(This is Part VI in a series on The Ephemeral Real, a meditation on cinema and history)
NATURE AS RUIN:
The New World & Wind Across the Everglades
THERE’S A CERTAIN DIFFICULTY that arises when we look at the world and falsely see an unchanging real, when we cannot imagine what we have on good authority once existed. The strangest ephemeral real is perhaps marked by our inability to see it as anything but our world.
Ruins change, as I keep saying: I began the last piece with that observation, scarcely original, and I’ll reiterate it here. We become committed to ruins at one time in their history, one fixed moment, and we hold that moment close — bringing it up again and again in writing and conversation (at the expense of all else) and shoring it up in different visual depictions over the years. They say the Colosseum was once filled with tiny altars in the stands, already a ruin, not yet an artifact; out in the dust, where gladiators and lions fought and died, strange plants thrived, growing from the seeds spilled from the bowels of men brought from African shores.
I saw several bulls die in a Spanish corrida in the Roman arena of the French city of Nîmes. Seventy years before, the great Joseph Roth wrote about seeing the same thing in the same arena. But between the classical past and our time as spectators, that arena was fortified and besieged and then, most strangely, housed a small neighborhood, contained entirely within its walls. All that was erased to reassert and preserve that 18th-century classical ideal, the same ideal that makes it so hard to retain the belief that the Greeks’ great marble figures were polychrome.
We’re fairly aware of these sorts of historical gymnastics with buildings, the ruins of buildings, and the like, but we’re only really just coming around to the idea that nature — that is, the forests and so forth we see as apart from ourselves — is a ruin, too. Films love wilderness. But the wildernesses they see are time travelers as much or more so than buildings and their stone remnants. And when the now of someplace must play the then of itself, the ephemeral real goes on what will be our last, and perhaps most elastic, journey.
In the same Technicolor decade that produced Raintree County, another forgotten epic trod different ruined ground to different ends. Four years before Silent Spring, Budd Schulberg and his brother dragged director Nicholas Ray to the Florida Everglades to film a fictional account of the Audubon Society’s first game warden and his battle to defeat the plume trade devastating the rookeries of Florida at the turn of the century.
That’s Christopher Plummer of Sound of Music fame in his first starring role. Burl Ives is the redneck poacher bad guy — the Ahab to Plummer’s conservationist Starbuck with the swamp as the whale. The remainder of the cast — Gypsy Rose Lee, Seminole leader Cory Osceola, clown Emmett Kelly, boxer Tony Galento, writer MacKinlay Kantor, then-nobody Peter Falk, and Israeli starlet Chana Eden (who will give her Gentile hero a Star of David to wear on his quest) — make this one of the strangest street corners of Hollywood’s last studio decade.
Nicholas Ray, as he did so often, flaked out halfway through filming. The Schulbergs took over. The result is not great, but it is interesting. And what’s interesting, too, even in the un-remastered, Spanish-subtitled DVDs currently available, is how much the nature footage strives to recreate an already-vanished world. The scale by which the things we call nature diminish is often scarcely discernible. And earlier accounts are rarely believed. We look and see the Everglades then and they are at once worse and better than they are now.
But they are nothing compared to what they were at the turn of the century. By every measure — abundance, area, and isolation — the Everglades existed on a scale we have trouble believing. About 20 years ago, a fisheries scientist named Daniel Pauly coined a term for this: shifting baseline syndrome. He noted that, in successive generations, writers discounted the testimony from generations before. As in, “no school of cod could ever have been so large.” Equally, we have difficulty imagining the scale of wildlife once commonplace — flocks of now-extinct Carolina Parakeets miles across or curlews and plovers darkening the sun. William Bartram speaks for any number of scarcely believed witnesses to American wilderness when he writes,
To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I think I can assert, that many of the black oaks measured eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were above thirty feet girt, and from hence they ascend perfectly straight, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs; but below five or six feet, these trunks would measure a third more in circumference […] the tulip tree, liquidambar, and beech, were equally stately.
Terrence Malick’s The New World retold the old chestnut of John Smith and Pocahontas, but it was faced with the challenge of filming today’s Tidewater Virginia as it appeared then. Malick even allowed for a few CGI birds, and Christopher Plummer, playing Colin Farrell’s commander, reappeared here 50 years on from his time in the Everglades, so much older. But the forest doesn’t manage to astonish in the way we need it to. The new world is too much our world — a grassy expanse between housing developments. To these eyes, there was not enough left of that world to film his epic. The ephemeral real too ephemeral for the camera to capture it.
But one final sequence from The New World closes out this chapter and these few brief essays as well. A different ruin rides in to rescue Malick’s attempt at time travel: Powhatan’s war chief, Opechancanough (played by Wes Studi), is sent to England where he encounters an English garden, in one of the more moving instances of a Native American actor enacting the disorientation of encountering this alien civilization. The garden is “played” by the garden at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and is actually period appropriate, designed in the early 17th century by John Tradescant — who not only knew John Smith but also received New World botanical specimens from him. Maintained, recreated, it is perhaps more like a restored building — which would disqualify it from my ephemeral real — but, maybe somehow, it’s also a strange, living ruin. The 18th century let it die and the Victorians revived it.
Viewers who see Malick as sentimental will perhaps see this wordless sequence as an art-house analogue to Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear over litter, but I think it’s more. Studi’s look, in its bewilderment, is the look of a great explorer, an Odysseus, an astronaut, a Dave Bowman off the coast of Saturn. He’s as much a flâneur as the bon vivant hero of Paolo Sorrentino’s Great Beauty is looking out at the wreck of the Costa Concordia, fixed in time.
Evan S. Connell wrote that what horrified the Sioux chiefs who were allowed by Indian administrators to use a telephone was not that the mere sound of a voice could be transmitted, but that word spoken in the Sioux language could pass through the wires as easily as English. The magic that can cross cultures is powerful indeed.
Studi looks and walks and looks until — the result of cinematography and performance both — we see the garden as the more alien. Studi, face paint and buckskin cloak notwithstanding, is or becomes our baseline. The contemplation of the real, however much the shift of time, is noticeable in these few moments. Noticeable as the ephemeral real is always noticeable.
Enveloped in the fictional, the real is newly — even usefully — strange.