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Recurring Nightmares #2 – You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

“It’s just a room”, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) sarcastically reports into his dictaphone upon first inspecting the eponymous hotel suite in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007), before dryly adding, “I’ve been here before”. The sense of weary familiarity in that latter line of dialogue, not contained in Stephen King’s original short story, might on its surface appear to be merely a gag on the decorative sameness of the typical hotel room, but it also comes as a sly intertextual reminder to the viewer that they too, in a sense, have been here before.

The precedent which the line most readily recalls is naturally 1408‘s illustrious forebear, Stanley Kubrick’s own King adaptation The Shining (1980), but it nods to a longer lineage of cinematic horror hotels which stretches as far back in time as the medium itself. Indeed, strip away 1408‘s CGI pyrotechnics and Bad Dad backstory and its basic function is near-identical to that of Georges Méliès’ trick film L’auberge ensorcelée (1897), arguably the earliest example of the sub-genre made over a century earlier: simply place a man in an apparently ordinary – if quietly sinister – lodging room, and let the spooky goings-on ratchet up in intensity.

That such a set-up has survived the century of cinema intact speaks not only of its abiding utility as a genre device but also of a fundamentally unsettling quality that hotel rooms can possess. Though in many respects rooted in the age-old Old Dark House exoticism of Gothic literature, the horror hotel differs in that it serves to situate the viewer in a hinterland between the quotidian and the Other. Hotel rooms, in seeking to replicate the comforts of home for a myriad of different occupants, very often represent an impersonal, inexact facsimile of domesticity, which is used in the horror film to create a feeling of dissonance – halfway between the familiar and the strange – tapping directly into what Freud termed Das Unheimliche (the uncanny).

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The possibilities for mise en scene, however, vary considerably within the sub-genre, perhaps best delineated into two distinct sub-classifications: the ornate and the abject. In the former, best exemplified by the baroque grandeur of the ‘Timokan’ hotel in Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963) or the luxuriance of the lobby of Ostend’s Thermae Palace in Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (1971), the uncanny is rendered as a function of opulence: soaring archways, sweeping staircases and, in particular, the maze-like corridors in both Bergman’s film and The Shining. These labyrinthine passageways implicitly hark back to cinema’s greatest exploration of the uncanny, Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) (itself reciprocally related to genre cinema via its Hitchcock ‘cameo’), which Kümel’s film more explicitly pays homage to in the presence of Delphine Seyrig as its wanton countess.

By contrast, the sons of Psycho (1960) render Otherness through their locations’ symbolic abjection from society. Remember that Hitchcock’s film begins in a hotel, but one ensconced in the urban familiarity of Phoenix, before journeying with Marion to the remote isolation of the Bates Motel, symbolically representing a move from the civilised to a more primeval wilderness. In this respect it prefigures the Backwoods Horror cycle initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and was already enough of a cliché to be effectively satirised by the time of Hooper’s own horror hotel entry Eaten Alive (1977) and Kevin Connor’s cartoonish Motel Hell (1980), before subsequently resurfacing in recent years in Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy (2007) and the franchise spawned by Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).

This latter strain plays into another key signifier of the hotel: that of transience. In Stephen King’s introduction to his 1408 story, he asks rhetorically, “How many people have slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick?”. If Old Dark Houses are haunted by ghosts of centuries past, a prior guest in a hotel room may have euphemistically ‘checked out’ as recently as the time it takes housekeeping to have cleared up the mess. Longer stays, on the other hand, seem to imply a character’s psychological descent: see Agnes White’s prolonged stay in her dilapidated motel room in William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), Barton’s escalating sense of unreality in the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink (1991), or even Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993), whose indeterminately long one-day stay in his Punxsutawney B&B hints towards the same sense of claustrophobic unreality resulting from an over-extended hotel sojourn.

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The characters for whom hotels are seldom places of transience are the staff, who from John Llewellyn Moxley’s The City of the Dead (1960) to Vacancy typically wear a thin mask of obsequiousness to veil their sinister hidden motives, a trope overturned for comedic effect in Miike Takashi’s Katakuri-ke no kōfuku (2001) in which its cheerful inn owners are helpless to prevent their guests dying via as series of increasingly bizarre incidents. By contrast, the about-turn in spectatorial identification in Psycho, signalled by the protracted sequence of Norman Bates dutifully cleaning the Bates’ cabin after Marion Crane’s famously interrupted ablutions, allowed for a more sympathetic eye for its initially two-dimensionally creepy owner-manager. The implication here is that the impersonal domesticity of the hotel affects its workforce as much as its guests, a theme explored more fully in Jessica Hausner’s Hotel (2004), in which banality inspires its own form of Lynchian nightmare.

If the viewer, then, is sympathetic with Norman Bates, then Psycho disturbs precisely because it makes the us complicit in his extra-curricular voyeurism. His lecherous peering through his crudely-fashioned peephole at his undressing guest mirrors that first shot of the film, which cranes in through the Phoenix hotel window to witness to Marion and Sam’s initial illicit tryst, emphasising the prurient allure of the hotel room and its connotation with adultery and secretiveness. So too, more fancifully, is there a certain mimesis with the experience of cinema-going itself: travelling to a place of comfort and refuge, homely but not-home, alone but in the close proximity of strangers. As the semi-success of Mike Enslin’s pulp paperback exposés in 1408 and the evident demand for the underground snuff movies in Vacancy serve to illustrate, the horror hotel is unlikely to lose its hold on the popular imagination any time soon.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

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Economic Measures #4 | Emer McCourt and Robert Carlyle in Riff-Raff (1991)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

An hour into Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1990), itinerant worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle) returns from his day’s graft to find girlfriend Susie (Emer McCourt) has prepared for him a small birthday celebration. Entering the living room of the flat in which they squat, Stevie sees Susie standing in wait, party hat on, with a small candle-lit cake in one hand and a bottle of rosé in the other. Immediately overcome with emotion, he turns away and walks out of the room. Susie follows him: “I’m sorry, I never meant to upset you. What is it?” Stevie replies, without looking at her: “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

Stevie doesn’t look at her because he’s too embarrassed by joy – even by the small things in life that offer it. Stevie cowers from such emotion, unsure of how to communicate it, let alone respond to it. His slight frame remains in the hallway, and he looks down at his feet. Though he can neither muster the courage to return his girlfriend’s searching gaze nor find the words to match the moment, he yearns for Susie’s physical presence, and pulls her to him for a hug. For him, this is a new experience, and its inherent warmth simultaneously unsettles and reassures him.

Not much has been given to us in terms of Stevie’s backstory. We know that he has recently been released from prison and that he has travelled to London from his native Glasgow in search of work, and that he is presently employed as a casual labourer on a construction site. Like all of the film’s performances, Carlyle’s isn’t expressionistic or actorly. Filmed by Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd in medium and long shots, he is framed within surroundings by which he is forever conditioned and in which he may interact with others to form an instinctive solidarity against the ugly implications of said surroundings. Here, with heartbreaking economy, Carlyle demonstrates what it means to be the object of someone’s unconditional love at a time when you’re financially broke.

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Here is a person whose brave face amidst daily toil is one that has been hardened by betrayal and mistrust. Abandoned, imprisoned, unemployed and unloved, Stevie seems humbled and humiliated by Susie’s generosity. Indeed, in a world where success and happiness are both measured in abstract terms—and in which the prevalent presumption is that men provide and women receive—the alienation experienced by someone like Stevie is both social and domestic. It takes great courage not to fold under such multifarious pressures. Stevie knows in this very same instant that an act of kindness from someone who loves him is a beautiful thing to be cherished. A similar scene occurs in Loach’s Raining Stones (1993), when the jobseeking Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) reluctantly accepts some cash handed to him from his shop-assistant daughter, only to break down after she leaves the room.

Susie, excellently played by McCourt, is also a human in need. In the shot that follows the one in the hallway, note the way she crouches beside Carlyle to allow him enough space to regain his composure, and the tact she demonstrates in looking away from him so that he can wipe the tears from his eyes without feeling too intruded upon. An artistic woman who wishes to be a singer, Susie is creative enough to challenge the poverty in which she and her boyfriend live. Stevie’s birthday card is handmade, and the present Susie has him unwrap is a single pair of flashy polka dot boxer shorts. It’s both a personal and light-hearted gesture.

As Carlyle opens his gift, his hands tremble with adrenaline – is it going to be something so thoughtfully sincere that he’ll break down once more? Anticipating the joke, McCourt’s eyes barely leave him, and her own nerves – how will he react? – cause her to laugh half a second before he does. To witness the pleasure she has brought to his world is itself a pleasure for Susie. To us, such modest attempts at happiness, in the face of an ongoing marginalisation, are small but revolutionary acts. Implying both togetherness and compassion at a time when neither is particularly valued by the official political order, such acts need indeed to be cherished.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #3 | Neda Amiri in One. Two. One (2011)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

The twelfth and antepenultimate scene in Mania Akbari’s One. Two. One (2011) takes place in a telecabin carriage ascending Mount Tochal, just outside Tehran. It begins with Ava (Neda Amiri) recounting to a date (Payam Dehkordi) an amusing incident that occurred days previously. Telling it, she stutters, looks away from her date and talks more quickly and assertively, with fewer breaths, as if to regain control of both the anecdote and herself. All of this happens in an instant. Ava punctuates the end of her anecdote by rolling her eyes, acknowledging its silliness, to settle back from its melodrama and to return the watchful gaze of her date.

After she has finished her story, Ava’s date informs her that she has some lipstick on her teeth. She wipes it off. “Is it gone?” she asks. “Yep,” he replies. She purses her lips and smiles, suspending that fleeting moment in which a woman realises she is the object of a man’s gentle scrutiny, and looks away with something resembling a coy laugh. The hand on which she has propped her head moves in a gesture that is at once unconscious and self-conscious, a defence mechanism against the unflinching attention she is receiving.

Ava’s fingers come across her neck to form a kind of shield. Her chin rests on the back of her hand. A finger dares to twitch – or is it a self-caress? Feeling less open to would-be advances, she moves her entire head back to face the man sitting in intimate proximity across from her, to confront him, test him, return his intensity by eyeing him direct. In what is perhaps an instinctive need to regain poise and power, she spots a stray hair on his bald head, and returns a favour by lifting it and blowing it from her own hand.

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All of this unfolds within a fixed frame and in the space of half of minute. It’s gently, harmoniously, relatably erotic. It captures that nervous energy of a first or second date so well. Here are two people whose interest in one another might primarily be physical but whose connection has a palpable electricity that goes beyond lust – that excitement one feels at the onset of a new companionship. Such excitement is twofold. It is not merely about finding someone new, but also about challenging and renewing oneself – and, here, one’s sense of self, for Ava has, we know, recently recovered from an acid attack by her jealous husband.

In these moments, Amiri embodies the extraordinary courage and trust a woman must sustain in a society whose primary criterion of judgement is aesthetic beauty. When she licks and sucks the lipstick from her teeth, she averts the spotlight in embarrassed acknowledgement that she is being looked at, admired, desired, analysed – in a word, “othered”. She doesn’t dislike it, but experience has taught her caution. She must give little away, must not reciprocate too much. This is flirting, that process by which otherwise innocent gestures become charged with possibilities, in which that fine line between ambiguity and clarity seems both to widen and to disappear. Flirting creates a veil of innocence to retreat behind at the same time as it creates an expanse of new terrain to chart.

Neda Amiri might problematise One. Two. One’s apparent argument against the value placed by society upon physical beauty by being arguably the most beautiful actress alive. This is not her fault. As demonstrated in this and other scenes, however, her skill as a performer transcends the formal limitations of Akbari’s film and occasionally elevates its more mannered and irritating aspects to the stuff of brilliance. Self-conscious, exposed, explorative, fearless, Amiri demands and commands respect simply by embracing that terrifying concept of making a mistake or losing control. It’s no wonder her date is enraptured.

One. Two. One has just been released on DVD in the UK by Second Run. A season of Mania Akbari’s films runs at the BFI Southbank until 28 July. Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Blackfish | Review

At least the whale knew what he was doing.

At least the whale knew what he was doing.

By Ed Wall

Is Blackfish a film with a message but no meaning, or a film with a meaning but no message?

Although it’s not immediately obvious which of these dubious honours it might have garnered, the result is certainly not particularly impressive. Bursting with information, it singularly fails to cohere – a weak sum of potentially strong, individually compelling parts. You suspect that, had there been anyone on board with the same amount of passion for the subject as the makers of, say, 2009’s The Cove [Louie Psihoyos’ angry interrogation of Japan’s dolphin hunting culture], the result might have been a very different kettle of whale.

The purported subject of this mixed bag is Tilikum, resident of SeaWorld in Orlando Florida, the largest Orca in captivity and to this date responsible (depending on one’s definition of responsibility) for the deaths of at least three people. Through a combination of historical footage, interviews and data, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite attempts to profile Tilikum both as individual and in the wider context of ‘the industry’ of whale-based amusement parts, from shady, frontier-like beginnings in the 1970s to the current SeaWorld-dominated landscape.

As a spin on the typical documentary format, Tilikum’s story is covertly presented as a kind of murder mystery/court case. It’s an unnecessary piece of directorial artifice, and the noose by which the film hangs itself. Cowperthwaite is a weak prosecutor, unable (or unwilling) to take a position beyond some bland notion of ‘objectivity’. In this context, the form is pointless; a purely superficial touch.

Cowperthwaite is a veteran of a particular breed of televisual documentaries, having worked for some of the big names (National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN, The Discovery Channel) in the past. There’s something in her style that’s vaguely, uneasily, reminiscent of the parades of cable TV documentaries you might flick through at hotel stopovers. There’s an indistinct impression of disinterest in the way she approaches the subject matter; some mercenary element that’s more focused on presentation and graphics than content. This commitment to superficiality imbues some weak information with too much significance, and sucks the life out of the stronger material.

While the film is happy to (rightly) suggest SeaWorld is to blame for a lack of compassion and common sense in relation to the treatment of its water-bound behemoths, the question of motivations is never explored. In an identikit series of inane interviews with wide-eyed former trainers, Cowperwaithe steadfastly refuses to pin any of them down on where exactly they think they might fit into the tragic picture as a whole.

Bar one square-headed nutter who, employing a logic that’s so perverse it’s almost laudable, tries to claim that whales performing like trained dogs for crowds of baying humans constitutes man honouring nature, one after another of these former SeaWorld devotees spit near-identical repentant/outraged tidbits. As though the goons in a fallen dictatorship had been given the platform on which to absolve themselves, Cowperwaithe presents this parade of disembodied characters spilling words and tears, tears and words – as though there was no inherent value in making sure any of it was honest.

Of all the individuals interviewed, the one who emerges from the film with the most credit is the rather brilliantly named Dave Duffus, an expert witness for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the case brought by the US government against SeaWorld’s working conditions after the last of Tilikum’s ‘accidents’. Duffus’ clear respect for Orca whales and his palpable anger at the whole sorry business transcends Cowperthwaithe’s lame ‘neutrality’. Oddly, it also means that, amid the confusion, he stands out in the film to a degree that makes him feel more central than Tilikum.

As a piece of documentary filmmaking I’m pretty sure it is, if not a total failure, then at least a weak specimen of the genre. On the other hand, the agenda it has little or no interest in using its scattergun stack of information to fully support is one that a lot of the people who will end up seeing it already subscribe to: that keeping animals in a state of captivity is inhumane. As one of these viewers it’s a challenge to know how to react. Your instinct is to agree, but something makes you hesitate. It’s like watching Bono preaching about the plight of children in Africa, but with the nagging suspicion he bought an extra first class seat on the plane for his hat.

It’s confusing, painful to watch, when someone with no clear view of which field they’d rather be in positively hurls themselves onto the fence in the apparent name of objectivity, writhing around for an hour and a half before ascending to that beige heaven reserved solely for those who were pure enough to desire purgatory. SeaWorld representatives, naturally, declined to be interviewed for the film. Given the all-forgiving tolerance of the interviews here, they might now be feeling that they missed a trick.

Frances Ha | Review

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By Ed Wall

Looking back as the credits roll on this touching and open-hearted NYC-set comedy/drama, it’s startling to think that the opening scenes could ever have felt so dubious. Something about the eponymous protagonist’s self-aware manner in those first few minutes really seems designed to rub the viewer up the wrong way. At this point, the near future looks bleak – an uphill slog through a bandwagon-jumping Brooklynite yarn. Will this be utterly, unbearably pretentious? Is Frances the epitome of annoying? You’re prepared to hate it. And then it surprises you.

Given director Noah Baumbach’s history, his documented perfectionism and meticulous use of openings to misdirect the viewer’s expectations in his prior films, you’d imagine this has been an intentionally cheeky manipulation. As important as first impressions usually are, Frances excels at not making – and then transcending not making – a good one. You fall for her, and for the film, rather despite yourself.

Although the film is set in the apparent hub of hipster culture right now, Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t easily fit any conceivable definition of cool. A reactive rather than proactive person, she’s a little lost, but not particularly concerned about it. She’s lazy, and spends time (as do a lot of us) talking about what she should be doing. Most of her flaws constitute what make her loveable: she’s a bit of a goofball, often quite annoying (but in a sweet way, unlike the character of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s irritating Happy-Go-Lucky, for example), has no self-censorship and no awareness of when she’s crossing the line with other people. As a character she feels intensely real, and Gerwig (co-writer of the film) plays her beautifully, with just the right amount of confusion and vulnerability hidden under the apparent spacey lack of awareness.

Fran’s friendship with Sophie (an impressive Mickey Sumner) constitutes Frances Ha‘s central relationship. As Frances refuses to meet her impending thirties head-on, the pair start to drift apart – a plot thread which accounts for much of the film’s emotional impact and dramatic tension. It’s also a blessed relief to see a contemporary comedy focused almost exclusively on a single female lead that isn’t ultimately concerned with the male love interest; the brilliantly casual way in which Frances casts off her first boyfriend is a good indication of the film’s lack of interest in her sex life.

In a number of ways, Frances and the film mirror each other. Frances is often casual to the point of being non-present, and while Frances Ha is ostensibly a comedy, its humour is often so low-key as to seem almost unintentional. This is a definite strength, in that it never seems to be actively looking for laughs. Baumbach’s choice to shoot in black and white doesn’t feel like an act of pretension so much as a Frances-like avoidance of having to choose colour schemes (although the film is visually rich, in a nicely understated way). It’s also brilliantly edited. Frances’ daily activities, often used as bridges between scenes, are briskly summated in montage-style vignettes which cut in and out of random exchanges and personal moments. In keeping with the film’s winning combination of frothiness and mild spikiness, these sequences at once lightly mock and highlight the bizarreness of peoples’ routines and behaviours. By making these observations awkward by robbing them of their immediate context, the film portrays life as a series of random, beautiful but ultimately meaningless instances. Yet, of course, the meaninglessness is what makes it all interesting.

I must admit I found the film emotionally affecting in a way I rarely find. Frances’ willingness, in the end, to open herself up to ridicule perhaps won my sympathies. If Lena Dunham’s fantastic Tiny Furniture (2011) was a film that encapsulated the knowingness of being in your early twenties, Frances Ha is definitely older, more world-weary, but conversely also more openly optimistic. It’s something like a pep talk to dreamers. The possibility of failure manifests throughout the film, daunting, concrete. And yet Frances’ steadfast refusal to allow that reality to exist (despite it so obviously existing) means the chance of a lucky break never seems beyond her. We create our own luck, it says, through an insane, bloody-minded refusal to believe there is no such thing as failure.

Frances Ha is in cinemas from Friday courtesy of Metrodome Pictures. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

5 reasons to come and see The Warriors

In case you’ve missed our occasional blogging and tweeting about the matter, we’re screening Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors at London’s Clapham Picturehouse tonight! Prior to the screening we’ll have fun times in the bar, an intro and a prize draw. But if that isn’t enough, we’ve put together 5 more reasons to convince you to part with your cash.

1. There will be pizza

The Warriors is New York City cinema at its finest, and, as we all know, the reason why everyone loves New York is because of its pizza. So in order to replicate the NYC experience, we’ve flown in some authentic pies from The Bronx for your gastronomic pleasure*. Who can say no to free pizza in the bar beforehand (from 8pm)?

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*actually from down the road in Clapham, but that’s our little secret.

2. We’re screening it from a 35mm print

We’ve managed to source an original print, so your experience of the film will be enhanced by the warmth and feel that only celluloid can give you. It’s the perfect showcase for Andrew Laszlo’s superb cinematography and the film’s myriad amazing NYC locations. Here’s a snap of the print! (P.S. We should say at this point that the print is an old one – not a restoration. As such, it’s picked up a fair few bumps and scratches along the way, and has a slight pink coloration).

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3. It’s the perfect summer movie

The weather’s scorching outside, so cool down in the cinema. You never know, you might pick up some clothing tips for the rest of the summer. The Baseball Furies (below) know what’s up.

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4. It’s exemplary action cinema from a master at the top of his game

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Walter Hill developed his reputation making lean, mean action classics, and The Warriors found him bang in the middle of a run that included the likes of Hard Times, The Driver, The Long Riders and Southern Comfort. There’s no fat here, just 90 minutes of suspense, music, dry humour, and fighting… lots of fighting. Just how action cinema should be.

5. Because could you really live with yourself if you missed the chance to spend some quality time with Luther?

Exactly. So, you can buy tickets here or grab them on the door. Food and drink in the bar from 8pm, film at 9. See you later!

Economic Measures #2 | A Native American in The New World (2005)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

If you’re looking for an ostensibly simple dialogue exchange that also happens to be laced with a quietly devastating symbolism, you might struggle to find one more moving than the one which takes place between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). The former lovers are briefly reunited when the Native American accompanies her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), on a trip to England. Small talk and heavy silences culminate thusly:

Pocahontas: “Did you find your Indies, John? You shall…”

Smith: “I may have sailed past them.”

Soon after, the film enters its concluding passage, a montage cut to the prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Rolfe addresses his young son in voice-over, telling him and us that Pocahontas, the boy’s mother, took ill and died shortly before the return voyage to their Jamestown settlement across the Atlantic. Though Rolfe’s narration confirms her death, Pocahontas lives on in the subsequent sequence, in which she is seen playing with her son and dancing joyously in the grounds of their Gravesend estate.

Just as the music is beginning to swell, we are presented with an apparently incongruous image of a Native American. Played by Matthew Yeung and referred to in the end credits as a shaman, this otherwise anonymous character sits on a chair, as if posing on the throne of a European monarch, and directly eyes the camera. In the next shot, he exits the manor by bolting through a doorway and into the courtyard beyond. Confronting us one moment, he retreats in the next. Was he intruding? Is he chased? At any rate, one gesture appears to be contradicted by the other. Running through the door in a seemingly wounded fashion, Yeung’s physical vitality nevertheless plays out in contrast to that other, more celebrated doorway-silhouette, that of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (1956).

It’s an odd moment. On first inspection it serves no narrative function. Yeung has before now appeared only briefly, on the periphery of the frame as Pocahontas alights a ship and steps for the first time onto English soil. Breaking the fourth wall, his gaze destroys in an instant what has until now been accepted as a seamlessly worked hermetic fiction. Later in the same sequence, we see an image of Pocahontas’ (imagined) grave in a present-day setting. Stitched into an otherwise conventional historical drama, both moments appear as violent ruptures. They force us out of the diegesis and contradict all notions of a harmonious narrative. Indeed, Yeung’s Native American resembles a history museum exhibit, static and lifeless – only in the next image to appear alive again, rejecting and rebelling against his own fate. The period setting is demystified.

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In The New World, history records, tells and observes at the same time as it perceives, distorts and contradicts. As such, it bears during its most powerful passages the markings of an essay film, confident in nothing if not its own self-questioning. As with the violent battles that took place earlier in the film, for instance, Malick treats an otherwise finite act such as Pocahontas’ death as multifarious. It unfolds in a staggered and self-contradicting way. Edited as something that is about to happen, as something that is happening, and as something that seems already to have happened, the everyday is given urgency – and the historical is rendered immediate, even contestable. Yeung’s bounding leap through the doorway of Pocahontas’ manor seems in this way to be an active refusal of some sort – even if it is merely a refusal to be enclosed by Malick’s film.

The past and the present, the perceived and the actual, the old and the new, the historical and the mythic, the natural and the imposed – all of these and more are seen not as opposites, but as co-dependent. Because of this, The New World is able to complicate its own rueful riffs on the trajectory taken by western civilisation upon the discovery of and expansion across the Americas. In this version of the John Smith-Pocahontas fable, the romantic ideal is problematised by scientific endeavour and imperial expansion – currents and phenomena that coincided with the formation of capitalism itself. This is the essence of the heartbreak that pervades that would-be reunion between Pocahontas and Smith. When the latter remarks that he may have sailed past the Indies he had been tasked to find, he seems to be acknowledging something else entirely – a missed opportunity for moral and emotional purity.

Such notions are of course romantic in themselves. The deeper devastation, the one that makes this the powerful anti-romance film that it is, is that Pocahontas doesn’t so much reject Smith as accept that history itself would have always denied them a happiness ever after. Put another way, abstractions such as moral and emotional purity are incompatible with historical particulars. Indeed, Smith left Pocahontas in the first place because he was sent on an expedition as part of wider economic imperatives – the same imperatives, to be precise, by which Pocahontas’ peoples were to be annihilated. And somewhere amidst this terrible realisation, an anonymous Native American retreats, rejects, turns his back in disgust. Capitalism annihilates these gestures too.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.