Paradise Now

The heart of The New World: Feverish fans turn a box office bust into a cult film

  The Oscars went almost as expected, but the best-loved movie of 2005—the year's other tale of love and loss on the American frontier—received only a single nomination, for cinematography. (It lost.)

As of last week, The New World's domestic grosses were $12.2 million—far less than Brokeback Mountain ($75 million), Crash ($53 million), or even New Line's matching art-house release A History of Violence ($31 million). According to online services that track such things, The New World's reviews were mildly favorable to mixed. But, as anticipated by the Voice Critics' Poll's ballot-crunching Passiondex Terrence Malick's impressionistic retelling of the Pocahontas story was the movie that inspired the most fervent devotion.

Not everyone adores The New World, but those cineastes who like it, really, really like it. The movie has not only admirers but partisans—it can only be truly loved by attacking those too blind to see the truth. Fielding her readers' online Oscar queries, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis found only one possible explanation for The New World's failure to attract more than cursory Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attention: "With the exception of my few dear friends in that august body, [the Academy members] are idiots."

Native American idol Q'orianka Kilcher
photo: New Line
Native American idol Q'orianka Kilcher

The blogosphere resounds with similar insults and shriller declarations. Having seen The New World three times, N.P. Thompson of proclaimed a virtual fatwa, declaring that those " 'critics' who are either impervious to or openly contemptuous of the movie [are] worse than mere idiots—they are monsters who are indifferent to art, to poetry, to life, to the air we breathe." Love The New World or die! Nick Pinkerton of attacked the snide, snarky, simpleminded infidels who swarmed out of their hidey-holes to sneer at Malick's masterpiece. Unlike Thompson, Pinkerton named names (full disclosure, mine included).

New York Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz, the most benignly inclusive of the movie's online advocates, simply declared The New World his "new religion" and used his blog to spread the joyful news. Where other movies have fans, Malick's produces disciples. Even holy relics: "On my desk beside my keyboard," wrote Seitz, "lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn."

Welcome to the realm of My Own Private eBay. Yet, if nothing else, the response to The New World reflects the collective utopian yearning still bound up in the movies—and the religious fervor this particular film has generated is fascinating, not least to an agnostic like myself.

A dream of love in the woods: Colin Farrell and Kilcher
photo: New Line
Should The New World garner a real cult, it would hardly be the first commercial failure to do so. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had an actual opening back in 1975 before it was revived as the ultimate midnight phenomenon. Every decade since has produced at least one example: Blade Runner, Showgirls, and Donnie Darko were all flops that found their audiences at late-night weekend screenings.

As the distribution company that scored an early bonanza with Pink Flamingos (and a subsequent one, a million times greater, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), New Line may yet promote The New World at midnight. Still, movie cults are only facilitated by exhibitors; they are created by audiences. And critics are largely irrelevant. The blogospheric pressure behind The New World is a matter of film nerds signaling their peers—a kind of sectarian chatter.

What is it with the motion picture medium? The inimitable Pauline Kael, who took her movies as personally as anyone you'll find beyond the first row at MOMA, not only panned Antonioni's Blow-Up but mocked its fans: "They get upset if you don't like it—as if you were rejecting not just the movie but them." You are what you love, and there's no accounting for taste—or rather, as we are reminded nightly, the unconscious is profoundly tasteless. As connoisseurs of the irrational, the surrealists were impressed by the passionate arguments movies regularly inspired, concluding that it was all a matter of sublimated sexual preferences. The New World certainly invites such fantasy. One critic I know compared it favorably to Jack Smith's underground celebration of the polymorphously perverse, Flaming Creatures.

Known to all, yet surprisingly under-leveraged in American culture, the Pocahontas myth is a dream of love in the woods: A white soldier of fortune is reborn in the arms of a dusky Indian princess. Racial reconciliation is crucial, although the fact that Smith was nearly 30 and his D.I.P. would have been the age at which Dolores Haze first met Humbert Humbert infuses their imaginary encounter with another taboo, too tasteless to mention. This love is not just love but impossible, forbidden love—as the Disney imagineers realized when they conceived their Pocahontas as a buckskin Betty Boop.

Indeed, given that the Pocahontas myth is a fig leaf to conceal the actual relations between English settlers and "natural" inhabitants, it may even be evil: Argall, William T. Vollmann's massively researched historical anti-novel, is named for the baddie who kidnaps Pocahontas and sells her to Jamestown. Small wonder New Worldites regard those besmirching the innocence of their New World Adam and his innocent Eve as snakes or worse.

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