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.”
The blogosphere resounds with similar insults and shriller declarations. Having seen The New World three times, N.P. Thompson of moviesintofilm.com 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 stopsmilingonline.com 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
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.
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.