Just Beautiful

The New World is a new watermark.

Just Beautiful
Photo: New Line Cinema

On the desk beside my keyboard lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn.

At this showing of this movie, at this time on this day, in this theater, in this borough of this city, I bore witness to American commercial cinema’s ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people—an ability that reached its fullest realization during the heyday of the blockbuster art film, the 1970s, but has rarely been exercised since.

The history of American studio blockbusters includes a handful of indisputable high watermarks, moments when entertainment and art merged to create not just a hit, but an origin point for new ways of thinking about, and making, popular cinema; a rallying point for anyone who still believes in the blockbuster’s ability—and responsibility—to deliver more than escapism; a secular house of worship for anyone who prizes ambition, mystery, and beauty over familiarity and neatness; a transformative experience that can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and that anyone who ever called him or herself a movie lover must seize now, or forever regret having missed.

The New World is a new watermark. It is a $50 million epic poem made with Time Warner’s money; it is an American creation myth that recontextualizes our past, present and future as fable, as opera, as verse. It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it.

It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.

When your descendants ask you to describe the popular art called movies, this is one of the titles they’ll ask about. Go on and debate the politics of Munich, the social significance of Brokeback Mountain, the elliptical menace of Caché, the narcotic romanticism of 2046, the pulpy genre freestylings of A History of Violence, and have a grand time doing it. They’re films worth seeing and fighting over. But they are hills in the shadow of a mountain.

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.

I don’t care what these people think. And I know anyone who loves this film as much as I do doesn’t care either. Other movies have fans. The New World has disciples.

To the disciples of The New World, each viewing is a new experience; a new opportunity to humble oneself in the presence of a great work of popular art; a new chance to immerse oneself in the richness of an artist’s mind, and by immersing oneself, to lose oneself, then discover or rediscover oneself, and perhaps emerge a changed person.

We disciples of The New World consider ourselves lucky to have identified this treasure when it appeared before us and then seized it and made it a part of our lives. We will see it again and again, as often as time and money and New Line Cinema permit. We love this movie more than words can say. Some of us love it so much that at some point during our daily routines, we have to make a conscious decision to quit thinking about it for a while, because there is a chance we may be moved to tears.

This re-cut of The New World is is different enough to necessitate a fresh reponse and a rundown of key differences in style and pacing. My nutshell reaction: this is not a “better” cut, necessarily, but a leaner, more efficient, and frankly more commercial cut, and in many ways a more powerful cut. It somehow manages to preserve most of the ideas from the earlier version while placing them in a context that non-Malickites can grasp and enjoy.

Comparatively few shots have been snipped entirely, and I didn’t notice that any major setpieces had gone missing. (I hope that my colleague Keith Uhlich—who’s currently writing an exhaustive comparison of the two versions for Slant Magazine, and who generously shared his observations with me earlier in the week—will feel free to correct any misimpressions I have.) Viewers of both versions will likely be struck by differences that seem small when you’re watching the movie, but prove pivotal in recollection.

For starters, there’s the timing of Malick’s narration. The first version of The New World started and ended individual monologues in odd, Malicky places. For instance, you might have seen images of Powhatans or English settlers or images of the forest or the shore and heard John Smith speaking, but not actually seen Smith until several shots into the sequence.

This strategy, employed consistently by Malick throughout the first theatrical cut, contributed to the film’s feeling of collective consciousness, collective memory. As I’ve noted in previous articles, it represented the culmination of Malick’s pictorial/narrative voice, and made The New World feel like a companion piece to the ensemble-narrated The Thin Red Line.

This re-cut version starts and ends narration in more conventionally sensible places, so that viewers can more easily link particular thoughts to particular characters at particular moments. As a result, the re-cut feels less like The Thin Red Line, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Wings of Desire, and other cosmically ruminative films, and more like Days of Heaven and Badlands, or perhaps a fusion of those films and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s still an interior/exterior journey film, a poetic/visceral spectacle, but one that’s more strongly anchored to three characters—John Smith, John Rolfe and Pocahantas—with brief detours into the minds of supporting players.

Is this a concession? I don’t think so. While preserving the essence of Malick’s Transcendental temperament, the re-cut gives The New World a compactness and forward motion that was missing (but not necessarily missed) in the previous edition.

Like the monoliths-as-evolutionary-stepping-stones trope in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Malick is Kubrick with a smile) and the journey upriver in Apocalypse Now, Pocahantas’ gradual transformation from Powhatan princess to corseted English wife gives this still-poetic film a strong but not-too-prosaic spine.

In this cut, Pocahantas’ evolution is at once plainer and more mysterious than before. We see ourselves more clearly in her story and in the stories of Smith and Rolfe, who adore her but can never really know her, much less possess her. The sense of Pocahantas-as-symbolic-representative-of-the-unspoiled-continent still comes through, but with a welcome caveat: Malick has etched Pocahantas more sharply as both a character and a symbol, and that makes both her private narrative and the larger, clash-of-civilizations story more moving. This version illustrates the central thesis of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “History”, which holds that all human history is encoded within, and replayed by, each individual life. Yet it’s still possible to enjoy The New World on less rarefied level, as one woman’s story, or as the story of a woman, two men and two worlds. This is a remarkable achievement.

To paraphrase Uhlich, in the first cut of The New World, Malick gave himself permission to leave the central narrative river and meander along particular branches that fascinated him; if he hit a dead end, he turned around and went back. This relaxed, ruminative, philosophical approach, coupled with Malick’s contrapuntal narration and his mix of documentary-style snippets and sinuous long takes, made The New World feel less like a story than an experience, a vibe, a particular way of thinking about history and drama. As Uhlich points out, Malick’s trims keep the movie flowing forward, always forward. There are still tributaries, but they pull you away from the main river more fleetingly and then drop you right back into the thick of it.

This seems a clear example of a great director giving up something important—that sense of time-and-space-suspended one-ness that he’s been chasing since 1973’s Badlands—so he can gain something even more important: momentum.

This cut’s muscular grace may seduce people who aren’t otherwise inclined to give Malick the time of day. Which means that Malick has not made a concession, but a smart aesthetic/tactical manuever, one I frankly wouldn’t have expected a bird-watching recluse to embrace with such gusto. This new New World is not a retreat, nor even a revision, just an alternate version—a more accessible but still daring work. And it will reportedly be joined on home video by a third version—a three-hour cut that presumably will let Malick indulge scratch his Transcendental itch without fear of exhibitor backlash.

For disciples of The New World, this is the best possible outcome. Chronology and creativity are rivers to Malick. He dips into them as deeply and as often as he wants. His art, like Pocahantas’ life, like the New World’s history, has no beginning, no end. It’s a rush of feeling.

At 9:30 p.m. on January 21, 2006, I sat in the upper reaches of the BAM theater, on the aisle near the back. The audience was a demographic mosaic: white folks in the row behind me, an African-American couple ahead of me, an Orthodox Jewish couple to my left, and just beyond them, a young Asian man.

From the instant the opening credits began and Malick began cutting between the English ships and the Powhatans gathered on the forested shore as the prelude to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” rumbled to life, the crowd honored The New World with a gift rarely bestowed on any American blockbuster: their full attention.

A few people did get up and leave, but for the most part, they were people seated on the auditorium’s outward edges, people who could duck out without much disruption. They apologized as they left and apologized again upon their return. And then, summoning their humblest schoolchild-in-the-library whispers, they asked their seatmates what they’d missed.

It was so quiet in there that when a man at the bottom of the theater decided to remove his leather jacket midway through, people at the top of the theater could hear the leather creak.

As the film unreeled, and as the crowd’s viscerally overwhelmed response gave way to introspection and judgment, then hardened into private verdicts, one could feel crowd splitting into two camps: the spellbound and the doubtful.

About 90 minutes in, the man beside me took out his cellphone, which he’d silenced before the opening credits, and flipped it open so he could check the time on the illuminated faceplate. Ten minutes later, he took the phone out again, but the second he turned it on, his wife deftly grabbed the phone away from him, switched it off, then handed it back. She never stopped watching the screen.

When the film ended there was scattered applause—maybe a dozen people. Nothing like a unified verdict, to be sure, but still impressive, considering it came at the very end and could therefore not be written off as a purely physical response (as is the case with, say, the applause you hear during an action film setpiece). More significantly, the applause erupted at more or less the same instant, when the closing shot of the sun shining through tall treetops faded from the screen. The unconscious coordination of this response told me that these strangers—these disciples of The New World—had arrived at a similar emotional/intellectual place at the same instant.

I was one of those people. So was the fellow in front of me, who clapped louder than anyone in the theater. His companion stared at him, incredulous. “You clap for that?” she said, pointing to the screen. “You have to,” he replied, beaming. “It’s just beautiful.”

As I left the theater, I heard a young man behind me say to a friend, “That was incredible,” to which his friend replied, “I think there was too much gallavanting and cartwheel-turning.” Walking toward Flatbush Ave., I saw a sixtyish woman I recognized from the auditorium standing alone at the base of a stoplight, thinking.

Diversity of response isn’t prima facie evidence of a masterpiece, of course. It’s the minimum we should expect from a film that aspires to be more than a diversion. But as I look back on that evening, I am less struck by what happened afterward than by the audience’s behavior during the film. Whatever opinions they formed after the fact, while they watched The New World, they gave themselves to it. They knew this movie respected them, and they responded in kind.

I close with a few words from another American visionary, Willa Cather: “Miracles seem to me to rest not so much on faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but on our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what was there always.”

The New World is a miracle. I’m glad I’m alive to see it.

Previous posts inspired by The New World include:

“They Are All Equal Now” (on Barry Lyndon).

Live from Jamestown: The Oversoul (a quote from Emerson’s “History”)

5 for the Day: Contrapuntal narration (with particular emphasis on Malick)

Voices in Your Head (in which I attack Malick’s critics, and further explore his use of narration)

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder and original editor of The House Next Door, now a part of Slant Magazine. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, he is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com and TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com.

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