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December 05, 2009

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Zach

Thanks a bunch for the thoughts, Glenn, esp. on The New World. Believe it or not, I think the dreaded sentimentality first reared its head with The Thin Red Line, and is there most egregious - in my book, he kept it well in check w/ TNW, but I can see how people would think otherwise. It's definitely there, but I think its subsumed by all the films virtues.

Anyway, much appreciated.

Tom Russell

I'm with Zach-- The Thin Red Line was a big disappointment-- too sentimental, too self-consciously "philosophical". Of course, after Days of Heaven, what *wouldn't* be a big disappointment?

The New World was alright, and it's one of those films, like The Big Lebowski, that I didn't much care for the first time through but that I find myself thinking back and reflecting upon months and years after the fact.

Gene

"Zwigoff."

bill

I very much need to see THE NEW WORLD again. And Zach and Tom, I share all your reservations about THE THIN RED LINE, and yet...when it works, it is so sublime, that when I think about the film, I find myself in an extremely forgiving mood (part of this could be a knee-jerk desire to go against everything Stephen Hunter said in his review, but only part). DAYS OF HEAVEN is perfect, THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD aren't, but I'm left thinking "So what? They're pretty extraordinary anyway."

Now when is Criterion gonna jump on BADLANDS?

Irving Thalberg

Glenn, thanks so much for taking the time to put together those thoughts on THE NEW WORLD. I agree with you that the picture contains its fair share of sentimentality but, misanthrope though I am, it's a sentimentality that's destroyed me with each viewing. The point I would quibble with you on is your contention that sentimentality was, prior to THE NEW WORLD, unknown in a Malick picture.

Perhaps they do not wear their hearts on their sleeve in the same way THE NEW WORLD does, but can we really deny that there's something sentimental about passages like the initial magic-hour train journey in DAYS OF HEAVEN or (forgive me if the following details are off as I'm relying solely spotty memory here) Caviezel's flashbacks to the gingham-dress-sporting wife/girlfriend he left behind in THE THIN RED LINE?

I suppose the line between nostalgia and treacle is a fine one indeed, though no matter how many times THE NEW WORLD may press toward that line, it always seems to turn around and deliver another moment of free-associative poetry the likes of which seem unimaginable from any other film this decade. (I'm thinking of moments like the sequence that conveys Pocahontas' pregnancy vis-a-vis a simple shot of embers burning in a stone hearth. Perhaps I'm starting to sound positively Hallmarkian myself.) I'm not sure I've seen another movie use nonlinear montage to create so many of those moments so well as Malick's THE NEW WORLD does, a brilliant 21st Century reply to Kuleshov and Eisenstein.

Closing with a footnote, it's interesting that the question of when Malick's work veered toward sentimentality has been with us nearly a long as he's been making movies. Your passage reminded me of the Malick entry in David Thomson's always contentious BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY. To wit, he writes: "BADLANDS may be the most assured first film by an American since CITIZEN KANE..." but several paragraphs later, delivers this: "DAYS OF HEAVEN was a very disappointing follow-up. The imagery had become thunderous and stately, as if Malick and Nestor Almendros were so greedy for prestige that they couldn't release a frame unless it had that sentimental, decorous spaciousness beloved by Andrew Wyeth."

Glenn Kenny

I think what sentimentality exists in "Days" is thoroughly undercut by its end—the scales are lifted from the eyes as it were. Similarly, the sentimentality in "Line" is that of the characters, and it, too, is undercut by human brutality and nature's indifference. What I found in "World" was sentimentality from the filmmaker's perspective...and Thomson is off-base about "Heaven"—the Wyeth comparison is not just facile, it's inaccurate.

bill

@Glenn - Well, Wyeth's "Christina's World" is referenced in DAYS OF HEAVEN. But so is Hopper, among, I'm guessing, many others.

Jaime

If I can weigh in: Glenn, you're being very generous with your time, and very statesmanlike about the whole thing, but in my book, one shouldn't give a damn about omitting movies that are well accounted for elsewhere. When I have to cut, say, 27 titles from a list, I usually go for the ones that (a) put me closer to "eh" and (2) someone else has my back on. When you include titles you feel obligated to include, you surrender authorship of the list. And then, what's the point?

Ryan

I think the accusations of "sentimentality" are perhaps answered by the fact that the film doesn't really seem to be operating from a "humanist" perspective, and thus sentiment is perhaps not quite the word. As in when the lovers fall in love, it's seen as a movement of nature, heaven and earth, and not so much the inner feelings of two individuals. And like most of Malick's films, the individuals find themselves caught up in a history, natural and otherwise, that overrides any individuality.

Steven Santos

I never quite understood the praise for "The New World". The version I saw the 2.5 hour version that played in New York for a week. The thing about Malick is that I often get the feeling he shoots so much and then seems to depend greatly on the editing room to find the film. I thought his other films were great, but this one rarely involved me becoming little more than a series of pretty, but not particularly poignant images. I'm not quite convinced the film was edited the way it was due to any strong directorial vision, as much as it seems like a Hail Mary pass to get something semi-coherent up on the screen.

I also think Glenn's point about sentimentality is a valid one. I almost wish Malick depicted the central Pocahontas/Smith story with more than continuous shots of them standing out in a field of high grass separately or together either thinking, smiling or looking pensively at the sky. At a certain point, it sometimes feels like a lesser director imitating past Malick films.

Despite all that, I'd still like to give the slightly shorter version a shot someday.

rotch

I knew Mysterious Skin had to be on the top 100. Your words on that movie just glowed.

Tom Russell

Though it pales in comparison to Glenn's list(s), I did recently complete my own and, being that I'm seemingly incapable of passing up even the slimmest of pretenses to link to my own site-- well, here's my list, divided into such diverse categories as "Romances", "Image-Making", and "The Andersons":

http://turtleneckfilms.blogspot.com/2009/12/toms-favourite-films-of-last-ten-years.html

Irving Thalberg

@ Glenn: I don't agree with Thomson re: DAYS either; rather found it interesting that earned or not, it's a charge detractors could probably build a case around with nearly any of Malick's movies. Love the point about the fallout of DAYS' ending as well as the brutality in THIN RED LINE, but I have to counter that while, again, there may be more authorial sentimentality finding its way into places in THE NEW WORLD that would've played better drier/shorter/terser, that picture isn't exactly a bed of roses. Remember that Pocahontas' relationship with Smith leads to her brother being killed in battle, her father disowning her, her name (and hereby her identity) being revoked and replaced with a Christian doppelganger, and the strong implication that her people's imminent doom was hastened by her actions. Indeed, in her last exchange with a fellow "natural," conversing with her uncle in London she makes one last attempt to reach out to her now-absent father, asking that she be remembered to him and that she hopes her people can forgive her for what she's done. The uncle just stares back sadly, never answering her, instead walking away into the topiary gardens in silence. Via the reaction shot of Q'orianka we're left with, it's strongly implied the message will not be passed on. Oh, and then she dies and never makes it home again, so there's that.

@ Steven: Sadly, your desire to see the shorter cut ties you to the original DVD release of the film. The version you saw at 150 minutes was indeed pulled after a week or so in theaters and replaced with a new, national version that ran 135. I believe that 135 minute version was released on DVD in 2006 but then replaced again with a 2008 extended edition that runs 172. The extended edition is the sole edition released on Blu-ray and I suppose is Malick's preferred cut now, though also probably the version most guilty of Glenn's critique above. I know it's a pipe dream, but I wish Warner Bros. would release a branching Blu-ray that contains all three versions of the movie.

Glenn Kenny

@ bill: I should have been a little clearer. Certain images in "Heaven" may nod to Wyeth, to Turner, to Grant Wood, even, but for Thomson to say that every frame aspired to what Thomson sees as Wyeth's "sentimental, decorous spacioucness" is very off base. The multiplicity of art references is one clue as to how; the fact that both unruly emotion and uncooperative nature eventually overturn that decorousness moots Thomson's argument.

@ Irving Thalberg: That's a fantastic, and persuasive, breakdown of the ultimate desolation of "The New World." I think in terms of cinematic style I prefer to 172-minute-cut, based on the "in for a penny, in for a pound" principle, but believe that the tragedy Malick wants to address might be better served in a version even shorter than the 135-minute one; remember that both "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" are both barely over 90 minutes. Maybe the problem isn't how much Malick edits, but how much he shoots. (And I understand that lovers of "World" may well balk, and argue that the sprawl is the point.)

lazarus

Steven, I'm not sure if this was your intent, but I'm inferring from your post that directors who "depend greatly on the editing room to find the film" are somehow not doing it the right way, and I strongly disagree with that. While one could argue that the arrival of digital editing caused Malick to have TOO many choices (and an easier way of executing them), using post-production in this searching fashion has been his method going back at least as far as Days of Heaven. And it's a process that Wong Kar-Wai, Jacques Rivette, and I imagine David Lynch (just to name a few) have certainly used to great effect on numerous occasions. I don't think having a clear road map to where you're going, at least for some brilliant artists, is a necessity.

michaelgsmith

I loved The Thin Red Line when I first saw it (I saw it 5 times in the theater, in fact) but my disappointment in The New World has retroactively soured my opinion of it. I think Steven is right in saying The New World feels like a film "found" in the editing room. Thin Red Line now feels that way to me too but, at the time of its original release, the "chaotic" feel seemed justified by the subject matter. Now, I'm not so sure.

Of course, there are stories about Malick's improvisational shooting methods on Badlands and Heaven but those films sure feel a hell of a lot more rigorous and not like he shot a million feet of film and then decided how to cobble it all together afterward.

On an unrelated note, I saw Looney Tunes: Back in Action yesterday solely on Glenn's advice. What an amazing film!

Michael Dempsey

"The New World" is a thrilling contemplation of the enigma that we creatures on the face of the Earth exist at all (a concern found throughout Terrence Malick's work to date), the strangeness that this apparently commonplace fact takes on when viewed from an askew angle, the frustrations of trying to fathom it (nobody mentions any deity), and the bedrock truch of personal love that trumps every other element in this mystery.

For example:

During most of the film, the emphasis is on the strangeness of the "new world" to the English. But then, from the perspective of the girl known to us as Pocahontas, who is seeing it for the first time, Seventeenth-Century London becomes as enigmatic, confusing, and intoxicating as Virginia is to the Jamestown colonists. The grimy streets packed with peddlers and carriages, the people of many lands (black people included), the monumental buildings and their fixtures, the manicured parklands and country homes, the interiors of the royal palace are as wondrously perplexing and yet elating to her as anything in her homeland is to the English invaders. Both parts of the film's world become equally "new," equally mysterious, depending on who is encountering them for the first time.

The high point, Pocahontas' meeting with the king and the queen, scored to Mozart airs, is one of the most lyrically heady episodes in film history. Everything in the palace -- the fixtures, the decor, the clothing worn by the courtiers, the augustness of the royals -- becomes a source of enchantment to her, and the audience gets to experience it fully.

There is no sentimentality in "The New World". Instead, there is rapture.

Dylan P.

Out of curiosity: why do you find "Saddest Music" to be a misfire? It is one of my favorite Maddin films; but, then again, it was also the first one I saw. I'd like to hear your feelings on it, if you have the time/inclination.

Steven Santos

Lazarus, I would argue more that the method of finding the film in the edit room has mixed results depending on the footage shot and how the film is edited together. Those directors you mentioned have had both successes and failures that resulted from that process. I'm sure Malick has done this with all of his films, but "New World" was the first time I felt the imagery was straining to achieve poetry and that the editing choices seemed indecisive and almost random at times.

I would say this often results in sequences both great and not-so-great that do not necessarily add up to a satisfying film experience. The opening passages of the film are the high point for me, but I would also add that any of the scenes that center around the love story between Pocahontas and Smith are a bit dull and uninvolving. I almost feel Malick should have concentrated on making a film about that time rather than telling the Pocahantas/Smith story.

Zach

Glenn, I see the distinction between TTRL's sentimentality and TNW's - but I still prefer the latter film. It's not so much that I have a problem, in either case, with the sentimentality, which I think is more than compensated for by Malick's overall stance of majestic transcendence - in both films. It's that the first film (as much as I love it) seems, at times, to be an awkward compromise between an epic war film and a strictly lyrical, 35 million-bucks-or-so art film. It can be argued that the disconnect is part of the plan, or at least abets it - the placid beauty of the natural world intermittently disrupted by awful violence (at times, beautifully awful violence), but the problem persists when one considers the characters. In some cases, we're given deeply emotional performances coupled with generous visions of their interior lives; mini-arcs, as it were, in the case of the soldier who maintains sanity by dreaming of his wife - and on the other, we're kept strictly on the outside, dealing with the inscrutability of people and nature alike. It's well known that a four-hour-plus cut of TTRL exists, or existed at one point, and we can only assume (I'd say correctly, based on the script) that in such a cut the balance would have been achieved between the individual lives and the collective Life of the story.

I'd argue that Malick achieved that balance in TNW. It's a more, for lack of a better term, elegant work - the resonance of the themes with the individual moments of the characters. It's a film that makes a huge gambit by presenting itself as Great Art, but I'd say it wins the day marvelously. The more you think about it, the more it seems to be about Everything that Matters - life, death, love, the origins of this country as metaphor for the origins of all societies - hope coupled with fear, destruction with new life, etc, etc. I guess that makes me more willing to forgive its occasional surfeits of sentiment. And, at the end of the day, it moves me more than TTRL.

Zach

Oh, and just because I'm an obsessive: the 172 minute cut, which I saw after watching the shorter DVD version a few times, is, for my money, a completely different movie. That's the one I'm talking about - that's the one that feels like a masterpiece - the earlier version is a cool movie with potential. I feel like that's a really important caveat.

lazarus

Steven, thanks for your response, and I won't disagree that the process we're talking about can yield mixed results. Of course, the standard way of doing it doesn't necessarily have a better batting average.

Despite my love for the film, I actually do feel some of the Smith/Pocahontas relationship material was repetitive (especially in the most recent, extended cut), and the editing definitely seems arbitrary at times, but I just wanted to defend the method itself as not being intrinsically problematic.

The Bloofer Lady

The Thin Red Line hasn't aged well, and the choppiness of its editing has become much more apparent. I'd love it if Malick would revisit the edit one day. That said, when it was first released, if anybody remembers, there were two very specific qualities about it:

1) No American filmmaker had attempted an epic art film like that in probably 15 years, so it was really an event.

2) It came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, and the movies tended to divide people into camps.

Matthew Fisher

@Glenn: Long time listener, first time caller. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and honesty, and thanks for writing in a style that's readable as well as engaging. And thanks for being intelligent.

How about a 00's top ten? The ten you've re-watched most, or the ten you adjudge best, or however you wish. Oh yeah... in order of preference, cuz it's harder. Double-dog dare ya.

Fuzzy Bastard

Though I'm a long-time, big Maddin fan, I'm actually in full agreement with your assessment of SADDEST MUSIC. But I'd be curious to hear Glenn's thoughts as to why as well, if only to feel that much more justified. So far, I've only got a vague sense that the plot is just too simple and conventional to suit the style, but there might be more to it.

Glenn Kenny

@ Fuzzy: My first problem with "Saddest Music" was that I found its governing concept a bit too on-the-nose, for which I perhaps arbitrarily blame co-scenarist Kazuo Ishiguro. Then you bring in the beer and the amputated limbs and everything, and you've got what Tone Loc would call a "big ole mess."

Dylan P.

I don't want to beat this horse, but, re: "Saddest Music", I think that what is so personally enjoyable about it is that it IS a mess. It gets very overheated, and throws a lot of things into the pot, but I also think that, emotionally, it sustains itself, and I found this to be its through-line. The plot is almost decoration for the feelings swirling around in it, so if you let yourself get swept up in the "noise" of the story, the beer and the amputated legs feels just-right. It's sort of like "Wild At Heart" in that way, though I know most folks aren't susceptible to that film's zaniness, either.

And, really, nothing in it is any more out of bounds than "Brand Upon The Brain!". Evil orphanage in a lighthouse?

James Keepnews

The voiceovers in Thin Red Line should be somehow introduced into Roget's Thesaurus as synonyms for "preteniousness", "poetastery", other nouns, all of which detracted from what is truly exalting about the film. I always catch New World in medias res on cable but the voiceovers seem a little less grasping for "the glory" as Thin Red Line. Wasn't it Blake who wrote that those who grasp for the glory end up reaching for a hole? He didn't? Oh.

As for the cross in W&L you couldn't bear, Glenn, maybe I'm a little to used from past cross-country trips to seeing countless instances of religious icongraphy being worn on sleeves figurative and literal across this great land to think there was much that was heavy-handed in its use early on in this film. Upon reflection, it does seem a bit much, but only a bit, and there's truly so very much that overhwelms this indelicacy subsequently that it hardly matters for me. I'm also not really a fan of Old Joy -- my four word review: That happened. Now, why? -- so went into Wendy expecting very little and was astonished by Ms. Reichardt's remarkable accomplishment. Sad to think it wasn't recognized for much, as I'm sure it will be in subsequent decades as one of this one's very best.

Jonah

The depiction of the natives in THE NEW WORLD is sentimental, in general. It could be worse; it could be DANCES WITH WOLVES. But Malick's desire to maintain the notion of a prelapsarian/one-with-the-land-and-sea Other is more problematic here than it was in THIN RED LINE, where it was a minor motif (and problematically provided an objective correlative for the internal states of the Caveziel character).

Although I find it beautiful, moving, etc. in parts (esp. the last act, in England), I miss the economy of signification (and not just the irony) of BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN. I think I like TNW more than Dave Kehr, and his comments on it are a bit imprecise, but he's right about the seeming interchangeability of many of the shots and a resulting sense of drift or even torpor. This goes double (or 1.5x?) for the longer version. I guess I just don't *feel* much of the excess (or reverie or whatever) or I just can't assimilate it to any formal design that's pleasing to contemplate. All that said, I still like the film and return to it fairly often. Again, it has a lot of great stuff in it. Especially its sound design.

Marsh

"Mysterious Skin" wins the award for best use of Slowdive this decade.

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