By Jeffrey Overstreet
In Babette's Feast, the protagonist carries her winning lottery ticket down to the edge of the water. She could take the winnings and go home to France, leaving behind her servant's life. Staring toward the horizon, she chooses something else.
A pregnant pause, a silent meditation, a decision.
For Jeffrey Wygand in The Insider, the stakes are higher. If he testifies against Big Tobacco, he may become a martyr for the cause. His family may crumble under the pressure. Surrounded by security guards, he walks to the water and stares into the light. A pause, a meditation, a decision.
It happens all the time. In movie after movie, I've seen characters turn to the natural world, leaning into the great beyond as if it has something to say to them. In moments of decision, they stare as if reading some mysterious script, some celestial calligraphy.
In Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, city-dwellers worn out with stress and trouble drive to the edge of a vast and glorious spectacle. In silent awe, they find repair for hearts gone out of tune. Even Luke Skywalker, after a hard day of miserable chores on the moisture farm, stares off at the setting of two burning suns, sensing a profound call upon his life.
Such moments resonate with us. We've all experienced the deep, subtle ministry of the heavens as they declare God's glory. I'm convinced that the huge success of Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy came about, in part, because audience were spellbound by the grandeur of New Zealand for three hours at a time. The power of so much splendid scenery spoke to people.
That's why I often revisit Terrence Malick's masterpiece—The New World. The film has become like a liturgy for me. And this new Extended Cut, just released on DVD, could not have come at a better time. I'm exhausted by recent election coverage, campaign promises, and idealism that is as unrealistic as it is inspiring. I need to regain my perspective.
Watching The New World again, I'm amazed at how Malick has improved upon an already brilliant tapestry, weaving in more than twenty new minutes that greatly enhance its poetry. No film that I can name is more attentive to the influence of natural beauty upon human beings. And no film more clearly illustrates what Psalm 19 has always claimed: That creation “pours forth speech” day by day. While friends complain that the film was already too long, I've caught Malick's fever. As he meditates on the reflective qualities of still waters, they restore my soul.
As a boat carries Captain John Smith downriver into unknown territory, he's hypnotized by the light and prays, “Who are you whom I so faintly hear, who urge me ever on? What voice is this that speaks within me, guides me towards the best?”
The year is 1606, and the settlement of Jamestown is under construction. Smith's been given a position of leadership and encouraged to rise to his “true stature.” The glory of this unspoiled “promised land” inspires him to dream grand dreams. “Always the star is guiding me, leading me, drawing me on to the fabled land,” he says. “There life shall begin. A world equal to our hopes.”
Maybe it's just that I've just endured many months of televised campaign speeches and debates, but doesn't this sound like the impossible idealism of a candidate running for office? And yet, Smith is sincere. Creation kindles in him a longing for what was meant to be.
“We shall make a new start,” he continues, declaring that no one will want for anything in this new world. “Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one's labor. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self-reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor. No man should stand above any other but all live under the same law. None shall eat up carelessly what his friends got worthily or steal away that which virtue has stored up. Men shall not make each other their spoil.”
But even as Smith's heart sings this noble hymn, take note: He's dragging along a Powahatan captive. And when his men bring the boat to ground, they immediately steal from a Powahatan camp that was hastily evacuated. So much for all of that idealism.
A few chapters later, Jamestown settlers declare Smith their new president. They pin their hopes on him during a time of—let's face it—economic disaster. Lazy and selfish, they bring out the worst in each other. And just beyond their polluted property, an ancient civilization turns aggressive, feeling threatened by this forward-thinking, technologically advanced people. Jamestown is besieged by the very natives that Smith in his idealism described as “gentle, loving, faithful.” He walks along the Jamestown walls which trap residents in a prison of disease and dissension, and he concludes, “Damnation is like this.”
Throughout The New World, seekers, lovers, and explorers who attend to the light that summons them find their strength renewed. Those that seek to seize and possess that which reflects the light—they fail and fall.
In one of the extended cut's surprising additions, Smith advises himself: “Cling to the God. As long as you do you have a claim on life.” In those words, he captures why it is he fails to find consolation of his own. And he sums up why the young native princess is capable of enduring one catastrophic loss after another, and rise again to dance in the sunlight.
As many around me celebrate the hope of some “new era,” I hope that I can avoid the cynicism of experience. Sure, those who pin their hopes on any one man will be disappointed. But the longing for a new beginning stems from the eternity written in our hearts.