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."