The Village Voice's lead film critic J. Hoberman won't be taking back his pan of The New World anytime soon, but the incessant online ruckus kicked up over Malick's masterwork—on this blog and others—has forced him to concede the powerful effect it has had on people. In this week's Voice, Hoberman acknowledges the New World phenomenon and quotes pro-Malick articles by several critics, including yours truly, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, N.P. Thompson of Movies Into Film and Nick Pinkerton of StopSmiling. The bad news is, the movie's box office gross stands at a paltry $12.2 million, less than Brokeback Mountain ($75 million), Crash ($53 million) and A History of Violence ($31 million), and reviews have been, in Hoberman's words, "mildly favorable to mixed."
"But, as anticipated by the Voice Critics' Poll's ballot-crunching Passiondex, Terrence Malick's impressionistic retelling of the Pocahontas story was the movie that inspired the most fervent devotion," Hoberman writes. "Not everyone adores The New World, but those cineastes who like it, really, really like it. The movie has not only admirers but partisans—it can only be truly loved by attacking those too blind to see the truth."
The bad news is, the movie has limped through three critically underappreciated months, it has already vanished from most first-run theaters and it got only one Oscar nomination (cinematography) which it lost. By any marketplace measure, it is past its media sell-by date. The good news is, the passion displayed by the movie's partisans has forced naysayers to think harder about Malick's movie, wonder if they missed something and perhaps revisit it with fresh eyes (a good thing even if they still don't like it). And it has placed a new frame around The New World as it sails into the home video marketplace (not the best viewing circumstances, admittedly, but better than nothing).
Consensus is not fixed. Shout loud enough and long enough, and you can change it.
UPDATE: Dave Kehr, who thinks the The New World is malarkey, drubs it again a blog entry that references Hoberman's piece, chides Movies Into Film critic N.P. Thompson for attacking Malick's detractors, then revisits the movie via DVD screener and says (huge surprise) that he still dislikes it. "The film does not stand up particularly well to the threat of the small screen," he writes. "Diminished in size and physical impact, Malick's restless whip pans seem less lyrical and expansive and more jittery and indecisive. Traditionally, a pan begins on one subject and moves to another, but Malick seems to have systematically eliminated those beginning and end points in his shots, leaving behind the blur of the contentless middle. Which, I suppose, is a fair description of everyday life, even in Jamestown, but somehow I think Malick had more in mind than that. The impression remains that the shots have been cut together pretty much as they landed, as if they'd been tossed out of a can like I Ching tokens."
How patronizing can you get? Uncharacteristically, Kehr comes off sounding like one of those people who dismisses abstract art by saying, "My kid could do that." There is a conscious, musical, poetic strategy at work in Malick's movie, and it has been written about quite extensively, on the Web and in print, and it's not new, much less strange; in fact, it's a slightly adjusted version of the aesthetic Malick refined in three prior movies. As a critic, you can embrace it or reject it, but you can't deny it's there without sounding as if you weren't paying attention the first time, or the second time. (Hint: Malick's a Transcendental existentialist who annihilates time and just isn't into the whole closure thing; ya think his camerawork and editing might reflect that proclivity?) For further reading, peruse the links contained in "World travelling," listed below.
Or read the entire Thompson article, rather than bailing out, as Kehr apparently did, after the opening paragraphs slagging critics who dismissed the movie. Thompson's piece, while nowhere near as comprehensive as the film deserves, does a superb job of describing how Malick's compositions, camera moves, edits, musical choices and sound design touches fuse to create specific emotional and rhythmic effects. Thompson has the gall to write about form, i.e., the movie itself—sound plus picture—in plain language, with evidence to back up each assertion, rather than doing standard movie reviewer shtick, which consists of describing the plot, the characters and the genre, making a few clever remarks and calling it a day. He is a great critic who exemplifies what film criticism can and should be: a gateway to understanding not just what a movie says, but how it says it.
OTHER MALICK POSTS ON THIS SITE INCLUDE:
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.