A response to Matt Seitz
Friday March 10th 2006, 1:38 pm
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.



40 Comments so far

Hi, Dave, thanks for your response, particularly your clarification about shot length and shot combination, which was not made clear in the original post.

You misrepresent me when you say I offer no specific examples to back up my enthusiasm, and if you look back over my posts you’ll see that it’s true. The concrete examples are there in my posts and in writing on THE NEW WORLD by other critics cited in the comments section of the previous item. Over the past few months I’ve approached the movie from a lot of different angles, including Malick’s distinctive use of contrapuntal narration and the way he fractures time and consciousness to move us away from the classical narrative model of one hero, one story, and into something more open and collective (and yes, amorphous; it comes with the territory). I have, in fact, tried to back up my enthusiasms, and the writing is posted online, with comments and arguments from readers.

I think we’re moving into is so/is not territory here, and that’s unfortunate. But for some reason it always happens eventually when people argue about contentious movies. I’d be happy to re-watch either cut and engage you on specific points of contention, if you’re game for it.

I’d love to do an extended comparison of the two versions, but unfortunately New Line and the movie marketplace make such an exercise impossible, because both versions are now out of circulation. If anyone out there knows how to get hold of bootlegs of the first cut, I’d love to see it again.

I will close by saying that the “affective fallacy” is often invoked in these sorts of arguments, often dismissively. It translates as, “I’m glad you like the work in question, but you’re just responding subjectively with no evidence to back it up. See ya later.” The phrase, “Back atcha” springs to mind, Dave. You say Malick’s filmmaking in his first three movies suggests a sense of purpose and design, but you don’t get the same sense from THE NEW WORLD. That’s a sweeping statement that cuts right to the heart of this disagreement on the film’s quality. I’ve already made my case in multiple published articles and web site posts. You can tell me my reasoning is unsound or my examples don’t help you, but you can’t say I haven’t tried, because it’s not true.

Besides a comment in a previous post about Malick misusing the pan shot, where are your specific examples?

Comment by mattzollerseitz 03.10.06 @ 3:36 pm

How about this? I will borrow a screener of the 135 minute cut from a friend who has acquired one, and write an entirely new piece concentrating only on editing, camera movement and composition, music and narration. I will post it on my site. You do the same on your site, and the readers can critique us both.

Comment by mattzollerseitz 03.10.06 @ 3:51 pm

The affective fallacy is itself a fallacy, though – that a text/work of art can be parsed neutrally, shearing off any emotional or subjective response from the person analyzing it. Who will perform such an analysis? A cyborg? It’s not the affective fallacy that’s been “banned” from academic criticism, but the New Critical idea (now imported into law as strict constructionism) that you can interpret a text without subjective bias and somehow dispassionately decipher what the author “meant” without any of your own biases or subjectivity or personality intruding on that process. In any case, an analysis of the effusively emotional, rampantly subjective New World without any consideration of its affective impact on a viewer is one I’m dying to see …

Comment by Leo Charney 03.10.06 @ 4:22 pm

Matt, you’ve got a lot more time on your hands than I do. This ain’t my crusade; it’s yours.

Comment by dave 03.10.06 @ 4:29 pm

So Leo, I guess you prefer the Intentional Fallacy.
And can the Pathetic Fallacy be far behind?

Comment by dave 03.10.06 @ 4:31 pm

Actually, if there’s anything I could use more of, it’s time. Fortunately, I’m a fast typist and an insomniac.

I guess that’s a no, then? Oh, well, I tried.

Comment by mattzollerseitz 03.10.06 @ 4:34 pm

The intentional fallacy = no one wrote it. The affective fallacy = no one cares about it.

Comment by Leo Charney 03.10.06 @ 4:35 pm

Dave wrote: “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.”

Dave:

Never once did I label anyone subhuman. That’s what you’re superimposing. I do back up my judgments with examples from the film. You should try reading, rather than scolding. I’m not sure about “obviously”; your post read as if you were playing into the hands of Neo-Puritans, i.e. the segment of our culture that pretends to be shocked at honest expression while itself engaging in scabrous bullying (i.e. Gawker, The Stranger newspaper, etc.) As for your above leering at the “emotional” response to a movie, any movie, whom would you rather read — writers who are passionately engaged with a work or those can’t wait to fill their word count hack/blowhards such as James Bowman and Christy Lemire? Part of why I wrote why I did was because I took offense at their jabbering senselessness.

Also, your demands, re what you’d like to see in appraisals of The New World, seem awfully astringent. I don’t have the luxury of comparing the two versions. The third time I watched the movie, I saw things in it that I missed the first two times — in particular, the now you see them, now you don’t inserts of the English copper being caressed by Native American hands, the material goods received in “exchange” for the Princess — but I didn’t write about things: I felt that I would have needed a fourth go-round with the movie.

Anyway, I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t have the clout of the New York Times behind me. Because if you don’t, then you really have moved into the realm of the stern headmaster at the private school (that’s what your two posts on The New World sound like) who’s all too eager to rap the knuckles of students who fail to know their place.

Regards,

Mr. Thompson

Comment by N.P. Thompson 03.10.06 @ 4:40 pm

Sorry, but it’s time to call a spade a spade here: Dave Kehr is an old fogey, and I mean that in almost a technical sense. Just look at his representative filmmakers: Hitchcock is unimpeachable, but it’s a circa-1958 example of that side of the spectrum.

Read your own newspaper for analysis, Dave–Dargis’s piece is one of the nicest treatments published in a regular review in a while.

Fogeyhood is not a bad thing, has is place, but it just means people trying to engage him are going to get nothing but denial and evasive statements like “This ain’t my crusade; it’s yours.”

Comment by William 03.10.06 @ 6:17 pm

I don’t think that the point here was to infantilize pr exclude emotional response. But for the same reason that emotion cannot be excluded, it would be silly to say that feeling cannot be traced back to the dramatic and formal particulars that give it shape and that gain their color from it. The invocation of the affective fallacy does not extract all feeling from the work of art, but instead dismisses feeling that has already been bizarrely severed from the textures of the work (at least for purposes of argument or discussion).

One would assume that feeling is important to the film as an idea. It seems like Malick is invoking a Romantic conception of the relationship of nature and the mind, which means it will be hard to tell them apart, and that insight will tend to be affective and oblique. This seems like what is at stake in his opening statement, where the sky is reflected on the water, and then weeds and murk become visible beneath the surface, after which Pocahontas gestures up to the clear sky (that is, reflection gives way to revelation). In Smith’s first shot, the sky is partially obstructed by the bars of his cage. The image of light filtering through leaves appears repeatedly - though I can’t say whether I think the repetition clarifies or transforms the meaning. It seems fair enough to suppose that the cultivation of the landscape represents a different mode of understanding - but I couldn’t say what the relationship between the two is supposed to be. Is the film about resolving oblique feeling with hands-on understanding? I can only guess. Without denying Malick’s inalienable right to ambiguity, it seems fair to note that the various images he repeats and revises often feel merely repeated or revised.

Comment by Dan Clinton 03.10.06 @ 6:37 pm

What he just said.

Comment by Matt Zoller Seitz 03.10.06 @ 7:36 pm

Seriously, though, when I talk about responding to what’s on the screen, balancing personal response against appreciation of technique, and then accepting or rejecting it, I’m talking about the sort of response Dan Clinton offered. I would add that in THE NEW WORLD, as in all of Malick’s movies, there is chasm between personal experience and the rhythms of the larger world. What happens to us seems very important indeed, but the world is indifferent. Thus the bloody battles of Marines in THE THIN RED LINE are diminished by insert shots of indifferent mammals, reptiles and insects looking on indifferently or scrambling reflexively away. Thus the death of Richard Gere’s character in DAYS OF HEAVEN — which should be the emotional climax of the entire film — is diminished by a long shot of his limp body floating down the river, observed by a nameless, totally unrelated family on the riverbank.

In THE NEW WORLD, eyes and hands are crucial motifs. They grant autonomy, but they also deceive people into thinking they have more power over life, over history, than they actually do. They are the biological means by which individuals perceive the wider world, but they are meaningless, powerless, beyond that function. Hands are the means by which we both apprehend nature and transform it, and they are showcased repeatedly in closeup — John Smith and Pocahantas’ hands touching each others’ skin, the hands of Native Americans lifting oysters skyward or reaching up toward the sun beyond prison bars, the hands of Pocahantas reaching toward the sun, the nourishing source of all life. (The final shot shows the sun streaming down through the treetops.) When Smith has his first conversation with Pocahantas, they teach each other the words for eyes and ears. (It’s been a few weeks since I last saw it, so I can’t recall the exact order.) The movie gains a melancholy undertow, though, from our realization that personal interaction with the world, however revelatory, can’t make us bigger than we are. Here, as in other Malick movies, the film often cuts from tight closeups to panoramic wide shots to emphasize the fragile smallness of characters at the point when their lives are about to be transformed. My favorite example of that is the shot of Pocahantas dying in bed, a smudge in the corner of a convex mirror hanging on her bedroom wall.

You’re right to say Malick pushes his luck with the repetitions and revisions, and I know some people who really like the film who grew impatient with it for precisely that reason. I think there’s a plan behind it, that he’s doing it to literalize the idea of all life on every level, from individuals to civilizations, is born, lives and dies, and nobody has as much control as he or she would like to think. I think that’s why the movie’s opening and closing sections mirror each other. The opening shows the colonists’ arrival in the new world, the finale shows Native Americans going to England. In the opening, a new chapter of history is born, a new, troubled interaction of cultures represented by Pocahantas and John Smith (and later, John Rolfe). In the closing section, Pocahantas literally gives birth to a being who represents the fusion of those two cultures, the aborption of the dominant culture by a conquered one. Malick lets her have the rapture a mother would feel when contemplating her child, but again, there’s that melancholy undertow, best expressed in the shot of Pocahantas in the royal court, looking a caged raccoon in the eyes as if recognizing a kindred spirit.

I know I’ll never convince anyone who hates the movie to like it, and I accept that. I also realize Malick’s methods are more intuitive than mathematical, which is why I brought up jazz earlier. I will allow that he hits some flat notes. It comes with the territory. But when you work that way, is it possible to hit every note dead-on? There’s a thin line between the sublime and the messy in cases like this. In the end, subjective personal response might determine which side of that line you end up on, and no critic is persuasive enough to dictate that.

Comment by Matt Zoller Seitz 03.10.06 @ 7:56 pm

A friend alerted me to the interesting discussions here. Let me put in my 2 cents’ worth — I haven’t read all your wonderful responses so the following could be a repeat of what has been said.

After reading Dave Kehr and Matt Zoller-Seitz’s exchange I dusted off my Days of Heaven and TRRL DVD and refreshed my memory. I’ll watch The New World for a 6th time tomorrow too. First of all, I really enjoyed Matt’s NYPress review(s) of TNW! And I can’t believe I’m on the same web site as Dave Kehr, whom I’ve been reading for 15 years.

I think DoH contains the visual grammar that will be used extensively in TNW (and TTRL). One of the most memory scenes has Bill and Abby strolling in the river, he washing her feet, the camera swirling around them. If you watch the panning motion, no it doesn’t always pan from one character to the other — instead the other character will catch up and re-enter the frame. This is something repeatedly done in TNW.

DoH has great tension between motion and stillness. The character standing motionless in the middle of the frame while the wind and wheat stalks blow around them, or Bill’s return — the camera alighting momentarily on a picture, a flask by the window, transparent in brightness — they are exceedingly beautiful shots. (I’ve forgotten many of these!) Of course, the title
sequence has already telegraphed this tension, with the camera zooming on still pictures, and a boy captured in mid-leap jumping over a gully (or an existential abyss).

Thematically I think this is appropriate for DoH.

The aborigins and natives in TTRL and TNR are conceived as much more fluid (John Smith even likens them to a pack of frightened, gentle deers). The camera work is much more fluid here and perhaps improvised. Dave Kehr doesn’t like this, but I have a hard time taking my eyes off the first half hours of these two films. There are static shots in TNW too when the focus is on the dilapidated Jamestown settlement. Watching the film, I’ll never forget that the U.S. of A. grew out of such humble origins.

Another difference about the late films is that they represent multiple, somewhat disembodied points of view, whereas Malick’s first two films have single narrators. Visually the best example is one of the last sequences in TNW, where Kilcher’s character plays hide and seek with her infant son; first she is the seeker, then the hider (who disappears) — simultaneously we hear in voiceover that she has died. By any standard, the “spatial relation” in that fluid sequence is brilliant both intellectually and emtionally. As for the voiceover itself — I think Malick’s use of multiple narration is brilliant not to mention very complex — probably the most sophisticated narration this side of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time. Between Malick and Wong, they must left more stunning footage on the editing room floor than any filmmakers alive.

There are also many similar motifs in DoH and TNW. One of the most heart stopping moments in DoH, the preacher giving blessing before the harvest, is echoed in the Christopher Plummer speech scenes. And the theme of a woman torn between the hell-bent type and the safe-as-a-tree farmer is in three of Malick’s films. The dead mother motif is in his last two. Badlands has a character locked up in chains in wide open nature in the end, whereas TTRL and TNW begins with nature-loving characters tied up in chains. These films do form a continuum of concerns and visual/aural innovations. I certainly hope Dave Kehr give the new films a second look. I hated TTRL the first time I saw it. I didn’t “get” it
till the third viewing. I saw it 9 times, and count it the best American film of the 90s by several light years.

Finally, I should add that I really like the Colin Ferrell/Q’Orinka Kilcher reunion scene. It is almost a summation of all the love triangles in all of Malick’s films. I believe both of them very, very underrated in this film (and I normally can’t stand Ferrell!).

Comment by septimus 03.11.06 @ 9:25 pm

I like a lot of what RSF said about the whole NEW WORLD debate, eventhough I never saw the movie. At least it’s funny to me. I disagree with RSF’s take on jazz but I am not going to start a new debate on jazz verses classical on this blog due to my respect for Dave, who is simply one of the best critics we have; a top notch auteurist critic, barnone. I suggest people not to assume Dave is dismissing a jazz oriented kind of filmmaking by improvisation, after all he’s one of the early defender of John Cassavetes, who’s about as jazzy as you can get. I might agree on one of RSF’s selections of subhumans in the name of Peter Greenaway.


Dear Dave,

Chicago misses you. I read you in my college days religiously. In those days you and Mr. Rosenbaum were the best read in town. Apparently, I am not alone because in your days at the NY Daily News I used to go the Chicago public library to get a copy and found out someone had cut out your articles for keeps. It’s great to see your writing back on a regular bassis for such easy access. Any hope of reprinting those classic pieces you did for the Reader or Tribune in book form? I still have your debut piece on Fellini and Bergman I dug out from the library. Zero star for both of their films! You will forever be my hero.

Sincerely,
Ben

Comment by Ben 03.11.06 @ 10:36 pm

OMG! DaveKehr.com is now RSF.com? Wicked cool!

.)

Comment by Adnan Khan 03.12.06 @ 5:13 am

It’s painful to see this interesting discussion degenerate into namecalling. RSF Group’s willingness to criticize two films (TNW and Brokeback) without having seen them tells us all we need to know about his (its?) desperate need for attention. And as far as his insanely short-sighted notes on jazz are concerned: (good) criticism is indeed a subjective thing, but fortunately not THAT subjective!

I, for one, applaud Matt’s brave attempts at a critical dialogue here. Moderation in all things, yes, and what this comment section needs right now is a moderator.

Comment by Peet 03.12.06 @ 7:31 am

Is “RSF Group” a parody of a real human being?

Comment by Bill 03.12.06 @ 2:33 pm

I’m not sure what “RSF Group” is, except that he/she/it has an email account in Reston, Virginia, but he/she/it is sure making me rethink my commitment to leaving this board unmoderated. Any thoughts?

Comment by dave 03.12.06 @ 6:26 pm

Take it from a newbie who learned the hard way: You gotta moderate every free minute, Dave. Otherwise it’s like leaving the doors of your house open while you go out for the day. The freaks and thugs sneak in in, the electronics and silverware disappear, your insurance premiums are through the roof and your friends stop coming around because the place has a bad vibe.

Comment by Matt Zoller Seitz 03.12.06 @ 7:04 pm

Dave: “…he/she/it is sure making me rethink my commitment to leaving this board unmoderated. Any thoughts?”

Well Dave, as a film fan I like cutting for character, rhythm, and story. Arbitrary cutting is censorship, but it’s your website. Why do people post so long? Also, I like how you mentioned Pauline Kael as I was reminded of her when I saw “The New World” - not a compliment.

Comment by Tom 03.12.06 @ 7:07 pm

By moderate I mean circulate in the comments section, like a host at a party. I leave my own board unmoderated unless the creeps start hanging out. When that happens, I click an option that automatically e-mails me the text of any new comments and asks me if I want to publish it, hold it or delete it. Unless it’s nonsensical, racist or a piece a spam, I usually publish, but when thing get weird (as they are on this board) it makes sense to look at stuff and approve/reject rather than let everything pass through without a second look.

Comment by Matt Zoller Seitz 03.12.06 @ 7:08 pm

I’ve been leaving most posts here stand without comment from me because I’ve been thinking of them as the internet equivalent of letters to the editor. I had my say; now the reader has the opportunity to have his or hers without any interference from me. There’s nothing easier than shutting someone down with a cutting reply, particularly when you’ve got all the time you want to come up with one, and have the built-in ability to always have the last word. But maybe that’s not the way things work in cyberspace, where things seem to degenerate into name calling with appalling haste. This playground seems to require a little bit of supervision, as much as it creeps me out to put myself forward as the cop. So, RSW Group — behave yourself, or no dessert.

Comment by dave 03.12.06 @ 7:38 pm

Kick this little boy to the curb, Dave. He needs his sleep anyway. Tomorrow’s a school day.

Comment by Matt Zoller Seitz 03.12.06 @ 9:04 pm

So, now that we’re presumably done with all the ironic symptomatizing and Vice Magazine hipsterisms, and I stand at a reduced risk of being called a dork for the 10,000th time in my life…The New World.

In response to what Septimus posted a few inches up the scroll bar, it does make sense to look at this new film as a rewriting of Days of Heaven. The grammatical difference, which Dave notes in his earlier review of the film, has to do with the extent to which Malick lets the landscape cohere. It’s plausible that he is interested in showing the imagination’s fragmentary and frustrated attempts to access the gnostic quality of nature that feels so graspable (if already ambiguous) in the earlier work …but an explanation like that would probably have to be born out by looking to The Thin Red Line as a middle term.

Comment by Dan Clinton 03.12.06 @ 9:09 pm

Definitely moderate, Dave. I understand your original intention to not interfer, but unfortunately enough such a stance usually turns out to be a little too idealistic in the long run. The anonimity of the Internet is all too often an open invitation for people to enter the limelight by simply tearing down the considerations of others and leave any sense of decency at the door. I’ve had my share of clowns like these, believe me, and they really do spoil the party. A lively and passionate debate should not be confused with rude behaviour, spamming or mean-spiritedness.

What worked for the forum on my site is to set up a list of rules. It gives contributors the freedom to say whatever they like, as long as they adhere to certain parameters. If they don’t like these rules (which I’m sure will be the case for RSW Group), they’re free to leave no comment. At the moment, I hardly have to moderate at all.

Comment by Peet 03.13.06 @ 4:52 am

For what it’s worth, I’ve always had serious issues with the use of the affective fallacy as a critical tool. If someone argues that one’s emotional response to a film is the primary, or the only, analytical method in approaching a work of art — without providing any specific, verifiable evidence from the work itself — then it’s certainly a problem, and for all sorts of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that different people have different emotional responses). By the same token, the affective fallacy has its own shortcomings. It undermines the fact that films have audiences, that texts have readers, and that the relationship between the two is what one might appropriately call an experience. Plus, think about who propagated the idea of the affective fallacy in the first place: as you note, it was the New Critics. But New Criticism had its own conceptual issues, including a slavish devotion to the text, without much consideration for all the other elements that may or may not exist in the creation of a work of art. What is more, it might be true that the affective fallacy has been banned from literary criticism since the 1950s; but since at least the 1980s (if not before), so too has New Criticism, which has been displaced by a wave of new theoretical frameworks.

It’s not an issue about choosing one fallacy over the other; it’s a question about how we can, or should, approach a work of art. I personally and intellectually do not have an issue with those who discuss films like The New World in terms of the emotions it has stirred in them. I have many reasons for this, one of them being the fact that too much film criticism is excessively functional, pragmatic, and form-conscious — we talk at length about what works and what doesn’t work in a film, and little, if at all, about the experential nature of a film. To me, that is unfortunate; the experience of a work is as important as the work itself. That doesn’t preclude one’s responsibility of addressing the work itself, but it does mean that one has a responsibility to what’s outside the work as well.

Comment by Michael 03.13.06 @ 2:07 pm

A hastily written (if not brief — definitely on the clunky side!) response to Dan Clinton’s remarks:

I don’t know if you were referring to Kehr’s postings on this website or some longer review. Either way, having skimmed through The Thin Red Line as well now, I’m still not completely sure what is meant by letting the landscape cohere. It is true that TTRL deliberately creates spatial disorientation (the reverse angle shot of a private snatching a revolver, the landing scene where the soldiers hit the same beach in all directions, Bell spinning around in the fog not knowing where the enemies are …) But spatial coherence between shots is never the thing I admire most about DoH. I always thought its greatest strength is the temporal. Particularly the poetic, quicksilver way each shot flows into another. The shots always seem timed exactly right, as though through some wierd and precise mathematics of the emotions and/or consciousness. [Again as example I offer the sequence of shots: Bill, picture, flask by window, Bill (approximately).] There are instances of TTRL which achieve this, but I think I’m not disagreeing with anyone (so far) if I claim that DoH is the most cinematically perfect, TTRL is the most philosophically profound, and TNW is the most rapturous (assuming that’s even a word).

Anyway, I like what you said about the fragmentary nature of imagination in the newer films. I tend to think that the great subject (you may disagree) of the two early films is alienation. The characters are depicted from a distance, with no flashbacks or flights of imagination other than the faux-naive voiceover narration. The two late films go beyond, try to puncture this alienation. Part of this is reflected in the characters’ newfound interiority. (Bell’s blissed out dreams about Miranda Otto are the prime examples, and are perhaps closest to the “whiplash pans” that Kehr so objects to in TNW.) Part of it is the reintegration of Man into nature. But another part has to do with kinship between human beings, and in TTRL (and to some extent in TNW), I think Malick attempts to create “intersubjectivity” through a disembodied, floating point of view. Because of this, spatial relationship necssarily becomes decentered. Form and content cohere; Malick should be applauded for this. I would not have thought highly of him if his intellectual development had stayed at where DoH ended!

By the way, the camera work in TTRL is much more static than I remembered. Most camera movement occurs during the battle scenes or the dream sequences centered around Ms. Otto. Even the Polynesian sequences mostly use a static camera. And watching TNW again I agree that the camera hardly ever stops, except when Christian Bale is the focus. The “naturals” move with a grace and fluidity that DoH uses to depict wild animals (not a slight to anyone — the native Americans are shown imitating animals several times).

Anyway, I watched a bit of Badlands too, and in the very first scene Holly mentions that her mother has died of tuberculosis!

Let me end by suggesting that perhaps one reason TNW is so rapture-inducing is because of its evocative use of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto. A friend of mine has performed this piece as the soloist, so I know it exceedingly well. (It also briefly appears in The Devil, Probably.) Interesting choice — Malick has primarily used French (and American) classical music in the past, although DoH features a Beethoven piece. In a better era for cinema (the 60’s, say?), TNW would have become inextricably linked to this concerto, the way the far inferior Elvira Magidan was linked with Mozart’s 21st.

Comment by septimus 03.14.06 @ 12:13 am

Michael,
I’ve never understood the affective fallacy to mean that it’s inappropriate to discuss emotion in connection to a work of art. What I’ve understood it to mean – and it’s been a while since college English for me, so please correct me if I am wrong – is that it’s an error for the critic to assume that the particular welter of feelings that a work produces in him represents the ultimate meaning or value of the work. In other words, we lose sight of the work when the writer starts wallowing in his psychological impressionism – which seems to me what is happening with an awful lot of the New Worldies, who exalt the film in swooning, transcendentalist terms that refer exclusively to what was going on between their ears (despite how many thousands of words they may later spill over “eyes and hands as crucial motifs”). Like “2001” and much of “2046,” “The New World” seems to be striving to induce a kind of hypnotic trance in the viewer, through endless repetition and a heavy reliance on music. Incorrigible rationalist that I am, that’s just when I feel my resistance building up. I don’t want to “surrender” to a work of art – or “go with the flow,” as people used to say about “2001.” I want to interact with it as an adult, not as a passive, blissed-out child. If that makes me an old fogey, then I’ll cop to it.

The New Critics had a lot left to teach us before they were steamrolled by the pomo gang. Close reading remains a very rewarding technique when applied to films.

Comment by dave 03.14.06 @ 10:25 am

Ah, but how to separate the two? Where does the “rational” analysis cleave off from the swooning emotions? Is part of my ability to engage with a text cleanly rational and part of it cleanly emotional? Taking this out of the realm of lit crit, cognitive film theorists (like the admirable David Bordwell and his followers) have tried to set up a kind of cyborg viewer, who does nothing but respond to cues without emotions, like a lab rat. Of course that viewer doesn’t exist in the real world — and nor does the New Critics’ immanent Great God Text that somehow yields meanings independent of any human’s subjectivity. Not to start a completely separate firestorm, but Pauline Kael was right forever and ever about the irreducibility, unpredictability, and ungovernability of subjective responses. The fallacy of the affective fallacy is considering affect to be a fallacy in the first place.

Comment by Leo Charney 03.14.06 @ 11:37 am

Leo, no one is asking you to cut your right brain off from your left, just to use both sides of it. Pauline, whom I knew and liked, was one of the great examples of the affective fallacy run amok. It was certainly entertaining, and even interesting in a clinical sort of way, to roll around in her brain while she fantasized about “The Fury” or the John Guillermin “King Kong.” But an awful lot of her judgments haven’t survived the date of their publication. Does anyone still believe, as Pauline proudly did, that Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford were hacks, and that Brian De Palma and Irvin Kershner are geniuses?

Comment by dave 03.14.06 @ 12:41 pm

Dear Dave,
I greatly appreciate your reply and your additional thoughts on criticism. My own comments were spurred by what I think are very interesting implications in your post about how we might approach film and analyze it. You’re certainly correct in your characterization of the affective fallacy; the New Critics moved away from reader-centered analysis because they felt the work in question would disappear beneath individual impressions, and that criticism itself would become relativism. You’re right that they didn’t intend to discount emotion entirely, believing instead that the emotional response couldn’t respresent, as you say, the ultimate meaning of a work. For me, though, it’s still a method I don’t embrace, partly because I’ve often felt that New Criticism couldn’t help but be ultimately exlusive about what’s in the text, and partly because I’m interested now in the ways that criticism might be transformed. In other words, I wonder how criticism can take a full account of the work itself (its form, content, technique, themes, and so on) and also engage the experience of the work. I realize that can raise all sorts of issues (the variety of individual experiences, the extent to which critics can be “personal” in their analysis), but I think it’s why I found some of the exaltations of The New World to be quite interesting. Having said all that, I agree that there’s no substitute for close readings.

I think your allusion to 2046 is apt; like The New World, it seems to affect immediately the viewer’s pscyhology, and is therefore more prone than most films to impressionistic responses. And because these films work this way, I think that the viewer response becomes very important, provided its discussed in accordance with what’s on the screen and in the film.

Comment by Michael 03.14.06 @ 2:23 pm

Say what you will about David Bordwell, the important thing is that the man does his homework, unlike 89.9% of the critics who spend 49% describing the plot and 49% describing their impression of a piece and 2% analysis. To me that’s just lazy scholarship. To some he’s formalism run amok but our “defamiliarization” process is far from complete. Complacency is the order of the day. I’ll take a piece by Bordwell(or Manny Farber or Robin Wood, ) over the sum of all the Pauline clones. (Since I praised Bordwell, Ray Carney is probably rolling his eyeballs to the back of his head right now but I admire both of their work.) Curiously, this “cyborg viwer” is a champion of Ozu, Dreyer, Tati, Bresson, Mizoguchi, Kiarostami, Hou, et al,…. not bad for being a lab rat. I honestly thought film criticism has evolved beyond all the kiss kiss bang bang . How naive I am!

Comment by Ben 03.14.06 @ 2:28 pm

Well, to play devil’s advocate (is that the same as playing PK’s advocate?), why does a critic have to be right to be valuable? I’d rather read a critic who does think Hitchcock and Ford are hacks — which hyperbolizes PK’s position in any case — than one who regurgitates conventional wisdom. I don’t think you really believe this, Dave, but your argument contra Kael seems to be that the value of a critic’s body of work is determined by how many people agree with him or her. That seems like treacherous ground.

Comment by Leo Charney 03.14.06 @ 3:59 pm

This might be redundant in regards to the discussion that has come before, but I still feel it is worth stating outright: The impossibility of separating form from emotion, and therefore from personal response, and the probability of failure in discussing a work of art if one relying on a Bordwellian formal construct. Form only carries many, in artistic terms, in that it produces emotional and intellectual responses within us. The problem with relying on academic constructs of what form mean (a simplification, but, ex: “a tracking shot means this…”) is that at a certain point a lot of academics are prone to cut themselves off entirely from their “natural” response to a work and see a work entirely within an established, rather narrow, academic definition of how form works. Not only does this prohibit understanding of a lot of films that upset that system, but it ignores innovation. And yes, you can see the upset, the subversion of the system, but sometimes judging the films that do that, from this kind of viewpoint, is often entirely beside the point, beginning from a point of misunderstanding.

Comment by JB 03.14.06 @ 10:32 pm

Less impressed by last year’s movie crop than many people– who will want to see Capote again in five years?– I found bits and pieces of The New World haunting and as memorable as anything on the screen in 2006. The moment when Smith returns to his fort only to find that it’s been made into a perfect little London slum is quite brilliant, and says all that needs saying– which is why the movie should be 10 minutes long, maybe, not 135. Overall, however, The New World made me treasure The Thin Red Line more, because it has both Malick’s usual space-alien’s astonishment at the blinkered things these pink apes on Planet III do, and characters steeped in James Jones’ gritty grunt-level eye for character and the Army as an institution. Maybe Malick should only make movies based on mid-century midlist fiction– Marquand, Wouk, Cozzens, etc. For all its wooliness, The Thin Red Line manages to stay grounded in a way that the tale of two pretty folks in Virginia does not.

Or maybe I just don’t need to see Colin Farrell in anything, ever, again.

Comment by Mike G 03.15.06 @ 12:21 am

Ben — For the record, I did not call Bordwell himself a cyborg or a lab rat. Far from it, he is exactly as knowledgeable and passionate as you describe. I used those terms to describe the kind of viewer imagined by cognitive film theory, which is not at all the same thing as the man himself.

Comment by Leo Charney 03.15.06 @ 8:48 am

David Bordwell has his own blog (www.davidbordwell.net) where he goes into these issues.

Comment by dave 03.15.06 @ 11:00 am

I tend to think that statements to the effect that, “Form only carries [meaning], in artistic terms, in that it produces emotional and intellectual responses within us,” only tell half the story, since a personal response is never quite immediate or naive. The significance of a single personal response does depend on a literacy, both conceptual and emotional, in the forms of the medium. As Eliot perplexingly hints, “The emotion of art is impersonal.”

Comment by Dan Clinton 03.15.06 @ 4:21 pm

Hi, gents.

Sorry to prolong this further, but I’m royally irked by the repeated invocation of the affective fallacy, particularly in regards to how it’s used as the argumentative equivalent of an escape hatch, particularly by Dave.

There seems to be a presumption that in positive reviews of THE NEW WORLD, the actual mechanics of filmmaking — what Dave refers to as what’s onscreen — do not get discussed. Point of fact, they do. I’d go so far as to say that you are more likely to encounter some mention of camera moves, compositions, editing patterns, music and sound effects in positive reviews of the movie than in mixed or negative ones.

You guys are being superficially genteel about this, and that’s sporting considering the passions Malick seems to stir. But there’s a condescending undertow to some of your followup posts. The implication seems to be that if you love THE NEW WORLD, you’re not actually looking at the movie, not really thinking about the filmmaking; that something about the film just blinds viewers and magically makes them love the film. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

There do seem to be two schools of film criticism in this country. One school, the one where Dave serves as headmaster and Hoberman as choirmaster, fakes frosty, Mr. Spocklike “objective” detachment (knowing full well that it’s a pose). The other admits and even embraces subjective personal response, and acknowledges it in the course of the review, so that readers can factor in those wild card biases when deciding to spend their money on a ticket.

When practiced by intelligent people, both of these types of criticism do, in fact, address what is onscreen. The must, otherwise the person writing is not a critic, but a reviewer.

How about this, Dave: instead of dismissing the praise for Malick as a filmmaker, and essentially writing off his followers as moonstruck simps who aren’t using their eyes, ears and brains, actually take a look at the positive reviews, address those portions which specifically deal with technique, and refute them with examples. Pull reviews by me, Armond White, Manohla Dargis, N.P. Thompson and others who have praised the movie, zero in on discussions of the filmmaking within the text of the piece, and tell us how full of crap we are. And try to use counter examples. Not, “This person is obviously a moonstruck child,” but actually make the effort to talk about the same shot, the same sequence, the same music cue as the critic who praises Malick, and interpret it differently, to prove your point. I believe that’s called real debate, and I have yet to see you practice it on this particular topic. Are you still capable of it?

Dave, I’m addressing you specifically now. You write, “..it’s an error for the critic to assume that the particular welter of feelings that a work produces in him represents the ultimate meaning or value of the work. In other words, we lose sight of the work when the writer starts wallowing in his psychological impressionism – which seems to me what is happening with an awful lot of the New Worldies, who exalt the film in swooning, transcendentalist terms that refer exclusively to what was going on between their ears (despite how many thousands of words they may later spill over “eyes and hands as crucial motifs”).

This is so condescending and misleading that it is hard to know where to begin refuting it. First, you presume that mentioning the use of eyes and hands does not constitute discussion of the filmmaking. In fact it does; they are motifs, they are used deliberately, and furthermore, I and other people have made the effort not just to bring them up, but to briefly discuss how Malick uses them, what point he’s making by including them.

Second, and even more annoying, you propogate the false notion that film critics for mainstream publications have the luxury of devoting an entire review, or most of a review, to the filmmaking techniques. (Thompson touched on this in s a response to you higher up, even though he didn’t have to; his review of THE NEW WORLD discusses the filmmaking in detail, with examples, including Malick’s use of sound dropouts! Where in your writing on Malick do you attempt something similarly detailed?)

As a professional film critic of considerable experience, you know as well as I do that such criticism is difficult to get into print (that’s why Thompson is primarily a blogger, not a print critic). In print, you have to give readers at least a bit of what they’re accustomed to getting — the “consumer guide” aspects, the parts that are dismissed on this board through discussion of the affective fallacy; or in the case of some alternative weeklies, a thumbnail of the movie’s political leanings and a couple of shou-outs to postmodern posturing.

I started a blog in part because I wanted a forum to talk at least occasionally about nothing but the formal aspects of the medium. At my blog The House Next Door, for instance, I did two straight days on the Steadicam, explaining what the camera is, reprinting a Film Festival Reporter article I did on the history and aesthetics of the Steadicam, and then leading a discussion in the comments section on the various ways it can be used to tell a story, highlight an emotion or drive home a theme.

And yes, I revisited Malick’s movie repeatedly on the blog and talked about particular aspects, including narration — not just in the original posts, but in the comments sections, which tend to be much longer than the articles.

Third, what’s up with your pretense of omniscient cool? You describe yourself as a “ratonalist” and declare, “I want to interact with (a film) as an adult, not as a passive, blissed-out child.” That’s a nice try at changing the subject — and faking a detachment no viewer really possesses — but again, I have to call bullshit and ask you to put your money where your mouth is. Stop dismissing the praise for Malick’s filmmaking as blissed-out swooning (which is exactly what you accuse N.P. Thompson of doing, writing off people who disagree with you as dolts or children!) and engage with the substance of the discussion, which is, in fact, about Malick’s filmmaking. Malick doesn’t inspire devotion through voodoo magic. He does it through filmmaking. I.e., what’s onscreen, the thing you claim to prize above all else.

Septimus, above, offered specific examples of Malick’s filmmaking his comments on the movie. Others on this board have done the same. I have yet to see you counter their arguments with anything other than smug, vague generalities that are designed solely to avoid discussing the thing you say is so important, the filmmaking.

Fact is, I write the sort of criticism you call for on this board more often than you do, because NYPress is willing to indulge it. I don’t spend the whole review talking about form because if I did, I wouldn’t have a job, but I do carve out more space for it than some critics. For instance, I spent the first half of a double review of “Birth” and “Enduring Love” taking the viewer through the opening sequences of each movie, discussing shot duration, composition and the use of sound and music. In a review of “Travellers and Magicians,” I spent a good chunk of the review analyzing the filmmaker’s thematically appropriate use of rack focus; the following week, the paper ran a letter from the cinematographer, who i’ve never met, much less interviewed, saying that he and the director had spent a great deal of time discussing how rack focus would be employed in the movie, and thanking me for being the only critic to point it out and correctly deduce their intent.

Visit a web site besides your own (do you ever do that?), and ask which American critics are most likely to give at least a cursory mention to the filmmaking, as opposed to summarizing the plot and characters, making a couple of snide remarks and calling it a day. There is a pretty good chance my name will be on that list. I may not be right in every assertion, and I may be proved wrong about some films and filmmakers; that’s a given. But it is an indisputable fact that in my 16 years as a professional critic, I have gone out of my way to actually talk about what’s onscreen — not just what a movie is saying, but how it says it. I try to at least acknowledge the process of filmmaking every single week, Dave, and you misrepresent me when you imply that my criticism is only about swooning. That is not just inaccurate, it’s insulting, and I resent it. Either you’re not actually reading my work with any regularity or you’re deliberately choosing to mischaracterize it order to cheat your way toward winning an argument on your own blog! Either way it’s both incorrect and cheap.

i wasn’t being facetious when I challenged you to write a piece analyzing the filmmaking in THE NEW WORLD. I was serious. You can’t escape the challenge by saying you’re too busy to indulge such a ridiculous whim. Between my two criticism gigs and my blog, I file probably 20-25,000 words a week, and I’m willing to make the time, because I would like to see your considerable analytical power applied to this movie at length. It hasn’t happened yet, and I am very curious to see what happens when you actually do what you exhort other critics do do, and falsely claim they don’t do: talk about what’s onscreen.

The challenge stands.

Comment by Matt Zoller Seitz 03.16.06 @ 10:05 am

Matt,
The challenge may stand, but I’m sitting down. Enough already.

Comment by dave 03.16.06 @ 10:33 am



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