“She complained that where in English she could speak with the angels, now she could only ask prices or repeat the news.”
—From The English Speaker, an unproduced screenplay by Terrence Malick
“Your Countriemen will lie much.”
—The last recorded words of Pocahontas to Captain John Smith
About halfway through the first hour of Terrence Malick’s Jamestown epic, The New World (2005), we witness a scene not unfamiliar to stories of contact between distant cultures. The young Indian princess Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), obviously taken with the dashing Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), tries to get him to teach her English. At first, she wants to know the words for the sun, the sea, and the wind. Then, she gets in a little closer, and her queries become more intimate—the eyes, the mouth, the hair. One suspects that the scene holds some importance for Malick: an undated earlier draft of the script for The New World places a variation of it at the very beginning of the film, over the opening credits.
Since he’s so often associated with visual textures and silent characters, Malick’s engagement with language has received relatively little attention. And yet it underpins one of the defining concerns of his work: the notion of expressing the inexpressible. In Malick’s world, language often becomes a kind of prison, driving us further away from the transcendental truths the director’s films have increasingly endeavored to convey.
This is not a new concern. One can find a very early example of the director’s fascination with the limits of language in his pre-cinematic career. As a young philosophy graduate student, Malick translated the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons into English. In his Translator’s Introduction, the future director comments on the difficulty of decoding Heidegger's notoriously odd word choices: "If Heidegger resorts to his own peculiar language, it is because ordinary German does not meet his purposes; and it does not because he has new and different purposes."
These words find an interesting echo more than 20 years later in another Malick work. The English Speaker, an unproduced screenplay Malick labored on in the early '90s, tells a story that, like The New World, reimagines the life of a real historical enigma: Anna O, the female patient treated by Dr. Josef Breuer in 1880s Vienna and later made famous by Sigmund Freud. Breuer diagnosed her paralysis, personality swings, and various other symptoms as hysteria, thus marking the beginning of psychoanalysis. The title refers to one of Anna's strange ailments in the script: her ability to speak English, seemingly out of nowhere. Eventually, we learn that she uses this as a coping mechanism for the fact that the languages she does speak have become corrupted in her eyes:
When he was gone I tried in terror to pray. But the words wouldn't come. My tongue refused to move. It seemed that in every language I knew I had told or heard lies, that every word was weary from deceiving. Then at last I thought of some children's verse in English that I knew. In English I could think and pray. In English I had never spoken to triumph or spoken to wound. I could hear what was true.
Anna's predicament isn't simply that she has been hurt by words. It is that words have alienated her through their connection to both lies and pride: "spoken to triumph or spoken to wound." English not only helps her shed the trappings of self, it reconnects her to the innocence of her childhood—closer, perhaps, to the primordial state of being that Malick's characters increasingly seem to desire. In that sense, English itself probably isn't English at all, but simply an expression of Anna's desire to find a way to hear and speak "what was true."
Naming the World—and Sealing Its Fate
Let's get back to Smith and Pocahontas learning English, though. Surely an innocent exchange of words between two people of distant cultures doesn't in itself suggest any corruption or imprisonment. But these scenes do possess an odd tone. For starters, Smith himself doesn't utter any Algonquian. Only Pocahontas seems to learn any new words—a one-sided cultural exchange that begins with the girl acting out the concept in question, then learning the word for it. The lesson thus gains a reductive quality, one that wouldn't be lost on a student of philosophy like Malick, as Smith brings Pocahontas's natural expressions down to the realm of words. (Is this also why he carries a pained expression throughout most of this scene? After all, Smith himself is a quiet figure, perhaps aware of the wounding power of words.) And while the captain might now be a bit closer to falling in love, he's also bringing catastrophe upon the girl and her people: her closeness to the English will destroy her civilization, and eventually help the colonists gain a stronger foothold on the North American continent. It turns out that all along we've been watching another of Malick's portrayals of the fall from Eden.
Although the filmmakers took great care to recreate the Virginia Algonquian language of the era, Pocahontas's village is largely portrayed as a wordless place, a place of physicality, moods, and celebrations. This may or may not jibe with the historical reality of a Native American settlement in the early 17th century (we'll never really know) but one suspects that, as with the early scenes of Private Witt AWOL among Pacific islanders in The Thin Red Line (1998), this is more Malick's fantasy of the Oversoul—an almost precognitive state where humans exist in harmony with Nature and are one with each other: "Maybe all men got one big soul everyone's a part of...one big self," as Witt himself put it. Malick probably understands that his portrayals of the natives in both these instances don't adhere to historical facts. Rather, he's taken with the poetic possibilities of so-called civilized peoples like the 17th-century English and the 20th-century Americans encountering their former, forgotten selves—their true selves, perhaps—on distant, uncharted shores.
After Smith returns from his sojourn with the Naturals, words come screaming back for vengeance in a remarkable scene of linguistic dislocation. As he wanders back into Jamestown, Smith is immediately accosted by three young boys who speak to him rapidly and simultaneously in thick accents. It's virtually impossible to understand them. The scene has an alienating, surreal quality, as if Smith has lost the ability to comprehend his own tongue after his idyll upriver.
In truth, though he soon becomes president of Jamestown and has to assume the responsibility of trying to keep the colony alive, Smith will spend the rest of the film yearning to shed this identity, and to return to his earthly paradise. As he later puts it, while trading with another tribe, "That fort is not the world. The river leads back there. It leads onward too. Deeper. Into the wild. Start over. Exchange this false life for a true one. Give up the name of Smith."
Smith dreams of abandoning his name; Pocahontas, for her part, is never named, and pointedly so, particularly after she goes to Jamestown to live in semi-captivity after her estrangement from her people.
"My name is Mary. And yours I believe is—"
"Oh no. She says that's not her name anymore. She hasn't got a name."
"How unfortunate. We shall have to give you one."
Pocahontas does eventually get a proper Christian name—Rebecca—and Malick even goes so far as to show us the christening ceremony at which she assumes it. When the colonists reveal Smith's stuck-up nemesis Edward Wingfield (David Thewlis) to be an impostor whose real name is Woodson, it makes sense that in Malick's world the one overt villain is a man who has not one but two names.
The Voices in Their Heads
Of course, any discussion of language in Malick's work that didn't address narration would amount to a comical act of denial. Despite their general lack of dialogue, the films are loaded with words in the form of voiceovers. But the narration has changed in both tone and purpose over the decades. The ethereal ruminations of The New World are light years away from the particularized and measured journal entries of Holly (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands (1973). Speaking of Holly's narration to Sight & Sound (in one of the few interviews he's ever given), Malick once remarked: "Holly's Southernness is essential to taking her right. She isn't indifferent about her father's death. She might have cried buckets of tears, but she wouldn't think of telling you about it. It would not be proper."
It's an almost prophetic statement, in this sense: if Badlands is the terse jewel that teasingly dances around its themes, where characters almost never say what they really mean, then the films in between have worked their way toward The New World, its bold and brightly plumed opposite, the sprawling epic that brings us the characters' deepest, most intimate thoughts. Malick's later characters don't seem to share Holly's sense of propriety. Often painfully earnest and florid, their voiceovers sometimes express thoughts deemed too corny for most viewers to handle. A sampling:
"You flow through me, like a river."
"What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you; you to me. I will be faithful to you. True."
"Oh, my soul, let me be in you now."
So what to make of these? The classic voiceover—as heard in films like Goodfellas, A Clockwork Orange, Hannah and Her Sisters, Brief Encounter, even Badlands—usually represents actual thoughts of which the characters are presumably aware. ("As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," "I was cured, all right," etc.) But in Malick's later films, these thoughts are often half formed. One might even wonder if the characters are aware of them; they certainly don't quite know or understand what they're trying to express. Consider how much of the narration in both The Thin Red Line and The New World consists of questions without answers:
"What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?"
"We were a family. How'd it break up and come apart, so that now we're turned against each other?"
"Who are you whom I so faintly hear? Who urged me ever on? What voice is this that speaks within me... guides me towards the best?"
It appears that the words are still dancing around something inexpressible, trying to approximate it with the limited power of human language. As Matt Zoller Seitz has argued, "Words, Malick realizes, fix nothing because nothing is fixed; there is no past or present, no differences or similarities, except those we choose to mark."
Knowingly or unknowingly, Malick's characters are reaching out for something, even as it slips away from them. What is it? Is it that oneness with all men that Witt dreamed of, that innocent state of being that the Naturals come to represent, at least in Malick's vision? Can it even be named, or is it simply something one recognizes only when one experiences it? As Smith says to Pocahontas: "There's something I know when I'm with you that I forget when I'm away."
The Great Compromise: Learning to Live in the World
The purebred language of the Oversoul versus the corrupted language of men: it would be easy—and understandable—to dismiss all of this as the hippy-dippy, Aristotelian fancies of yet another unrepentant child of the '60s. (And some have.) But that ignores the heartfelt reconciliation Malick depicts in The New World's powerful final act, as Pocahontas/Rebecca finally lives up to her billing as the mother of two worlds.
In the dramatis personae of Malick's filmography, John Rolfe (Christian Bale) occupies the same realm as that of the Farmer (Sam Shepard) in Days of Heaven (1978), a good man who perseveres against the passion of his beloved for another, and somehow prevails. The Rebecca whom Rolfe marries is but a forlorn shadow of the vivacious woodland spirit who cavorted with Smith upriver and dreamed silently of a world where they'd be one. A gentleman farmer always seen in woolen clothes, Rolfe too is a far cry from Smith. Malick has set these worlds in opposition to one another, but one could argue that the mixture of the two, represented structurally by the film's third act and onscreen, finally, by Rolfe and Rebecca's son, Thomas, is the true "new world" of the film's title. Or as Rolfe himself says of his wife: "She weaves all things together. I touched her long ago, without knowing her name."
The fact that The New World is ultimately a celebratory portrayal of America's birth may seem like a cop-out to some—especially since Malick's sympathies clearly lie with the Naturals, whose civilization is destroyed in the process. But the film's final scenes suggest that Malick has tried to come to terms with a more realistic ideal. That wordless world that Pocahontas and Smith experienced is as unattainable as Eden; the true challenge is to chart a path between these two extremes in real life. Earlier, Smith, dreaming of abandoning Jamestown, deemed it impossible: "Cannot walk two paths at once...ride two horses." But this ultimately is what Pocahontas/Rebecca does.
Speaking again in that Sight & Sound interview years ago, Malick observed: "When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn't make them laughable; it's something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what's most personal about them they could only come up with what's most public."
Perhaps this is why his films today are so divisive: Malick has been trying to forge a new way to express concepts other films don't dare approach. Sometimes these attempts come off as clichéd, but that may also be because he is, in effect, portraying a failed human attempt to give voice to something that cannot be named or spoken. Or, to turn around an even earlier statement of the filmmaker's: if Malick resorts to his own peculiar language, it is because ordinary cinema does not meet his purposes; and it does not because he has new and different purposes.
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Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).More articles by Bilge Ebiri