Tag Archives: The New World

10 Films for Lent

A few years ago I thought it would an interesting challenge to think of films that reflected the heart of the season of Advent. You can see that list of “10 Films for Advent” here. This year I decided to create a similar list for Lent. What makes a film “Lenten”? As I thought about it, I first thought of images: films of desert, spartan landscapes; faces of lament and suffering; gray and drab color palettes. Then I thought of tone:  somber, contemplative, quiet, yet with a glimmer of hope or a moment of catharsis. Finally I thought of themes: suffering, isolation, hunger, penance, hope. I came up with the list below (in alphabetical order).

Ballast (2008): Lance Hammer’s debut film is a quiet (indeed, sometimes silent) look at the hard times of a downtrodden family in Mississippi. Amidst the film’s pervasive squalor, destitution, and grim grayness, there is an affirmation of life and a building towards hope. It’s a film about people on the brink getting a second chance, gradually finding their bearings and ballast as they move through the mire of life’s hard knocks.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951): French director Robert Bresson’s Priest charts the everyday struggles of a young priest trying his best to follow God’s will in shepherding a small parish in rural France. Quiet, contemplative, lonely, quotidian and yet transcendent (Paul Schrader would say), Priest is a gorgeous picture of a devoted-yet-imperfect believer leaning on God in the mundane isolation of modern life.

Gerry (2002): Gus Van Sant’s avant garde film is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving deserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet the film is utterly spellbinding. The desolate, waterless wilderness is ominous but strangely beautiful.

Hunger (2008): The debut feature from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Hunger is a raw, visceral depiction of IRA leader Bobby Sands’ 1981 prison hunger strike. Less political than existential, Hunger is about self-imposed suffering for a cause. Bleak, brutal, hard to watch, Hunger nevertheless ends with a note of hope/catharsis.

Into Great Silence (2007): Philip Gröning’s film is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But all of this is appropriate for a documentary about the ascetic life of monks. The film, like Lent, is quiet, contemplative, beautiful in its simplicity and a truly worshipful experience.

L’enfant (2005): I was debating which Dardenne brothers film to include here, because I think many of their films have a Lenten feel to them. I chose L’enfant (The Child) because of its cold, stark tone and its exploration of sin, suffering and penance. The “penance” part comes really only as a hint, in the final cathartic minutes, but what a powerful climax it is.

The New World (2005): Terrence Malick’s The New World centers on the story of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), whose journey in the film is decidedly Lenten. At one point she has her own “ashes to ashes” moment when she covers her face in ash and dirt as she grieves the supposed death of John Smith. She undergoes profound suffering in the film but is beautifully resilient, learning from every up and down and growing “towards the light” like a tree even when a branch breaks off.

Of Gods and Men (2011): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in hostile world. It’s a film about joy in suffering, and the beauty of picking up one’s cross in pursuit of Christ.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): This silent masterpiece from Danish director Carl Dreyer provides an amazingly artful and moving account of the suffering and martyrdom of Joan of Arc. Shot almost entirely in close-up, the film’s striking images—especially Joan’s face—are gripping and evoke the holy, even in their spartan simplicity.

The Road (2009): John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is a dark, gray, horrifying film about suffering and survival in a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. This was actually the first film that came to mind when I thought about “Lenten films.” As dark and painful as the film is to watch, there is a quietness and slowness to it that engenders contemplation. And though 90% of the film feels like Good Friday, its hopeful ending nods in direction of Easter.

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To the Wonder

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Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder, released last week in select theaters, as well as on demand and on iTunes. It’s a characteristically visceral experience of a film, meaning I STRONGLY suggest you try to see it on the big screen rather than on a computer screen. See here for theater release schedule. 

I have been following Malick’s career with great interest for more than 15 years (basically since I saw The Thin Red Line in 1998), and have written quite a bit about the man and his films. See here, here, here, here and here for a sampling.

So it was with great pleasure that Christianity Today gave me the opportunity to write a lengthy review essay about the film, in which I synthesize the themes and cinematic vision of Malick’s larger body of work by a taking a close look at To the Wonder (which I’ve already seen three times). Below is one section of the review, but if you have a bit of time and you’re a fan of Malick, I’d strongly suggested reading the whole thing.

To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It’s no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil’s own cell phone camera (as they travel by train “to the Wonder”). It’s the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; “All things shining” (The Thin Red Line).

Malick’s camera has a particular gaze. He spends more time than most on almost gratuitous beauty (puffy clouds, swimming turtles, beautiful hands). And his lens lingers on the mundane: empty rooms, walls, appliances, even a laptop displaying a Skype conversation. Everything is interesting to Malick.

Everything except himself. In both To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the actors portraying the adult Malick (Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, respectively) come across as passive observers—quiet, contemplative, almost awkward bystanders in the movie. They are fitting representations of a man who seems far more comfortable paying attention to the world around him than bringing attention to himself.

Much has been made of Malick’s tendency to hire big-name actors for his films, shoot tons of footage, and then leave them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors ultimately cut out completely from To the Wonder. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from the big-ego actor’s point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos.

In this, Malick is suggesting that it’s far more important for us to see well rather than to be well seen. Insofar as cinema has a purpose, it should not be about audiences glorifying actors or actors glorifying themselves, as much as creating an environment of focused vision and contemplation wherein the beauty of this world confronts and perhaps transforms the audience.

The whole of Malick’s oeuvre seems to be a call to put aside our hubris and wake to the Divine all around us. Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life “wanted to be loved because I was great,” but by the end of the film he recognizes that he was foolish for paying no attention to “the glory all around us . . . I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

But when Malick speaks of being awakened to the “glory all around us,” what does he mean? Is it a sort of pantheistic deification of nature? A deistic affirmation of some vague, removed divinity? With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder, I am convinced that he is speaking of “the glory” of the world not in the sense of being the thing to be worshipped but as pointer to the Being to be worshipped, namely the Christian God. To adopt this way of seeing is to engage with external activators of the sensus divinitatis built into our very being—an innate proclivity to suspect God’s existence.

Read the full review at Christianity Today. I’d also suggest you read this fascinating piece on Malick’s filmmaking process for To the Wonder.

Advent & Malick

Terrence Malick has never made a Christmas film, but I think his films, collectively, have a lot to say to us as we meditate on the meaning of Advent. Before you groan and say, “here McCracken goes about Malick again,” let me explain.

At it’s core, Advent is a season in limbo, in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a season about eschatological longing as much as it is about nostalgic joy for the Incarnation of God as man. It’s about longing for and awaiting the coming kingdom, the restoration of creation to a state of shalom and fully realized glory. A key word is “restoration,” for within the mystery of Advent is a deeply felt longing and remembrance of that original Eden, so long ago lost and yet made possible again in Christ.

In many ways, Advent is about existing in between two paradises. One lost. One still to come. Both are ever present in the believer’s consciousness, as persistent reminders of fallenness intermingle with persistent, grace-filled interjections of hope. And it is here that I think Malick’s cinematic vision has much to offer.

Consider his most recent film, 2011’s Tree of Life, which very literally depicts an original paradise (at least the creation of it) and a eschatological one (which, even if just a reverie or dream, is still very much an eschatological vision of Shalom restored). The Bible begins and ends with the “Tree of Life” (in Eden and in the Revelation 22 New Jerusalem), and in many ways the film echoes this bookended structure, with the middle section being the story of existence–struggling between sin/nature and redemption/grace–writ small in a tiny Texas town. In Tree of Life, Malick’s characters experience that Advent tension between darkness and innocence lost on one hand and a coming reconciliation/restoration of goodness on the other.

Malick’s other films reflect similar themes. In Badlands, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Adam/Eve type characters who “fall” and are banished from Eden, shamed in their fallenness and yet curiously moved by the beauty of life around them, even on the run. Days of Heaven features similar themes of shamed sinners in search of redemptive paradise and a fresh start in the picturesque wheat fields of West Texas. In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel) opens the film in paradise, on tropical beaches and indigo blue waters in Papau New Guinea. But then the reality of sin sets in, and war and death; everything is changed, and yet Witt still sees a spark of glory. The film ends with images of Witt once again in paradise, and the rest of the soldiers on a boat leaving the horrors of Guadalcanal, heading to some new shores of a better world.

Malick’s next film, The New World, picks up that image by opening with colonists on a boat, landing on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia: the New World. But as with Malick’s other films, the Edenic idealism of this “new beginning” paradise is disrupted soon by famine, war, and a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas that doesn’t last. And yet as the film goes on, something keeps pushing Pocahontas on, in spite of great shame and hardship. Glimpses of glory call her forth, giving her reasons to hope; perhaps the best is indeed still to come.

An inherent aching for Eden persists in each of Malick’s films, as each character instinctively strives for a fresh start in the midst of our brokenness. Indeed, I think every human feels this. Time and time again we fail, and yet some animating spirit of good keeps us on track, keeps us striving for the best, between the two trees.

This is what Advent is about: a hope that keeps us going, keeps us exploring, creating, cultivating, loving, making order out of chaos. It’s the lingering instinct of our created purpose; it’s the impact of the Incarnation: the Divine Creator come down to creation to redeem mankind and succeed where Adam failed, providing an example of humanity as it was created to be.

If Easter is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Advent is about the curious thing that happened next. Jesus didn’t stay on earth to rule his kingdom. He ascended unto heaven and left his followers–the church, animated by the Holy Spirit–to carry the torch of kingdom work, to long and ache for Jesus’ promised return but in the meantime to strive to be the humans we were meant to be, to spread the good news, to resist evil, to order creation and bring about flourishing.

Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It’s Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.

The New World

In some ways, The New World serves as the perfect lead in to Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. Why? Because TREES are a major theme of World. Yes, trees.

Throughout World, Malick’s fourth film, trees are an essential image and metaphor. Early in the film, trees anchor the boats as the European colonists arrive. At the end, tree comprise the final shot. We look upward at a towering cathedral of trees, and then the film ends with the delicate drop of a leaf.

There’s something sacred about trees. On his “Gospel of Trees” website, Alan Jacobs writes this:

The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.

“Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds,” says one character in The New World to Pocahontas. “If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching towards the light.” The New World is about resiliency—about pushing on amidst hardship, pain, suffering, and striving to make the best of one’s circumstance. Trees are like that—always growing, pulled toward the sky, even when winds and rain and hardship come. They weather all seasons, even if they lose some pieces along the way. And this is the journey of Pocahontas; the journey of life. We’re all familiar.

The New World begins where the Malick’s previous film, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, ended: with a boat of weary men escaping a brutal past and hoping for a new start. Though Line is set some 335 years after World, both films evoke a vision of humanity’s quest to transcend imperfect circumstance and begin anew. It is a sentiment of man’s soul that has driven him since he lost Eden. How do we regain what was given us? Can we ever reach those distant shores and “exchange this false life for a true one”?

That question is posed by explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell), in World.  Smith arrives on the shores of a new start in 1607, ushering in the critical confluence of native and European cultures that painfully birthed what would eventually become a great nation. Smith is determined to make “a fresh beginning where the blessings of earth are bestowed upon all,” and he takes up an Emersonian-style residence with the native Powhatan tribe (mirroring Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line). Following the familiar myth/fact legend, Smith soon falls in love with the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas (stunningly portrayed by  Q’Orianka Kilcher), and lives a beautiful period of utopian bliss.

The first act of World features a peaceful, “calm before the storm” ambiance. We know it is transitory and that something will soon disrupt the balance, but for a time all is well and transcendence is near. The New World fulfills its promise for Smith in the beginning, but soon the reality of war, destitution and man’s ailment (sin) spoils the garden. Paradise is lost, though glimpses of what was, or what could be, are always apparent.

The film’s chief tension lies in the love triangle that develops between Pocahontas, Smith and John Rolfe (Christian Bale). When Smith is pulled away from his mythic romance with Pocahontas and called back to England, tobacco-pioneer Rolfe takes over as Pocahontas’ suitor. The two men epitomize different poles of a familiar dynamic—fleeting, reckless joy (Smith) on one hand and more stable, long-term security (Rolfe) on the other. The film’s bittersweet resolution to this tension reveals a sort of “living in spite of” theme. Pocahontas might have preferred John Smith to Rolfe, just as she’d probably have opted for a continued life among the Powhatans rather than the Europeans, but she must cope with the circumstances in which she finds herself. She must take inspiration from trees, which keep growing even when branches fall off. She is a metaphor for America: an ever changing, flexible experiment that must adapt to survive, concede setbacks and allow for dissent and frustration in order to move forward.

From the breathtaking opening minutes of the film, an extended montage sequence of sensory crescendo (to the music of Wagner’s Das Rheingold prologue… repeated again in the middle, and end of the film), we know that World is not a conventional film. We do suspect it is a Terrence Malick film, however, and during the next two+ hours of 65mm nature photography, hushed voiceovers, elliptical editing, jump-cut storytelling, hyper-attentive sound and scarcely little dialogue, we become convinced of this fact.

In 2005, Malick made a rare appearance at a December 26, 2005 screening of World in his (rumored) hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and actually fielded a few questions. The artist suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.”

A film like this cannot be read like a book. It is not as black and white as your average American history lesson. Malick understands that America is more complex than that; that existence is more than one nation’s mythology; that any “New World” is not an end to the journey. The Virginian shore was just the beginning for Smith and the other early settlers. The New World is, as Malick told the Bartlesville audience, above all a story of hope: “Maybe the true shore is still yet to be discovered.”

Notes on The New World Extended Director’s Cut

People who frequent this blog know very well that Terrence Malick’s The New World is high on my list of the happiest things on earth. It’s a film that I’ve probably watched 20 times over the past three years, each time relishing anew the truth, beauty, and catharsis it offers. Imagine my utter glee, then, when it was announced that a new director’s extended cut of the film was to be released this fall on DVD. I was beside myself.

Well, that release day came this past Tuesday, and I happily purchased the DVD for $15.99 on Amazon. I urge all Malick fans to do the same. If you liked The New World as it was seen in theaters in 2006, you will love the extended version, which has about 40 minutes of added footage.

There are now three versions of the film that I’ve seen. There was a cut screened for critics in December of 2005 (approximately 150 minutes), the cut released in theaters (135 minutes), and now the new cut (172 minutes). Each is beautiful and complete, but I have to say that this latest, longest version is to me the definitive, canonical version.

It is clear that this cut was indeed fashioned by Malick himself. It isn’t simply a re-insertion of deleted scenes or a series of elongated scenes that had been previously snipped for length. No, there are many noticeable changes to the flow and texture of the film, all for the better. Here are a few things that the new cut includes:

  • Intertitles. This is the most striking addition, and one that I loved. About 7 or 8 times throughout the film, Malick inserts intertitles that segment the film in new and interesting ways. The effect is occasionally informative for the narrative’s chronology (i.e. “London, 1614”), but frequently it is more poetic (“A Secret Crop,” “The Return of the Floating Islands,” etc). The insertion of these chapter breakdowns lends more credence to the theory that Malick is over-the-moon in love with silent cinema. His films, after all, are way more about image than dialogue, and certainly in The New World this is the case. The intertitles here feel very silent-film esque—framing the action and giving a “what’s next” sense and flow to an otherwise free-flowing film. In any case, I really liked this addition.
  • Added Wagner sequence. In the two previous versions, there are 3 immensely epic sequences set to Wagner’s monstrous Das Rheingold prologue. In this latest cut, there is a fourth! This one takes place at around the 1 hour 19 minute mark, and lasts a little over a minute. It introduces a new segment of Das Rheingold that we haven’t heard in any other version of the movie, as well as images of Pocahontas by a roaring river that are beautiful, new, and totally appropriate.
  • Lots more voiceover fragments. Voiceovers have been crucial in all of Malick’s films, but in The New World they take on a whole new feel—more fragmentary, more poetic, fluidly incoherent. They are seemingly random assemblages of thoughts and words, but reflective of how we actually think (i.e. not in complete or sensical sentences). This is only amplified in the extended cut, with many more layered whisperings and ponderous murmurs uttered in voiceover, which, combined with the other cinematic rhythms of sounds and image, make for a truly breathtaking and unique viewing experience.

The Best News of the Year

Okay, so that may be an overstatement, but for me, this is HUGE:

Terrence Malick’s long-awaited director’s cut of The New World is coming out on DVD October 14!!!

Reportedly the film is 30 minutes longer and hand-crafted by Malick himself. This is 15 minutes longer than the forever-lost version that was screened for critics in December 2005 (which I saw). In addition to offering Malick-philes a chance to see more heartbreakingly beautiful footage of what is arguably his most stunning film, the DVD will include a ten-part “making-of” documentary. I wonder if recluse Malick will show himself in the behind-the-scenes footage? Doubtful.

Anyway, I just had to share this exciting news. Coupled with the knowledge that a new Malick film (Tree of Life) is just around the corner, this latest news more than compensates for the 8 year drought I suffered in between The Thin Red Line and The New World.