Thursday, February 09, 2006

The New World

(Hey, let's see if I can get myself mentioned on Matt Zoller Seitz's blog! Wonder how I can do it ... hmm ... I guess I could write about The New World.)

I finally saw this last night (the 135-minute cut, of course). It's a film caught between conflicting visions: part Deren & Emerson, part Ridley Scott & AMPAS. Of course we know where Malick's "heart" is, but for whatever reason, he's devoted to making big budget films, and that means stars & multiplex releases. Consequently he must be aware of the sorts of critical entanglements and public disapproval his film was bound for, especially after The Thin Red Line (which was an immensely important film for me when I saw it at the age of 16). Malick could easily make gorgeous films about nature (and love, and history) on small budgets--Nathaniel Dorsky makes his own eye-poppingly gorgeous films without Colin Farrell, after all. Regardless of what drives Malick to make the sorts of films he does in Hollywood (and it could just be naivete, or a willful and reckless ambition to make great "popular art" as MZS repeatedly puts it, even if it's far from popular at the moment), one thing cannot be denied whatever one's opinion of Malick: he is certainly 'a thing apart.'

So (ahhhh) The New World: I liked it. I didn't love it. I was slightly underwhelmed not for the same reasons repeatedly trotted out against Malick's work: too slow, too elliptical, whatever. I'm a big boy now, and Malick at his most "out there" is pretty digestible stuff. I was initially bothered by what I felt was an arbitrary decision on Malick's part to step so heartily in mythos, disregarding the anchor of concreteness (however distant) which marked his first three films and worked well--it's not that I'm at all put off by such mythic exploration; simply that it seemed so arbitrary, so unjustified, other than by (dare I say it) naivete. I mean, how much cartwheeling Edenic splendor can we really take? But the more I thought about it the more at ease I was with Malick's decision, and it seems to be not naivete so much as decision on his part to 'act like a river,' where he simply flows toward his destination regardless of all baggage and questions.

This is why, I suspect, The New World has inspired such passionate "camps": those who share in Malick's yearning for the destination are willing accept zen-like all accoutrements (by Malick-into-Hollywood's logic) or flaws (by Hollywood-tops-Malick logic) in order to arrive at the torrent of emotion that the final sequence should ideally open up for a viewer. (Of course, if you really love this film than you may run the risk of zealotry, your comments sounding like an imitation Malick voice-over: do your best Pvt. Witt impression and intone, "O why do you flow into me like nourishing water, Terry Malick, fresh and alive? You cleanse my spirit with your stream. You show me a true New World, an inner New World.")

At any rate, The New World is ultimately a film-dream: discussing what it doesn't address and doesn't do is almost pointless--it shows that you (unwisely) think that this film is, was ever, going to offer you something like what any old Oscarbait picture will. To critique the film one must critique Malick's root conception: one can't say it's "too slow," but rather, that Malick's reasons for choosing slowness (or any other quality) are ill-advised. The New World, thankfully and with innocence both maddening and charming, offers us a glimpse of a great dream: happiness and beauty that transcend all suffering. Malick is clear to show that life and history are not rosy, but the reason why he doesn't overtly "historicize" or "politicize" his story is that he's simply not concerned with telling that story--he's not erasing it, he's not discounting it, he's simply letting it sit in its place, a place outside his "vision." He de-emphasizes history for the same reason that he ends the film the way he does, rapturously, oneirically, ecstatically--because this film is 100% a vision of life and vitality without recourse (if not without referral) to anything else. For all the pros and cons that one may associate with such singularity. (Usual caveats apply: "in my humble opinion," etc.) And for this reason I think The New World is not so much a transcendental(ist) film but--and better for it!--a film about tones & images of transcendence.


Eric Henderson said...

I almost saw this today, but keep putting it off for the most mundane reasons. Today, it was the falling snow.

Brian Darr said...

I think the word "naivete" is not unjustified, because though Malick is by no means an unaccomplished or naive filmmaker, I do suspect he intentionally trying to get the audience to think along those lines. According to, the word naive itself can be traced to the Old French naif meaning "native" (what we now call the indigenous tribes of the continent) or "natural" (what the whites in the movie call them), and further to the Latin natus, meaning "was born." I probably sould like I fell off the zealot truck when I say that watching the film, even for the second time, it felt like I was seeing each image as if I'd never seen it before. I think it's a testament to masterful ability to weave a film from subjective and omnicient points of view; it feels almost as if I become the characters for a moment, seeing things the way they are seeing them, images born for the first time. Each shot of a river is like seeing the first river. Each shot of a metal helmet is like seeing the first metal helmet. Wagner helps.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say I laughed out loud while reading your quote in the intonation of Private Witt. That was beautiful.

Im set to see the New World this weekend before it leaves SF for good... (thanks to ominous warnings from brian) I should probably plan to see it twice, as it was a second viewing of Thin Red Line that bowled me over, but that might be a bit optimistic at this point.

Good to see you keeping up your writing Zach, you guys might remember me as mainman on the old board.

ZC said...

Brian, so would you say that Malick has his own aims at 'seeing anew' comparable if not equivalent to Brakhage with his endlessly quoted "child in the field of green"?

Scott, thanks for dropping by! Of course I remember you, and didn't even need 'mainman.' Let us know what you think of The New World. For some reason Blogger isn't letting me see your comments except in the 'Post a Comment' page itself, but hopefully as I post mine it will push yours through.

john said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
john said...

without spending too much time introducing myself or explaining how i found your blog, let me just say that this is probably the most insightful of all reviews regarding "the new world" (and terrence malick for that matter) that i have read, especially from these film review blog sites. you're on to something, and i commend you in looking beyond the formal qualities and asking the question, "why?"

nice reference to dorsky. what works of his have you seen, and have you read his "devotional cinema"?

i'll be sure to check back frequently to see your future posts.

ZC said...

Thanks for dropping by, Scoot. I've seen three Dorsky films, Threnody, Alaya, and The Visitation. I've flipped through Devotional Cinema but I haven't read it. I did see Dorsky give a talk on his recent work, though.

Brian Darr said...

Zach, I'm glad you asked that interesting question about Malick and Brakhage. I'm sure I'd heard the quote before but it hasn't been a real touchstone for me. But I tried to have it in mind this evening when I attended a program of Brakhage's sound films (seven of them, anyway).

It wasn't until the seventh film, 1990's Passage Through: A Ritual, that it really clicked for me. I don't know if you've seen this 50-minute Brakhage epic, but it's a film he made to accompany a piece of piano music by Philip Corner, Through the Mysterious Barricade... and the majority of the image is "just" black screen. I found it really intersting to discover how many ways one can watch a black screen for minutes at a time. Sometimes my eyes scanned the screen for scratches and dirt on the print. Sometimes they rested in a particular place while I concentrated on the music (interestingly I at one point noticed they tended to rest at the same location, in the lower left quadrant of the screen; was this because I was sitting in the second row three chairs from the left aisle?) Sometimes I watched the audience out of the corner of my eye rather than focusing on the screen. Sometimes I played around with opening and closing my eyes, noticing that if I closed them for a few seconds and then opened them again a light (well, less dark, anyway) sideways oval would appear on the screen and then fade away, as my eyes adjusted to the consistency of blackness on the screen. Only after repeatedly trying it did I become sure it was an effect of my perception and not a flash of relative brightness Brakhage had somehow instered into the film.

As various points in the film, a flash of light, color, form, image, would appear on the screen (usually marked by a dramatic point in the music). These were often startling and eerie. The image could be a box of nails, a cloud in the sky, or something unrecognizable but of this earth. It was moments like these when it really felt as if Brakhage was inviting me to relate to the idea of a first vision, a "let there be light" out of darkness, as if coming out of a womb. The real "aha" moment in relation to your question came at a point when I had my eyes closed. And suddently light emitted from the screen shone through my eyelids and I felt compelled to open them. What I saw was a tree branch with pine needles, shown for just a few seconds and then back to black. Shortly after a cloud in a gray sky appeared and disappeared as the music became plaintive. I was reminded of the nature shots in the New World, that film's repeated use of fades to and from black (which are never sustained nearly as long as Brakhage's but perhaps still have a similar psychological effect?) I finally felt able to answer your question, and I think the answer is (and sorry if this has been so long-winded a way to come to such a simple conlcusion): Yes. I do think Malick and Brakhage have comparible if not equivalent aims.