Sunday, March 16, 2008

Blood From A Stone


If art isn't entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?
-- Pauline Kael


Orson Welles once said that the first ten minutes of a film could reveal the whole: if nothing interesting happened in those early moments, Welles declared, nothing interesting would happen in the rest of the movie. The first ten or fifteen minutes of P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood fulfill Welles' dictum: they quickly reveal everything we need to know about the obsessiveness of film's protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), while also giving us a sense of the film's style. These early moments feel like a silent film: completely lacking in dialogue, they feature only sound effects (grunts and digging and the harsh whop! of a man falling on his back), which draws the viewer ever more into the image (it's a remarkable thing to sit in a modern theater and have it be completely silent even though none of the characters on-screen are talking). These silent film techniques will continue throughout-- the movie makes very self-conscious nods to Griffith, Stroheim, and John Ford-- while it also threads in a host of other references, including the aforementioned Mr. Welles' Citizen Kane, Chinatown (dig Daniel's John Huston growl), and the mid-seventies work of sensual epicmakers like Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci. In many ways, it's an impressive achievement, if an overly intertextual one (as my friend rightly noted on our way out of the theater, "This is the perfect film to teach in a cinema studies class" because of its heavy-handed quotations and reconfigurations), but also a deeply strained one. In addition to revealing character and visual patterns, the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood also allegorize the film's attitude towards cinema as a whole: as Daniel Plainview digs and digs and struggles and falls and gets back up and digs some more (often in darkly lit shots one has to strain to see), the film seems to be saying: movies are hard. You gotta dig and dig and dig, and it's work, and it's painful, but keep digging, 'cause this is real cinema, my friend.

The film's bigness (in every sense), its unflinching embrace of melodrama, its slow-moving long shots and long takes of the Land and the Work, its histrionic, single-entendre perspective on religion and big business, and its daugerrotype cinematography (by ace Robert Elswit) all speak of a certain strain of Seriousness that the movie almost dares you to reject, for fear of seeming out of the hipster loop. I can't entirely reject it (I actually love melodrama), but I also can't settle into it-- for me, the movie oscillated between fascinating and tedious, moving and laughable (and sometimes those laughs were intentional, I think, and sometimes they weren't). I loved the largeness of Daniel Day-Lewis' performance (which Jonathan has written about), which feels over-the-top, but is actually beautifully modulated: the largelargeLARGE ending has been expertly discussed elsewhere, but it-- and the confrontation between Plainview and Son which precedes it--only works because of how wonderfully controlled and still Day-Lewis has been earlier in the movie; yes, he has his drunked confrontation with the oil barons in the restaurant, but so much of the rest of the film shows him working his facial muscles into a mask to hide everything he's feeling. Day-Lewis's walk, his expressions, his vocal timbre, all create a stylized performance both epic and intimate. It's a style for which the film strives for as a whole-- it wants to be character study and social commentary at once-- but can't quite achieve.

I've been turning Blood over in my head since I saw it Thursday night, and it's hard for me to figure out exactly why I find it so unsettling, why I can't quite articulate what it does to me. Every time I think, "Yes, it's a striking achievement" (look at those shots of Day-Lewis walking away from his son on the train! Dig Jonny Greenwood's amazingly expressive score! Look at that hilarious final scene!), I say, "Yes, BUT..." (look at its Capitalism for Dummies ethos, that ridiculous scene with H.W. getting blown down on the exploding oil platform, the needless scenes in the church, the self-conscious Days of Heavenisms), which in turn leads me to say, "Yes, BUT..." Its self-consciousness-- like that of the overrated Boogie Nights-- can be offputting, but one could also make the argument that it needs that constant referencing to tell its tale of a developing America, that the citation works to fill in the narrative gaps. I liked the grasping towards bigness in Magnolia, but I think the falling frogs and histrionics worked for me there because they were framed by a sense of grace, a generosity towards the characters that the baroque visuals matched: narrative, character and style all came together in a call for more. There Will Be Blood's heavy visual palette and manipulative pathos rub more uneasily against its satiric impulses, its desire for distance, its funky mixture of heart, smugness and opacity. More than anything, I was struck by its insistence on a fatalistic point of view, whose licked surfaces mask a deeply sentimental ethos. Blood seeping onto the bowling alley, Daniel Plainview lying prone, this is cinema-as-masochism, a constantly self-defeating utilization of Anderson's considerable skill, and one that, in the end, gives an ironic metaspin to Plainview's last line: "I'm finished."

6 comments:

Search said...

Blood for oil That is one deadly exchange rate.

Brian Doan said...

Yep. So is spamming about it.

Jonathan Lapper said...

You finally saw it! It's a movie you turn over in your mind for days after seeing it. Once I got past the mental masturbation aspects of that I settled on, "It's an excellent movie but I'll see how I feel about it in ten years."

Anderson has always been accused of referencing far too much so it's no surprise that so much of that plays into your piece. I definitely agree but I also think that film at this point has such a formidable history behind it now that the best students of film will find themselves referencing, in many cases unconsciously, because so much has been done before.

And I'm glad you like Lewis. I thought his performance was magnificent and I grew tired of hearing people complain he was overacting. Balderdash! He was great acting (if that's a phrase).

Brian Doan said...

Jonathan,
I agree--I'll be curious to see how it holds up. I like Anderson-- I thought Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love were both underrated-- but this one didn't hit me in the same way. Which isn't to say it didn't hit me: I found it haunting in a lot of ways, not all of them good. And yes, Lewis is (unsurprisingly) quite great. I haven't seen all of his work, but the only performance of his that underwhelmed me was in The Crucible about ten or twelve years ago.

Bob Westal said...

The only thing consistent about my appreciation of Anderson's films is that it keeps changing. I didn't care for "Boogie Nights" when I first saw -- I kept hoping for someone to wrest to steadycam from PT's hands, it just seemed excessive. But another look at the film revealed it as quite a nice film. On the other hand, "Magnolia" was a split decision with me, many of the things others had praised, including Tom Cruises on-paper perfect casting as the misogynist dating guru, didn't work for me. And why was there 2 of everyone?

On the other hand, I think you can make the case that "Punch Drunk Love" is his best movie...a romantic comedy shot and paced like a horror film, and what a score by Jon Brion? Absolutely stunning work.

My reaction to "Blood" is a lot more positive than Brian's, I think (it's probably my second favorite film this year, right after "Once"). At the same time, I understand all of your quibbles and frequently found myself annoyed at the screening I first saw it at. There's so much build-up and I wondered if there was enough pay-off. And at times the silence and the music crossed the line between hypnotic and irritating.

But then the ending came -- for me, and perhaps me alone, it's perfect...except I couldn't believe it was over. I knew the film was 2.5 hours and I thought only 90 minutes had passed. In the piece I wrote for my blog, I compared the last line to the last line of "Some Like it Hot." Out of context, a commonplace cliche. In context, that rarest of all things, a final line that says it all.

And I agree with botj you guys about DD Lewis. As hammy as it is -- and as easy as it is to imitate because he's imitating John Huston and impressions of impressions are always easier. (I'm saying "I drink your milkshake..." even as I type this). When I've directed things before, I've told my actors that no "acting" was allowed, but if they felt like hamming it up, that might be okay. Hamming is just self-aware acting. "Acting" is trying to show how much you can feel.

I actually think Paul Dano might be even better than Lewis -- but I seem to be almost alone in that opinion.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Bob!
I thought Dano was excellent, too-- I hated his character throughout the movie, which I think was the point: it takes courage to be that odious on-screen. I didn't always like the way the character was written-- sometimes he feels a little one-note-- but Dano is very good. I think my dislike for the character explains why I found the ending rather satisfying.