24 October 2008

The New New World


The many people who thought the 135-minute theatrical cut of The New World was already too long are probably not lining up to get the new extended cut DVD, but for the passionate minority of us who think The New World is not just a good film, but one of the greatest American films -- for us, the new DVD provides overwhelming bliss.

The movies I care about most are the movies that so capture my imagination that I rarely think about anything else while watching them -- they expand beyond entertainment into a kind of meditation. It's an entirely individual thing, and though I expect most compulsive filmgoers have a list of such films, I doubt any of our lists are too similar.*

When I first wrote about The New World, I began by saying, "I, too, thought The New World suffered because of its length, but unlike the various reviewers who thought it was too long, I felt like most of the problems came from it being far too short for all that director-writer Terrence Malick tried to do with it."

The extended cut is the version I was dreaming of, aching for. It adds only a few new scenes, each of them brief, but instead the additional 37 minutes are scattered into what already existed in the previous DVD version, but with such subtlety and care that it feels like a new film. The effect is powerful because it changes many emphases, and the lengthening makes the story encompass much more than it previously did -- the 135-minute cut basically tells the story of John Smith and Pocahontas's doomed romance; the 172-minute cut tells the story of characters encountering new worlds.

My initial reaction to the earlier version of The New World was that I thought it was unfinished. Subsequent viewings, though, made me think that that first reaction came partly from being annoyed by the people sitting around me in the theatre who were so obviously bored. When I watched the movie again (and again and again...), I got comfortable with its length and editing.

Having seen the extended version now, though, I wonder if I'll be able to return to the first DVD with much pleasure. I'll return to it for intellectual reasons -- interest in thinking about the different choices Malick made -- but the extended cut provided the entrancing and overwhelming experience I had glimpsed when I first saw the film in the theatre.

In TimeOut New York, Matt Zoller Seitz writes insightfully about the new cut (he has been among the movie's most eloquent defenders):
This version foregrounds Smith, Pocahontas, Pocahontas’s second husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and a half dozen subsidiary characters as they are shocked into reconsidering who they are and why they exist. The result is its own splendid thing -- a fresh take on the story drawn from the film’s numerous shots of rivers feeding into oceans, reshaping the land and nourishing the landscape. It is a historical epic that illustrates Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that humankind’s collective past, present and future are encoded in each individual life.
This is true, but what I felt on watching the film again is that part of its genius is its richness of meaning, particularly in the new version, because now it is, yes, about individual versus collective identity, but it is also more vividly about cultures that are alien to each other trying to figure out what to make of the strangers, and it is about communication and intention, and it is about destruction and creation, and it is about travel and home, and it is about grasses and water and insects and clouds and windows -- yes, windows, or at least holes, because a motif that is strengthened in the new version is the motif of walls (sometimes ceilings) and the holes in them that people look through, adding another layer of meaning to the movie, a theme of sight and perception.

Malick is not the sort of writer-director who generally creates great roles for actors, and this is, I think, one of his strengths -- the performances become no more (or less) important than many other elements of the film. Some critics have seen this as coming from his apparent indifference to psychology (for all the internal monologues, most of what is given to us by the words is metaphysical rather than psychological: characters attempting to understand their worlds and their place in them, rather than their own personal, individual motivations), but I think it's as likely to result from his extraordinary sense of balance. In any case, The New World does provide at least one brilliant performance, that of Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas -- even if you forget the extraordinary fact that she was in her mid-teens when she filmed The New World, hers is a performance of powerful depth and subtlety, one of the greatest I've seen (I don't think it's hyperbolic to compare her to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc).

The first Malick film I saw was The Thin Red Line, and it was one of those moments where I said to myself, "I had no idea I so desperately wanted something like this to exist..." I watched it again and again. Then, a few years later, I saw Badlands, then Days of Heaven. My feelings then were that Thin Red Line was Malick's supreme achievement, and that Days of Heaven was relatively superficial. A little while later, I decided Badlands was as good as Thin Red Line. Then came The New World and it was almost as great as Badlands and Thin Red Line. Then Criterion released their remastered Days of Heaven, and I watched it more carefully than before and thought it was even better than Badlands and Thin Red Line. So I watched Thin Red Line again and found it less satisfying than before -- still entrancing, but not to the level of The New World or Days of Heaven. And now, with the extended New World, that, for the moment, seems to me to be Malick's greatest masterpiece.


*My list includes: The Rules of the Game, Touch of Evil, many of Francois Truffaut's movies (especially The 400 Blows), Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Ran, Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, just about everything by Tarkovsky, Blade Runner, Paris, Texas, most of Werner Herzog's films, Brazil, John Sayles's Matewan and Men with Guns, Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo and Short Cuts, Mulholland Drive, everything by Hirokazu Koreeda, Breakfast on Pluto, everything by Miyazaki, Julie Taymor's Frida and Across the Universe, a few of Wong Kar-Wai's movies, I'm Not There, Reprise, and everything by Terrence Malick, with The New World at the top of the list. (A longer list than I expected when I started it!) There are plenty of other movies and directors I love and admire (e.g. Stanley Kubrick), but these are the films that, for me, provide a particular sort of experience.

5 comments:

  1. I think that The New World is a totemic film.

    I think it's totemic for the representation of non-mainstream cinema within existing distribution methods (in London it crept onto a number of small screens before disappearing quite quickly, though evidently there were more people at screenings towards the end of its run).

    I also think that it's totemic of a willingness to look past the standard means of story-telling that are shoved down our throats by the big cinema chains. If you can watch the New World and realise how beautiful it is then you're not completely lost to the idea of cinema as art.

    Nice to see someone carrying a flame for Breakfast on Pluto too.

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  2. Thanks for the heads-up! I missed New World when it came out, but I loved Thin Red Line -- and I already had the experience, with Apocalypse Now: Redux, of finding a longer cut of a long slow film more engaging than the shorter.

    So I'll keep an eye out for the extended DVD, and not count myself too unlucky I missed the theatrical release.

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  3. I'm currently reading Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe so I think it would be interesting to watch The New World as a dual dialogue. I remember the first time I saw a Malick film. It was Days of Heaven. I was in High School and I think we were probably getting a free trial of HBO (this was in the late eighties). I was hypnotized by it. Needless to say if left a huge impression on me.

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  4. Matt: I'm with you on this flick -- really loved it.

    Jeff Ford

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  5. Still haven't seen this, but now that I know about the extended version I definitely will.

    Not that I think B.B. Thornton is a filmmaker on the order of Malick, but I had the same reaction (wanting a longer movie) while watching All the Pretty Horses. I think there's a substantial film there that got lost when it was cut.

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