Sunday, 8 August 2010

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano
Music: Jonny Greenwood; Arvo Part; Johannes Brahms
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit

‘There Will Be Blood’ is, essentially, a film which privileges style over substance; this is a fact which cannot be covered up by hurling platitudes in the direction of score, cinematography, and Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, as most critics seem to have done. Despite its length, and gestures in the direction of the ‘epic’, the film is basically a cartoon (although one could claim that the standard Hollywood definition of ‘epic’ often mean ‘cartoon’ anyway. The difference is that ‘The Ten Commandments’ was sufficiently campy, and ‘Ben-Hur’ sufficiently enthralling as spectacle and narrative, to belie their pretensions to grandeur, while ‘There Will Be Blood’ takes itself very seriously.) Director/ screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson has been quite open about only adapting the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘Oil!’, and what has been left out is pretty much all the political content, narrative thrust, and character interaction. Thus, the oil baron is not a human being with motivations, allegiances, and schemes; he is more like a ‘force of nature’, a symbol, an opportunity for Day Lewis to do the unthinkable, and go beyond even his demented turn in Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’. (If he can be said to have chewed the scenery in ‘Gangs’, here he increasingly seems to want to gobble it all up, like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street.) There *is* some sort of thematic backbone to the film, but it’s of a simplistic kind that really needs fleshing out to retain any interest beyond a one-sentence summary – in other words, to properly make the transition into a fully-fledged feature film. Thus, we have a simple opposition between the drive towards capitalist accumulation – as manifested in Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Plainview – and the superstitions of religion – as manifested by the fanatical young pastor Eli, who shouts and wails in exorcism-type rites, aware of the benefits, in finance and welfare, that oil drilling will bring to the community (principally, this means bringing in funds for his church), but also concerned by the lack of interest in (and perhaps active antipathy towards) religion exhibited by Plainview. Day-Lewis’ ‘son’ is the film’s other major figure, but, in reconfiguring the parent-child relationship from the Sinclair novel, Anderson causes it to lose much of its significance. Whereas Sinclair’s son was the novel’s protagonist, a Socialist whose desire for better worker conditions and opposition to his father’s corrupt business practices placed him in familial conflict, the character in the film is relegated to secondary and near-mute status. He’s actually the orphan child of another miner who worked with Plainview on an early expedition, before he’d struck it really big; when the miner died, Plainview took on the child, as he felt this would be good for his image. The son never really comes into direct conflict with him; he goes deaf in an oil-related accident (thus indicating Day-Lewis’ sacrifice of the domestic and the relational in favour of the crazed pursuit of oil and wealth), and seems to harbour some resentment (particularly after he’s sent away for a year or so), but accepts with good grace the final revelation that he’s actually an orphan, and goes off into the sunset as a good model Capitalist – married to his childhood sweetheart, and intending to start his own oil-drilling business. As Plainview only really needed him for image purposes anyway, their relationship lacks any real dramatic spark; for someone who’s so blatantly and bafflingly misanthropic, it’s hardly a surprise that the Oil Man is unable to sustain a human relationship of real love and mutual affection.

We might be able to excuse such an element of the plot in isolation – perhaps even to praise it as refreshingly unsentimental – but it remains unfortunately true that the things Plainview does in the film often don’t make sense as the real, motivated actions of a human being: thus, when he finds out that the truth about the imposter who’d been posing as his brother, and whom he had taken into his confidence to some extent, he murders him in the middle of the night. Earlier in the film, when Eli approaches him to ask “when we are going to get paid?”, Plainview doesn’t try to sweet-talk him, but gives him a savage beating and a ‘baptism’ in a pool of oil, while roaring “why can’t you cure my son?”. One would think that, rather than unnecessarily antagonising one of the community’s main voices, the oil man would need to keep him (and thus the community in general) in his good graces, as he’s relying on them to work the derricks. Even given the fact of his near-pathological hatred of his fellow human beings, it seems unlikely that Plainview would have risen to his position without some degree of cunning (which he has demonstrated earlier, in his smooth-talking acquisition of the farmers’ land for bargain prices). Instead, Anderson always seems to feel that a ‘big scene’ is called for – murder, beating, yelling; consequently, the narrative feels rather unsteady at times, and Plainview’s characterisation turns more and more cartoonish.

This is a film of stubbly, gritty men in a harsh, dry, dusty landscape, about the myths of rugged individualism and savage competition that mark the formation of the American west – about violence, revenge, and hatred. Sound familiar? Well of course, and, while the comeback of the western hasn’t been that much of a success, as attested by such recent failures as the ‘3:10 to Yuma’ remake, its basic concerns and something of its iconography have made their way into tales such as ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (both, incidentally, starring Tommy Lee Jones, who has the weathered face of cowboy if ever there was one). This is not a complete picture, however; whereas westerns themselves had always, to some degree, had roles for women (though by no means proportionate to the number of women who actually lived in the Old West), and whereas ‘The Three Burials’ actually has a couple of sensitively-observed female characters, with their own frustrations and desires to balance out those of the men, ‘There Will Be Blood’ delegates something like 90% of its roles to males. There are some old women in the church; Plainview’s son marries a girl with whom he’d played as a child; and that’s it. Significantly, Plainview had no relationship with a woman in order to produce a ‘son’, and takes no part in the activities in a brothel (women are heard laughing in the background, but the only shot we are allowed is of Day-Lewis slumped grimly against a wall). Perhaps this is intended as a criticism, of the male-centred, dog-eat-dog mentality behind Old West mythology, and its translation into modern-day American Capitalism (cowboy presidents et al). And yet, the near-total *absence* of women feels like an important historical error, as if the film-makers got so stuck on the ‘ruggedness’ and ‘bleakness’ of their depiction, so enamoured of the malignant masculinity that they filmed in sweaty close-up and silhouetted long shot, that they forgot to fill in the detail, forgot to give some sort of context, some sort of background, to the ciphers on screen. The tone is set by the opening sequence, a near-silent depiction of the loneliness and danger of the initial stages of searching for oil which, in its own way, is very well done; from then on, the preference is always for a shouted, repeated line, a punch to the face, a bullet in the forehead, or the explosion of an oil derrick, rather than for conversation, for dialogue, for explanation. At times, this feels very appropriate – for example, the halting inarticulacy of Day-Lewis and the supposed ‘brother’ who comes to visit him in a mid-film interlude are nicely judged – but at others, it feels like an unnecessary restriction. The film is always telling us that something important is happening, or about to happen (see below), and yet it never really shows us in what way this is important; the occasional allusions to historical context (such as the mention of using pipe-lines to counter the cost of railroad transport, or the depiction of desperately poor farmers easily goaded out of their land by smooth-talking oil men) don’t really tell us *why* these men act as they do. Religion is portrayed (dismissed) as a succession of crazed set-pieces and false showmanship preying on the naivety of simple country folk, while Day-Lewis seems to act not so much out of greed as sheer misanthropy (in a scene with his ‘brother,’ he explains how much he hates other people, and wants to get away from them). To portray capitalist drives/ the lust for oil as mere man-hating evil and greed is to ignore the ideological back-up and societal framework which allows such action to be seen as ‘normal’, and creating such cartoon villainy in lieu of any deeply considered socio-political inquiry allows the film-maker to appeal to the ‘visceral’, to a kind of poetry of barbarism, a portrayal of man as harnessing and containing within him brute natural forces. Such a portrayal is in no way meant to be an endorsement – Anderson can be judged as firmly in opposition to his protagonist – and yet it does pave the way for a simplistically naturalising approach that betrays a lack of coherent or far-reaching intellectual back-up. In other words, all the technical resources are there, but there’s a certain quality and coherence of *thought* that’s lacking, and, while this problem might be sidestepped in a more pulpy or less ambitious context, it’s a major draw-back when one seeks to tackle a subject of historical dimensions, in a manner that suggests epic pretensions. As Zach Campbell comments at the ‘Elusive Lucidity’ blog, “[Anderson] knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way *too* well how he wants to say it. [He] sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this [teenage film-making] 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’s not, though, as if Anderson was constrained by lack of experience, by the film’s running time, or by budgetary demands; ‘There Will Be Blood’ takes two-and-a-half hours to unfold, with plenty of *big scenes* suggested by Jonny Greenwood’s overly-dramatic music (all sub-Ligeti pizzicati and glissandi and thundering percussion, with some Arvo Part minimalism and ‘ironically’ deployed snatches of the Brahms violin concerto interspersed to provide variety). In fact, the music tries to suggest drama, tension and angst even when the actors are doing little more than walking through the scenery. “THIS IS IMPORTANT AND TERRIBLE, DAMMIT” scream Greenwood and Anderson, “THIS IS AN EPIC – THIS IS A *BIG MOVIE* - AND THERE *WILL* BE BLOOD” – and the critics seem to have fallen for this hook, line and sinker. But it’s all just a cartoon, ridiculous rather than sublime, all posture and bravado, from the Gothic lettering of the film credits, to the schlocky title (which sounds as if it might have come from a pulp novel or a B-movie), to Day Lewis channelling John Huston via pantomime villainy (admittedly fun to watch, though that’s not really the point of the performance), to the absurd final scene. It’s here that the film most explicitly strives to insert a message, with big flashing lights all round it. Now an alcoholic recluse, having made enough money to get away from people (as he put it in his aforementioned admission of misanthropy), Plainview is visited by Eli, the young preacher turned Christian radio-host who earlier humiliated the oil man into accepting a baptism into his church, in exchange for a tract of land needed to build a pipeline. Eli desperately needs financial aid as the Great Depression looms, and Plainview takes great pleasure in cajoling him into thinking that he can help – on the condition that Eli admits that he is “a false prophet”, and that “God is a superstition”. Once this is done, Plainview informs him that help will not be forth-coming: the oil-rich land which Eli thought would fetch him a fine price is now worthless, as all the oil was leeched off via the derricks constructed on the land around it. “Drainage! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry. I'm so sorry. Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw…And my straw reaches across the room, and starts to drink your milkshake... I drink your milkshake!” These lines, seemingly designed for cult status and endless re-quotation, are apparently inspired by the actual use of a milkshake metaphor to describe leeching, in a real-life court case, and they are admittedly rather neat – though Day-Lewis’ spittle-dropping delivery has to be seen to be believed. It’s what follows that really takes the biscuit: not satisfied with Eli’s total humiliation, Plainview now chases him down the bowling alley he has constructed in his mansion and beats him to death. His servant pokes his head around the door to see what the fuss is about; Plainview reassures him that “I’m finished now.” Cue a final ironic burst of Brahms, and the film ends with a punchline, self-consciously flashy and audacious. In some way we’re meant to feel elated by the burst of violence we’ve finally witnessed: the film promised us blood, and we got it. Of course, we’re also meant to feel shocked at the depravities to which greed and misanthropy can go, and to reflect that this is some sort of allegory for the evils of capitalism and big business: murder in a temple of misanthropic millionaire excess, like Howard Hughes without the charisma. This really is the equivalent of having a message bashed over one’s head; except that, as outlined above, the lack of detail behind that message results in a certain emptiness that OTT, big-statement final scenes can’t redeem. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh here – but I do feel compelled to make my point, if only in reaction to the almost unanimous praise showered down on this film, the casting aside of qualification and balanced examination in favour of hagiography and platitudes. Maybe it’s just that I’ve grown frustrated with the ‘new, meaningful Hollywood’ – movies praised to the hilt for being more than just dumb entertainment, consciously showing off their bigness, their seriousness, their philosophical bent (my cock/fight scene/portrayal of existential angst is bigger than yours) while all too frequently only making *gestures* in that direction, running out of steam, and making up for it with smokescreens of sound, fury, or snappy sound-bites. In fact, one the films I’ve most enjoyed and appreciated recently is a little Uruguayan picture called ‘El Bano de Papa’: a sweet, yet realistically-, and sometimes pessimistically-observed story of the money-making schemes to which people in severe poverty are driven. There are no flashy visual devices, no great philosophical diatribes; instead, we get a nice balance between a genuine sense of personal struggle and an element of gently comic whimsy, through the presentation of a simple narrative and a set of characters who feel like complete human beings, rather than ciphers. The socio-political commentary which results, despite unfolding almost in passing, as an element secondary to the narrative, ends up seeming more coherent and convincing than that mustered by any pseudo-intellectual Oscar-nominee of the past few years. And it doesn’t need to try and imprint quotable lines in our collective consciousness by having Daniel Day Lewis shout them at us several times in a row…

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