A response to Matt Seitz
Filed under: movies
Matt, Any work of art is a negotiation between the found and the made. At one extreme, you have the Lumiere brothers and Andy Warhol; at the other, Georges Melies and Alfred Hitchcock. A critic should have no preference for one approach over the other. We are not here to dictate (I hope), but to describe and analyze.
Jazz musicians, too, draw a useful distinction between improvisation and “noodling.” At its best, “The New World” is lovely improvisation. At its worst, it is empty noodling.
I’m afraid that I don’t find formulations like “He’s a journalist poet who creates an organic fiction on the spot and then shapes it into a multilayered story in the editing room” very helpful or interesting without concrete examples to back them up. I do not at all find the film “unworthy of analysis.” Analysis is exactly what I would like to see from you and the film’s other acolytes, rather than infinitely repeated assertions of its greatness, backed by no evidence other than the emotions the film happened to stir in you. This is what the New Critics defined as the “affective fallacy” – the unfortunate tendency of some critics to write, not about the work of art, but how the work of art made them “feel” – results that are obviously irreproducible. The affective fallacy has been pretty much banned from academic literary criticism since the 1950s, but snuck back into popular film criticism through Pauline Kael, who based her whole aesthetic on it. Pace your concluding remark, I find that the unwillingness of the film’s supporters to truly engage with it truly irritating. No one I’m aware of has yet pinpointed the differences between the two extant versions, or explained just what has been gained or lost between the two cuts. If, indeed, the film is as thoughtfully and carefully constructed as you believe it to be, that shouldn’t be too hard to do.
I can’t agree that “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” (films I admire tremendously) have the same grammar as “The Thin Red Line” (which started giving me second thoughts about Malick, though I admire it, too, in the end) and “The New World.” The issue is not the length of the shots (Vertov’s shots are much shorter than Malick’s, for example) but how they are combined. It is possible to find relationships – formal, spatial, dramatic, thematic – between the shots in “Badlands” that suggest Malick put some thought into how they were arranged; by contrast, much of “The New World” seems to have been created in a state of blessed-out delirium, which non-linear editing enables and apparently encourages.
History will, of course, pass the final judgment on “The New World,” and perhaps we should wait a bit before describing it as having shifted “tectonic plates of film criticism in this country, inspired some of the most impassionated arguments in years, and reinvigorated movie criticism.” Even the few years that have passed since “The Thin Red Line” have not been particularly kind to it, while “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” retain their rightful positions in the American canon. Malick does not seem to me the filmmaker he was in the 1970s, and that is our loss as well as his.
And NP: Obviously I was being facetious when I described your comments as “frightening.” But it all seriousness, I would think long and hard before labeling people who happen not to be in total agreement with you as subhumans. That particular rhetorical device has a long and tragic history.