Love The New World or Die!
March 14, 2006 7:23 AM   Subscribe

"It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.... It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey." Even as the second, shorter cut of Terrence Malick's Pocahontas epic is slinking out of theaters, The New World is dividing and confounding critics, audiences, and bloggers: "The New World is my new religion." - "The New World separates the wheat from chaff." - "The first necessary film of this young year." The Village Voice's J. Hoberman observes the growing cult, Dave Kehr of the New York Times weighs in and gets testy. Matt Zoller Seitz responds. In the meantime, Malick is reportedly preparing a third, longer cut for the DVD.
posted by muckster (55 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Q'orianka Kilcher is my new religion.
posted by pmbuko at 7:35 AM on March 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

2001 eh? Pocahontas has space babies? (Hint to Malick— What I liked about 2001 wasn't that it was reeaallly long.)
posted by klangklangston at 7:41 AM on March 14, 2006

I’m sure that many people reading this will think I’ve come unhinged, or that I am, at the very least, overselling this movie, or responding to something besides the movie, or (the most meaningless objection of all!) reviewing the movie I wished that I had seen rather than the movie I saw.

posted by caddis at 7:53 AM on March 14, 2006

I loved the second cut of this film, and I put it at #2 on my top ten list for last year. But I've never accepted the "if you don't like this there's something wrong with you" argument about any film. It's lazy. I just pray that Malick lets us have that second cut when he releases the DVD. He can do whatever he wants on a director's cut as long as that one is available.
posted by goatdog at 7:54 AM on March 14, 2006

Some blogger's defense of a movie that bombed is FPP fodder now? Sheesh!
posted by mischief at 7:57 AM on March 14, 2006

I saw what was probably the first cut of the film. It was visually stunning, and it was the first film I've ever seen that really conveys how alien the American continent must have seen to the first European visitors.

And yet-- loathe though I am to disturb the silence of the Cathedral of Cinema with these blasphemous words-- I like my movies to have a little more story. The New World wasn't exactly story-free; there was a good twenty minutes of story scattered across its three-hour running time. For me, that wasn't enough.
posted by yankeefog at 8:02 AM on March 14, 2006

I'm waiting on the DVD version before I decide how I feel about the movie. That said, I'm somewhat ambivalent about The New World as it stands.

1. Oddly enough, the film, in the shorter cut I saw, didn't seem long enough. While the Native Americans were generally well-rounded characters, the colonists were somewhat underdeveloped. This might have been a consequence of the editing (see, for example, the moment when the crucially significant character of John Rolfe just suddenly seems to materialize in the colony--a shot of him disembarking would have been nice).

2. Malick usually pays such careful attention to establishing spaces and letting the viewer know where characters are within those spaces (see, for example, the American soldiers climbing the hill with the Japanese gun placement at its top in the first act of The Thin Red Line) that I was surprised at how poorly conveyed spaces were in this film. (The distance and travel time between the colonial and Native American settlements seems to expand and contract to suit the needs of the storyline, for example.) Again, that's something that a longer cut might fix.

3. The use of music seemed rather questionable. From a straight historical perspective, it doesn't make much sense to use Wagner (19th c., German) to score a film set over two hundred years before on another continent--it's as if Malick chose the music solely for its majestic tone, ignoring the wealth of metaphorical associations that are tied to it. (By comparison, you could at least argue that the use of "The Ride of the Valkyries" in Apocalypse Now makes contextual sense, given what's going on on screen and what's happening at that point in Die Walkure.) Apparently much of James Horner's score was rejected in favor of Wagner and Mozart (1, 2) though I haven't heard the score CD to confirm this (it's supposed to have many of the rejected cues written by Horner in the place of the Wagner, etc.). I'd be interested to hear it eventually, even if some of the music is made up of recycled themes from earlier Horner films (which I suspect it is).

On the other hand, I was able to write this post on a film I saw a good many weeks ago, so the movie must have stuck in my head at the least.
posted by Prospero at 8:03 AM on March 14, 2006

Best movie of the last ten years. Hands down.

Changes the language of film. Like modernism in literature. Something. I'm not smart enough to categorize it. But it's not a movie. It's something else, and whatever that thing is that it is, it's better.
posted by billysumday at 8:03 AM on March 14, 2006

And if that seems cheeky or something, it's not. It's completely sincere.
posted by billysumday at 8:03 AM on March 14, 2006

I enjoyed Black Robe which looks very similar, but I suspect more realistic than New World, which looks a bit sword and sandal-ish from the trailer.
posted by stbalbach at 8:10 AM on March 14, 2006

i didnt see that movie, and this is the first time I've heard of it being a "generation-defining" event.
posted by obeygiant at 8:17 AM on March 14, 2006

mischief, Seitz writes for both the New York Press (as a film critic) and the Star-Ledger (as a TV critic), and his work for both is extremely literate, so it's not quite a fair shake to grouse about this story being about a blogger's post.
posted by blueshammer at 8:17 AM on March 14, 2006

They also said Dracula 2000 was a generation-defining event. I mean, it had both Vitamin C and Seven of Nine!
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:20 AM on March 14, 2006

Huh, I've never even heard of this movie.
posted by delmoi at 8:27 AM on March 14, 2006

bh: why link to a blog then? Link to a legitimate news source. If not, at least identify in the FPP that the writer has some credibility. Blogs are only a half step down from tabloids. Oh, wait, the New York Press is a weekly alternative, a half-step UP from tabloids. Nevermind.
posted by mischief at 8:50 AM on March 14, 2006

mischief, who appointed you head of the mefi standards department, anyway?

jesus, people will bitch about anything.
posted by Hat Maui at 9:02 AM on March 14, 2006

It's a wonderful movie and I can understand both the criticism and the praise for it. On the one hand, yeah, it seemed like nothing much happened in the entire film. On the other hand, yes, there's an intensely strong feeling once the movie is over that you've just returned from a different place, an unimaginably distant place. That feeling you get when you leave the theatre and everything seems brand new? After seeing the NW, that feeling lasted for days. I don't know if I really liked it though. It's was disturbing on some level. It does seem to snooze along, it does seem sloppy, and it does seem pretentious: it wants/tries to do all the stuff we expect a movie to do without actually doing the leg work. The bit about the Malick's "anti-pans" and deliberate obscurity is dead on. But I'm still quite hesitant to call it a masterwork. I need to see it a few more times, to really understand how the movie works until I'd be comfortable deploying such theatrics. It's a wonderful movie though.

blueshammer, Hat Maui: please ignore mischief. He has nothing to contribute, as usual, and if you ignore him he'll get bored enough to wander away and shit in another thread.
posted by nixerman at 9:03 AM on March 14, 2006

self-appointed ;-P
posted by mischief at 9:04 AM on March 14, 2006

Prospero, Mahnola Dargis's review in the New York Times deals with the use of Wagner, and I like her reading of it: John Smith is the Nibelung dwarf Alberich. One of those things that only resonated with me the second time I saw it.
posted by goatdog at 9:05 AM on March 14, 2006

Damnit, I always spell her name wrong. Manohla.
posted by goatdog at 9:06 AM on March 14, 2006

nixerman: Is it wrong to try to improve the quality of discourse around here by trying to raise the standards of links? heheh
posted by mischief at 9:09 AM on March 14, 2006

Malick, in contrast, has dedicated himself to discovering and perfecting a new genre, practically a one-man genre, the epic naturalist fable. In the service of that new genre, he's created his own syntax, indeed his own language, one that must be engaged with, decoded and learned. It truly does represent an attempt to see the past through contemporary eyes, to identify and even honor timeless, universal drives, without pretending that people from other decades and centuries were just like us.

Seems to me you could replace Malick with Herzog there, and still have a pretty accurate description.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:16 AM on March 14, 2006

posted by nixerman at 9:17 AM on March 14, 2006

Didn't Malick also make a 9 hour cut of The Thin Red Line?

Y'know, a lot of good can come from restraint.
posted by xmutex at 9:21 AM on March 14, 2006

mischief: It is when you're not doing it on MeTa.

Malick. Badlands. Yum. Looking forward to seeing this.
posted by cavalier at 9:23 AM on March 14, 2006

I second that, xmutex. My reaction to the first cut was mixed; I thought it was somewhat muddled and aimless. The lyrical voice-over passages overtook and drowned out the narrative. The new cut, which really isn't that much shorter, still seemed a lot more focused and purposeful. But, as the Kehr-Seitz exchange suggests, a movie as elusive and impressionistic as this one is hard to judge "objectively"--would I have liked the second cut less if I'd seen it first? Would I have liked the first one better on second viewing? There is no way of telling. As it stands though, The New World is a miracle of a movie. If you let it, it will sweep you up like few others.
posted by muckster at 9:31 AM on March 14, 2006

xmutex kind of beat me to it. I like Malick a lot, but let's not confuse a wonderful visual sense and a poor grasp of character for genius. When I was younger I thought the Thin Red Line was one of the best movies, evar. My advice--wait five year, and watch it again. It's still pretty, but incredibly fatuous.
posted by bardic at 9:36 AM on March 14, 2006

FWIW, I found The Thin Red Line almost entirely incomprehensible, so I'm a little leery of Malick's oeuvre. If I do manage to see The New World before it finishes its run in the theaters, I'll try to approach it as an art piece rather than as a film, and see if it makes any sense on that level.
posted by killdevil at 9:41 AM on March 14, 2006

The New York Times did an article last week about the re-construction of the original Indian language for use in the film. Despite their efforts to make me pay for the article, here's the link to the article at another site.

Briefly mentioned is the agreement by the fellow who re-discovered Jamestown about the authenticity of the movie's version.
posted by Atreides at 9:42 AM on March 14, 2006

As for the Thin Red Line, while I enjoyed the movie, it was almost an entirely different perspective on the book.
posted by Atreides at 9:43 AM on March 14, 2006

This New Yorker review summed up everything grand and vexing about Malick better than I ever could, esp. the 'random squadrons of birds' jibe:

How would your kids respond if you took them to “The New World”? First, much of Terrence Malick’s film would afford them the chance to catch up on the restorative sleep that every child needs. Second, as they watched the British captain make googly eyes at the timid Native American, who learns his language by dancing around and crying “Wind, wind,” our young viewers would shout with one voice, “No, dummy, it’s the colors of the wind.”
In short, this is “Pocahontas” minus the songs. It also dispenses with the comedy duo of hummingbird and raccoon, although Malick does have a tendency to cut away, at languid moments, to random squadrons of birds.

But I love Malick. He's as unique visually as Soderbergh for me, and not surprisingly evokes pretty strong reactions from people. I can't wait to see NW, but I'm going alone.
posted by docpops at 9:58 AM on March 14, 2006

When I hear Seitz' defense of Malick's meandering ways ("Hint: Malick's a Transcendental existentialist who annihilates time and just isn't into the whole closure thing") my mind says flee.

Haven't seen The New World, but that particular bit of B.S. -- that art can go on shapelessly as long as it wants to because "closure" is such a fascist notion -- is something I've avoided since college.

I can say that The Thin Red Line was sometimes great when the images took over and just sophomoric when Malick's voice-overs and dialogue took over. Too bad there was so much of the latter.
posted by argybarg at 10:07 AM on March 14, 2006

Shorter TRL--I went to a philosophy class and a war broke out.
posted by bardic at 10:14 AM on March 14, 2006

argybarg, the biggest problem with The New World for me was the voiceovers. Thankfully, they're kept at a minimum. Honestly, most of the dialogue in the movie was unnecessary, and I think Malick could have made it mostly silent. At its best, the talking blended into the soundscape.
posted by goatdog at 10:24 AM on March 14, 2006

Oh, it wouldn't be a Malick film without voiceovers though! "People was dyin' of pain and hunger; their tongues was hangin' outa their heads" "I see you, and we are one. I feel you touching me, and I know you" "Kit didn't mind that I wasn't like other girls, cause he did strange things too" [shot of Kit standing on top of a cow] Joking aside though, this seemed like the culmination of Malick's work for me. Badlands and Days of Heaven were like sketches or short stories. The characters were sharp and focused, but the plot seemed secondary. Thin Red Line was all impressionistic and moody, but there were just too many characters and threads to keep track of. This was limited in scope, paced *appropriately* (slow enough to grasp the gradual changes working their way through the characters, but not so long that I grasped it and then just stopped caring) and the voiceovers were, as goatdog suggests, more a part of the soundscape than anything else.

Also, if the shot where Smith returns to camp after spending time with the Native Americans and finds a stinking cesspool of insanity and hatred doesn't make you laugh and despair at the same time, then I just don't know what to tell you. =P
posted by idontlikewords at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2006

Don't let the creepy excessiveness of some of the blog rants scare you -- this is a hell of a movie. It manages to be both Malick's best and most accessible work.

Also, it helps not just to see it on a big screen but to see it somewhere with a decent sound system.
posted by chrisgrau at 10:53 AM on March 14, 2006

it wants/tries to do all the stuff we expect a movie to do without actually doing the leg work
What can you possibly mean? What do you expect a movie do? What "leg work" is failing to be done? Do you mean it lacks car chases and bouncing tits? A big ending with fireworks and the birth of a nation?

I like Malick a lot, but let's not confuse a wonderful visual sense and a poor grasp of character for genius. When I was younger I thought the Thin Red Line was one of the best movies, evar. My advice--wait five year, and watch it again.

Possibly the most condescending comment in the entire thread. Film is primarily a visual medium. You watch it. The images create an impression on your brain. I'm sorry if I'm talking down to you, but maybe you should wait 10 years and watch the film again. By then you might have experienced enough art to understand that a character's inner life can be revealed outside of the traditional techniques of confessional dialogue, psychological backstory, and 3-act storytelling. (Hint: in filmmaking, visual language can do a lot of legwork.) Read Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, rinse, repeat.

On a slightly less bitchy note, I will agree with you that Thin Red Line doesn't hold up that well. But I responded to The New World as strongly as I did to Days of Heaven, and that movie isn't any less of a masterwork 20+ years later. Have you watched that again recently? I would be interested to know if you think that movie is also as ephemeral in its impact.

How would your kids respond if you took them to “The New World”?

How would your kids respond if you took them to see Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle? What kind of litmus test is this? Reminds me of ye olde: "Have you seen that Picasso fellow's work? Good heavens, my 3-year old daughter can paint like that!"

Hollywood filmmaking is dying because it wants to tell the same story every time. They say this is true because the audience wants it that way, and I must say, it appears they are right. Welcome to atrophying of the American creative mind. We are doomed to reality television and recycled nostalgia. I blame the boomers, but that's a pet theory and I can't really support it (yet).
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:06 AM on March 14, 2006

If this is going to devolve into Jerry Bruckheimer vs. Terence Malick, I suppose I'll stand on Terence Malick's side. But it's possible to dislike both. I agree that Hollywood is graveyard of received ideas, etc. I also find Malick to be 1/4 touched with genius and 3/4 a windbag -- not that unusual a combination and not, in the end, all that exciting.

I don't believe I have to choose a side. If I do, I think I'll go to my own room with my Buster Keaton movies, thanks.
posted by argybarg at 11:13 AM on March 14, 2006

argybarg: I would suggest you see The New World before you deconstruct the proportionality of Malick's genius. Is The Thin Red Line the only film of his you've seen?
posted by billysumday at 11:23 AM on March 14, 2006

I agree with the sentiment that The New World is a beautiful, slow movie.

I agree with Prospero's time distortion thing, as that kind of bothered me when I saw it -- it seemed to take John Smith a week or so to get to the Indians, but when colonists return later, it's a half-hour trip up the river. Give or take.
posted by graventy at 11:28 AM on March 14, 2006

It's a wonderful movie and I can understand both the criticism and the praise for it.

Me too. I was blown away, it's remained fresh in my memory for weeks, and I'm dying to see it again (especially after reading that Times piece about the Algonquian reconstruction!). It's certainly slow going, and if you demand a plot that moves along you're going to get fed up quickly. (I'm not condescending to that demand; it's a basic part of our story-loving makeup, and we have to learn to suppress it if we want to appreciate certain forms of art—but of course there's no law that says we have to appreciate everything.) But my God it's gorgeous, and it sees the world through absolutely fresh eyes; those slow camera-drifts up the river make you realize what an encounter with a new world must feel like (like Fitzgerald's famous line about the "green breast of the new world," which has unfortunately been repeated so often as to lose its impact).

As for historical accuracy, that's a dumb demand to make of any movie (it's a movie, not a work of history), but I confess I do get bothered by what seems like unnecessary tampering. I'm happy to accept the completely unhistorical (and repugnant if you consider the girl's actual age) romance at the core of the movie, because it's a foundational American myth and it's the myth he's working with. But it does annoy me that he shows Jamestown as a thriving, prosperous little settlement, au courant with the latest London fashions, during the very period (after Smith left to explore New England and everybody stopped bothering to tend the crops) that it went through its very worst times and almost everyone starved or died of disease. But whatthehell, it's a movie, and a damned impressive one. I don't know what I or anyone else will think of it in five or ten or fifty years, but it's one of the few movies I've seen recently that I can imagine winding up with that gold star labeled "masterpiece."

Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 12:44 PM on March 14, 2006

They also said Dracula 2000 was a generation-defining event. I mean, it had both Vitamin C and Seven of Nine!
Astro Zombie

It also had Jonny Lee Miller delivering arguably one of the finest lines in film history:

"Don't ever fuck with a librarian"
posted by quin at 12:44 PM on March 14, 2006

[Add punctuation where appropriate :]
posted by quin at 12:45 PM on March 14, 2006

billysumday: No, I've seen all his others. He clearly hits other people harder than he hits me.
posted by argybarg at 2:18 PM on March 14, 2006

Hmm. How can I find out where this is playing? Presumably it's already come and gone from my town. (Or else, my town is too small and it hasn't even shown up yet).

There should be a way to find the distance from my house to the nearest showing of any film, but I'm not sure there is.

Any ideas on this? Or must I go to ask MeFi on this one?
posted by washburn at 2:36 PM on March 14, 2006

washburn, there's a zip code thingy on the official site. Looks like it goes to moviefone.

languagehat, I don't think that "slow going" is quite the right way to describe the way Malick handles time. Seeing the film the second time, I was struck by how quickly he deals with plot points that would have taken up longer scenes in other films. But that's the thing--there are very few real "scenes" in The New World, at least not in the way we normally think of them. For example, take the scene where the settlers lose the favor of the natives--in a lesser movie, that would have taken a whole setup, the traders who come to the fort, the interactions, the theft, the murder. We would have been introduced to those characters etc. Here, all of this is just sketched. The crucial moments happen on screen, but they zip by as part of the dreamy flow of it all.

Of course, at other times, the camera will languidly observe some trees or Anthony Lane's random birds for a while, but "slow" isn't quite fair for the deft way in which Malick cuts through some of the duller conventions we've all learned to settle for.
posted by muckster at 3:09 PM on March 14, 2006

Posted by goatdog:

Manohla Dargis's review in the New York Times deals with the use of Wagner, and I like her reading of it: John Smith is the Nibelung dwarf Alberich.

I'll keep that in mind the next time I see the movie. But here's Dargis:

A haunting drone meant to suggest the rippling of the Rhine River, the prelude begins as a whisper that grows progressively louder until it reaches a crescendo, signaling the moment when the Rhinemaidens realize that the Nibelung dwarf Alberich has forsworn love for gold and power.

That's incorrect (and followers of AskMe will be happy to know what a quick study I am). There is a specific and important piece of music in Das Rheingold that signals Alberich's renunciation of love, but it occurs a good deal later in Scene 1--during the Prelude quoted in the film, Alberich hasn't yet been introduced as a character.

I guess it is true, though, that Smith does renounce love for power, in a sense, though not with Alberich's finality, and it's about that time that Pocahontas starts her consequent slow assimilation into English culture (which I thought was the most well-done aspect of the movie--Pocahontas's servant or handmaiden or whoever she was walked away with every scene she was in).
posted by Prospero at 3:34 PM on March 14, 2006

I don't know which cut of New World I saw, but it's the best thing I've seen in a long time. It could have lasted another two or three hours and I would have been fine with it. I consider it to be as close to perfect as film can be, in that it uses the medium of film--pictures and sound--to tell the story. The only thing that could have possibly made it better would have been even less dialogue, as I think someone upthread mentioned.

Also, Thin Red Line is the only war movie I've ever liked.
posted by Zendogg at 3:49 PM on March 14, 2006

Hmm. The link at the film website just tells me that there are no screenings in my town (which I already knew). I wish there were a way to find which town/city nearest here does have this film playing. Oh well.
posted by washburn at 4:25 PM on March 14, 2006

But Prospero, isn't it enough that the themes of the music and the film overlap--does the plot development have to coincide, too? I think you actually just demonstrated why the music is perfectly appropriate for the film. I had no idea about the Rheingold, but I think you're right that renunciation of love is John Smith's choice exactly. He says he might even have "sailed past his north west passage"--that's pretty final.

Sorry, washburn.
posted by muckster at 4:34 PM on March 14, 2006

languagehat, I don't think that "slow going" is quite the right way to describe the way Malick handles time.

Your points are well taken, but I wasn't criticizing him, just mentioning a fact (describe it how you will, his movies don't exactly zip along) that can put people off. I'm perfectly happy with them the way they are; in fact, like Zendogg I'd be happy with a significantly longer cut (I'm looking forward to the DVD).
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on March 14, 2006

@muckster--if we were talking about almost any other piece of music besides Das Rheingold, I'd agree with you, but one of the defining characteristics of the Ring cycle is the extent to which each note is carefully given specific narrative and thematic significance.

When I say that Dargis's claim is incorrect, I'm not saying that it's a matter of opinion, but that she's making a literally incorrect statement of fact, as much so as if she'd misremembered the basic plot of the opera. And claiming that Malick is using the Prelude to represent Alberich is as if (not that he would do this) he had chosen to accompany Smith's entrance with the music that's usually associated with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but meant Smith to be representative of Darth Vader.

One more thing--have you taken a look at William T. Vollmann's book Argall? I'll confess to having started it but not finished it (it wasn't the right time for me to tackle a long, difficult book like that, and I intend to go back to it), but from what I've read of it, it covers a lot of the same thematic material that Malick is interested in, and I found myself using my memories of the book to fill in narrative elisions in the film.
posted by Prospero at 5:05 AM on March 15, 2006

I'll have to trust you on the music, Prospero--it seemed to me that the thematic proximity was enough to justify the use of The Rheingold, but if it's the wrong theme, I understand it won't work. I didn't have any of that knowledge/baggage and simply thought it sounded great accompaning the images.... But I guess that won't convince anyone but the ignorant.

Haven't read the Vollmann, but I'm curious.

And for those keeping up, here's the latest installment of the Kehr-Seitz saga.
posted by muckster at 11:07 AM on March 16, 2006

You people are nuts. TRL holds up very well and, imo, improves with rewatching.

I went to see TNW the night that this FPP appeared (was avoiding it because I hate Farrell). I thought it was watered down TRL. Not sure which cut I saw though.

"I see you, and we are one. I feel you touching me, and I know you"

If this is supposed to be TRL, you're not doing it justice: "All I would give for love's sake poured out like water on the ground. Dyin', slow as a tree." and "If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack." and "Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed thru this night?" are beautiful lines that are on par with the photography and everything else Malick does so well.
posted by dobbs at 9:09 PM on March 23, 2006

it's not quite a fair shake to grouse about this story being about a blogger's post.

It's not fair to bring me into this without warning!
posted by grouse at 2:21 PM on March 26, 2006

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