‘Generally speaking, the cinema does not render stories well.’ (Epstein, 1921: 242) This statement, written at a period in which early theorists writing on film were attempting to cement the power and capabilities of the cinema, is still pertinent today, especially in regards to the work of Terrence Malick. Malick’s films have found themselves the subject of both acclaim and derision, largely due to the same reasoning: a lack of narrative and a precise depiction of nature and man’s place within it. This essay will address Epstein’s claim that ‘The cinema is poetry’s most powerful medium’ (Epstein, 1924: 318), in relation to The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). The New World depicts this concept of poetry through its facilitation of ‘the moment’, and the embodiment of physical nature, placing its characters into a direct relationship with their natural setting. Looking at the opening of The New World, this essay will show that The New World’s depiction of nature, and thus Epstein’s concept of poetry, is borne out of its characters’ placement within it.
Much of Epstein’s writings largely focus upon his concept of ‘Photogénie … the purest expression of cinema’ (Epstein, 1924: 315); this concept represents the act and use of the camera, dispelling with subjectivity and in turn creating objectivity, creating the very art of cinema: ‘photogénie seeks the essence of cinema. It is an argument for cinema specificity’ (Farmer, 2010: online). For Epstein it is the camera alone that can truly display these moments of ‘photogénie’, as ‘the lens alone can sometimes succeed in revealing the inner nature of things’ (Epstein, 1924: 317). Certainly Epstein recognised that moments of poetry could, and do, appear in a number of films, not simply within a film purposely invested with a poetical nature. Arguably, it is a film such as The New World that both most explicitly imbues Epstein’s theories, and is also best enhanced through an understanding coloured by Epstein’s writings: through Epstein we can understand Malick’s investment and portrayal of nature. Malick invests nature with a life-force of its own, both through its engagement and interaction with the Powhatan tribe and its representation onscreen. The viewer is encouraged to actively engage, largely through close-ups, in admiration for the lush surroundings, in turn, ensuring its depiction is predominantly positive.
Epstein writes, ‘I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction.’ (Epstein, 1924: 314) Certainly both the depictions of nature and of characters are largely moralistic through their representation onscreen. In The New World, those characters that are most attuned to nature are presented as the purest of spirit; thus our understanding of the characters themselves is aided through the way they interact with nature: simplistically, as nature is moral, so too are they. The film opens with a shot of open water, immediately ensuring nature’s prominence within the narrative. A voice-over is then heard, reciting a prayer to Mother Nature: here nature is to be worshipped, surely an indication of the morality of both nature and the people attuned with it. The viewer is then shown a number of Powhatan people swimming naked, in a natural state themselves: becoming part of nature, existing in harmony, as they swim, fish too swim – there is no disruption for either party, rather they are accepting of one another, this is their life. As Epstein writes, ‘Presentation of characters is pointless; life is extraordinary’ (Epstein, 1921: 242), Malick too finds life extraordinary, with the film’s opening highlighting this – depicting the Powhatan people as they exist within their daily lives. These simple moments of human existence are not just worthy of being shown, but deemed important enough to open the film itself.
Epstein writes of the idea of cinema representing a ‘moment’, capturing a moment of existence, not an entirety of existence: ‘We are not dealing with an evening but evening’ (Epstein, 1921: 243). The New World, especially in the chosen scene, captures this idea of a moment. Certainly a narrative is in place within the film, but there are numerous moments of characters who, whilst existing within the film’s narrative, do not necessarily have any impact upon the narrative. Malick’s direction often retreats from the protagonists to film moments of natural occurrence – a shifting focus of light, a light wind – all is displayed for the viewer, not only further placing the protagonists within nature, but further enhancing nature itself, investing nature with ‘a semblance of life to the objects it defines’ (Epstein, 1924: 316). Thus, the very water, the fish, the trees that Malick awards such prominence to, are invested with life themselves, assuming a role within the film’s narrative, enhancing our understanding of the characters. This helps us engage with the film: as Mark Cousins writes, ‘looking at Malick through the lens of Hume shows that the pre-cognitive experience of engaging sensually with the world is where at least some of the wonder lies’ (Cousins, 2007: 196). Perhaps it is here then that the ‘photogénie’ lies in The New World; certainly much of Malick’s work relies upon a sensual engagement, enforced by the sensual nature of the direction: the camera lingers over moments of nature, as Epstein writes, ‘This eye, remember, sees waves invisible to us’ (Epstein, 1921: 244), the camera thus reveals to us moments that would otherwise remain unseen. It is through engaging with nature in a visual manner, a manner which only the camera can reveal, that the viewer can discover its true wonder.
There is no doubt then that through the application of Epstein’s theories we can hope to better understand a director such as Malick. Malick’s use of ‘the moment’ and his decision to continually invest his films with a physical depiction of nature are enhanced through an understanding of Epstein. His wish for a film ‘in which not so much nothing as nothing very much happens’ (Epstein, 1921: 243), calling for a film with little narrative, whilst retaining moments of drama and emotion, limits the creative process, adopting a rather narrow idea of what film can achieve. Film can be, and is more than, simply a ‘moment’. Audiences expect and desire a concrete conclusion to a narrative-arc; in viewing a ‘moment’ they then wish to see this moment end. In recognising that these moments of poetry could occur in all films, Epstein ensures his theories are not limited to those films adopting a lyrical style. Yet even with this ability to transcend genre, it is not merely through Epstein that our understanding of all film can be truly aided.
Cousins, M. (2007) ‘Praising The New World’, in H. Patterson (ed.) The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America, 2nd edn. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 192-199.
Epstein, J. ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’ in R. Abel (ed.) French Film Theory and Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.314-318.
Epstein, J. ‘The Senses I (b)’ in R. Abel (ed.) French Film Theory and Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.241-246.
Farmer, R. (2010) ‘Jean Epstein’ http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/jean-epstein/ (5 November 2011)
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)