Where Will We Live? Terrence Malick's Fugitive Edens
Again and again, Terrence Malick’s films rehearse, in ways both literal and figurative, one of the oldest and most abiding stories in myth and literature.
In late May of this year Terrence Malick will release his fifth feature film, titled The Tree of Life. The trailer indicates that it has all the hallmarks of Malick's aesthetic vision and directorial practice -- foremost stunning cinematography, meditative voiceovers, and a plot structure perhaps best described as lyrical rather than traditionally dramatic. Moreover, while it's obviously risky to judge the content of a film from a two-minute trailer The Tree of Life also appears to be of a piece thematically with Malick's other films.
After all, via a voiceover spoken by Jessica Chastain (as the mother of the young boy who is the film's protagonist) we are given this claim: “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace." This and early press about the film that summarizes it as an account of the “loss of innocence" of a young boy growing up in 1950s America suggest that the film contemplates an essential divide in human nature between the pragmatic necessity for survival and a kind of original state of wonder.
This will hardly come as a surprise to enthusiasts of Malick's work. Indeed, I will argue that even though Malick's films are set in profoundly different times and places -- ranging, for example, from early 17th century America to the Pacific theater of the second World War -- taken all together they present essentially the same story; or more specifically, they are installments of a career-long fascination with the archetypal narrative of a transformation from a state of innocence to one of experience. For again and again Malick's films rehearse, in ways both literal and figurative, one of the oldest and most abiding stories in myth and literature: the expulsion of human beings from a kind of paradise, an expulsion that in Malick's work is emblematic of humanity's painful estrangement from a state of transcendent union with the larger world and, indeed, with the cosmos.
This is not to say, however, that Malick is simply a wistful dreamer offering gorgeous but plaintive encomia to states of lost perfection. Certainly, some features of Malick's works can support such a view; it's no accident that words like “Edenic" and “idyllic" proliferate in commentary on the films, especially in reference to the villages of the Powhatan tribe in 2005's The New World or the tropical island of the Melanesian people in 1998's The Thin Red Line or the vast farm in the Texas panhandle where the better part of Days of Heaven (1978) is set. Each offers, for a time at least, a vision of relative social harmony and human life integrated, however so precariously, with the natural world rather than at odds with it.
What saves Malick's films from being artfully crafted exercises in nostalgia for prelapsarian perfection, however, is their willingness to recognize that any such vision is not simply fragile but also in a sense delusional -- this for two reasons. First, the relationship between the beauty and purity of certain landscapes and the inward states of the characters who move through or inhabit those landscapes is not one of simple correspondence between personal virtue and beneficent environment. In fact, the desire to escape the mundane world and its demands can coincide with a profoundly disturbed, indeed psychopathic, worldview.
Second, and by extension, Malick's Edens do not exist prior to individual indiscretion or crime or, for that matter, the tribulations of history. They are unstable refuges that shelter both admirable and ignoble people, virtuous and criminal characters. They are, in other words, sometimes the recourse of the desperate and damaged and they bear the imprint of those who find them. We can start to get a better sense of the problematic nature of states of grace by looking at scenes from the films that currently bookend Malick's career, Badlands (1972) and The New World (2005).
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In the advent of open conflict between English settlers and the natives toward the midpoint of The New World, the young daughter of the native leader (who in certain respects closely resembles the historical Pocahontas) proposes to her lover John Smith that they flee their respective communities to escape the oncoming violence. Smith looks forlorn and replies with equal parts sorrow and cynicism: "Where would we live? In the woods? In a treetop? A hole in the ground?" Crestfallen, Pocahontas runs from Smith who, for his part, turns back to the fort where the settlers fearfully await an attack by the "naturals". The exchange both anticipates the end of Smith's and Pocahontas' relationship and marks the beginning of the eventual displacement of the native tribes by European settlers.
I will return to the historical consequences of European colonization but for the moment I want to note that Smith's and Pocahontas's brief conversation echoes an extended sequence in Badlands. That film, loosely based on the crimes of Charlie Starkweather, presents the love affair and killing spree of Kit Carruthers and his teenage girlfriend Holly Sargis as they traverse the Midwestern United States in the early '50s.
Like Pocahontas and Smith, Holly and Kit share a powerful mutual passion discouraged by larger society. More significantly, Badlands presents the very vision of a life removed from the larger world and its conflicts and catastrophes that Smith dismisses as childish fantasy. After fleeing Lincoln, Nebraska, Kit and Holly set up camp in a forest, an experience that Holy describes thus: "We hid out in the wilderness down by the river in a grove of cottonwoods. It bein' the flood season we built our house in the trees..." and, later, "I grew to love the forest." Given the obvious correspondences between the scenes one might be tempted to understand Smith's rejection of Pocahontas' invitation to run away together as Malick's revision, repudiation even, of a kind of youthful naiveté or belief in the possibility of a life unfettered by the constraints of society. What, after all, is a tree-house but the embodiment of children's dreams of escaping the adult world with all its rules and obligations?
The problem with this interpretation, though, is that it ignores the unnerving dimension of Kit's and Holly's idyll in the forest. The two have fled Lincoln after Kit's cold-blooded murder of Holly's father, who has forbidden her from seeing Kit. If he and Holly are a kind of fugitive Adam and Eve, the only man and woman in their isolated little world, they have already committed a terrible crime. And everywhere we see the residue of that crime and the society in which it was committed -- a toaster that Kit takes from Holly's father's house, a painting hanging crookedly on the wall of their shelter, a small mirror. In short, Kit and Holly are, at best, trying to reclaim some essential innocence rather than protect against its loss.
That innocence, however, is problematic not only because of Kit's and Holly's crime but also because it is pretty silly. The forest is essentially a giant playground where Kit acts out a little boy's fantasy of being an Indian by spending his days running around shirtless and clutching a rifle, a bandana tied around his brow. For her part, Holly plays house, doing chores and putting on makeup. I do not think that Kit's and Holly's immaturity exists at odds with their crimes; rather, Kit's murderousness and Holly's collusion epitomize their immaturity. (Along the same lines, I don't think the gleefulness of the music incorporated into the film -- which includes the pop classic "Love Is Strange" and, repeatedly, excerpts from Carl Orff's "Musica Poetica" -- serves as mere ironic commentary on the terrible crimes the couple commits. It suggests that on some profound level Kit and Holly are having a really good time, utterly untroubled or unperturbed by the horrors for which they're responsible.)
Martin Sheen as Kit in Badlands (1973) (IMDB)
At the same, while we should be wary of understanding the film as an indictment of '50s America or viewing Kit and Holly as simply the symptoms of some larger disease, we should acknowledge that their fantasies are not idiosyncratic. Rather, they draw on the archetypes that inhabit the American mind. After all, when he's not playing Indian, Kit -- in appearance and mannerism at least -- is the very image of the cowboy: lean, laconic, clad in blue jeans and cowboy boots. They key term here, though, is appearance. Kit's boots are for show, all shiny leather and ornamentation, the stuff of delusion. The point is brought home early in the film when Kit goes to work at a feed lot -- after telling Holly he's going to be a "cowboy" -- and finds the actual work tedious, depressing, and brutal. In short, it is nothing like the romanticized life on the open range that Kit presumably has in mind when he tells Holly about his new job.
Importantly, Holly and Kit are not the only ones living in a fantasy world, not the only ones whose pleasant or unremarkable outward appearance conceals an inclination to malice. The home where Holly has grown up is full of the stuff of prosperous middle class life -- fine furniture, ornate lamps, appliances (including that toaster that Kit insists on taking with them to the forest) -- but this seemingly genteel appearance is a cover for, or at least coincides with, paternal tyranny. Holly's father, after all, shoots Holly's dog as punishment for her relationship with Kit and this may be intended to resonate with the suggestion at the outset of the film that Kit poisons dogs along his garbage route (after coming across a dead dog on the route Kit dares his coworker to eat it; we then see Kit throwing a scrap of food into the yard of a barking dog).
Is all of this simply indictment of the bourgeois? Possibly, though I think its implications are larger. Past a penchant for cruelty Kit and Holly's father are alike in their dubious relationship to reality. Mr. Sargis is a commercial artist -- a sign painter -- whose work appears to consist mostly of advertisements, the most significant of which we see when Kit confronts him on a lonely stretch of road. Holly's father is painting a billboard for "Kauzer's Feed and Grain." The scene it depicts -- with its perfectly straight rows of bright green plants, happily milling chickens, frisky horses, and bright yellow farmhouse -- is so idealized as to be laughable.
At the very least, the cartoonish images bear no resemblance to the lot where Kit works -- the place where Kauzer's products, or something like them, are consumed. There "healthy" cattle stagger around dusty pens and gorge themselves at feed troughs while diseased cattle struggle futilely to raise themselves from the ground. The billboard offers a fantasy image of the product it advertises as, in a sense, do all advertisements. Here though the discrepancy between the happy small farm depicted on the billboard and the industrial feedlot is not only ridiculous but deeply disturbing.
The implicit similarities between Holly's father and Kit should not, however, lead us to overlook their differences. Mr. Sargis trades in idealized images for the sake of personal profit -- it's his business after all. Kit trades in idealized images for, well, for what exactly? He's not really greedy; when, for example, he steals a rich man's car later in the film he does so out of necessity. Whatever his sociopathic tendencies Kit is not compelled to accumulate things. As Holly says of him, he likes to travel light (a football that Kit shoots while parked at the side of road being one example of the kind of extraneous stuff that he can do without). What Kit seems to desire is a life more richly charged with excitement and significance than his jobs and life in a small town Nebraska can provide.
That being said, there's little room in the film for the viewer to admire what we might call Kit and Holly's romantic dreams. Not only are they profoundly childish in their fantasies, they also fail to learn any ethical lessons from their experience. They express no remorse for the murders they've committed or colluded in. Moreover, their imaginations, for all their rebellion, are profoundly limited. They reject the society that rejects their relationship and they reject at least some of its conventions but they are still constituted of some its essential desires.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end of the film. The law eventually catches up to Kit -- but only after Holly indicates to him that she no longer loves him (it's as if their mutual infatuation is a kind of protective magic that enables them to elude the police and once it's gone they are subject again to the world beyond themselves). Kit's eventual capture presents a veritable mishmash of archetypal images. The police pursue him in a helicopter while he sprints away clutching a scrap of iron like a shield and firing his gun wildly -- a kind of paladin gunslinger facing a machine dragon. And of course the subsequent car chase is simply an updated version of that standby of Westerns in which the posse, here in the form of a police cruiser, chases the outlaw over endless dusty plains.
As it turns out, though, Kit's capture is the best the thing that has ever happened to him. Beginning with the comment by one of the arresting officers that he resembles James Dean, Kit finds himself in a world of celebrity and attention that he only dreamed of in his heretofore obscure and unremarkable life. It is not in the woods, living with Holly, that Kit finds his longings for attention and larger-than-life significance fulfilled. It's in the world whose laws and customs he has violated. The final image of the film is gorgeous and an early example of the astonishing panoramic visual sense that Malick developed in his later films: a small plane rises above a layer clouds into an expanse of golden sunlight. This plane carries Kit to his trial and, presumably subsequent execution, but its grim destination cannot detract from the transcendent notoriety that Kit has apparently happily achieved.
Days of Heaven
Malick's second film Days of Heaven (1977) most obviously echoes Badlands in the narrative arc of crime followed by the search for and transitory inhabitation of an Edenic space. Bill flees Chicago along with his lover Abby and younger sister, Linda, after an altercation in which Bill kills the foreman at the factory where he works. Again, violation and transgression, original sin as it were, precedes the discovery of a seemingly more innocent existence. The trio flees the dingy, smoke-infested city and seeks work as migrant agricultural laborers, eventually finding employment on a vast wheat farm in Texas. Along with hundreds of other workers, travelling in wagons and on foot, they file onto the farm.
To emphasize the sense that his characters are moving from one world and one way of being to another, Malick has the migrant workers pass through a wooden archway that straddles the road leading into the farm. It bears noting that the archway, little more than skeletal scaffolding, serves no practical purpose since there is no fence around the farm; it doesn't really keep anyway out nor anyone in. The archway is purely symbolic, a marker between the bad old past that Bill and company, and the other workers, want to escape and the better future they hope to find.
Life certainly seems better than whatever hard fate Bill would have suffered if he'd remained in Chicago. Yet for all its beauty the farm can hardly be called a paradise. The work is enormously strenuous; strife between workers is common if not rampant; and everywhere there are machines -- early tractors and threshers -- that threaten to make human labor obsolete. Perhaps most significantly there is the enormous disparity in wealth between the farmer who owns the land and the workers who tend it. All of the visual richness on display in scenes on the farm should remind us that in the world of the film it exists to make one man very wealthy.
In other ways the film encourages ambivalence on the part of the viewer. There is a kind of rich aesthetic and thematic chiaroscuro throughout the portion of the film that takes place on the farm. Lingering shots of the landscape that evoke Thomas Hart Benton's images of bucolic splendor -- endless fields of wheat billowing voluptuously in the wind, small human figures performing their labor in the foreground of vast expanses of blue sky -- alternate with shots of impoverished workers (sitting atop trains, gathered around a fire to eat their meals) that recall Dorothea Lange's black and white images of pinch-faced and stoic itinerants in Depression-era America. There are, then, two stories of the land, and human beings' relation to it, present in the film and each, I would suggest, is true even if they are essentially contradictory.
Days of Heaven (1978) (IMDB)
Still, while the farm can hardly be described as idyllic the landscape is an improvement over the industrial wasteland of Chicago (though, again, the loud, smoke-belching farm machinery that features so prominently in many scenes suggests that it's just a matter of time before the city and the country are, in terms of their economic foundations, essentially indistinguishable). For the time being, though, the work, hard as it is, follows a natural pattern and after the harvest is in the workers have money and time enough to celebrate. They play music and dance and drink and generally while away the hours in the advent of the next cycle of labor.
In contrast to the deeply communal, if not always harmonious, life of the workers stands the lonely, indeed nearly utterly solitary, life of the farmer. He is practically a specter on his own land -- a tall, gaunt, shadow dressed in a black suit. He is also terminally ill, though the nature of his illness is never disclosed. Whatever his physical problems may be, it's safe to say that he suffers from a terrible existential loneliness.
The cure for his loneliness is his love for Abi, whom Bill persuades to marry the farmer so that she, he, and Linda may share in his wealth and inherit it after the farmer dies. The plan works well enough for awhile -- except that the farmer's condition doesn't get worse. He just keeps living (as if Abi's companionship has arrested the course of whatever ails him) and the awkward family constituted of him, Abi, and Linda enjoys a fine life of swimming, playing baseball, picnicking, and so on. As Linda says, "Nothin' to do all day but crack jokes, lay around . . . we didn't have to work. I'm tellin' you, the rich got it figured out." At the same time, the scenes of halcyon good times are juxtaposed with more sinister images. At one point Linda flips through a picture book and pauses over a depiction of gigantic snake sliding through a primordial jungle, an image that both serves as an emblem of the crime that brought the trio to the farm and foreshadows the crime to come.
That crime is Bill's killing of the farmer during a confrontation about the true nature of Bill's and Abi's relationship. The murder is not premeditated -- it might even be described as self-defense -- but it is also a manifestation of the seething resentment that Bill feels toward the farmer, especially since Abi has fallen in love with him. Here, as elsewhere, Biblical antecedents come to mind but never but never quite coalesce -- or at least do not conform to an exact template. Before this moment a plague of locusts has come to the farm and only a holocaust of fire can arrest their advance, obviously recalling Exodus. In Bill's murder of the farmer, who is supposed to be his brother-in-law, there are traces of the story of Cain and Abel, though here it is as an itinerant Abel who murders Cain the farmer. And, of course, the trio's departure from the farm after the murder is an expulsion from a kind of Eden.
The film, then, doubles the crime and flight narrative trajectory that first appears in Badlands. First, Bill, Abby, and Linda flee Chicago to take up residence on the farm and then they flee the farm (exiting, of course, through the gateway presented earlier) and set off for a life of footloose wandering. They're rich enough, by virtue of selling jewelry and other items taken from the farmer's house, not to have to work (for awhile at least) and their only concern is getting caught. As in Badlands the soundtrack that accompanies their journey, comprised of folk guitar music, is positively joyous. The world to which they flee is more carefree and unconstrained by obligation than even life at its best on the farm. As Roger Ebert suggested in his initial review of the film, these may be the film's purest "days of heaven," not the time on the farm.
As in Badlands, though, the flight from law and order, from the larger world of social obligation, cannot last. In place of Kit's prospective execution at the end of Badlands, Days of Heaven ends with a posse of lawmen shooting Bill. This leaves Abby and Linda on their own and they quickly part ways. Abby jumps a troop train (World War I has begun) to pursue a life whose course is completely unknown. Abby leaves Linda at a boarding school but the last image of the film is of Linda and a friend wandering along a railroad track, perhaps an indication that theirs will be an unsettled, vagrant existence. If so, it will -- presumably -- be much less happy than the interim between the departure from the farm and Bill's death.
After Days of Heaven, 20-plus years transpired before Malick's next directorial effort appeared. Whatever other significance the hiatus may have, it does allow any retrospective of Malick's career to group his four films into convenient pairs. This isn't an entirely arbitrary grouping though. Beyond the temporal proximity of Badlands and Days of Heaven and, later, The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World, each pair has strong thematic consonances. Most strikingly -- and most problematically -- the latter two seem to present a more naïve, a more simplistic vision than the earlier films. Indeed, in both The Thin Red Line and The New World the division between prelapsarian and postlapsarian worlds is so stark that it must be meant to invite skepticism -- either this or Malick has, over the course of his career, become a less rather than more sophisticated artist.
The Thin Red Line begins with Private Witt wandering about a Melanesian village during a stint of being AWOL from the United States Army. The scenes here are so idyllic -- featuring the local inhabitant singing and dancing and playing games -- that at least one critic has described them as “cloying." It's a fair accusation but it's perhaps helpful to think of the opening not so much as an objective presentation of reality as a manifestation of Witt's essentially positive and innocent vision of the world. For he will return to the same village, after a significant battle, and discover nothing but disease and conflict and unhappiness.
As Bill Schaeffer writes, "The waters of the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line are cleansing, baptismal . . . Water envelopes the body, yet leaves it free of gravity: suddenly you can move up, down, around, over and through yourself. These virginal associations are later inverted, also made to show another face. The life of the natives will be seen for the first time as full of superstition, death and sickness, perhaps as a result of contact, perhaps as a revelation that here too there have always been two worlds at war with each other."
Clearly, Witt's experiences determine his perspective and the initial, wholly positive vision of the Melanesians is quite literally one half of the picture. I would suggest that this is true for the viewer as well as for Witt. Even at the outset of The Thin Red Line Malick complicates the depiction of what follows; the very first shot of the film is of a crocodile in all its reptilian menace slipping into brownish water. Other signs of a fallen world occur throughout the film -- a serpentine column of smoke rising from the smokestack of a battleship for example -- and taken together they suggest that destruction, violence, pain are not a corruption of creation but its predicate.
The question, then, is what kind of person is best equipped to succeed in this essentially divided world. At first glance, the basic antagonism of the film is between Lt. Edward Welsh and Witt; after all, Welsh is the officer who disciplines Witt after he has gone AWOL telling him, “. . . in this world a man himself is nothin' and there ain't no world but this one . . . ." He is essentially a nihilistic pragmatist who insists that self-preservation is the only rational goal. Witt replies, “You're wrong there, top. I seen another world." Presumably he means the world of the Melanesian villagers but, more generally, we can assume that he has a vision of existence completely at odds with the destruction wrought by the massive conflict in which he is a bit player.
The Thin Red Line
As it turns out, Welsh and Witt are not nearly so diametrically opposed as they first appear. Welsh's willingness to risk his life to deliver morphine to a dying companion suggests the he is not as indifferent to his fellow human beings as he claims and he seems to have a grudging admiration for the purity of Witt's vision, even if he cannot share it. It is, after all, Welsh who memorializes Witt after the latter's death toward the end of the film.
If not Welsh then who is Witt's foil in the film? The best candidate is Lt. Col. Gordon Tall. Witt is, well, kind of a half-wit; but his lack of calculation and craft, his profound compassion and innocence, make him akin to one of Dostoyevsky's holy fools -- Aloysha in The Brothers Karamazov or Prince Mishkin in The Idiot. In contrast, Tall is callous, careerist, arrogant, and occasionally cruel (though it should be noted that the unsympathetic portrait is mitigated if not absolved by the information received via voiceover that he has been humiliatingly passed over for advancement). It's probably not an accident that more than a few scenes featuring Witt are followed by scenes featuring Tall, thereby powerfully juxtaposing Witt's spontaneous goodness with Tall's calculation and ambition.
Should we simply label Tall as the villain of the drama? Perhaps. After all, he sends men to their deaths with no apparent misgivings despite the strident protest of their commanding officer Lieutenant Staros. Afterward, while contemplating the battle and Staros' fitness for duty, Tall claims, "Nature is cruel Staros." Surely this sort of ruthless determination, and the understanding of the world which gives rise to it, anticipates the "way of nature" that The Tree of Life will consider. Before dismissing Tall, though, we should recognize that his decision is crucial in securing victory -- a victory that in historical terms proved enormously consequential in the eventual American defeat of the Japanese forces in the Pacific.
In other words, any successful army depends on men like Tall. A man like Staros, who is full of concern for his men, lacks the hard resolve that wins wars. There is no enduring place in an army for a man like Witt either. He is a good enough soldier, in fact he is enormously courageous, but how much suffering can he witness before he will become hopelessly jaded? The return trip to the Melanesian village, where he sees nothing but suffering, suggests that his belief in "another world" will not long endure the horrors of battle, no matter how sympathetic the gaze he casts on allies and enemies alike.
Fortunately, Witt does not become jaded or cynical; unfortunately, the price is death. While out on a reconnaissance patrol he spots a line of Japanese troops moving along a ridge above a platoon of American soldiers. Sensing that the Americans will be subject to an ambush Witt leads the Japanese troops on a chase through the jungle, thereby earning his fellow soldiers time and alerting them indirectly to the danger they face. The chase concludes with Witt standing in a field surrounded by Japanese troops. What follows is ambiguous but it seems that rather than simply surrendering Witt provokes the Japanese soldiers to fire at him. The scene then cuts to a shot of his fellow shots huddled near a small river listening to the crackle of distant gunfire. Witt's death is both enormously moving and, in the larger scheme of the conflict, relatively unimportant. He is simply another casualty for a man like Captain Tall and it is left to the viewer, and of course Welsh, to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of his vision and to lament its passing.
The Thin Red Line (1998) (IMDB)
While The Thin Red Line depicts in ancillary fashion the effect of historical conflict on a primal society living closely in tune with its environment, the central subject of The New World is the displacement of such a society by an energetic, ambitious, and ruthlessly determined society. In other words, if the way of life of the Melanesian natives is relegated to the background in The Thin Red Line, a version of it and its destruction is center stage in the The New World.
The depiction of native life -- largely seen through the eyes of Smith (who is captured during an expeditionary mission into the interior) -- certainly draws on centuries-old myths of the noble savage, the most recent incarnation of which has appeared in last couple of decades in the form of politically correct homages to native purity such as Dances with Wolves. In other words, the stark contrast between the native village -- simple, sustenance labor, pantheistic religious ritual, communal dancing -- and the fort in which the colonists have ensconced themselves -- plagued by hunger, disease, and social strife -- is pretty heavy-handed. Likewise, Pocahontas is not exactly a complex character but, rather, a kind of archetype of native innocence and spontaneous goodness.
What saves the film from being a simple indictment of rapacious European colonialism is the suggestion that the conflict between the colonists and the natives and the eventual displacement of the latter is inevitable even as it is deeply lamentable. While the English settlers have a precarious purchase on the land in the early going, the film powerfully registers the larger historical trajectory that will facilitate their domination. In a deeply moving scene Opechancanough, ambassador from Pocahontas' father, arrives on a dock in London; he has been ordered to catalogue the number of English he sees by marking a bundle of twigs Overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people he witnesses, Opechancanough simply drops the twigs. The scene suggests that European dominance of America and the destruction of native societies is unavoidable, a matter less of innate technological or other superiority on the part of the Europeans than sheer volume.
At the same, time another way to compass the conflict between the colonists and the natives is to see it as the painful, indeed wrenching, transition from a state of figurative childhood to one of adulthood. I do not want to suggest that The New World is a paean to the march of civilization or progress. It clearly is not. But, as in The Thin Red Line, the larger forces of history are simply inescapable and inexorable; Pocahontas' dream of living away from both the colonists and the natives is a beautiful dream, but it is a dream nonetheless.
The New World
In its place she experiences the more arduous course of a life and despite its difficulties retains an essentially wondrous vision of life. Indeed, it's possible to see in this telling of Pocahontas' story the basic physic of human lives more generally. We first see her swimming in water, as if suspended in the amniotic fluid of the womb, subsequently playing in a field with her brother, and then discovering sexuality in her relationship with Smith. And after he rejects her, she finds a more enduring love in her relationship with John Rolfe, which culminates in marriage and motherhood. Despite the tribulations she experiences, like Witt she retains the ability to see an essential goodness in the world.
If nothing else, this ability makes her deeply adaptable. Taken to England for an audience with the king and queen she is so transformed in dress and appearance as to be nearly unrecognizable. She has gained maturity -- most obviously by recognizing that the compatibility she shares with Rolfe outstrips the passion she once felt for Smith (who visits her in England) -- but she has not become cynical or jaded. The tragic alternative is at least suggested in a scene which presents Opechancanough walking hurriedly through an English formal garden, apparently completely bewildered by the geometric and deeply artificial organization of the environment. The scene portends the terrible fate of many natives in the new world ushered in by colonization, a world whose essential structures, whose very organization of space, is simply incomprehensible. (That scene resonates with an earlier one in which Smith is lost in a swamp, until set upon by natives who are perfectly adept at navigating it).
Of course, however admirable she may be, Pocahontas, like Witt, is not long for this world. She dies young (though not by seventeenth century standards, exactly) and the implication seems to be that the goodness she embodies is simply too fragile to exist for more than a brief period. While the ending of the film is, in a sense, joyous -- it presents a ship sailing through a harbor into a vast expanse of water, presumably toward America, then cuts to a waterfall -- it's difficult to forget that all of the promise it suggests will be cruelly undercut by history. History, though, is not Witt's or Pocahontas's problem. While they witness -- and indeed are participants in -- some of its essential dramas, they are merely passing through. For each, death appears to be the final initiation into innocence, a state where the estranged mind is extinguished and the individual consciousness is freed of its egoism and alienation.
If life's ultimate truth is only realized in death then Malick would appear to be a profoundly pessimistic artist -- or at least one who can only offer cold comfort to the living. Perhaps this is the case but the jury is still out. Presumably The Tree of Life will offer further meditation on this problem but even given the films Malick has made so far it is fair to claim that his vision is not inherently pessimistic. It suggests that grace -- in the sense of a comprehensive and ultimately affirmative experience of the world -- is not the purview of the innocent if we equate innocence with ignorance of the terrible pain, malice, cruelty and duplicity that life contains. Rather, grace is born of the struggle to accept a world that is at once bewildering and beautiful, terrible and awe-inspiring. The question, though, remains: finding grace may be possible, but how long can anyone live with it?
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