The House Next Door’s own creation myth is by now well-known, but once more, with feeling…
Originally begun as a solo venture by Matt Zoller Seitz, The House’s primary aim was to act as an online venue of support for Terrence Malick’s The New World. It was exactly three years ago today (January 2nd, 2006) that Matt published the first in a series of articles parsing and illuminating Malick’s masterpiece. Like the film, the blog would grow beyond its initially stated purpose, becoming a widespread collaborative effort, a home for many voices (harmonized, dissonant, solo) to speak their varied truths.
Yet even in moving forward, we’d somehow always manage to circle back where we’d come from: Matt’s remained a vocal advocate for The New World here and elsewhere; the film has been referenced, by fellow contributors and readers, in innumerable comments threads; my inaugural piece at The House was a breakdown of the differences between the 150-minute Academy cut and the 135-minute theatrical cut. And so we loop ’round again on this, The House’s third birthday/anniversary.
A few months ago, an extended cut of The New World, running 172-minutes, was released on DVD. Contributor Ryland Walker Knight and I began an e-mail dialogue about this version, though we only ever got through a single exchange (my fault, mea culpa Ry). Our e-mails are reprinted, with minor structural and clarity edits, below, though we both of us wanted to more fully mark the moment, so after a recent joint viewing of the film (Ryland having become, once more, a fellow New Yorker) we recorded a podcast conversation that expands on our thoughts—you’ll find it after our initial missives to each other. And just below that is an epigraph, chosen by Ryland, that speaks to a facet of his experience with the film.
It remains only to wish all House contributors and readers a Happy and Healthy New Year. There are some exciting developments on the horizon in ’09, and I hope you’ll all continue with us on the “long, strange journey.” Destination, quite happily, unknown. Keith Uhlich
KEITH UHLICH: I feel safe saying that this is my favorite cut of the film, and I think that’s mainly because more of The New World is, to me, never a bad thing. Malick’s shown the possibilities over three released cuts; unlike Mann with Miami Vice, futzing around with the elements only enhances things. If I think I’m mostly going to keep coming back to this cut (and I do hope, someday soon, for a Mr. Arkadin-like 3-cuts comparative DVD set) it’s because it feels most fully realized. I harbor a suspicion that it might be viewed (at least in immediate experience) as the most conventional because of the intertitles (chapter divisions like “A Proposal” or the brilliant, self-aware first one, “A New Start”), but I think even there Malick takes conventions of the form and twists them to his allusive/elusive purposes (the final chapter heading, “And Last,” still haunts me, and I might have to make use of it in a piece someday just as homage).
If anything, the 172-minute cut brings back the dissonance I felt in the 150-minute Academy cut as regards the voice-over work. When the film was theatrically released at 135-minutes (and the following is not meant as a “shouldn’t-have-done-that” observation) Malick more often matched the voice-over to onscreen action and/or let each person have their say before going to another speaker. In the Extended Cut, characters talk over each other in the voice-over, even, at several points, over their own thoughts so that two or more threads of consciousness are apparent. Smith makes explicit reference to this at one point, arguing with himself about his conflicted feelings over Pocahontas—it’s in the scene where he’s traveling up the river to deal with the merchant Indian, the sequence that bookends his idyllic one-on-one reverie with Pocahontas. The specific line is “cannot walk two paths at once” (a sentiment that Malick disproves).
More on that scene: The merchant Indian hands Smith a coin and Smith observes that it’s “the source of all evil. It excuses vulgarity. Makes wrong right; base noble.” That really resonated with me; I’m sure it has something to do with the financial crisis as well as my own fluctuating situation monetarily. It also rhymes with Smith’s earlier monologue where he states of this new world that “there will be no landlords to rack us with high rents.” If he only knew. I wasn’t a fan of HBO’s John Adams miniseries, but I thought it ended on an appropriately ambivalent note with Adams calling on his descendants to live up to what he and the Founding Fathers had created. It had a sense, as I think it does here, of speaking forward while looking backward. I actually hope to title a book of mine (probably a collection of film-related essays) “The Eternal Present.” That’s something I look for in movies, the sense that, though a story may be specific to a particular time and place, it resonates throughout all that has come before and all that will come to pass.
That gets into Malick’s own methods. Go here, if you haven’t already, to see a YouTube breakdown of some of the references in the film. The invocation by Pocahontas in the prologue alludes to a poem by Vachel Lindsay. Among other textual referents (besides the actual diaries of Smith, Rolfe, etc) are Vergil and The Aeneid, Montaigne, The Bible, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Then, of course, the musical ones: Mozart, Wagner (a semi-ironic use, I believe, because it hints as much at encroachment and eradication as to transcendence and triumph), James Horner, etc, treading various generations. Forwards and backwards always, simultaneously.
A good place to close, save for the observation that I think more time is given, in this cut, to the development of Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship, and I think the film is all the better for it.
RYLAND WALKER KNIGHT: I’m with you, Keith, and I’ll take it a step further: more Malick is always a good thing. The publicity description and solitary still image from his forthcoming Tree of Life make me tremble and smile and lick my lips just as that (it feels) long ago promise of further versions of The New World surfacing in our lives. It feels so long because, as with all of us, so many things have happened since Christmas 2005. And always, in one way or form, The New World has been there, lurking, smiling back at me. I feel very Serge Daney here: if ever a film has watched me and marked my life, even during this brief (yet long! and full!) interval, that film is this one, this unending glimpse of sublimity.
I cannot avoid myself when I talk of The New World. There’s plenty to talk about in the film, of course, and I will get there—it’s why we’re here—but, first, please indulge me. I was lucky enough to be among the select few of the public who got to see the 150-minute cut thanks to my first whirl through New York City (thank you Jann and Don and Ken Burns and, of course, Allison) and its treasures both dirty and sparkling, its opportunities cinematic and (all other forms of) idealistic. Now I’ve always said, and continue to say, that The Thin Red Line is my “favorite” film; but this New World was something else, something truly special. I still revere that 150-minute cut precisely because it feels so lost, because I feel its lack. (Were the suits to be brave and release that Arkadin-like set you propose, Keith, we would all benefit.) And yet, I was more than happy with the 135-minute cut release a month later. I brimmed, I gushed, I cried. I could not understand why certain critics failed to see its beauty. Which, of course, brought my curiosity to the Internet, finally, and to our present home, our House Next Door, our Matt Zoller Seitz, who wanted to sing so much he couldn’t be contained by print! Of course I flipped!
Up to that point, that January of 2006, I had very little interest in film criticism, and less background, despite spending most of my life watching movies. So, once I tasted Agee the fall prior, and once I found Matt’s cathedrals of words, I was hooked. As my friends can tell you, it’s practically all I think about. (Luckily, there are other things, like basketball and fire and beer and swimming and rocks and music and dancing and jokes jokes jokes to keep our conversations lively in the light.) What I’m trying to say, no doubt, is thank you.
January 2007 saw me back in school at UC Berkeley in the Rhetoric Department, where I met more kindred. I’ve said elsewhere on The House and Vinyl Is Heavy how much I’ve learned from reading Stanley Cavell, who I met (at least on the page if not equally inside of me), it feels, by chance as much as by design. To this day, his influence—a style of reading that informs a style of life that brings together so many things read and lived—looms largest in my constellation in terms of, um, “literary” touchstones. (I could list those other friends and influences’ names, but, well, I won’t; they know their names and their places and they appreciate keeping a low profile.) So imagine my surprise when, ignoramus that I am, it dawned on me that Stanley Cavell taught Terrence Malick philosophy at Harvard. Yes, indeed, I wound up writing an Honors Thesis, titled Acting in the World, all about my understanding of The New World and its links to Stanley Cavell and, yes, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, among other films and philosophies and pursuits of happiness. In fact, the thing still sits there on my desktop, asking to be polished, asking (or so I dream; perhaps I hear) to seek the printed and paid light of day. Soon, I say, soon.
When I read something like Bilge Ebiri’s recent essay, “English Speakers,” though, I worry my words have failed. They feel so, you know, wrought next to the simplicity and beauty of a work like his where you sense the theory behind the words without any explicit acknowledgment. Of course, that’s what I feel aligns my project with words with Malick’s project with cinema: an attempt to offer an account of our “selves,” always multiple and always speaking all at once, always fighting to find a harmony. Because, let’s face it, the world stinks sometimes. I had to leave New York because it stunk. It grossed me out after a while. We fled, almost immediately, to the Grand Canyon, which felt like heaven, or, at some liminal level, an Eden. And, even that, right there, is idealized since, as with any adventure, there were headaches and hurt feelings and tears to go along with the bliss of waves and running through tall grass. So it makes perfect sense (right?) that here in 2009 I am back in the Big Apple. I mean, right? Ha! Well, to be honest, there are plenty of reasons; there are, again, so many things, so many voices and bodies and opportunities calling me back that I’d be a fool to sit lame and sad in my dumpy bedroom in Berkeley. It’s about America. We have a great place here; we do. Even though landlords rack us with high rents, and even though money keeps falling away—through all the bad shit that’s hit the fan in the past 8 years or so (and this fall season)—there remains hope. Because as much as America is tangible—is this bed and that city and those waves—America is a myth.
Terrence Malick knows this. Stanley Cavell knows this. I believe you, my good sir, know this. Many of my other Good Personal Friends, who haven’t read a lick of Cavell, know this. Hell, Barack Obama is photogenic mandate proof of this.
Captain John Smith knew this. He saw and felt and made love to this. He lived this, for however brief a time. Pocahontas, too, is this myth made material, made human, made Rebecca. And yet, she’s a ghost, an ideal, an element of our Oversoul, as Ebiri writes, that does, in fact, walk two paths at once. She is the new world as much as she bears witness to new worlds and wonders every day. In my thesis, I try to argue a simple observation into the ground: that Pocahontas/Rebecca’s great heroic capacity is her ability to drift with the world without guile, without performing, however much she acts. Acting, here, being both action and a mask worn or a role assumed or a language learned. (I gave this counterpoint with Miami Vice’s always already acting-action world where things collide all too fast for us to find up, to find right, without tragedy.) I was so happy to read Ebiri’s piece because, ignorant or blind as I choose to be oftentimes, it’s rare to find work on Malick that deals with his interest in language in such a thoughtful manner; however, I should note that Michel Chion’s BFI monograph on The Thin Red Line has some delicious passages, particularly about the voice. I relied on aspects of Cavell’s A Pitch of Philosophy to talk about the voice in The New World and Malick in general and even Miami Vice, where everybody speaks so soft and rarely yells. It boils down to arrogance. The willingness to arrogate to another voice as much as the arrogance to attempt to speak for others. This is the arrogance of philosophy for Cavell. This is clearly the arrogance of, and the problem with, (a lot of) film criticism. For instance, why should anybody care about my history with The New World? I’m not Serge Daney. Well, as far as I can tell, if I have any answer, any work of criticism, or philosophy, is an invitation: an invitation to share the writer’s experience (of an object, like a film; of a concept, like time; of a practice, like language—or film or time or understanding—like life) and the associations produced through that passage.
This is why I’m drawn to these epistolary works of criticism: I cannot deny myself. It makes the work explicitly about my accounting for my unaccountability. In short, it’s a failure from the get-go. Language tries to fix things. Just as cinema, with its desire for The Real, tries to capture and order experience. Which is why I’m drawn to the dissonances, too, Keith. This tactic of voices piling on top of one another in the 172-minute cut (and, I trust you, the 150-minute cut) is not too dissimilar from other great film artists like Preston Sturges and Robert Altman (both American Americans) who use language and voice as a space, to define a space, as much as to deliver sense and meaning to the world. But, of course, it’s different here. Malick conflates the interior with the social, drifting between the two, sometimes to delicious effect, where you think you’re hearing another poetic voice-over that becomes lived-through dialogue. This is more common in The Thin Red Line but there are a few moments of yummy confusion in The New World. The most striking, upon my initial viewing of the 172-minute cut, was during the extended section aboard the first ship up the river, which is mostly Smith’s interior monologue, but blended with the yelps of the Naturals and the occasional imperative, like Smith’s first line of dialogue, “Put in.” This movement between commands and calls and cries from inside makes this river space that much more liquid.
On the whole, this cut is resolutely (!) more liquid, yet more feminine: it even starts with more water, and more (naked) bodies swimming-flying-moving through its murky blue. It’s almost didactic—this movie is about birth! Were it not so gorgeous, and did it not parody me to my face, and did I not bliss the fuck out, I would write it off. As with this image my father made of me and my sister and his girlfriend, it’s like the openings of The New World and The Thin Red Line laugh at me. This immediate encounter with what one senses as his or her most private can often provoke a laugh, if not tears. At its most reductive, it’s the simple moral to join the flow. To complicate that, we might say Malick is inviting us to engage in the possibilities this liquid world affords us—for movement, for touch, for sight, for presence, for thisness. (My friend Daniel says, “Want to know a great cocktail party word that won’t get you laid? Haecceity. It means thisness. Try throwing that one out and see who picks it up.” We like Nietzsche, it’s true.) This gets at your idea of an “eternal present,” Keith. I love that phrase, too. It’s something I cherish, and look for in life as much as in the movies, sometimes Quixotically (cough, foolishly) and to the detriment of both threads. Last spring it felt like Pedro Costa was laughing at me, too, when he pledged an unending, stubborn and, yes, redundant allegiance to our ineluctable present. What I dig is that present also means gift. That this life is a gift. And that we get this gift all the time. So why not love this? Why not believe in this? Terrence Malick certainly seems to, and, in any event, at the end of this unruly ramble, the best I can say right now about his film/s is a big, dumb, gooey “Thanks.”
To listen to the podcast, click here. (TRT: 51 minutes, 53 seconds)
AND LAST (AN EPIGRAPH)
“Consent is, on earth, always a risk, as democracy is, and hence is always accompanied by a knowledge of being compromised. So understood, consent is the show of a readiness for change, of allegiance to a state of society responsive to a call for change. This is how I present the enduring comedies of remarriage in their conversation with society, and how I see Astaire’s farewell gesture, as he merges into the shifting crowd on the pavement outside the Arcade. The question is therefore how compromised consent is shown, is made—in Locke’s use of the terms—express as opposed to tacit. The idea is not to hedge consent, as if your commitment were incomplete, but to give it in the knowledge that its object is still in essential part idea, its existence incomplete. This creates a romance of America, but it tends to make those who are not ambassadors into boosters, the former uneasy about the future, and somewhat guilty because of it, the latter refusing uneasiness, and proud of it.”—Stanley Cavell, Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow, “Henry James Returns to America and to Shakespeare”
Ryland Walker Knight is the editor and creator of the blog VINYL IS HEAVY. He gets goofy at freeNIKES!, where he likes to talk basketball and rap, among other things. His writing can also be found at The Auteurs Notebook and Reverse Shot from time to time.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door.