Sunday, January 13, 2008

There Will Be Blood

My New Year's resolution to see recent commercial releases more often is off to an OK start. I'm hoping to slowly find my way back into writing something like polished "reviews," but without resorting to quote whoredom or boring formulae like "plot synopsis - breakdown of acting & script - final evaluation." Five years ago, I took seriously the art of reviewing and criticism. Now I no longer feel it's really anything like my vocation, but I want to try to improve myself at it anyway. It will be a process, and there will be awkwardness. People seem to pay more attention when I write about recent films anyway.

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.


Eric Henderson said...

Interesting resolution. I myself had weighed the option of updating my blog for real as a New Year's Resolution, but instead opted to cut down on the soda and to restart piano lessons.

David said...


Ed Howard said...

That's an interesting review. I think we read the film similarly, although I reacted more positively and think Anderson came much closer to achieving his ambitions. I just saw it yesterday as well, and IMO it's Anderson's best film so far by a long mile (and I'm not one of those who disliked his earlier films either).

I'm also resolving to see more new films this year, it's something I didn't make much attempt to do in 2007 unless something really grabbed my interest. I hope this year I'll see a broader range of films.

Daniel Kasman said...

As much as I really like this movie, you have eloquently brought forth all the problems that I saw in it, but were unable to put in my piece.

I still think there is much to be said for the film's suggestiveness, its broad expressionism, its central performance, that even Anderson's unfulfilled ambitions and ideas cannot fully disarm.

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Anonymous said...


Interesting thoughts on THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Keep up the reviews of contemporary releases!

That said, I have to respectfully disagree with you on the intent/focus/theme of Anderson's movie. I don't think it's really about the specific history of America, evangelicalism and capitalism, or the dynamics of full-fledged society. So bringing up Marxian misgivings about the abstractness and underdeveloped nature of its view of the dynamics of society strikes me as misguided.

Anderson uses American frontier capitalism and religion as a jumping off point, no doubt, but everything about the film is focused on the pathological force of human will, the clash of those wills, and their interaction with a profoundly visceral environment.

I haven't developed all this myself (as you can see). The only point I'd like to register is that a more fair way into the film seems to me to be a recognition that Anderson is pre-occupied with -- however one might put it -- epic personal will, physicality, and drives/energy (human and natural -- ambition, religious possession, erupting oil drills). What does the film end with?: a climactic release of violent energy and the ironic, comic hollowness of its after-effect. As sociopolitical allegory the film simply doesn't work (the mapping onto American history is close in some spots, but all off in others, such as at the end). A considered analysis of social history is tangential from the getgo, and I think that's an artistic decision one can accept as Anderson's prerogative.

An extra-textual confirmation of this, for what it's worth, is that, Anderson pointedly dropped all the socialist/labor elements in plot and authorial message from Sinclair's book.

Frank Partisan said...

The book was raped by the screenplay. Even though there is no resemblance to the book, the unit itself was good. Daniel Day Lewis will win every award.

I didn't want the movie to end.

ZC said...

Sorry to come late to the comments. Thanks for dropping by.

Jen--I would love to do a video. One day I will, when I'm ready and have a good set of ideas.

Phil--I agree that the consideration of American history isn't the film's point. But that's precisely part of what left me uneasy. Why set this film in the past and imbue it with significations of American History (and archetypes within it) if only to plead transcendence of these facts and be a story of something more abstract, the "pathological force of human will"? PTA's free to do whatever he wants as an artist, I'm just slightly unsatisfied by whatever motivated him to set this in the past with all the fanfare but then ignore the substance of all this historical signification. As I tried to communicate in my write-up, I simply suspect it's because he bites off more than he can chew, and thinks up very specific implementations of very hazy concepts when he makes his films.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your review but I think you are a little bit too kind to Mr. Paul Thomas Anderson. At best he is a pretentious hack trying to rip off a European tradition of filmmaking. More likely, he is someone who wants to say something but doesn't have anything meaningful to say hence his inability to end a story with closure. I like your blog and think your writing is top notch. Keep up the work.

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