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Paradise Now

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


As pointed out by Umberto Eco in his canonical essay on Casablanca, cults favor "imperfect" movies, as well as movies that are, in some sense, All Movies. Trimmed by 20 minutes after its release, The New World has already been violated. And it is not surprising that its acolytes would stress the primacy of the visual and the importance of the shared experience.

There is the sense that The New World won't work on DVD, even though Malick is preparing a new, three-hour collectors' version; its presence is dependent on the big screen. "A few years from now, when those of us who love [The New World] are re-watching it and wrestling with it, we will literally not be able to imagine that," as Pinkerton wrote, "it once was writ large simultaneously in Cary, North Carolina, and Middletown, Ohio, and Durango, Colorado." The New World did receive a fairly wide release, opening on over 800 screens. (Still, the movie has performed most strongly in New York City, as well as the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest—the market one distributor characterized as "New Age Country.") The pastoral Virginia that The New World represents does not belong to Smith and Pocahontas alone. Malick's movie is its own Golden Age.

For some, paradise might have been lost when New Line withdrew the original cut; for others, The New World is less a vision of paradise lost than of paradise itself: "I bore witness to American commercial cinema's ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people," Seitz testified. More than a reconstruction of 17th-century America, The New World creates an idealized America: "At 9:30 p.m. on January 21, 2006, I sat in the upper reaches of the BAM theater, on the aisle near the back. The audience was a demographic mosaic: white folks in the row behind me, an African-American couple ahead of me, an Orthodox Jewish couple to my left, and just beyond them, a young Asian man."

Why not Walt Whitman and the crew of the Pequod? Who will deny that America has seldom needed a redemptive myth as badly as it does now? On the evening of February 23, 2006, I attended the movie's last screening at BAM, along with a rapt audience of 19. Many had obviously seen The New World before. Now it was about to vanish from their world. Sitting closest to the screen, a few remained in their seats for the entire bird-call-scored credits, waiting until the last avian note faded to silence in the empty room.

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