So. Paul Thomas Anderson makes very "American" films but he makes them as though he were working in a more European industrial tradition--i.e., as though cinema were (yes) essentially a big and commercial storytelling enterprise, but one had the freedom to make strange, expansive, and unconventionally rewarding narrative films. So There Will Be Blood seems a bit like Griffith, a bit like Scorsese, Peckinpah, Malick ... and it also feels a bit like Visconti, a bit like some of the Soviets. It's not that, as a filmmaker, Anderson always feels like any one of these figures. It's not a matter of expression, per se, but a matter of approaching film storytelling. Anderson is of the kind of school of thought that doesn't seem to conceive of cinematic art outside of storytelling in some overriding frame, i.e., one can digress from plot at will but plot is always the glue or the justification for any sort of abstraction/experimentation.
There Will Be Blood unfolds with such singular force of expression that one may be tempted toward superlatives. Certainly there is much to recommend the film--indeed its confident forcefulness (compare this to almost anything else American cinema is producing: this is one that rightfully demands consideration in the big leagues--I feel it's almost alone in this sense), Greenwood's score, Day-Lewis' utterly proficient (and somewhat out-of-control) performance are all selling points. It's the kind of film that Pauline Kael surely would have written an almost-rave for, pointing out its "excesses" and "shortcomings" and loving it all the more for not having so hedged its bets.
Still. I'm not convinced the film is more than half-baked, conceptually and thematically, and I feel as though Anderson were really sure of how he wanted to say something meaningful but spent less time on the meaning that supplied that ... meaningfulness. To be clear: I'm not lodging a "style over substance" complaint, exactly, but rather suggesting that PTA knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way too well how he wants to say it. I'm pretty convinced that Anderson is an artist who wants to Say Something; less convinced that he's accomplished at following through on those very terms. Perhaps it's a case of "we can spot our own"--when I was a teenager with my own fairly routine movie geek obsessions, and I harbored my own filmmaking dreams, I would often obsess about how my future movie masterpieces would be, and get intoxicated on their imagined affect while paying little heed to real thematic, philosophical, aesthetic elbow-grease. Paul Thomas Anderson sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this stage--the need to tell truths but the rush to sometimes not think them through--and via charisma as well as intelligence & talent, gets away with it.
It is easy enough to boil down most fiction works to a bland message, thereby casting them in suspicious lights. (It's a neat, and cheap, tactic if you're trying to deflate someone's favorite film: "Oh, Film X merely says Boring Platitude Y. Big deal.") In the case of There Will Be Blood, the bland message probably has to do with the violent symbiosis and competition between religious communities and brute primitive accumulation as the crux of American society. Or, to put it more obliquely, the two major power-entitities in American history and their dialectical co-existence. I don't want to be rhetorical when I suggest that, for me, the film's substance is nevertheless too facile, too underdeveloped, to sustain the sureness of its elocution. Where are the roots of Daniel Plainview's entrepreneurial spirit? The roots of Eli Sunday's evangelism? How can one depict a major social and historical clashing without really depicting them socially or historically? Malick's Days of Heaven (which came to mind more than once) may lack PTA's sociohistorical ambitions but, I think, its treatment of class, of work, of mores is more intelligent all the same. Likewise Visconti's The Leopard (which also came to mind, more strangely) shows the way a society is produced and reproduced, rather than simply performing some isolated conflicts. Am I too, oh, Lukacsian here in my demands? Perhaps. But I can't shake the conviction that these are fair terms on which to address There Will Be Blood.
Theatrical Woes: unprepared to cope with near-record January highs, the Union Square Regal 14 kept its theaters--or at least the one I was in--unbearably hot. It was at least 80 degrees F, and stuffy (and crowded). I expect and can deal with such discomforts, from time to time, at a place like Anthology Film Archives. At a corporate multiplex, though? No way. If I am to pay twelve bucks for a Tuesday night movie I expect to be comfortable. Also, the guy who sat next to me was texting with abandon all throughout the film, and he had one of those combo-phones with a big bright screen. (I'm too timid, or "polite," to ever ask anyone to put the distracting light out in a situation like this--I figure that if they're too dense to suspect others might not appreciate it, there is a higher-than-average chance they'll cause problems if confronted about it.) Then he and his date left the movie with maybe 15 minutes left.