies have already cued us to query the reality of what we see on the screen; similarly, for the rest of the film, both Smith and Pocahontas will speak of their initial romance as a "dream," suggesting once again the film's theme of subjective projection and the unstable nature of objective reality. In the 132-minute cut of the film, Malick establishes this "dream" primarily from Smith's point of view. In a sequence in which Smith trades with Indians after having left Pocahontas, Malick cuts to new images of Smith and Pocahontas together, but never firmly establishes these moments in the diegesis. We are instead cued to recognize them as originating from Smith's own subjectivity. They constitute, in the shortest cut, fleeting fragments of a past (or perhaps of an imagined future?) which are fading from Smith's memory (in the following chain of images, for example, the third shot of Pocahontas functions as subjective flashback):


In both of the longer versions, however, Malick works initially to situate this second meeting with Pocahontas as an actual part of the film's diegetic reality by establishing it as an autonomous narrative segment, rather than as images which we are cued to recognize as emerging from Smith's memory in the segment involving the trading. This is a much longer sequence in both of the longer cuts, and it is framed as reality, not memory - at least at first. Near the end of this second tryst, however, we are given the following images (not in the 132 minute cut) of Pocahontas drifting into sleep, and then Pocahontas and Smith lying asleep some time later:


After first being led to believe this second meeting is an actual occurence, are we then perhaps to assume that this second meeting is Pocahontas's dream, rather than Smith's (given that she figures more centrally in the above images depicting sleep?) In all of the versions, Malick de-stabilizes diegetic reality, suggesting that what we see of Jamestown may be only a subjective projection, but in the two longer cuts he invites us, I think, to consider that this may be Pocahontas's dream as well as Smith's, granting the former character a greater degree of agency and more depth of subjectivity within the narrative.

The discourse of history

The 132-minute cut and 172 minute cut of the film include the following image in the film's first half-hour, which depicts Smith sitting alone and writing:

This image is removed in the 150-minute cut (which tends to focus less on Smith's isolation early in the film). It is the 172-minute cut, however, which evokes most strongly Smith's own writing of history and an insistence on the inevitably multivocal nature of history. The historical Smith wrote several books on the subject of colonial Virginia. Malick's longest cut begins with Smith's own words:


Smith's words, however, do not cue the linear, historiographically verifiable unfolding of history in Malick's film. Instead, the film insists repeatedly upon the polyphonic nature of voices. At certain junctures in the film, Malick's use of the voice-over, far from establishing an indexical relationship to just one character, becomes a palimpsest. Consider the following words, spoken by Farrell as Smith on the film's soundtrack as this image appears on the visual track:

How many lands behind me?
How many seas?

What blows and dangers?
Fortune ever my friend.



Smith's words are an allusion to Virgil's Aeneid; to complicate matters further, we also here the diegetic voice of Plummer's Christopher Newport, although it is difficult to locate his voice in precise spatial and temporal terms. In addition to this, we have the image of a Powhatan Indian climbing the skeleton of a European fort, posing explicitly the question of the extent to which we can understand the reality of Indian-European relations through Smith's (and Newport's) words. Instead of granting us a vision of historical reality confirmed by the writings of past historians or a single diegetic subjectivity, then, in sequences like this one, all three cuts of The New World (which include the above sequence) work hard to establish history as a deep palimpsest of voices to which we may continue to bring our own interpretive work.

John Rolfe

An interesting essay by Kent Jones - originally published in Film Comment, and recently included in his anthology Physical Evidence (Wesleyan, 2007) - praises The New World, but also takes Malick to task for the way in which his editing strategies can make mincemeat of the work of performers: "Given the discontinuous presentation, actors often commit the cardinal error of 'playing' emotions, and they have to be as resourceful and intuitive as Nick Nolte or Sean Penn or Christian Bale...to hack out a viable character" (Physical Evidence, 103). I'm not sure what Jones's aesthetic criteria for a "viable character" are, but his mentioning of Bale is perceptive. In the 132-minute cut of The New World, what we know of John Rolfe is mostly communicated for us through Bale's peformance. The 172-minute cut continues to rely heavily upon Bale's intonations, gestures, and expressions for the viewer to "hack out" a character in the act of interpretation, but Malick has made some additions which deepen Rolfe as a character, and complicate his relationship to the colonial project in ways that echo Smith's uneasiness in the first hour of the film.

The central addition involves a scene in which Rolfe approaches Newport and other authorities about the idea of marrying Pocahontas. In this sequence, Rolfe's superiors make clear the understanding that the marriage will function instrumentally, that is, as a way to unify the European and Indian people politically. In the shorter cuts, Rolfe's intentions towards Pocahontas - despite his obvious love for her on a human level - often reflected this kind of mentality which viewed the Indian as an instrument for "enlightened" European progress. (One of Rolfe's remarks, which has always struck me as cold, suggests that Pocahontas "knew the culture of tobacco well.") In all three versions there is a sequence, after Pocahontas learns that Jphn Smith is still alive, in which Rolfe also reacts equally coldly to the idea that Pocahontas could have ever possibly been "married" to Smith (which situates Rolfe clearly on the side of English law). However, in the 172-minute cut, the sequence in which Rolfe confronts the authorities illustrates his discomfort in treating Pocahontas as an instrument for European progress, primarily through the addition of one voice-over:

The governor requires of me a letter stating acceptable reasons for our union. (A beat) Humiliated. (A beat). And yet it does not touch me.


This scene goes some way in complicating the character of Rolfe, depicting him ill at ease with his complicity with colonial oppression. Yet his rejoinder "And yet it does not touch me" functions ambiguously. We could read it as an act of resistance to the project of which he is a part, a statement that reserves his right to love Pocahontas in ways that do not conform to the relationship's political significance. It is equally possible to read it as simply another sign of Rolfe's coldness - unwilling to grapple with his involvement in colonialism in ways that might refigure his relationship with Pocahontas as anything other than the European instrument of progress which it became. In this and other additions, the Rolfe character becomes more complex.

***

This post has been an attempt to cataloge, and briefly comment upon, several significant differences between the three different cuts of The New World; it is by no means exhaustive, and not every difference has been accounted for. Other additions to the 172-minute cut include, for example, a passage furthering our sense of Pocahontas' disorientation in the English colony, and her grappling with new modes of cultural existence, prior to her meeting Rolfe, and a particularly disorienting sequence shortly after Smith returns to the colony for the first time, which discontinuously cuts across different moments in Smith and Pocahontas's relationship, in a manner that recalls nothing other than the sudden jump-cut "flashbacks" without a clear individual, psychological referent in Godard's Contempt. (This last sequence, in particular, deserves a blog posting of its own, given that Malick's lyricism in The New World is not too far away from the ardent modernism of Contempt itself). And there are more, which I hope to expand further upon in my actual chapter.

I realize too that, to some extent, a value judgment has emerged in the above comparisons, one which would esteem the longest of the three cuts to a greater degree. To some extent, I think this view is justified, given my feeling that the 172-minute version expands and deepens themes that are only nascent in the shorter cuts, yet the shorter versions benefit from a slightly accelerated rhythm (the longest cut is more contemplative and exploratory). In the end, all three versions function most effectively when viewed in tandem, differences in structure and rhythm in one version finding comparative meaning through relations with the other two cuts. In any event, to extend the discussion, here are two more authors who share a few impressions regarding the different versions in a single blog posting:

The House Next Door

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A shot at redemption


The release of Gran Torino comes about two months after the disappointing Oscar bait Changeling, and if Clint Eastwood's latest entry feels more modest and carefully crafted, it is not for lack of scope. Gran Torino, a story about a bigoted pensioner living, after his wife's recent death, in resentment of the growing Hmong population in his Detroit neighborhood, seeks nothing less than a reevaluation - a spiritual cleansing, perhaps - of one of Eastwood's central, and most troubling, personas. (Let me make clear: it is not Eastwood's only persona, but merely one of his most central; I'd argue it at least inflects his entire ouevre). It is the same figure familiar from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Dirty Harry as well as from Eastwood's own films as director, including even certain aspects of the relatively mild-mannered boxing manager in Million Dollar Baby, who initially bristles at the idea of a female fighter. This figure is a conservative who, when pushed, is willing to put his own sense of self-security in jeopardy when he scents that the very conservatism he holds dear - which allows for his self-security - is put at risk. Usually this "risk," especially in the films by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, results in violence, the climactic shootout in which the Eastwood figure aggressively justifies his principles. His is an authority operating through the sense that the right principles have already been figured out, and that there is nothing more to discuss in defense of those values.

In other words, it's the same thing that once drove Pauline Kael to label Dirty Harry a fascist film: the idea that authority needs only itself to justify its violence. Eastwood's latest character is not exactly a fascist, but rather the worst kind of libertarian, one whose defense of self reliance is founded on the denigration and avoidance of others (and, especially, Others). Self-justification (or perhaps just an inward retreat into the self) is present in almost every scene in the first act of Gran Torino, as Eastwood's protagonist, the Vietnam vet Walt Kowalski, spews racial epithets and, even more often, wears an unwelcoming sneer (Eastwood is not so much acting with these sneers as he is channeling a composite ghost of past characters). Kowalski's racism is not particularly aggressive or violent, but it does shut down any attempt at social dialogue when the potential emerges. (Tellingly, an older Hmong character, a grandmother who sits on the porch of the house neighboring Walt's, is every bit as prejudicial, suggests that Americans have no sole purchase on xenophobic self-reliance). But although Walt is not exactly Dirty Harry, Eastwood does provide a few hints that aggressive and racist violence are buried within the character's past. Far from providing us a comforting nod that the violence he was complicit with in Vietnam was merely the product of following others' orders, Eastwood implies that such violence was simply the outgrowth of Walt's racism (although he leaves the question of exactly what acts Walt was responsible for during war, beyond abstract references to murder, ambiguous). In a sense, this evokes the theme of personal responsibility, familiar from Changeling, situating Walt's bigotry as the product of an individual's psychology, rather than an attitude that was institutionally produced.

But even if Gran Torino stops short of locating Walt's racism within American society as a whole, it does, to its credit, see the absolution for that racism in society. After a local Hmong neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), attempts to steal Walt's car, the titular Torino, in an attempt to impress a gangland cousin, Walt slowly comes out of his shell and begins to socialize with his neighbors (in part through his very gradual recognition that Thao is a good person caught up with the wrong crowd). The film, up to this point, has been intermittently schematic and superficial: for example, Walt's grizzled authenticity is developed less through a depth of subjective narration (do we ever really get to know who Walt is, beyond the persona through which Eastwood channels him?) than through simple contrasts, such as that between Walt's hard-working, Ford-factory blue collar philosophy and his granddaughter's navel-gazing (literally), gum-popping materialism (this is, on one level, just the whining of an old fart: if Eastwood had made this film fifty years ago, certainly hula hoops and rock and roll would have come under attack). And in contrasting the "good" Hmong who draw Eastwood's Walt out of his bigoted shell with the "bad" Hmong that populate the Detroit neighborhood's gangbanging streets, Gran Torino dangerously slips from economical and tightly structured to simplistic and politically naive. Such moves harm the film's dramaturgy as well: Thao, and his sister (Ahney Her) function less as fully developed characters, and more as foils: she, as the hard-willed, Asian variation of Eastwood's own individualistic self-sufficiency (she is not really that different; that she is so like Walt is what makes their relationship possible); and Thao as a younger version of Walt, perhaps, willing to learn and intelligent, but naive and without the proper authority figure to guide him into adulthood.

Gran Torino never quite overcomes these structural problems, but benefits (what recent film wouldn't?) through comparison with Changeling, primarily since the latter's missteps become even more apparent in contrast to the former's narrative economy. More importantly, the relationships are more genuine, despite the fact that Thao, as a character, never quite transcends the hole into which Eastwood and his screenwriter have pegged him. For all of his missteps in representing non-white communities and individuals, the relationship between Walt and Thao is affecting. After Thao's sister is beaten and raped by several of the same young men who earlier pressured Thao into stealing Walt's Tornio, Walt's palpable sense of complicity with the crime clearly suggests Eastwood's theme of racism and hate as a vicious circle begetting violence. To that extent, the film's ending is tragic: Walt, forgoing Dirty Harry's tendency to mow down the innocent before they can be proven guilty, can still only answer violence with violence, albeit of a sacrificial kind - the kind of violence which (in a perhaps unavoidably hypocritical way) demonstrates that more violence is not the answer. That both Walt and Eastwood see the future of America lying with Thao, rather than Walt's bratty, overprivileged grandchildren, is a relatively liberal gesture on Eastwood's part, albeit a highly limited one due to the fact that we're left wondering if either Walt or Eastwood really know who Thao is. One awaits, then, for Thao to ride into his next movie, in which he might function as a character existing apart from his director's own stab at spiritual and social redemption.