Monday, October 14, 2013

In Defense of Boring Movies: The New World

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

A whole new world,
A new fantastic point of view,
No one to tell us no, 

or where to go,
Or say we're only dreaming.

—"A Whole New World," from Disney's Aladdin

Savages, savages!
Barely even human...

They're not like you and me
Which means they must be evil!
—"Savages," from Disney's Pocahontas

I think of myself as a Terrence Malick fan, even though I've only seen two of his movies. He hasn't even made that many movies—so far, he's been the writer/director on just seven in a four-decade career—so it's not like I couldn't get through his body of work in a week or two if I wanted to.

The thing about Terrence Malick is that his movies are the absolute height of what I've come to call the "boring" movie: movies that ask big questions and give the viewer space to think about them. They tend to have lots of long, dialogue-free shots that just let you think and see and feel, rather than propelling you quickly through a plot.

It takes some actual work to enjoy this style of movie, of which Terrence Malick is currently the king. His movies tend to stretch to 3+ hours, and from the first moments watching The New World, I was totally absorbed, and I stayed that way through the whole length. So even seeing just one of his films made me feel like I already knew him and his body of work well enough to know I was a fan. The second one was just gravy, really.

The plot of The New World is this: it's the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. You know that story? Good. Then you know the plot. Like with any boring movie, the plot in The New World is not really that important.

Terrence Malick is interested in the universe and nature and how people relate to 'em, these forces that are bigger and wilder than us. In The New World, he's specifically concerned with the way white people came to America and interacted with the vast array of nature on display here, as well as how they interacted with the Native Americans, who seemed to have a much different relationship with nature.

Boring movies ask big questions and give you space to think about them, but just what that space looks like is of course variable. Where Stalker and Dead Man are content to have the viewer watch the characters silently make their way through the wilderness, The New World lingers heavily over nature, to the extent that the filmmakers had an entire second film crew dedicated to filming wildlife scenes.

The big questions in The New World are these: America was a beautiful country once; how did we manage to muck it up so much, and why? What happened between the new settlers and the original inhabitants, and could it ever have been different?

The New World is a huge movie full of big ideas and questions and events, but it gives you so much room to breathe that watching it feels like a slow, gentle walk instead of a headlong dash through plot and pondering. The New World is a great example of a movie that's "boring" in all the right ways.

Photo Source: (fair use)
Clips are from the Extended Cut of this film. 


  1. Thanks for reminding this movie exists, James. I know I've seen it, but given that I didn't understand the Malick oeuvre/aesthetic at the time, I probably thought it was boring and slow. Now that I've seen Tree of Life and begun to appreciate the slow burn of visual brilliance that is a Malick film, I'd definitely revisit The New World and really watch it over again.

  2. No problem, Sarah. Thankfully, I had some preparation going into it that it was going to be slow; otherwise, I'm sure I'd have fallen asleep my first time through. With long, slow movies like this, I try to always have a friend there with me to watch, and to plan to have an intermission sometime where we get up, chat about the movie, get a snack, and generally refresh our brains so we don't lose focus. It's worked pretty well, though occasionally we all lose the battle and give up.

    I'm actually okay with that, too, though; every once in a while, I'll put on a movie with the intention of falling asleep while it plays. You get some awesome dreams that way, I find.

  3. Movies that made the world smaller.