Songs of Innocence and of Experience by Leo Goldsmith In charting the many tiny shifts and massive groundswells of the last ten years, cinema seems an unwieldy yardstick. All at once, in this last decade, film seems to have died (again), only to be reborn (again). Depending on your point of view, it petered out as a form of vital mass entertainment, or it reasserted itself as the cornerstone of a culture consumed by the visual. Encomia to the viral video herald the end of moviegoing as we know it, even as publicists and film critics alike uphold James Cameron’s recent costly mash-up of his own career highlights and the techno-gimmicks of the 50’s and 90’s (3D and IMAX, respectively) with that most irritating ESPNese catchphrase: “game-changer.”
Plus ça game-change, plus c’est la même chose. Whether all the relentless spectacle of the last decade truly represents a major shift in how we live and see, or is merely more of the same, the import is identical: for better or worse, we’re still in the game. Since its invention, cinema has always sought to fulfill the 19th-century ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art – and now the moving image, wherever one finds it, seems more totalizing than ever. Unlike music, where audience reception entails a considerable amount of agency, selectivity, and simple idiosyncrasies of taste, film seems always to be striving for everyone’s attention and all of it. But increasingly, rather than simply drawing us into the dark, enveloping space of the theater, the moving image now extends outward into every corner of our lives, infiltrating our bedrooms, our phones, and even our taxicabs. It often seems that our visual culture has become more plentiful and more varied, and that our daily lives have been flattened to better match and incorporate it.
But this proliferation of media isn’t all insidious and oppressive, of course: with it comes a wider array of options for watching images of all kinds and commenting on them, too. Print journalists may rightfully wring their hands with concern for their livelihoods, but the attendant tectonic shift in criticism’s landscape is generally a good thing--less lucrative perhaps, but also less uniform and less slavish to money-driven zeitgeists. For now, most of the discussion of cinema on the internet still relies on what the studios’ publicity machines decide is current, on what critics feel obliged to weigh in on. But countless websites – including, I humbly propose, this one – represent a welcome shift away from this old model of film criticism and toward a more active and more activist discourse, one less dependent on the support of advertising dollars and more directly engaged with both filmmakers and filmgoers. And this is a shift that benefits small distributors and venues, too, helping them to locate and communicate with audiences whose options had hitherto depended on a much more univocal mass media.
All of this suggests why films like The World, In the Mood for Love, There Will Be Blood, and Mulholland Dr. are so often cited as this decade’s most important films. Where others glom onto trends or target-markets, or tread CGI’s Uncanny Valley, however thrillingly or oppressively, in search of leggy, blue cat-people or elves and dwarves to fool the eye, circumscribe the imagination, and sell hamburgers, these films defy the wearying logic of mainstream cinema’s master-narratives and franchise tie-ins. Incarnations of this decade’s awkward cinematic schizophrenia, they are big spectacles split into fragments. These are Big Cinema movies for the age of watching things on your phone or in your bathtub, beautiful embodiments of a mass-entertainment art form tearing itself apart, marking the Fall with equal measures of euphoria and regret. These films boldly assert that there is still a cinema to be found among the ruins, and they intrepidly set out to find it.
And somewhere swimming in this paradox is Terrence Malick. Although he made only one film this decade – the impassioned, wholly ingenuous The New World – the shadow of his influence can be discerned in the work of a significant number of contemporary filmmakers. Critics hold him in the highest regard, and casual moviegoers behold his films with an uncommon awe, and I think this is at least in part because of his curious position among the of international cinema. Himself an unwieldy yardstick, Malick has a Hollywood director’s predilection for the illusory, the visionary, the dreamworld. And yet, his films are not about fantasy but about the concreteness of this dream. They bear the enormous weight, the tactile pleasure, the textural nuance of the natural world in all its primacy and splendor. They are visions, dreams, illusions, but these too are realities: immediate, as seen through another’s eyes.
The four films he has made are all period films, each about some of the most overly mythologized periods in American history: colonization, the Industrial Revolution, World War II, and the 1950s. And yet, although they deal with such enervating horribles as war, imperialism, racism, and common heartbreak, they do so without an ounce of cynicism; they maintain an utter respect for their characters’ lived experience and romantic notions, their yearning idealism and their checked and qualified moral striving. Equanimity and clear-eyed consciousness are qualities we’ve largely ceased to look for in our artists, and yet Malick embodies them more fully, more daringly than any filmmaker in the world.
Where most Hollywood films exert their narrative authority to tell us what their world ought to be, Malick’s films asks us to inhabit without irony their characters’ points of view, not to expose their dreams as delusions but to reveal them as the sum of their experience. “I thought it was a dream… It’s the only truth.”
An account of the founding of the Colony of Virginia, Malick’s film could easily have been a grim, merciless denouncement of the imperialist spirit, an object lesson for the checkered history of Anglo-American relations with native cultures both at home and abroad. And in part, it is this: Malick wastes no time in revealing the colonists to be, at least partly, crooks and miscreants, liars in search of the spoils of empire and the safe haven of anonymity. But The New World also represents the fullest and least saccharine expression of America’s origins since Fitzgerald’s brief, crystalline account of “the last and greatest of all human dreams” at the end of The Great Gatsby:
for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder.
Like Gatsby, John Smith believes in “the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Malick allows Smith to behold the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” not simply as a prelude to a history of oppression and discord, but as the birth of an idea. It’s a romantic vision that Malick lets his characters hold onto, because it is that vision – however fleeting and whatever its outcome – that comprises their lives.
But Smith’s view is not the whole story: indeed, there is no whole story. Carefully interweaving historical truth with mythos and metaphor – presenting the practices of the natives and colonists with minute accuracy, while retaining the idealized, apocryphal story of Smith and Pocahontas’s love affair – The New World represents no final word on the matter of America’s beginning. Like The Thin Red Line, the film functions not as a grand account, but as a collection of voices, questioning (“Who are you whom I so faintly hear?”), reaching out for and sharing with us brief flashes of clarity and light. One can hear this yearning, this feeling of human inadequacy and striving, even in its heroine’s opening appeal to the Muse: “Come, Spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our Mother; we, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.” It is the classical invocation that begins an epic, but it is an epic always searching for its voice.
Many years after their love affair has ended, in a country far away from where she was born, Rebecca asks her former lover, “Did you find your Indies, John?” The question is almost cutting, an indictment of all the sorrow men cause in their striving ambition. But she adds, “You shall,” and though Captain Smith believes he may have sailed past them, her innocent expression of hope reasserts the worth of his dream. It’s this sense of hope in the face of inadequacy, of dreams tentatively upheld even in weariness and disappointment, that seems to me so curiously apt for this decade of cinema. Dead, fragmented, and reborn in a million tiny iterations, film’s power as a unifying, populist medium dissipates into homogeneity and cliché. And yet, glimmers of that green light peek through the cracks, and the flattening of cinema’s landscape itself demands a reaction commensurate with our spirit of discovery.