This year and last, I showed this 2005 film to my AP Language and Composition class, I suppose for two reasons. First (the less noble reason) – this time of year is extremely busy because of the Debate team travel schedule, and the movie itself takes almost 5 full class periods to show. Second (hopefully more noble), the film relates thematically to the readings in this section of the course – they’re from people like Thoreau, Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard. Initially these readings were definitely not my cup of tea, dwelling as they do on the writers’ solitary experiences with nature, but, as I started reading them, and encountering a certain sort of resistance among my students, in fact, perhaps just because of this resistance, I started to like them.
The resistance is best described as a knee-jerk rejection/smirking refusal to contemplate something that seems less than direct. Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking” is a long, meandering, digressive essay – the less intelligent among my students come into class saying “what was the point of that story?” The more intelligent ones recognize at least the correct genre, and declare that “that essay was boring.” That’s not to say all of them don’t like this stuff – the ones who do, however tend to be more soft-spoken and keep to themselves about it. I really only discover later, when I read their papers, who liked it. In short – a lot of them just can’t handle non-linear, nuanced prose that does not make a direct and simple argument.
And so, since a lot of education is pushing back against people that don’t like things, I decided that the coup de grace for this unit would be a viewing of Terrence Malick’s 3.5 hour retelling of the Pocahontas/John Smith/John Rolfe love story. And you want to talk about resistance – just watch 28 16-year-olds react with such intuitive skepticism, even anger and disgust, while Pocahontas dances in the tall grass and we listen to voice-overs about Native American spirituality! But like I said, a lot of education is just this, in my humble opinion, so we watched the whole thing. I made them answer questions about creative tie-ins with authors whose work we had read, stylistic decisions by the director, questions about how the movie was organized, etc. In the end I don’t think I won any converts, but I think it was mind-expanding nonetheless.
For me, I hadn’t really seen this film all the way through since when Brooke and I saw it in the theater when it was released (I was sick last year for 2 days of the screening). And what struck me this time was the same thing that struck me before. Yes, there is 2.75 hours of fairly slow development. There is a lot of atmospheric music, voice-over and sweeping camera shots of rivers, trees and mud. But what I think emerges from that part of the film is a very convincing sense of the feel of what 17th century Virginia settlements must have felt like – a moment of romantic possibility followed by(perhaps leading to) years of squalor, infighting, and genocidal slaughter of the local populations. There is relatively little talking, and a lot of the conversations are confused and clipped, to the point where you don’t always know even what was said, and you almost never understand its context. All of this creates an uncomfortable blur, but one that resonates nonetheless.
What really stuck with me, though, after first seeing it, was the last half hour. In what I can really only describe as a breathtaking and brilliant counterpoint to the rest of the film, Pocahantas travels to England with her now-husband, John Rolfe. She is presented to the King and Queen, and, having learned English, she is dressed in awkward baroque-period garb and given an anglicized new name – Rebecca. Instead of sweeping naturalistic camera shots and Coplandesque frontier ambiance, we are shown long, open but linear views of Rolfe’s country estate, the London streets and stone buildings, and booming Baroque chamber music. These visuals all obliquely recall the opening moments of the film, where John Smith gazed out at the sky through the square windows of his frigate’s brig. Instead of explicit confinement and muddy brown wood planks, we instead see seemingly open spaces, expanses of manicured green grass and topiary. Pocahontas runs her fingers along the hedges, and as I watch, I am transfixed by the artificiality of the scenery, as is she – she seems almost panic-stricken upon first seeing all of it.
All this brings to mind a paragraph from Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology.
…even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather, the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that is spoken by the two titles: “The Rhine,” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine,” as uttered by the artwork, in Holderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry (full text here).
Or, as another Heideggerian critic of technology has described our world – “Hell on Earth masquerading as material paradise.” I think I recall someone telling me once that Malick had written a dissertation on Heidegger, which is maybe what draws the tie-in.
But there’s something beyond that – it might just an irreducible sense of the beauty of the filmmaking in this part of the film. Somehow my expectations about experiencing the depiction of 17th century European culture (Gothic stone, tapestries, stained glass, etc.) were just so confounded and disrupted by this sequence – and on some really primal level, I felt a connection between this scenery and that of “the New World” as shown earlier in the movie; I was forced to confront this asymmetry in a way I was not expecting. In this vein, Pocahontas says to her uncle, just minutes before the closing of the film, that she hopes someday to return from this “strange new world” – and of course, she’s talking about Europe, not Virginia.
The three final visual images are a lock closing as a boat leaves its boundaries for America, and then water running over rocks, and then a tree and birds squawking – then it fades to black. Through these scenes you feel a rushing sense of urgency somehow, and then it is done.
I don’t think this movie got the most overwhelming positive critical response, and in a lot of ways, I think it has some problems, but its conclusion was just so fascinating to me. I wonder if any others had reactions to this movie, if you’re seen it recently?