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World Traveling

This one is for the Malick-heads.

World Traveling
Photo: Warner Bros.

Regular visitors who really wish I’d stop talking about The New World (and I know you’re out there, because you e-mail me to say things like, “For God’s sake, please shut up about that movie”) might as well come back tomorrow. Or revisit the ongoing “5 for the Day” thread below, in which visitors list the films and TV shows that made them laugh themselves into a state of agony. Or take up knitting or something; I could always use an extra scarf. Meanwhile, Malick-heads may peruse the following links, culled from movie sites, search engines, and, in a couple of cases, from the comments sections of previous Malick posts here at The House Next Door.

The Chicago-based culture journal Stop Smiling just published a New World appreciation by Reverse Shot contributor Nick Pinkerton, who has less patience for the film’s detractors than I do, and calls them out in much harsher language. He calls the film “…an epochal American piece of art. A measure of how good Malick’s movie is: a few years from now, when those of us who love it are re-watching it and wrestling with it, we will literally not be able to imagine that it once played on thousands of screens, that it once was writ large simultaneously in Cary, North Carolina, and Middletown, Ohio, and Durango, Colorado. It will seem as large and faraway as the Cretaceous Era.”

N.P. Thompson has a thorough review at Movies Into Film that pays special attention to Malick’s visual/aural grammar and his multivaried interpretation of the word “honor.” “Doing the ‘honorable’ thing saddens and diminishes us, which in Smith’s case means leaving Paradise to tend to the malnourished Jamestown colonists. It’s only in taking risks and doing what we aren’t supposed to do that anything in life ever gets done. ‘Love…shall we deny it when it visits us?’ Smith asks earlier, in the enchantment of an Algonquian spring. Yet Smith, a young, ambitious man who, like most of us, yearns for a greater recognition in his field, would still very much want a chance to navigate that elusive route to the West Indies, and so he does deny love, ultimately. In a supremely well-directed moment, Malick tweaks the sound design as Smith paces anxiously in his hut, tormented by the decision to sail back to England instead of staying with the Princess. The Captain deliberately flings over a small table, and we hear…silence: it makes the hurt worse than if we’d heard the sound of the objects crashing.”

An intriguing interview with New World producer Sarah Green by way of Canadian Christianity in which she’s asked why the film downplayed Pocahantas’ real-life conversion.

A rather telling column on wherein the writer remarks on the absence of explicit religious talk in a movie concerned with culture clash, then concedes that days later, he found himself thinking about the movie as a spiritual experience, and wishing the director had provided more clues to explain what he was doing with his images.

An entry from The Stranger’s blog on a showing of New World that was heckled by a couple of Native Americans (scroll down to the 2/3 item).

The great Chris Fujiwara, breaking my heart by panning the re-cut, but still managing to make useful observations about one of the least-analyzed aspects of Malick’s art, sound design, “The elliptical cutting keeps the images from becoming oppressive in their beauty,” he writes, “but the images still have that unshakable pompousness that has been Malick’s trademark since Days of Heaven. The extreme low angle is his signature shot: the camera frequently peers up at trees, the sky, or people. A good thing about The New World is its willingness to throw its images away rather than dwell on them…Much dialogue is whispered or muttered, and the visual fragmentation makes it hard (as in an Orson Welles film) to match up the lines with the image of the speaker or the space of the scene. Malick’s style even raises the question whether his cipher-like characters ever hear or understand each other. When, late in the film, Smith tells Pocahontas, ‘It seems as if I were speaking to you for the first time,’ the comment says more about Malick’s æsthetic than it does about the two characters’ relationship.”

Just for kicks, a gallery of photographs of the elusive Mr. Malick, by way of (The above image of Malick with Badlands star Martin Sheen comes by way of that site. If you visit, be sure to show some love.)

Update: Some additional New World chat board links, courtesy of regular House guest Goofbutton: DVD Maniacs, Home Theater Forum and Criterion Forum.

Update: If you’re intrigued by Malick’s use of sound, you’d better take a look at this.

Update: Peter Rainer has written two notable pieces on The New World, both respectful but ultimately negative. His Los Angeles Times overview of Malick’s career praises the director’s maverick spirit and unique voice, but accuses him of radiant shallowness and cultural condescension. “In The Thin Red Line, which came 20 years after Days of Heaven, the strategies of war and the bearing of the soldiers pale beside the Rousseau-like idylls of Jim Caviezel (warming up to play Jesus?) cavorting with the uncorrupted Melanesians,” Rainer writes. “For Malick, being AWOL is a state of grace. The Native Americans in The New World are equally uncorrupted. Pocahontas certainly is—she’s practically a woodland nymph. Despite his super-sophistication, Malick has a deeply childlike conception of innocence. This must be why his films, which are sensual in an almost pantheistic way, are nevertheless without a carnal dimension. There is no sex in his movies, not even in Badlands or Days of Heaven. Sex occupies a baser realm than the rarefied one he inhabits. The real action for Malick is all in the head, in his characters’ inner musings that crowd the soundtrack. A major problem with The New World is that, despite its visual ravishments and convincing note of woe, its people don’t seem to have much going on between the ears.”

Rainer expands on these gripes in his Christian Science Monitor review. While allowing that Malick often “…fuses his visual gifts with a true sense of historical purpose,” he says that too often “…we dawdle with the protagonists as they muddle through their very photogenic escapades. It doesn’t help that Farrell’s Smith looks not so much entranced as just plain zonked. He doesn’t have the transcendent personal qualities that this film needs. His blank face gives nothing back. Kilcher is lovely but she has a blankness, too. After her first couple of close-ups, the camera doesn’t discover anything new about her. Still, Malick has a gorgeous talent for capturing supernal landscapes, for conveying their sorrow, and it would be a loss if he stopped directing again at a time when Hollywood is more starved than ever before for the ‘personal touch.’”

Update: Roger Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times review is what some would call meat-and-potatoes—meaning there are no explosive assertions, cutting remarks or academic jargon—but it’s worth noting that his supposed lowball approach manages to notice and explain formal strategies that most reviews ignore, in language anyone can grasp, with examples. For instance, Ebert writes that Malick “…uses voice-over narration by the principal characters to tell the story from their individual points of view. We hear Capt. John Smith describe Pocahontas: ‘She exceeded the others not only in beauty and proportion, but in wit and spirit, too.’ And later the settler John Rolfe recalls his first meeting: ‘When first I saw her, she was regarded as someone broken, lost.’”

Update: David Lowery’s review meets Malick on his own rarified plane, starting off with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and critic Noël Burch. Then he honors what he considers to be the film’s greatest strength—its allusive, fragmented editing—by analyzing a handful of specific moments, each marked with a number like stanzas in a poem.

Update: At Elusive Lucidity, Zach Campbell begins by subjecting this blog’s proprietor to some deserved ribbing, then delves into Malick. He says he was “underwhelmed” by the movie and did not find it as challenging as he’d anticipated. But as he continues to write, a funny thing happens: his tone becomes sweeter and more rapturous, like a man talking himself into a position he wished to hold anyway. He calls it, “…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.”

Got any other New World or Malick links we should know about? Post them in the comments section below, or e-mail me at [email protected], and I’ll add them to the list above.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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