The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Watching Malick the wrong way

with 15 comments

Deep down I knew I was doing it wrong as I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World from 2005.

My TV screen would have been huge with the measures of the early 80s, but 2011, it looks comparatively tiny and underwhelming, fine for watching news or a simple TV show, but not the standard you need for an optimal Malick experience. I knew that the score and the cinematography probably was a shadow of what it must have been when it was shown in a proper cinema.

Watching it at home also inevitably meant that I was exposed to distractions. I had breaks to refill my coffee mug, answer the phone and to tend to my physical needs whenever they came up. All those things I wouldn’t dream of doing in a theatre.

Reoccurring disruptions is something you don’t wish for any movie, but they’re particularly harmful to this one. It has a fluid, dreamy and hazy narrative, which asks for your full attention and immersion. You really shouldn’t watch it in any other way than one long, beautiful sweep. But I did. I cut it into several pieces.

I’m telling you all this about the circumstances, to put my take on Malick into a context. Maybe this write-up will be a little bit unfair. Maybe I would have reacted differently had I seen it the proper way. It is what it is. At least you can’t say I’m not honest with you.

Pocahontas x 3
The first time I watched the Pocahontas story on screen was in the form of a Disney movie, which I guess I didn’t like very much. I never returned to it once I was sure that my girls were capable to watch it on their own. And I don’t remember a thing from it apart from noticing that the songs were boring.

In my second Pocahontas movie, the princess had suddenly gone blue, tall and moved to outer space. The sailing boats were accordingly replaced with space shuttles. After a start which I found OK (as a vivid online computer game player, I thought the avatar idea as such was pretty nice), the movie went downhill quickly. The final thirty minutes were miserable, containing a tedious, pointless and misplaced chasing sequence, which looked like the leftovers from a Vietnam movie.

Fast forward to this third take on Pocahontas. And to start on the positive side, it was by far the best one of the lot.

A fairy tale
The story of The New World simple and resembles and is more of a fairy tale than an attempt to reconstruct history. In its core, it’s a tale about love with complications. Boy meets girl, love springs up at first sight and grows quickly, they overcome difficulties, but circumstances keep the couple apart. A new love pops up and eventually the girl will face a tricky choice situation. Easy enough.

There’s also a second theme, the story of a paradise lost because of the evil, greedy conquerors from the western civilization who bring violence, death, illness and disaster to the poor, innocent, indigenous people.

Or as John Smith puts it in one of the many voiceovers:

“They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession. Real, what I thought a dream.”

It’s not complicated. While The Tree of Life puzzled and challenged me intellectually, The New World takes the straight road from point A to point B.

Sometimes the story proceeds slowly. Accompanied by classical music we follow the camera on its exploring tours, investigating trees, fields and waters. It reminds a bit of the sceneries in Tree of Life, but without the dinosaurs and galaxies.

Sometimes the story takes sudden leaps, letting months or years pass within seconds.

Not once did I find myself at a loss about what was going on. In one way I suppose this is a good thing, but in another way it was as if a bit of the magic was gone. Something was lacking. A feeling. A tremble. A touch.

I also expect movie characters to show more than one dimension. I want them to feel like real people, being a blend of good and bad, of light and darkness. Mixed and a little bit messed up. I imagine that I learn something about myself as I watch how they struggle with their lives and their conflicting thoughts and emotions.

But Pocahontas isn’t mixed or messed up at all. Just as the Mother in The Tree of Life, she’s playful, so close to the nature that she’s sort of divine. She’s not a real person anymore than those fairy tale Indians and I can’t relate to her and her people. They feel a bit stereotypical, as if they’d been modelled after an article in a very old encyclopedia.

A pretty movie
Another thought I couldn’t get out of my mind was how pretty everything was. Pocahontas was pretty, the Indians were pretty, the landscape was pretty, every single soul apart from the ugly Englishmen were pretty, but if you looked closely enough, I’d say they were pretty too, at least when they were back in England.

All those pretty images. What do they represent? And what am I supposed to do with them? Don’t tell me “shampoo advertising”, because that thought is just rude and I forced it out of my head as soon as it popped up.

While I’m in the section for mixed whining, I have to mention Colin Farrell, playing the part of John Smith, the first guy to fall in love with Pocahontas.

I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he looks the same way throughout the entire film, carrying that typical look-at-the-sad-and-tragic-abandoned puppy-face. I don’t normally have anything against Farrell as an actor, but I don’t think this role was a good fit for him. Q’orianka Kilcher on the other hand was perfect as Pocahontas.

The verdict
So where do I land in my final verdict over The New World? Obviously I do have some complaints, of which some might have to do with that I watched it “the wrong way”. On the other hand I’m not immune against all the beauty and his efforts to make movie poetry. It’s a good movie for someone like me who like nature photography and bittersweet love stories.

I don’t personally consider Malick a genius, but I can understand and respect that others may feel that way.

And maybe I’ll get fonder of him as I watch more of his works and see the pattern, how they all relate to each other. I’m definitely not done with him yet.

The New World (Terrence Malick, US, 2005) My rating: a weak 4/5

Written by Jessica

September 8, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in The New World

15 Responses

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  1. Which cut of the film did you see? There’s 3 available cuts worldwide and 2 of them are in the U.S. The 135-minute theatrical version and the 178-minute extended version. The other version is the 150-minute Oscar cut that’s only available in Europe.

    I never recommend watching a Malick film on a small TV screen nor on an iPod or something like that. It doesn’t work because the canvas of Malick’s films are much bigger than that. You can’t grasp on the beauty of those images on something as small as a typical TV. Having owned the two of four Malick films on Criterion, if you watched it on a HD big TV. It makes a huge difference not just for the depth of field but also of the images he presents on the film.

    Malick is not a filmmaker that is easy to watch early on. It takes a while for his films to be really enjoyed. I’m still confused about The Tree of Life as I’m yearning to see it again once it’s available on DVD. I need another opinion on it and that film is a reason why I don’t rate films. It changes all the times. Yet, there is still no filmmaker working today that is willing to put as much time and effort into making something that is more than just a film. That is why Malick is so revered. Try and watch The New World again although in its different cuts, there’s not really much that is changed throughout. Here’s my review of both the 135 and 178-minute cuts of the film. It might help.

    Steven Flores

    September 8, 2011 at 1:24 am

    • It was definitely not the extended, but I’m not certain about if it was the 135 or the 150 one.

      And yes, I’m aware of that I’m doing Malick a disservice watching it this way, I wouldn’t mind having a go at it again at some point in the future. This time I grabbed the opportunity to record it when I saw that they showed it on our TV. Since then it has been deleted from the recorder, so I’ll have to wait for my next go. Or see if they have it at my library. Again: a better screen would be to prefer.

      Jessica

      September 8, 2011 at 7:45 am

  2. Whoa, I so completely disagree with you on the depiction of the Natives. Maybe you haven’t seen enough movies with Indians in them, but The New World is an extremely accurate portrayal. Sure, there is the element of them being close to nature, but the film does not at all use this to ignore the darker side.

    And Pocahontas herself is a very well rounded character. Maybe you were missing something in your viewing, but the development of her character is definitely there. It is subtle and careful development, but by the end we see how her view of the world has been completely changed. At the start she is simple and childish and playful. At the end she is a mother, and even in a place where nature has been completely overrun and tamed, she finds the beauty in family.

    What touched me about The New World was that subtle development. As it was going on I didn’t even pick up on it, but when the film was over, I felt that I had witnessed a film about change and growth. The film is very much connected to nature, but it’s not as simple as saying “nature is great”. In fact, the film really says that we make our own “nature” wherever we are through the human connections we make, the relationships we build, and the families we raise. A beautiful idea.

    Corey Atad

    September 8, 2011 at 7:06 am

    • No worries, Corey! I knew we’d disagree about this. In fact I knew that I’d disagree with most cinophiles. Malick is very well respected in those circles, and I’m doing my best to try to understand what’s so great about him. Again: I can appreciate aspects of both movies I’ve seen so far. But both left me a but unsatisfied for one reason or another. However: this may very well change over time.

      I didn’t think Pocahontas changed that much. Wasn’t she playing with her child towards the end and you could see that at core she was still the very same? Hm. Need to think of that.

      And it’s very much possible that I’m missing out some of the subtle changes you’re talking about and that I could see them at a second watching. I’m really not trying to find errors in a beloved artists works here. On the contrary, I’m humbly trying to understand why they’re considered masterpieces by so many else.

      I haven’t succeeded quite yet, but who knows, one day maybe? 🙂

      Jessica

      September 8, 2011 at 7:50 am

  3. I think it is essential to watch Malick in a cinema – most obvious with The Tree of Life – but this is still a beautiful film. I preferred ToL, and The Thin Red Line, and the Film’s length is the detriment for me, but it’s a stunning achievement.

    Andrew Buckle

    September 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    • Yes, I agree about that. I can’t even imagine watching The Tree of Lie at a TV screen; it would be rather pointless. Maybe it was even pointless to try to watch The New World this manner. I just thought I wanted to give it a go since Malick is so immensly popular among the film enthusiasts. I wanted to look for myself and see what all the buzz was about.

      I’ll see if I can get my hands on some of his earlier works. I enjoy the fact that there seems to be a line going through his production. I follow it backwards now and want to see where it takes me.

      Jessica

      September 8, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  4. A broader sense of scope might indeed help – if you ever do have the chance to watch his films “bigger”, do so. On the whole though, I’ve found that several of Malick’s films have to be pondered over a bit. He’s not really interested in giving you something in a box…he seems more driven to give you something asymmetrical that sticks with you.

    His films have left me thinking “Well this and this and this were cool, but what the hell was up with the rest? Then I later find myself unable to forget about certain details and start thinking “Y’know that was pretty interesting after all…” and find myself curious to go back ages after swearing the film off.

    I won’t give you the full-on patented McNeil “watchitagain”…I’ll just offer that you come back to it sometime. Great post!

    Ryan McNeil

    September 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    • Thank you! It’s very possible that I’ll return to this movie, and likely that I’ll try more of his work. And as you say: movies change over time. It’s fascinating. Some movies are like cheese: they become a lot tastier if you let them lie and mature for a while. I think about that when I write reviews. I often do it quickly in order not to forget, but sometimes the review would have become more accurate if I had let the movie linger in my mind a bit longer before writing about it.

      Jessica

      September 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm

      • Sorry – I might have missed something: Is this the first Malick film you’ve ever watched?

        Ryan McNeil

        September 8, 2011 at 3:11 pm

        • No, the second. I think I’m referring a lot to The Tree of Life in this post. I’ve even written a review about it earlier this summer (that was hard, I tell you!) I think I linked to it in this post, but if you didn’t see it, here it is again: https://thevelvetcafe.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/a-movie-about-live-the-universe-and-everything/

          Jessica

          September 8, 2011 at 3:22 pm

          • Right! OK – small suggestion, try Malick’s first two films (in order), BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN. They’re a bit less sprawling and grand than histecent three, and will play better for a home viewing. Doesn’t hurt that they’re also both really pretty.

            Ryan McNeil

            September 8, 2011 at 4:45 pm

            • Those two also have a sense of humour, which is nice.

              Hey Malick, why so serious???

              Corey Atad

              September 9, 2011 at 8:03 am

  5. I did the same thing with The New World– watched it on a laptop. I really regretted that. I made sure to see Tree of Life in the theater and that was great. If I get a chance to see The New World on the big screen, I certainly will.

    Steve Kimes

    September 9, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    • Yes, I too watched The Tree of LIfe in a theatre and I think that made a difference.
      The sad thing is that once you’ve missed a movie in the theatres, it’s not all that likely that it will come up again. I suppose I can hope for the film club in my town to pick it up. Perhaps I could suggest them a Malick theme for the next season. Hm… It actually could be an idea.

      Jessica

      September 10, 2011 at 12:06 am

  6. […] next encounter was The New World, which I liked less than The Tree of Life. While very pretty and a real plot, it felt a little bit like shampoo […]


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