Sunday, February 24, 2008

There will be boredom

Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier in the best shot in There Will Be Blood.

I don't, as a rule, pay much attention to the Oscars, except when they're a particularly wild travesty (as when Crash was handed the statuette over Brokeback, for instance). This year "travesty" seems impossible, although if No Country for Old Men falls to some spoiler, yes, a minor injustice will have been done. Not that No Country is such a great film - but for long stretches it's engrossing and has a few moments of genuine resonance: it's like an improved version of Fargo (and didn't that win? I think so). This hasn't been a particularly good year for movies - the fact that both Michael Clayton and Juno could be in the running for Best Picture tells you as much - and I sometimes wonder if we really need to have an Academy Award ceremony every single year. I mean, isn't it a bit odd that films like The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia should share the same honor as Driving Miss Daisy and Braveheart, while such classics as Cabaret and Chinatown were cheated of statuettes? Can't we just skip the damn thing some years, and play catch up? It seems the only decent thing to do.

But back to the spoiler problem. This year's potential spoiler looks to be There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's mildly absorbing account of a ruthless oil baron coming to no good in turn-of-the-(last)-century California. I found it, like all of Anderson's movies, intermittently interesting but somehow incoherent at a deep level - to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no "there" there in Anderson's movies, no original artistic personality. For a while he was imitating Altman, to some positive effect, but There Will Be Blood is, in effect, a crazy quilt of sights and sounds borrowed from older, better movies. It's basically an Upton Sinclair potboiler dressed up in a Stanley Kubrick soundtrack and Terrence Malick photography, with Daniel Day-Lewis imitating Robert DeNiro in the lead. Now does that sound like it makes any sense to you? No, it didn't to me, either.

Yet our film critics have been doing cartwheels over this strange, quietly lumbering film. It seems I've seen the phrase "a work of genius" written more than once about it. ("A work of genius(es)" might be more like it.) That kind of tripe is easy to dismiss - what's weirder is Ty Burr's valentine to the pic in today's Globe, with such choice phrases as "the Gordian knot of . . . (a) contrarian epic . . . the arid glories of the setting, the cavernous hatreds of the hero . . . brilliant cinema . . . scenes of quiet grandeur . . . etc., etc., etc."

And to think I almost nodded off! To be fair, the "Gordian knot" of There Will Be Blood has one original and intriguing strand - the ongoing duel between Day-Lewis's "Daniel Plainview" and his smarmily pious doppelganger, Paul Dano's "Paul Sunday" (at left), a preacher as much on the make as the oil baron. Anderson always seems about to nail some brilliant point about the synergy of fundamentalism and capitalism - only he never quite does; still, the scenes between Day-Lewis and Dano have a resonance nothing else in the movie has, and sometimes crackle with a sense of satire rare in Anderson's work. But beyond this, most of There Will Be Blood is pretty bloodless. Day-Lewis, as usual, constructs a thorough physicalization, and we can feel his own intelligence constantly moving within his performance; we're also somehow aware that he has willed his own somewhat-shy disposition to daring feats of derring-do. Yet if an actor is to be judged by how well he builds a sense of personality, and sympathy for that personality, onscreen, then Day-Lewis fails utterly. He has become what DeNiro became long ago - a kind of anti-naturalistic actor, who uses the tropes of the method to form a carapace that conceals, rather than reveals, his character. Perhaps this is because any such revelation could be seen as vulgar; or perhaps it's that, in the end, Day-Lewis simply has no inner resources to match the personae of such matchless screen presences as Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn. Whatever the reason, Day-Lewis's performances always seem peerless, yet somehow empty; as with Anderson, there's no "there" there.

Day-Lewis is done few favors, however, by Anderson's script, which I gather streamlines the novel, but does so without any sense of growing momentum or rising stakes. Put bluntly, Anderson doesn't seem to know how to develop the Paul Sunday subplot, and he flubs almost every key moment in Plainview's tale: the moment when Plainview abandons his adopted son, the moment when he realizes his "brother" is a poseur - these turning points and more are oddly underwritten and underplayed, and hence don't have the impact they should. By the time of the notoriously bizarre denouement, in which at last there's blood between Sunday and Plainview, we've checked out of the story emotionally, and can only roll our eyes at what plays like a bad outtake from The Shining. And Burr is at his least convincing trying to justify this misstep: "There Will Be Blood commits the cardinal sin," he explains, "of breaking its narrative spell and announcing, along with its hero, that it's finished, done, over - go home already." So the final scene 'works' by revealing that the movie should already be over? That has to be the most screwball piece of logic I've read in a review in a long time - but perhaps in its foolishness it distills the essence of the critical response to the movie.

Still, one gropes for an explication for this madness. Is it that Anderson is still perceived as Altman's heir? Is it that he manages to make movies of some seriousness, admittedly, within the Hollywood system (no small feat)? Or is it that he seems, like Quentin Tarantino, to be at least as much a film critic as a filmmaker himself? Or is the chorus of approval for There Will Be Blood simply another symptom of this once-great popular art form's seemingly unstoppable decline? Maybe a friend of mine put it best as the lights rose in the theatre after the credits: "Well, that was no movie for old men."


  1. Semi Spoiler Alert:

    I read somewhere that in the final sequences Anderson even wanted to paint the bowling alley a stark white to emulate Kubrick even more.

    Kubrick had an irony behind the Shining music as well. A toying of with the genre.

    One critic, it may have been Kael, commented on how The Shining may be the first horror movie in history to cause an audience to jump at a a title card reading "Tuesday."

  2. The point is, though, that as an "emulation" of Kubrick the sequence is a joke. Kubrick is more than just po-faced weirdness - I know that's what his detractors think, but that's simply an indication of their lack of imagination. If Anderson had any sense of Kubrick's actual method - or even a touch of his genius - he'd realize that Kubrick's movies work because complex ideas are threaded through them structurally, symbolically, and musically. The soundtrack doesn't just "sit on top of" the images, the way it does in There Will Be Blood. In fact, I'm even irritated by Anderson's ersatz-Kubrick score; Kubrick's soundtracks are fascinating, and built from the works of major 20th-century composers; they're not doodles from Radiohead! Oh, well - maybe our cultural decline can be summed up in that nutshell - from György Ligeti to Jonny Greenwood!

  3. Thanks for this review, I am getting fed up with the great reviews several recent movies have been getting, this one included. I too felt that there seems to be a hole in the middle of this movie. I often feel that critics see a movie's lack of clear or effective narrative drive as an instance of its seriousness of intent and not just as deficiency of the movie.