Last year I implored the Almighty to rain down blessings upon film critic Matt Zoller Seitz of the New York Press for being one of the only critics I knew of to sing the praises of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy on his year-end "best" list. This year I'm again grateful to Seitz, this time for his new blog, The House Next Door, an excellent addition to anyone's daily reading list. In particular, his enthusiasm for Terrence Malick's The New World has, to use his imagery, really poured some gasoline on the smoldering fire of my interest in the film, as well as thrown light on some pretty intriguing conversation about the movie and just how much critical respect this movie seems to be building.
Seitz declares, in his "Just Beautiful" post, that The New World "is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it... It is nothing less than a generation-defining event. When your descendants ask you to describe the popular art called movies, this is one of the titles they'll ask about."
That, to me, is walking out on a limb, critically speaking, with only your real convictions to gird that limb, inviting real discussion, and perhaps derision from those who would dismiss the reaction as an emotional oversell. But, to look a the list of smart writers that Seitz provides in the "One World" post who have written eloquently about Malick's film, it appears he's not as alone as all that after all. Not that it would matter if he was, though. Seitz's fervor for The New World exemplifies the kind of criticism that I think is most valuable-- he makes infectious the power of his experience and articulates it with uncommon eloquence and a reliable foundation of close familiarity with the history of film. And he does so without feeling the need to denigrate other works or attempts at artistic expression in the process.
One of the common traps that dog film critics, especially when they first start out (and especially during those periods when there's not much good cinema to consider in the first place), is that writing about what you like is often harder than dashing off some smart-ass remarks about a film that may not even be worth getting angry or frustrated over. I've rediscovered, in writing on my own blog, the joy of expressing enthusiasm for a work and articulating how it goes about doing what it does, something that was always much more difficult for me to do than delineating just how a film failed to work. Of course, expressing the worth of a great film is a much more fulfilling achievement as well, for the reader and the writer, especially when the writer gets it right. And even before having seen The New World myself, I can tell that Seitz has, for himself, gotten this one right. Before reading his review and the subsequent pieces he's posted on his blog, the film was much further down on my list of must-sees. In fact, based on my rather indifferent response to Malick's The Thin Red Line, I had even thought that it would't be so bad if I missed it in theaters and instead caught up with it on DVD. (An asinine thought, I know-- good, bad or indifferent, Malick's movies demand to be seen theatrically.) But having witnessed just how moved Seitz was by the film, through his expressive talent as a film critic, I'm now fully excited to get to a big screen and then join in the discussion about The New World myself. I don't know what my own reaction will be, but I can guess that even if it's closer to how I felt about The Thin Red Line than my appreciation for Days of Heaven, I'll still have had a more enriching time than anyone who sat through Big Momma's House 2 this past weekend. Who says film critics can't make a difference? Who says film criticism is irrelevant? Not me. Critics like Seitz put the lie to those presumptions with almost every column. I look forward to following his thoughts throughout the year, and I hope you will too.