In contrast to his usual role as Short-master, Phong brought us the feature film this week, but that didn’t stop him from starting us out with a short as well. This week’s short was Aria, an 11-minute stop-motion piece by Pjotr Sapegin. Aria can be summed in two words. It’s just a question of which two words. For instance:
But the best two words to describe Aria would be “Madame Butterfly”. In essence, the story follows the main plot of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – A Japanese-looking doll falls in love with a sailor, waiting patiently for him after he leaves. Eventually she bears his child, and the two of them share in flying each other as kites by the umbilical cord until finally the sailor returns with his new wife, and takes away the baby. I’m not entirely sure that the kite bits were true to the original opera. After he leaves with the child, she breaks the fourth wall and commits seppuku by disassembling herself into her constiuent stop-motion doll bits. That part might not have been in the opera either, but it was a nice touch at the end of the film.
The feature film this week (perhaps not completely coincidentally) also featured an interracial romance which failed due to fickleness on the part of the white man. In this case, I’m talking about the Pocahontas story, as recounted by Terrence Malick in his 2005 film The New World. This film shouldn’t take too many more words to sum up than Aria, though I should point out that my historian friends (of which I have none) tell me that the romance between Pocahontas and John Smith is apocryphal, and probably didn’t happen. But, enough worrying about the truth behind the film, how did the movie go?
It starts with the Virginia Jamestown colonists, of which Smith was a (disgraced, for vague reasons) member. After the leader of the colonists returns to England with the promise of bringing more ships in the spring, Smith (Colin Farrell) is left as the leader of the group that will eventually try to make its way through the harsh winter. They manage to get a fort built, but not terribly long after that an expedition led by Smith is ambushed by the natives, and Smith is the only member taken alive. It appears that he is about to be killed until the chief’s lovely young daughter Pocahontas (a name by which she is not referred to in the film, except perhaps once) intervenes on his behalf and instead Smith is taken in to the tribe in the capacity of a free prisoner.
Thus begins the romance between Smith and Pocahontas, who in real life was probably about 10-12 at the time of Smith’s capture but here is a much modern-friendlier 20ish. There are some scenes where they pretend to teach each other their respective languages, and voilá, Pocahontas is an excellent English speaker in no time flat. But, her father sends Smith back to the colonists just as winter is coming on, telling him that they are to leave by spring.
Things aren’t going so well at Jamestown, where nobody seems to know how to hunt for deer and they didn’t really bring any provisions. Plus, during Smith’s captivity, some other guy seems to have gotten into his head that he’s in charge, accuses Smith of treason, and prepares to execute him.
And here’s where the movie just starts to get difficult. For the entire film, the majority of the dialogue is in cryptic voice-over – characters expressing thoughts that aren’t necessarily pertinent to the scene at hand and sometimes are inscrutable as to their point, if not downright inaccurate. (For instance, Smith tells himself that the natives do not understand guile and do not have words for things like forgiveness and treachery, when we see later that things are quite the opposite, and we even get the word “forgive” in a subtitle…but that’s secondary.) So when some-other-guy is bringing charges against Smith, it’s really not clear what’s going on. He levels his gun and appears to fire at Smith, but a third guy falls over dead, and everybody seems to feel the entire situation is resolved, and Smith, neither dead nor shot, is in charge again. At least, that’s what it looked like to me. Maybe somehow it was a third party shooting now-in-charge guy, but yeah, jump cuts and no dialogue makes things tough to follow.
At any rate, the colonists are ill-prepared to survive, and it appears they would have suffered heavy losses if not for the intercession of Smith’s old flame Pocahontas (looking quite pregnant, another oddity because she does not in fact bear Smith’s child), who comes back bearing provisions.
But, Pocahontas gets kicked out of the tribe for this indiscretion, and she goes to live with the colonists. I think there are some native attacks on the fort in this time, but they did so little to advance the narrative I can’t place them in my memory. In fact, at one point I thought the colonists were setting fire to their own fort. Weird. Anyway, when the original commander makes his way back in the spring he sends Smith off to search for the Northwest Passage. Smith leaves, but since he’s really wishy-washy, he just has the colonists tell Pocahontas he died at sea. It’s not quite clear why he does this, but apparently you just can’t tie the guy down to the girl he loves, man. He’s a free spirit.
Enter John Rolfe (Christian Bale). While Bale himself is not particularly known for being a pleasant guy (Language Warning), Rolfe is quite the gentleman, albeit in a creepy, hey-little-girl-I’ve-got-some-candy-in-the-van kind of way. He doesn’t really win the heart of Pocahontas, but she marries him anyway and in this case she does bear his child.
Things lead to things, and eventually Rolfe and Pocahontas are brought back to England, where she sees the splendor of London, has an audience with the King and Queen, and is treated like downright royalty, all the while surrounded by beautiful gardens and architecture and called “Rebecca”.
There follows an anticlimactic scene where she learns that Smith isn’t dead after all, meets with him, and only after that decides that she truly loves Rolfe, the father of her 4-5 year old child. So what do they do? They leave the kid at home to head back to the New World. Things don’t go so well, and we learn (in voiceover, of course) that Pocahontas fell ill and died before they even managed to leave England.
What can I say? It’s a visually beautiful movie. Not stunning in the way that “The Fall” was, but a cinematographic masterpiece in its own right. But the plot is not particularly compelling, and the script completely fails to pick up where the plot left off, with its insistence on voiceover and short, nonexpository dialogue. And the editing doesn’t help things, as I’ve pointed out above at least three instances where I was downright confused as to what was going on. Clearly Malick cared deeply about this film, but outside of the cinematography (and the closing credits, which were very well done, even if the final image was an antiquated map of California) it just doesn’t show, and while it makes a very nice nature film it needed a bit more care, and a bit more emotional resonance, to be a movie. At least, that’s how I felt.